The so-called “inter-testamental” period, that 400-year period between completion of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New Testament, is nothing but a black-box to the majority of evangelical Christians. As the story goes, Malachi, the last book of the Old Testament, was the last of the great Jewish prophets, before John the Baptist appears at the dawn of the New Testament period. Israel was without an inspired prophetic voice during this 400-year void.
The problem with this narrative is that it suggests that nothing of any substantive theological value was happening during that time. Nothing could be further from the truth.
It was during the era of Second-Temple Judaism, after the Temple was rebuilt following the Babylonian exile, when the subsequent invasions by the Greeks, the Seleucids, and the Romans, completely reshaped the world inhabited by the people of the Hebrew Scriptures. Respected Baylor historian, Philip Jenkins, has written a popular-level, sweeping history of the time, Crucible of Faith: The Ancient Revolution That Made Our Modern Religious World, that necessarily fills in the gap. Crucible of Faith makes for a fascinating read, but it can be unsettling at certain points. Jenkins’ work both strikingly illuminates the radical, Judeo-centric and often neglected developments of thought that created the theological culture that Jesus of Nazareth lived in, while inadvertently at times casting a shadow of doubt over the inner workings of progressive revelation in the Bible (if one is not careful).
Jenkins has written widely on topics related to Christian history, including a book that I highly recommend and that I read a few years ago, The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia–and How It Died. Lost History is a fascinating survey of the much ignored churches of the Christian East, extending from the Middle East to Africa and Asia, during the first millennium of Christianity, that once dominated the Christian world, only to be crushed underneath the rise of Islam, and other Christian-opposing elements in Asia.
Jenkins’ more recent book from 2017, on the era just prior to the birth of Jesus, Crucible of Faith, was one of the last books I finished reading in 2020, and it has left me thinking more and more about it. Aside from my review of Tom Holland’s Dominion, this is my most in-depth book review of the year, … and the most challenging to write.
What Happens When We Ignore the Inter-Testamental Period: A Personal Story
I would have remained mostly oblivious to the inter-testamental period, had I never developed friendly relationships with some Orthodox Jews. I have been given the privilege of having such good relationships, but I was always troubled in my mind with one question, particularly when I was younger: “If Jews know their Bibles, why do they not accept Jesus as their Messiah, and follow Jesus? …. I mean, is it not obvious?”
Martin Luther, the 16th century great founder of the Protestant movement, and otherwise, one of my theological heroes, was so troubled and frustrated by this question, that he pretty clearly lost his mind towards the end of his life, writing some of the worst anti-Jewish writings ever written by a Christian, over what he saw as the sheer obstinance of the Jews. Most Christians today would not go anywhere NEAR Luther did on this. But I must confess, having grown up in a Christian environment, that the question sticks in my mind quite heavily. It is not an easy question to answer.
The challenge of trying to work this all of this out was driven home to me a few years ago, following a conversation with one particular Jewish friend about the Fall of Adam. Christians take it for granted that the Bible teaches that there was a great Fall of humanity into sin, as taught in Genesis, that has permeated the whole of the human race, in such a way that requires Jesus to come into the world as the Incarnate Son and redeem us from that sin.
But my Orthodox Jewish friend gave me an education. The Old Testament rarely talks about Adam at all, except for what we find in the first few chapters of Genesis, and some later genealogy passages. The story of Adam’s disobedience is just one story among many, that talks about the imperfection of humanity. The Old Testament never reminds the reader about a great Fall of humanity into sin. Contrary to common Christian thought, original sin is not something that Jews normally think about. Adam’s “Fall” does not have the cosmic significance that Christians simply take for granted as being an obvious fact, taught in the Bible. To the contrary, for many Jews, the doctrine of the Fall of Adam, and its consequence on humanity, is not taught in the Old Testament.
Wow. I did not know that.
I am not the first person to have a conversation like this, but it really caught me off-guard. Your average experience in a typical evangelical church does not prepare Christians for a conversation like this. Some might simply go off scratching their heads. Others might be tempted to get into a shouting match. Some might even throw up their hands in despair. But a little more additional knowledge, more that what you get delivered from most evangelical pulpits today, can go a long way.
It was not until this Crucible of Faith period in Jewish history, as told in Philip Jenkins’ book, that the idea of a great Fall of Adam took off, yet Jewish thinking about it was split and diverse. Furthermore, this idea, coupled with the doctrine of original sin, was not always described consistently throughout the New Testament. For example, as Jenkins tells us, none of the four Gospels discuss the Fall of Adam, nor do they bring out the concept of original sin (but that by itself does not prove that the Fall of Adam never happened, or is somehow less important!).
It is really the Apostle Paul who gave us as Christians the idea of a great Fall of Adam into sin, that serves as the basis for the doctrine of original sin. Other Jewish traditions, such as what would later become rabbinical Judaism, in the post-Second Temple period (after 70 A.D.), took the Fall of Adam in different, often conflicting directions. Contrary to Paul, one particular strand of Jewish thought teaches that humans ended up being disobedient to God because humans were never perfect to begin with. Another strand of Jewish thought suggests that despite Adam’s disobedience, it is still possible for someone to live a completely blameless and righteous life. Furthermore, another strand of Jewish thought says that Adam’s act of disobedience was not even sin! The interpretive diversity can seem almost endless.
For Paul, on the other hand, sin was at the root of Adam’s disobedience, and that sin does not result from imperfection, but rather, all human sin results as a consequence of Adam’s sin specifically. Furthermore, the devastating effects of that Fall can only be overcome by a brand new “Adam,” through the sacrificial obedience of Jesus Christ, the “Second Adam.”
But Paul did not come up with the original sin concept by himself alone. Rather, historically orthodox Christians believe that the Apostle Paul was inspired by God to write what he wrote in the New Testament. So, whatever Paul teaches on the topic of original sin, we need to accept as Christians, who submit to the authority of Scripture.
When we look at Jewish beliefs, in the centuries leading up to the time of the Apostle Paul, we learn that the original sin concept was percolating in the world of Second-Temple Judaism, and so Paul ran with it, and it is preserved in the inspired text of the New Testament. The Jewish apocryphal text, Life of Adam and Eve, which was contemporary to the Apostle Paul, and 2 Edras (otherwise known as 4 Ezra), written within just a few generations after Paul’s death, resonated with those very same ideas that Paul had.
The Fall of Adam was but one of many competing theological ideas being floated around in the earthly days of Jesus and Paul. However, not every Jew followed Paul, which explains why the tradition associated with rabbinical Judaism, which aligns well with contemporary Orthodox Judaism, rarely talks about the Fall of Adam.
Historically orthodox Christianity contends that it was through the voice of Paul’s writings that clarity and resolution of the theological discussions, among his Jewish contemporaries, was ultimately achieved. Nevertheless, Christians still vigorously discuss some of the more technical aspects of the Fall of Adam, and the doctrine of original sin that follows from it, as the precise definition of what “original sin” means is still up for debate today. For me, I have found it helpful to think through how the Apostle Paul got locked into those ideas that he himself adopted, as those originally Jewish doctrines developed historically during the Second-Temple period, as a means of having a more solid understanding of these doctrines. As a Christian, I would see this as all a part of the Holy Spirit’s leading, to unveil the Gospel, over the centuries of incubation within the Jewish covenantal community.
If I had the opportunity to go back and re-do that conversation again, I would try to highlight those connections with my Jewish friend. But until I had this conversation, the world of Second-Temple Judaism, particularly during this so-called “inter-testamental” period, was pretty much a blackbox to me.
Peering Into the Blackbox of Judeo-Christian History that Most of Us Know Nothing About
Many evangelical Christians simply assume that the Old Testament, or Hebrew Scriptures (according to the Jews), forms a direct line of continuity with the New Testament. But a careful examination of the Bible reveals a more complicated and nuanced story. The following might stun many Christians: The problem is that in the Old Testament, standing all by itself….(and that is important!)…., there is mention of neither heaven nor hell as eternal destinies, no explicit theology of Satan as a fallen angel, no substantial thought of demons, no cohesive apocalyptic expectation of the End Times, and surprisingly all the more, no definitive understanding of the coming of the one true Messiah. All of these ideas and teachings arose in the centuries that followed the completion of much of the Old Testament, prior to the coming of Jesus.
Now, it is important to clarify what is meant by this: While these themes were developed years after the completion of much of the Old Testament, there are still strong hints of these themes already in the Old Testament. It is just that these themes are more implicit, rather than explicit, in the Old Testament….. More on this later…. So please stick around to the end this blog post!
Putting it a different way, many of the core teachings of the Christian faith remain ambiguous, when searching through the Protestant Old Testament by itself. Furthermore, much of the New Testament makes little sense, without at least some knowledge of the Jewish literature written after the completion of much of the Old Testament, during this inter-testamental period.
As a result, when Christians read their Bibles, there is a tendency to read such New Testament ideas back into the Old Testament, in an attempt to fill in the missing pieces, and resolve the ambiguities. While such an effort is understandable, this often leads to an unfortunate habit of thinking that misses much of the original context in which the original Hebrew Scriptures were written.
For example, we turn references to Sheol in the Psalms into visions of Hell, even though the Old Testament Sheol makes no explicit distinction between the destiny of the wicked and righteous. In the Book of Job, we remake “the Accuser” into the New Testament person of Satan, despite the fact that there is nothing particularly demonic about Job’s Accuser. We enthusiastically read a number of references to “the Messiah” into the Old Testament, and we do so in some cases that are not so patently obvious. During the season of Advent, we generally assume that Isaiah 7:14 was always about predicting the coming of Jesus through a virgin birth, thus ignoring what that prophecy might have meant in Isaiah’s day. The list goes on.
This may startle some Christians, unsettling them, just as it did me when I first started to think about it. But once you start putting all of the pieces together, it starts to make better sense.
We can begin this way: There is some precedent set that enables earnest Christian believers to retrieve supposedly clear ideas out of the Old Testament that were not originally so clear. The New Testament writers themselves saw an additional layer of prophetic meaning, that at the very least, was not readily apparent to the original Old Testament authors.
Some refer to this interpretive technique as providing examples of typology, modeled after Paul’s use of describing Adam as a type of the Christ who was to come, in Romans 5:12-14. Roman Catholic 20th century scholar Raymond Brown framed it slightly different, even more broadly, referring to this deeper understanding of Scripture as sensus plenior, or the fuller sense of the text. The great Oxford apologist, C.S. Lewis, called this the “Second Meaning” of passages found in the Old Testament.
The New Testament writers took prophecy predictions, such as those we read in the writings of the prophet Isaiah, that were fulfilled during the prophet’s living time period, and re-employed them as famous Christmas prophecies, predicting the coming of Jesus, born of the Virgin Mary. They took the curse against Eve, in the Book of Genesis, with its battle between the head of the Serpent and the heel of Eve’s offspring, as prophetic insight into the announcement of the Gospel, through Jesus.
The concept of a “messiah,” or “anointed one,” was originally a broader concept, as when it was applied to Cyrus in Isaiah 45:1. Cyrus was anything but Jewish, but he was still considered to be a “messiah.” David refers to his kingly and deeply flawed predecessor, Saul, as the Lord’s “messiah,” in 2 Samuel 1:16. Eventually, the idea of “messiah” was narrowed down to the concept of Israel’s one, true savior, as fulfilled in the New Testament’s presentation of Jesus as that very Savior, the sinless one who would conquer both sin and death.
But a distinction needs to be drawn here, between how contemporary Christians often read the Old Testament, and how the New Testament writers read it. We as Christians in the 21st century are not the same as members of the apostolic circle that wrote the New Testament. We today are not inspired by God, whereas they as New Testament Scriptural writers were. Entrusted with an authoritative apostolic authority, that today’s Christians do not possess, God used those early church witnesses to the Resurrected Jesus through the teaching ministry of the Holy Spirit.
Nevertheless, a nagging question does crop up. It might appear then, to an astute critic, to ask: What prevents us from saying that the New Testament writers themselves were simply making things up, as they went along, and reading things into their writings? What makes the New Testament writers any different from people today, who misuse the Bible, to try to make it mean whatever they want it to mean?
Anyone familiar with the history of the Protestant Enlightenment knows that suspicion about the validity of Bible prophecy was a central argument that led to modern secularism and skepticism about the Bible’s authority. For example, in 1724, English philosopher Anthony Collins , who was a close friend of fellow philosopher, John Locke, shocked church-going Christians when he published his The Scheme of Literal Prophecy Considered. Collins essentially argued that the Protestant hermeneutic of the “literal interpretation of Scripture” makes it impossible to believe that the messianic prooftexts of the Old Testament find their fulfillment in the New Testament.
Having a Protestant background, Anthony Collins had been raised to view the church traditions associated with Roman Catholicism with grave suspicion, which tended to elevate certain spiritual interpretations of the Bible above the literal interpretation of the Bible. But when Collins examined the New Testament, he concluded that the New Testament itself was employing rather speculative spiritual interpretations, into reading the Old Testament, in order to somehow prove that the Old Testament was predicting the coming of Jesus as the Messiah.
Defenders of historically orthodox Christianity were quick to address Collins’ skepticism. Most notably, within 20 years after Collins’ book was published, the oratorio work of the great English composer, George F. Handel, The Messiah, debuted its first performance, with its Scripture filled libretto blasting away at Collins’ doubts over biblical prophecy (If you have the time, you might want to admire Handel’s melodic rendering of Isaiah 9:6 — Is this about the coming of Jesus, as a spiritual fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, or as many Orthodox Jews believe today, is this about the coming of King Hezekiah, centuries before Jesus, a more literal fulfillment…. or somehow both?)
Still, evangelical scholars for the past 300 years have continued to answer the skepticism of Collins, and his subsequent followers, as new generations of critics have taken up Collins’ skepticism. However, the average Bible-carrying Christian today, working as a busy stay-at-home mom, or a blue-collar worker, pulling in 60-hour work weeks, typically receives little to no training in how to effectively answer such criticism.
In my own case, I spent ten years pursuing a theological degree, part-time, and I only remember taking one class that even mentioned the subject, and that was only in passing! Reading things into the Bible, otherwise known as eisegesis, is a bad habit, and unreliable. So, how do we responsibly interpret the Old Testament then? This is where Jenkins’ Crucible of Faith provides the greatest of help. Crucible of Faith seeks to make the connection between the Old and New Testament worlds, by revealing the continuity between the two, made possible by the theological developments between 250 and 50 B.C.E.
In other words, what the New Testament writers were doing was built completely on the shoulders of what several centuries of Jews were already doing. The New Testament writers were not making stuff up. At least, if a critic insists on making such a charge, then to be consistent, the critic would also need to levy that charge against Judaism, as a whole, as well.
Jenkins’ use of “crucible” to describe this period is deliberate, emphasizing that the mixture of ideas among Jews over these years, invokes the image of chemistry, boiling the merely speculative away and leaving that which would ultimately survive. Furthermore, the evidence presented in Crucible of Faith indicates that the New Testament writers were not simply cutting and pasting elements of pagan and/or Greek thought into the sacred text.
Instead, the New Testament is thoroughly rooted in the thought world of Second-Temple Judaism. The thesis that Philip Jenkins offers in Crucible of Faith, will be shocking to many evangelicals, but he makes a strong case for it: It was this “Crucible of Faith” era, between 250 and 50 C.E., that created the New Testament as we know it, more than the Old Testament all by itself.
The material that folks ranging from Paul to Peter had to work with was embedded in the Jewish thought life of the first century, as it had been formed over the previous several centuries, through the culture of Judaism. It was through writings like the Book of Enoch that gave us a developing messianic theology, whereby ideas latent in Old Testament books, like Daniel, were given greater depth and life through expanded ideas about the Son of Man. Enoch also gave us “the first draft of hell” (Jenkins, p. 75). It was the Maccabean period that took an older concept, like the “Day of the Lord,” and gave it its dramatic, apocalyptic “End Times” gravity, with God’s judgment finally setting things aright.
The Forgotten (and Bloody) Conflict Among Second Temple Jews
Essentially, the world of Second Temple Judaism, specifically analyzed by Jenkins in this “crucible of faith” period, was a hot mess of developing, competing theological ideas. If there is any doubt about this, all you have to do is consider the different factions of Jews that quarreled with one another, during the period of Jesus’ earthly ministry, in the first century. Competing Jewish groups in Jesus’ day were wrestling with different ways of interpreting the “Hebrew Scriptures”, what Christians refer to as the “Old Testament,” that led to intractable divergences in theology.
The Pharisees believed in the resurrection, while the Sadducees rejected it. The Sadducees promoted cooperation with the Romans, regarding the practices of Temple life, whereas the Essenes believed the Sadducees to be heretics and traitors. Non-Samaritans detested the Samaritans for their erroneous belief that the site of the Temple should be on Mount Gerizim, instead of in Jerusalem. Pharisees disagreed among themselves. The list of controversies could (and did!) go on and on.
Furthermore, such debates were not merely theological, they were political as well, and at times, as Jenkins tells us, such disputes could become horrifyingly deadly. Nearly 100 years before the birth of Jesus, Jewish leaders aligned with the Sadducees destroyed the Samaritan temple on Mount Gerazim, enslaving the Samaritan inhabitants. Within a generation after that, that same Sadducee aligned dynasty defeated the Pharisees in a civil war, which resulted in some 800 Pharisee leaders being crucified at a victory party. The dying Pharisee leaders were forced to watch their wives and children below them having their throats cut, as they helplessly hung on their crosses.
The situation improved over the following decades, as Sadducees and Pharisees eventually learned how to live with their fiery disagreements side-by-side without killing one another in mass slaughters. But it should be evident now that these intra-Jewish conflicts were far from being merely differences of theological opinion. They were downright bloody.
I do not remember such tales of intra-Jewish violence, in the centuries running up to the birth of Jesus, being told in any Bible class in any evangelical church that I have attended. Thankfully, it was through the coming of Jesus and the experience of the early church, that followed this “crucible of faith” era, that gives us the resolution to these intra-Jewish controversies, as we read in the New Testament.
One important observation deserves a special highlight: Threats that Jews faced from outsiders, as well as from competing groups of fellow Jews, during this terribly violent period of history, helps to explain how the literary genre of apocalyptic developed, during the “crucible of faith” period, and continued on into the New Testament era. Such apocalyptic literature writings present themselves as predictive prophecy of future events, but such writings are also heavily laced with symbolic imagery, designed to critique contemporary events, relevant to the time period of the books’ authors. Mysteries of interpretation continue to baffle scholars, in trying to figure out the predictive elements of such writings, versus the hidden critiques of relevant contemporary events. For Christians, the best example of this can be found in the very last book of the Bible, Revelation. The original title from the Greek, “The Apocalypse of John,” is a giveaway to this particular genre classification (The Bible Project has a good video explaining how to read apocalyptic literature in the Bible).
Sadly, more than other Christians, many Protestant evangelicals miss out on a lot of this. Their separated brethren in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions are a lot closer in appreciating this “crucible of faith” period, as they retain a greater awareness of the theological developments found in the Deuterocanonical writings, otherwise known as the “Apocrypha.” What typical Protestant evangelical would think that the Books of Judith and Tobit would provide any benefit for the believer today? Not in my neck of the evangelical woods!! Most of my Protestant evangelical friends have neither heard of Judith nor Tobit.
This was not always the case in the Protestant movement. The original 1611 King James Version of the Bible had the Apocryphya (or Deuterocanonical) writings printed along with the Old and New Testaments. But nowadays, the Apocrypha is typically maligned as a “Catholic” thing, having little to no value for the Protestant evangelical. In an effort to more effectively contain what we believe to be the Word of God, we have hidden several hundreds of years of Jewish history, that remain absolutely crucial for a coherent understanding of the Christian New Testament!
Furthermore, Protestants evangelicals either remain blissfully unaware or embarrassed by references in the Book of Jude to pseudepigraphical works popular during Jenkins’ time period of analysis, including the Book of Enoch and the Assumption of Moses. Moreover, many Protestant evangelicals have no concept of what the Septuagint, or “LXX” (as it is typically abbreviated) is, though they have probably heard the term vaguely mentioned in a Sunday School class, or rarely still, in a sermon. They rarely know that the Septuagint was the Bible of the early church, until the New Testament came into being, decades after Jesus’ Resurrection. In short, the typical evangelical Protestant, narrow focus on the Old and New Testaments invites tendencies to misread our own Bibles. We need a better, more solid footing, in order to be able to adequately and responsibly defend and understand our faith. Philip Jenkins’ Crucible of Faith enriches the Bible reader to see the things of Jesus more broadly, within the context of Second Temple Judaism…. and that can help us.
Crucible of Faith is a Most Excellent and Necessary Book: But It May Trip You Up, If You are Not Careful
Nevertheless, Crucible of Faith may trouble the reader, in that it can raise certain doubts if one is not being careful with a watchful eye. Most of the time, Jenkins leads the reader along a fascinating journey into how God progressively revealed his purposes across the centuries, until the coming of Jesus. Yet in some other ways, Philip Jenkins introduces some confusion at points, and does not make the path of continuity between the Old and New Testaments clear enough.
Philip Jenkins is indeed a Christian, yet he makes generous use of “higher criticism” of the Bible to frame his arguments, in a manner that warrants a measure of skepticism. The ideas of a late 2nd century BCE date for the authorship of Daniel, and dividing the Book of Zechariah into two units, whereby the second half of Zechariah was not written by Zechariah himself, are stock features in liberal “higher criticism.” These ideas are still hotly debated within the biblical scholarship guild, with more conservative evangelical scholars typically opting for more traditional views. Jenkins is not overly dogmatic here; however, he unfortunately assumes such higher critical views to be fairly settled, without sufficiently exploring why more traditional, conservative views might still be valid.
He assumes, with very little discussion, that all of the New Testament Gospels were written after the destruction of Jerusalem, and the Jewish Temple, in 70 A.D., despite the fact that other scholars (included a few liberal ones!) have made compelling arguments that several of the Gospels were written prior to the destruction of the Jewish Temple. While such debates do not intrinsically undermine an evangelical view of Scripture, Jenkins’ rather uncritical use of “higher criticism” muddies the waters enough to potentially distract the reader from benefiting from the otherwise more helpful aspects of his thesis.
Jenkins also recycles other ideas that were once popular in critical scholarship, but are now wearing thin as more evidence becomes available. For example, Jenkins employs the old 19th century argument that the Old Testament originally assumes a posture of polytheism, that eventually evolves into a bold monotheism.
Semitic languages and Old Testament scholar Michael Heiser effectively falsifies that narrative, as explained in such books as Heiser’s Angels. Heiser instead argues that what appears to be unsophisticated references to polytheism are actually descriptions of God’s “divine council,” made up of spiritual beings that God himself created (see Psalm 148:1-5). When the Bible speaks of other “gods” in this “divine council,” such spiritual beings, which includes angels, cherubim, etc., are subservient to the one True God, Yahweh. In other words, at no time had there been any inherent polytheism at work anywhere in Israel’s theology, comparable to what was found among Israel’s neighbors. Neither does the Hebrew Scriptures indicate the presence of henotheism, a modern term that simplistically assumes that Yahweh is merely one superior god above all of the other gods, as it overlooks the distinction of only one Creator, among such divine beings, who alone is to be worshipped. Heiser leans heavily on new research into the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Book of Enoch to make his case, topics that ironically play a major role in Jenkins’ Crucible of Faith.
Another gripe can be found with some of the language Jenkins uses to frame his argument. While I appreciate his desire as an historian, to not allow certain faith commitments to interfere with the objectivity of his work, there is a lingering sense of spiritual detachment that seems unbecoming for a Christian historian (at least to me). For example, when describing the development of the theology of hell in the Book of Enoch, Jenkins remarks that “Hellfire, in fact, was now invented” in the Jewish tradition (p. 75).
Such use of language can, at times, give the reader the impression that these developing theological concepts, that made their way into the New Testament, were not really inspired by God. Rather, they were products of human imagination. So, even if the early Christians borrowed theological ideas from Second Temple Judaism, it is unfortunately too easy to think Jewish thinkers either stole such theological ideas from the Greeks or otherwise invented them, using their own earthly imagination. No God needed.
This may get Christianity off-the-hook for having invented a message of faith, completely out of thin air. But it does little to exonerate the Jewish thought world that led up to Christianity. Jenkins does not fall into using this type of language all of the time, thankfully. Yet he does it often enough, that it can become distracting.
So, while Jenkins does helpfully point to a bridge between the Old Testament and New Testament worlds, one can get the impression that such theological development was merely a human endeavor, during this Second Temple period, with no distinct, revelatory activity of God being involved in the process. Jenkins points to the bridge, but does not give readers enough theological help required to cross that bridge safely.
Why do certain theological ideas succeed, and become orthodox, and others get rejected? Philip Jenkins excels at describing how such theological developments got sorted out as an historian, yet he refrains from theologically answering adequately that ultimate question of why.
Ignorance of the “Times Between the Testaments” Makes it More Difficult to Answer Critics of the Christian Faith Who DO Know Their History
Lack of clarity regarding both the “how” and the “why” concerning the theological developments of Second Temple Judaism impacting our New Testament can have a detrimental impact on Christian apologetics, and our understanding of the inspiration of Scripture. This theological shortfall is exactly what leads to the type of thinking you find with someone like a Bart Ehrman, the well-known agnostic/atheist biblical scholar, who once claimed an evangelical faith as his own. For those unfamiliar with Bart Ehrman, he is probably one of the world’s most recognizable skeptics of Christianity, having authored multiple New York Times bestselling books, with a large and growing Internet following, particularly for former Christians.
Consider Ehrman’s 2020 Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife. Like Jenkins, Ehrman mines the world of Second-Temple Judaism to produce a narrative whereby Jews invented the concepts of resurrection, heaven and hell as a sophisticated means of relieving worldly anxiety. But whereas Jenkins accepts the metaphors of heaven and hell as theologically useful, Ehrman just rejects the whole metaphorical theological paradigm as merely wishful thinking, as entirely a series of human constructions, and therefore, ultimately untrue.
Alternatively, there are those, from a more Orthodox Jewish background, who take the theological development of the Second-Temple period differently, in order to argue that the New Testament completely distorts and corrupts the Old Testament. Instead of seeing a line of continuity, in the development of these theological ideas, within Judaism itself, certain Orthodox Jewish critics claim that the New Testament writers twisted and warped the ancient Hebrew writers of the Old Testament to manufacture newer ideas, like the prophecy fulfillment of the coming Messiah, as revealed in Jesus of Nazareth.
In other words, Christianity is yet just another Jewish sect gone heretical. For example, Orthodox Jewish apologist, Rabbi Tovia Singer, offers a typical example of this skeptical approach. For a Tovia Singer, the New Testament writers corrupted, or otherwise, misinterpreted the Hebrews Scriptures to make those ancient texts conform to Christian ideas, that existed merely in the minds of New Testament Christians. Evangelical Christians unfamiliar with the inter-testamental period can be easily baffled by such counter-arguments against the validity of New Testament prophecy fulfillment, and the continuity between the Old and New Testaments.
In his YouTube videos, Rabbi Singer will often tell a joke: So, why did God invent the Mormons? So that Christians would know how Jews feel, when Christians tell them how to interpret their Hebrew Scriptures. He has a point to his joke, as Christians often assume too much when reading the Old Testament. But it would help Christians out immensely if they were to invest more time in studying the range of impact that Second Temple Judaism had in forming the thought world of the Christian New Testament, in order to respond more effectively to a joke like this.
Tovia Singer believes the Hebrew Scriptures to be inspired, whereas Bart Ehrman does not. While their specific approaches differ, Ehrman and Singer essentially argue that New Testament Christianity created their own interpretations of the Old Testament, without sufficient justification. What is common to both the agnostic/atheistic view of Bart Ehrman and the orthodox Jewish view of Tovia Singer is that they critique the Christian interpretive paradigm of the Old Testament with skepticism, based on an assumption that denies the central claim of the Christian faith, namely, that Jesus was Crucified as God’s solution to deal with sin, and who then was Risen from the dead, thus defeating both sin and death.
For if Jesus Christ is Risen from the dead, then that puts the interpretive claims of the New Testament in the category of authoritative revelation. If the Resurrection is true, then that provides the groundwork for demonstrating that the New Testament is the culmination of centuries of progressive revelation, from the Old Testament through the inter-testamental period, thereby settling disputed or otherwise ambiguous matters originally raised in the Old Testament (what Jews call the “Hebrew Scriptures”). In other words, God providentially used the theological developments and debates in Second Temple Judaism, as part of God’s purposes in ultimately revealing Jesus Christ to the world, thus justifying the theological argumentation presented in the New Testament. This is the substance to a Christian orthodoxy, while a Bart Ehrman or a Tovia Singer would differ, with their own brand of skepticism.
A more intentionally evangelical approach is required to successfully ward off such provocative skepticism of the Christian story. A more coherent theology of progressive revelation is needed, that connects the two Testaments, without flinging believers into the black hole of the inter-testamental period, with no way to successfully navigate through it. Christians scholars need to step into this area intentionally and articulate this theology of progressive revelation more thoroughly, for the average Christian. Philip Jenkins’ Crucible of Faith helps immensely historically, but does not help enough theologically.
Such theological head-scratching is evident when it comes to thinking through the development of the Old Testament canon, in light of reading Crucible of Faith. Philip Jenkins offers an historical overview of when certain Old Testament books might have been written, but he largely ignores discussing the theological significance an Old Testament canon. Jenkins might be correct in suggesting that some of the later writings in our Old Testament overlapped with some of the deuterocanonical and pseudepigraphic writers of the “crucible of faith” era. We must admit that there was effectively no established, definitive Old Testament canon, universally accepted among all Jews during Jesus’ earthly ministry and the period of Paul’s missionary journeys.
Christians believe that the Holy Spirit was behind it all, yet nevertheless, the process of how these various Jewish writings, with their diverse literary genres, across the centuries, became the “Old Testament” is very complex. According to the biblical canon expert, Lee Martin McDonald, it was not until the 2nd century, of the Common era, decades after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, do we get an established Old Testament canon, and the polemical challenges presented by the teachings of the New Testament surely played a role in finalizing what Jews even today believe to be the “Hebrew Scriptures.”
For Christians who only take what is in the pages of the Protestant Old and New Testaments with the utmost seriousness, and ignore the rest, and never bother with the question of canon, Crucible of Faith will probably still leave the reader disturbed. On the other hand, neglecting the lessons learned from Crucible of Faith can leave the Christian unable to answer criticisms of the Christian faith from orthodox Jews, and others, who have a better grasp of this ancient historical time period.
Towards A More Coherent Theology of Progressive Revelation
Here are some pointers in the right direction: Scholars like Michael Heiser and N.T. Wright effectively demonstrate that while full blown theological concepts such as heaven and hell, and resurrection, are lacking in the Old Testament, the building blocks that make way for later theological development during the Second Temple period, under Jenkins’ analysis, are already present in the earlier Old Testament writings.
Take the afterlife as an example. Michael Heiser makes the cumulative case that references to Sheol in the Old Testament, when compared together, hint at some distinction between the fate of the righteous and the fate of the wicked. The “hint” is not overwhelming, and not explicit, but it is there nonetheless. As Heiser puts it, “it is incorrect to say that the OT does not have any sort of concept [sic] of a “bad” afterlife that resembles hell. That is an extreme conclusion that simply refuses to triangulate the range of OT material. It also goes too far to say that the concepts are identical between the testaments. There is a progression of the ideas from the OT to the NT.”
Regarding the resurrection, one can look at a passage like Job 19:25-26, “I know that my Redeemer lives,” which has been fixated in the popular mind, due to Handel’s appropriation of it into The Messiah. That passage has also inspired a very popular, contemporary worship song.
New Testament theologian N.T. Wright acknowledges the translation difficulties that are ignored by this popular worship song, as is reflected by a number of modern Bible translations, and noted in newer evangelical commentaries on the Book of Job. Many commentaries reject the idea that Job is talking about bodily resurrection in this passage. When I first read such Old Testament commentaries, it left me very puzzled.
Nevertheless, Wright also sees that the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament produced during Jenkins’ “crucible of faith” period, may have led the way for this passage to gain a resurrection meaning. What would have prompted the Septuagint translators to move this way, if there had not been at least some ambiguity in the original Hebrew text of Job? In many ways, it was the Septuagint, more than any other written work by the Jews during this period, that created the thought world that connected the Old Testament with the New Testament writers. But since we do not have access to any particular Hebrew text that was the basis for the Septuagint, it is understandable, to a degree, as to why many Old Testament commentators are reluctant to go beyond the oldest available Hebrew text, that scholars possess through the Masoretic tradition.
Thoughtful reflection as to how these theological ideas developed through the “crucible of faith” period have helped me to resolve a great deal of my confusion as to how the New Testament writers quoted the Old Testament, to make their arguments. During the “crucible of faith” period, the Septuagint played an essential role in Jewish thinking, regarding Old Testament interpretation (For a good introduction to the Septuagint, I would recommend Timothy Michael Law’s When God Spoke Greek, reviewed a few years ago here on Veracity).
For some scholars, George Frederic Handel may have appeared to jump a bit too quickly at the idea of finding the promise of Resurrection in the Book of Job. But he surely was not the first. A number of Jews during the Second Temple period beat him to it!
Another way of putting this is to say that all of the data points for the doctrines of the New Testament can be found in the Old Testament, but they just are not all assembled together in the Old Testament. It is through the transition of the inter-testamental period, what Philip Jenkins describes as the “Crucible of Faith” era, that these data points are connected together, culminating in the writings of the New Testament.
Why Did God Use Such a Messy Process of Progressive Revelation, in the First Place?
If you have been reading this book review so far, and find yourself bewildered by all of this, then hopefully what I say here will be an encouragement to you: It is worth considering, for a moment, why God chose to reveal the Gospel in such a messy way, over a period of centuries, through the nation of Israel, through documents that possess an alarming amount of ambiguity, at key points, to finally give us Jesus as the Risen Savior, the Conqueror of Sin and Death.
I mean, it really seems strange and weird for God to allow the Jewish nation, to go through all of the craziness, and at times, outright terror, to ultimately reveal the Messiah to the world. I mean, if I was writing the story of the Bible, I would be a whole lot more direct about it, and cut to the chase more quickly and clearly. Why did God give us a rather ambiguous Old Testament, that during this “crucible of faith” era, encouraged Jewish authors to go off in so many different directions, in how to interpret the Hebrew Scriptures, over several hundreds of years?
That is a real thorny question. But another book I read this year has left me intrigued, at giving what I think is a really good answer. Dr. Michael Heiser wrote an “entry-level” book into the Christian faith, What Does God Want?” Heiser quotes the Apostle Paul, in seeking to find that answer:
- ‘“But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.‘ (1 Corinthians 2:7-8)
Here, Paul is saying, that as an apostle to the Gentiles, entrusted with the very truth of the Gospel, commissioned by Jesus himself, that he is teaching the Corinthians a message that had been hidden, down through the ages. Note that Paul is saying that the “rulers of this age” did not understand what God’s plan was, to redeem humanity. These “rulers of this age” were the supernatural beings of the spirit world, who were bent on evil, and thwarting God’s purposes. For if they had known what God was up to, then these “rulers” would never have participated in crucifying the Jewish Messiah.
Amidst all of the confusion, in this “crucible of faith” era, the Jews simply were not looking for a crucified Messiah. However, when Jesus mysteriously accompanies the disciples along the road to Emmaus, only to disclose his true identity, before vanishing before them, Jesus explained to these disciples God’s secret plan (Luke 24:13-35 ESV). With that in mind, Michael Heiser explains the reason for God’s strange and weird way of doing things: “Satan, demons, and the rival sons of God didn’t know what God’s plan was” (What Does God Want?, p. 35). In other words, God purposely obscured his purposes, through this messy process of progressive revelation, in order to keep the forces of evil confused, as to what God’s plan was, all along.
God was able to defeat the forces of evil, by essentially fooling them into helping to drive the nails into Jesus’ flesh on the cross. But by doing so, God was using the forces of evil, in such a way that would lead to their ultimate defeat.
That is just a rough sketch as to why things looked so messy in Philip Jenkins’ “crucible of faith” era. But it helps to frame how to “connect the dots” found in this period of Second-Temple Judaism, in a more robust effort to understand how the Old Testament (the Hebrew Scriptures) relate to the message of the New Testament.
Connecting Those Dots of Second-Temple Judaism History
Christians, particularly evangelical Protestants, need a theological framework to help them work through the developments of Jewish thought during Jenkins’ Crucible of Faith era. Jenkins himself likens the situation to Jesus’ parable of the man sowing wheat while the enemy scatters bad seed. In the end, it is the doctrinal wheat of Second Temple Judaism that survives and the erroneous weeds that get destroyed. But how does a Christian sort through the wheat and the chaff, when this period of history largely remains a black box?
In answering that question, Crucible of Faith is great at the historical part, but it lacks the necessary theological framework to successfully navigate that history. For that reason, I would encourage readers to read Crucible of Faith, but to do so with a hefty grain of salt. As a theologian, the former-Roman-Catholic-turned-Episcopalian Philip Jenkins often left me puzzled and distracted. But as a world-class historian, Philip Jenkins does exceedingly well, inviting the student of history to become greatly enamored with such a vastly ignored, and vastly influential period of history. I know that Jenkins succeeds as a writer, as he leaves me wanting to know more and more about the Crucible of Faith era. Once the reader acknowledges the strength and weakness of Jenkins’ approach, the book becomes a very enjoyable and enticing read.
Perhaps I am being too harsh with Professor Jenkins, in my critique. Perhaps Jenkins felt that the best task he could undertake is dealing with the historical, the “how” aspect of the Crucible of Faith era. Perhaps as a writer, he thought it best to go with the more established, historical critical approach, regarding the theological task, the “why” aspect, and not break out of the standard critical mold, and go the “safer” route that the majority of academics accept. I can grant this type of admission, if that is, in fact, the case. The problem, as I have endeavored to show in this book review essay, is that a number of assumptions that Professor Jenkins makes about the Hebrew Scriptures are not entirely persuasive.
However, one thing is certain about Crucible of Faith, specifically the Jewish thought world examined by Professor Jenkins during this remarkable era, between 250 BCE and 50 BCE: Jews were just as contentious with one another as Jews are even now, in how they read Scripture. The audacity of the Christian movement in the first century is that it sought to settle certain core, Jewish doctrinal disputes, once and for all, as the early church reflected upon the implications derived from the miracle of the Resurrection of their proclaimed Messiah.
While there are a growing number of works by evangelical scholars, that focus on biblical texts, relevant to the study of the “crucible of faith” era, Philip Jenkins’ work exposes a neglect among evangelical scholars, that give us the broad sweep of inter-testamental history, that can help us to better understand the historical context, in which such texts emerge. Our Christian theology of the inspiration of Scripture, particularly with the New Testament, needs to incorporate the history of Second Temple Judaism, particularly as expressed in Jenkins’ “Crucible of Faith” era, as part of God’s providential plan to reveal the truth of the Gospel.
To clarify: We need not conclude that the Deuterocanonical writings (the “Apocrypha”), or pseudepigraphic works like the Book of Enoch, should be reworked somehow into the Protestant canon of Scripture. As an evangelical Protestant, the Protestant canon of Scripture is just fine as it is (though obviously, my Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox friends will differ). But what DOES matter is that Protestants should learn a lesson from their Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox friends and invest in reading such material. Most Protestant evangelicals are impoverished, because we do not know enough of the context, in which the New Testament was written in, which explains why so many in our churches today have a difficult time understanding the New Testament…. myself included!
This is not a critique of the Bible itself. Far from it! Instead it is saying while the Bible speaks clearly about matters pertaining to salvation, not everything in Holy Scripture is clear, simply from reading any particular text. For that reason, it is important for us to not only read, but to also study the Bible, in its historical context, so that those less clear matters get understood more clearly. Or as Paul puts it, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15 ESV).
When reading such inter-testamental material, it surely does NOT mean that everything written by Jews during the inter-testamental period should be grafted into Christian theology! But Philip Jenkins’ history would suggest that God did use such writings, and the thought world in which they inhabited, to reveal his divine Truth, in a manner that typically gets overlooked. Furthermore, Jenkins’ narrative also helps to explain how certain Jewish speculations still managed to creep into the early church, thereby creating the need to root out such heresies, such as Gnosticism or Manichaenism, that were contentious rivals to Christian orthodoxy, particularly in the early centuries of Christianity. To put it another way, the New Testament serves to rightly sort out those Second-Temple Jewish ideas that have their source in the revelatory purposes of God, versus those Second-Temple Jewish ideas that remain speculative, and ultimately, that lead to spiritual dead ends.
The bottom line is this: Every serious student of the Bible must face a crucial question: How was the God of Israel using the progress of inter-testamental history, from Alexander the Great’s Greek revolution to the Maccabean Revolt to the Book of Enoch, to providentially reveal his plans and purposes, that would ultimately find its fulfillment through Jesus and the coming of the Christian movement?
Some might wonder if I had a recommendation of a particular book that covers the history of the inter-testamental period, that did better on the theological side, than what is found in Crucible of Faith. Unfortunately, I have not dived into any particular book enough to make a good judgment on that. As mentioned above, both N.T. Wright and Michael Heiser offer great resources, though it has been a few years since I read Wright’s more in-depth works, like Wright’s The New Testament and the People of God, that I did not finish, and Michael Heiser’s Unseen Realm is still waiting near the top of my “to-be-read” list. But as a work of popular history, Philip Jenkins shines brightly, as he puts all of his historical scholar skills to work, in a really engaging way for an inquisitive audience. Jenkins is simply a pleasure to read. I wish more Christian scholars would excel at this style and type of writing.
Little jewels of historical insight sparkle through the pages of Crucible of Faith. I would, though, recommend that the reader have a copy of the Apocrypha handy, when reading Crucible of Faith, in order to follow along the narrative that Jenkins unfolds. Perhaps the best version of the Apocrypha out there was done by the committee that produced the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of the Bible. One of greatest features of the NRSV work is that it also includes the books that show up in most of the Eastern Orthodox canon lists, that do not make it into the Roman Catholic canon list.
As a popular-level introduction to Second Temple Judaism, Crucible of Faith is difficult to beat (anything endorsed by popular historian Tim O’Neill gets my vote). I extend my thanks to Philip Jenkins, for helping me to deeply appreciate the fascinating story of the inter-testamental period, the era that Jenkins refers to as the “crucible of faith.”