Lawrence Schiffman has provided a readable and brief treatment of Jewish history, starting from the Biblical period through the Second Temple period and into the Rabbinic period, a span of over 1,000 years. Any history of this scope intended as an introductory level history must be necessarily brief and Schiffman’s book is no exception. This does not, however, keep it from being a useful and informative tool.
The author begins by stating that his method will be ‘historical’ but that his main focus is not ‘to tell the story of people, but rather to tell the story of ideas’ (2). His focus is therefore to trace the development of the Jewish religion from biblical to Rabbinic times against the backdrop of the historical realities in which it developed.
The second chapter contains a brief sketch of the the biblical heritage, summarizing the content and import of the biblical text. This chapter is really to set the scene for the following developments. He then turns to Judaism in the Persian period, which is a period of overlap between biblical Judaism and non-biblical Second Temple Judaism. Though his work is chronologically organized, in this chapter we see Schiffman’s strategy of treating each broad historical section topically. Thus, he begins by sketching the historical and archaeological background, the political environment, and other elements before he gets to the literature of the period. This topical strategy will guide the rest of the book. The importance of this period, according to Schiffmann is the development of Torah interpretation as the dominant source of Jewish law and the reestablishment of the Temple (59).
The next four chapters deal with Judaism and the Hellenistic age. Chapter 4 is a sketch of the development of Hellenism, ch. 5 is a look at how Judaism functioned within the Jewish diaspora. Ch. 6 deals with the Hasmonean period and sketches particularly the development of sectarianism in this period. Finally, in ch. 7 the author turns to a discussion of the literature of this period by discussing the Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, and the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The next two chapters deal with Judaism under the Roman rule and detail the events which led to the Jewish-Christian schism (ch. 8 ) and the revolt and eventual destruction of the Second Temple (ch. 9).
The rest of the book transitions to a discussion of Rabbinic Judaism with a study of the Mishnah (ch. 10), the development of rabbinic Judaism within the world of the the developing Christian empire (ch. 11), the Talmud (ch. 12) and the daily life of those who adhere to Rabbinic Judaism (ch. 13).
The book is a great overview of the development of the Jewish Religion. The strength of a book of this brevity is one is clearly able to see how Judaism truly did develop over time. It took very creative work on the part of the Rabbi’s to adapt Judaism to its ever changing historical reality. The strength of the book is also its weakness. It is very brief and though it provides a topical bibliography for further research none of the author’s statements are footnoted to be traced further. But for what it is, a generalist introduction to the development of Judaism, the book is very successful.