Sunday, 20 November 2016

Israel Divided. Or Not?

Last weekend I was struck with a heavy bout of influenza which caused me to cancel a few appointments. It gave me some extra time to read and I decided to finish off Jona Lendering’s Israel Verdeeld (or Israel Divided).

The history of Israel and Jewish religion in the age of Jesus tickled memories of my past, growing up in the Dutch reformed church, while I follow Jona Lendering’s blog on ancient history and had enjoyed one of his previous books.

One of the first points to tackle is of course that Lendering assumes that Jesus actually did exist. Given that there are several independent, non-biblical sources that confirm his existence, I think that’s a fair point. But as Lendering argues, who he was and what he preached, is very hard to reconstruct because of the limits of the sources.

And this is where Lendering comes into his own as he explains how we can weigh the evidence, for example by rejecting facts that are only mentioned in one source, or which might have been added in later versions. Similar discussions pop up all over the book, whether discussing the actual theological differences between Jewish substreams or the power of priestly dynasties.

Israel in the time of Jesus

Politically the period was determined by the slow movement from the Seleucid to the Roman sphere of influence, until it became a Roman province during Jesus’ lifetime. At the same time, Jewish political and religious elites lost legitimacy as they got caught up in the power struggle and sometimes ended up on the losing side. Warfare also increased the tax pressure.

Lendering also describes how Jewish religion was divided over the interpretation of the halacha, the rules to live life. There were differences of opinion on such diverse topics as which texts were relevant (just the core books of the bible, or also the books of the prophets, and non-bible traditions?), on the relationship towards non-Jews, the afterlife and the limits to free will. There is ample proof of a lively debate that seems to have resonated deeply with those involved.

But the most important thing to take away is that fundamentally all Jews adhered to the sacrifice in the great temple of Jerusalem, and large parts of the halacha were devoted to the correct performance of the sacrifice.

A part that doesn’t seem so important is that of messianism. There wasn’t a feeling of the end of time and of the coming of the messiah, and apparently was not discussed much. Which doesn’t mean that there weren’t several people claiming to be the messiah before and after Jesus. But the messianist message in combination with an end of time revelation was typical of the Jesus’ strand of Jewish religion.

And this is what Lendering is quite clear on: Jesus was a Jew, who talked about issues that were relevant to the Jews of his age (mostly about the halachic rules) and in ways that they would recognise. The rejection of the halacha was a later development in Christianity.

Christianity as a separate religion

Essentially, the legacy that Jesus left fitted as well within Jewish religion as any of the other branches. Lendering shows that the parting of the ways was a protracted affair and that many Christians kept to the halacha (or a special variant for those that hadn’t been born as Jews) and visited Jewish temples hundreds of years later.

What had changed fundamentally by then, was the Jewish religion. The destruction of the great temple (during the Jewish Revolt of 66-73 AD) meant that it could no longer be organized around the sacrifice. Also, several religious branches seem to have disappeared after 70 AD, and the Farizee branch transformed into the Rabbinic brand of Jewish religion that we recognize today.

In the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD both Jewish and Christian both started to codify their dogmas and select which holy books were relevant or not. The situation where different interpretations of the same religion could live side by side was slowly disappearing. The process of separation was reinforced by Roman taxation of Jews, which forced Christians to choose. By the time Christianity had become the state religion of the Empire the divide had become deep, and religious anti-Semitism was creeping into the Catholic Church.

Lendering’s mission

Lendering succeeds admirably in drawing these developments in an understandable way, while staying true to the sources. But on a more fundamental level, the book doesn’t succeed. Lendering has spoken out repeatedly that ancient history (and archeology) should be made accessible to a broader public.

But as far as I am concerned the book is not easily accessible to a broader public. Lendering’s insistence to explain his method in detail on every occasion get’s tiring after some time. Even an interested reader like me dropped the book two thirds in, and left it for a couple of months. I might never have picked it up again.

For some reason I didn’t have the same problem with At the Edge of the World, the book that Lendering wrote together with Arjen Bosman on the Roman Empire in the Low Countries. I can’t lay my finger on what exactly is the difference between the two books, but perhaps Lendering on his own takes it all just a bit too serious.

To capture the imagination of readers, solid methods and arguments are not enough. A delicate balance needs to be struck between scientific rigour and readability. That is incredibly hard to do, and there's no dishonour in failing. On the contrary, Lendering should be commended for trying and his example should be followed.

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