It’s an old book but it remains relevant and readable on the origins of Judaism and on the Jewish world in New Testament times. The book begins at the Babylonian exile (586 BCE) at which time characteristics of Judaism emerge, and concludes with the destruction of Jerusalem in 135 CE.
Foerster reiterates the factors common to all Jews, but sketches the various parties in Judaism (Zealots, Essenes, Pharisees, etc). The Babylonian exile is key to understanding Judaism: the waning of prophecy, the stress on the Law, circumcision and the Sabbath, and the emerging of ‘the three pillars’ (canon, synagogue, rabbis). The exile and the history of the next several centuries subjected the Jewish people to significant presses politically, culturally, socially and geographically.
The multiplicity of political forces on the Jewish community is staggering; they were in exile in, or occupied by—in the 400 years period—by the Babylonians, Persians, Syrians, Hasmoneans, Greeks and Romans, each emphasizing different social and cultural forces. New groups emerged: zealots, Sadducees, Essenes, Pharisees. New historical paradigms and theological perspectives developed. Of special note are the ‘three pillars’: the canon of scripture, the synagogue, and the rabbis (teachers); there was a corresponding drop in the importance of the priests.
It was also during this time that translation of the Hebrew biblical text into the Greek language took place, translating for the first time the scriptures of the biblical revelation into ‘a pagan’ language.
A good summary of a pivotal time in Jewish history.
Vern Ratzlaff is a pastor and professor of historical theology at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.