interior of book tower in Prague Municipal Library

That Old Time Religion, First Century Version

Wylen, Stephen M. The Jews in the Time of Jesus: An Introduction. New York: Paulist Press, 1996.
[An installment of the “Read Me” Project]

The Jews in the Time of Jesus ended up on the Read Me shelf because a book about 1st century Judaism looked so fascinating, and at the same time useful and justifiable for work.

And what a great book this is!! It delivered even more than it promised.

Wylen Jews in the Time of Jesus
The Jews in the Time of Jesus: An Introduction by Stephen M. Wylen

Rabbi Stephen Wylen has written several books, including the popular Settings of Silver, an introduction to Judaism, and Seventy Faces of Torah, on the traditional rabbinical approach to reading Hebrew scripture. If those books are like this one – clear, accessible, knowledgeable, thoughtful, and humane – then they would be well worth reading too. (I’m making my Christmas list.)

Wylen may not have addressed his book primarily to Christian readers, but he has certainly taken care to understand what Christian readers probably know, and think. This means the book functions gently, but firmly and authoritatively, as a corrective to Christianly-popular misconceptions about “Jesus’ time” or “Bible times.”

In particular, Wylen takes some time to point out the profound differences between contemporary rabbinic Judaism and the Second Temple Judaism of Jesus’ day.

Christians often make the mistake of projecting things we know, or think we know, about Judaism today backwards onto Jesus’ time. For instance, I’ve heard more than one preacher tell us about Jesus’ attitude toward the “613 commandments in the ‘Law.’” But the “613 commandments” are a fixture of rabbinic Judaism, the form of Judaism that develops over several hundred years after the destruction of the Second Temple – which means, after all the events in the Gospels and Acts. So, Jesus probably didn’t have any attitude towards those “613 commandments” at all, at least, not as such.

But more important, Wylen takes us on a helpfully guided tour of Second Temple Judaism itself. Including a really clear exposition of the history of the intertestamental period, from Hellenism through the Maccabees to the Hasmoneans and the Romans. This history never sticks in my head, and sadly I don’t think Rabbi Wylen has solved that problem for me. But at least now I know where to go look it up next time I need to remember it, because it has never felt as straightforward and clear to me as it does the way Wylen lays it out.

Wylen covers a lot of interesting religious, social, and cultural territory, too, discussing the pilgrimage festivals, the operations of the Second Temple, the social structure of Roman Palestine – and, by the way, did you know that “Palestine” was a Latin derivative of “Philistine”? I didn’t! – a careful discussion of the historical sources for the period, “the sects” – so, a nice discussion about what we do and don’t know about the Pharisees – and so on.

One highlight for me was his analysis of how Jesus is described in the Christian gospels, and what terms are used to name Jesus (e.g., “rabbi,” “Son of Man,” etc.), and how this relates to the way Jesus would probably have been perceived in his historical-social-cultural context. That is, who did Jesus’ followers think he was, and who did the people who came to his sermons think he was? He makes a helpful case for Jesus’ membership in an existing category, “the charismatic preacher and healer,” which would have made him a meaningful figure in his own time, and which – perhaps not so coincidentally – also makes him one of a line of figures in Jewish tradition down to the present time.

A second highlight was his careful distinction between the “pious Christian,” “pious Jewish,” and scholarly assumptions and methods (14-15), which he draws on throughout the text, noting where these converge and diverge. It’s helpful language, and a beautiful demonstration of how to conduct a discussion between divergent viewpoints on the same material. Wylen’s own position seems clear, but I think he also manages to articulate it without offending readers who might hold a different one.

And last but not least, I just love the way Wylen writes: crystal clear, plain-spoken, accessible with never a whiff of condescension, and a sense of kindness and understanding … in a history book! Reading The Jews in the Time of Jesus was just a delightful experience.

So: I loved this book. I’m really glad I finally read it. I highly recommend it.

interior of book tower in Prague Municipal Library

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