Sunday, December 11, 2016

On "The First Christian Century in Judaism and Christianity" by Samuel Sandmel **

Sandmel's book appears to have come out of a series of lectures on the subject that he gave. The general thesis of the lectures was that it's difficult to be certain about much of anything historically in the first century. In the sense that I often feel as if there is not enough information available to interpret some sections of scripture within their historical context, it was nice to read of a learned scholar essentially saying that that is how he feel as well. In the sense that I came to this book hoping for more information about the first century, it was a disappointment, for the book dwells mostly on this uncertainties and in that sense fails to present much of a portrait of first-century life.

The book is divided into four chapters--on the significance of the first century, on Palestinian Judaism, on Hellenistic Judaism, and on Christianity. Of course, the first century is very significant, for out of it springs Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity. Knowing this century is in essence to know the origins of these two faiths. Too bad it is so hard to know much about the century.

The next chapter goes into this origin of Rabbinic Judaism, wherein the author has difficulty finding where the moment that Pharisaical Judaism transition into Rabbinic is (if indeed this concept is even correct). As for what we do know: Jews read scriptures at service, though the set Parsha calendar may or may not have existed at that time. The sermon, as we know, may have come before the first century or maybe later--it is hard to know how a short explanation of a given scripture transformed into a full-on discourse on the subject or when it exactly happened. Were there two Sanhedrin, one political and one religious? And did they (or one of them) have authority over life and death, and if so, why did Rome have to be involved when putting Jesus to death? The major issue throughout is that our major sources are religious (Rabbinic writings) or historical (Josephus), but there is not historical religious source, so we have to glean what we can from each.

The chapter of Hellenistic Judaism does a lot of comparing of Philo's views to those of Paul. And the chapter of Christianity focuses on how, in the author's view, most of the writing in the New Testament tells us more about the time in which the books were written than about the first century. In the author's view, most of the New Testament was written much later, some as late as the second century. Here, the author's view, corresponding to mainstream Protestant beliefs, that Paul created a radical break with the Jewish law, colors most of the author's views. Since the author is Jewish I suppose I can't be surprised that he looks on the New Testament from a largely secular perspective and, thus, is prone to dismissing much of the more typically religious view of the writing of the works. But I came to this work hoping to find out more about the Judaism of the time, and the fact that the author feels there are so many uncertainties that he can't make too many claims rather disheartened me to the extent that by the time I came to this final chapter, his views left me rather unimpressed.

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