The document drawn up 25 years ago for the creation of this SBL unit identified two issues as the primary focus of the group: 1) the dynamics in the separation of emerging Christianity from early Judaism, and 2) the character of Jewish-Christian interaction during the consolidation of each as a separate religious tradition especially in the second century. Much has changed since 1989: our understanding of when, how, and why Christianity emerged from early Judaism has been shaken – “destabilized” is the post-modern term that comes to mind. We have called categories such as “Christianity”, “Judaism”, “Gnosticism” and even “religion” into question, and reinserted key figures such as Jesus and Paul into their Jewish matrices.
These developments do not negate but rather underscore the enduring importance of the issues. Many of us continue to be preoccupied with the dynamics in the separation of emerging Christianity from early Judaism and the character of Jewish-Christian interaction during the period of consolidation, or, more precisely, the interactions between or among Jews and Christians. In my time today I will not propose a new mandate for this group, nor deconstruct its activities. I will merely reflect on one area that, it appears to me, is ripe for exploration, and make one observation about the nature of the enterprise more generally.
A new area to be explored
As we know, historians of early Christianity used to be confident in dating the so-called “parting of the ways” to the era between 70-132 CE. In doing so they often traced the seeds of this separation back to Jesus, Paul, and the evangelists: Jesus because he opposes the Pharisees and priests, Paul because he articulates a “gospel” for the Gentiles that proscribes circumcision, and the evangelists Matthew and John for their strident critiques of “the Pharisees” and “the Jews.”
In the past two decades or so, this simple model has largely been replaced by a far more complex historical picture according to which the theological, ritual, social and institutional boundaries between Judaism and Christianity remained fluid throughout the first several centuries of the common era. This reassessment can be attributed to many factors, including the postmodern critique of stark binary oppositions (e.g. Judaism versus Christianity), the post-Holocaust mood of rapprochement, and the reexamination of basic categories such as “religion” and their applicability to first-century groups and texts. These issues are by no means settled, but recognition of the Jewishness of much of the New Testament material has opened up some interesting discussions about issues such as the Gospels’ portrayal of Jesus as a participant in Jewish ritual life (John Meier), Paul’s use of Jewish “patterns of religion” (Sanders), the evangelists’ use of Jewish exegetical methods (Borgen), Synoptic divorce sayings (Kister), messianism and Christology (Collins), and the Jewish use of theological terms and concepts (such as the Logos, that are often seen as specifically Christian; Segal).
It is obvious that the growing perception of the Jewishness of nascent Christianity affects the ways in which historians understand early Christian history. But I have been pondering recently a different though related question: what difference, if any, might the Jewishness of nascent Christianity make for our understanding of first-century Jewish history, theology, and practice?
That the New Testament can be a source for understanding Judaism has of course not gone unnoticed. The editors of the Jewish Annotated New Testament comment that “familiarity with the New Testament helps Jews to recover some of our own history” (p. xi) and some of the contributors, including myself, address this briefly in their comments to particular books. Specific issues have been studied, for example, by Serge Ruzer, who has explored the significance of the New Testament as a witness to early Jewish exegetical methods, and Anders Runesson and Lee Levine, who include the New Testament in their analyses of the first-century synagogue. Others have posed similar questions with respect to rabbinic Judaism (Peter Schäfer) and medieval Judaism (Israel Yuval). But there is room for a more systematic exploration of questions such as the following: 1. Does situating nascent Christianity firmly within first-century Judaism modify, expand, or otherwise alter our understanding of the latter, that is, change our historical consciousness about this foundational period in Jewish history? 2. If not, why not, and if so, in what ways?
These questions first occurred to me in 2001, when I began looking at the figure of Caiaphas in ancient sources and modern historiography. I was surprised to see that whereas the high priest looms large for historians of early Christianity, he is all but ignored by scholars of early Judaism. This discrepancy, I concluded, was due to the different interests of these two groups of scholars. While historians of early Christianity constructed a narrative focusing on the historical Jesus and consequent developments — a story in which Caiaphas, as the high priest under Pilate loomed large — historians of early Judaism constructed a narrative of the causes, course, and consequences of the first Jewish revolt against Rome, a story in which the priests of the first half of the first century did not play a major role. The historians of Christianity did not ignore the revolt, but contextualized it within their larger narrative of the development of the Christian church and Christian theology; historians of early Judaism acknowledged the high priests of the early first century, but primarily as antecedents to the priests whose activities were more prominent in Josephus’s accounts of the Jewish war. These differing interests may well account for the fact that the Jewishness of nascent Christianity is considered more fully within constructions of early Christianity than within those of early Judaism.
Of course, the possibility that the Jewishness of nascent Christianity does not matter as much for Judaism as for Christianity should not be ruled out. Yet a brief sampling of the evidence suggests that the New Testament can help to fill out a picture of early Judaism whose contours have usually been drawn on the basis of other textual and material evidence.
1. The Prologue of Fourth Gospel builds upon and presupposes a Logos “binitarianism” that is attested in other Jewish sources (Boyarin). Yet the harsh exchange between the Johannine Jesus and the Johannine “Jews who had believed in him” (John 8:31) ascribes to the “Jews” a strict, even radical, monotheism. Might this be evidence of a theological controversy within the Jewish community with which the Johannine author or community would have been familiar?
2. In light of Paul’s assertion that even Peter, a pillar of the Jerusalem church, ate with Gentiles (Galatians 2:11-13) — probably thereby violating the dietary laws — can we see in Paul’s letters evidence for a variety of opinion and practice with regard to the dietary laws in the first-century Diaspora?
3. The “antitheses” that Matthew attributes to Jesus (Matthew 5:21-48) may point to a controversy around the question of whether thoughts and intentionality, and not only behavior, count in the observance of certain laws.
4. And if we truly see Jesus as a Jew, might not his interchanges with women, often constructed over against the patriarchal nature of Judaism, actually point to an aspect of first century Judaism itself?
It seems to me that the study of early Jewish-Christian relations might fruitfully address the question of what the Jewishness of Christianity might contribute to our understanding of early Judaism as such.
Now to my observation. It seems obvious, at least to me, that even as historians of early Judaism and Christianity, we straddle two eras, one foot firmly planted in the literary and material sources of antiquity and the other in our own time and place. Some of us refer to our uncomfortable position explicitly. In his preface to Border Lines, for example, Boyarin “comes out” (his language, not mine) about his love for Christianity, and explores how it affects the book that follows. He notes that at first he insisted to all who would listen that: “I’m just trying to figure out what really happened!” Only later did he come to understand that this book was an attempt to “justify my love, to explain it, to ask that it be understood by others, but also, once again, to make it just, just to the Jews and Christians and their discourses that are its subjects.” Boyarin’s erasure of the boundary lines between Jews and Christians is not only an interesting contribution to the study of Jewish-Christian relations but also a reflection of his attempt to challenge the simple and rigid categories that are so prevalent in our own culture and our own lives.
In my own work I too have gone from divorcing my history in early Christianity from my own identity to acknowledging that leaving oneself behind is an impossible and fruitless endeavor. In contrast to Boyarin, I was the secular Jewish child of Holocaust survivors who grew up in an immigrant, predominantly Italian, neighbourhood and with mostly non-Jewish classmates and friends. But like Boyarin I spent much of my career convinced that “I’m just trying to figure out what really happened.” I haven’t quite left that behind, but I have for some time now realized that my resistance to some points of consensus in New Testament studies stems not only from my scholarly judgment but also from my sensitivity to anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism that was so prevalent throughout much of the history of New Testament scholarship and at least to some extent is engendered by the texts themselves.
One issue that has heated me – and many others – up in the past decade or more concerns what might seem like a very small point: the appropriate English translation of the Greek term ioudaios. Should it be translated as “Jew” or as “Judean”? And on what grounds? This is not the place or time to rehearse the fraught history of this controversy. (Those of you who are interested will find the recent forum organized by the on-line book review journal Marginalia to be a good introduction to the issue and the range of viewpoints.) But this is one issue in which it is difficult to keep contemporary concerns from creeping into scholarly judgment. While many participants in the discussion state that they are merely aiming for the historical truth, that is, for a way of expressing how the ancient authors and audiences of these texts would have understood the term, it is not in my view possible to ignore the point that either choice has implications for issues such as anti-Judaism, anti-Semitism, and perhaps even the Israel-Palestine conflict. Some of those who would refrain from using “Jew” argue that using “Judean” helps to avoid the deicide charge, that is, by referring to the forces arrayed against Jesus as Judeans rather than Jews, they interrupt the tendency to view the Jews as responsible for Jesus’ death. Others say that by using Judean scholars are in fact, whether intentionally or inadvertently, supporting a strand of anti-Semitism that refuses to acknowledge a Jewish presence in Jerusalem and environs in antiquity. All this to say that in investigating ancient Jewish-Christian relations we are not merely engaging in a historical exercise that aims to uncover the “dynamics in the separation of emerging Christianity from early Judaism” or describing the “character of Jewish-Christian interaction during the consolidation of each as a separate religious tradition” but participating in ongoing and potentially uncomfortable conversations between Jews and Christians today and within Jewish and Christian communities themselves. I do not have a recipe or even a suggestion as to whether or how this factor should be incorporated into our scholarship, but would suggest as a starting point that we acknowledge its unavoidable presence.
Adele Reinhartz is Professor in the Department of Classics and Religious Studies at the University of Ottawa, in Canada. Follow at www.adelereinhartz.com and @adele_reinhartz.
Check out the previous posts in the series!
1. Andrew Jacob's Introduction, "Early Jewish Christian Relations at SBL: A 25 Year Retrospective
2. Jeffrey Siker, Jewish/Christian Relations at 25: Retrospect & Prospect