A new archeological and historical perspective

A ‘Dictionary of Early Judaism’ sheds light on the Second Temple period and the achievements of Jewish movements that contributed to the development of Western civilization.

Jerusalem Old City archeology 521 (photo credit: Antiquities Authority)
Jerusalem Old City archeology 521
(photo credit: Antiquities Authority)

Edited by John J. Collins and Daniel C. Harlow | Eerdmans Publishing | 1,397 pages | $95
This authoritative mini-encyclopedia is devoted exclusively to Second Temple Judaism. The editors have chosen the name “Early Judaism” for Judaism of the Hellenistic and early Roman period, as accepted by the Society of Biblical Literature.
Thus the dictionary’s primary focus is on the period between Alexander the Great in the late fourth century BCE and the Bar Kochba uprising of 132 CE, or between the closing of the Bible and Mishna. According to this terminology everything that happened to Jews before was “Archaic Judaism.”
The volume is intended to meet the needs of scholars and students, but also to provide all available information for the general reader. It is divided into two parts. In the first, 13 major essays synthesize the significant aspects of early Judaism. In the second, 520 entries, accompanied by references and frequent bibliographies, are arranged in alphabetical order; 130 illustrations, drawings and plans, and 24 maps enrich the text. Equal attention is given to the literary and nonliterary evidence.
All subjects receive concise, well-edited, no-nonsense, objective summaries. Special chapters deal with biblical figures in early Jewish interpretation, mythological and primordial figures, places and events, religious beliefs and influences, practices, religious institutions, Jewish revolts, cities, countries and regions, specific sites, structures, artifacts and written remains.
Separate articles deal with modern interpreters of early Judaism. Each particular item receives a complete, scientific treatment.
The story of Moses, for instance, as summed up extensively by Johannes Tromp, professor of the history and literature of early Judaism at Leiden University, The Netherlands, explains how and why the figure of Moses was not of equal importance to all thinkers and expressions of Judaism.
In some groups Enoch seemed to be more prominent.
While to the vast majority of Jews the biblical role of Moses was enhanced and amplified as he was predestined from creation, a mediator who continually interceded for Israel and received revelation, to the Hellenistic Jews he was a philosopher, an inventor, a legislator, a prophet and a “divine man.” Ben-Sira, the Book of Jubilees, the texts from Qumran, including the Mosaic Torah, The Testament of Moses and the Assumption of Moses, each had its own image of this great Jew.
Patricia Ahearne-Kroll, assistant professor of religion at Ohio Wesleyan University, introduces us to Joseph and Asseneth, a littleknown early Jewish novel composed in Greek, which expands upon the story of Joseph. Her research includes the story’s content, genre, the Second Temple Jewish context, the textual issues, date, provenance and authorship, the story’s Jewish or Christian composition and imagery, the phraseology and characterization from the Septuagint.
The Gospel of Matthew’s anti-Jewish eloquence is explained at length by Andrew J. Overman, professor of classics at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. He argues that the author was employing the language and imagery of his time, when there were many Jewish groups in his milieu, all engaged in violent disputes over leadership, authority and responsibility for their flock. Early Christianity was just one of such groups that fought for its very existence. The author agrees that this new understanding of the setting and purpose of Matthew 25-27 (“His blood be on us and our children”) does not overcome nearly two millennia of its misappropriation and applications by Christians.
This is a very convincing explanation. But would the gentile reader really understand the extent of fear and pain suffered by Eastern European Jews when priests quoted this passage to the largely ignorant crowds at Easter and pogroms followed? Yaron Z. Eliav, associate professor of rabbinic literature and Jewish history in late antiquity at the University of Michigan describes the Roman public baths, their history, architecture and function, and the Jews in the baths, their medicine and hygiene. Byron R. McCane, professor of religion at Wofford College in South Carolina, deals with Jewish ritual baths, and ossuaries, while Hanna Harrington, professor of Old Testament at Patten University in Oakland, California, completes the subject by discussing holiness, purity and impurity, sin and tohorot.
Dennis E. Smith, professor of New Testament at the Philipps Theological Seminary in Tulsa, Oklahoma, writes that meals had a special significance in Second Temple Judaism in both domestic and cultic settings. The subject deals with the Jewish dietary restrictions, meals in sectarian settings and in the early Jesus movement.
The dictionary’s ecumenical and international character brought together a carefully chosen group of Jewish, Christian and unaffiliated scholars.
Published in November, it includes the latest findings of historical and archeological research.
The editors – John J. Collins, Holmes Professor of Old Testament Criticism and Interpretation at Yale Divinity School, and Daniel C. Harlow, professor of Early Judaism and Christianity at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan – were assisted by a team of 13 consulting editors. Among these were Esther Chazon and Michael E. Stone of the Hebrew University, Hanan Eshel and James L. Kugel of Bar-Ilan University and Devorah Dimant of the University of Haifa.
Many prominent Israelis contributed to the alphabetical part.
The dictionary lists the entire available written testimony of the Second Temple, preserved in Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, Latin, Ethiopic, Slavonic and Syriac. This includes apocalypses, calendars, contracts, hymns, prayers and psalms, legal texts, letters, apocryphal and non-literature articles.
The subjects deal with the history of Judaism, Israel and the Diaspora, the Scriptures and the contemporary biblical interpretation, the Dead Sea Scrolls, early Jewish literature, archeology and inscriptions. Special chapters deal with subjects like Jews among Greeks and Romans, Early Judaism and Early Christianity.
The authors offer their own views, but also present each subject as it was understood by its contemporaries.
The dictionary guides us in our search for that magnificent world of thought and action long gone by, an inseparable part of our national heritage.
It certainly helps us to understand both the past and ourselves even better. Its contents testify to the impressive achievements of the Jewish intellectual and religious movements that made an undisputable contribution to the development of Western civilization.