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Life in Year One: What the World Was Like in First-Century Palestine

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  • Posted May 9, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    When Jesus walked the Earth? Well, not quite

    Perhaps my expectations were too high.

    I thought "Life in Year One" would make me feel as though I were walking through Israel 2,009 years ago, taking in the sights Jesus would see, smelling the scents Jesus would smell, feeling the atmosphere of the places where Jesus walked.

    Author Scott Korb does his best to piece together snatches of what is known about the period of time when Jesus lived and a few decades after his death, but I'm afraid the odds were against him being able to give readers that palpable sense of place that I was looking forward to.

    Unlike later periods of human history, there are no diaries to rely on other than the gospels, and the major history was written by Josephus, a Jew who found it worth his while to cozy up to the conquering Romans, and Korb several times points out the exaggerations that make Josephus' history suspect.

    Readers will learn about money, food, bathing and buildings during Jesus' time on Earth. It's information that's interesting enough, although a bit of repetition has bulked up what is a relatively short book here, only 208 pages.

    The most interesting information involves religion, especially the fact that while there were numerous divisions within the unity of the Hebrew faith, a lot of the debating happened at the so-called upper levels was unimportant to people who lived away from the heated discussions among members of competing sects.

    The most important analysis Korb makes, in my view, is explaining the deep connection between the people of Israel and their religion:

    "You cannot separate the lives of the people of this land from their belief in the God who put them there. More to the point, you cannot separate the lives of the people of this land from their belief that God had put them there."

    To the Jewish believers God was "the central piece of history itself," Korb writes, and the typical Jew of the time felt and understood that God was involved in everything - that "what came from the ground, what lived in the trees, every hair on your, belonged to God" - as it had for your ancestors. It was a belief passed down genetically.

    Because of the centrality of religion in the lives of the Jewish people of Jesus' time, the synagogue was the center of a community's life - and not just for worship. The synagogues that Jesus would have attended would have served as well as a soup kitchen, a town hall, a hostel and a school. As Korb notes:

    "The people came and fed one another, taught one another. The place bustled all week. A visitor always knew he'd have a place to stay. And the Sabbath was hardly more important than the rest of the week. This tradition had been passed down through their genes. And despite all their disagreements and debates, even despite the power of Rome and the culture of Greece, they always had that. Tradition. And the synagogue was the place to practice it."

    "Life in Year One" does a solid job of helping readers appreciate what it was like for the Jews to have been absorbed into the Roman Empire and actively work at keeping their Jewish identity while under Roman rule. Korb does a great service in bringing that feeling to the surface.

    After reading "The Pacific" - a wonderful account of World War II, thanks to diaries written by marines - I couldn't help but wish that Mary, for example, had written a diary and that some day it will be discovered in an archaeological dig. There's a book I'd love to read.

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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