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Crucible of Faith by Philip Jenkins

13 April 2018

Mark Vernon considers the religious importance of the Hellenistic Age

THIS book plugs a gap that, I suspect, exists in many Christians’ knowledge of their faith. It certainly existed in mine. It is the extent of the influence that the centuries immediately before the birth of Jesus had upon shaping the Judaism into which he was born. It was, Jenkins contends, not only substantial, but formative.

The period is known as the Hellenistic Age. It is the era that followed the extraordinary conquests of Alexander the Great. Around 331 BCE, he walked into Jerusalem and brought Greek ways to Jewish lives which transformed the practice of their faith. It is this transformation that is overlooked today because it falls, roughly, within the intertestamental period. There are few explicit biblical references to it; so Christians can grow up largely ignorant of it.

It matters because much of what is taken for granted in the New Testament are Hellenistic innovations. There’s the institution of the synagogue that revolutionised Jewish life. Developed in Egypt in the third century BCE, synagogues put a distinctly Greek inflection on daily practice, emphasising the importance of learning and reading texts, as opposed to the practices of ritual and sacrifice associated with the Temple.

Other innovations include Greek versions of the Old Testament, such as the Septuagint, which were quoted by the Gospel-writers and St Paul, and the assumption that Greek was the language in which to discuss divine matters, as Paul and other Jews like Philo, simply assumed.

In his book, Jenkins particularly focuses on the birth of apocalypticism. He devotes whole chapters to scriptures such as 1 Enoch, unpacking their distinctive features like their sophisticated angelology and charting of the end times. Alongside the textual study, Jenkins weaves an account of the history of the Jewish people over the centuries from the conquests of Alexander to the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. It is bloody. Not only did invading Greeks and then Romans bring much suffering, but the internecine struggles among different Jewish factions caused extensive loss of life, too.

Awareness of the period may change many common perceptions. For example, Christians today can debate whether Jesus was more Jewish than Greek. Jenkins’s book makes it clear that the two were thoroughly intertwined by the time Jesus was born.

Alternatively, the book is essential reading for those interested in the work of Margaret Barker, who argues that the followers of Jesus sought to re-establish a religiosity associated with the First Temple period, although Jenkins doesn’t discuss Barker’s research directly. The first Christians were not recovering traditions that were centuries old. They were developing traditions that were relatively young and contemporary to them.

Dr Mark Vernon is a psychotherapist and writer. His latest book is The Idler Guide to Ancient Philosophy (Idler Books, 2016).


Crucible of Faith: The ancient revolution that made our modern religious world
Philip Jenkins
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