Neusner, Jacob. Judaism in the Beginning of Christianity. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984.
Jacob Neusner is one of the foremost scholars of Judaism (go to your local library, find the section on Jewish literature, and I guarantee his name should appear a few times). This books is smaller, but quite similar to his Judaism When Christianity Began: A Survey of Belief and Practice (2002). For those who want to dip their toes in the shallower end of the pool before diving into the deep this is a solid primer.
Chapter One: The World of Jesus’ People: Israel in the Land of Israel–Rome in Palestine introduces the city of Jerusalem and the place of the Temple in Jewish culture (pp. 17-19). Neusner discusses how both Christians and later Jews interpreted the destruction of this Temple through the lens of the people’s sin. It was “the sinning generation (p. 20).” Further groundwork is laid by exploring Herod’s rule and his relationship with the Romans (pp. 20-22), the economic life of the people (pp. 22-23), the education of the people (pp. 23-24), and finally their social classes (pp. 24-25).
Neusner seems to depart from the idea of some scholars that education was rare in first century Israel. He says,
“Many of the people, rich and poor alike, received an education in the main disciplines of Jewish tradition. This education, centering on religious learning, was sufficiently broad to impart civilizing and humanizing lessons. What did ordinary people study? They learned the Holy Scriptures (pp. 21-22).”
He doesn’t discuss literacy, but I think he rightly presents education at that time as not being dependent upon literacy. This is sometimes missed by us moderns. Also, he says that Jewish teaching wasn’t as much about metaphysicals as (my wording) ethics or practice.
The “sects” of the Essenes, Sadducees, and Pharisees are given attention (pp. 25-28). In this section he discusses the Qumran sect, though he doesn’t seem to directly equate them one-for-one with the Essenes. Neither do I find a denial of this. Rather, he notes that what we know about Qumran sounds a lot like what Josephus and Philo said about the Essenes. The Pharisees are described as “separatists” who tried “…to rebuild society on its own ruins with its own mortar and brick (p. 26).” He classifies the Zealots under the Pharisees’ umbrella. The Pharisees as a whole are depicted as quite influential. They did observe many rules that causes them to sometimes “segregate” from the rest of the community. This seems to fit the Christian depiction, though the later Christian depiction is mostly negative.
The Sadducees are “upper-class” who were conservative “in both ritual and belief (p. 27).” They denied the oral traditions and interpretations of the Pharisees. They denied the survival of the soul, bodily resurrection, and anything they felt didn’t match their exegesis. This attracted the wealthy and influential, so when the Temple fell they did not survive.
When addressing “normative Judaism” Neusner says that it didn’t exist (p. 29). He finishes the chapter by addressing the limited self-government of the Jews as well as the role of women in their society (“…women is regarded as anomalous, man the norm and normal.”), which wasn’t very positive (e.g., no women priest, women not allowed in some parts of the temple, etc.) (pp. 31-32).
Chapter Two: Sages, Priest, Messiah explains the “holy men” of that time. “The scribe or sage (later “rabbi”) centered on the Torah, the revelation of God to Moses at Mount Sinai, and laid stress upon study and interpretation and application of the teachings of the Torah to the everyday life of the Jewish people (p. 35).” The priest served in the temple.
As regards Messiah:
“People who looked forward to the near-at-hand coming of the Messiah emphasized the issue of salvation. They thought that the great public events bore deep meaning for Israel’s life, and so gave great emphasis to preparing now for an end that was coming soon (p. 35).”
The symbols of the time that corresponded were the “alter,” the “scroll,” and “a coin marked ‘Israel’s freedom: Year One; for the messianic modality (p. 36).”
From this paradigm Neusner explores how people thought about “history,” “time and eternity,” “salvation,” and “sanctification (pp. 39-44).”
Chapter Three: The Pharisees hones in on this sect because they are depicted as Jesus’ “greatest competition” in the Gospels and the “Judaism” presented by the Pharisees is that which morphed and survived after the fall of the temple. We are introduced to the sources that tell us about the Pharisees (pp. 46-47), how they changed after 70 CE (pp. 47-48), their theology (pp. 48-49), and how polemics against the Pharisees shape our understanding of them now (pp. 49-50). Josephus’ presentation of the Pharisees is summarized (pp. 50-52). Their relationship to Hellenist is explored (pp. 52-53). We are shown the different depictions of the Pharisees in the Gospels and later rabbinic writings (pp. 53-56) as well as what these presentations have in common (pp. 56-58). The chapter ends with “Women and Pharisaism (pp. 58-61).”
Chapter Four: The Figure of Hillel introduces us to the problems of “reconstructing” the “historic Hillel” from the sources we have. Neusner compares this to the “quest for the historical Jesus.” It is Judaism’s “counterpart.”
Chapter Five: Judaism Beyond Catastrophe unpacks “the meanings of the events of 70 C.E. (p. 89).” Jews tried to interpret and understand the fall of Jerusalem and their temple. Christians said it was because the nation rejected Jesus, the Messiah (p. 91). “Jewish apocalyptics” agreed that it had to do with sin, but it wasn’t because they rejected Jesus. They were unfaithful to their covenant, or as Baruch 3.10 says, “You have forsaken the fountain of wisdom.”
As I stated above this book is a fine, short primer of Judaism in the first century. I don’t think this would be a main textbook, but it could supplement. Also, it is a fine short read, especially for those just beginning to study Judaism when Christian begun.