Judaism Before Jesus: The Events and Ideas That Shaped the New Testament World

By Anthony J. Tomasino
Downers Grove, IL : InterVarsity (2003). 345 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Will Varner
15.2 (Fall 2004) : 271-272

With so many good treatments of Second Temple Judaism, the intertestamental period, and New Testament backgrounds, every new author in these areas feels the need to justify another offering. So it is with Tomasino’s handling of the same material which he styles as a description of what Judaism was like before and during the New Testament period. He mentions that he originally conceived of his book as “an introduction that assumes almost no prior knowledge of the subject matter. It’s an introduction for the uninitiated intended for Christian lay readers” (7, 8). His editor, however, envisioned the book also as a text for classroom use and for scholars, so he added some textboxes and more documentation (8). In this reviewer’s opinion, the editor should have left well enough alone and Tomasino’s goal would have been achieved. As it stands, however, the book could serve well as an introduction for laymen, but it falls far short of being of great value to the student or scholar.

Such an effort invites comparison to the many other standard works on this subject (e.g., Schurer and Grabbe), especially the one that is quickly becoming a standard volume, The Jewish Backgrounds of the New Testament by Julius Scott (Baker, 2000). To be fair to Tomasino, the above books are directed to a more academic readership, but some of the expressed targets for Tomasino’s book are classroom and scholarly readers. So a comparison is justified.

Tomasino covers the basic historical facts of the period leading up to the New Testament in a serviceable way. The book is well-written and easy to follow. A “Glossary and Pronunciation Guide” (329-36) is quite helpful. The “textboxes” every few pages offer some additional information to the serious reader. I was particularly impressed with the box on “Chronomessianism” (292, 293). For a lay introduction, it is good. The reader who wants to be exposed to the issues presently under discussion, however, will be disappointed. The textboxes only add information that a lay reader should also know.

Although suggested reading lists appear at the end of each chapter and include many of the standard works, observing what books and subjects were omitted was shocking. For example, unless this reviewer missed it, Scott’s influential volume does not make a single appearance in the entire volume! An “Author Index” would have been helpful to locate which authors were cited. Not only was Scott ignored, but recent writers who have written extensively on the theological worldview of Second Temple Judaism (James Dunn and N.T. Wright, for example) are also ignored. Now one may respond that Dunn and Wright have not written so much about the events of this period as they have about the ideas in this period. But look again at the subtitle of this book: The Events and Ideas That Shaped the New Testament World. Whatever one thinks of Dunn’s and Wright’s perspective, they should not be overlooked simply because of the massive influence they have wielded. Even lay readers need to have some awareness of the currents of thought on this subject in the last two decades.

Did Tomasino fulfill his goal? If you are looking for an introduction to the events of the period that shaped the Judaism Before Jesus, this book will serve you well. If you are looking for an introduction to the ideas of the period that shaped the Judaism Before Jesus, then you must look elsewhere.