Shaye J. D. Cohen is the Littauer Professor of Hebrew Literature and Philosophy in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations of Harvard University—one of the oldest and most distinguished professorships of Jewish studies in the United States. Prior to Harvard, Cohen was the Samuel Ungerleider Professor of Judaic Studies and Professor of Religious Studies at Brown University, as well as the Dean of the Graduate School and Shenkman Professor of Jewish History at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
Cohen has written numerous scholarly articles and authored several important books, which include, The Beginnings of Jewishness: Boundaries, Varieties, and Uncertainties (University of California Press, 2001), Why Aren’t Jewish Women Circumcised?: Gender and Covenant in Judaism (University of California Press, 2005), and perhaps his most widely known book, now in its third edition and the subject of the present review, From the Maccabees to the Mishnah (Westminster John Knox, 2014).
From the Maccabees to the Mishnah is a calculated exploration into the history and development of Judaism between roughly164 BCE to 300 CE. It is here that Cohen carefully guides readers through a variegated landscape of transition, both before and after the rise of Christianity. However, Cohen does far more here than provide a mere historical survey of Judaism and its development into the rabbinic period. Rather, Cohen seeks to usher readers into the very heart of the social, cultural, and religious environment of Judaism as it was shaped and molded by the world and events around it.
Those familiar with the two previous editions of From the Maccabees to the Mishnah should welcome the revisions made to this third edition. Cohen has revised and updated the content for clarity and usability, and updated/added footnotes as needed. However, the most significant contribution to this third edition is the addition of a new chapter, titled, “Ways That Parted: Jews, Christians, and Jewish Christians (ca. 100-150).” This new chapter is a shortened and revised version of an essay Cohen wrote, “In Between: Jewish-Christians and the Curse of the Heretics,” in Partings: How Judaism and Christianity Became Two, edited by Hershel Shanks.
The strength of this volume are many, but the weaknesses are equally as numerous. For many readers, the approach to the topic brought by Cohen will be a breath of fresh air. He is lucid and judicious in his treatment of the period and its development, and the scope of material covered therein is well-organized, easily understandable, and presented with clarity. However, Cohen writes from a predominantly liberal Jewish perspective and his presuppositions can be seen on almost every page—especially the material on canonization and its implications. Still, apart from the content proper, the “Suggestions for Further Reading” section that has been included at the end of the book is alone worth the price of admission.
For some readers, Cohen’s approach and perspective will be value-added to their library even if they disagree with many of his conclusions. Others will find it to be rubbish. I am of the former persuasion. I found much of Cohen’s material extremely helpful and I appreciate the enduring nature of his work. But, like any book, this was only realized after understanding and evaluating the presuppositions therein. If you are looking for an informative guide into the social, cultural, and religious development of the Judaism underlying the New Testament, From the Maccabees to the Mishnah by Shaye J. D. Cohen is indispensable. Read it closely and carefully, and interact with it rigorously. It comes highly recommended!
I received a review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.