Joshua Ezra Burns. The Christian Schism in Jewish History and Jewish Memory. Cambridge University Press, 2016.
Over the last 20 years, the traditional paradigm of a clean “parting of the ways” between Jews and Christians in antiquity has been challenged by numerous scholars. Rather than see a neat break in the 1st or 2nd century CE, scholars such as Judith Lieu, Adam Becker and Annette Reed, and Daniel Boyarin have offered arguments for a messier, long-term entanglement.
Joshua Burns, in The Christian Schism in Jewish History and Jewish Memory, has offered a fresh new foray into this conversation, which he describes as a “Jewish history of the Christian schism” (p. 12). Burns continues the trend of eschewing the traditional parting model and envisioning a split only after the beginning of the 4th century. But he does so with a novel lens, focusing on the rabbinic evidence. In Burns’s interpretation, Tannaitic texts, c. 200 CE, view Jewish Christians as those who practice incorrectly but are wholly Jewish, indicating that the rabbis did not see any decisive split as having yet occurred. However, due to social and religious changes over the next few centuries in Roman Palestine, whereby a wholly gentile Christianity won the day, Amoraim knew only of this later group. Thus later, Amoraic texts speak of gentile Christians, and do so as total others. Burns, accordingly, locates the rabbinic perception of what he calls a “schism” in this later, Amoraic period.
In so doing, Burns situates himself between the older school of thought, which understands Christianity to have become a distinctly non-Jewish entity by the Bar-Kokhba rebellion in 132-135 CE, and those representatives of the newer, revisionist school, like Boyarin, described above. In Burns’s words, “the empirical data attesting to the continual refinement of the terms ‘Judaism’ and ‘Christianity’ beyond the second century does not undermine Parkes’ [traditional ‘parting’] narrative quite to the extent that Boyarin would have us believe” (p. 33-34). Whereas Boyarin diverges from the “parting” model in that he sees a singular tradition with Judaism and Christianity positioned as ends on a spectrum with heresiological “border lines” drawn along the way, Burns depicts a process whose culmination allows him to speak of rabbinic “perceptions of the differences between Christian and Jew in terms of a schism” (p. 34), albeit in a later period than other scholars have suggested.
Burns’s focus on Jewish Christians in the “parting” question is also notable. He revisits the question in light of recent scholarship that does not assume that the Jewish experience was defined by pharisaic/rabbinic norms. Based on his understanding of Jewish identity in antiquity (on which see further below), Burns suggests we “reassess the Jewish Christians as Jews” (p. 51). He maintains that the earliest interactions between rabbis and Jewish Christians was “a meeting between Jews of different ideological persuasions” (p. 51).
In order to sustain this suggestion, Burns, in the second chapter, defines the framework of identity that he sees as informing this initial encounter. After defining Jewish identity as “culture regulated by praxis” (p. 75), Burns concludes, that “the only religious rule deemed authoritative across the wide expanses of time and space was that of the Torah” (p. 99). As such, Torah observant Jewish-Christians would have been included under this umbrella. This suggestion has interesting implications. I was left wondering, however, if his evidence, which includes a case study from 2 Maccabees, necessarily applies to the social situation of the later Tannaitic period. One might posit, as Seth Schwartz and others have, that the destructions wrought by Rome in 70 and 135 CE fundamentally altered Judaism in ways which would complicate the continuity of this paradigm. Burns implicitly acknowledges this issue when he notes that the “destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE …would force a dramatic conceptual reevaluation of that institution’s role in the Jewish cultic economy” (p. 98). Yet, he maintains that this would only heighten the role of the Torah with regards to identity, as “those Jews who elected to continue expressing their Jewish identities in the wake of that disaster remained fixed on the Torah” (p. 98).
Chapter 3 focuses on the Jewish Christians in early Christian evidence, while Chapter 4 concerns itself with that same group in Tannaitic material. Within the Christian material, Burns makes two main claims. First, he groups himself among those scholars who argue that Paul’s epistles were not meant to be read by the Torah observant Jewish Christians. Rather, these epistles were aimed at the emerging gentile Church. Secondly, Burns searches through early Christian material looking for “traces of the Jewish mission” within early Christianity. Burns surveys the Gospel of Matthew, the Didache, and the Pseudo-Clementine Recognitions, and concludes that, in these three texts, “the authors…spoke to readers whom they themselves implicitly or explicitly identified as Jews” (p. 135). In Burns’s scheme, it is these Torah-observant Jewish Christians with whom the Tannaim interact.
Chapter 4 revisits the minim of Tannaitic literature. Burns maintains that the term min functions as the descriptor given by the rabbis to Jews who were learned, but errant in their ways. As such, the term includes, but does not uniquely refer to, Torah-observant Jewish Christians. Burns notes that the concept of minut is rare in Tannaitic literature (32 passages in total), and passages that explicitly refer to Christianity are even rarer (4 in total). However, in these accounts, Burns argues, this heretical group is defined as within the Jewish collective. Particularly compelling is the example from t. Sanhedrin 13 (p.173), and Burn’s discussion about why minim are inferior to gentiles in certain Tannaitic rulings on the subsequent pages. However, even though the Jewish Christians were within the Jewish fold, Burns claims that the Tannaim still viewed them cautiously and sought to marginalize them. On this point, he explicitly engages with Boyarin, claiming that the Tannaim were not “as naïve as Boyarin intimates” (p. 55). In Burns’s model, the evidence suggests that the Tannaim viewed (Jewish) Christianity with guarded, though not heresiological eyes. In his words “the Tannaim had reason to be cautious of Christianity even if they did not yet possess the language to articulate their concerns” (p. 55).
In the final chapter, Burns examines both the shifting demographic and theological trends in the 3rd and 4th century in Palestine and their implications. Treading on well-worn scholarly ground, Burns connects the rise of the Severan dynasty in Rome to economic advances in Palestine. These advances, capitalized by the Patriarchate and the rabbis, led to a broader awareness, if not acceptance, of the rabbis’ halakhic agenda. Burns then departs from previous scholarship and advances his theory of how the schism occurred. In this scheme, the introduction of Tannaitic ideas to those outside the narrow rabbinic circle alienated those marginalized by the rabbis, including the Jewish Christians. Contemporaneous with these developments came the arrival of Origen and his harsh stance against members of his Christian congregation who were Torah observant. Over the course of time, these forces led the Jewish Christians to lose their Jewish nature. Eventually, “in their discreet withdrawal from Jewish society, a schism was born” (p. 249). This gradual process, supported by several convincing readings from both the Palestinian Talmud and the Didascalia Apostolorum, is what led to the Amoraim to eventually view the wholly gentile Christianity of their day with a sense of otherness. As Burns acknowledges, the literary evidence adduced does not offer complete support for his explanatory framework. Rather, it offers only snapshots of a complicated societal process at work, and is thus a welcome addition to the possible ways of reconstructing this period.
Even beyond the specific argument at hand, Burn’s book is useful due to the extensive bibliographic summaries dispersed throughout the text and footnotes. Particularly of note is the lengthy historiographical survey regarding the “parting of the ways,” which occupies much of the first chapter. These discussions will be helpful for all who are looking to acquaint themselves with early Jewish/Christian relations and related fields.
Burns’ book is a welcome contribution to the conversation about early Jewish and Christian self-definition. He offers fresh paradigms for the mechanisms of the Jewish Christian schism and for some of the processes that led up to this fateful development. In the process, he has given scholars a new framework in which to place the well-studied evidence. Moreover, the work’s focus on the construction of the parting in Jewish sources will hopefully prompt new explorations of the evidence beyond either “the parting of the ways” or “the ways that never parted.” While some readers may not be entirely convinced by every part of Burns’s scheme, the book will be fruitful reading for all those interested in ancient Jewish history and Christian origins.
Joshua Blachorsky is a PhD student in rabbinics at New York University.
 Lieu, Judith. 1996. Image and Reality: The Jews in the World of the Christians in the Second Century. Edinburgh: T&T Press.
 Becker, Adam H and Reed, Annette Y. eds. 2003. The Ways that Never Parted: Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck.
 Boyarin, Daniel. 1999. Dying for God. Stanford: Stanford University Press; 2004. Border Lines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
 See, most notably, Schwartz, Seth. 2001. Imperialism and Jewish Society 200 B.C.E to 640 C.E. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
 For the most explicit formulation, see Boyarin (1999: p. 27-41).