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Origins and Ruptures

by Sarah Ruden

Crucible of Faith: The Ancient Revolution That Made Our Modern Religious World, by Philip Jenkins (Basic, 336 pp., $30)

Philip Jenkins has given us, in this book, a brilliant new account of Judaism’s mostly temporary but still highly influential transformations during two centuries, from 250 to 50 b.c.e. Among modern scholars, the literary works he draws on have usually passed for mere extracanonical curiosities, but they have such coherent themes, and ones so familiar to Christians and Muslims, that they seem to demand a rethinking of the Western religious heritage. In particular, to speak of thoroughgoing discontinuity between “traditional” ancient Judaism and “radical” early Christianity no longer makes sense — though I will need to come back, later, to the shuddering deal-breakers for ancient Jews that Jenkins downplays.

During the centuries after Alexander the Great’s death (323 b.c.e.), control of Jewish territory passed between the Ptolemaic dynasty based in Egypt and the Seleucids based in Mesopotamia: The Jews endured the misfortune of having their religious and political center between the two most ambitious and aggressive houses of Alexander’s successors. The Maccabean rebellion in the mid second century b.c.e. famously threw off the foreign yoke, but the resulting independent Jewish dynasty failed, amid violent misrule, after about a hundred years, and its successor, Herod the Great, was a client king of the Romans. Despite direct imperial control of greater Judea, including military occupation, from the early first century c.e., Rome didn’t work her usual stabilizing magic here, and the Temple was destroyed and the Jewish nation extirpated in 70 c.e.

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