April 10, 2010
The Facts of Life in the Year One
No one alive when Jesus of Nazareth was born had the faintest idea that it was the year one. Only by pious Christian tradition did the world enter the period of history known to scholars as the Common Era and to Christian believers as Anno Domini, “the Year of Our Lord.” And, thanks to the vagaries of calendar-keeping over the centuries, Jesus was probably born around the year 5 BCE, which would have made him six years old in Year One.
That’s why the title of Scott Korb’s wholly fascinating new book, “Life in Year One: What the World Was Like in First-Century Palestine” (Riverhead: $25.95, 241 pps.), is mostly fanciful. But the fact remains that the first century of the Common Era was crammed with history-making people and events, no less for Jews than for Christians, and Korb’s book gives us a glimpse of ordinary life for the men, women and children who lived in Bible times.
Jesus and his depiction in the Christian scriptures are a kind of benchmark for the author, but Korb is right when he insists that his book is not a religious tract. Indeed, he introduces Jesus as a flesh-and-blood figure: “He was a peasant. He was a healer who acted like a rabbi and a prophet. Some people see him as a revolutionary.” Nor is Korb’s book about Jesus himself: “f Jesus had been the kind person who had neighbor,” cracks Korb, “this would be a book about them.”
So we are allowed to glimpse the Holy Land in the first century of the Common Era as it was experienced by ordinary people — the coins they carried, the language they spoke, the sights they saw on the street, the food they eat, and how they earned their livelihoods. The author considers Bible-era sex and birth control, food cultivation and preparation, disposal of human waste and burial of corpses, among many other things. He points out that the Hebrew word translated from the Bible as “leprosy” actually referred to psoriasis, eczema, and “any fungal infection of the skin,” and the disease that we call leprosy may been unknown to the authors and first readers of the Bible. He even devotes a chapter to “Baths in the Year One,” a crucial concern for people who “would have had to deal with lots and lots of filth.”
But each one of these mundane details is the occasion for a widening of the lens and thus sheds light on historical, political and theological issues, too. Thus, for example, Korb tells us that there were coins minted in Jerusalem in the first century that started over again with the year one, but the occasion was not the birth of Jesus; rather, it was outbreak of the war of national liberation that the Jewish people fought against the Roman army of occupation. But the calendar as marked on coinage ended in the year four with the defeat of Jewish resistance and the destruction of Jerusalem: “t became perfectly clear,” Korb points out, “that there would never be a ‘Year Five.’”
Some controversy about Korb’s footnotes can be found in the reviews posted at Amazon.com. To be sure, you will find an abundance of marginal asides at the bottom of the page, but I found them to be so full of interesting facts and observations that they constitute a kind of parallel narrative. Or, as the author himself puts it, “the footnotes offer a running commentary on the lessons we have and have not learned from our past.”
“Life in Year One” will endear itself even to those readers who are afraid of footnotes. The author is chatty, witty and well-informed, and his book is a kind of revelation about real life in the time and place that we read about in the Bible. Indeed, the biblical text itself will never seem quite the same once we know the facts of life in the Year One.
Jonathan Kirsch, book editor of The Jewish Journal, is the author of “The Harlot by the Side of the Road: Forbidden Tales of the Bible.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.