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February 27, 2005

Not Just One Judaism

A street scene below the Temple in Jerusalem
Scholars often propose, and students often adopt, highly generalized descriptions of first-century Judaism. While such overviews serve the useful purpose of revealing common traits and distinguishing among similar groups, it’s incumbent on Christian students of Judaism to resist temptations to assume that they know what their ancient forebears in Judaism believed and did — especially when that assumption confirms Christian polemical characterizations of a Judaism over against which early followers of Jesus were learning to define themselves.

Whereas Christian historians had, until recently, treated Jesus’s contemporaries as constituents of “late Judaism,” (as though Judaism were about to come to an end after Jesus’ ministry) and tended uncritically to repeat whatever the New Testament reported about them, scholars from the 1950’s onward have rediscovered the thriving diversity in Second Temple Judaism, incorporating various theological parties holding conflicting beliefs, espousing conflicting responses to Roman domination, and generally illuminating the social milieu in which an improbable message about a crucified Galilean wonder-worker developed into a rapidly-growing religion alongside the Judaism out of which it sprung.

While it’s safe to talk about first-century “Judaism” in the most vague terms, students should develop the habit of checking their assumptions, of learning about and recalling the pronounced variety in Judaic belief and practice (to the extent that many scholars now casually refer to first-century Judaisms).

On any given day, the streets around the Temple in Jerusalem might include gentile merchants and Roman officials, Pharisees, Sadducees, perhaps a visiting Essene, an incognito rebel, a venturesome Samaritan, and hundreds of Judeans unaffiliated with any given party.

(No Previous Frame) ⇐ MainNext (Pharisees)

External Links: PBS posts short statements on first-century Judaism by Shaye Cohen, Paula Fredriksen, and L. Michael White

New Media Bible on First-Century Judaism

Open Source Theology summarizes N. T. Wright on first-century Judaism

Posted by AKMA at February 27, 2005 09:23 PM