In this book, Neal sets out to discuss the origins of the Jewish faith, claiming that the faith we call Judaism today is not the faith of ancient Israel in the Old Testament. To do this, Neal explores the origins of the first century Jewish world. Refreshingly, he takes the New Testament books at face value, rather than trying to argue that they were written out of time and that they are merely projections of later writers. However, while he notes that he aims to give Judaism a fair hearing, his tone seems anything but, since he starts off with a heavy emphasis on the various New Testament condemnations of the practices of various sects.
But the historical information here is really good--or at least seems to be. Neal has a tendency to quote other scholars as proof rather than returning to primary texts, which lends a certain dubiousness to some claims (but I find this is the case with scholars who dismiss the New Testament record as well).
The first chapter focuses on religion in the first century. He notes that the average Jew didn't pay much attention to religious issues, so much of the controversy between various sects was not a mainstream concern. Of those sects, the Pharisees were the most popular among the common people. They believed heavily in adherence to the so-called oral law. They came to prominence during the period when Greece took over the Promised Land, as they were the main proponents behind separating from Hellenistic influence. Indeed, Pharisee in itself means separate. In the synagogues where Pharisees held sway, almost any creed was acceptable, leaving much room open for debate and discussion.
The scribes forged a significant set of the Pharisees and held a large amount of influence among them. The scribes were the scholars, the Pharisees their followers. The scribes set out strict interpretations of the law, while the Pharisees were concerned with maintaining purity (or at least the aura of it).
The Sadducees also had some influence (even though it was the Essenes who made up the second largest sect, their influence among common folk was little, given that they lived in separate communities). The Sadducees were the aristocrats, largely of the priestly ranks. They were "moralists" as opposed to separatists. They opposed the oral law. But they abrogated much of the teaching of scripture to the Pharisees and scribes, and come around 66 BC allowed Pharisees onto the Sanhedrin. (Neal seems to side most with the Sadducees, ignoring until much later in his book the fact that they had become largely corrupt and greatly Hellenized, such that their understanding and use of scripture was questionable in its own right.)
The rest of the chapter goes into length with regard to Jesus's condemnation of the Pharisees and gives an explanation as to his statement that the Pharisees sit in Moses's seat. The latter is given in two parts. One is the understanding that I've had, having to do with the reading of the law in the synagogue--when one does that, one is said to be in Moses's seat. But Neal also connects it to Moses's judgment of and decision making regarding Israel (the Beth Din), stating that Jesus in a way recognized the Pharisees' authority over the community here, as they made certain decisions for it. Though the second explanation is compelling, I find the first explanation more consistent with other New Testament statements.
Next, Neal steps back into the history of the lead-up to the first century. He goes back to the time of Judah's exile, explaining how Ezra, as a priest and a scribe, helped to bring back the state's religion as the temple was rebuilt, teaching the people the law. This became particularly important as many Jews no longer knew Hebrew, so they had to rely on translation and interpretation to understand what was being read. In time, after Ezra passed from the scene, the various learned scribes, whose job had been primarily to copy scripture, became the teachers of it, equal in many ways to the priests, who also taught the scriptures. Scribes were seen as a sort of replacement for the prophets, whose time was at an end. As the scribes taught, they began to add interpretations to the scripture, forging a "wall" around the law, so that people would not get even close to disobeying it. This oral law (the wall around the written law) was not written down, however, because it was "secret." Because only the learned scribes knew it, they had power; writing out those laws would have compromised that power, giving all access to understanding.
In the next chapter, Neal recounts how the Jews came to be influenced by the Greeks and how this further changed the Jewish religion. The Greeks set out, within their empire, to spread their culture, even if during the early years of the empire they did not force people to change religions and such. Some elements of Greek thought that were different were an emphasis on individualism (thinking for one's self--different philosophies and views) and logic (whereas Jewish thinking emphasized allegory). These ways of thinking then spread into Judaism, as the ideas that forged the Midrash were transformed into the ideas that formed the Mishnah (although my understanding was that neither of this were written down until several hundred years after Christ, so I'm not sure why there were be a distinction based on this). The explication of the law (and concomitant expansion of the oral law) now went one step further.
Greek culture appealed most especially to the aristocratic class--namely the priests. As such, the priests became Helennized, leaving off much concern about remaining punctilious to the law of God and the sacrificial system as set out in the Scriptures. One might even call them "secularized" in a way. In response to this, a set of conservative Jews looked to uphold the older Jewish ways--the Hasidim. It is from the Hasidim that the Pharisees would spring.
The Greek takeover of the priesthood took real hold, however, when the Greek leaders deposed the Jewish high priest, Onias, probably murdering him, in favor of his brother, Jason. (Onias's son, the legitimate heir to the office, would, as it turns out, flee to Egypt during the time of the Maccabees and set up a second temple, which itself would be destroyed about the same time that Herod's temple in Jerusalem would be destroyed.) But back in Jerusalem, where the true temple was, Jason himself would shortly be replaced with Menelaus, who was not even of the Aaronic line. As such, the legitimacy of high priesthood would from then on become questionable. When the Greek ruler Antiochus Epiphanes outlawed the practice of the Judaic religion--bringing pagan customs into the temple and even sacrificing swine on its altar--the Jews rebelled. A portion of conservative priests called the Hasmoneans opposed the Greek rulers, and with the leadership of the Maccabee family, overthrew them. As the rulership alternated and fighting continued between the Greeks and Jews over the next many years, a compromise was reached, and the Jewish priesthood was restored--but those who returned to power were the Hellenized priestly caste, not the conservative caste. Hungering for power, the Maccabees now compromised with these rulers, and eventually one of these Maccabees, one of these Hasmoneans (not Onias's son), became both the chief priest and the ruler of Judea. The Jewish state was reborn, separate from the Greek state, but the legitimacy of the priesthood had been done a great disservice. The high priestly line of Zadok had been cut off. It was from this priestly, aristocratic caste that the Sadducees derived.
While there were among the priests those who took a sincere interest in upholding and teaching the law, many of them were caught up more in the politics of the day and were thoroughly Hellenized (even inviting Rome in 63 BC into what had become an independent Jewish state in order to settle differences with the Hasidim/Pharisees). Meanwhile, the nonpriestly cast of Hasidim, consisting of scribes and those who would become Pharisees, considered themselves the keepers and upholders of the law, more than the priests had proved to be, though they added to that law their "oral law," the interpretations meant to keep the people ritually pure, separate from Greeks and others, which the Sadducees opposed. Because the aristocratic priests/Sadducees had sided against the commoners when the nation was under Greek rule, commoners trusted the Pharisees more. And Pharisees tended to dismiss the priestly office as less important than individual learning and knowledge (better a learned scholar than an ignorant priest) and saw themselves as the rightful heirs to Mosaic power.
Once the Pharisees were allowed onto the Sanhedrin, the decision-making council of the Jews, they began to gain political power as well. They set up a uniform system of education for Jewish peoples, most especially in the scriptures.
Once Rome took over Palestine at the bequest of these warring factions of Jews, both Sadducees and Pharisees lost much of their political power, becoming merely rival religious entities. Rome then put its own people in power, leaving the Jewish figures, including the high priest, to be mostly figureheads. And while the Sanhedrin, by Jesus's time was controlled narrowly by the Sadducees, the Pharisees, having more popularity among the commoners, generally ruled with regard to what was allowed on the council and often ruled with regard to how certain temple duties were performed (by the Sadducees, who largely did them).
The Pharisees also came to dominate the synagogue, a system of worship that had been set up during the exilic period when there was no temple. The Pharisees came to see the temple as rather unncessary—that the oral law was a kind of temple in its place and that learning was more important. They also set up academies to teach young men the Scriptures and the oral law. The synagogue thus became central to Jewish life, and once the temple was destroyed, the Pharisaic makeover of Judaism was complete. Over time, scribal teachers became rabbis. And as the oral law became more and more complex (and Jews scattered over time and place), the need to write it down for study and preservation increased, such that pen was put to paper around 200 AD as the Mishnah. The Mishnah in essence separated the Jewish people from others for fall time, uniting them even in their scattering. But even this writing was to be adjusted and added to with commentary on it. Whereas earlier oral laws had been commentary on the Scriptures, eventually the commentary began to be about the commentary itself.
The next few chapters focus on “disproving” the oral law, scripturally and otherwise. While the first part of the book was really what I was looking for--history--this second part largely becomes a religious tract. Neal shows how the oral law could not have been transmitted from Moses and how many would agree with that statement (after all, the Talmud is full of commentary about commentary, some in disagreement). The oral law was a progressive creation, responding to time and place, adapting the law as needed (not in itself necessarily a bad thing, I'd think). But in doing this, the sages lay claim to completing the law, whereas the Psalms themselves say the law is already complete. And the law, the Bible shows, was already in place before Moses, so the idea that Moses brought it also raises issues. In trying to spell out every facet of the law, the Jewish sages have failed to see its heart: that the broader point is to love, and applying that intent to the general principles tells us all we need to know about the law. This obsession with each cranny of the law has led to commentary upon commentary such that the Bible itself is almost fully ignored in favor of the commentaries. As such, general laws become abrogated--harder where they need not be and superfluous where it was never intended. Hence, adultery is wrong if it's with a Jew, but if you do the deed with a Gentile's wife, then it doesn't count. But don't dare open a can on the Sabbath, because you're creating a “receptacle” and thus doing work; better to open the can before the Sabbath, but if you much open a can, cut it open at the bottom as well so that it can't be a receptacle and thus doesn't count as work. (Work is defined as a creative act in Judaic sages' views, wherein the smallest acts count.) Rabbis become more powerful than God in defining right and wrong, and the Talmud becomes an authority that people must believe or face condemnation. Gentiles are looked down on and even dismissed as subhuman, unworthy of knowledge (though curiously the Pharisees were a missionary-type group, so this seems something of a contradiction).
One interesting historical vignette, Neal recounts, has to do with the removal of Herod Archelaus from power. The Roman removal of that Herod essentially placed it in charge of Jewish law enforcement. So while the Jews could exact minor forms of punishment, control over capital punishment transferred into Roman hands. (Other reading of mine on this topic tended to see the holders of such power at this time as being uncertain, calling into question why the Sanhedrin even went to Pilate to put Jesus to death. Such sources also call into question that idea that the Jews were looking for a Messiah--or that such an idea even really existed at the time, whereas Neal see the Pharisees and scribes as very much interested in the question but so consumed by petty internal struggles for power and conceited in their own wisdom that they could not accept or see what the masses saw.)
The main text of the book ends with a discussion of the "church" versus Judaism, showing how the church does not fully replace the Jewish people as God's chosen but rather is to act as a means to bring about eventual Jewish understanding, wherein God grafts the Jewish people back in, as Paul denotes in Romans. Neal's discussion, as an exegesis of scripture is quite interesting here. Following this are various appendixes on Jewish law and Christian views of the law and Judaism.