This book sets out to provide the context for Jesus's life--that is, to provide readers with a sense of the Second Temple period in Palestine. He rightfully points out early on the trouble that exists in any such study and that has existed throughout--that scholars often say more about their times than about the time they are studying. Anti-Jewish works were the order of the day in the 1800s; modernists corrected this to an extent, but still had their own contemporary biases in trying to find the real Jesus. Contemporary historians have moved toward trying to present Christ as a Jewish man in a Jewish setting--what would a carpenter's life have been like at the time? But even when confronting this question, there is the issue of which historical sources to trust. Do we take the New Testament at its word or the Jewish writers of the Mishnah, Talmud, and Midrash? None of these were written strictly at the time of Jesus but rather anywhere from twenty to several hundred years later, depending on the source. Contemporary sources can be found, but they are usually from small Jewish sects that did not represent mainstream views. Can these be trusted themselves?
Wylen kicks off his discussion of the Second Temple period with a short summary of the Biblical narrative leading up to the building of the Second Temple. It's interesting to think of several of the biblical books as being written at the start of this period and as being a response to the events that are happening. Prophecy ends with Malachi soon after the Second Temple, much to the chagrin of many of the Jews. In its place comes apocalyptic works, most of which don't end up in the final scriptures (as Wylen relates, the Torah was the most accepted as scripture in the Second Temple period, the Prophets with a lesser degree of acceptance as time goes on, with the Writings not being finalized in the Jewish Old Testament until around 100 CE); the author credits Ezra as a likely authority in terms of editing the Torah and other books into their final form during this period (although this ignores the references to kings such as Hezekiah restoring the holy books--I would assume the Torah--to the center of practical application in their own time [other scholars see the time of Ezra, and the Great Assembly of Priests, as being the final period of Old Testament canonization, including all the Prophets and Writings]). It would only be after Jesus that scripture writing would return--in the form of the Talmud for the Jews and in the form of the New Testament for Christians. But even there, the writing would be more a matter of interpretation of previous scripture than of new revelation. Of further interest would be the introduction of the interpreters to the Jewish public reading of scripture, as most Jews by now spoke Aramaic and did not always have a firm grasp of Hebrew. These translations often took the form of true interpretations, though, as commentary often was added.
The next chapter turns to the Hellenistic world, especially as it affected the Jewish religion and as the Jewish religion affected it. That the Jews did not wholly assimilate to the Greek is unique among the Middle Eastern cultures, and this has a lot to do with the belief in one God, as opposed to a pantheon that could be easily added to (or "translated"--some Greeks saw the Jewish God as Zeus). That the Jews lacked idols was unique also. Jewish thinkers were seen as quite wise, and a good number of people converted of a sort (again, unique, as one doesn't convert when there are more than a single god--one just adds to the pantheon). These God-fearers did not circumcise (something the Greeks abhorred, unlike most Near Eastern cultures), but they adopted a belief in the one God of Judah; it is to them that much of the New Testament is addressed (as in Acts 15). Jews also moved out into the Roman Empire, losing sometimes the ability to speak Hebrew or Aramaic and thus getting most of their Bible from a Greek translation. Paul was probably most fluent in Greek, the author says, as evidenced by the Septuagint's influence on his letters (as we see in his choice of certain words and even some of his ideas). Fully 10 percent of the Roman Empire might have been Jewish, the author says. But these Hellenized Jews disappeared by the Middle Ages. What happened? We don't know. They may have been subsumed by Rabbinic Judaism or by Christianity. Indeed, the popularity of Jewish culture fell by the wayside as the Jews became more and more trouble within the empire. Their unwillingness to join in with civic rites because of the latter's steeping in paganism led to a separation and to some resentment, especially as the Jews began to push for more rights--and eventually participated in several armed rebellions. An interesting aside dwells on the Pharisees, who, the author says, were actually quite missionary in their attempts to convert Gentile believers to Judaism (the Sadducees by contrast were not); once Christianity became the official religion of Rome, it became illegal to proselytize as a Jew.
Much of the first century's Jewish history is dependent on the Macabees, the subject of the next chapter. While relations between Greek and Jew were quite cordial during the period of Greece's empire, for a short period they were not so. The Greeks generally let local people continue to administer their own affairs, but for this brief period Antiochus IV decided to forcefully Hellenize the Jews, removing the high priest for one of his own, outlawing the Torah, and forcing them to eat pork. Enter a small group of rebels called the Macabees who successfully led a revolt. What I did not know was that the original Zadok (Aaron-descended) line of the priesthood was moved, at this time to Egypt, where an alternate Jewish temple was set up with high priest Onias. When Jerusalem was restored to Jewish control, this priest was not brought back--the Zadok line ended. As such no high priest thereafter was seen as fully legitimate. (The Egyptian temple was destroyed by the Romans at the same as the Jerusalem temple.)
The lack of legitimacy for the high priest helped lead to the formation of various Jewish sects, each claiming rightly understanding of the Torah and the priesthood, including the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Two Pharisaic doctrines became central to later teachings of the Jews and Christians. First was the oral law, which would be the basis for the Mishnah and the Talmud. The other was the belief in the resurrection, which is most clearly discussed in the Old Testament in Daniel, a book the Sadducees would have rejected. Christ too would preach this doctrine. Greek ideas about the immortal soul would creep into Judaism (possibly around this time) and Christianity [in the next century] and change this doctrine.
There is, in the next chapter, some discussion of Jewish education. Simon bar Shetah is said to have introduced compulsory education for Jewish boys, though some historians doubt the accuracy of this claim. The idea is significant, however, because if this is so, then Jesus likely would have received formal religious (and literary) education.
The Sanhedrin's origin is unknown, but its power structure is recounted in the Talmud. Some doubt that this structure was actually in place until the destruction of the Temple, for it gives the Sanhedrin power even over the high priest. Nevertheless, the president of the Sanhedrin (the Nasi) became eventually Rabban (Our Rabbi) by title. This president was a Pharisee. (The Pharisees and Sadducees shared power on the Sanhedrin, but the Pharisees, having the majority, wielded greater power. So while the Sadducees made up the high priests, the Pharisees were the ones who oversaw the ritual functions of those priests and also interpreted the law and set up civil authority.)
In describing Judaism, Wylen says that it was not so much a religion (as we think of it today) as a "way," just as Christianity was called "The Way." Grounded in traditions and rituals that had to do with daily life, it was central to one's being. To Wylen, the idea of Satan comes out of gnosticism, for Judaism focused on one God only. Angels were a later creation of the religion and were still seen as below God. Satan was the lesser being that in Gnostic circles would have been the counterposing god of evil. [Of course, Satan is called the god of this world, so in that sense, it would fit with gnosticism. But the idea that Satan never appears in the Old Testament seems flawed, early Genesis being a prime example. But it is true that he does not seem to play as prominent a role as in the New Testament.]
Liturgical prayer, Wylen says, was not part of the First Temple set of ceremonies. Prayer then was spontaneous. It was only with the Second Temple that such prayers became common and that after the first century. [Again, I'd be prone to point to scripture, where Christ warns against repetitive use of prayers. But my bet would be the Wylen would say that such scriptures are anachronisms, creations of second-century writers, put into Jesus's mouth.]
Wylen sees the synagogue, whose origins he denotes are mysterious, as being largely a place for public reading of scripture and explanation during the first century. The popularity of the synagogue would take off after the destruction of the temple. The synagogue could also be used as a community center and hostel for travelers.
Concerns about ritual purity weighed heavily on first-century Jews. Whereas earlier generations had seen this largely as a priestly function, the Pharisaic teaching that all were priests of a sort meant that all people had to be ritually clean. And thus, ritual washings became part of daily life.
A chapter on the writings of the time discusses the difficulty of reconstructing history from them. We have writings of later years, which include the Jewish Mishnah; in the author's view, the New Testament; the apocrypha from the Second Temple period; apocalyptic writings from various Jewish sects; the writings of Philo; and the nonreligious writings of people like Josephus. Each has its agenda, and most were not concerned primarily with history. The Mishnah is viewed in Judaism as being the oral law put down in print by the rabbis. Lacking complete sentences and often without much logical order (it is "oral" tradition and thus based around that rather than around how we would write), one often has to know the whole to know the part. Nevertheless, its major themes delineate themes that were of concern to the Jews of the time, themes that in many ways go along with those in the New Testament, such as purity. The oral law was about delineating the "gray" areas of the law. The Mishnah notes what different rabbis think and what the majority thinks. In some ways, its being written out was a response to the destruction of the Temple. Although the rabbis claim it as oral law descended all the way back to the times of Moses, many date its teachings to the Second Temple period.
This scholar does not believe the Pharisees were as important as the New Testament and the Mishnah imply that they were, as both were written (in the writer's view) after the temple's destruction as that sect gained ascendancy. Looking at apocryphal writings we see works that concerned particular sects but that often spoke of events to come that were actually historical at the time (Wylen does not believe, one gets the feeling, that such a thing real prophecy exists), a discussion of the present evil, and a prediction of coming greatness for the people of the sect. Greatness was almost always seen as something imminent, not as something millennia into the future. (We can see this in Phillip's explication of Isaiah to the eunuch: the book is, for him, primarily about Jesus.)
Wylen raises similar problems with the trial of Jesus. Mishnah teachings would make the trial illegal (such trials had to occur during daylight hours and had to take place over two days--one day for trial, and one day for conviction--and would not have occurred on a holy day). So either the Mishnah is an idealized version of legal practice written two centuries later, or the history is wrong. Wylen sees the likely answer as both. He says it's more likely that the high priest was in cahoots with the Romans, since he'd have been appointed by the Roman-appointed Herod. The Romans would have seen any Jew garnering crowds and talking of a new kingdom (literal or metaphorical) as a threat. For Wylen, the idea that Pilate washed his hands to show his unwillingness to convict Jesus is a fiction, as the practice was a Jewish custom, not a Roman one, and Pilate was not otherwise one with a moral compass that would have kept him from killing innocent Jews. Also problematic are the crowds around Jesus, one for him, one against, and one absent--these, for him, are simply literary devices, like a Greek chorus. (One could probably find arguments against each of these points. First, the trial court was a kangaroo court and the claim of blasphemy it made is not, even in the scripture, seen as proper. The events occur the day before the first holy day, if one takes into account different ways of counting the Passover, a controversy at the time. Pilate may have washed his hands precisely because it was a Jewish custom, as he was before a Jewish audience when he did it, and his "conscience" scripturally is spurred by his wife's bad dream, not by personal compunction. Likewise, crowds can differ depending on situation, as they do even for politicians today. Crowds riot over Trump's election, both for and against.)
Wylen's chapter on the sects of Judaism is perhaps one of the most informative. He focuses on four main ones: Sadducees, Essenes, Zealots, and Pharisees. The priests were chiefly Sadducees; the Sadducees were the powerful and the high class, and they favored those in power (namely the Romans and Herodians); they controlled the Temple. They were not popular with the people. They accepted the Torah only as scripture and did not accept the oral traditions of the Pharisees. As such, they did not believe in angels or the resurrection. They did not believe in divine providence.
Essenes were a group that believe everything was divine providence. They eschewed civilization, living in the wilderness. They had their own solar calendar, not accepting that of the majority of Jews. They believed strongly in a world of good versus evil, Rome of which was part of the latter. And they believed in two Messiahs, one priestly and one royal, and a final prophet.
Zealots, Wylen sees, as being only in existence right before the rebellion around 70 A.D. As such, he sees the rebel groups we call zealots of the time of Jesus as not being an organized sect. Rather, if we believe part of what Josephus says (who saw them as an organized philosophical group), they were simply people who believed in no ruler but God and often were like Pharisees in their other views.
Wylen spends the most time discussing the Pharisees, for it is from them that Rabbinic Judaism descends. Seen as wise among the people and largely supported by them, the Pharisees were also likely despised by the masses and despisers of them, much the same that intellectuals are often looked up by to and look down upon others today (and vice versa). They believed in divine providence over history but not over individual actions, which means that they viewed repentance and obedience to the law as important. They were progressives when it comes to scriptural interpretation, often looking to apply the law to modern contexts and, thus, creating and sustaining an oral law tradition to accompany the written scriptures. This also meant that they accepted such beliefs as that in the resurrection. The Pharisees worked with Roman authorities rather than against them, but not necessarily as part of the governing elite. This positioned them well for power in the post-Temple period. The Pharisees did not separate themselves from other Jews but rather lived and worked among them--and attended synagogues. (Though one sect, the Haverim, were so picky as to separate themselves out from other Jews who did not follow the same practices.) Overall, the Pharisees did tend to separate themselves from Gentiles, however, because they came to see priestly laws as applying to all Jews--the nation is a called out as priestly one. Hence, laws concerning ritual purity, including various washings, came to be applied to all, and others laws regarding eating, tithing, Sabbath keeping, and marriage only to other Jews were also promoted.
Another chapter details the work of Hillel and makes various comparisons to the sayings of Jesus, showing how the two actually parallel each other in many ways. (The complication, of course, is that while Jesus postdated Hillel, Hillel's sayings weren't put to paper until after Jesus's sayings were, so who copies whom is an open question. But the easy point is that Jesus and Hillel came from similar traditions.)
The next chapter looks at various "roles" that one might play in the first century and how Jesus would have fit into each. For example, Wylen does not look at Jesus as being a prophet except in the form of a preacher, as the age of prophets ended several hundred years before Christ (he disregards the idea of New Testament prophets). For Messiah, Wylen looks at the meaning, "anointed one" and denotes that the anointed was always king and priest in Israel/Judah; the connotations that Christianity adds were not present for Jews in the first century, though there was an interest at the time in the resurgence of a Jewish state and physical king that would overthrow Rome rather than a king not affiliated with the Davidic line (as in Herod) (indeed, many Christians expected Jesus to found such a kingdom, as the Bible makes clear--it was only after his death that they began to understand his Messiahship in a different form, as a sin-taker). "Son of man" means simply one from Adam, a human being--it's a way of talking of yourself in the third person. But it, too, came to have greater connotations, such that the absence or inclusion of capitalization can suggest something different. Nor was Jesus a philosopher, which was a Greek idea, though some Jews looked upon wise Jewish teachers are comparable figures. Nor does Wylen see him as a rabbi, a concept that arose much later--or even a teacher of the law, as a rabbi would have been at this time (for to Wylen, Jesus mostly provides wise teachings, not biblical interpretations--this is the meaning of Jesus speaking by his own authority). So what was Jesus to a Jew at the time? Wylen sees him likely as fitting into the tradition of miracle worker/healer/charismatic rejected by the mainstream Jewish leaders, of which there are several later Jewish teachers who founded specific branches of Judaism (Hasidism, for example).
A final chapter looks at how the Jews and Christians separated and why. Both religions developed quite a bit in the wake of the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D., Judaism especially. Jewish leaders reorganized under the Hillellian Phrarisee Yahanan ben Zakkai, who put togher a new Sanhedrin of seventy-one leaders. The influence of the Pharisees became fully felt as it became the basis for the rabbinic Judaism that followed. Following Zakkai's death, Gamaliel II took over the leadership--it was his grandfather who trained Paul. The Bar Kokhba rebellion, some sixty years after the Temple's destruction, probably helped seal the separation, as its leaders was seen by much of the Jewish leadership as the Messiah, a hope that proved unfounded but that doubtless alienated Christians who already had a Messiah.
Another factor that lead to separation was the Birkat HaMinim--the curse upon the sectarians. I had always thought this was a curse upon Christians, but it was really a curse added to the synagogue worship service on all groups that were not mainstream. Wylen sees this as not necessarily directed at Christians, but I suspect that his views are motivated in part by his tendency to want to see the two groups as less antagonistic than they sometimes were in early times.
Roman politics played its part too. In 98, the Roman emperor Nerva, ruled that Christians did not have to pay the annual tax on Jews, thus recognizing Judaism and Christianity as separate. Although Christians were not free of said tax, they were not recognized as a lawful religion, unlike Judaism, and thus were not protected from other laws such as those allowing Jews not to participate in certain pagan rites. Just before Constantine took the throne, Julian the Apostate reigned. A thorough pagan, he actually gave the Jews permission to rebuild the temple. His death in battle, however, ended that hope early--and brought to power the one who would recognize a brand of Christianity as the state religion.
But the version of Christianity eventually accepted by the empire was quite different from that with its Jewish roots. Around the year 380, John Chrysostom became bishop of Antioch. He found that the church was still "Judaizing"--meeting with Jews in a synagogue--and put a stop to it. Such Judaizers were increasingly pushed out of association with those who came to be known as Christians within the empire.
I found this book very informative, one of the better secular accounts of first-century Judeo-Christian tradition. But as the author notes at the start, knowing for sure how some things happened is difficult. Even if one believes scripture fully, there is much background that is not completely clear, even with a fuller knowledge of history.