Published May 20, 2010
(RNS) When the Roman Empire ruled the world, and Jesus was radically changing it, what was life like for ordinary people?
Scott Korb, a writer and professor at New York University, attempts to answer that question by rewinding 2,000 years and painting a picture of Palestine in New Testament times.
Drawing from ancient sources, modern scholars, his own travel, and a little imagination, Korb depicts a typical day – from hygiene to marriage – in his new book “Life in Year One: What the World Was Like in First-Century Palestine.”
Korb spoke recently about his book and why Christians should care about the first century. The interview was edited for length and clarity.
Q. Why should we care what life was like in year one?
A. What I hope to make clear is the world in which Jesus lived is very different from the world that we practice Christianity in. I think looking at the people that Jesus might have called his neighbors and being able to see just how poor and desperate they are should have an impact on Christians today to see the poor and the desperate of our own time.
Q. If the book is not necessarily about Jesus, what is it about?
A. Most of us imagine that Jesus was this unusual, amazing, even miraculous figure and this book means to look away from the miracles and look away from the amazement that may have been going on and look at the normal lives. The Bible tells us Jesus wandered from place to place and had nowhere to lay his head, but if Jesus did have neighbors, this is a book about them.
Q. Can you give a brief idea of what a typical day was like for a typical person in Jesus’ time?
A. I think it was a day of work. If you were a fisherman, you went out early in the day and did your fishing and then you came home, cleaned the fish, cleaned yourself, ate with your family, and probably went to bed early and then started it all over again. We’re talking about a population that was almost exclusively Jewish so you have to take into consideration the daily routine of prayer as well.
Q. What was the hygiene of the day?
A. There was the regular filth that was countered with regular washing that was in some part ritual cleanliness, which they probably cared about more than actual cleaning. Major cities had rudimentary sewage and they tried to keep waste away. In Jerusalem they had what was called the dung gate so they took waste through the dung gate out into gehenna, which is a word we use now for hell.
Q. What was dating and marriage like in year one?
A. Dating and marriage would have been largely arranged marriages, so I guess arranged dating they weren’t going out to restaurants. It was arranged between two families, usually on the part of the father for his daughter or his son. They were, in a way, economic relationships.
In order for a father to in a way give up his daughter, he arranged what was called a bride price. Household goods usually came with the bride as her dowry. The family was really built around establishing economic stability.
Q. Can you describe a typical meal?
A. Seventy percent of the entire diet was bread so they ate lots and lots of bread and, just as today, they had a wide variety of food to choose from. They had lentils, olives and olive oil, figs or dates, grapes, and wine. Meats were probably eaten in much smaller quantities than we eat today.
It was rare but not completely unusual that they would eat small amounts of lamb, beef, and veal, obviously not pork. They would have eaten out of stone vessels that they would have carved out of the earth.
Q. What was family life like in Jesus’ time?
A. Family life was in a strange way traditional, so far as men would have worked outside the home and women inside the home. The father of the family would have, in a sense, run the show. Boys would have helped their fathers; girls would have helped their mothers, by and large. I think it was a society in which gender roles were very firmly rooted.
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