Allow me to begin my response to Todd Berzon’s excellent and thought-provoking book with a somewhat extended quote:
The question facing an author is not whether to select among points of view; the questions are how many to present, and which ones. In this book the first question is answered economically; I try to do reasonable justice to several perspectives instead of attempting to catalogue them all […] As we turn to which views to present, the guideline has been relevance to the interests of the intended reader… because the ultimate benefit that may accrue from a book such as this is help in the ordering of the reader’s own life.
These lines are not taken from a late ancient heresiology, but from Houston Smith’s 1991 book The World's Religions, which has been widely, and still is, used in introductory classes to Religion across the United States since it first appeared. Smith’s preface to his book captures what seems to have been the underlying ethos of the college-level study of religion throughout most of the twentieth and maybe even twenty-first century, namely, that “we” (which implicitly means, “We Christians”) should take time and effort to study the religions of others in order to foster greater understanding, commitment to, and appreciation of our own religion. Put differently, Smith presents here the notion that every survey of the diverse world of beliefs and opinions “out there” is ultimately a self-survey.
Fortuitously, I have been reading Classifying Christians at a time in which I have also been working on revising and rethinking my department’s gateway course “Introduction to Religion,” and have been grappling with the deeply problematic history of the field of Religious Studies, with its dual and conflicted roots in both anthropology and theology, and with the justifications for its continued existence within the contemporary university. Methodological and ethical questions pertaining to the categories with which religion is approached in the undergraduate classroom, to the ways we select, organize, and group together the “religions” we introduce, and to the constant pitfalls of exoticizing on the one hand and essentializing on the other hand, were thus constantly on my mind as I journeyed through the book. I was struck by the extent to which the book repeatedly resonated with those concerns, and even more so by Berzon’s ability to keep, as he is delving into the intricacies of early Christian heresiology with vigor and expertise, one finger constantly on the pulse of contemporary scholarly practices. By this I do not mean simply that the book draws bold and active comparisons between modern ethnographic practices and ancient heresiologies, but rather that the book touches on the most pervasive academic and pedagogical questions in the present-day study of religion: what we can know about others, how we structure knowledge about others, what we consider to be valid and invalid knowledge, to what end we want to know about others, and no less importantly – what we expect or fear will happen to us in the process.
While these questions are of course relevant to any study of human cultures and societies, they have special resonance in the study of religion for two main reasons. First, religious frameworks or systems of meaning are often bundled with relatively rigid assumptions and guidelines on how knowledge may be obtained and what knowledge should even be pursued: as Berzon shows beautifully in the fifth chapter, knowledge can be “fair or foul” and certain modes of or motivations for acquiring knowledge can hurl one outside the bounds of legitimacy. Second, the study of religion (as such) is notoriously complex insofar as no such thing as “religion” exists in the world: bestowing the name “religion” upon a cluster of phenomena is always a judgement or evaluation, and more often than not, it is a judgment on this cluster’s resemblance to Protestant Christianity. The decision as to what merits the name “religion” and what is merely a denomination, or a cult, or a New Age fad, or a philosophy, is always an ideological decision, one that demonstrates the deep “heresiological” origins of the modern study of religion. By “heresiological” I do not mean that the modern discourse of Religious Studies is sanctioning, prohibiting, and outlawing diversity (rather, much of the time it is welcoming, celebrating, and championing diversity), but rather that it presents, like ancient heresiology, an enmeshing of theology with ethnography. In offering this innovative way of thinking of early Christian heresiology, Classifying Christians gives us an incisive (and indeed, troubling) outlook on contemporary academic practices and disciplines.
Classifying Christians thus offers much more than a specialized study of several key works in late ancient Christianity. In its impressive – indeed, sometimes dizzying – scholarly breadth and analytical sophistication, and in its positioning of knowledge, and not of doctrine or orthodoxy, as an ultimate subject of concern, this book successfully reaches across and trespasses disciplinary boundaries. In the space I have remaining, I would like to present two main ways in which the book resonated with me specifically as a student of late ancient Judaism, and what I see as its potential contribution for scholars in my own field. At the same time, I hope that some questions or observations that arise from the Jewish “corner” of late antiquity can form the basis for further conversations about the book and its implications.
Let me begin by stating the (perhaps) obvious: we do not have anything equivalent to Christian heresiologies in extant Jewish texts from late antiquity. While the rabbis had arguably developed a category of heresy and related discursive practices (as discussed by Daniel Boyarin and, more recently, by David Grossberg), nowhere did they take the trouble to lay out in detail what “heretics” believe or do or which different heresies exist. Put differently, the rabbis did not approach heresy with ethnographic methods, and such mode of inquiry seems altogether foreign to their intellectual world. Nevertheless, the fundamental problem that lies at the core of Christian heresiologies, which is the problem of multiplicity itself, was very much a rabbinic concern.
As Berzon explains in detail, Christian heresiologists struggled to reconcile the plurality and diversity both within Christianity and beyond it with the axiomatic notion that the world was one and that humanity was of single origin: in this endeavor, heretics were both the problem and the tool used to resolve it by telling human history as a history of error (48). One of the key strategies in dealing with the multiplicity of “heresies,” as Berzon explores primarily in the third chapter, was to turn it, ultimately, into unity: by calling all those varied beliefs and practices “heresy” they were all folded into a single category and were traced back to an epistemology of origin and oneness. They became “a coherent group of incoherence” (79), and thereby were imagined – again along the ethnographic line – as a distinct “people” despite their divergences (90).
Scholars have been frustrated for decades by the fact that when the rabbis talk about minim, a word that literally means “types” or “kinds” and is used to describe wayward Jews of some sort (or many sorts), they do not provide any clear explanation of what they mean or what categories of persons are subsumed under this heading. I would like to point out that what we see operating in this term is exactly the pincer movement around the problem of diversity that Berzon identifies in Classifying Christians. The very term minim, or min, entails the notion of multiplicity. If you are a min, type, that means you are a particular kind of something of which there are several different kinds. The rabbis use the same word to speak of plants and animals: mustard and peas are both types (minim) of seeds, buffalos and sheep are both types of quadrupeds, etc. At the same time, by giving all those different “types” of wayward Jews the moniker min, the rabbis make the point that while such persons are defined by their diversity and difference, the differences among themselves are inconsequential: they are all, at the end of the day, one. Minim are thus formed, in rabbinic discourse, as a people, whose internal incoherence generates its ultimate coherence.
Yet Classifying Christians provides a helpful framework not only for thinking about “heresy” as a problem of inner-religious diversity, but also for considering the alignment of ethnographic difference and theological difference more broadly, a topic that is highly pertinent to the study of ancient Judaism. As Berzon argues, “Heresiology functioned as a literary articulation of the Christian desire not only to explain the diversity of Christian Peoples but also to cast the diversity of the world as a historical process governed by Christian theological principle” (60). Hippolytus and Ephiphanius are two notable examples of authors who tried to map theological dispute and diversity onto a greater genealogical theory of humanity and its development, which in Epiphanius’s case rested heavily on scripture. In Berzon’s words, “By classifying human diversity through ethnographic paradigms of cosmology, mythography, and genealogy, Christians transformed the history of the world into a history of Christianity” (126). Thus, genealogy is recast as theology: ethnic and geographic differences become differences of religious belief and practice. This is exactly what allows “heretics” to be discussed and conceptualized as a people in Christian ethnography.
When we turn to examine the relations of genealogy and theology in rabbinic literature (and needless to say that here I speak in overwhelming generalizations), we find both striking similarities to the processes described by Berzon and notable differences, both of which allow us to gain a deeper understanding of some of the most central epistemological paradigms in late ancient Judaism. As recent work by Adi Ophir and Ishay Rosen-Zvi showed, it is with the rabbis that the all-encompassing category of the goy, “gentile” as a blanket term that covers all non-Jews first emerges. This category rests on a strict binitarian worldview, which divides the world dichotomously into “Jew” (or “Israel” in rabbinic terms) and “non-Jew,” and elides all diversities and differences within these categories and all middle-grounds between them, such as God-fearers, philoiudaioi, etc. Whereas earlier texts speak of Jews, or Israelites, as one among many different peoples, each of which with its own history and characteristics, the rabbis speak of all “peoples” as one people: indeed, this is the literal meaning of the word goy– a people.
The rabbis thus tackle the question of unity and diversity in human history in an intriguing way. For the rabbis, the myriad of divisions and subdivisions among different peoples, as depicted in scriptures and particularly in Genesis 11, are entirely inconsequential: the diversity is conceived in dichotomous terms as the separation of Jews from all non-Jews. Moreover, this separation – and herein lies the rabbis’ main innovative stance – is not thought of as a result of a process but as a primordial fact. Rabbinic Midrashim relate in various ways that even though in the earliest history of the world humanity was one, “Israel” had already existed as a distinct entity on a metaphysical level, which, as it were, waited to be realized in a particular people. Like Christian heresiologists, then, the rabbis seek to overcome multiplicity and diversity by turning all non-Jews into one entity, into one people, and trivialize the difference between them; but unlike Christian heresiologists they maintain that at the “state of nature,” at the point of origin, humanity was not one, but two: Jews and everyone else.
The binitarian paradigm that the rabbis construct for containing human diversity leads in its turn also to an interesting realignment of the genealogical and theological. Again I will argue that like some of the Christian heresiologists Berzon discusses, the rabbis sought an alignment of ethnic identity and religious identity, and sought to map out the world and humanity such that one category constitutes and explains the other. Scholars who focused on the “Jewish” side of this enterprise, like Shaye Cohen and David Goodblatt, have argued that the rabbinic effort was to subordinate ethnicity to religion, or to subordinate genealogy to theology (to use Berzon’s terms): the very possibility of conversion, namely, the notion that one can become a Jew if one would adopt a certain set of commitments and practices, seems to put forth religion as the organizing mechanism for differentiating human groups, rather than ethnicity. But here again Ophir and Rosen-Zvi’s observations point in the exact opposite direction. In obliterating all the differences between different kinds of non-Jews, the rabbis turned religion into a function of genealogy rather than vice versa. The rabbis, like their predecessors, knew very well that Romans do not practice what Egyptians practice, that Canaanites are different from Greeks, and that there are multiple deities and forms of worship in the world. But in rabbinic literature these forms of worship are all easily interchangeable and collapse into each other. The binitarian division of Jew/non-Jew as the two constitutive categories of human history override any interest in what different kinds of non-Jews actually do or believe. Seen from this angle, conversion is actually a case in point: for the rabbis, a gentile who submits to the God of the Jews and observes all the Jewish commandment is still a gentile: his or her religious choices make no difference whatsoever in his or her classification in the binary. To cross the lines, the gentile needs to go through a special ritual in which he or she officially becomes a new body.
In rabbinic Judaism, then, genealogy is the organizing principle of theology: religion is a function of ethnicity, such that while incongruities between religion and ethnicity are acknowledged, they have no impact on the binitarian system. Thus we see in rabbinic texts, as Yedidah Koren showed, the notion of “the uncircumcised Jew,” which in earlier texts would be a complete oxymoron, as well as the notion of “the commandment-observing gentile.” The variety and diversity of religious practice within Judaism and outside of it, which the rabbis were quite aware of, gets folded into the dichotomous genealogical epistemology. Tractate Avodah Zarah of the Mishnah is a powerful example of this approach. While the Mishnah ostensibly speaks of ways in which Jews can avoid being implicated in religious practices of non-Jews, namely, in “idol-worshipping,” it actually puts forth ways of separating Jews from gentiles as such, and says quite explicitly that concerns of idol-worshipping only account for some of the cases in which contact between Jews and gentiles is sanctioned, but not for all of them. Gentiles are construed as a danger not because of what they believe or do, but because of what they are.
Tractate Avodah Zarah brings me to the second point I wanted to address, which has to do with the question of legitimate knowledge, the boundaries of knowledge, and the dangers of knowledge. One of the themes Classifying Christians repeatedly engages is the deep concern that hovers as a dark cloud over heresiologists in their work: not only whether their knowledge is reliable, and wherefrom they can legitimately obtain knowledge, and what they will do with everything they do not know, but also what could end up happening to them and potentially also to their readers as a result of this continuing exposure to heresy. Berzon shows that obtainment and production of knowledge, the organization of knowledge, and the dissemination of knowledge are fraught and threatening activities in late ancient Christianity. He thereby invites us to think in new ways of the old “knowledge equals power” axiom. Classifying Christians shows that knowledge can also equal peril; that knowledge itself is inscribed with the vulnerabilities of both its producer and of its consumer; and perhaps most importantly, that ancient authors were open and explicit about their complex relations with knowledge and even rhetorically used the complexity of these relations to their own advantage. I believe that a parallel study of practices of knowing and perils of knowing in late ancient Judaism is desirable and would be highly valuable.
A common ethos in and regarding rabbinic culture is that the pursuit of knowledge in this culture is so championed, so lionized, and so identified with devotion that any source of knowledge is considered worthwhile: one can learn from Jews that have gone astray, one can learn from gentiles, one can even learn from animals sometimes. Yet one much-discussed anecdote in tractate Avodah Zarah of the Babylonian Talmud (16b-17a) indicates that the rabbis were not unworried about the ways in which knowledge can alter the one who obtains it. It is told that Rabbi Eliezer was captured “on account of heresy” and was almost executed as a result, but resourcefully managed to save himself. In the aftermath of this event, his disciple Rabbi Akiva asks him if he ever encountered “a word of heresy” and enjoyed it. Rabbi Eliezer responds that he once heard a somewhat entertaining interpretation for a scriptural verse from “one of the disciples of Jesus of Nazareth by the name of Jacob of Kefar Sekaniah” regarding the use of harlots’ pay for building a toilet in the temple. The interpretation pleased him, “and that is why I was arrested for heresy; for thereby I transgressed the scriptural words, Remove your way far from her and come not near to the door of her house (Proverbs 5:8).”
The “word of heresy” that the disciple of Jesus teaches Rabbi Eliezer is rather trivial, banal even: it certainly has no hefty doctrinal or theological dimension, and moreover, this teaching is entirely rabbinic in both style and content. But the very experience of obtaining knowledge from a heretic transforms Rabbi Eliezer, if only temporarily, into a heretic. It is not simply that he is mistakenly associated with the group, or “people” of heretics: his contentment with this piece of knowledge makes him one of them. The mechanism of encounter with heresy is the same as the mechanism of contact with gentiles as envisioned in this tractate: to eat with them, to do work with them, to do business with them, implicates you in their practices. But whereas the currency of interaction with gentiles is primarily money and goods, the currency of interaction with heretics is knowledge. And knowledge can, indeed, be foul.
All of this could be avoided, Rabbi Eliezer asserts, if he would have just relied on the one source of knowledge that is always trustworthy and never wrong: scripture. Scripture has already told us everything we need to know about heretics; scripture has also already told us everything we need to know about gentiles, and women, and the natural world, and everything else for that matter. It is the desire to learn from people, rather than from texts – that turns knowledge from something divine to something nefarious. The problem is, of course, that the heretic also quotes scripture. Thus rabbinic texts present constant duality and, for lack of better term, anxiety, about the ways in which knowledge is produced and obtained, and the ways in which it can transform those who obtain it.
Classifying Christians gives us the conceptual tools and analytical language to think of the relations of texts, people, modes of learning, and limitations and dangers of knowledge in new and exciting ways: I hope that scholars in Jewish Studies and beyond it will embrace this book’s many gifts and take it from there.
Mira Balberg is professor of history and Endowed Chair in Ancient Jewish Civilizations at the University of California, San Diego.