It was 113 degrees when I was at Qumran a few weeks ago. Set up on a ridge near the Dead Sea, the site is unforgiving—no escape from the sun, salt flats and barren wilderness in every direction, a claustrophobic gift shop and lunch room packed with tourists who never seem to make it to the ruins. One hour and a chicken schnitzel later and I was ready to go.
The folks who built Qumran? They stayed for 200 years.
If you know Qumran at all, you’ve probably heard of it in connection with the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were found in caves near this site beginning in 1947. The scrolls revealed the presence of an ascetic, dissident sect of Jewish religious revolutionaries who made their home here during the volatile period from the mid-2nd century BCE to 68 CE. A video at the visitor’s center suggests that John may have been a member here before becoming “the Baptist” and heading over to the Jordan River. Whether he was or wasn’t, the scrolls show that the world in which John and Jesus operated was full of ferment and change and the ideas that we associate with later Christianity and Judaism were finding their first expression in places like Qumran.
Philip Jenkins, in his new book Crucible of Faith: The Ancient Revolution that Made our Modern Religious World, makes a sweeping claim in the opening pages:
During the two tempestuous centuries from 250 through 50 BCE, the Jewish and Jewish-derived world was a fiery crucible of values, faiths, and ideas, from which emerged wholly new religious syntheses. Such a sweeping transformation of religious thought in such a relatively brief period makes this one of the most revolutionary times in human culture. These years in effect created Western consciousness.
Jenkins, a professor of history at Baylor University, has made a career out of helping us look at Christianity from new perspectives ever since he made a splash with his 2002 book, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity. That book forced U.S. Christians who were mired in narratives of decline to grapple with the explosive growth of the faith that was taking place in the Southern hemisphere. Maybe, Jenkins suggested, Christianity was just making one of its periodic, geographic shifts, this time from the West to the South.
In Crucible of Faith, Jenkins wants to lift up a period often neglected by biblical students—the so-called intertestamental period that is not reflected in most Protestant bibles. For many Christians, the biblical story skips directly from the return of the exiles to Jerusalem in the 6th-century BCE to Jesus’s appearance in the city at the start of the Common Era. Jenkins points out, however, that much of what we associate with the new Christian worldview, from angels to the role of Satan to apocalyptic expectations, was forming in this period, particularly the 200 year window that he calls the Crucible.
Jenkins doesn’t break a whole lot of new ground in this book. Scholars have been mining extrabiblical sources like 1 Enoch and Jubilees for many years now and have seen what Jenkins describes. What Jenkins does effectively is to tell this story clearly and with an eye to a general readership. The result is convincing, if a bit repetitious. It also helps that figures like Judas Maccabees and Herod the Great make such great copy.
The kind of scholarship Jenkins does makes biblical literalists nervous. He dates biblical books long after the periods in which they are set, (such as Daniel, a putative narrative of the Babylonian Exile, which Jenkins (and many other scholars) date to the 2nd century BCE). He also finds major historical forces at work, influencing the development of religious thought, such as the cataclysmic entry of the Hellenistic world into the Middle East with the arrival of Alexander the Great. For those who like their biblical inspiration unadulterated by current events, this can be distressing.
But Jenkins’ measured view and sturdy method are convincing and he forces the reader to look at old assumptions in new ways. For instance, the story of the early Christian church in the West is often told as an attempt to graft Greek philosophy onto Hebrew thought. But Jenkins makes clear that that confrontation happened long before the Christian moment and the Judaism that Jesus’ disciples swam in was fully engaged with Greek ideas and a Greek cosmology and had been for some time.
Looking at the excavated ritual baths and scriptoriums of Qumran, it’s hard to imagine a revolution sprouting from this desert site. But something big was happening that pushed this disaffected group out from Jerusalem. They saw angels of light and darkness at work in the world. The Roman legions may have eventually succeeded in reducing Qumran and Jerusalem to dust, but the religious dynamism unleashed in the Crucible years goes on.