'Life In Year One': The World As Jesus Found It How much do we really know about the day-to-day in Jesus' time? What people ate, how they flirted, how they stayed clean? Scott Korb takes on that question in Life In Year One: What the World Was Like in First-Century Palestine a historical travelogue that manages to reference Michael Pollan, Anthony Bourdain and H1N1, all while recreating the time and place of Jesus.

'Life In Year One': The World As Jesus Found It

'Life In Year One': The World As Jesus Found It

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Scott Korb co-authored The Faith Between Us: A Jew And A Catholic Search For The Meaning Of God. He lives in New York City, where he teaches at New York University. M. Ryan Purdy hide caption

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M. Ryan Purdy

Scott Korb co-authored The Faith Between Us: A Jew And A Catholic Search For The Meaning Of God. He lives in New York City, where he teaches at New York University.

M. Ryan Purdy
Life in Year One: What the World Was Like in First-Century Palestine
By Scott Korb
Hardcover, 256 pages
List price: $25.95

Read An Excerpt

In observance of Passover and Easter, millions of Jews and Christians are retelling ancient stories of faith from the Holy Land. But when it comes to day-to-day life in that ancient world — what people ate, how they flirted, how they stayed clean — how much do we really know? Religion scholar Scott Korb takes on that question, and the real nitty-gritty of that existence, in his latest book, Life In Year One: What the World Was Like in First-Century Palestine.

A historical travelogue of sorts, Life In Year One details the tumultuous era in which Jesus lived. Korb, a professor at New York University and The New School, draws from ancient texts, archaeology, and ancient and modern historians' often contradictory accounts, to paint a picture of that ancient world — when the Jewish people chafed under Roman rule, when bandits and assassins roamed the countryside, and when entire economies and belief systems were being transformed.

A Catholic himself, Korb makes clear in his very first chapter: this is a book about who Jesus' neighbors and contemporaries might have been, not a book about Jesus. "Today we still can't seem to agree about who he was," Korb writes. "It's worthy of a lively debate, to be sure — just not here."

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Rebecca Roberts in Washington. Neal Conan is away.

This week, millions are observing Passover or Easter and retelling biblical stories of faith from the holy land. But when it comes to real life in that ancient world, the day-to-day stuff, what people ate and how they flirted and how they stayed clean, how much do we really know?

P: What the World Was Like in First-Century Palestine." It's a historical travelogue of sorts, one that manages to reference Michael Pollan, Anthony Bourdain, H1N1 and "Survivor," all while re- creating the time and place of Jesus.

Later, more people are watching Fox News than the other cable news outlets combined, while CNN's ratings have plummeted. Does this mean Americans want more opinion-driven news? NPR's media correspondent gives us the lowdown.

But first, "Life In Year One." This holy week, what world do you imagine when you hear the tales from the Bible? Give us a call. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our Web site. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Scott Korb is a professor at New York University's Gallatin School and The New School. He joins me now from our New York bureau. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

SCOTT KORB: Hello, Rebecca. Thanks for having me.

ROBERTS: So this big question - how much do we really know about Jesus' time? - the answer is kind of not a whole lot.

KORB: Yeah, not much.

ROBERTS: All right, interview over. Thanks so much for...


KORB: Happy Easter. I'm done. That's really one of the frustrations and indeed at the same time one of the great joys of writing a book like this is, you know, you asked this big question of what can we know about life in the first century.

And so you ask archeologists, and you ask biblical scholars, neither of which, I am, and they say well, you don't - nothing. We can't really know anything for certain. And then they sort of hem and haw and hedge a little bit and say well, we can really know four things, and those four things are that in the first century, they didn't have any icons anywhere. They didn't eat pork. They drank out of stoneware mugs, and they took ritual baths. That's what we can know for sure.

ROBERTS: Which is all a way of saying they were Jewish.

KORB: Yeah, exactly, which is all a way of saying that those people were Jewish. Those are all markers of Jewish identity. And then, we have all kinds of, you know, books of history - well, I guess that's not really true. We don't have all kinds of books of history. We have a few books of history. We have a few books of the Gospels, and then we're really, in a way, left to imagine from there.

ROBERTS: Well, this idea of imagining is sort of everyone's favorite term when we talk about this era, is that an asset or a liability, do you think?

KORB: Well, it depends where your imagination leads you. For me, in writing the book, it was a real asset. Because as a writer, imagining things is something that I very much like to do. And I think it also gave me an opportunity as someone who takes the ideas behind much of the world religions, I take those ideas very seriously. And so when you're writing about a time where most people are focused, very specifically, on particular religion, thinking about that word imagination allowed me to tap into, as I was saying, sort of a variety of different religious traditions and ask the big questions about it, you know, opening up our moral imagination, and that's something that you find in religions everywhere, you know, imagining what it is to be another person, imagine what is to be in the place of another person.

So for me, the word imagine is a real asset, and then it becomes, you know, the word that I hit over and over and over in the book and really, the charge I give a reader. Which, you know - regardless of your religious tradition or regardless of whether you have one or not - that charge is something I think we can all - I hope we can all embrace.

ROBERTS: Well, when anyone is trying to re-create some semblance of an ancient society, you have, as you say, the archeological record, which is useful but not comprehensive. You have a biological record, where skeletons can help you know how people lived and died to some degree, and in this case, you have a written record in the form of contemporary histories and the Gospels.

But those are not the most reliable sources. So you have the asset of an actual written record, which a lot of ancient societies don't. On the other hand, you shouldn't take it as gospel.

KORB: Right, to use the word. No, that's exactly right. You know, any time - just take the Gospels in particular, and we can talk about the histories in a moment. Even back then, you know, as they were writing these stories, you find that Mark, you know, is going to say one thing, and Luke is going to say another thing, and Matthew is going to say another thing altogether, and John is going to say something, you know, completely different.

And so what that tells biblical scholars and what that tells me, as a historian, is that the people who are writing these stories, you know, even if they're getting in some ways the basic outline of the story pretty similar, you know, they're not the same stories exactly. But you know, you're getting that sort of basic story right. The details of that story often, they often say much, much more about who you are as a community or you as a person who's writing that story than they do about the person you're trying - whose life you're trying to tell.

And so, you know, where we find discrepancies from one Gospel to another, that doesn't really tell us anything about Jesus. It tells us about the people who were writing about Jesus. And you find in the histories, say Josephus, his history called "The Jewish War," you find - I should say Josephus was a Jewish historian who, during that Jewish war, which culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70, year 70 - during that war, Josephus sort of switched sides and became a Roman.

And so when he's telling his history, he knows, as I say in the book, he knows what side of the bread - what side of the bread is buttered on. Is that - did I say that right?

ROBERTS: Yes, close enough.

KORB: In any case, you get the point. He - so his characterizations of Rome are often, you know, extremely flattering. So, you know, when we go back to those ancient documents, people are telling the story that they want to be told, you know, and as the cliché goes, the winners are the ones who get to tell the story.

ROBERTS: And add the next level of complication that you're reading it in translation, and the translator has an agenda.

KORB: Exactly. Yeah, exactly. And unfortunately, I'm not reading it in the original. I'm reading it in the translation, as well. So that sets me, as a writer, you know, one or two steps away from the history itself.

ROBERTS: You specifically chose a translation, at least for the biblical passages in the book. Tell me a little bit about that.

KORB: Yeah, so there's a - the biblical scholar and historian, Gary Wills, writes in - he has a series of three books: "What Jesus Meant," What The Gospels Meant" and "What Paul Meant." And when I read those books for the first time, I found his translations of the New Testament to be completely and totally fresh, and I'm someone who grew up reading the Bible. I grew up studying the Bible as I moved on to graduate school.

And so this was a familiar text that was extremely familiar to me. And when I read Wills' translation and his description of why his translation is, say, different than, you know, the new, revised standard version - or certainly different from the King James version of the Bible - his explanation made a lot of sense.

And what he said was, that first-century Greek, which was the language that the Bible was - the New Testament is written in, that that first-century Greek was a kind of pidgin language that was very useful in the marketplace but had none of the literary qualities or very few of the literary qualities that we find in, like, in classical Greek.

And when he translates the Bible, it sounds rough. It sounds, a phrase that he uses is rough-hewn, and that is something that I wanted to try to put into this book.

So I asked a Greek scholar I know, whose name is Patrick Stayer(ph), to do translations for me that got as close as he could to the language that the really rough-hewn Greek that was used in the first century in that part of the world. And my hope with that was to give us, not just the - you know, throughout the book, I gives you the sights and the sounds and the smells - but I also wanted to give you a little bit of the sound of the way that that language would have hit, you know, a first-century Jewish ear.

And I, you know, I think Patrick did just a really wonderful job doing that. And these are passages that should sound familiar to - certainly should sound familiar to Christians. In fact, I tried to find selections that would seem familiar to many people.

ROBERTS: Well, give us the "Sermon on the Mount" example.

KORB: Okay, sure. So Patrick translates from - in the King James version, we get from Matthew 5:6: Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled.

I: Those who hunger and thirst for justice are blessed since they will feast. It's much simpler. There's no poetry. There's no rhythm or rhyme to that. And that, in my ear, and I hope in the ear of a reader, is a fresh, new way to hear words that, you know, the "Sermon on the Mount" sort of washes over us in a way that it can tend to lose its meaning. And so I think these new translations do offer, even a new kind of meaning, behind these often, you know, over-familiar Bible passages.

ROBERTS: And not just the meanings of the words themselves, but as you say, the sort of simple and rough-hewn tone that is evocative of a simple and rough-hewn time.

KORB: Yeah, exactly. Yeah, that was exactly the hope.

ROBERTS: My guest is Scott Korb. His book is called "Life In Year One: What the World Was Like in First-Century Palestine." As you sit down this week to a Passover Seder or a Good Friday or Easter celebration, you hear these stories of the Bible retold. When you imagine in your mind what life was like in the time of Jesus, what do you picture? And see if what you found in your head matches up with what Scott Korb has found in his head and consulting other scholars.

The number to call is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at the Web site, npr.org/talk.

We are talking about day-to-day living in first-century Palestine with Scott Korb. I'm Rebecca Roberts. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


ROBERTS: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Rebecca Roberts in Washington.

We're taking time during this holy week to talk about the world in which Jesus lived. For many of us, it's unknowable. We have to imagine it. Scott Korb, who is a writer and religion historian at New York University, decided to find out. He pored over documents to research "Life In Year One," which is the title of his new book. And we're talking to him about what the world was like in first- century Palestine.

What do you imagine when you hear tales from the Bible? Give us a call. The number in Washington is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. Or you can go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Let's go to phones now. This is Sam(ph) in Ada, Michigan. Sam, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

SAM: Yes, thank you. Thanks for taking my call.

KORB: Hi, Sam.

SAM: Yeah, my question is: I am a Muslim, and I grew up listening to the stories of Jesus and the people around him and the environment around him but from an Islamic point of view. And I wondered if you explored at all the Quran or the saying of the prophet or any Islamic sources regarding this issue.

KORB: I didn't refer to any Islamic sources when creating this book in large part because I also didn't rely very much on the Christian sources. Where I really focused my energy in terms of the research was on archeology, as best I could do, and in the first-century histories but always tempered by the scholarship.

You know, I've only recently started myself, you know, with an interest in religion broadly. I've only just recently started reading any of the Islamic sources about Jesus, but you know, some of them are really, really beautiful stuff.

ROBERTS: Well, this is not to say that this reads like a heavy, scholarly book, quite the opposite, in fact. I mean, not only is the narrative tone really engaging, you have this footnote-heavy style, and some of the footnotes are, frankly, hilarious, but they're also incredibly tangential a lot of the time. Tell us a little bit about developing that style.

KORB: Sure. You know, I - my original work in footnotes goes back to a time that I spent working on an academic book called "The Harriet Jacobs Family Papers." And my job at that project was simply to footnote documents that were historical. So I was only writing footnotes.

But what I found is that footnotes allow us to do exactly what you just said, Rebecca, which is to take a tangent if we want. And as writers, sometimes it's fun to take a tangent, and sometimes it's fun to add a little bit of, you know, personal narrative into the story.

I: Times appear to have changed in this regard. It's been decided in my home, for instance, that cleaning up after the dog is not only a respectable duty but one that men are particularly well-suited to.

And so the footnotes, while they're sort of a scholarly tool for the most part, you know, most often when you see footnotes, they're scholarly, this was an effort to infuse the book with a little bit of fun, you know, as best I could. And then also, the footnotes allow us to see a little bit of what's going on in the debates about this time.

So if I'm - in the main text, I'm going to tell a narrative that isn't going to be very interrupted. You know, I'm going to pull my sources together and try to tell as continuous a narrative as I can. But in my research, I learned, well, this question is actually a hotly debated one. So I want to offer the reader a chance to see that debate go on, and it works best in a footnote.

Y: One to, you know, pull the curtain back a little in terms of this is how a book like this gets written. You have to sort of have to mess around a little bit with different sources and see which one you think is, you know, the better source, and then that one makes it into the main text. But then these other sources, you know, they get to play out their words, or they get to play out their work in the footnotes.

And, you know, I hope that the reader enjoys that. I mean, I certainly enjoy writing it that way. And you know, there is that sense of wanting, in my opinion, to be honest about how a book like this gets written, that, you know, I'm not the only one who thinks about these things, and so here are the sources I've used, and here is the conversation that I am trying to enter.

ROBERTS: Let's take a call from Brian(ph) in Portland, Oregon. Brian, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

BRIAN: Hi, good afternoon.

KORB: Good afternoon.

BRIAN: I have a question regarding what Jesus and other Jews may have seen in the way of crucifixion, where in the Gospel, it just speaks about Christ being crucified, yet prior to that, of course, it would talk about Jesus growing up in Jerusalem. And so I just wonder how often he must have passed Golgotha and whether he saw other men, specifically other Jews, being crucified.

KORB: Well, I can't say for certain whether Jesus would have seen other crucifixions, in large part because the question of whether Jesus often went to Jerusalem is one that we don't really have a good answer to. You know, the Bible, the New Testament, tells us, you know, of the two visits, you know, the one as a child and then the one at the end of his life.

But in terms of crucifixions, the Romans used crucifixions all the time. I mean, crucifixion was a terrifying execution style that the Romans were very fond of. When you're trying to rule over a people who, increasingly as the century moves on - as you approach this moment of the Jewish war that starts in 67, increasingly you're going to want, as a Roman empire, as the Roman Empire, to try to keep people in their place. And the crucifixion was a great way to do that. You know, it's a terrifying thing to witness, and Josephus writes about untold thousands of crucifixions.

Now, the really, really interesting thing that I learned in doing this research was that it wasn't only the torture of a crucifixion that would have inspired such great fear in the mind of a Jew in particular at that time. What the end result of most crucifixions were, what the end result was, was that a body hanging on the cross would eventually start to decay.

It wouldn't be taken down. We have a story of Jesus being taken down off the cross. That we have that story is very unusual. So in most cases, you would have a body hanging on this cross, and then it would become food for animals. I mean, it's just this horrifying image.

And for a Jew at that time not to be given a proper burial was devastating. So this particular means of execution was horrific not only insofar again as it was painful, but just the fear that it would inspire that you would not be properly laid to rest but in fact have this, you know, the most humiliating, you know, death is terrifying.

And the other interesting thing about crucifixions that I learned and that I write about in the book is that of all the crucifixions - and again, Josephus writes of thousands of them - of all the crucifixions, we - archeologists have found only a single body in all of Palestine, in all of Israel, that appears to have been crucified, which again only emphasizes the point more that in more cases than not, these bodies would have been scavenged.

ROBERTS: Yeah, let's hear - before we go further into scavenging bodies - Brian(ph) in Summerville, Massachusetts. Brian, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

BRIAN: Thanks very much. I was just wondering if the author had ever read the book "The Gospel According to Jesus Christ" by Jose Saramago? And I had a question about a specific detail in that book, if it was accurate.

KORB: You know, I didn't read the book, but if you want to offer the suggestion or offer the passage, I'll be happy to try and answer.

BRIAN: It's great. It's a really well-humored book. It got him kicked out of Portugal. But the detail is: After giving birth to Christ, Mary would have been kept in a - or Mary was kept in a cave and wasn't allowed to clean herself up or leave, and there were, you know, there was supposed to be no interventions for that month. I was just wondering if that was true, and I'll take my answer off the air. Thanks very much.

ROBERTS: Thanks, Brian.

KORB: Great. What I can say about that is that women would have been considered ritually unpure(ph) for 40 days after a birth. So if one could imagine how someone might treat someone who's ritually unpure, you know, I can't say whether or not this happened specifically to Mary or even, you know, that kind of isolation was common. But certainly, women would have been considered ritually unpure, and so contact with a ritually unpure person, or woman in this case, would have left the person who touched the person ritually unpure. And so one can imagine a kind of isolation for a woman who has just given birth, yeah.

And I should say this. So Mary, having given birth to Jesus, a boy, is ritually unpure for 40 days, whereas had she delivered a girl, she would be doubly impure. So for 80 days she would be considered impure.

ROBERTS: And this is the distinction between being unclean in the eyes of God and being literally unclean.

KORB: Right. Right. It was much more important back then to be pure in the eyes of God than it was to be clean, because the means for keeping yourself clean were not as advanced as the ones we know today.


ROBERTS: Yeah. So there's an understatement. Here's Michelle(ph) in Milwaukee. Michelle, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

KORB: My hometown.

MICHELLE: Hi. Thanks. I - my question is, so what would it have been like to be a carpenter then? We hear all these sort of romantic stories about Jesus as a carpenter and Mel Gibson has that ridiculous scene where he's building this table and chairs and everything and - you know, what would a carpenter's life really have been like back then, if you know?

KORB: Well, the artisan's life, so we can consider carpentry the life of an artisan, would have been, you know, if we think about a class system, you know, a farmer would have had a better life than an artisan. You know, the artisan class during that time would have been just steps above a destitute class, so a class of people without a home.

Yeah, the sense of - the really beautiful image that Mel Gibson gives in his movie of Jesus sort of frolicking and making this, you know, what I - when I see the - when I saw the movie, I said, well, that's the first tall chair that's ever been made. Yeah, that isn't - I don't think that's particularly accurate. I mean, Nazareth itself, you know, your neighbors may have been living in a cave. You know, that's - you know, some people had stone houses, but, you know, the quality of life for an artisan in a tiny town of Nazareth would've been much - the quality of life would've been much worse than - as depicted by Mel Gibson.

ROBERTS: Let's hear from Jason in Broomfield, Colorado. Jason, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

JASON: Hi. Thank you. Yes, I teach a class here in Colorado and we were actually discussing the musical "Hair," and there's a line in one of the lyrics about Jesus' hair and led to the discussion of him being a hippie. And we were talking about that. And I was wondering what the history of hippies or non-conformist was in the first century.

KORB: That's interesting - that's an interesting question, the non- conformists. I thought you were going to ask me about Jesus' hair.

You know, I think in terms of, you know, a political movement that would've been considered radicalized in some way, or radical in some way, I don't really think that there was - there would've been sort of groups of people who separated themselves outside of the community life. So if you think about a place like Nazareth, which has about 400 people, all of those people are going to be pretty close. They're all going to know each other, and they're all, in some ways, you know, possibly going to be related or - so to have sort of an outcast group of people who are, you know, taking it on their own to go and be somehow unlike their families, that's - it's unlikely that that would've happened.

And in fact, if Jesus, in fact, did do that, sort of leave his family behind and become an itinerant minister or itinerant preacher, he would've been doing something that many, many people or most people, almost everyone else wouldn't have done. So Jesus was unusual in that way. Whether he was a hippie - I don't know, I think that's an interesting and sort of funny question.

ROBERTS: Well, it's a point you - not the hippie point, but the point about the unusualness of Jesus is when you make, several times in the book, that this is not necessarily an exploration of what Jesus' life was like, because he was atypical.

KORB: Right. Right. The hope for the book was really to talk about, you know, if Jesus was a person who had neighbors, this is a book about his neighbors. This is not a book about him, and the decision to write a book about first century Palestine and not talk about Jesus specifically, I mean he certainly shapes the book. I mean, I had talked before about how we use these very familiar Christian passages or New Testament passages to sort of lead you into every chapter. Jesus is there. You know, there's no question about that.

But it wasn't my hope in this book to begin speculating on who I think Jesus is. It's a question that so many people have tackled. And you know, for my part, I'm very happy that they tackled it because those people are the ones who I used a lot in my book. Those are the people whose research is vital to what I do. But I didn't want to speculate on who Jesus was because that ends up taking it so far afield that, you know, you can't talk about his neighbors. And those are the people that I'm really interested in in this book.

ROBERTS: I think we have time for one more call. This is Jack in Linefork, Kentucky. Jack, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

JACK: Thank you. Quick question. In your studies, in your archeology and all that, I was wondering if you could tell how the early church would - at Jesus' time and right after he died and was raised, it was a hundred percent Jewish group of believers. How did that change to be Christian and was it a fast change? I mean Gentile, non-Jewish population, whereas down to today where most believers are Gentile with a few Jewish believers. It's a complete flip- flop. Was that a quick change or does it drag out over time?

KORB: Well, I think that the growth of Christianity into a official church would've happened with Constantine in the 300s. Now, in terms of the flip-flop for so - you're - I mean, the caller is absolutely right. The earliest Jews - the earliest Christians were certainly Jews. And then the fortunate thing we have in the New Testament is the story of the early transition. And so if we want to talk about how Christianity, you know, became a Gentile faith, you just have to look to St. Paul. And it was all Paul's doing. Now, that was an interesting thing because Paul was - before he was Paul he was known as Saul, Saul the Pharisee, Saul the Jew. So we have a Jewish figure of Paul who then goes out and makes it his mission to be the apostle to the Gentiles. That's how Paul is very often referred to.

ROBERTS: Scott Korb is a religious scholar, a writer and a professor at New York University and The New School. His new book is called "Life in Year One: What the World Was Like in First-Century Palestine." Scott Korb joined me from our New York bureau. Thank you so much.

KORB: Oh, thank you, Rebecca.

ROBERTS: And you can read an excerpt from "Life in Year One" at our Web site. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

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