Perspectives of the Holy Land

Jodi Magness sheds light on history in the region through its stones.

Masada 370 (photo credit: courtesy)
Masada 370
(photo credit: courtesy)
Iliked Jodi Magness’s comprehensive introduction to Palestinian archeology, which she begins with the topography and early history of Jerusalem (up to 586 BCE) and ends with the period of early Islamic Jerusalem (638-750 CE).
Magness, a Distinguished Professor for Teaching Excellence in Early Judaism in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, is also the author of The Archaeology of the Early Islamic Settlement in Palestine and Archaeology of Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls. She writes simply and is an expert in explaining the principles of archeology. What make her book unique are her lively, direct approach and frequent personal commentary on difficult matters.
Maps, photographs and excellent reconstructions of ancient temples and palaces, many of them drawn by Leen Ritmeyer, assist readers to better understand the religious, political and cultural aspects of our past in The Archaeology of the Holy Land: From the Destruction of Solomon’s Temple to the Muslim Conquest. The first chapters define the pre-historical periods of the ancient Mediterranean and Middle East and explain earliest inscriptions, written materials and pottery.
Jody divides Palestinian archeology into periods, beginning with the Babylonian (586-539 BCE), the Persian (539- 332 BCE), the early Hellenistic (332- 167 BCE), the late Hellenistic (Maccabean, 167-40 BCE), followed by the early Roman (Herodian, 40 BCE-70 CE). The 70-132 CE period ends with the suppression of the Bar-Kochba’s second Jewish revolt against Rome and the establishment of Aelia Capitolina or Hadrianic Jerusalem (135 to ca. 300 CE). The subsequent Byzantine Christian period (313-640 CE) ends with Islamic Jerusalem (638-750 CE).
Each particular period offers a detailed historical background, general and Palestinian. This is followed by the summing up of its special archeological finds and research, details of its material culture, pottery, coins, references to its ancient towns and choice localities, and ends with a list of further recommended reading.
Special chapters are dedicated to Qumran, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Essenes and other Jewish messianic movements. Magness believes that there were women at Qumran, despite the scarcity of their graves. In her opinion Philo and Josephus wrote about Essene celibacy since it served their purpose to prove to the Gentiles the superiority of Judaism, as though this Jewish sect lived according to the Greco-Roman philosophical ideal. But even Josephus admitted that some Essenes were getting married.
The archeology of Jerusalem, and the Second Temple Mount both as a center of religious and of commercial activity, receive special attention. The Western Hill, Antonia Fortress and Via Dolorosa, the city walls, its material and spiritual culture are described in great detail.
A special chapter deals with Jesus’s birth and the Galilee setting of his first steps. Separate chapters deal with the excavations at Caesarea Maritime, Samaria-Sebaste, Herodian Jericho, Herodium, Sepphoris, Capernaum, Gamla and Nazareth. Special attention is given to the ancient tombs and Jewish burial customs up to 70 CE, including monuments in the Kidron Valley and the burial caves cut into the rock in Jerusalem. Attention is paid to the death and burial of Jesus.
In 1995 Magness participated in the excavations of the camps that once served Roman soldiers besieging Masada. She describes Herod’s palace, service quarters, synagogue, and the details of the Roman siege. She believes that a few women survived the siege to tell the story.
The Jewish coins of the First Jewish Revolt of 68 CE and the Roman coins of “Judea Capta” marked a new era which ended with the Bar-Kochba revolt (132-135 CE) against the Rome. This period left us numerous archeological finds, in the Judean Desert, in the Cave of Letters, lamps and coins marked “For the Freedom of Jerusalem.” Following his victory, Hadrian proceeded with his plans to rebuild Jerusalem as a pagan Roman city, Aelia Capitolina.
A separate chapter explains the origins of the synagogue service from the early Hasmoneans, and their development seen at Masada, Gamla, the Galilean and Byzantine synagogues. Parallel to the appearance of the monumental Jewish synagogue architecture and art of the fourth century CE, there appeared more and more Christian churches and monasteries after Christianity was legalized by Constantine in 313 CE.
COMMON MEALS were a fundamental element of ancient group sociology. Everything was significant: the order of sitting around the fire, a specific portion of a sacrificial meal. Thus common meals may be understood as more than just mirrors of the social system; they were events that influenced the future.
Dining customs are only one subject, among many others, pertaining to the daily life of our ancestors, which are thoroughly investigated in this research of the social history of Judea in the late first century BCE. It offers an analysis of the Jewish urban and rural setting of the country and its inhabitants, including the matters of purification of the body and hands, of the household vessels and pottery. We learn about the Jewish attitude toward the creeping and swarming creatures, locusts, fish, dogs and cats, and other household animals.
Fire and light, lamps and candles, coins, commerce and taxes are all explored in everyday practice. Special attention is paid to burial practices and observances, ossuaries, rock tombs and sarcophagi. Each subject is given extensive consideration, based on the relevant quotes from the Bible, the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, the New Testament (especially the Synoptic Gospels), Josephus and Philo, the Dead Sea Scrolls, rabbinic and Tannaitic literature and from the archeological excavations.
In Stone and Dung, Oil and Spit: Jewish Daily Life in the Time of Jesus, the author draws on numerous sources to presents us with a “down to earth” picture of life in Judea at the time of Jesus. She comments extensively on Sabbath observance and fasting, clothing and tzitzit, the use of oil in personal hygiene and in sacred ceremonies. Magness describes extensively the ancient burial customs and is not beyond considering the spitting and toilet habits and how they were dealt with in antiquity. She notes that no rites were observed for slaves; one did not receive condolences on the death of a slave.
Judea of the first century swarmed with different sects. While Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes and the Jesus movement were best documented, there were numerous variations. It all depended on the different interpretations of Biblical law and local customs.
Most disagreements centered on the manner of the Temple service, the calendar and the ritual purity observance. But it is precisely from such disputes as between Shamai and Hillel that the author draws her conclusions regarding the extent of the accepted or abandoned ancient practices, many of which continue until today.
JESUS WAS a good Jew who obeyed all the laws. He was, in the spirit of the ancient Biblical prophets, highly critical of the wealth that led to sin. The Gospels cite many of his statements, in which he accuses Pharisees: “You blind guides which strain at a gnat [in wine], and swallow a camel.” This is, the author finds, a criticism of the Jerusalem elite that strictly observed biblical laws, yet consumed delicacies and exotic types of cuisine from abroad – with Jesus wittily displaying an Aramaic play on the words for “gnat” and “camel” (galma and gamla) in Matthew 23:24.
While Jesus’s teachings were close to those of Hillel, he followed Shamai in rejecting divorce. Magness explains how it was possible that the family tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, where according to the Gospels, Jesus’s body was laid after the crucifixion, was found empty on the next day, when women came to prepare the body for burial.
According to her the crucifixion took place on the eve of Shabbat; Jesus died late on Friday and there was no time to dig a grave in barren earth as was the custom. This was the reason why Joseph, a wealthy and important man, had offered his newly cut family tomb to put Jesus’s body in, in accordance with Jewish law, but as a temporary measure only.
Such tombs, cut from the bare rock, were very expensive and it was not the custom to bury strangers in a family tomb. Magness finds it hard to believe that Jerusalem’s early Christian community would have honored a man who believed that “riches are a mark of ungodliness” by burying him in the manner of the upper classes.
It was therefore possible, Magness argues, that the family or followers of Jesus removed the body from the tomb after Shabbat and buried it in a pit or a trench grave, according to the custom, and that this was the reason why the women found it empty on Sunday morning.
The bodies of the poorest members of society, including executed criminals, were thrown into pits in potters’ fields or were just disposed of. It is likely that the burial of Jesus’s brother James was carried out in a similar manner. She does not believe that the Talpiot family tomb discovered in 1980 was connected with Jesus’s family.
The last chapter describes Jewish life after 70 CE, when the Temple was destroyed and the elders of Israel gathered at Yavne to decide the people’s future.
The rabbis who followed Hillel were quite tolerant in preserving different views, but were quite adamant when their principles of faith were concerned.
Both books offer a treasure of information for everyone interested in the history and archeology of the Holy Land. There are extensive notes, bibliography, index of subjects, index of modern authors and index of scripture and other ancient texts. ■