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Archive for January 21st, 2015

From the Maccabees to the Mishnah

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

This book covers the history of the Second Temple period that began with the rise of the Maccabees around 160 BC to the destruction of the Temple in 70 and a bit beyond.  As the author noted in the beginning of the book this was a time of a diverse group of sects, groups and social/cultural dynamic within Judaism and interaction with those on the outside such as Hellenistic and Roman culture.  The author himself is not a Christian but a Jew though this book is published by the publishing arm of a mainline Protestant denomination (specifically the PCUSA); his perspective at times goes against what evangelical Christians would believe but it also goes against the very denomination of the publishers such as the authors preface protesting the PCUSA’s stance against Israel.  Yet this book has managed to be in print for decades and it is on its third edition.  In reading this book there were some great takeaways while there were also some parts of the book that raised some concerns.

Good:

  • The book convincingly made the argument that the Jews tend to pursue the political stance of accommodation with Gentile rulers rather than rebellion with only four exceptional instances.
  • The author had a good discussion about the term Hellenistic Judaism because it is not as if there is a Judaism that was non-Hellenistic versus that which was Hellenistic during the Post-Persian period; rather the Hellenism of the Judaism of those period was one of degrees; Cohen sees the term better used as a chronological indicator of the religion after Alexander the Great.
  • Cohen shares with the reader that conversion to Judaism entail three elements: monotheism, circumcision and integration into the Jewish community.  He also note the distinction that a “Judaized” Gentile might not necessarily adopt all of the theology of Judaism since practice is more determinative than theology for most Jews during this era.
  • The discussion on the synagogue is excellent.  Second Temple Judaism supplemented the temple with the synagogue and the priest with scribes who were learned teachers.
  • The discussion about sects was also very insightful.  Cohen define sect as a small group which separate itself from the majority and sees itself as the sole group that understand God’s will.  Sectarian grounds in Judaism often clash on three points: the law, temple and interpretation of God’s Word.  He also caution that sectarianism is not the same thing as mere diversity.
  • This books gives a good introduction to the Talmud and other Jewish religious writing such as commentaries and paraphrase.
  • The end of the book had a helpful “Further reading” section in which the author introduces to the reader scholarly editions of primary sources and also important secondary sources.  These are helpful pointers for further study!

Problems:

  • There is an interesting secular/sacred, faith/fact divide that the author assumes that colors his perspective.  For instance on location 261 the author does not think history can answer the question of whether or not Christianity is the fulfillment of the Old Testament.  Why not? If Christianity is a religion with historical claims and the Old Testament also makes future historical claims the authors claim is problematic.
  • In location 3509 Cohen claims divine origin isn’t necessary for biblical status which to me is hard to prove.
  • The author takes a liberal dating of the bible that reflect the perspective of the historical critical perspective.  For instance in location 1804 Cohen assumes Ecclesiastes was a product of the Hellenistic period rather than Solomonic in origins.  Cohen also assume the existence of more than one Isaiah.  Moments like these in the book took away from the books strength.
  • The chapter on the Canon is the most disagreeable chaper of the book for me.  I suppose if there is any value in it, it is a concise summary of a liberal perspective on the Canon.

Conclusion

I do recommend this book but also caution it be read with Christian discernment and maturity.

NOTE: This book was provided to me free by Westminster John Knox Press and Net Galley without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Purchase: Amazon

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