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Philip Jenkins: Times Literary Supplement Review of “CRUCIBLE OF FAITH”

Mediterranean maelstrom
The ideas that formed in the Second Temple period


Philip Jenkins CRUCIBLE OF FAITH The ancient revolution that made our modern religious world 303pp. Basic Books. £23.99 (US $19.99).

December 12, 2018

It is a truism that the New Testament cannot be understood without reading the Old Testament. The existence of one universal God, the creator of the universe, God’s special covenant with the people of Israel, and the defining customs of Judaism – circumcision, dietary regulations, and the sacrificial system – are all to be found there, and early Christianity is unthinkable without this Old Testament background.
Yet reading the Old Testament alone will not prepare one for the thought world encountered in the New. Many features in early Christianity, and in the varieties of Judaism from which it sprang, cannot be found there. Heaven and hell, the doctrine of Adam’s fall and of original sin, the existence of the devil, the hosts of angels that surround the human race, and speculation on the origins of suffering, are all central to the world of the New Testament, yet marginal or even non-existent in the Old. Insofar as they are “Old Testament” themes, this is because they are part of how the Old Testament was read and received at the turn of the era, rather than because they belong to its natural meaning. To discover this reception history we need to read not simply the Old Testament itself, but other Jewish works from the third and second centuries BC that for the most part are not now part of Scripture at all: books attributed to Enoch, Ezra, the patriarchs such as Abraham and Joseph, Moses and Solomon, even Adam and Eve. We also need to be aware of what was being thought in the wider Hellenistic world, of which Judaism was perforce a part.
Philip Jenkins calls this period, pivoting around 250 BC, the Crucible Age. In it were formed the major concepts that would influence later Jews and Christians alike. It is what older scholars called the intertestamental period, but is now usually termed the Second Temple period, from which a rich unofficial Jewish literature derives, alongside a little of the Old Testament, though most of the latter is older. It was a time of many fierce conflicts, with Palestine much fought over by armies from both east and west. As Professor Jenkins observes, quoting Saki, “the Jewish world in this era produced far more history than it could consume locally”. He takes the reader through the political and military history of the period, but to me these are the less digestible (though necessary) parts of the book. It is in analysing the literature and thought world that it really comes to life.
The Dead Sea Scrolls, mostly produced between about 200 BC and AD100 at Qumran, have provided much information about the Crucible Age. Some of the Scrolls may be contemporary with later portions of the Old Testament itself, and with other significant non-canonical works from this period. The Dead Sea community’s great leader, the “Teacher of Righteousness”,
would have been a near-exact contemporary of the author of Jubilees, as well as the pseudo- Daniel who wrote the apocalyptic sections of that book, and the creator of the Sibylline Oracles dating from this time. Also working at this time would have been some of the authors of the building blocks of 1 Enoch. This revolutionary generation was stunningly creative and obsessed with judgment and heavenly battle.
This was thus a critical period for the shaping of later Judaism and Christianity (and indeed Islam, one of its heirs), but because of the inaccessibility of most of the relevant material to the general reader there are few reliable guides to it. The necessary texts are indeed published in good translations, but are not as easy to come by as an ordinary Bible. While there are innumerable guides to the Bible, the Crucible Age is the great unknown to most Bible-readers.
Jenkins’s work goes a long way towards filling that gap. It is readable, very well informed, and persuasively argued. The Bible itself, in its later portions, is well discussed, too. Thus there is an excellent interpretation of one of the most obscure passages in the Old Testament, so-called Deutero-Zechariah (Zechariah 9–14), which is full of apparently impenetrable allegories concerning a Wicked Shepherd, yet was evidently central to Jesus’s own understanding of his mission, if we can judge by how often it is cited in the Gospels.
What will be novel to many readers is the idea that one should study Zechariah alongside 1 Enoch, Ecclesiastes alongside Ecclesiasticus (i.e. the Wisdom of Jesus son of Sira), Daniel alongside the Qumran “War Scroll” – in other words, canonical Jewish texts alongside non-canonical ones. Perhaps even more startling is the possibility of comparing parts of the Old Testament with the writings of Hellenistic philosophers. Yet all were part of the maelstrom of ideas in the eastern Mediterranean after the conquests of Alexander the Great. Some pious observers will find such a levelling of the playing field offensive or worrying. But if they seriously wish to understand the background against which Jesus and the early Church make sense, they have no choice but to plunge into the sorts of writing Philip Jenkins analyses so expertly.