I love reading about Eastern Orthodoxy, scripture, and nonfiction works that challenge me to expand my view of the world.
E.P. Sanders, Judaism: Practice and Belief, 63 B.C.E. - 66 C.E. (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1992). Pp. 580. Paperback.
I chose to read this book to answer a very specific question: how exactly was Judaism practiced in the time of Jesus, and how did the Temple function? I've been reading various books about ancient and middle-eastern culture, and it became very obvious that the culture of the biblical world was very different than our world. As I thought about this, I wondered about the things that the New Testament authors don't mention in their texts because they presumed the reader had a familiarity with the context in which the stories were written - context that includes the daily practice of first century Judaism and the workings of the sacrificial system of the Temple. However, since this presumed context no longer exists for a 21st century American reader, I decided I needed to do some reading in order to be able to understand the New Testament better. Here's where Sanders's nearly 600 pages comes in.
This book was an amazing recommendation. The only other books that cover this topic in depth are History of the Jewish People, vol. II by Schürer, and Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus by Jeremias. Sanders's book is, in many ways, a correction of several theses argued in these two volumes.
Sanders is mostly concerned with what he calls "common Judaism" in the first century. This includes the ideas that were common in all practices of Judaism; ideas that shaped people's observances, and their daily, weekly, seasonal, and annual practices. In short, he summarizes the beliefs of common Judaism as: 1) There is a God who created the universe and he has chosen Israel to do his will - the idea of election; 2) As a result of this election, Israel was given the Law, and they were to obey it; 3) It also means God will protect and save his people, at least those who are loyal to him.
With this in mind, Sanders is able to discuss how the Temple functioned: daily, seasonal, and annually. For example, if you wanted to offer a sacrifice, he explains how one would do this. Sanders also explains how the Levites and priests lived while serving in the Temple, and how they lived, and what they did, while at home. He then discusses how the average Jew lived out his religion. There’s a discussion about how tithes and taxes worked, how the major feasts were celebrated, and how worship and Sabbaths were observed. Within these discussions, Sanders is also able to write about circumcision, purity, food, charity, love, and hopes for the future.
After discussing common Judaism, Sanders turns to a discussion of the three main parties within Judaism: the Sadducees, the Essenes, and the Pharisees – which were all quite small, compared the entire first century Jewish population. His argument articulates exactly what role they played in society, and what sort of influence they may have had on how Judaism was practiced, as well as how much influence they had on the politics of the time. Here is where he tends to disagree the most with Schürer and Jeremias. It's interesting to note that the Pharisees have less power than many presume, and that they have less control over the life of the synagogue than previously thought.
The real beauty of this book is that Sanders is able to articulate three things: 1) how Judaism was practiced (the ins and outs of how the rites where performed); 2) what the rites meant to the people (the theology of first century Judaism); and 3) how Judaism, and its various parties, fit into a larger socioeconomic and cultural context.
Though the almost 600 pages may be a bit much for the average reader of scripture, I do highly recommend it for anyone who is a serious student of the Bible, anyone who teaches biblical literature, or anyone who has to preach from biblical material. It will definitely give you a better foundation in which you can understand the stories of the New Testament.