Editor's note: Portions of this article have been previously published on the author's website.
A recent book by Philip Jenkins looks at a tumultuous time in history that contains lessons for believers trying to navigate today’s religious landscape.
"Crucible of Faith: The Ancient Revolution That Made Our Modern Religious World" (Basic Books, $19.99) covers a time period of about two centuries prior to the birth of Christ to a half-century after his death. So much happened in such a short amount of time such that Jenkins refers to it as a crucible in which different world faiths were shaped.
The genesis of an idea
Jenkins is a 66-year-old professor of history at Baylor University with nearly 30 books to his name.
He identified the need for "Crucible of Faith" doing research for a 2015 book, "The Many Faces of Christ: The Thousand-Year Story of the Survival and Influence of the Lost Gospels." While studying the period from about 250 B.C. to A.D. 50, he discovered a paradox: it was a time of near unprecedented religious influence and yet the effects of the period are virtually unknown outside academic circles.
“(It) was a time of such dazzling creativity and invention, yet so much of what happens in that era is completely obscure to non-experts,” Jenkins wrote in a recent e-mail interview. “I wanted to describe the era … that set the stage for the creation of the New Testament, and also for the making of Rabbinic Judaism. Hence, 'Crucible of Faith.’”
A crucible of faith
Jenkins argues in "Crucible of Faith" that the highly charged political environment in the centuries surrounding the birth of Christ were like a crucible for the formation of many themes essential to Christianity, Judaism and Islam.
In the midst of significant political upheaval, writers of religious texts often incorporated events from their day into scripture.
Jenkins claims essential ideas such as heaven and hell or the Messiah and Satan did not appear in the religious writings we refer to today as the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament. This revolutionary claim transcends religious boundaries, according to Jenkins. It did not matter if one were Jewish or Christian — or would become Muslim centuries later. Ideologies common to all major Western religions were greatly influenced during these centuries.
One of the more fascinating concepts Jenkins details is the degree to which people in this crucible era influenced each other’s religious beliefs.
“It was not a question of whether external influences were available,” Jenkins writes in "Crucible of Faith," “but rather which of them appealed most to the needs and tastes of the potential recipients at a given time. The demand side of the equation mattered as much as supply.
“And the demand was high,” he adds.
S. Kent Brown is a scholar who supports some of the ideas put forth by Jenkins. An emeritus professor of ancient studies at Brigham Young University and former executive council member at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, Brown is the author of "The Lost 500 Years: What Happened Between the Old and New Testaments." He acknowledged the momentous nature of Jenkins' crucible era and the degree to which people were subject to influence.
“The Jewish people, from whom our scripture tradition comes, were subject to enormous pressures from foreign governments and armies and cultures that, in other cases, swallowed peoples and made them into Greco-Roman adherents,” he wrote in a recent email interview.
At the same time, Brown emphasized what people of the time retained. “Remarkably, the Jews held onto their scripture,” Brown said before adding an important caveat: “But their brush with Greco-Roman society left an imprint.”
Whether one looks at what was changed or what was retained, the explosive political environment set amidst a backdrop of globalization left an indelible mark on both Christianity and Judaism.
“Those two critical centuries made the religious world the West has known ever since,” Jenkins wrote in "Crucible of Faith." “Without this spiritual revolution, neither Christianity nor Islam would exist, and Judaism itself would have been unimaginably different.”
Challenges and applications
"Crucible of Faith" contains a number of ideas that can be challenging for religious believers and yet which can also serve to strengthen faith.
Jenkins does not shy away from challenges presented by his work. As he teaches concepts from his book to students at Baylor University, Jenkins is commonly confronted with concerns over the relationship he identifies between political events and scriptural writings.
“My students protest,” he said. “(They ask me,) are you saying that we came to believe such things as the devil and the antichrist just because ancient political leaders were mounting propaganda against each other?”
“Those are wonderful questions, which demand an answer,” he said. “Religious understanding always grows and progresses … but that doesn’t mean that they are just being driven by … worldly matters.”
In other words, religious belief is affected by history, but that reality should not exclude other manifestations of God.
Brown, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, sees both advantages and disadvantages for studying scholars like Jenkins. He wrote, “The benefits from reading … non-LDS scholars are immense. For the most part, they are well educated and think clearly. That said, a person must be careful. Those scholars all carry biases — as do I.”
Brown has developed a personal habit in his many years of research. “I keep a gospel grid in front of me to judge whether the results of research carry some sort of theological bias,” he explained. “If they do not, then I am free to adopt what others have figured out.”
Jenkins indicated an approach like this is one of the lessons to be learned from the Crucible era. In his estimation, Jenkins believes those garnishing their religion with history should identify what beliefs are absolutely essential and keep them off-limits to other ideas.
“We really need to think carefully about what is the core of our particular religious tradition … and what can be negotiated,” Jenkins said. The discerning reader will recognize Jenkins is suggesting such a process can both protect cherished beliefs and open the door to receiving new truths.
Readers can engage with historical material and gauge its truthfulness for themselves. As with those who lived in the crucible era, the degree to which one is influenced by new truths or foreign beliefs is an issue of individual supply and demand.
This is one of the key lessons of the crucible period for those living today.
"Crucible of Faith" offers a challenging viewpoint to a revolutionary time in the history of Western religion and can be a resource for those seeking to understand historical trends in religion or those who want to learn from the past.
Kurt Manwaring is freelance writer and contributor to the Deseret News. He is online at fromthedesk.org, and on Twitter at @fromthedesk_