In December 2017, I was privileged to interview Philip Jenkins in association with the publication of his latest book, Crucible of Faith: The Ancient Revolution That Made Our Modern Religious World.
My brief interactions with Jenkins were impressive. He came across as professional, prompt, and witty – a rare trifecta of interview subject attributes.
Kurt Manwaring: Where did you get the idea for Crucible of Faith?
Philip Jenkins: 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.
Kurt Manwaring: What are one or two books in this field that have most influenced or inspired you?
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.
Kurt Manwaring: How do you think your book has been received thus far?
Philip Jenkins: 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.
Kurt Manwaring: When you teach concepts from your book to your students at Baylor, are there any common themes or issues that trouble students? Noticeably enlighten them?
Philip Jenkins: 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.
Kurt Manwaring: What Crucible era issues are ripe for future research?
Philip Jenkins: 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.
Kurt Manwaring: What can Christians today learn about recognizing and coping with change from the Crucible era?
Philip Jenkins: 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.
Kurt Manwaring: In what ways might the changing politics and religious beliefs of today be looked back upon in 200 years as another crucible of faith? In 2,000 years?
Philip Jenkins: 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.
Kurt Manwaring: Some religious believers are almost afraid of history. What are some ways history can actually encourage faith—even if it reveals truths that sometimes diverge from long-held beliefs?
Philip Jenkins: 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.
Kurt Manwaring: 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?
Philip Jenkins: 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 blogposts 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.
Kurt Manwaring: You have expertise in a wide range of disciplines. If you could write a magnum opus combining all your major interests into a single work, what would you write about?
Philip Jenkins: 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.