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Wednesday, January 28, 2015

"From the Maccabees to the Mishnah" 3rd edition (Shaye J. D. Cohen)

TITLE: From the Maccabees to the Mishnah, Third Edition
AUTHOR: Shaye J. D. Cohen
PUBLISHER: Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014, (328 pages).

We know a lot about New Testament times. Aided by archeology and scholarship research, our knowledge about Old Testament continues to grow as well. What about the inter-testament period? Compared with the two testaments, this period from  164 BC to 200 CE are not usually studied in depth. While commentaries do offer some contextual evidence, not many books focus on the period that Shaye Cohen calls, "Maccabees to the Mishnah" period. There are several reasons why this period is important. First, the two remaining religious traditions that are significant are rabbinic Judaism and Christianity. Both of them rose from this period that is considered central to our understanding of the religious roots. Secondly, it is sandwiched between oppressive regimes from the Ptolemians / Seluecids to the Roman rulers. With two seemingly hostile governments, it is amazing how the Jews managed to survive it all. Thirdly, this period may hold the key to a tighter integration between the Old and the New Testament periods. In fact, it is rich in historical events and understanding the chronology can help us appreciate the reasons behind the happenings in the later parts of the Old Testament and the early beginnings of the New Testament.

Shaye Cohen is an ordained Rabbi and Littauer Professor of Hebrew Literature and Philosophy in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations of Harvard University. He has written many books and this book is his most famous one. Now in its 3rd edition, he has added in a new chapter that focuses on why Jews and Christians separated in "parting of the ways." Beginning with a gripping chronology of the events surrounding preexilic Israel (587 BCE) to events after the end of Second Temple Judaism (70 CE - 200 CE), we find rich background behind the rise of Jewish sects such as the Pharisees, the Sadducees, Essenes, Qumran, Jesus Movement, Sicarii, Zealots, with plenty of background of the Maccabean revolts and political instability in the region. By the "Second Temple period," Cohen focuses on the latter part from the rise of the Maccabees to the destruction of the temple (160 BCE to 70 CE). They call it "Second Temple" to distinguish it from the first. This second temple was built upon the Israelites' return from exile in 516 BCE. There were two destructions too, the first in 446 BCE by the Babylonians and the second in 70 BCE by the Romans. The coverage is broad. On the Jews and Gentiles, Cohen notes that the social tensions arising from anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism, and also on inter-marriages. There are also tensions regarding Hellenization and assimilation into Jewish culture. Part of the problem is that certain quarters in Christianity has unwittingly contributed to anti-Semitic moods. Thankfully, Cohen recognizes that there are good relations too, such as philo-Judaism where there are those who admire and revere Judaism as well, that some performed Jewish rituals to enter Judaism community.

Cohen makes a distinction between Christianity and Judaism by saying that while the former is a "creedal" religion, the latter is based on "practices, not theology." He touches on five distinctive practices that shape the Judaism faith: 1) worship of God through sacrifice, prayer, Scriptures; 2) ritual observances; 3) ethics; 4) legalism; 5) women's Judaism. The fifth aspect is rather "elusive" as not everyone agrees. It is a way in which women can practice Judaism without having a patriachal or masculine expectations projected upon them. In those days, Judaism is more practiced than theologized.

The Jews did not have the privilege of independence for the most part during that time. The name of their country was changed according to who ruled them then. Under the Persians, they were called "Yehud." In Roman times, they were called "Judaea" and eventually "Palaestina." The Temple is the most symbolic religious institution that not only unified the whole Jewish community, it is the power base of a ruling class. That is why the priesthood was authoritative. Other community places include the synagogues, the guilds, schools, sects, and private gatherings in homes. Most of the people were rather poor and powerless.

The chapter on sects is particularly interesting as Cohen traces the background of the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essenes, and other sectarian groups like the Fourth philosophy, Sicarii, Zealots, Samaritans, Therapeutae, and the Christians. Other than the high priesthood, most of the sects are rather egalitarian where religious practices are emphasized over spiritual positioning. It is at the sectarian level that Cohen describes "democratization of religion" where additional ways of serving God are provided for those who did not have the time, the means, or the opportunity to enter the priesthood. Sects enabled them to carry on their normal activities and cultivate their spiritual piety.

Canonization is also big in the agenda of the Jewish community. Cohen discusses the canonization process not only of the Christians (Old Testament), but also the Jews (Tanakh), the Apocrypha, the Prophets, Jewish Antiquities, and raises the question of what "biblical canon" is. Again, Cohen concludes that its understanding is "elusive." The implications however are not, because the canonization of scriptures had led to a depth of study, and given authority and power to those who knew them. This spawned other issues like interpretation, translation, commentary, and other works of literature.

Out of the ashes of the destruction of the second temple rose Rabbinic Judaism. The first Rabbinic book is the Mishnah which is a set of teachings written in Hebrew and edited around 200 CE. It comprises six "orders" full of legal material. Within this 350 years from the Maccabean to Mishnah period, we have Judaism slowly becoming a "book religion." As time goes by, more scriptural regulations, laws, and instructions are added. There are different viewpoints with regards to why the Christians and Jews part ways. Cohen believes that the parting of ways happened in the early second century CE when Christians and Jews avoided becoming too closely associated with each other because of potentially losing their sense of identity. Christians insisted they are right, Jews ignore Christian truth claims, and as a result, both cannot agree to continue together.

Very few books are able to cover the 350 years of transitioning from Old Testament to New Testament times to explain the background about how the Jews, the Gentiles, and the Christians came from. This book manages to dig deep into the history of this period, showing us the resilience of the Jewish people and the way the religious, social, and political structures of the day helped form the religions of Christianity and Judaism. One can understand the evolution of Judaism from Second Temple period to the present day Judaism. With the contexts explained, it brings to life whenever Jewish practices, rituals, sects, and various social groups are mentioned in the Bible. The author despite his Jewish upbringing manages to do a respectable and fair presentation of the various cultural and religious groupings. For obvious reasons, he dedicates a bit more material to Jewish concerns, without diluting the relevance they have for Christians. I learn a lot too, one of them being the details of the Maccabean rebellion that lasted about 90 years, which then came to a climactic end in 70 CE.

Anyone wanting to study the inter-testament periods, the Hellenistic influences, and especially how and why the Christians and Jews part ways will find this book an important resource. For seminary students, this will fit in well with the historical studies and progression of theological thought and culture. For the rest of us, Bible studies would be enriched with a better understanding of the contexts behind the writing of the Bible books.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Westminster John Knox Press and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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