Crucible of Faith

The Ancient Revolution That Made Our Modern Religious World

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Philip Jenkins
  • Lanham, MD: 
    Rowman & Littlefield
    , September
     336 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Not content to restrict his scholarly compass to such topics as contemporary global Christianity, World War I, United States history, ancient eastern Christianity, Welsh history, or serial killing, Philip Jenkins has now turned his gaze to Second Temple Judaism with Crucible of Faith: The Ancient Revolution That Made Our Modern Religious World. Given his eclectic range of interests, it does not need to be stated that Jenkins is not a specialist in that field, nor does he purport to be. But this disclaimer is by no means a dismissal, for the volume is an astute, lucid, and lively introduction to the theologically fecund and religiously and politically factious Jewish world of the period Jenkins dubs the Crucible era, approximately 250 to 50 BCE.

Jenkins’s primary thesis, asserted in the introduction with an audacity commensurate with the scope of his scholarly interests, is that the Crucible era was “one of the most revolutionary times in human culture” (xv). Indeed, this epoch “in effect created Western consciousness” (xv). Moreover, the Crucible age created the religious universe “we still inhabit today” (xv). At this point the reader may fear that such sweeping claims all but guarantee a tendentious and unsubtle approach to the subject at hand. However, Jenkins is less committed to these rather grandiose contentions (one is thankful that he does not reprise the language of “Western consciousness”) than he is to claims that are certainly robust, but not as hyperbolic. Those claims include the following: a religious revolution within Judaism took place during the Crucible era, resulting in the inscription into Judaism of a set of theological assumptions and sensibilities that significantly departed from those of the Old Testament (some of its later texts excepted); early Christianity is unintelligible apart from this new cluster of assumptions and sensibilities; and these assumptions and sensibilities were determinative not only for the forms of Christianity and Judaism that are extant today, but also for their extinct heterodox variants (e.g., Elchasaites, Sethians), and for other late antique religions like Manichaeism and Islam.

Jenkins begins his study with a chapter on the rise of “radical monotheism” in ancient Israel, a phenomenon that for him explains some of the preoccupations of the Crucible period, such as angelology. One can accept the main lines of Jenkins’s narrative while still harboring certain reservations about notions like “radical” or “pure monotheism,” and being wary of  his readiness to appeal to intellectual “needs” to explain the genesis of ideas. For example, Jenkins contends that “pure monotheism … created an intellectual need for intermediary figures who enacted the divine will in [God’s] stead” (xvi). Such an idea is not preposterous, but also not self-evident.

The majority of the book is devoted to demonstrating that the Crucible era was theologically innovative and revolutionary. One outstanding tendency of the period was to posit Scripture, however defined, as the primary route to divine truth. In fact, Jenkins credits the Crucible period with nothing less than the “invention of the Bible itself and the idea of Scripture” (xxix). As noted above, Jewish writers of this period moved angels from the periphery to the center of theological reflection, populating the earth and the heavenly realms alike with throngs of angels and demons, many of which they named and assigned discrete bailiwicks and tasks. Not unrelatedly, the Crucible period witnessed a dramatic surge of interest in both first and last things. Regarding the former, Jewish writers of this period, due in large part to their encounters with Hellenistic culture, grappled with the divine act of creation, appealing to vaguely hypostasized aspects of God, such as God’s Wisdom and Word, to mediate between the transcendent God and the material world. But not just Genesis 1-2, but also Genesis 3 took center stage at this time as Jewish authors speculated about the origin of evil. With respect to last things, Jewish texts of this period have a remarkable amount to say about the final judgment, resurrection, and heaven and hell, ideas that appear only in the most embryonic form in the Hebrew Bible. Finally, the religious revolution of the Crucible period was not only one of substance, but also of form. The wine of these new ideas was often poured into new literary wineskins, above all the apocalypse (e.g., Daniel 7-12), but also genres like the testament (e.g., Testament of Levi) or the oracle (e.g., Sybilline Oracles).

One of the most admirable features of the book is Jenkins’s close attention to the religious, cultural, and political contexts of this efflorescence of ideas and genres. For Jenkins, revolutionary ideas are generated, disseminated, and accepted during times of crisis, and he presents the entire period—and indeed, also the two hundred years or so after this period, during which characteristic Crucible ideas became even more firmly entrenched—as one of ongoing crisis for Jews. Jenkins adroitly alternates his chapters on the novel religious ideas developed during the Crucible epoch with chapters on Hellenistic culture, the Seleucid kingdom, and the Roman-Jewish Wars. The final chapter takes the narrative well beyond the Crucible period, to the rise of Islam (though it is disappointing that Jenkins’s discussion of Islam only spans two pages given his earlier claim that without the Crucible revolution Islam would not exist).

This book is a fine specimen of popular history and is recommended to anyone curious about this seminal phase of early Judaism and how it shaped the world of the early Christians. It suffers from the drawbacks of most works of popular history: certain points are presented as settled when in fact they are contested among specialists, and the secondary works cited are exclusively in English. But the educated layperson would be hard pressed to find a clearer and more stimulating introduction to what Jenkins convincingly describes as one of the headiest and most influential periods of religious history.

About the Reviewer(s): 

B. Lee Blackburn Jr. is Associate Professor of History and Humanities at Milligan College, TN.

Date of Review: 
February 11, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Philip Jenkins is a distinguished professor of history at the Institute for Studies of Religion, Baylor University. The author of twenty-seven books, Jenkins divides his time between Texas and Pennsylvania.


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