Ancient history History

Philip Jenkins Books: ‘Crucible of Faith’ Author Interview

Join scholar Philip Jenkins as he discusses his book, Crucible of Faith: The Ancient Revolution That Made Our Modern Religious World.

Philip Jenkins is a distinguished scholar who teaches at Baylor University. His work can be found on sites like Patheos, The Christian Century, and The Gospel Coalition, and there are more than a few Philip Jenkins books about the history of Christianity. Dr. Philip Jenkins is an expert in ancient sources such as the Dead Sea Scrolls and Book of Enoch.

Where did Philip Jenkins get the idea for Crucible of Faith?

This will be a bit of a complex answer!

I have a long standing interest in alternative scriptures and “other” gospels, which today are the subject of a huge popular mythology. In 2015 I published a book called THE NEW FACES OF CHRIST about the so-called lost gospels, arguing that they did not all, vanish into oblivion in the fourth century. Many of them survived and were read around the world for centuries, often in distant parts of the world far outside Europe, for instance in Ethiopia.

As I did this work, though, I was amazed at the volume and importance of other scriptures that were not technically apocryphal. Usually, they claimed to have been written by an Old Testament figure like Moses or Enoch, but long after those people lived. As a result, they are called the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha – which means “falsely written.” But that does not make them trivial or marginal. Once you get into those texts, you find they exist in vast numbers, and they had an enormous influence on the gospels and the early church, and on the circle of Jesus and the apostles. The Book of Enoch in particular is a critical text, and immensely influential. You really can’t understand early Christianity without some sense of these Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, that much-under-studied “OTP.”

Most of these texts were written between about 250 BC and 200 AD, which was a time of such dazzling creativity and invention, yet so much of what happens in that era is completely obscure to non-experts. That especially applies to the politics. I wanted to describe the era that produced those OTP texts, and that set the stage for the creation of the New Testament, and also for the making of Rabbinic Judaism. Hence, Crucible of Faith.

Incidentally, BYU has some prominent scholars working on this literature, especially at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute.

What books have most influenced Philip Jenkins?

There are a couple of very prolific authors, including James H. Charlesworth and Michael E. Stone.

Both have published so much on aspects of this era and its literature. That is impressive in its own right, but then you have to understand as well just how many languages and bodies of scholarship they had to master completely to turn out the work they have. You get weary just reading accounts of their lives and publications!

Even better, they approach topics that could be regarded in a very sensational or conspiracy-minded way, but they treat them totally responsibly and seriously. There are many individual books I could cite, but Michael Stone has a brand new book out called Secret Groups in Ancient Judaism, which looks at movements like the Essenes.

Incidentally, for anyone interested in these very diverse writings, you can find them all quite easily, either online, or in a magnificent collection called Outside the Bible, which is edited by Louis H. Feldman and others, and produced by the Jewish Publication Society. Apart from anything else, this is just a treasure trove for Mormons studying the Old Testament and the early Jewish worlds.

How does Philip Jenkins think Crucible of Faith has been received?

I have been very pleased by the reviews, which have taken the book very seriously and some have said how major a contribution it makes to understanding the world of Jesus.

One of the great pleasures for me was getting a very positive write up from Amy Jill Levine, a Jewish scholar who is one of the most knowledgeable people writing on this era. I was so anxious not to write something that reduced the study to just a “background of Christianity” thing, but which gave full respect and credit to the Jewish context.

What challenges do Philip Jenkins’s students face when dealing with ancient materials?

One common theme I hear concerns the relationship between worldly events and spiritual realities.

I argue for instance that the Jewish world in that ancient era was bitterly divided, and people write violent controversial texts against each other. But my students protest: 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? Was there no more to ides of the messiah than just these political controversies?

Those are wonderful questions, which demand an answer.

As I try to explain, those controversies provided vehicles by which human beings came to understand those higher realities, and were part of the means by which God revealed his truth.

Religious understanding always grows and progresses as humans contemplate and try to understand worldly events, but that doesn’t mean that they are just being driven by those worldly matters.

What Crucible era issues are ripe for future research?

The potential is almost limitless. There is a group of scholars now called the Enoch Seminar that meets quite frequently in different countries, and which includes the absolute best international scholars. Every yea, they proclaim a new agenda for their conferences, and it is really exciting to see how people travel so far afield from the original idea of the Book of Enoch.

They research ideas like the messiah, or Hell and the devil, as those themes appear in various Middle Eastern cultures, and they trace the relationship of those “secret” texts and ideas across Judaism, Christianity and Islam. One of the strongest themes that emerges in this era is that of angels, and it is here we find such very widely cited figures as Gabriel and Michael.

It is a very exciting time to be working in these matters, particularly when so many documentary finds have been made just in the past few decades, and more are coming out all the time.

If I had to pick one topic out of so many, it would be the “fourth religion” that emerged alongside Judaism, Christianity and Islam, namely the Dualist or Manichean tradition which in the Middle Ages actually was a transcontinental religion.

We have learned so much about this tradition in the last few decades, and about its inheritance from Jewish-Christian baptismal sects, and possibly to the world of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Think of it: rediscovering a lost world religion.

What can Christians today learn about recognizing and coping with change from the Crucible era?

This is such an important question because of the ways in which religions emerge and define themselves as separate from each other.

We tend to assume that the West has three great religious traditions, namely Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and those divisions are very fixed.

But that was not always the case, and in the Crucible era I discuss, the lines between Jews and Christians were paper thin. Also, there were plenty of other sects and movements who might easily have developed into world religions, especially the Manicheans.

But that’s not just ancient history.

Today, Christianity and Islam are booming worldwide, but who is to say that we might not enter a new era of chaos and division, sparked perhaps by climate-related catastrophes? Might we see some new religion altogether emerge in Africa, say, or Chia, growing out of Christianity but increasingly becoming a whole new package of beliefs and doctrines.

And as we know from history, old and new versions of a religion are often bitterly divided, to the point of intense violence.

We really need to think carefully about what is the core of our particular religious tradition, the indispensable heart, and what can be negotiated.

In what ways might today be looked back upon in 200 years as another crucible of faith? In 2,000 years?

I would be so delighted to know that the world would in fact still be here in two hundred years time! But in fact there are some trends today that strongly echo the Crucible era, above all the impact of globalization, and the cross fertilization of cultures and faiths.

Also, then and now, we have the role of new media in shaping faiths and religious cultures.

Then, it was the codex replacing the manuscript scroll.

Today, of course, it is the Internet. In religion, as in so much else, the medium profoundly shapes the message.

What are some ways history can encourage faith—even if it reveals truths that sometimes diverge from long-held beliefs?

This very much gets to my point above about religious truth and human events.

To varying degrees, Christians, Jews and Muslims believe that God acts through History and reveals himself in that history. There might be miraculous interventions and revelations, but the processes are commonly long drawn out, over centuries or millennia, and believers have to discern what is happening, and its meaning.

To understand history is to observe the workings of that process, as fully and accurately as can be achieved. Believers must never lag behind secular historians in their willingness to explore and confront those seemingly difficult moments and episodes.

Just on a personal note, I wrote a book called LAYING DOWN THE SWORD, about the very bloody Bible passages in which God seems to commend genocide and mass murder.

For me, the very worst way of handling these texts is to distort or smooth over them. Frank confrontation is the best way to proceed, and in my view, it proves that there really is nothing to fear.

I have read a few of your writings in which you are highly skeptical of the historicity of Mormon scripture while also being highly respectful of the Mormon tradition. Could you provide a brief comment on your views?

You phrase the question very accurately. I have immense regard for the Mormon tradition in so many ways, and in fact believe that it contains a great many lessons for mainstream non-Mormon Christians—about values of community, about the possibility of continuing revelation, and about practical commitment to aiding the poor and dispossessed.

If one of my children decided to join the LDS church, I would wish her all good things.

At the same time, I do not believe in the literal historical truth of the Book of Mormon in reflecting any realities in the pre-Columbian Americas, for reasons I have described at length in various blog posts and online debates.

That does not mean that I consider the book a lie or a forgery, but that I do not think it should be read as literal history or archaeology—and there is a substantial middle ground between those two positions.

In 2015, I engaged in what was for me an interesting and intellectually profitable online debate on these issues with LDS scholar Bill Hamblin, a knowledgeable and well-informed historian.

Obviously, people being people, neither of us converted the other to his own point of view!

But I learned much from that exchange about critical questions concerning definitions of proof and evidence, the nature of scholarly consensus, and how to establish where the burden of proof lies in any particular debate.

Will Philip Jenkins ever write a magnum opus?

The short answer would be no, as I have ranged so widely through so many different fields.

I remember the character Casaubon in George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch, who is wasting his life trying to string most of human knowledge together into a single book called The Key to All Mythologies.

The book by definition would never be written, and probably would not be worth much if it ever was!

I see that as a horrible warning.

* A book review of Crucible of Faith featuring selections from this interview was published in the Deseret News on March 10, 2018.

Further reading

Philip Jenkins books

A Global History of the Cold War, 1945-1991

A History of Modern Wales, 1536

Beyond Tolerance: Child Pornography on the Internet

Catholic Cambridge

Climate, Catastrophe, and Faith: How Changes in Climate Drive Religious Upheaval

Crime and justice: Issues and ideas (Contemporary Issues in Crime and Justice Series)

Crucible of Faith: The Ancient Revolution That Made Our Modern Religious World

Decade of Nightmares: The End of the Sixties and the Making of Eighties America

Dream Catchers: How Mainstream America Discovered Native Spirituality

Fertility and Faith: The Demographic Revolution and the Transformation of World Religions

God’s Continent: Christianity, Islam, and Europe’s Religious Crisis (The Future of Christianity)

Hidden Gospels: How the Search for Jesus Lost Its Way

Hoods and Shirts: The Extreme Right in Pennsylvania, 1925-1950

Images of Terror: What We Can and Can’t Know

Intimate Enemies: Moral Panics in Contemporary Great Britain

Jesus Wars: How Four Patriarchs, Three Queens, and Two Emperors Decided What Christians Would Believe for the Next

Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can’t Ignore the Bible’s Violent Verses

Moral Panic: Changing Concepts of the Child Molester in Modern America

The Making of a Ruling Class: The Glamorgan Gentry 1640–1790

Mystics and Messiahs: Cults and New Religions in American History

Pedophiles and Priests: Anatomy of a Contemporary Crisis

Synthetic Panics: The Symbolic Politics of Designer Drugs

The Cold War at Home: The Red Scare in Pennsylvania, 1945-1960

The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade

The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia—and How It Died

The Many Faces of Christ: The Thousand-Year Story of the Survival and Influence of the Lost Gospels

The New Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice

The New Faces of Christianity: Believing the Bible in the Global South

The New Map of the Global Church (Church at the Crossroad)

The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity

Using Murder: The Social Construction of Serial Homicide

By Kurt Manwaring

Writer. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

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