Early Judaism

New Insights and Scholarship

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Frederick E. Greenspahn
Jewish Studies in the Twenty-First Century
  • New York, NY: 
    New York University Press
    , July
     272 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Judaism may have its roots in the Bible yet, as editor Frederick E. Greenspahn notes in Early Judaism: New Insights and Scholarship, “many of its practices and beliefs took shape later than the events depicted there” (1). This volume brings together an array of top scholars in the field of Early Judaism to shed light on the period in which Judaism developed. Beginning with the Dead Sea Scrolls in the 2nd century BCE and ending with Rabbis in the 3rd to 5th centuries CE, the book focuses on questions of canon, ritual practices, and identity. 

The stated aim of the volume is “to present what modern scholars have learned about this early form of Judaism” (3). Thus, each chapter—presented in rough chronological order—details the current information available on the topic. In addition to the known details, the authors share the major questions that scholars currently debate on the topic, often showing the challenges faced when trying to gain a complete picture of Judaism in this period. For example, Ruth Langer’s chapter on Jewish liturgy gives details on what is known about liturgy at this time, while illuminating the different theories proposed by modern scholars about the development of a liturgical system (147-67). As a result, the picture that emerges is that Early Judaism remains a dynamic field of study.  

An overview of the book will demonstrate its value for those seeking to understand this period. Following an informative overview of the book’s objectives laid out by Greenspahn, the book is divided into two parts. The first part is titled “Early Diversity” and includes five chapters that discuss issues related to Jewish writings and identity. In this section, some of the popular writings that date to this period are discussed, namely the Dead Sea Scrolls (James VanderKam) and the extra-canonical literature (Martha Himmelfarb). These introductions speak to the diversity of writings that became popular in this period which engage with biblical themes. The other chapters deal with questions of Jewish identity. Three major topics are discussed: the Jewish diaspora (Erich S. Gruen), whether Jews could be considered a nation (Seth Schwartz), and the relationship between Judaism and Christianity (Adele Reinhartz). 

The second part of the book is titled “Emerging Normativity” and directs attention to the formation of Judaism as we begin to recognize it today. The chapters on synagogues, liturgy, and Rabbis use common identifying markers of modern Judaism and trace their origins back in time. Using the term “normativity” is somewhat misleading as the diversity of Jewish experiences continues to be emphasized by each author. Yet, despite a coherent picture painted by the Rabbis in Mishnaic and Talmudic texts, a clear line of development is consistently challenged throughout these chapters. Two of the chapters focus on Jewish practices, synagogues (Steven Fine), and liturgy (Langer), while the other chapters address topics that are more abstract in nature, namely, questions of gender (Elizabeth Shanks Alexander), and the emergence of Rabbis (Christine Hayes) as a formal institution. 

The conclusion, by Robert Goldenberg, returns to the larger question: “what indeed are we talking about when we talk about early Judaism?” (231). In seeking an answer, Goldenberg retraces the historical events touched upon in the individual chapters and seeks to bring them into a modern perspective. While a helpful question to return to, much more space could have been allotted to unpacking it. Trying to both conclude the book and make overall connections between Early Judaism and modern Judaism remains an ambitious task. Nevertheless, readers will likely appreciate the similarities drawn between ancient and modern events. 

Overall, the book provides a helpful overview of the current issues and discussions taking place in the field of Early Judaism. The chapters are complementary and, when taken together, give those unfamiliar with the early formation of Judaism a starting point for further study. The endnotes from each chapter give helpful resources for those wishing to dig further into that topic. While there is a clear order to the chapters, they can also be read individually. As such, they provide useful snapshots for those less familiar with the field, notably undergraduate students. For example, VanderKam’s chapter on the Dead Sea Scrolls provides an accessible analysis of the content, dating, and significance of the scrolls. Moreover, Reinhartz’s chapter on the “parting of the ways” gives multiple theories as to how the two religions—Judaism and Christianity—eventually came to take different paths. Such chapters on their own are helpful entry points for students, and could therefore serve as helpful readings for undergraduate courses. 

Early Judaism: New Insights and Scholarship speaks to an important period in the formation of Judaism. By presenting the material not as an end point but as a state of current scholarship, the book models how scholars continue to question and push the boundaries of knowledge with the goal of gaining a fuller picture of this foundational period of Jewish life. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Nathalie LaCoste is Adjunct Faculty Member in Biblical Studies at Queen's College, an affiliate of Memorial University of Newfoundland.

Date of Review: 
March 26, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Frederick E. Greenspahn is Gimelstob Eminent Scholar of Judaic Studies at Florida Atlantic University.  He is the editor of The Hebrew BibleWomen in JudaismJewish Mysticism and Kabbalah, and Contemporary Israel, as well as author/editor of numerous other titles, including When Brothers Dwell Together.



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