Jodi Magness, The Archaeology of the Holy Land: From the Destruction of Solomon’s Temple to the Muslim Conquest (Cambridge: CUP, 2012), xiv + 385.
In 2012 Jodi Magness (the Kenan Distinguished Professor for Teaching Excellence in Early Judaism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) published The Archaeology of the Holy Land. It shouldn’t take very long for the reader to recognize that a career’s worth of knowledge has been condensed and organized into this outstanding textbook—she had wanted to write this book for “more than twenty years” (p. xii). Like a good wine, we ought to be grateful that the author waited to serve this information to us. The work is extensive, covering as much information as possible, yet it is organized as to be accessible, providing the reader with succinctly written sections. Students will benefit from the breadth of data provided. Instructors can be confident that their pupils are getting a more than adequate introduction to the subject. In fact, anyone who is interested in the topics this book discusses will benefit from reading it.
According to Magness, the book was created as “an introduction to the archaeology and history of ancient Palestine—modern Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian territories” that covers the period “from the destruction of Solomon’s temple in 586 B.C.E. to the Muslim conquest in 640 C.E.” (author’s page). It is seventeen chapters in length. The introduction (chapter 1) presents the basics needed to understand the field, such as a definition of “archaeology” (“…the study of the past as evidence by human material culture – that is, built features and artifacts such as architecture, works of art, tools, and vessels that were manufactured and used by people”, 7), a survey of some of the methods used to do the work and the items that help archaeologist determine the era they’re uncovering (e.g., coins, pottery, inscriptions), and a few words on why real archaeological work does not resemble the “highly romanticized and grossly inaccurate” version found in the Indiana Jones films (17).
Chapters 2-10 are outlined chronologically moving from “the early history of Jerusalem” (to 586 B.C.E.) in chapter 2 down to the “early Roman (Herodian) period” (of 40 B.C.E. to 70 C.E.). Chapter 3 covers the Babylonian and Persian periods, chapter 4 the early Hellenistic period, and chapter 5 the late Hellenistic period. Chapters 6-10 cover the final period from different vantage points: Qumran (chapter 6); Jerusalem (chapter 7); Caesarea Maritima, Samaria-Sebaste, Jericho, and Herodium (chapter 8); Galilee (chapter 9, with emphasis on Jesus and his movement); and Masada (chapter 10).
Chapters 11 and 14 are distinct in that the first addresses a practice rather than an era or a region while the second examines a distinct area of expertise within a limited geological area. Chapter 11, “Ancient Jewish Tombs and Burial Customs (to 70 C.E.)” has proven to be more relevant than Magness may have imagined when she published the book in 2012. Since then, Bart D. Ehrman’s discussion of Jesus’ burial in his 2014 book How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee (New York: HarperCollins, 2014) has caused strong reactions due to his claim (following John Dominic Crossan) that while we cannot know what happened to the body of Jesus of Nazareth, as a “criminal” it is plausible that Jesus’ body wasn’t buried, but left to decompose (see chapter 4, “The Resurrection of Jesus: What We Cannot Know”).
Unsurprisingly, this proposal received an energetic response. First, in a book of essays titled How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014) by Michael Bird, et al., Craig A. Evans’ chapter “Getting the Burial Traditions and Evidences Right” aimed to repudiate the idea that the Romans would have left the body of a crucified Jew exposed without burial in light of Jewish burial customs of the day (cf. Deut. 22:22-23). (Evans cites Magness in this chapter.) Later, at the 2014 annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature there was a panel dedicated to the discussion of these two books (primarily Ehrman’s). Ehrman and Evans sparred over the issue before a sizeable crowd. For Evans, whose position is close to the one espoused by Magness in the book under review, the only common exception to the custom of giving a Jew a proper burial would be war. But for Ehrman the unique situation of being considered an enemy of the Roman state who was accused of the seditious claim of being a “king” is enough to consider a plausible scenario where Jesus would not have been given a proper burial.
Magness’ chapter on the subject aligns closer to Evans’, as stated above, but that’s not the reason it is valuable to readers (remember, it wasn’t written with this debate in mind). It is valuable to readers because it provides a general overview of the normative customs of the day—those to which Evans appealed and in light of which Ehrman finds Jesus’ execution to be an exception. On pages 243-248 the seconds “Tombs and Burial Customs of the Lower Galilee and Qumran Community” and “The Death and Burial of Jesus” provide those of us who haven’t studied this subject in-depth the opportunity to understand the subject so that we can critically engage what has emerged as an important debate amongst some scholars of formative Judaism and Christianity.
The fourteenth chapter (“Roman and Late Antique Period Synagogues in Palestine”) addresses one of Magness’ central areas of expertise: ancient Palestinian synagogues. For those who pay attention to the archaeological work being done in Israel, there is a good chance they’ve heard about the synagogue at Huqoq with the famous mosaics depicting Samson and possible Alexander the Great. As with the chapter on ancient burial practices, this chapter will help readers understand what is “in the news” these days.
Chapters 12-13 and 16-17 return to the chronological outline approach. In chapter 12 Magness examines the archaeology from 70 C.E. (the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple) down through the Bar-Kokhba Revolt (132-135 C.E.). Chapter 13 focuses on “Hadrianic Jerusalem”, a.k.a., “Aelia Capitolina” from 135-c. 300 C.E. Chapter 15 and 16 look at the Byzantine period, dividing attention between Jerusalem, specifically, in chapter 15, and the rest of Palestine under Christian rule in chapter 16.
A feature that appears here-and-there is the occasional “Sidebar” where the author gives detailed attention to a specific topic. These include widely varying topics, including women at Qumran (130), Wilson’s Arch (167), and diaspora synagogues (316), as a few random examples. Magness uses some of these to weigh in on controversial matters, e.g., the Talpiyot Tomb (250-252) and the James Ossuary (252-253).
Throughout the book the reader will encounter valuable maps, illustrations, and photographs (black-and-white) to help them better comprehend the content (a list can be found at the beginning). The back of the book includes a useful glossary, a brief timeline, and a thorough index. These features enhance the book’s value as an introduction for those who may not have familiarity with archeology.
Brian Leport is a PhD Candidate in Religion and Theology at the University of Bristol. You can read more of Brian at brianleport.com.
 I was present for this event. Also, full disclosure, Prof. Evans is one of my doctoral supervisors, and while I lean toward his position that Jesus was likely given a respectable burial, my subjective opinion is that the Ehrman-Evans dual ended in a draw with both scholars making strong points and counter-points that advanced the debate.