An exploration of an underrated era and its effect on religious history.
“The two or three centuries before Jesus’s time witnessed an extraordinary cultural and religious revolution,” writes Jenkins (History/Institute for Studies of Religion, Baylor Univ.; The Many Faces of Christ: The Thousand-Year Story of the Survival and Influence of the Lost Gospels, 2015, etc.), “but that transformation is still barely acknowledged in historical writing, still less in popular perceptions.” The author dubs this time period the “Crucible era” and valiantly attempts to undo that lack of academic and popular acknowledgement. Without this important era in Jewish and Hellenic history, argues Jenkins, the Abrahamic religions as we know them today would not exist, and all of history for the past two millennia would have been vastly different. The two to three centuries before the birth of Jesus were drastically violent and unsettled for the people of Palestine and nearby areas, as Greek influences overwhelmed the region, meeting with local resistance and, eventually, subsiding due to Roman expansion. However, historical writings about this era have either been relegated to the Apocrypha or were in many cases lost for centuries, making for scant awareness of this era’s importance. Jenkins provides necessary historical context before examining both the political/military and the literary/scriptural legacies of the times. He recounts the power of the Greek Empire over the Jewish people and the subsequent rise in resentment at corrupt puppet leaders such as Jason, high priest from 175 to 172 B.C.E., who rose to power through pure corruption. Alongside histories of the crucible era’s politics, Jenkins discusses the literary monuments they spawned. Chief among these were 1 Enoch, a fascinating work, which, Jenkins suggests, invented the concept of a burning hell as we know it; and the better known book of Daniel, the archetype of apocalyptic literature.
A well-written, intriguing account of the centuries that set the stage for modern Judaism, the Christianity taught by Paul, and, eventually, Islam as an heir to both.