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In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast, Jodi Magness joins Pete and Jared to discuss how archaeology can shape our understanding of Judaism in the time of Jesus. Together they explore the following questions: 

  • What is the difference between an archaeologist and a historian?
  • How did the Dead Sea Scrolls enhance our understanding of Judaism in the time of Jesus?
  • What are some limitations of the field of archaeology? 
  • Why isn’t it possible for archaeology to be an exact science? 
  • Why are there so many disagreements and debates among archeologists? 
  • What kind of people left traces in the archaeological record that we can identify with a specific individual? 
  • Why don’t we have anything that we can archaeologically associate with Jesus as an individual? 
  • If we don’t have tangible artifacts related specifically to Jesus, what do we have? 
  • What unique subfield of interest does Jodi Magness have that thoroughly enthralled Pete? 
  • Did Jesus eat quiches and frittatas? 


Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Jodi Magness you can share. 

  • “Archaeology is not equipped to answer every kind of question that we have about the past. It has limitations.” -Jodi Magness
  • “There are limitations to what archaeology can tell us about the past, and that means that you have to ask the right questions of archaeology.” -Jodi Magness
  • “We don’t really have the sort of artifacts, the tangible pieces of something that Jesus ate out of or drank out of or slept on. But what we do have, and this is really important and valuable, is a lot of information about the world of Jesus.” -Jodi Magness
  • “If you’re interested in learning about archaeology and the historical Jesus, it’s really important to understand and evaluate the trustworthiness of the sources of information and not necessarily believe every claim that gets publicity.” -Jodi Magness

Mentioned in This Episode

Read the transcript


Pete: You’re listening to The Bible for Normal People, the only God-ordained podcast on the internet. I’m Pete Enns.

Jared: And I’m Jared Byas.

[Jaunty intro music]

Jared: Welcome, everyone, to another episode of the podcast. Today, we’re talking about “The Jesus of Archaeology,” and we’re talking about that with Jodi Magness, who teaches early Judaism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Pete: Yeah.  She’s an archaeologist and we had a fascinating discussion. See if you can see where the conversation took an interesting turn.

[Speaking through laughter]

You have to be listening very carefully. You might not catch it.

[Normal speech resumed]

Anyway, we’re just smiling here, but it was so fascinating. If you want to read more, Jodi has published a bunch of books. One of which is The Archaeology of Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls. If that means nothing to you, it will mean something to you by the end. And also, a wonderful title – Stone and Dung, Oil and Spit: Jewish Daily Life in the Time of Jesus, which is one of her areas of expertise. So, had a great time talking to her and enjoy the episode.

[Music begins]

Jodi: Both archaeologists and historians study the past. The difference is sources of information that we use to derive information about the past. Historians focus on written sources, things people wrote down and left behind; archaeology is the study of human material culture. Anything that people manufactured and left behind and then we dig it out of the ground – that’s what archaeologists study.

[Music ends]

Jodi: How did I get into archaeology? I wanted to be an archaeologist since I was 12 years old. Thanks to a 7th grade teacher, history teacher, we learned about the ancient world, and I fell in love with ancient Greece. My interest ever since then was in the classical world. It was at about that time that I was finding fossils of shells at Girl Scout camp. Anyway, it all came together and ever since I was 12, I wanted to be an archaeologist and my interest focused on the classical world, meaning the Greek and Roman world. I ended up doing my bachelor’s degree in archaeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, so eventually I became specialized in the archaeology of Palestine, meaning the archaeology of the area of modern-Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian territories in the Roman Byzantine and early Islamic periods and that’s what I do.

Pete: So, that’s interesting. You went to Hebrew University as an undergraduate. What made you go over there just to be, just to be in the Holy Land-

Jodi: Yeah, I don’t know how much time you want – we need a whole other section on my personal history.

Pete: [Laughter]

Jodi: I actually moved to Israel on my own, not with my family, when I was 16 years old to finish high school there.

Pete: Okay.

Jodi: I had been on a summer tour in Israel the summer I was 15 years old, and I fell in love with it and decided I want to go back, spent a year persuading my parents to let me do it –

Pete: Okay.

Jodi: And so, finished high school there and then I already knew I wanted to study archaeology, so I applied to some universities in the U.S., but also Hebrew University in Jerusalem and decided I wanted to stay in Israel and did my bachelor’s degree there and I ended up living there afterwards for some more years, so I have kind of a long history in Israel.

Pete: Wow.

Jodi: Yes.

Pete: Yeah, that’s quite a journey. So, how did you then bring your interests of New Testament or the rise of Christianity, I guess, into that? Is it sort of more a subset for you of Greek and Roman archaeology?

Jodi: Well, yeah, that’s a really interesting question. So, my, I ended up eventually, so I did my bachelor’s degree; I did a double-major in archaeology and history at the Hebrew University. And then I did a Ph.D. in Classical Archaeology, again, Greek and Roman archaeology, at the University of Pennsylvania and then, you know, after that I taught at Tufts University for 10 years and I taught in the Department of Classics there, I taught Classical Archaeology. But in ’02, I was offered this wonderful position that I’ve had since then at UNC-Chapel Hill, the University of North Carolina, in the Department of Religious Studies. My position here at UNC is not an archaeology position, it’s a position in early Judaism, which means Judaism in the time of Jesus. And when I was interviewing for the job, I was telling these, you know, my colleagues, I said, you know, I’m not trained in Religious Studies or in Early Judaism. You realize I’m an archaeologist, right? And they’re like, “No, that’s okay! We know what you do. That’s fine.”

Pete/Jodi: [Laughter]

Jodi: So, I ended up in the Department of Religious Studies in a position of Early Judaism and I actually have to teach courses in this subject, so I had to become familiar with it, so one of the consequences of that was that my, you know, as a result of having to become familiar with it and teach it, my research was also impacted by focusing on basically what is Judaism in the time of Jesus in the Holy Land?


In fact, the reason why I was hired into this position is – think sort of biblical archaeology, right? Archaeology, time of Jesus, Holy Land, Dead Sea Scrolls, which I had, you know, been doing some work on the site where the Scrolls were found. That’s actually what happened, and so, my original focus was not at all on anything having to do with Jesus or the New Testament or anything like that.

Jared: So, let’s back up because we’re talking, we’re throwing out terms – religious studies, archaeology –

Jodi: Right, yes.

Jared: These things. Let’s just, what is archaeology? Like, what do archaeologists do? Lay it out for us.

Jodi: Yeah, that’s right, because in fact when I interviewed for the position here at UNC and I was in this room with all the members of the faculty of the department and one of them, a senior colleague, kept insisting that I was a historian. And I kept saying, “No, I’m not a historian. I’m an archaeologist.” And he said, “No, you’re a historian.”

Pete: [Laughter]

Jodi: So, from the point of view of somebody in religious studies, anybody who studies the past is a historian by definition. But from the point of view from an archaeologist, they’re not the same thing. So, both archaeologists and historians study the past. The difference is the sources of information that we use to derive information about the past. So, historians focus on written sources, right? Things people wrote down and left behind, you know, historical sources. Whereas archaeology is the study of human material culture, by which I mean anything that people manufactured and left behind and then we dig up out of the ground, that’s what archaeologists study. So, think buildings, tombs, pottery, you know, tools, whatever we dig up and find that people actually manufactured, we study that to learn about their lifestyles, their beliefs, and so on and so forth.

And, by the way, so therefore archaeology does not include the study of human or animal bones, those are separate fields. They’re related, but they’re separate fields of study. You know, radio-carbon dating, which is, you know, a method we use to date, that’s not technically what archaeologists do, that’s done by specialists. So, that’s what archaeology is.

Pete: So, does it also include, let’s say, you know, a slab of stone or clay that has some writing on it. Would that be sort of in the purview of archaeology or is that more of a textual historian’s kind of purview?

Jodi: Yeah, that’s actually really interesting. So, when I tell people about, you know, so how do archaeologists date what we dig up out of the ground, right? And there are various ways of dating what we dig up. One way is if you’re lucky enough to find an inscription, something that has, you know, writing on it. And so that could fall into either category, right? It could fall into the category of being an archaeological find, but then it has a written text, which, depending on what it is, could be a historical text, right? So, yeah, it’s something like – so for example, the Dead Sea Scrolls were technically I guess an archaeological find, but they’re actually documents, ancient documents, that are studied by specialists in that field.

Pete: Okay, yeah.

Jared: You mentioned the Dead Sea Scrolls, and I think that’s going to come up – that has to come up when we’re talking about archaeology and the history of, you know, the Judaism of Jesus’s day. So, can you say a little more about what the Dead Sea Scrolls are? Just the history of the Dead Sea Scrolls and their rediscovery in the 20th Century?

Pete: And also archaeologically.

Jared: Yeah.

Pete: Right? Yeah.

Jodi: Just the history of the Dead Sea Scrolls? Okay.

Pete: That’s all.

Jared: Yeah, just kind of bring us up to speed because that’s a concept that maybe people, I’m sure people have heard but don’t know anything about.

Pete: And you have thirty seconds.

All: [Laughter]

Jodi: You’re absolutely right. I think almost everybody has heard of the Dead Sea Scrolls, but I think a lot of people don’t exactly understand what they are. So, the Dead Sea Scrolls are ancient documents dating to about the time of Jesus. They’re scrolls. They’re written on parchment, which means processed animal hide that were found in caves found near an ancient site called Qumran, which is located on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea. Those scrolls were found in eleven different caves surrounding the site of Qumran and all together, the remains of approximately a thousand different scrolls were found in those eleven caves. For the most part, what we have are small fragments surviving from what were originally complete scrolls because over the course of the centuries, they deteriorated.

The scrolls were deposited in the caves by people who lived at the site of Qumran, and most scholars, including myself, identified the people who lived at Qumran as members of a Jewish sect called the Essenes, who are contemporary with the time of Jesus, who have very distinctive beliefs, had very distinctive beliefs and worldviews and practices. And they’re the ones who collected the scrolls, they didn’t write them all by any means, but they’re the ones who collected the scrolls.


Apparently, some members of this sect copied some of the scrolls, and eventually deposited those scrolls in the caves surrounding Qumran, and so the Dead Sea Scrolls represent this corpus of literature that belonged to members of this sect and were deposited in the caves and this corpus of literature is a corpus of Jewish religious works. They were all Jewish religious works of literature, by which I mean, copies of books of the Hebrew Bible or what you might call the Old Testament, works that are related to biblical literature like commentaries on biblical books or translations of them into Aramaic, and there are also biblical books, or I should say Jewish religious works that were not included in the Jewish canon of sacred scripture.

Some of them may have been included in the Catholic Bible, for example the Book of Tobit or Ecclesiasticus, which are found also at Qumran among the Dead Sea Scrolls and there are represented among the Dead Sea Scrolls, works that we call sectarian, by which I mean, works that were written by members of this sect, not necessarily at Qumran, but works that were written by members of this sect which describe their distinctive beliefs and practices and worldviews. And those would include works like the Damascus Document, the Community Rule, the War Scroll, maybe the Temple Scroll. So that’s the short answer.


Jared: Yeah. And then maybe, can you, cause, they were, I just think they had an impact when those were discovered. Can you talk about the discovery of those?

Jodi: Sure. So, the initial discovery, the very first scrolls were discovered in Cave 1, what we call Cave 1 in the Winter/Spring of 1946-1947. They were discovered by accident when a Bedouin, that is a local nomad, wandered into this cave and discovered a row of tall pottery jars covered with bowl-shaped lids and called other members of his tribe and they opened up the jars and found that most of them were empty but at least some of them contained scrolls and eventually the Bedouin removed seven complete or nearly complete scrolls from this cave, Cave 1 at Qumran, which then eventually, there’s a long story, but eventually ended up being purchased legally by the state of Israel and those are the scrolls that are now on display in the Israel museum and the shrine and the book in the Israel museum in Jerusalem.

And the, so when these, and so it wasn’t long after that that archaeologists put together an expedition to see if there were any more scrolls in the caves around Qumran, and you know, eventually, after further exploration by archaeologists and the Bedouin who continued to look for scrolls, eventually a corpus of the remains of approximately a thousand different scrolls came to light in these eleven caves around Qumran.

The initial discovery occurred against the background of the end of the British mandate in Palestine and the partition of Palestine and by the time this archaeological expedition was organized to Qumran, which was in the early 1950s, Palestine had been partitioned and Qumran was under the rule of the government of Jordan. The expedition to Qumran then was conducted under the auspices of the government of Jordan and it was led by a French biblical scholar named Roland de Vaux who was based at the Dominican a École Biblique et Archéologique Française de Jérusalem, the French School of Biblical Studies and Archaeology in Jerusalem, and he himself was a priest affiliated with the Dominican order.

And the team of scholars that this archaeologist Roland de Vaux put together consisted entirely of white men who were Protestant or Catholic and were from Europe, western Europe primarily, and the United States. And their interests when these first scrolls were discovered, because you know, the scrolls we knew, they knew already, they determined dated to about the time of Jesus. Their interests were what do the Scrolls tell us about Jesus, right? What light to they shed on Jesus and on his teachings and the Gospel accounts?  

And so very early on, the emphasis, you know, in terms of the interests in the Dead Sea Scrolls was they have, you know, what do they tell us about Jesus and I think that’s why even until today when people hear Dead Sea Scrolls, they, you know, there’s a lot of public interest because people think they have something to do with Jesus. That’s actually not the case, they have nothing to do with Jesus directly. And maybe only a little to do indirectly.

Pete: Well, they purportedly revolutionized our understanding of Jesus, which is, you know, sort of a marketing-based exaggeration.

Jodi: Well… I don’t actually think they revolutionize –

Pete: Yeah.

Jodi: I don’t think it’s accurate to say they revolutionize our understanding of Jesus. What they did do is, in a way, I guess revolutionized is a little bit of a strong word, but you know, they certainly transformed or enhanced or added to or changed, whatever, our understanding of Judaism in the time of Jesus.

Pete: Yes. Right.


Jodi: By shedding light on a Jewish group that we knew very little about and only from, you know, indirect or outside sources to this point, now we have more direct information on them and by way of extension then, tell us about Jesus in his Jewish context.

Pete: Alright, so yeah. That gets us into, I think, an important topic, which is I guess the limitations of the field of archaeology and also the information we have about, you know, telling us things about Jesus directly, right? So –

Jodi: Right, yup.

Pete: Talk about those limitations a little bit because that’s really important because sometimes people quickly think this proves this or this proves that or the other thing and that’s really hard to think that way.

Jodi: Yeah, right. So, the first thing that I think people have to understand is, you know, a lot of people think that archaeology is this science, which archaeology is a science by the way, I consider myself to be a scientist, it’s not an exact science. And the reason why it’s not an exact science is because in the exact sciences or the hard sciences, whatever you want to call them, the point is to conduct an experiment that you can replicate. And in archaeology, you cannot replicate the experiment because in a hard scientific discipline you replicate this experiment to get the data, right? To answer your question. In archaeology, the data consists of what we dig up out of the ground.

Pete: Um hmm.

Jodi: And once you’ve dug whatever it is you’re digging out of the ground, you can never put it back the way it was. You’ve destroyed the evidence as you dig it out of the ground, which is why archaeologists try to record every single thing that we do as we’re digging and then publish it as fully as possible afterwards because the data are gone once we’ve conducted the excavation.

Pete: Yes.

Jodi: And so, this means that archaeology is not an exact science and it is filled with interpretation, so people also think that archaeology is objective, right? That it provides objective data. But archaeology does not. Everything that we as archaeologists do is a matter of interpretation and that’s why there are so many disagreements and debates among archaeologists because it comes down to how you interpret the data. And so, I think that this is the first thing that people need to realize about archaeology.

Pete: Yeah.

Jodi: And another thing and this is true also, by the way, of hard sciences. Hard sciences are also interpretive, right? There’s a process of interpretation, but also, there’s, and this is true of hard sciences, archaeology is not equipped to answer every kind of question that we have about the past. It has limitations. It can answer certain types of questions, but it can’t answer other types of questions.

So, just to give you an example, I published in 2019 a tradebook on Masada and what everybody wants to know about Masada, which was this fort, fortress, fortified mountain that was built by Herod the Great in the 1st century BC and then fell to the Romans 70 years later at the time of the first Jewish revolt against the Romans. And we have a source that Jewish historian, Josephus, who tells us that all the Jewish rebels holding out on top of the mountain at the end of the Roman siege committed mass suicide so they wouldn’t, you know, they wouldn’t be taken alive by the Romans. So, what everybody wants to know was whether archaeology confirms that there was a mass suicide or not. And the problem is that that’s not a question that archaeology is equipped to answer. Archaeology can tell us that there was a Roman siege and that it actually, we can see very clearly how the Romans conducted their siege of Masada, but there’s no way that archaeology can tell us whether everyone at the end committed mass suicide or not. So, archaeology is about, first of all understanding that it’s a matter of interpretation, that there are limitations to what archaeology can tell us about the past and that means that you have to ask the right questions of archaeology.

Pete: Mm hmm.

Jodi: So, this goes back to your point about Jesus. So, I think probably a lot of your listeners and, you know, the public in general, they always want to know, you know, what remains do we have associated with Jesus. You know, what do we have, right? People want to know about, there’s always these questions about the Holy Grail or the Shroud of Turin or whatever it is, right? So, they want to know. And the problem is that, for the most part, individuals throughout time have not left identifiable archaeological remains. So, usually, the only kind of individuals who leave traces in the archaeological record that we can identify with a specific individual, usually those are the really, really powerful and rich people. If you think like King Herod the Great, right? So, he built all over the country and we have palaces that he built and, you know, we have an inscription, by the way, an ancient inscription from Caesarea Maritima which is one of the big cities that Herod built on the coast of the Mediterranean. We have an inscription there that was dedicated by Pontius Pilate.

Pete: Hmm.


Jodi: Right? So, we have an actual physical inscription that says this is a, you know, a temple, a shrine dedicated to the Emperor Tiberius by Pontius Pilate who was prefect of Judea, right? We have that. But for the most part, the vast majority of people were not these very rich, very prominent, very powerful people. They were, you know, much, you know, poorer and I don’t want to say they were destitute, but they were, you know, the lower classes. They were not the elite and they generally don’t leave identifiable traces. I don’t want to say identifiable traces in the archaeological record that we can identify with a specific individual, right?

So, to give you an example, we have Galilean houses. We have ancient houses from the time of Jesus in villages around Galilee, including at Capernaum which was the base of Jesus’s Galilean ministry on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. We have houses in that village from that period. Do we have a house that we can identify as, you know, Jesus slept here, right? Well, we don’t. Unless we found an authentic ancient inscription from the time of Jesus that says, “this is where Jesus slept,” there’s no way we can determine that. And the same thing for example with the Holy Grail, right? The cup that Jesus drank out of. Well, maybe we actually found that cup. How would we know?

Pete: Right.

Jodi: How would you know that it’s that cup and not another, right? Unless there was something that from that time, not that somebody came along later and wrote on it, “Oh, we think Jesus drank out of this cup,” or they claim. So, that’s why really we have nothing that we can archaeologically that we can associate with Jesus as an individual in the archaeological record. Now, we do have things like the site where he is thought to, where his body is thought to have been laid to rest right after he died because that site was venerated later by Christians and a big church was built around it, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Even there, there’s a problem because it wasn’t until three hundred years after the time of Jesus that that church was built. So, you have to take it as a matter of faith that the Christian community preserved the memory of that authentic spot for the intervening three-hundred years, right?

So, you know, we don’t really have the sort of artifacts, you know, the tangible pieces of something that Jesus ate out of or drank out of or slept on or whatever. We don’t have that, at least not that we can identify in the archaeological record. What we do have, and I’m always, you know, I’m consulted by lots of television documentary programs, you know, that do this sort of stuff. And they’re always, they want to talk about, you know, the Holy Grail or the Shroud of Turin or whatever. What I try to explain is that we don’t have those sorts of tangible artifacts, but what we do have, and this is really important and valuable, is a lot of information about the world of Jesus. We know what Galilean villages looked like in his period. We know how the people lived. We know what a house looked like. So, even if we don’t have the house, we can’t identify the exact house that Jesus slept in, we know what a house like that would’ve looked like. We know what Jerusalem looked like in the final days of Jesus. We know what the temple in Jerusalem looked like. So, we can reconstruct with a pretty fair degree of accuracy the world of Jesus even if we can’t identify a specific artifact associated with him.

Pete: And that’s a very, very important distinction to make and one that can be lost, I think, very easily. So, what are some things that you sort of get all happy about? Talking about, you know, the archaeology of the time that helps us understand something of the backdrop or the world of Jesus or the things that, you know, would be of interest to people listening. Just things we can talk about and point to that help us understand what was it like to be alive during the days of Jesus.

Jodi: So, one of the things, it’s really interesting that you say this, I almost was going to go off on and I’m not going to do it unless you really want me to.

Pete: [Laughter]

Jodi: One of my, you know, I have a lot of little subfields of interest, and one of them is, this is, you’re going to crack up. One of them is ancient toilets.


And toilet habits, right?

Pete: Perfect! That’s it. I did not expect that. Right? Go for it.

Jodi: [Continued laughter]

No, no! Because everybody can relate, right? Everybody wonders what did they do back then, right? That’s been one of the things because there’s a connection with Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls and that’s kind of how it got –

Pete: I’ve never once thought about how Jesus went to the bathroom, by the way. I probably should have, but I’ve never thought. I’m too textual.

Jodi: Right! Right! So, right.

Pete: It doesn’t say it in the Gospels, so who cares?

Jodi: You know, this is archaeology, right?

Pete: [Laughter]

Jodi: You’re getting into sort of like the nitty gritty of everyday life, right? So, what was that world like? So, before maybe if, I mean, depending on the time we go off on the toilets.


Pete: [Laughter]

Jodi: One of the things that I always like to say is if we could be “retrojected” back 2,000 years in time, we would be, first of all, we would be overwhelmed by what I call the “odorama.”

Jodi/Pete: [Laughter]

Jodi: It was, it was gross! I mean, by our standards, it was gross. It was filthy. It was dirty. It was smelly. Especially in a place like Judea which is pretty dry and you don’t have, like, lots of running water and things like that. It was, you know, anyway we can go into toilet practices if you want after this, but that’s one thing and I – I also like to say that we would all be dead within a week.

Pete: Mmm.

Jodi: Because we would not have immunity to the diseases, right? So, if you survived in that world to adulthood, you would have developed immunity to, you know, most of the diseases. Although, even so, there was a very, you know, high rate of mortality even among adults and, you know, people didn’t live much beyond their thirties, right? Most people, even at the highest levels of society. If you think about Augustus, right? The Roman Emperor Augustus was predeceased by every single person who he had, who was supposed to have succeed him. So, even in the imperial family in Rome, the mortality rate was high because everybody lived in those conditions.

And so, I think that’s one of the things. And the other thing is, we talk about, there’s a lot of debate about you know, how poor was Jesus’s family? This connects also with the whole story about the burial, but were they really poor? Or were they not so poor? Were they kind of middle class? And here I think people have to realize that the distinctions that we make today don’t – aren’t really accurate for that world. That what you had in that world was a very small minority of people who were at a very high level of society, had most of the wealth, and then pretty much everybody else. And pretty much everybody else was living just above the subsistence level, so they weren’t destitute. They had, you know, they had village houses or town, you know, houses in towns or villages. They had professions, so either they were craftsmen, or they were fishermen, or they were farmers, but they lived just above the subsistence level which means they basically got by with just enough to support themselves. But in a period of, let’s say, prolonged drought or something like that, they could very easily go under. And then you have underneath that, a very, you know, a stratum of people who were really, truly destitute.

So, by today’s standards, by our modern western American standards, those, vast majority of the population, would look poor by our standards, but by the standards of that time, they were – that’s the way the majority of the people lived. And I think that’s one thing that’s really important to understand about Jesus and his context.

Pete: Well, what about, I mean things that I think about is, I mean we’re talking about toilets, but –

Jodi: [Laughter]

Pete: Like maybe, like food preparation. How did they eat, you know? Did they go out?

Jodi/Pete: [Laughter]

Jared: Did they go to the Taco Bell?

Pete: Did they kill things? Did they just make bread or something? I mean how, little things like that that we take for granted obviously in our existence. We can’t really impose upon these ancient stories. Are there any insights from archaeology about that?

Jodi: Yeah, there are. Oh yeah, absolutely. And there are tons – so, one of my, so again, we all have fields of specialization and over my career I’ve developed a number of them, but my original field of specialization was ancient pottery. That’s what I wrote my dissertation on. And that relates because, you know, one of the, probably the most common type of artifact that we dig up in archaeological excavations in Israel is pottery because even if it breaks into pieces it’s virtually indestructible. It survives, whereas a lot of other stuff does not.

And, you know, archaeologists use pottery to help us date what we dig up and there’s a complex process involved in how archaeology is used for dating, I won’t go into it, but besides being used for dating, pottery is important because it tells us things like trade, about trade, so if you see different pottery types that were manufactured in different areas and they’re found in the distance, it tells us about context between different peoples or different areas, but also the types of pottery tell us about how people prepared their food and how they served it and how they dined. And if you think for a minute, it’s very logical.

So, for example, if you go to a Chinese restaurant today, right? Their kitchen is going to be equipped with very different kinds of pots and pans than you would find in, let’s say, I don’t know, my house at least, right? And the table will be set, it will have different kinds of dishes and eating implements, dining implements than let’s say again, that most of us would use in our homes in North America, right?


So, the way that food is prepared and served tells you a lot about what people were eating, right? And how they were eating it and also were they eating it communally or were they eating it individually? So, are they serving it out of big pots that everybody is helping themselves out of, you know, that sort of thing. And so, we actually have a lot of information about that and I published a paper this year talking about a particular kind of cooking vessel, it’s like a shallow casserole, so if you think of kind of like a, almost like a frying pan, but instead of having the long handle, it has two little loop handles on either side. Something like that, this kind of pan, almost like flat-bottomed, made out of pottery, made out of ceramic, becomes very popular in Galilee, not in Judea, not in Jerusalem, but in Galilee beginning around the time of Jesus. And it’s connected with the introduction of a new type of very popular dish in Galileea that was very popular among the Romans and that is quiches and frittatas. What are called patinas and patellas in Latin.

So, basically you beat up an egg mixture and you mix it up with, you pour it into a pan with like chopped up fish or vegetables or meat or fruit or whatever, and then you either bake it or you cook it over a fire, right? So, that’s right? So, this becomes very popular in Galilee, ubiquitous, and it remains popular for centuries after the time of Jesus. At Jewish sites around Galilee, which indicates that in the time of Jesus a lot of Jews started to eat these Roman-style quiches and frittatas. So, Jesus apparently probably did to.


Pete: Right. Yeah, I mean, what do we have to go on textually in the New Testament? Not an awful lot. Like, basically bread. That’s it, right? But this is, you know, he probably ate more than just that and what are they called again?

Jodi: Well –

Pete: Quiches and frittatas?

Jodi: Well, quiches and frittatas are not mentioned in the New Testament –

Pete: No, they’re not. They’re not.

Jodi: You’re right about that.

Pete: What a rip off that is.

Jodi: [Laughter]

Right. But, no, you look, the basic food groups of this part of the world, right, by which I mean Galilea and Judea in the time of Jesus which was the basic food groups for millennia included olive oil, which was used not just for cooking but also dipping your bread in. And you mentioned bread, so that was certainly. And some sort of, you could have a bean mixture, lentils, something like that, some sort of a dip or something like that that you would also eat with your bread. And then, if you were lucky, you would add to that, you know, maybe some vegetables or maybe some meat or chicken or fish if you were lucky. But those were really the basic items and the fact that you begin to find this kind of pottery associated with preparation of quiches and frittatas suggests that they must have been, these villagers must have also been raising chickens, right? And then, taking these very basic food items, whether it’s you know, they could get their hands on some fish or pieces of vegetable or whatever, and chopping that up and mixing it up with the eggs in the fire or in the oven.

Pete: Mm hmm.

Jared: One of the things I really appreciate about a conversation like this, and Pete you kind of hinted at it, around what’s in the New Testament is, sometimes I know, a religious tradition for me growing up, we sort of have this transhistorical view of people during that time. It almost takes on this like fairy tale and it’s like, if it’s not in the Bible, it didn’t exist. So they had this very two-dimensional flat existence that only included stories like what we find in the Bible, and so I just appreciate the relatability of seeing the broader landscape of everyday life is what’s happening, you know – they’re using the toilet, they’re eating, things that seem so obvious – but until we talk about it, it sort of breaks down some of these barriers that I think I unintentionally have between what was going on back then and life today.

Jodi: Right, right! And by the way, speaking of, so I just have to say about toilets –

Pete: [Laughter]

Jodi: So –

Pete: You really want to talk about toilets, don’t you?

Jodi: I do want to talk about toilets. So, it’s one of my favorite topics. But, you know, again, it’s something that everybody can relate to, right?


Jared: Yeah.

Pete: Hopefully.

Jared: Hopefully.

Jodi: If you can’t relate to it, you’re not a human being. I mean, you know.

Jared: Right.


Jodi: So, there were different kinds of toilet facilities in the ancient world. So, the most, in a slightly later period we begin to see what are called Roman luxury latrines, which are usually attached to bath houses and consist of a room with water circulating in an underground channel below a row of seats that line the walls of that room – very sophisticated kind of technology. Not relevant if we’re talking about the time of Jesus in Galilea and that period, or even Jerusalem in that period.

So, what you basically have are either something that you might think of as analogous to an outhouse in a way. Basically, a cesspit that would be dug into the floor of a room and then covered with a stone or a wooden seat. And those are usually found only in fairly affluent houses, and I don’t know of any like that from the time of Jesus in Galilee, but, you know, in Pompei, for example, a lot of the houses have that kind of toilet facility. And so then, that leaves a question of what did everybody else do? And so, for the most part, people, when they were inside a house that didn’t have a built toilet facility, they would use, the analogy is a chamber pot, right? They would take a broken jar or something like that and use that like a chamber pot. And then, the contents of chamber pots were tossed outside the house onto the streets. So, if you were in villages, the streets and alleys tended to be pretty disgusting, by the way.

Pete: Yeah.


Jodi: And that was true even in sophisticated cities like Pompei, but the difference is that in places like Pompei, they had these fountains with water being brought in by aqueduct that would overflow, the water from the fountains would overflow the fountains and onto the streets and wash the waste away whereas in villages and most towns, you didn’t have that kind of arrangement.

And the other thing that I found in doing my research on toilets is that, so, what if you’re like outside the house and, you know, you’re just out and you have to go, right? What do you do? Apparently, a lot of people just went anywhere. I mean, literally anywhere. And I found examples of shops in Pompei where the shop keepers where the shopkeepers wrote on the outside of the shop, “don’t go here”.


Basically. And all sorts of Roman laws that legislate, you know, trying to prevent people from going in various public places.

I got into this because at Qumran, the community that lived at Qumran, the, you know, who I think are Essenes who deposited the Scrolls in the nearby caves, they have toilet habits that are a little different from everybody elses at that time. They have a concern with toilet, what we might call toilet privacy. They didn’t go in public. They found remote sheltered spots to go and they covered themselves up with a cloak so they couldn’t be seen while they were – we’re only talking about number two here –

Pete: [Laughter]

Jodi: Not number one, so defecation, not urination. So, they have that. And the other thing that makes them different, and here we, unfortunately, won’t have time to go into it, but they’re different from everybody else, this group the Essenes, because unlike everybody else including other Jews, they believed that defecation was a ritually polluting activity. That it made you ritually impure, whereas other Jews did not believe that.

Pete: Oh.

Jodi: And there’s actually this passage where, in the Gospels, where Jesus is responding to critics by saying it’s not what goes into your mouth that makes you –

Jared: Unclean.

Jodi: Ritually impure. It’s what comes out, right?

Pete: Yeah.

Jodi: And then there’s an edition and it says it’s what – it’s not what comes out of you and goes into the sewer. It’s not what goes into your stomach and then comes out of you and goes into the sewer that makes you impure, it’s you know, evil thoughts and right? All that other stuff. And you know, maybe that, maybe it’s hard to say, right? But maybe that was expressing a position on, you know, because among the different Jewish groups, clearly there was disagreement about whether excrement is impure or not.

Pete: Yeah.

Jodi: Ritually impure. And maybe that in that passage Jesus was expressing an opinion and his opinion was that it’s not ritually impure.

Pete: Okay.

Jodi: If that’s the case.

Pete: Well, first of all, thank you for ruining the Gospels for me –

Jodi: [Laughter]

Pete: Because now I’m going to be reading them wondering when they took a bathroom break and what they did.

Jodi: [Continued laughter]

Pete: So, but of course, that’s all about maturity and spiritual maturity. Anyway. I hesitate to ask, I’m not trying to be funny here, but toilet paper.

Jodi: No, there was no toilet paper.

Pete: Just sort of air dry?

Jodi: Yeah, so I don’t, yeah, if you really want to get into the nitty gritty.

Pete: This is the common denominator of all of humanity for all of time.

Jodi: Of course it is!

Pete: Why not talk about this?

Jodi: Right. So, um, by the way, so you know there are still large parts of the world where, you know, you can see sort of toilet practices that are pretty much the same as they were in antiquity, but anyway, in a Roman luxury latrine, which is not what we’re talking about for Jesus in Galilee. But in a Roman luxury latrine, at the base of the seats that lined the room, you would have a channel and it would have water in it and what the Romans used to wipe themselves off in that kind of a latrine was a sponge on a stick. So, you would have this sponge on a stick, and you would take, you know, when you sat down on the seat, you would then pick up the sponge on the stick you would use it to wipe yourself and then when you were done, you would put it back for the next person to use.

Pete: Okay, I was going to say I hope they drop that in the hole.

Jodi: [Laughter]

Pete: But I guess not. Okay.


Jodi: But wait! But that’s actually in the best-case scenario. Because, you know, for the most part, if you’re just out like using a chamber pot or, you know, wherever, not kind of, or you know, even a built cesspit kind of a toilet in a house or something like that, there is no toilet paper. So, you know, they may have used things like leaves or actually there’s a reference in rabbinic literature, Jewish rabbinic literature, to using stones to wipe yourself off, but even until today, there are parts of the world where you do not use, like I’ve been to India, this is the case. You do not use your left hand, um, for things like making an offering in a temple or in the ancient world you did not eat with your left hand, you only ate with your right hand and that’s because the left hand was used to wipe yourself.

Pete: You know. You know –

Jodi: You asked.

Pete: This is interesting. It really is and, um, the next time somebody says to me, “I’d love to live in biblical times,” I’m going to tell them to listen to this episode, especially the second half, and that will cure you of this. That and dentistry.

Jodi: [Laughter]

But this is why, this is why I said that, you know, if we could be transported back two-thousand years, we would be bowled over by the “odorama,” and we would be dead of the diseases and the water. I mean, especially in a place like Judea where that area around Jerusalem, which doesn’t get rain half of the year. The water sources were, you know, would be, I mean we would be dead from trying to live in that environment. Right? It’s the same reason why you go to parts of the world today and you have to avoid drinking the local water. You have to get immunized with all sorts of immunizations before you leave, exactly that same sort of thing.

Jared: Well, before we end this conversation…

Pete/Jodi: [Laughter]

Jared: I mean, I hate to take us –

Pete: Mercifully end this.

Jodi: [Continued laughter]

Jared: I hate to us too far afield from this conversation. But just as we wrap up, you know, what are some, what’s maybe one thing or a couple of things that you wish people would know or put into practice based on your experience as an archaeologist here?

Jodi: Yeah, well thank you for asking. You know, I think that what people have to, people have to realize that anything associated, any archaeological, anything archaeological associated with Jesus is going, any claim, is going to be sensational. In other words, any archaeological claim that is made in connection with Jesus is going to get a lot of attention, so what people need to realize is that they have to be careful when they hear claims in the media that, you know, something has been found that verifies or validates or whatever, either, you know connected with Jesus or connected with somebody in the circle of Jesus, which is not to say that every such claim is necessarily false, but that not all claims are true or not all claims are equally valid.

And this goes back to, you know, one of the things, of course, that as a university professor, you know, I’m so concerned to teach, and that is critical thinking. And, you know, one of the great values of the internet is that it has democratized information, right? It used to be the only way to get your hands on information was to walk into a physical library building and look things up, and now at the click of a mouse, you can just find stuff online. And what I always try to explain to my students is, you know, anybody can put up anything online. And you don’t know, you know, who that individual is or where that information is coming from and so, it’s really important, especially if you’re interested in learning about archaeology and the historical Jesus, it’s really important to, um, understand and evaluate the trustworthiness of the sources of information and not necessarily, you know, believe every claim that gets publicity. Because, again, the most sensational claims are the ones that, by definition, will get the most publicity, and that’s not saying they’re all necessarily false, but they’re also not necessarily true.

Pete: Well, the field of archaeology is more sober than sometimes what lands online or newspapers –

Jared: It’s not Indiana Jones?

Pete: It’s not Indiana Jones.

Jodi: Well, and actually, I’m glad you said that, because a lot of people think that archaeologists are treasure hunters like Indiana Jones and that we get to keep what we find. And that’s not what archaeology is about at all.

Pete: [Laughter]

Jodi: Archaeology is about learning about the past. We’re scientists, we seek to learn about the past by digging up remains of human material culture and the point is to have, just like any science, to have research questions that you hope to answer. So, it’s not a treasure hunt. We don’t just randomly dig to find things. Because you know if you dig, you’re going to find things.

Pete: Mm hmm.

Jodi: What you want to do is formulate a series of questions that you hope to answer and find a site that you hope, an archaeological site, that will answer those questions if you conduct an excavation there and dig up the data you hope will answer your questions. So, we do not get to keep what we find, we’re not random treasure hunters or anything like that. We’re scientists.


Pete: Right. Well, listen Jodi, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us.

Jodi: [Light laughter]

Pete: And that wonderfully unexpected turn that we took. But it’s great. And for helping us understand – just, you know, people really lived back then and they had habits and they had customs and that those things don’t come across in texts. They have to come across in some other way typically, and I think, you know, we’ve learned a lot here today. I know our listeners are going to be excited to ponder these things.

Jodi: Well, thank you.

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[Music ends]

[End of recorded material]

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.