Book Review: Dictionary of Daily Life in Biblical & Post-Biblical Antiquity


Dictionary of Daily Life in Biblical & Post-Biblical Antiquity, Vol. 2: De–H

Hendrickson | Amazon | CBD

Many thanks to the kind folks at Hendrickson for this review copy!

Along with an abundance of Bible translations available to the English-speaking world, we also have a wealth of resources and tools with which to study the Bible at our disposal. So, some may wonder why another dictionary that seeks to say something about the ancient world in which the Bible’s story unfolded? With such acclaimed series as The Anchor Bible Dictionary and IVP’s black dictionaries, do we really need another? In short, yes, for a couple of reasons. First, for all we know about the ancient world, there’s quite a bit more that we don’t know. What we don’t know about the ancient world, however, is steadily decreasing (albeit very slowly) and with new discoveries and advancements comes the need to supplement what we already “know”. Second, no matter how exhaustive a resource attempts to be, it is simply impossible to say all that can/needs to be said about a given issue, hence the need for other volumes and/or series to fill in the gaps. This is precisely the goal of Hendrickson’s marvelous series Dictionary of Daily Life in Biblical & Post-Biblical Antiquity (hereafter DDL).

The primary way in which this series differs from others is its focus—on the daily life of those of antiquity. More technical series (ABD, IVP’s black dictionaries) offer insight into all aspects of the biblical world, particularly those issues that were more pervasive socially, e.g., imperial cult, agriculture, religious praxis, etc. The DDL, however, places the focus on aspects of life that were perhaps not central to the texts that reflected the culture. Ed Yamauchi, who both edited and contributed to this series, cites the issue of abortion as but one example of a practice that was pervasive in the ancient Mediterranean, yet is not addressed in the Bible (1). This particular volume covers such matters as dentistry and teeth, doors and keys, food consumption, heating and lighting, and horses, along with a number of other aspects of daily like that are perhaps more expected. As Yamauchi correctly points out, the authors of the Bible took for granted what was well known to themselves and their audience, thus they had no need to provide all the requisite background information to understand what they were reporting (1). As such, we must comb the sources of the ancient world in order to understand their world and thus better understand the context of the Bible. However, outside of academia, most readers of the bible have neither the resources nor the skills to mine the depths of ancient sources, so works like DDL demonstrate their ultimate value.

The articles are written by experts in their fields but are written in very accessible prose so that the reader might receive the maximum benefit. Each topic is discussed in various contexts—the scriptural first (Old and New Testaments) followed by the cultural (Near Eastern, Greco-Roman, Jewish, and Christian)—thus providing the reader with a wider range of backgrounds against which to understand that particular issue. To accommodate those who wish to read beyond the pages of DDL, each article concludes with a substantive up-to-date bibliography.

There is really nothing to dislike about this series, save for the use of transliterated terms from the languages of the sources cited and otherwise noted. This negligible element aside, the DDL is a solid work, one that will benefit both scholars and non-academics alike. It goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway) that no, it is improbable that anyone reading these volumes won’t find something they disagree with. However, this volume (and presumably the first one) are well researched and lucidly written, so even in disagreement readers will learn with great benefit. Will this series replace others? No, and it isn’t meant to—it’s a supplement to previous works that will greatly aid in the study of the world of the Bible.

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Jesus and…Bigfoot?

As I mentioned in a post a while back, I’m totally intrigued with the whole Bigfoot phenomenon. I blame it on my uncle, who showed me The Legend of Boggy Creek when I was a kid, and ever since I’ve been fascinated by this cryptid. It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that I’m a big fan of the show Finding Bigfoot on Animal Planet. If you haven’t seen the show, basically it’s a team of four researchers–three who are ardent believers in the existence of sasquatch (all members of the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization) and one biologist who is a staunch skeptic. The team embarks on expeditions all over the world in search of indisputable evidence of the elusive hominid. They employ a number of methods to lure the beast(s) from hiding and have all manner of gadgets to capture footage should they be so fortunate to see the creature. One of the key elements of the show is the town hall meeting, where the team gathers in the town nearest the locations of reported sightings and/or encounters. Here, the team listens to reports and decides which locations they want to visit for their night investigations.

I have to admit that of all the purported evidences for the existence of Bigfoot, the one that keeps me from declaring emphatically that they aren’t real are the alleged encounters and sightings recounted by the locals at the town hall meetings. While there are always exceptional tales, there is a fair amount of general consistency to most of the accounts. Now, one may simply attribute this to the ubiquitous stories of the creature throughout history and the fact that the show often films in so-called “hot spots,” where sightings and/or encounters seem to be more common. However, there are always those who tell of their experience as a life-changing one–they are many times visibly affected by what they saw, heard, or otherwise experienced. Are they lying? Are they mentally unstable or ill in some way? Did their brains play a devious trick on them? Or did they truly experience something that left an indelible impression on them?

So, what does Bigfoot have to do with Jesus? I’m not talking about the experiential angle; rather, it’s the question of the eyewitness testimony that intrigues me. I’ve often wondered about the eyewitnesses of Jesus’ life and ministry, those who were there, who walked with him as an itinerant proclaimer of the kingdom of God, who reported the various miracles and exorcisms he performed. The reports that comprise our accounts in the Gospels–did they really happen that way? The supernatural side of things doesn’t really give me pause–I have no problem believing that Jesus cast out evil spirits or that he called Lazarus forth from the grave. But more problematic issue can be the reliability of witnesses–did they report things as they actually happened or did the details get embellished, altered, or flat out changed in the course of transmission? Scholars have argued that all of these have happened to varying degrees and I’m convinced that the earliest accounts of Jesus’ life did not go unaltered. In general, I am more skeptical of eyewitness accounts than I’m not, so that gives me pause when considering ancient sources.

I suppose the question then becomes, “How much did those accounts change?” I certainly don’t have the answer and this is a subject that is outside my ability to articulate effectively. However, I believe that the earliest eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ life, those reflected in the Gospel accounts, are reliable. This, of course, is not an unassailable assertion, but one I am comfortable with (at least for now). Anthony Le Donne has recently written on this–you can read more here.


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Ancient Remedies

One of the more enjoyable aspects of researching ancient culture is what you learn that is secondary to the subject on which you’re reading and/writing. I’m finishing up a research paper that led me to Pliny the Elder, who lived in the first century CE. His still-famous Naturalis Historia (Natural History) became a classic work. It is essentially a catalog of the plant and animal kingdoms in Pliny’s culture. But far from merely describing the flora and fauna of his world, Pliny provides countless remedies that are comprised of various animal parts. For your dermatological needs, consider the following remedies:

  • A vulture’s blood, beaten up with cedar resin and root of white chameleon and covered with a cabbage leaf, when applied, is good for the cure of leprosy; the same, too, with the legs of locusts, beaten up with he-goat suet.
  • Pimples are treated with poultry grease, beaten up and kneaded with onions.
  • One very useful substance for the face is honey in which the bees have died; but a sovereign detergent for that part is swans’ grease, which has also the property of effacing wrinkles.
  • Brand-marks are removed by using pigeons’ dung, diluted in vinegar.

For your throat problems, consider these remedies:

  • Affections of the uvula and pains in the fauces are alleviated by using the dung of lambs before they have begun to graze, dried in the shade.
  • The same maladies (uvular maladies) are treated also with ashes of burnt swallows, mixed with honey; a preparation which is equally good for affections of the tonsillary glands.
  • Millepedes, bruised with pigeons’ dung, are taken as a gargle, with raisin wine.

For your shoulder problems, get yourself some ashes of a burnt weasel and mix with wax—it’s a cure for pains in the shoulders.

Want your teens to be nice and smooth beneath the arms? Have them rub their arm pits with ants’ eggs.

And what ancient didn’t have issues with stomach pains! Remedies were plentiful! According to Pliny, one of the very best remedies for affections of the stomach is to use a snail diet. They must first be left to simmer in water for some time, without touching the contents of the shell, after which, without any other addition, they must be grilled upon hot coals, and eaten with wine and garum; the snails of Africa being the best of all for the purpose. But remember, snails will give you bad breath!

If you’re afflicted with having to spit blood, use a vulture’s lungs, burnt upon vine logs, and mixed with half the quantity of pomegranate blossoms, or with the same proportion of quince and lily blossom: the whole being taken morning and evening, in wine, if there is no fever; but where there are symptoms of fever, instead of wine, water is used in which quinces have been boiled.

There’s plenty more, and these I’ve reproduced here are rather mild in comparison to some others he names. Go here to read more.

Ah, the ancients—how entertaining they can be!

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