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The Interpretation Of Judaism In The Book From The Maccabees To The Mishnah

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From the Maccabees to the Mishnah is a book by Shaye J. D. Cohen, Professor of Hebrew Literature and Philosophy at Harvard University. The third edition of this book contains a shortened version of In Between: Jewish-Christians and the curse of the Heretics which is the eleventh chapter in Partings: How Judaism and Christianity Became Two.

As the Name suggests, the book discusses Ancient Judaism between the Maccabean revolution to the Mishnah while also discussing Ancient Judaism in the Second Temple Period in general. The book is divided into eight chapters with each chapter addressing a different aspect of Ancient Judaism. Chapter one is a brief historical overview from 587 BCE to the latter part of the fourth century. Chapter two describes the political, cultural and social aspects of the relationship between Jews and Gentiles. Within this chapter Cohen discusses the multiple rebellions and wars from the Maccabean revolution of the second century BCE to the wars of the first and second centuries CE.

Chapter three focusses on the democratization of Judaism in the Second Temple period which Cohen describes as the “major development” in Judaism of the time.

Chapter four addresses the Jewish Community and its institutions with Cohen concluding that “Jewish society of the Second Temple and rabbinic periods was, in many respects, a typical ancient society.”. Chapter five is the largest chapter within the book and focusses on the Sectarian and normative aspects of ancient Judaism. Cohen concludes this chapter by linking his argument back to chapter three by stating that sectarianism is the “culmination of the democratization of Judaism”.

Chapter six explores the implications of canonisation in ancient Judaism. These implications were the “emergence of people who claimed political and religious on the basis of their scriptural expertise.” and the beginning of scriptural study which resulted in the “creation of three new literary genres; scriptural translation, paraphrase, and commentary.”. Chapter seven is titled “The Emergence of Rabbinic Judaism” and is where we get the books first in depth look into what Judaism was in the second to sixth centuries. This chapter is also where we explore what the Mishnah is with Cohen stating that the Mishnah was “the first rabbinic book, written in Hebrew and edited around 200 CE”. As I mentioned above, a shortened version of In Between: Jewish-Christians and the curse of the Heretics is included in this book and can be found in the final chapter. This chapter looks at the Roman, Jewish and Christian viewpoints of each group.

To begin the critical reflection section of this paper I would like to address the question “How successful is this book in achieving its goal?”. To answer this question, we must first identify the books stated goal. Cohen writes that the goal of From the Maccabees to the Mishnah is to “interpret ancient Judaism: to identify its major ideas, to describe its salient practices, to trace its unifying patterns, and to assess its relationship to Israelite religion and society.”. It is my belief that Cohen achieves this goal. One example of this is done through the way Cohen presents each topic. The book does not require a vast knowledge of Ancient Judaism to understand the topics being discussed and each point is displayed clearly and concisely with any terms which the reader might not understand being found in the glossary between pages 273 and 276.

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One such example of this can be found in Chapter 5 Sectarian and Normative under the subheading The Focal Points of Jewish Sectarianism. In this section Cohen discusses three main focal points of Jewish sectarianism; law, the Temple and scriptural interpretation. Within the “law as a focal point” heading Cohen compares Jewish and Christian sectarianism which allows readers from both sides to gain a basic understanding of sectarianism. Cohen does this by writing “Christianity is a creedal religion, and Christian sectarianism too is creedal…. Judaism, however, was not a creedal religion. The cutting edge of Jewish sectarianism was not theology but law.”. A section I found extremely interesting was the section on the Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes. Although I had learned about them through my first year New Testament class, it was amazing to read about their beliefs and where they stood socially within Jewish society. Cohen explores these topics by discussing which texts and works were associated with each sect.

Within the third chapter, Cohen writes about the place of women in Judaism in ancient Judaism, a topic which he would expand on in his 2005 book Why Aren’t Jewish Women Circumcised? Gender and Covenant in Judaism. Ancient Judaism was androcentric with some groups excluding women all together. Cohen writes that “Women’s Judaism remains elusive” as we have multiple sources of what men believed was the place of women in ancient Judaism, but we have little to no texts on what women thought of their position in society as even texts with female main characters such as Tobit, Esther and Judith accept the male dominated society they live in with little to no opposition. Concerning this, Michael Wojciechowski writes “The conventional view is that the author of Judith is interested in telling a story about the heroic deed of Judith and about the divine help for Israel, rather than in teaching morals. He Is more interested in piety and purity laws than in moral commandments.”

For the final part of this section I will discuss what implications I believe From the Maccabees to the Mishnah may have for interpreting the texts of the New Testament. In modern scholarship it is rarely ignored that Christianity began as an offshoot of Judaism, but a book like From the Maccabees to the Mishnah is an excellent reminder of this. By looking at the society and culture of Ancient Judaism we can see the context in which the early church was created therefore leading to a more informed reading of New Testament texts. In the final Chapter, Cohen writes “Christian Literature from approximately 100CE to 160 is uniformly hostile to Jews and Judaism.”. . Although this is again rarely ignored in modern scholarship, it shows that while reading new Testament texts, one should keep in mind the anti-Jewish beliefs within the texts and attempt to look past them in interpretations. Take for example Philippians 3:7-9.

Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. (NRSV)

In This text Paul is not speaking of a replacement theology but instead a messianic eschatology, a redefinition of what Israel is to the followers of Christ but is impossible to deny that there is a clear anti-Jewish message which Cohen illustrates extremely well.

In conclusion, From the Maccabees to the Mishnah is successful in its goal of interpreting Ancient Judaism while also effecting how New testament texts should be interpreted. Cohen describes the complex practices of an ancient society so clearly that it is difficult to become confused by points made.

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