Shelly Matthews, Professor of New Testament, Brite Divinity School
If this is understood to be the 10th anniversary of the Violence and Representations of Violence Section, as the title of this section in the SBL program book suggests, then my primary task here is to briefly narrate the pre-history of the group---the things that happened before year one. Unlike some of the messier business of the study of origins in our discipline, the point of the origin of this group is beyond dispute. It occurred when E. Leigh Gibson, whom I had not known, having seen the title of a paper I was reading at the 2001 annual meeting in the program book, emailed me to ask if we could meet to discuss our common interests.
The title of that paper was “Persecution Complex: Understanding Matthew's Rhetoric of Violence without Positing 'the Jews' as Agents of Violence," (a paper delivered in the Matthew Group at the annual AAR/SBL meeting in Denver, CO, November 2001). The paper noted that the Gospel of Matthew—not unlike a large swath of literature from the early Jesus group—gives the impression that followers of Jesus faced a persecutor under every rock, and around every street corner. It noted further how, invariably, that persecutor was given the proper name “Jew,” and at least some of the time the persecution by Jews was represented as having resulted in murder. The paper went on to raise the very basic question of the relationship of rhetoric/representation to reality, asking whether “Christians” were always persecuted and “Jews” always the persecutors.
These were questions Leigh was also raising in her scholarship, and thus over coffee and introductions we planned to organize a special session devoted to “Violence in the New Testament.” That session was held in 2002, I now know from having looked back at my CV to prepare these remarks, but my memory of the event was that it occurred in the fall of 2001. On further reflection, I realize that the reason my memory of the date (2001) is different from the actual fact of the date (2002), is that in my memory the event had an edge to it, owing to the fact that it was organized so closely on the heels of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York and Pennsylvania. That is, while Leigh and I were focusing on a very discipline specific question –violence and representations of violence in New Testament texts, and though we had not been thinking in this initial conversation about the larger problems of religious violence soon to be sweeping the globe, the special session “Violence in the New Testament,” was somehow swept up in my mind with these larger questions of doing biblical studies in a post-9/11 world.
I say this because the session was packed to overflowing. Perhaps some of the interest in the session was generated by those with questions like Leigh’s and mine, and some to the roster of speakers. But in my memory, the reason for the overflow crowd and the anxious energy in the special session which inaugurated this program unit, was that a session on the topic of Violence in the New Testament became a place to express that anxiety and concern about the events of 9/11 and their aftermath.
The papers from that special session were eventually published in a slim volume, Violence in the New Testament: Jesus Followers and Other Jews under Empire (New York/London: T & T Clark International, 2005), edited by E. Leigh Gibson and myself. Leigh and I also went on to form a steering committee and put through a proposal for a consultation (running from 2003 to 2005), and eventually the consultation achieved a more permanent status as a program unit. We were more short-sighted perhaps than we should have been at that time, and thus we did not incorporate these larger concerns about contemporary religious violence into the language of our program unit, but rather continued to focus on the considerably narrower concerns that brought us together to collaborate.
For the historical record, I draw out a few pieces of the text of the proposal: “This consultation will scrutinize texts suggesting violence among and between Jews and Christians of antiquity. We will raise historical questions about such texts, and also focus on issues of representation, method, and the ideology of their authors and interpreters . . . . While the question of Jewish agency in the death of Jesus has received much scrutiny, a comparable complex of questions regarding violence among Jews and Christians remains unanswered. In the wake of the Holocaust, hostile language about Jews in Christian literature has come under increasing scrutiny. Questions have been raised regarding both the accuracy of such description and the roles such language might play in the construction of Christian identity. However, early Christian allegations that Jews acted violently against one another or against Christians or incited or cooperated with Romans in such activities, have garnered little attention.” Our conclusions challenged some examples of the positivist readings of accusations of Jewish violence against Christians in significant and otherwise exemplary scholarly resources of the time.
Two books from that time period, one having been recently published, and one in progress, were of special significance to the group, as we reflected on the issue of the accusation that Jews were always killing Christians, and that Christians were always persecuted. One was Judith Perkin’s The Suffering Self, with its arguments concerning how Christian subjectivity was crafted on the understanding that to be Christian was to suffer; the other was Elizabeth Castelli’s book on Martrydom, and the role of cultural memory in shaping the stories of Christian suffering and death in antiquity. Elizabeth’s work was in process when we began, and was featured as part of a review panel relatively early in the life of the session.
Engagement with the work of Perkins and Castelli, and with other conversation partners in the Violence group, was also important to my own research, most particularly to my monograph Perfect Martyr: The Stoning of Stephen and the Construction of Christian Identity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010). This book traced the way that the story of the Acts of the Apostles in general, and the story of Stephen more specifically, has wielded such influence over Christian cultural memory that it had been impossible even in the best historical-critical biblical scholarship to see these stories as Luke’s rhetorical assertions rather than bedrock historical narratives of an originary persecution and murder of Christians by Jews.
In my concluding arguments from that book, I noted with respect to the question of the representation versus the reality of violence against Stephen: “The problem animating my argument has not been whether or not an early Jesus follower named Stephen ‘really’ existed or whether other Jews ‘really’ killed him. [a question impossible to answer]. It has been, rather, how Luke’s telescopic narrative of one significant death beyond the crucifixion of Jesus—that of a merciful Jesus follower by merciless Jews—has found its place in the canon of Christian Scriptures, and subsequently in the deep structures of Christian consciousness as an originary event” (p. 132).
Through examination of the forgiveness prayers of Jesus and Stephen, I also took aim at a central Christian self-understanding—that Christians are the distinct purveyors of extreme mercy, as embodied in the forgiveness prayers. I argued that the nearly invisible rhetorical violence against the Jews inscribed in the narratives of the forgiveness prayers “owes to the fact that Christian readers, directed by rhetorical markers to identify with the merciful martyr who loves and prays for his persecutors, generally do not notice that this charitable subject is drawn against an uncharitably constructed foil. Thus, in a veiled and paradoxical manner, the edifice of Christianity as a religion of extreme mercy is constructed upon a scaffolding of Jew vilification” (130).
I owe much to colleagues affiliated with the violence group who have supported my scholarship, and contributed to the shaping of Perfect Martyr. I do have some regrets that my book received relatively little attention from others scholars positioned more squarely within the field of biblical studies. For instance, I would have liked to receive some response to it from the Book of Acts program unit, or, at least, from scholars writing on the question of the Jews in Acts.
I would also say with respect to the question of anti-Jewish rhetoric in the Christian Bible, the society seems to be at a moratorium. At least in scholarship published in the United States, addressing the question of rhetorical violence against Jews is currently out of fashion. Scholars prefer to position the text as anti-Empire/anti-Roman while at best minimizing the anti-Jewish rhetoric, if not, in some instances, actually replicating that violence by continuing to depict Jews in the villain’s role.
Though my task has been primarily to provide an account of the group’s founding and early years, I conclude with a few brief comments about the prospects for the program unit:
First, having given an account of how we came to focus the program unit on violence “among Jews and Christians” I find no need to retain those two distinct proper names. It strikes me that in subsequent iterations, the program unit might best simplify and broaden the title to “Violence and Representations of Violence in the ancient Mediterranean world.” Second, though some of the richest and most productive sessions in the past, and most likely some of the richest and most productive sessions in the future, will focus on late antiquity rather than biblical texts or the biblical world, I would hope that the question of violence in biblical texts are not lost altogether. These are the texts that have most purchase and most relevance in contemporary religious discourse about violence. Finally, I would be interested in more conversation and analysis, whether within a session, outside of the session, or in a different forum, about the question of relevance. This last question is one of public responsibility and public voice, and whether our scholarship relating to ancient religious violence might in some way be scholarship that matters in this present context.