Crucible of Faith by Philip Jenkins, Basic Books, 320pp £23.99
“Barely acknowledged in historical writing, still less in popular perceptions.” Such, according to Professor Philip Jenkins, has been the fate of the intertestamental period, the time between the end of the era covered by the Hebrew Bible and the period in which the events of the New Testament took place and were written down.
Yet it was in these years, and particularly between 250 BC and 50 BC – which Jenkins calls the Crucible era – that the building blocks of Western religion, of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, were laid.
This was “one of the most revolutionary times in human culture”, when “a tectonic theological shift” took place, an era that “in effect created Western consciousness” and “a new universe”. This was when “angels and Judgment, Messiah and Satan, hell and demons” first fully took root in the religious mind. Without this “spiritual revolution, neither Christianity nor Islam would exist”.
To illustrate his point, Jenkins draws on a substantial body of writings that have survived from the Crucible years, but which (with the exception of the Book of Daniel) did not achieve canonical status. The Book of Enoch, for instance, depicts mighty archangels and their diabolical counterparts. It ranges “through glorious heavens and burning hells”. This was “a breathtaking departure from the Old Testament worldview”. Enoch, Jenkins asserts, contains “the first draft of hell”.
He quotes a stunning passage in which evil angels give humanity all forms of knowledge and science: the skills of earthly life, from the making of swords to the beautifying of the eyelids, astrology and magic. And how about this: the fallen angel Penemue “instructed mankind in writing with ink and paper, and thereby many sinned from eternity to eternity and until this day. For men were not created for such a purpose, to give confirmation to their good faith with pen and ink.”
Jenkins depicts a broiling sea of ideas: Jewish, Greek, Mesopotamian. Much of Jewish history of this time, he points out, took place in Egypt. The Septuagint was the translation of the Jewish Bible into Greek made in Ptolomaic Egypt, primarily for Jews themselves who found it difficult to read in Hebrew or Aramaic. Jenkins concludes that the emphasis on judgment and the afterlife entered Jewish thought through contact with the Egyptians.
It was a time of “creative fragmentation” in Jewish culture, of “competing versions of wisdom”. Jewish believers faced daily and often bitter debates over exclusivism and universalism: was truth “designed for only one racial group or could others adopt it?”
The extraordinarily bloody events of the Maccabean revolt of the 160s BC were followed by chaos and vicious internecine Jewish conflict that sprawled over more than a century. These events provide the essential context for the spread of visions of cosmic conflict and the struggle against supernatural evil – “apocalyptic crisis led to apocalyptic literature”.
Ideas, and therefore the texts that expressed them, served human needs, not objective truth. Dark angels and Satan served the need to explain the existence of evil. The afterlife and resurrection served the need to see justice. New theologies sought to explain the death of the righteous in struggles against tyranny.
The pages of Crucible of Faith crackle with incident, warring ideas, its author’s convictions, and strange facts. Did you know, for instance, that Cleopatra (an entirely Greek name, meaning “glory of the father”) was the first of her dynasty to bother learning Egyptian? Or that Kandahar was once called Alexandria?
The Christ who emerges from these pages is a severely diminished, compromised figure. He is not a radical break with the past or a new voice in human history, coming from a divine source. And, contrary to other assumptions, “rarely was he telling ‘the old, old story’ – that is, grounding himself entirely in the Hebrew Bible”. Instead, Jenkins argues that Jesus is a product of the Crucible era – along with St Paul, the “heir” to a spiritual revolution that was already “well advanced” by the time he came along.
Whether Jesus was even in reality an advocate of peace is called into question: the Gospels were written in the aftermath of the Jewish War “when Roman authorities were extremely sensitive about any movement that might be regarded as seditious”, leaving the early Christians, according to Jenkins, “little option but to present their founder in the most pacific and apolitical terms”. This raises all kinds of questions, all for another day and perhaps another book.
In the meantime, we are left with a fresh appreciation of a time of enormous religious and political ferment. Trying to navigate Jewish or Christian origins without knowing this era is what Jenkins calls a “journey without maps”.