Magazine | October 30, 2017, Issue

Origins and Ruptures

(Max Rossi/Reuters)
Crucible of Faith: The Ancient Revolution That Made Our Modern Religious World, by Philip Jenkins (Basic, 336 pp., $30)

Philip Jenkins has given us, in this book, a brilliant new account of Judaism’s mostly temporary but still highly influential transformations during two centuries, from 250 to 50 b.c.e. Among modern scholars, the literary works he draws on have usually passed for mere extracanonical curiosities, but they have such coherent themes, and ones so familiar to Christians and Muslims, that they seem to demand a rethinking of the Western religious heritage. In particular, to speak of thoroughgoing discontinuity between “traditional” ancient Judaism and “radical” early Christianity no longer makes sense — though I will need to come back, later, to the shuddering deal-breakers for ancient Jews that Jenkins downplays.

During the centuries after Alexander the Great’s death (323 b.c.e.), control of Jewish territory passed between the Ptolemaic dynasty based in Egypt and the Seleucids based in Mesopotamia: The Jews endured the misfortune of having their religious and political center between the two most ambitious and aggressive houses of Alexander’s successors. The Maccabean rebellion in the mid second century b.c.e. famously threw off the foreign yoke, but the resulting independent Jewish dynasty failed, amid violent misrule, after about a hundred years, and its successor, Herod the Great, was a client king of the Romans. Despite direct imperial control of greater Judea, including military occupation, from the early first century c.e., Rome didn’t work her usual stabilizing magic here, and the Temple was destroyed and the Jewish nation extirpated in 70 c.e.

The Jewish culture responded with creativity to these bewildering changes and fearsome pressures. Longstanding limitations must at first have been daunting: monotheism with a distant, all-powerful God whose name could not even be spoken; centralized sacrificial ritual under the control of an inherited priesthood; scripture whose promises of vindication for a lawful and faithful people remained unfulfilled.

But, generation by generation, there appeared new sacred literature, such as the Books of Enoch and Tobit. In these stories, angels are no longer shadowy and ambiguous intermediaries but busy helpers of the righteous. Opposite them, the mere talking snake of the Garden of Eden and the minor deities referred to with contempt coalesce into Evil Incorporated. The evil ones are much worse than their closer forerunner Satan (“Adversary”) of the Book of Job, who is a cooperative functionary of God in heaven. (Jenkins compares him to a public prosecutor.)

A dualism was developing that fed the apocalyptic material of the Dead Sea Scrolls. At the end of the world, the armies of light and darkness would face off, and light would triumph. Mortals would be raised from the dead, judged, sent to eternal reward or eternal torment. The kingdom of God would be here at any moment, brought into being by the Anointed One, the Son of Man, or the Son of God. The Dead Sea Scrolls anchor these ideas in disapproval of the venal Temple hierarchy that truckled to infidel foreign power.

Thus, ideas we are apt to attribute to Jesus the revolutionary, or to Jesus and a few other rabble-rousers, might have been quite common — and institutionally well grounded, too. The synagogue as a gathering place for teaching, reading, hymn-singing, and prayer is an innovation of this period. Nobody had regularly and communally prayed before, Jenkins points out. The Christian church service was substantially there already.

A Jewish intellectual such as Philo of Alexandria (approximately 25 b.c.e. to 50 c.e.) could apply dualism in the name of cosmopolitan assimilation; and he probably had plenty of company, given the great currency and prestige of Plato’s paradigms. In Genesis, the single, all-powerful Hebrew God was said simply to have created the world. But, pagan scholars of the time asked, didn’t there need to be another deity to do this, an inferior demiurge (“workman”) to craft inferior material existence? (He and the god of the immaterial would actually battle it out, in the mythology of Gnostic and Gnostic-related sects.) Philo was willing to integrate this story into Judaism, preferring the Stoic term “Logos” or “Word” to “demiurge.”

Therefore, writings such as the first chapter of the Gospel of John, where “in the beginning” God does not create directly but is instead connected to the Word, through which everything comes into being, require a fresh look. There is Greek philosophical influence, for sure, but does it come by way of the deeply trodden path of Jewish thinkers?

This is an impressive book. Only on one important count is Jenkins’s argument of precedence and continuity overstated. For a long time, it has been fashionable to speak of early Christianity as a “Jewish sect” and to play down Greco-Roman influences. (Disclosure: In my 2010 book Paul among the People, I play them up.) And Jenkins falls in easily with this line of thinking.

But modern Jews give plausible explanations of what the absolute deal-breakers were for Jews, from the start of the Jesus movement. And they are exasperated that the Christian scholarly community (Jenkins is a distinguished professor of history at Baylor) tends not to listen but instead to insist on one big happy family — so happy, it’s implied, that the older part of it shouldn’t mind moving in with the younger. I wouldn’t argue for interfaith sensitivity at the expense of fact, but in this connection, Jenkins has neither on his side.

A “Jewish sect.” Says who? Paul, of course, thought that following Jesus was the only logical fulfillment of Judaism. But where is the evidence that Paul was ever allowed to lower his hopeful bottom onto a synagogue bench once the congregants heard from him that the out-of-nowhere Jesus was not only the messiah but God’s own son, to be worshiped as divine? Even though he had been crucified as a criminal, and then purportedly had risen from the dead, yet somehow had done so without making a bit of historical difference? Oh, but just wait, said the early Christians: He would; he was the whole point of apocalyptic.

Allow me to provide some background here: The term “son of God” is not — as Jenkins seems to make out — a more or less direct connection between Jewish tradition and future ideas and between the two developing communities: The Christian use of it for Jesus actually made a sharp sidetrack. Jenkins cites fewer and less various scriptural instances of the term than there are (in fact, those ranging from angels to kings to ordinary followers of Jesus could be referred to as sons of God) and leans on the loftiest connotations. It’s almost as if he thinks that institutional Judaism wouldn’t have minded what in reality would have been a bone-shaking detour in theology; that only the Jewish War and other overwhelming military and political events separated Jewish and Christian destinies.

Of course, none of the missionaries preaching Jesus would have added voluntarily to the confused impressions of pagans, whose own religion was full of male gods having (violent or deceitful) physical sex with mortal women and begetting half-divine heroes. Nevertheless, just at this one angle, the figure of Jesus must have seemed to Jewish leaders — and to the communities that trusted them — to be leading a strike force for blasphemy. No wonder Jewish authorities disposed of even an apostle such as James the Just, a paragon of Temple piety (much unlike Paul) — by some accounts hurling him off a Temple pinnacle for stoning after he refused to renounce the divinity of Jesus. To call the early followers of Jesus “a Jewish sect” would be like calling whichever Quakers (whether former Catholics or not) might try to participate in the Catholic Mass on their own terms “a Catholic sect.” It doesn’t work that way.

But in other respects, Crucible of Faith is an extremely good book, and I recommend it to everyone who would like a nuanced and vivid look at shared origins.

– Sarah Ruden is the author, most recently, of The Face of Water: A Translator on Beauty and Meaning in the Bible and a translator of Augustine’s Confessions.

Sarah Ruden’s most recent work is a translation of Augustine’s Confessions.

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