Galilee in the Late Second Temple and Mishnaic Periods Volume 1

Galilee in the Late Second Temple and Mishnaic Periods Volume 1 July 9, 2016

I am grateful to Fortress Press for sending me a gratis review copy of Galilee in the Late Second Temple and Mishnaic Periods, Volume 1: Life, Culture, and Society, edited by David Fiensy and James Strange. But I am perhaps even more grateful to have had the privilege of reading the book while traveling to and then around Galilee and other parts of the Holy Land. The book, and the geographical and archaeological realities in my surroundings, mutually reinforced and illuminated one another in ways that were not merely informative but thrilling and delightful.

But even if you don’t read this book in the Galilee, if you are interested in the New Testament or Judaism, the book is one that you will find extremely helpful. As the preface highlights, the region “birthed two Judaisms” (p.xviii), and recent work has changed our understanding of the region in important ways. This volume brings together a number of the top experts on the region, and beginning from the fact that “the quest for the historical Jesus is at the same time a quest for the historical Galilee” (Fiensy and Strange, p.5, based on something Sean Freyne said that is quoted on p.12 and alluded to more than once throughout the book), tackles a number of “antitheses” in scholarly views of the region (summarized on pp.3-5).

A multi-author book is challenging to summarize without making the review extremely lengthy. So hopefully it will suffice to provide a small sampling of some of the kinds of topics covered. These include the life story of Herod the Great and its relationship to Galilee; food production and transportation; seasonal mortality and the impacts of malaria (often missed by those reading in the New Testament about people with fevers, while we as readers are living in other parts of the world); pedology (study of soil) and climate; political unrest or stability; education; types of cities and other settlements; coin distribution; evidence of religious changes (widespread introduction of mikvot), and ways that even pottery preferences show that the “Jews in Judaea, Galilee, and Gaulinitis…made the deliberate and active choice to live in a manner specific to them alone and recognizable as such to outsiders” (p.215) so that in this period “religious commitment became…the task of the individual and a matter of choice” (p.95).

I was particularly interested in the mention of the use of caves as houses, or the building of houses over caves for use as an extension, in effect a basement. Eastern Christian tradition places the birth of Jesus in a cave. Cultural evidence suggests that Luke’s Gospel envisages Jesus’ birth in a typical home. The two intersect perfectly. That does not mean that Luke’s depiction is historical, just that these two traditions are not as divergent as they might first appear to someone who is not well informed about ancient homes in this region.

For anyone interested in the history of the ancient Mediterranean world, this book will be a rewarding read. For those seeking to understand the New Testament, I would say that it is absolutely essential. There is more work being done about ancient Galilee than a New Testament scholar is likely to be able to keep up with unless their research focuses exclusively on that aspect. For the rest of us, this distillation is a godsend, and I highly recommend it.

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  • And I just saw that the Kindle edition of the book is on sale for only $7.99! http://amzn.to/29CKt6k

  • James, just curious: which “two Judaisms” does the book claim to have been “birthed” in the Galilee?

    • Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism.

      • It’s an odd statement to make, to be sure. Put to one side where we think Chriistianity and Judaism were “birthed.” Do you think of Christianity as “a Judaism”?

        • At the time of its origin? Absolutely, 100%. That statement didn’t actually seem odd to me at all, perhaps because I just attended a conference dedicated to considering John’s Christology as a form of Jewish messianism.

          • arcseconds

            It made sense to me once you explained it, but I was thinking at the time ‘Rabbinic, and… surely not Second Temple Judaism itself?’

          • I think it’s pretty much mainstream to speak of the emergence of Christianity in terms of 1st century Jewish sectarianism. It is becoming mainstream (I think) to emphasize the Jewish quality of emerging Christianity, John’s Gospel included. And I think it is no longer controversial to speak in terms of a very gradual “parting of the ways,” one that may have taken hundreds of years. A bit more controversial, perhaps, is to see early Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism as sister religions, both born from second Temple Jewish practice and belief.

            But to say that “Christianity” was “birthed” as “a Judaism” is problematic in a number of ways. You’ve provided some clarification: you’re reading “Christianity” here to mean Christianity “at the time of its origin,” and depending on what origin you mean, it may not be accurate to refer to the originated thing as “Christianity.” Would it be more accurate to say that the Galilee birthed “early Christianity,” or “the Jesus movement”?

            I think that to speak of “Christianity” without modifier is to speak of the religion that emerged from Jesus at a stage in its development when the “parting of the ways” is already underway. It’s not at all clear to me that this movement is still a Jewish sect at the moment it can properly be described (without anachronisim) as “Christianity.” Certainly, the adoption of the labels “Christian” and “Christianity” represent a stage in the “parting of the ways” (early as it may be) when these early Christians were beginning to develop an identity separate from that of being Jewish.

            More confusing still is to throw “Judaism” into the mix. You’re probably aware of the line of thought that says that Christianity existed prior to Judaism, in the sense that we’re talking about religious identity (and not using “Judaism” to mean something like “Judeanism”). But even if we read “Judaism” here as something like “second Temple Judaism,” it’s not clear that second Temple Jewish sectarianism should be understood as variegated Judaisms, just as it’s not clear that Presbyterianism and Methodism are “two Christianities.”

            There’s more to say, but I’ll pause.