A three-century period of intellectual, cultural and political turmoil spawned seeds of belief found today in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, with multiple echoes seen in the Christmas story, according to a Baylor University historian.
Philip Jenkins, a distinguished professor of history in Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion, said ideas of angels, a non-military messiah, and heaven — all parts of the Christmas story heard each year at this time — can trace their beginning and development to Palestine during a period between 300 and 50 B.C.
“It was a great era of globalization,” Jenkins said in a recent phone interview from his home in State College, Pennsylvania, where he splits his time with Waco during the Baylor school year.
The Greeks under Alexander the Great had spread and established their culture wherever they went, integrating their conquests into an economy that connected large regions of territory, he said.
Palestine, the land in which Jesus grew up, fell within what Jenkins calls the Hellenistic Triangle whose vertices were centers of Greek thought and trade: Antioch, Alexandria and Seleucia.
Jewish scholars and scribes scattered throughout that area found their beliefs confronted by not only new thoughts from other religions and philosophies, but also Greek concepts of science and learning. Some stretched their beliefs to incorporate those ideas and stories, while others became more rigid in their orthodoxy.
“There’s a real cultural and spiritual revolution in that period,” Jenkins said.
Power struggles over territory in the decades after Alexander’s death in 323 B.C. — primarily between the Seleucid and the Ptolemaic dynasties, with Rome coming to dominate both — and popular revolts against those ruling powers made ripe conditions for cultural and theological ferment, captured in the title of Jenkins’ newest history, “Crucible Of Faith: The Ancient Revolution That Made Our Modern Religious World.”
Jewish books and writings from that period, some preserved in the Apocrypha found between the Old and New Testaments in many Bibles, show the development of new ideas on angels and demons, Satan, heaven, hell, a messiah and a final apocalypse between good and evil, Jenkins said.
The Book of 1 Enoch, written in approximately the second century B.C., proved a pivotal work, particularly in its description of supernatural beings and existence.
“The angels of the Old Testament are different than those in the New Testament period. They’re more of a generic figure, serving as God’s voice,” Jenkins said. “They don’t have individual identities and they don’t have names. … But with the Book of Enoch, you’re dropped into this world of angels and demons, heaven and hell.”
Angels in Enoch and subsequent writings have names — Uriel, Gabriel, Raphael, Ariel and the like — as well as specific duties and identities. Why? Part of the reason may come from the strengthening of the Jewish belief in one God, or monotheism, during that period, Jenkins said. As the concept of an all-powerful God grew, so did the distance between that God and humankind, causing some to fill that space with intermediaries or messengers, he said.
By the time the Gospels of Matthew and Luke were written, the two New Testament books with the stories of Jesus’ birth, angels were fairly established in popular Jewish belief. In Matthew’s and Luke’s Nativity accounts, “angels are everywhere,” Jenkins said. Angels deliver messages to Mary, the priest Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, Joseph and the shepherds tending their flocks at night.
Also in circulation at the time were concepts of one or more messiahs to deliver the Jewish people. Writings from the Qumran community in the second century B.C., many contained in what is termed the Dead Sea Scrolls, show a vigorous discussions of the idea of a messiah, apocalyptic struggles between good and evil, a heaven where the good were rewarded and a hell where the wicked were punished.
“The picture in the New Testament is less surprising than we might think,” the Baylor scholar said.
Political violence in the two centuries before Jesus also provide an interesting context to the birth of the Prince of Peace. Many may know of the Jewish revolt of the Maccabees against a Seleucid government in 160 B.C., an event celebrated in the holiday of Hannukah, but a smaller yet bloody uprising occurred near Galilee in 4 B.C. — a time that some historians believe may be closer to Jesus’ actual birth.
“It’s possible that Jesus was born in one of the most bloody and chaotic times of Jewish history,” Jenkins said.
While historians haven’t confirmed Herod’s slaughter of infants that Matthew recounts, what is known about Herod makes it plausible, he said. Herod not only saw himself as a Jewish king, but as a Greek and Roman one as well, and was not above killing family and court officials to maintain control.
“It’s absolutely in the style of what he did to his relatives and family,” Jenkins said.
The suggestions of Jesus as a new or second Adam, found in the Apostle Paul’s letters to early Christians, also have roots in Jenkins’ crucible period.
“Adam and Eve aren’t mentioned in the Bible (after the creation account in Genesis) until Paul,” he said. “Around 200 BCE, people start writing a huge amount about Adam and God.”
He said the apocryphal book “The Life of Adam and Eve” proved one of the most influential books of that period, and many of the ideas in that book, such as the tempting serpent equated with Satan and Satan’s fall from heaven due to sin, show up in John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” and popular Christian belief.
Jenkins’ “Crucible Of Change” followed from his last book, “The Lost Gospels,” in which he traced the long influence of Jewish and Christian books outside the standard Jewish, Catholic and Protestant canons on Christian belief and tradition.
“There are dozens and dozens of books written in this (Crucible) period, but most people who aren’t scholars don’t pay any attention to this,” Jenkins said.
The prolific Baylor scholar won’t have to travel as far for source material on his next book, a history of the United States since 2000.
“This is literally a story you’re making up as you go along,” he said. “The good thing is you have all the information in the world. The bad thing is you have all the information in the world.”