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Excerpt: 'Life In Year One'

Life In Year One

Today, people traveling to Bethlehem, a tiny strip of a town in the West Bank, arrive from Jerusalem, which sits about six miles to the north. And as pilgrimage destinations go, Jerusalem has always been something of a big brother to the little town identified in the Gospels as the birthplace of Jesus. As with most older siblings, Jerusalem has had a decidedly rougher go of it over time — the Western Wall, all that remains of the city's once great Temple, is a clear reminder of that. And the X-ray machine, metal detectors, and armed soldiers at the entrance to the site are all the evidence you need that the city's history may get rougher still. But a quick consideration of those growing pains — to say nothing of the growing pains of Jerusalem's pilgrims — might, in fact, tell us something about how we both imagine and ultimately see Bethlehem, its inhabitants, and the pilgrims who flock there today.

As we know, ancient Jewish writers often idealized what's known today as the Old City. For them, it was the world's most sacred metropolis, the seat of the Temple. And as they imagined it, from upon the Temple Mount to within the Temple walls everything got holier still as you approached the mysterious, indescribable, and basically off-limits Holy of Holies, the dwelling place of God. Jerusalem, with its Temple, was essentially the center of the universe, the very navel, as it was known, of the world. That is, the whole world was believed to be nurtured by this dazzling city — a city Jews from everywhere supposedly nurtured in turn with annual tithing. And every year at Passover Jews from throughout the known world flooded Jerusalem for what they imagined would be the feast of a lifetime.

Jerusalem's destruction in 70 CE was related to what Josephus referred to as this "huge influx from the country." While not pilgrims exactly, the Jewish nationalists that most strongly opposed the Romans — first, the terrorists known as Sicarii, and then the religious Zealots, both parties of brutal killers — found their strongest support among those who, like them, had most idealized Jerusalem and so most hated those who had come to rule over them with implicit (and occasionally explicit) threats to defile their land and its most holy city. But if we're thinking about pilgrims, we can, for the most part, probably assume that idealizing Jerusalem is not specifically — or perhaps not at all — a wartime mentality. It's also not simply an ancient way of thinking. Instead, it may simply be something the pilgrim's mind does.

With that in mind, what if we were to imagine again the people living during those years between 14 and 37 CE, when Tacitus mistakenly believed that "all was quiet" in Palestine? That's exactly what I asked archaeologist Lee Levine to do when I visited him in Jerusalem in early 2009. Curious what Levine thought of those far-flung Jewish peasants we met very early in this book, people he stopped just short of calling "country bumpkins," I asked what someone from first-century Galilee might have thought about Jerusalem. As we might suspect, someone with Jesus' background, he said, "probably had a very romanticized, beautiful image of the Temple and purity and sanctity and drama," and when he arrived in Jerusalem as a pilgrim, he would have found that "it can be a messy place." There's no denying it, Levine continued: "You have animals here, money; probably people argued about how much ... I can't imagine there isn't [haggling] when you're dealing with money and buying." So, finding money changers at the Temple, "He" — that is, Jesus — "was turned off!"

Then, taking a moment to think, Levine, an American who resettled in Jerusalem in the late seventies, continued: "I think most Jews who have never been to Israel — they come here and they see that with . . . all the achievements of Israel . . . there's [still] a problem with driving, there's a problem of politeness, of getting on a bus and waiting your turn." In other words, what travelers even today often fail to imagine, perhaps even as they're packing their bags, is the very thing ancient pilgrims might also have failed to understand — which hints at just how similar today's Old City might actually be to ancient Jerusalem. Then and now, you're sure to find the sacred and astonishing right there alongside the profane and ordinary.

With these final words, Levine confirmed for me something I proposed at the outset. That, along with so many of our other attitudes and behaviors — from our simple desires to stay clean and well groomed to our most complicated fears about death and dying — when we consider our power of imagination, there is nothing deeply and essentially different between who we are now and who we were then. Yes, the very same kind of romanticizing goes on even today, and an age-old problem resurfaces. As Levine concluded during our conversation, when someone is treated impolitely or simply has to wait in line for a bus, "all of a sudden this romantic picture becomes blurred." Which may mean, in simple terms, that sometimes the pilgrim just can't see straight.

Reprinted from LIFE IN YEAR ONE: What the World Was Like in First-Century Palestine by Scott Korb by arrangement with Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc., Copyright © 2010 by Scott Korb

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Scott Korb