New book by Rice’s Henze broadens understanding of early Judaism and early Christianity

Reading the Old and the New Testament is not enough to understand Jesus of Nazareth, his apostles and the rise of early Christianity, according to a new book by Rice religion scholar Matthias Henze. To understand the Jews of the Second Temple period, it’s essential to read what they wrote — and what Jesus and his followers might have read — beyond the Hebrew Scriptures, Henze said.

Matthias Henze is the Isla Carroll and Percy E. Turner Professor of Biblical Studies, professor of religion and founding director of the Program in Jewish Studies. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

“Mind the Gap: How the Jewish Writings Between the Old and New Testament Help Us Understand Jesus” was published this month by Fortress Press. The 235-page book shines a light on the four-century gap between the Old Testament and New Testament, introduces this period and its writings and discusses how they have been read through history. The book guides readers’ encounters with select texts and explores key ideas in New Testament texts that can’t be understood without these early Jewish writings — the Messiah, angels and demons, the law and the resurrection of the dead. Henze also discusses the role of these writings in the “parting of the ways” between Judaism and Christianity.

“We all know that Jesus was a Jew,” said Henze, the Isla Carroll and Percy E. Turner Professor of Biblical Studies, professor of religion and founding director of the Program in Jewish Studies. “But what do we actually know about the Jewish world of Jesus beyond what we read in the New Testament? The New Testament assumes that we are familiar with Jewish beliefs and practices of first-century Israel, when, in fact, most of us are not. But if Jesus was a practicing Jew, and if we know little about his Judaism, how can we understand Jesus, his life and message?

“In the latter half of the 20th century, scholars have made enormous progress answering these questions, but these new insights are hardly ever translated into a language that is easily accessible to the nonspecialist,” Henze said. “The purpose of the book is to introduce the reader to the Jewish world of Jesus, to explain what our ancient Jewish sources outside the Bible are and to demonstrate, based on specific passages from the New Testament, how we can better understand the world of Jesus when we read the New Testament together with these forgotten ancient Jewish texts.”

“Mind the Gap: How the Jewish Writings Between the Old and New Testament Help Us Understand Jesus”

Henze, who has written and edited books on biblical interpretation at Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were hidden, and on various other early Jewish writings, wrote much of this book last year when he was a visiting scholar at the University of Sydney in Australia at the invitation of the Mandelbaum Foundation. This was made possible by a Humanities Research Center Teaching Release Fellowship.

“The book is written for a general audience that is interested in ancient Judaism, and particularly in Jesus and the early Jesus movement,” Henze said. “The book argues that to understand the Jewish world from which Jesus emerged, we need to read ancient Jewish texts outside the Bible. Some of these texts come from the Dead Sea Scrolls. The book will be primarily of interest to readers of the New Testament, but also to everybody who wants to learn more about ancient Judaism at the turn of the common era.”

John Collins, the Holmes Professor of Old Testament Criticism and Interpretation at Yale Divinity School, said that the last 75 years have produced “exciting” biblical scholarship on late Second Temple Judaism, formerly referred to as the “intertestamental period.”

“Matthias Henze has rendered a great service to nonspecialists by writing an eminently accessible ‘beginner’s guide’ to Jewish literature around the turn of the era, highlighting its relevance to early Christianity,” Collins wrote in a review of the book. “This book deserves a very wide readership.”

Henze will discuss his book and sign copies during an event at the Glasscock School of Continuing Studies’ Anderson-Clarke Center at 6 p.m. Aug. 29. To RSVP for the event, which is hosted by the school’s Graduate Liberal Studies Program and the Master of Liberal Studies Alumni Association, go to https://gscs.formstack.com/forms/mind_the_gap.

About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is associate director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.