Cohen, Maccabees to Mishnah

Several months ago, a friend at church asked me for a good book about the period between the Old Testament and the New Testament. He’s a numismatist and familiar with Greek and Roman history, but not so much on the Jewish history of the so-called Intertestamental Period. “How do we get from there to here?” I recall him asking. I hadn’t a recommendation for him at the time. After asking around, I picked up a few different books to read through, intending to hand over to him whichever I might find to be the best of the bunch. So, consider that the context of this short review.

I’ve just finished reading Shaye J. D. Cohen’s From the Maccabees to the Mishnah, second edition (Westminster John Knox Press, 2006). The first edition was volume seven of the Library of Early Christianity series edited by Wayne Meeks; apparently this second edition is not to be considered part of that series, oddly enough. The cover is unlike the standardized cover of the series, as one may see here. At xiv + 250, it is neither too short nor particularly detailed, and footnotes are kept to a minimum, and extremely economical even at that. There is a glossary and general index, and the whole is certainly geared to “students and other nonspecialists” as Cohen notes in the Preface to the First Edition (p. xi).

The book is an introduction to Jewish history between roughly 200 BCE and 200 CE, thus the “Maccabees to the Mishnah” of the title. Note my careful choice of phrasing: it is an introduction to Jewish history of that period, and not a history of the period in itself. This I find to be the case in that the chapters are thematically rather than chronologically arranged. After the Foreword to the First Edition by Wayne Meeks, and the Prefaces to the First and Second Edition of this book by Cohen, chapter one, “Ancient Judaism: Chronology and Definitions” (which is really the Introduction to the work, discussing concerns of phraseology for the period and other issues) is followed by a Timeline. One might at this point, particularly in light of the title, expect the work to be arranged chronologically, but this is not the case. As I mentioned, the book is arranged thematically, in the following chapters:
2. Jews and Gentiles
3. The Jewish “Religion”: Practices and Beliefs
4. The Community and Its Institutions
5. Sectarian and Normative
6. Canonization and Its Implications
7. The Emergence of Rabbinic Judaism
There then follows a helpful thirteen pages of annotated “Suggestions for Further Reading,” arranged by chapter, and then the glossary and general index.

The thematic arrangement I found to be a distraction, in all honesty. The book is well-written and clearly up-to-date, being an especially clear presentation for those who might be new to the subject. Cohen shows himself an adept at summarizing without oversimplifying. But I found myself often relying on my own fund of knowledge in order to fill in the gaps, as I ran into explanations that were at times too drastically curtailed, no doubt due to limited space. Yet I especially thought that more of a chronological arrangement would have made the book that much more valuable and useful. As it is, I would need to recommend this book in conjunction with another, something like Julius Scott’s Jewish Backgrounds of the New Testament (Baker Academic, 1995) or Anthony Tomasino’s Judaism before Jesus: The Events & Ideas That Shaped the New Testament World (Intervarsity Press, 2003). [As an aside, how many books on this period are going to be titled alliteratively? “From the Greeks to the Godfearers” “Persians to Pharisees” “Apocalyptic and Afikomen”] Scott’s book is particularly successful at combining chronological and thematic chapters, and that, I think, would be much more useful to the kind of audience that Cohen’s book is aimed at: the “students and other nonspecialists.” One might hope for a vastly reworked third edition in not so limited a format (223 pages of text really is too short; Scott is just over 350 pages of text, and Tomasino just over 300) in which Cohen could “go to town” on the subject, rather than being so limited and therefore occasionally too terse.

We might not expect a third edition to come from the same publisher, however. As Cohen notes in an addition to his preface for this addition, dated December 2005:

The first edition of this book was published by Westminster Press in 1987 in the Library of Early Christianity series edited by Wayne Meeks. I was delighted then to be associated with a Presbyterian publishing house. It is one of the blessings of America that a Presbyterian publisher would commission a Jew to write a book on early Judaism for a series oriented to students of the New Testament. This never happened in the old country. Eighteen years later I am grateful to Westminster John Knox Press for publishing this second edition and remain grateful to the press for its courtesies to me over the years. I am no longer happy, however, to be associated with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the parent body of WJK, because I am deeply pained by the recent anti-Israel turn in its policies. The fact that WJK is editorially and fiscally independent of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) affords small consolation; by publishing this book with WJK I am associating myself perforce with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), an organization whose anti-Israel policies I condemn and distrust.

Bravo, Professor Cohen.

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