No one can do serious study of the the New Testament without carefully studying the Jewish world out of which it came. Scholars generally refer to this era as the “Second Temple period.” There are numerous works that are helpful for better understanding this time span of time.
Among the most important for me has been, E.P. Sanders, Judaism: Practice and Belief, 63 B.C.E to 66 C.E. (Fortress Press, 1992). It is amazing to realize that this influential book is now almost 30 years old!
Suffice it to say, since Sanders’ work, the study of the Second Temple Jewish world has exploded. It has been almost impossible to keep up with all of the publications and debates.
For instance, research on synagogues in the late Second Temple period has gone in some surprising directions. One cannot talk about the subject without mentioning the crucial work being done by Anders Runesson. His work has, for instance, highlighted important archaeological evidence that sheds light on synagogues in the first century. In addition, he has shown that synagogues were often quite different from one another. While some were public centers for the Jewish community broadly, others were associated with particular sects and groups. In other words, the term “synagogue” had a wide range of meaning.
Keeping up with all of the various studies on the ancient Jewish world is an almost impossible task. Thankfully, due to the outstanding work of Daniel Gurtner and Loren Stuckenbruck, a summary of all that work is now available in a new, two volume set: T&T Clark Encyclopedia of Second Temple Judaism (T&T Clark, 2019).
Aristotle and Judaism, the Canon and the Canonical Process, the Dead Sea Scrolls, Historiography, Inscriptions, Fallen Angels, Levites, Medicine and Hygiene, Pharisees, Sadducees, Synagogues, Zealots – you name the topic, this two volume work has an article summarizing the most important work being done on it. What is more, the essays are usually written by the leading scholars doing the crucial work in these areas themselves. For example, Anders Runesson himself writes the entry on synagogues.
I have been awaiting the publication of this book for many years. There is so much to learn about this period and what we can learn from it has massive implications for biblical studies. I have already begun to work through it. I plan to read it cover to cover over the course of the next year. I am already discovering important things I did not know about that will help me read biblical books with new eyes. And I do not just mean the New Testament. The “Second Temple period” stretches back to the time of Ezra and Nehemiah as well.
My only disappointment is the hefty sticker price. The price tag reflects the fact that the publisher clearly does not expect to sell copies to many individual buyers. That is a shame. If they did, this would have more influence. Yet it seems libraries are their primary market. To be fair, given the number of top-notch writers, this was probably a very expensive project to pull together. I have nothing but gratitude and respect for the work Daniel Gurtner and Loren Struckenbruck put into this.
All that said, every library should own a copy. This is the definitive reference work on Second Temple Judaism. And if you are doing research in any area of Second Temple Judaism, this is where you ought to begin. Get your library to order it and make sure you are first in line to check it out!