Peter Schafer's "History of the Jews in Antiquity" combines a succinct narrative of the period reported by Flavius Josesphus in his histories "Antiquities of the Jews" and "The Jewish War" with extra insight from wider sources. I'd been struggling with the common translation of Josephus' works, William Whiston's 18th century work, and found Schafer's modern text clearer and easier to understand. Though written in German, the English translation bears no awkwardness of the movement from the original to English.
Schafer, a German scholar now on the faculty at Princeton Theological Seminary, draws on rabbinical writings and other souorces to expand and improve on the accuracy of Josephus' history. From Schafer, I have a better understanding of the differences between Saduccees and Pharisees as well as the impact of Greek culture on the people of Palestine, as he describes the region comprising Judea and the other territories of the Middle East ruled variously by Greeks, Jews, Egyptians, and Romans. Until I read his book, I'd no idea that Palestine remained in violent turmoil from the Maccabean rebellion through the Roman destruction of Jerusalem.
I read this as a Christian who's been working at understanding why people listened to Jesus' message of peace and love. Schafer makes it clear that Jewish society split between those who adapted Greek ways and those who eschewed them, that the former tended to be wealthy urban dwellers and the latter, rural poor. Piety, he explains, came to be associated with poverty and wealth with decadence. Temple high priests were just as embroiled in poower politics as kings were. In this time, the Greek ideal of Achilles established the image of a powerful man, the opposite of the teachings of John and then Jesus.
First Published in 1995. Routledge is an imprint of Taylor & Francis, an informa company.