An Introduction To First Century Judaism: Jewish Religion And History In The Second Temple Period, by Lester L. Grabbe
Those looking to this book for insights on Jewish religion and history in the second temple period will be hindered by the fact that the author has few insights to provide. Given the author’s intensely skeptical attitude about biblical inspiration and the worth of Josephus as a source, the author finds that he can make few comments about the period except for general trends. This is a book that shows the way in which revisionist history has tended to saw off the branch that would connect it to the tree of knowledge, relishing in skepticism about the perspectives of biblical authors or ancient historians but having no alternative to sources that the author does not respect or trust. One cannot write anything substantive about the history of Jewish religion without having some confidence in the materials that discuss that period. Given that the author evidently wishes to be viewed as an knowledgeable expert on the subject but possesses little faith in the worth of sources like the Talmud or Gospels, this book comes off rather hypocritical and not particularly worthwhile in nature.
This book is about 150 pages long or so and is divided into six chapters. The author begins with a preface and an outline of major events to set the context for his observations. After that the author gives an introduction, including background and sources for the period from the exile and Persian rule to the Jewish revolts of 67 and 132 and their consequences, as well as sources ranging from Josephus to Philo to the Apocrypha and Pseudographica to the Dead Sea Scrolls (1). After that the author looks at the textual Judaism of the priestly and scribal context that appears in the Talmud and its writing about the wise, as well as the record of the New Testament and Josephus (2). This leads into a discussion of the political and messianic current of second temple Judaism (3) as well as a look at the eschatological approach of apocalyptic thinking during the period (4), including messianic expectations and the calculation of the end times. After that the author gives a look at the gnostic current and expresses the belief that whatever anti-Jewish approach it seemed to take appears to have originated from a place close to Judaism that would not have developed during the post-temple period, although the author appears to lack insight into figures like Simon Magus (5). After this the author concludes and gives an index of modern authors and citations.
Given the limited worth of the author’s perspective and the obvious shortcomings of his approach by which he views biblical texts as pseudographical and therefore cannot figure a meaningful difference between phony gnostic texts and inspired scripture, this book is not worth recommending to anyone who is genuinely curious about this period. Those who do not possess sound reasoning cannot provide insight to readers except on what approaches are to be avoided when writing about ancient history or sacred texts. Even so, the author’s discussion of various broad currents within a diverse and complex tradition is at least well worth noting. If the author’s sounding of these currents is not trustworthy or insightful, at least the author is aware of the general shape of second temple Judaism, although the lack of faith in the validity and worth of sources negatively affects the worth of the author’s own historical observations. Given that the apostles and even Josephus and the Pharisees were far more insightful about what was going on in their period than the author is, we would do better to read them and reflect upon their insight rather than look at the thoughts of a willfully blind guide such as this author.