Not Not About Jesus by B.C. Edwards

In his new book Scott Korb outlines, in vivid detail, the everyday existence of the farmers and common city folk who populated first-century Palestine during the time of Jesus’ life, in an attempt to humanize the historical figure. Not that the book is about Him though.

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Essayist and author Scott Korb is a member of a burgeoning collective of writers and scholars intent on bridging the gap between the academic and the religious bases of Christian writing. In his new book, Life in Year One, Korb outlines, in vivid detail, the everyday existence of the farmers and common city folk who populated first-century Palestine, during the time of Jesus’ life. Over a lunch of buffalo chicken, mayo-less BLT’s and fries dipped in mustard we covered a range of topics, from the sudden pitfalls one can encounter while writing nonfiction, to how best to use unpaid interns, to how tricky it can be to write a book that is definitely, absolutely NOT about a specific person.

B.C. Edwards In every single interview you’ve done, you mention that this is not a book about Jesus. Almost like you’re contractually obligated to. And also that this isn’t just a history book. And yet Jesus is possibly, with the exception of yourself, the singular most prevalent character in the book. He keeps coming up over and over again.

Scott Korb It’s true.

BCE But, it seems like you’re describing him tangentially. Meaning that if you draw around him enough, you get this outline of him and then from that… if you can flesh his world out enough then we can see him better and as a more actual and real and historical figure.

SK Exactly, yeah.

BCE So then isn’t this actually a book about Jesus?

SK I’m gonna say again that it’s not. Life in Year One is about the life of the people that lived in that time. And Jesus does make appearances. If you speak enough around this figure it’s impossible not to see him in his humanity. If this book does try to say anything specifically about Jesus, it’s done only to suggest his humanness. And I think it’s essential that you understand that Jesus was human, and that he’s talking with people who were also human who had the same human desires the same human foibles and human vanity. You can look back fifty years and create in your imagination the nuclear housewife, right? But those were actually real people. And I believe in a moral responsibility of imagining those people as real.

BCE Rather than as archetypes or generalizations.

SK Exactly. Because that just leads to romanticizing. Being able to identify with them is important. And the humanity of these people is my emphasis in this book. As soon as I start talking about Jesus, I would try to make Jesus look like I wanted Jesus to look. It’s what everyone does when they write about Jesus, everyone has an idea of who they think Jesus is and so they create this character. And then that character, whoever it is, becomes the focus of everything. And I do want Jesus in this book, I just don’t want to focus on him. I want his humanity to point to the humanity of other people. Let’s look at the person standing next to Jesus. Let’s not look at Jesus anymore because his glow is changing our perception.

BCE What you are attempting it seems, with both Life in Year One and much of your other work, is to make real those figures that people otherwise may only see as historical fact.

SK Flannery O’Connor asks the question: Can anyone’s integrity be upheld by something that we are unable to accomplish or unable to do? In this case, if we are unable to actually write a book that’s not about Jesus, if I’m unable to do that, do I still leave the book with my integrity intact? And Flannery O’Connor says, Yes that’s possible. And I hope that she’s right.

BCE In the passage on crucifixion that you say—and this is one of the tricks that you repeat throughout the book but it was most impressive here—you say, I’m not going to ask you to imagine what it was like to be crucified. But now I’m going to give you a page and a half detailing very, very specifically what will happen so that we can’t do anything but imagine what it must be like.

SK I think what I say is, I’m not going to ask you what it was like to BE crucified or I’m not going to ask you what it was like to crucify someone? In either case it’s a horrifying way to die. And this is probably the most interesting thing that I learned. That people who were crucified were left to be eaten by animals. Most people don’t know that. This is huge. What if the reason that Jesus’ body wasn’t found in the tomb is because there’s no tomb and because Jesus was eaten by animals, by dogs and vultures and stuff? There’s no bigger scandal for Christianity than the fact that their god was devoured by animals.

I think that’s why the gospels need Joseph of Arimathea who takes Jesus down. They need that gesture. In that period it must have been so meaningful and so odd to read that, but for us it’s totally normal. But for the people in first century Palestine, they’re like, Wait, that NEVER happens. And for a Jewish audience it’s, That just doesn’t happen to us Jews, that’s just not how Jews are treated.

BCE A lot of the work that I’ve read of yours including this book is told very personally, even humorously. Do you find that it’s easier to write about this subject matter by having there be these hilarious footnotes, these asides? Is that just how you write? Or is there an intention behind it to make it more readable?

SK I was very conscious in the book of trying to not offend my audience, though that was a very secondary minor consideration to this bigger consideration to inform while also entertain. The asides and the footnotes are sort of a second level of the book. So on the one hand I wanted to tell the history, and on the other level I wanted to write about the writing of the history.

BCE You say from the get go that most of these questions of what life was like in first century Palestine, questions that you raise, are unanswerable. A lot of the book is conjecture and a lot is going to be up to your imagination and the reader’s imagination. Was this a frustrating aspect for you—that sources just didn’t exist to confirm certain things?

SK At first it was frustrating. When I set out to write this book I had fifteen chapters that I was going to write, not ten, I was going to provide answers to all the questions and I was going to talk with scholars and they were going to inform me of all this great stuff…

BCE You had all these plans.

SK And I had to learn a lot in order to write this book. I mean I’ve always been fascinated by this period and with historical accounts of the time of Jesus but I had to learn a lot and I had amazing student researchers who helped me.

BCE Slave labor. I was really impressed with your foot-noting. How you used the footnotes to create cliff-hangers for upcoming chapters and asides and comments on the text itself.

SK Throughout the editing process we took most if not all of the commentary out of the main text and put it in the footnotes and most if not all of the history and put it into the main text. So as I imagined it, it was history sitting on top of commentary, which I like to think about as a Talmudic approach to writing. The Jewish Talmud has the scripture in the middle (that’s not to say that my history is scripture in anyway) but there’s the main text in the middle and all of this commentary around it. I’m trying to participate in a tradition of Jewish scholarship.

BCE I think that’s lovely.

SK It’s a kind of writing I hope I always get to do. Because footnotes are fun. I’ve learned footnotes by reading David Foster Wallace and he does it better than any other writer.

BCE Well, you can’t write any fiction or nonfiction that uses footnotes these days without it referring, in at least someway, to his work.

SK I teach David Foster Wallace in all of my classes. When we study his footnotes, especially, we see that what he’s trying to do is to work shit out for himself. He really is struggling to think though these really difficult complicated ideas and I read him and I think that is the most honest approach that I’ve seen to thoughtful witting. To give the reader a sense of what you’re thinking as you’re writing. Stylistically, I think it’s clever, but in terms of the integrity of the writer, I think it’s so perfectly honest.

BCE It’s wonderfully honest. And especially in non-fiction it allows the writer or the narrator a place almost as a character, which is really the difference between a very dry history text-book and a work, such as this, of historical nonfiction.

SK Historical nonfiction. There you go. A whole new genre.

Scott Korb’s Life in Year One is available now from Riverhead Books. Check out his blog.