What are the "relations" in early Jewish Christian relations? The term "relations" is neutral enough to encompass a variety of relationships, from enemy to friend to anywhere in between. It is thus a useful word to have in the title for this group, which for the past twenty-five years has sought to explore the variety of ways that Jews and Christians related to each other in late antiquity. The presentation titles over the years bear this out: On the one hand words like polemic, conflict, competition, violence, dispute, and controversy recur; on the other hand, we find numerous references to less strained relations, from "cultural contact," intersection, and "encounter" to conversation and dialogue. More recently, attention has shifted to explore the making of the very categories "Jew" and "Christian." Theories of identity formation and theories articulated in the social sciences have helped us talk about the continuities and differences between Jewishness and Christianness and the historical contingency—and even incommensurability—of the categories themselves. Often the discourse of identity formation includes an examination of the ways in which one constructs the "self" in relation to its "others," or, maybe, in this case, Other with an upper-case "O." In what follows I want to reflect briefly on the limitations of the "self/other" model for describing Jewish-Christian relations. I'm interested not only in the critique of the self/other model but also in its usefulness as a way to theorize identity and difference, historically and today.
I draw on some theoretical interventions in recent works in our field to register two important critiques of the self/other model. One critique asserts that the self/other model privileges conflict: self/other easily slips into Self vs. Other, and it assumes some sort of oppositional relationship between two discrete entities. The second critique holds that the self/other model makes a binary relationship out of a swarm of intersecting identities. It bifurcates a system of multiple, diverse, interlocking, and overlapping relationships and identities.
1. Conflict model
In his 2011 book, Rethinking the Other in Antiquity, Erich Gruen suggests that the recent attention to the ways in which ancients constructed their Others has encouraged a focus on discourses and practices of exclusion rather than inclusion. With an eye to the present, he opens the book with this remark, "Alterity and 'Otherness' have too often plagued our world. The denigration, even demonization of the 'Other' in order to declare superiority or to construct a contrasting national identity is all too familiar" (Gruen, 1). Instead of focusing on strategies of differentiation and distancing, Gruen turns his lens to instances of positive and imaginative appropriation of other cultures—others' myths, practices, and characteristics—to describe a "more circuitous and a more creative mode of fashioning a collective self-consciousness" (Gruen, 4). He concludes that "the establishment of a collective identity is an evolving process, intricate and meandering. To stress the stigmatization of the 'Other' as a strategy of self-assertion and superiority dwells unduly on the negative, a reductive and misleading analysis" (Gruen, 356).
In their recent edited volume, Jews, Christians, and the Roman Empire, Natalie Dohrmann and Annette Yoshiko Reed also assess the effects and limitations of the "analytical privileging of conflict." By focusing on discourses of exclusion, they suggest, scholars risk an exclusion of their own. Dohrmann and Reed ask in their introduction:
What voices, data, or perspectives are left out when we treat moments of conflict as typical, assuming that the ancient Jewish, Christian, and Roman experience was otherwise characterized by mutual isolation [?]. If we imagine that all identity is a question of agon, every text and event is reduced to a single scale, as if the aggadic bagatelle and the most gruesome martyrology can be charted as stronger or weaker assertions of the same impulse to will self over other. The processes of the non-exceptional quotidian under Rome . . . may require measuring by a different cultural barometer. (Dohrmann and Reed, 13)
We might pause to ask: What are these different cultural barometers? (Here I'm thinking of Ra'anan Boustan's suggestion in his contribution to this session that we examine more non-elite sources in our study of early Jewish Christian relations. Might we then identify different cultural barometers?)
Dohrmann and Reed continue by pointing to two other problematic effects of the analytical privileging of conflict. First, the conflict model treats "Judaism" and "Christianity" (not to mention "Rome" and "Hellenism") as discrete, bounded, commensurable categories. Second, they write, "to treat all interaction as struggle or 'culture war' . . . is to blunt the brutal and shocking force of those moments of religious violence that shook the cycles of local life, particularly during the process of Christianization" (Dohrmann and Reed, 13). Interesting. By interpreting our evidence in a framework of conflict or agonistic cultural differentiation, we risk underplaying the force of historical instances of violence.
From a different angle, Andrew Jacobs also challenges us to think beyond the framework of self vs. other. In the introduction of Christ Circumcised, Jacobs notes that "when we take as normative the process of defining the self through the exclusion of difference, we gloss over some of the complex internal dynamics that shaped Christianity throughout the ancient period" (Jacobs, 3). Drawing on both postcolonial theories of hybridity as well as psychoanalytic theories of subjectivity, Jacobs shows how the "other" functions for the self not only as an object of differentiation and distinction—one to be feared and disavowed—but also as an object of desire, identification, positive appropriation and incorporation (Jacobs, 4). To focus solely on the fear/conflict side of identity formation is to ignore important practices of appropriation, internalization, and incorporation—practices that expose the fantasy—the fantastical nature— of boundaries between self and other.
It's also worth exploring whether or not the conflict model of identity formation privileges the terms and models of elite Christian leaders of the fourth century and beyond. That is, does the conflict model allow the adversus Iudaeos preachers to set the very terms of the debate in which the scholarship today still operates? Does the conflict model feed into the "clash of civilizations" rhetoric—a rhetoric we know to be insidious not least from its present use as a way to understand the relationship between "Islam" and the "West"? (Here the critique of the "clash of civilizations" discourse, from Talal Asad, Joan Wallach Scott, among others, may fruitfully inform the reframing of early Jewish Christian relations, and vice versa: The scholarship produced by scholars of early Judaism and Christianity, I'd argue, has something to teach present-day critics of "clash of civilizations" discourse). By framing relations in terms of conflict, do we feed a discourse in which religion—or at least religious difference—is identified as the virus of which violence is the symptom?
2. Binary Model: the problem with two-ness
When thinking about the bifurcation of identity and the analytic privileging of "Jewish" and "Christian" in Jewish-Christian relations, it is important to ask: For whom, in late antiquity, is Jewish-Christian difference the "difference that makes a difference?" (to borrow a phrase from J.Z. Smith). Whom does this difference benefit or hurt? For whom does this difference make sense? When? Where? And who gets to speak in this particular discourse of differentiation? The investigation of power relations has been a feature of the work of this group from its inception, and currently local specificity has become increasingly important in the study of early Jewish Christian relations. This is evident especially in the scholarship that has grown out of the critique of the "parting of the ways" model. By going local, we have learned how identities and differences were articulated in different ways at different times and places. Jewish Christian differences meant different things in Nisibis than they did in Antioch, Caesarea Maritima, Carthage, or Rome.
The turn to local specificity has also challenged scholars to move beyond a strictly binary framework of Jewish/Christian as this framework is inadequate for capturing the complexity of intersecting identities at any given time or place. In her essay, "No More Clever Titles," Megan Hale Williams remarks:
The two terms (Jewish/Christian) intersected with other systems of categories: Jew/gentile, Greek/barbarian, Roman/Greek, and so on. . . We cannot write a history of the relations between Christianity and Judaism in the Roman empire without at the same time taking into account the relation of each of these concepts to other categories of identity current at the time. Such a history, therefore, has to consider at every moment not a binary opposition but—at a very minimum—the shifting dynamics of a lopsided triangle defined by the interaction of cultural vectors of differing structure and unequal force. (Williams, 51)
It may be that even a lopsided triangle is insufficient. Here, recent work on intersectionality in feminist studies and critical race studies may helpfully inform a study of the "interaction of cultural vectors" in late antiquity. (For more on the term "intersectionality" and its relation to gender and race, see the work of Kimberlé Crenshaw). Theories of intersectionality insist that scholars take into account ideas about gender, sexuality, family, and class status, and we might add ethnicity, access to social and political power, and relation to imperial and provincial powers.
I want to conclude by thinking with a remark that Clifford Geertz made in his essay, "Anti Anti-Relativism." There he writes: "It is precisely the determination not to cling to what once worked well enough and got us to where we are and now doesn't quite work well enough and gets us into recurrent stalemates that makes a science move" (Geertz, Available Light, 64).
The study of early Jewish Christian relations has moved in part because it has loosened its grip on the parting of the ways model, to take just one example. I have tried to think through a few of the other models we are clinging to and would perhaps benefit from a loosening of the grip. The binary Self vs. Other model and its concomitant, oversimplified understanding of identity and difference may be one of these. Yet I'm more hesitant to give up the conflict model. I have learned and continue to learn much from the sustained scholarly attention to the making of difference and Otherness through strategies such as stereotyping, distinction, exclusion, supersessionism, discrimination, marginalization, and violence. If Erich Gruen is right to note that "alterity and 'Otherness' have too often plagued our world," then it is all the more reason to continue to study, complicate, and question discourses of alterity and constructions of Others when we encounter them in the past and when we encounter them today.
Susanna Drake is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Macalester College.
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
3. Adele Reinhartz, The Jewishness of Christianity: the Straddling of Two Eras
4. Ra'anan Boustan, Jews and Christians: Embracing the Wide Spectrum