Patterns and Theory: the Evolution of a Category

by Ross Kraemer in

AJR is happy to host the Early Jewish Christian Relations SBL section’s 25 Year Retrospective. This panel met in San Diego at the 2014 annual SBL meeting and included Andrew Jacobs, Jeffrey Siker, Adele Reinhartz, Ra’anan Boustan, Susanna Drake, and Ross Kraemer. This final response is from Ross Kraemer.

A brief review of the original aims of the unit prompted several questions for me: how much have the sessions addressed these questions? what has not been addressed? what else has been addressed? and with what results? that is, what has been learned in the last 25 years? But before considering these, I want to offer some more general reflections.

In retrospect, I’m struck by the way in which the aims of this unit were phrased, unsurprisingly, of course, in the language prevalent in the late 1980s, of “formative Christianity and early Judaism.” A unit proposed now might be more likely to avoid the implications of relatively fixed categories of “Christianity” and “Judaism” – and it might now be phrased much more in terms of persons than the institutions implicit in this language, however qualified.  Also implicit in the initial proposal was a concern to answer a question that has driven much scholarship during my career (though not so much my own), namely “the separation of emerging Christianity from early Judaism,” which the proposal envisions as a “consolidation of each as a separate religious tradition, especially in the second century.” The initial proposal did not spell out why this question, at this time, by this group…but I will come back to this.  Why were we asking these questions at this time, who’s the ‘we’ here, what other questions might be asked productively?

What has been done?

Thanks to Andrew Jacobs circulating a complete list of the session topics, paper titles and participants from 1989 to 2013 (which we learned at the session came from Jeff Sikes’ careful record keeping), it’s relatively easy to answer some of my questions.  This has been a most impressive program unit for many reasons – including the range of topics tackled and the diversity of scholars who have participated. Admirably, over the years, many sessions and papers have indeed been devoted to the topics envisioned by the initial conveners:  method, regionalism, proselytes, diaspora versus homeland, the Pauline legacy, the Johannine legacy, comparative exegesis, “contra” Ioudaeos literature, “Judaizing,” etc.

What’s been done that wasn’t on this list

Commendably, in my view, the chronological scope of the unit has not been confined to the initial parameters of the 1st and 2nd centuries, but has regularly reached through the fourth and into the 5th centuries, a time period currently near and dear to my research. (At the session itself, Jeff made clear that the scope of the unit was expanded quite early on).  Also commendable has been a series of book review sessions, considering major work by the late and sorely missed Alan Segal and Tony Saldarini, and by Daniel Boyarin, Stephen Wilson, Judith Lieu, Shaye Cohen, Paula Fredriksen and most recently, Andrew Jacobs, as well as a session on the Dictionary of Jewish-Christian Relations.

What hasn’t been done, both on the list and not:

On the list:  Method….

At the top of the 1989 list was “Methodological issues in studying early Jewish/Christian relations.” Interestingly, not until the 2000 meeting in Nashville was there a session devoted to method (itself not precisely defined, but which I take to focus on “how to do whatever it is we’re doing”).  Its title, Methodological Issues in Establishing Jewish and Christian Identity and/or Conflict  suggests a subset of the larger concern of the unit, and its individual paper titles seem more oriented to particular cases than to the larger questions:  Gary Gilbert on “Godfearers and Contested Identity within Jewish Communities”; David Frankfurter on “Jews or Not? Reconstructing the ‘Other’ in Rev 2:9/3:9),” John Marshall on “Naming Communities in the First Century…”

Some early papers seem to have been focused on issues of method: especially two papers in the same session in 1991 in Kansas City (the worst venue we’ve ever been, except perhaps Disney World!): Jack Lightstone, “Socio-Anthropological Factors Affecting the Relationship between Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity,” and David Satran, “Anti-Jewish Polemic in the Early Church: The Problem of Social Context.” Occasionally, papers explicitly considered “method” – such as a 2006 (DC) paper by Taylor Petrey, on “The Case for Christians in Synagogues: Methods and Evidences…”  The titles of the 60 sessions and (by my rough count) 223 individual papers (which I obviously couldn’t review for these remarks) suggest less engagement with issues of theory, by which I mean here both what it is we are actually doing, and the underlying analytical and explanatory frameworks.  A 2001 (Denver) session entitled Rhetoric and Reality: New Trends in the Study of Early Jewish/Christian Relations, included Andrew S. Jacobs on “The Lion and the Lamb: Reconsidering "Jewish/Christian Relations" in Antiquity.”A 2003 paper in Atlanta by Magnus Zetterholm had the tantalizing title, “The Myth of Early Jewish-Christian Relations,” but if I heard it, I no longer recall it.  Subsequently, a 2006 Washington DC session titled: Jews and/or Christian:  Re-reading identities included one by Karen King on “The Problem of Jewish Christianity or How to Represent the Diversity of Early Christianity.”

Not on the list (but things I would certainly put on a list now, and to which I’ll return): gender, social realia, non-literary sources, and slavery.


Six years after the establishment of the SBL section on Women in the Biblical World in 1983, the desiderata of the Jewish-Christian Relations section did not include any consideration of women and gender.  It’s also interesting that the Program Committee (which I joined a year later, I think), didn’t comment on this omission, but did recommend that the steering committee be expanded to include women scholars, whose participation increases substantially over the years. But few papers have attended to questions about either gender or actual women: “Feminist” occurs once in paper titles: “women” occurs four times; “gender” never. I counted 7 papers, out of 223, or 1-2 papers every five years (really). In 1991 Anthony Springer (then at Louisville Bible College) read a paper on “Faith and Matristics: Early Christian Women on the Jews.”  In 1996, (New Orleans) Rebecca Lesses gave a paper on “Jewish Women and Magic in Late Antiquity” and Daniel Boyarin read a paper entitled “Christianity as a Fallen Woman: Rabbi Eli'ezer and the Disciple of Jesus.” In 2001, in Denver, Kathy Ehrensperger read a paper entitled “New Wineskins but Old Wine?  Hermeneutical Presuppositions in Feminist Research on Ancient Jewish/Christian Relations,” and Stephanie Cobb spoke on “Be a Man: The Rhetoric and Politics of Masculinity in Early Christian Martyrologies,” for a session themed Rhetoric and Reality:  New Trends in the Study of Early Jewish/Christian Relations. In 2006, I read a paper on “Jewish Women’s Resistance to Christianity in the Early 5th Century: The Account of Severus of Minorca,” while in 2007, Megan Nutzman gave one on Jewish women in the Protevangelium of James.

Social realia and the use of non-literary sources:  two interrelated matters

Overwhelming, section papers have relied on literary sources. The rare exceptions (at 5, or perhaps 4.5, even fewer than papers on women and gender) included Byron R. McCane on “Ossuaries and Reliquaries: A Case Study in Jewish and Christian Self-Definition,” (Anaheim, 1989). The 4.5 figure I just gave comes from Frederik Wisse’s 1990 (New Orleans) paper title, “An Evaluation of the Literary and Archaeological Evidence for Jewish Christianity.” (Although how Jewish Christianity pertains to Jewish-Christian relations is another question). In 1993, Marianne Bonz read “The ‘Theosebes’ in Jewish and Christian Epigraphy and Apologetic,” – prompted by the 1987 publication of the now well-known theosebeis inscription from Aphrodisias. In 1998 Paul Trebilco spoke on “The Eumenian Formula--A Window on Jewish-Christian Relations in Third Century Phrygia” (but one would need to know that this formula is a funerary imprecation even to recognize that this is an epigraphic paper). In the same session where I gave my Severus paper in 2006, Paul Dilley read one on “Synagogue to Church Conversions and the Archaeology of Jewish-Christian Hybridity.”

Perhaps because the literary sources are also often highly rhetorical, and because we have come to see such rhetoric as unreliable evidence for social reality, very few papers seem oriented to sussing out actual relations “on the ground.” The title of Timothy Horner’s 1996 (again, New Orleans) paper, “Early Christians and Jews: Assessing the Relationship in the First Four Centuries CE,” suggests an interest in realia in speaking of Christians and Jews, rather than Christianity and Judaism, as did Jack Lightstone’s 1991 paper, “Socio-Anthropological Factors Affecting the Relationship between Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity,” noted above, and Todd Penner’s paper in 1997 (in San Francisco), “Jews and Christians in James: The Social-Economic Configuration of an Interreligious Conflict,” with its invocation of “social-economic configuration,” a phrase unique in session titles. (That being said, this might still have focused on rhetoric). John Gager also gave a paper in 2007 whose title, “Christians and Jews in the Late Antique Synagogue” for a Syria-themed session, was, I think, a discussion of John Chrysostom’s invective against Christians hanging out at a synagogue in Antioch, whose use for historical reconstruction is problematic, although probably better than most of the sources we have.  

Given the centrality of this issue, I was somewhat surprised to note how relatively few papers directly tackled the problem of representation and reality in the literary rhetoric, although I concede that paper titles (and my highly unreliable memory!) are not a fine gauge.  Jackie Pastis read a paper in 1992 (also San Francisco), “Jewish Arguments Against Christianity in the Dialogue of Timothy and Aquila: Real or Contrived?” The actual papers of that 2001 (Denver) session on Rhetoric and Reality: New Trends in the Study of Early Jewish/Christian Relations still seem more oriented to rhetoric than reality (and of course, the positioning of these as diametric opposites is itself problematic).

Some reflections on these observations

The initial proposal provided only a modest rationale for the Section, stating that “patterns of Jewish/Christian relations took shape in the first two centuries,” and that understanding these patterns requires studying this “formative period.”  In fact, of course, one might argue that the relationship between whatever happened in the first and second centuries, and what follows needs to be demonstrated, rather than posited, but that’s a somewhat different concern.  Many things went unspoken in this proposal. In 1989, the rationale was couched in neutral and scholarly terms:  to “understand” these “patterns” of Jewish/Christian relations. All these terms – Jewish, Christian, relations, patterns, understanding, invite further analysis, on which I can say just a little right now.

The very language of Jewish/Christian ‘relations’ implies a kind of parity or commensurability

The very language of Jewish/Christian “relations” implies a kind of parity or commensurability, both with regard to “Jews” and “Christians” on the one hand, and their “relations” on the other (while not discounting an assymetrical relationship). Yet, as we are well aware, the terms and categories “Jews” and “Christians” have been interrogated much more critically in recent years, and much more attention has been paid (including in this section) to the fluidity of such identifications before (and sometimes even after) the fourth century. This may enable us to revisit the research and programming of the last 25 years, which is also a cautionary tale for our own current work, which will be under scrutiny by equally critical scholars in another quarter-century, if not before. As for the historical and social processes implicit in the original proposal, what precisely is a “pattern,” and what kind of theory undergirds the use of this category? What, for that matter, are ‘relations’ between persons grouped in this manner (whether grouped by themselves, or by us?).

What it is we are doing when we “understand” them? “Understand” might here be taken as a vague synonym for “explanation,” (as it so often is), but even if so, there is much more to say here.  What kinds of explanations are being offered?  What’s the grounding of those explanations? All this deserves to be addressed (and argued) more fully than has, so far, been done.

And what’s the “so-what” here?  What went unsaid in this proposal (although not unsaid in the work of various scholars in the 1980s such as Lloyd Gaston or John Gager, but also others) was the longer historical arc, culminating in the Holocaust. What also went unsaid, if completely understandably, was the sociology of the scholarly project (itself always a vexed matter): not only who was engaging in this project, and why (beyond the academic rationales they offered).  What, if anything, went not only unspoken here, but to borrow from the language of Pierre Bourdieu and others, misrecognized? What commitments have scholars had in this project, and what difference has that made to this work: to the choice of it, to the framing of it, to the questions asked and not asked, to the kinds of explanations proposed, and the answers offered (or not).  Certainly there are interests and implications to this kind of work that are not (always, necessarily?) articulated: to contextualize, to historicize, and thus perhaps to defang and dismantle, not only Christian anti-Jewish rhetoric in antiquity, but also subsequently, and to suggest that although it was like that, it need not still be like that.

I want to say just a little more about the questions that have gone largely unaddressed – about women, gender, slavery, and social reality (fully cognizant that these are also my own scholarly interests and priorities).  The few papers on women and on gender do not seem to have raised the larger question of gender as a category in the study of “relations between Jews and Christians.”  By this I mean several things.  As the papers by Stephanie Cobb and Daniel Boyarin suggest (and as some of my own scholarship has explored, including my paper on Severus of Minorca) rhetorically gendering the other is a common strategy in ancient contestation.  But what seems to have garnered less attention (perhaps because, again, rhetoric is easier for us to access than social realities) is whether the “Jews” and “Christians” whose relations are here investigated are really largely, if not entirely, men, and if so, whether and how that matters.  Were relations between Jewish and Christian women any different?  can we know? does it matter?

Similar observations may be made about the absence of any attention in the sessions over the years to slavery and actual enslaved persons.  I find myself thinking about this a lot lately in connection with my current book project and late antique legislation and other sources for the complex social relations between Jewish slave owners and their Christian slaves (the reverse being, interestingly, not so visible in the extant sources).

On rhetoric and reality (terms that as I noted a minute ago are not nearly so straightforwardly oppositional), I still think that it is important to investigate this further, and to try, as much as the evidence allows, to illuminate the complex dynamics of oppositional rhetoric on the one hand, and actual social relations on the other.  There are unquestionably limits to our ability to do this, at least for the periods and areas in which we collectively work, but it still seems to me important that we attend to the ways in which they have sometimes if not often been conflated.  We have attended far less to the actual social relations between persons who identified as Jews and as Christians (of diverse sorts), to how rhetoric and social relations were mutually constitutive (or not), and to, for instance, how these relationships were affected by the changes in power dynamics resulting from the shift to an increasingly Christianized empire from the fourth century on.

in closing

My original written remarks say here only “niceties” – which are generally easy to spin out on the spot.  But in retrospect, this was a truly wonderful session, with rich, stimulating conversation that reinforced my sense that the Early Jewish/Christian Relations Session has been, over the years, one of the most exemplary in the SBL.  Many thanks to Jeff Sikes, and to Andrew Jacobs for facilitating this review.

Ross Kraemer is Professor of Religious Studies and Judaic Studies at Brown University. 


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

5. Susanna Drake, Alterity in Late Antiquity: Disrupting Binaries


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