Any idea how much Christianity, Judaism and Islam owe to the huge social and religious changes that happened during two revolutionary centuries between 250 and 50 B.C.?
Yeah, me neither. But I just read a fascinating book about it.
Philip Jenkins rivals Karen Armstrong as a writer who can take on some of the most complex topics of religious history and make them accessible without dumbing them down.
Adding to his line of smart, informative books is the new “Crucible of Faith: The Ancient Revolution That Made Our Modern Religious World.” I interviewed the Baylor University historian about the new book. His answers are edited for length and clarity.
You say there’s a reason for the enormous difference between the Old Testament and the New, and it’s based in what was going on during the several hundred years between them.
We assume that the New Testament grows organically out of the old, but many of the ideas and themes in the New Testament, if they’re in the Old Testament at all, they’re there in a very vestigial, partial form in the later books.
The Bible begins with the Garden of Eden, and Adam and Eve. What people don’t notice is that the concept of the fall then disappears entirely from the Old Testament, only to reappear with Paul. These ideas only really emerge after the “closure” of the Old Testament, after what sometimes looks like a mysterious 400-year break.
In particular, there’s a 200-year period between about 250 and 50 B.C., which most people see as a kind of a black hole. But there is so much happening. It’s like an Axial Age, a revolution of thought. If you pick up a book from this era, like the Book of Enoch, you’ll see a lot of things that are going to be familiar to us now, but what we don’t realize is that those themes are there for the absolutely first time.
What are some of those themes?
Enoch’s an interesting example. You have heaven, you have hell, you have judgment, you have angels coming down to earth. You have a figure like Satan, though he’s not actually called Satan. You have very messianic passages, and the idea of a Messiah is suddenly very well-developed.
What’s surprising is not that these themes are there, but that they seem to appear all together at one time. My argument is that this period sees an absolute transformation of religious language. Virtually all of our religious vocabulary comes from this era, especially because of the Greek influence.
You also have these images of light and darkness, of cosmic warfare, and other familiar characters from the cast, like Adam and Eve. Adam goes from basically nothing in the Old Testament to suddenly being this enormously significant character in this era.
Why do these appear in this particular period?
I think there are a couple of reasons. When people have looked at this in the past, they often assume it’s because of foreign influence, especially Persian ideas. There’s a little bit of that, but we actually know a lot less about Persian religion at that time than we once thought we did.
Mainly, I think it’s pursuing a dynamic within Judaism. It’s growing from monotheism, which is a wonderful idea but does cause some problems, such as how you are going to explain evil? It’s often hard to talk about access to one absolute transcendent god, so one tends to imagine intermediate beings. Putting those two ideas together, you get the idea of angels, and especially fallen angels. The cast of characters proliferates as you go along.
The other thing is that this is an astonishingly violent period (250-50 B.C.) in Jewish history. So much of this violence happens in a sacred context, and they framed it as cosmic warfare, as a struggle between light and darkness, good and evil. The genre of apocalyptic comes into being: Things are so bad that God will intervene with fire. And that then leads to a particular focus on ideas of last judgment, of heaven and hell.
You also note that the idea of individual resurrection emerges about this time.
If you look in the Old Testament, you’ll find some quotes that seem to talk about resurrection, but it’s not in anything like a modern Christian sense. It’s a collective one, that the people of Israel will all rise again. What happens in my period, the crucible period, is that people have a moral dilemma. They see these noble people fighting against tyrants and being killed without mercy, so they talk more about these people being individually resurrected.
Why did you want to write about this period?
My last book was called “The Many Faces of Christ,” which looked at the idea of lost gospels. A lot of them weren’t really lost, and actually had a big influence on the churches. Jubilees and Enoch are still to this day canonical in the Ethiopian church, which has 40 million members. So it begs the question: lost by whom?
During that research I came across this large body of literature, the Old Testament “pseudepigrapha,” which are things written in the name of a person but are not by that particular person, like Enoch. These books were just pouring out between about 200 B.C. and 100 A.D. They’re so influential. Jesus and the New Testament writers certainly knew a great deal of them (see Jude 9 and 14–15), and yet those books are mostly unknown today except to a few nonspecialists.
What are you hoping readers will take away?
I would like to get people thinking about the great diversity of Judaism at this time. I always get frustrated when people talk about different kinds of early Christianity being Jewish or not Jewish. They’re all Jewish, but some of them don’t mesh so well with later concepts of Judaism. The Gospel of John, which people see as being very gentile or Hellenistic, is actually very much in line with the sectarian Jewish thinking of the time.
I’d also like people to think about what could have happened, but didn’t. If you imagine a crucible as a melting pot, out of that melting pot different things will come. We know three that did, but not much about the road not taken, like the dualist religions. The Manicheans, for example, are just as much heirs to that world as were Christians and Jews. Manicheanism struggled in China until the 17th century and is the only example of an extinct world religion.
You’re amazingly prolific as a historian and writer. What’s your next project?
I’m doing a couple of different projects, and it’s just a question of where attention goes next. One is more contemporary, about demography, fertility and faith. Fertility rates correspond very closely to religious loyalty and when fertility rates fall, it doesn’t necessarily lead to declines in religious faith, but it does correlate with more institutional defection.
The other is a focus on a particular period in early Christianity. I wanted to take a particular moment, roughly the year 200, and try to do a snapshot of Christianity at that moment in terms of who’s around, who’s writing, what the ideas and trends are. That’s developing quite nicely right now.
(Jana Riess writes the “Flunking Sainthood” column for RNS. RNS columns reflect the views of the author)