Questions & Answers: A conversation with Scott Korb
The writer and teacher whose new book imagines what life was like in Israel during the time of Jesus.
The cover of Scott Korb's new book features a cut-out image, superimposed on a background of rolling hills, of a figure evocative of an itinerant preacher of the ancient world. With arms upraised, long hair, and a robe that reaches the ground, the outline summons up an image many of us have of Jesus. The absence of an actual individual's features is appropriate, for as Korb reminds readers many times in the book, "Life in Year One: What the World Was Like in First-Century Palestine" (Riverhead, 256 pages, $25.95 ), his subject is not the life of Jesus, but rather the way in which his neighbors lived if Jesus had been "the kind of person who had neighbors."
Korb, 33, is a New York writer and teacher, a Roman Catholic whose earlier book "The Faith Between Us: A Jew and a Catholic Search for the Meaning of God," he wrote in collaboration with his friend, Jewish writer Peter Bebergal (Bloomsbury, 2007 ). In his new book, history written in a very personal style, Korb attempts to learn all he can about what is known concerning the way people lived two millennia ago in Roman-occupied Palestine. In fact, he discovers, the answer is "very little," but Korb, through extensive reading and interviews with several scholars, as well as a brief visit to Israel and the West Bank, nonetheless tries to create a picture of family and home life, agriculture, religion and death, mainly for the Jews of rural Galilee. It was a time of political and religious ferment, of course, and hanging ominously over the narrative is the devastating war with Rome that culminated in the destruction, in the year 70, of the Temple in Jerusalem. As history based on primary and secondary sources, Korb's book has a completely contemporary sensibility, with countless self-conscious asides in humorous footnotes, and as the author explained to Haaretz, it as much a commentary on the writing of history and its limitations, as it is history itself. Scott Korb spoke with Haaretz by telephone from his home in New York City.
Q: You're thoroughly and absolutely a writer of this era, in the sense that you're self-conscious and self-referential. And yet the whole purpose is to look at a completely different period. How did you go about writing this book?
A As a writer of history, especially about history whose telling is so contentious, and the meaning of which is so important to so many people, I believe that the only way for me to be fair to my readers and to myself is to let the reader know at every moment, exactly what I'm doing. I know that sometimes that will get read as a kind of wink, wink, nudge, nudge: Look at what I'm doing. With a kind of playfulness. And I hope they enjoy that playfulness. But I also hope that readers see those references to what I'm doing as I'm telling history, I hope they see this as evidence of an actual struggle that a writer faces: To do things as fairly and honestly as possible.
The problem with writing about this time is that people want Jesus in particular to be a particular kind of Jesus. And my challenge was to try to avoid making a claim on who I want Jesus to be. In a book whose introduction is called "This Is Not a Book about Jesus," I have to admit that the challenge of writing a book about the first century without really laying a claim to who I want Jesus to be, that's a difficult challenge. I hope I can succeed, but hope also that if I fail, I fail with my integrity intact, as I quote Flannery O'Connor as saying, in "Wise Blood."
Weirdly, I think it's a book that's as much about writing history as it is about the history that gets written.
Q: What about your trip here? When was that, and was it crucial to the project?
A I made the trip last spring, in March. And I believe that I could have written pieces of the book without making the trip, but I don't know that I would have been able to start the writing of the book without having been there. And particularly without having met Lee Levine, the American-born archaeologist, who lives in Jerusalem. The thing he did for me -- we sat there together at his kitchen table, and I showed him the notes I had laid out. Originally it was 15 chapters and I was going to touch on this and that. And Lee sat down with me, he's the expert and I'm his student. And I'm expecting answers from him. But he says, the questions you're posing here in your outline, I don't know any of the answers. And to be frank, even arrogant, I don't think anyone knows those answers. And hearing that from him, an archaeologist who's done the digging through the dirt that this book depends on, he's found so much of the material evidence, and has written about it -- to have him say to me, that no one really knows unequivocally what life in the first century was like, on the one hand it was frustrating, but at the same moment it was totally liberating. And then that brings out in me, in the book, this regular refrain of: Look, it's up to you to imagine this, reader. No one can tell you definitely what's going on here, so you have to imagine.
In terms of visiting the sites, visiting Jerusalem, the Old City, visiting Bethlehem, those visits offered me an opportunity to write with a kind of clarity of vision that I wouldn't have been able to achieve, just in terms of describing the buildings, the stones, that was really important. Also, it was important for me to get a flavor of what life is like there today. One of the messages of the book is that we're not essentially different today than we were two thousand years ago. And for me to look into these books of history and say: You see, this is how people were then, what was important to people then -- the fears and loves that people had then, are the very same things today. And had I tried to write that without actually meeting some people -- again, I don't think it would have been particularly honest or fair.
Q: At one point you talk about the absolute devotion of the Jewish people to the land, to the point of being willing to die, and you make the parallel to some Jews today. Do you think they understood the land in the same way we do today, before two thousand years of diaspora?
A Let me answer in a couple of ways. I think, on the one hand, the people who are writing the histories -- Josephus in particular -- he was emphasizing in his writings, which are written not so long after the war that he's writing about, he's already writing about that sort of devotion to the land. And then, if you look at the way the land is described biblically, it seems already to have that sense of importance. The one thing I encountered, over and over again, is the centrality of the Temple, and the sense that holiness bursts forth from the Temple and spreads over the whole world. If someone imagines that the Temple is the bellybutton, the navel, of the world, that's the mythical understanding of holiness of where all things come from. My point is that even biblically and mythologically, the sense of the land being that important had already existed. Now, on the other hand, it's hard for me to look at what goes on in Israel today, and how complicated and fraught that land still is today, and not try to make the connection with how fraught it was and how important it was even then.
Q: You quote the historian J.D. Crossan, who concluded that the life expectancy for men at that time was 29 years. I was amazed that it was so short.
A Well, Crossan is basing this on ages that he finds recorded on tombs, or from bones that were found. And, if you calculate all the numbers, you will get that early age. But that's not to say that there weren't many people who lived long lives. I think you also have to keep in mind the very, very high infant-mortality rate, which is going to bring the number way down. The number had the same effect on me that it had on you. Which is to say: It means that people didn't live nearly as long as they do now. And also, that people died very young. Many died very young.
Q: I like the way that you say this is not about Jesus, but rather about his neighbors. Are you satisfied with the portrait you were able to create?
A I'm certainly satisfied with the story I'm able to tell. That despite all we can't know, I was able to point to four things we can know for certain, and they are all markers of identity in Jewish culture: That there were no icons anywhere; that people took ritual baths; that no one ate pork; and that people drank out of stone vessels, from the earth -- that those are four things we can know for sure. That's very satisfying for me. And then, for me to be able to help a reader to imagine the life of a rural peasant in Galilee, and imagine that person in all of the struggles, in all of the joys, that kind of thing is very satisfying to me.
I refer a few times in the book to the journalist James Agee, who wrote the American classic "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men." My ambition in the book was rooted a lot in what Agee was able to do when writing about the same class of people in the rural South in America during the Depression. Agee claims that he produced "an effort to recognize the stature of a portion of unimagined existence," and what he did was an "independent inquiry into certain normal predicaments of human divinity." That was my biggest hope for this book, to try to do something like Agee was able to do. And that's why the word "imagine" is such an important one. Because this is -- I think that the world that I'm writing about is often, today, an unimagined existence. When we think about the first century, we usually think about Jesus, or we think about Jerusalem, either a single person and his effect on the world, or a single city and its impact on the world. And I wanted to talk about the unimagined people, the people who, as I say in the book, built their houses out of dung. Who were, in some ways, robbed of their land. Those are the people whom I want to take center stage in this book. All the while, Jerusalem and the Temple, and we can't forget the Romans, those three forces are also big in the book. They weigh heavy on one end of the book. And then, despite every moment that I say "this is not a book about Jesus," and I say it several times, he is still that ragged figure that Flannery O'Connor describes, running around the back of this book, in the back of my mind, from tree to tree.
Haaretz Books, March 2010, firstname.lastname@example.org
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