Leonard V. Rutgers, Making Myths: Jews in Early Christian Identity Formation.
Adiel Schremer, Brothers Estranged. Heresy, Christianity, and Jewish Identity in Late Antiquity. Oxford, U.K., and New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. Pp. 272. $74.00.
In these books, Rutgers and Schremer explore the complex and contested period of Late Antiquity in which fundamental elements in rabbinic Judaism and Christianity were being established. Both books center on questions of identity formation as they deal with issues regarding the so-called "partings of the ways," including the establishment of boundaries, the role of polemic, and the effect of encounter with the other. In the course of their study, each engages with the thought of influential thinker Daniel Boyarin, with Rutgers being the more critical of the two.
Rutgers argues that, because early-church writers envied the antiquity and cohesion of Jews as a people of the covenant, they needed to create a series of myths to "dislodge the Jews theologically in such a way as to affect the latter's societal position" (p. 17). He substantiates this argument through three case studies: the establishment of a martyrial cult in Antioch that enabled Christians to honor Jewish heroes even as Christianity was furthered; Justinian's law on the Jews, Novella 146 of 533 C.E., aimed at eliminating the use of Hebrew in synagogues, since Christians, lacking expertise in Hebrew, could seldom win exegetical debates; and the semantic shift in which the term "synagogue" lost its dual meaning as a specific Jewish community and as an actual community center, instead, becoming an abstraction synonymous with evil. As a result of these developments, by the end of the fourth century, Jews--the synagogue--had become the quintessential enemy of Christians.
Schremer approaches the period from a different perspective, asking what role Christians played in the formation of early rabbinic Judaism. Similar to Boyarin, he regards rabbinic discourse about heresy--minut--and heretics--minim--as key to the creation of boundaries. Contra Boyarin, he argues that minim was less about doctrine or theology and more about aloofness from those deemed a threat to the fragile post-Bar Kokhba community, with its "frantic sensitivity to identity and difference" (p. 18). Schremer, who argues that the role of Christianity in the formation of early rabbinic Judaism has been overstated, claims that the polemics of second-century Palestinian rabbis (the Tannaim) were principally directed against the Roman Empire. He speculates that the followers of Jesus became minim because they were known to have established their own congregations; this separatism was regarded as a threat to the unity and social identity of the Jewish community. Labeling them as minim ultimately transformed them into a social other, i.e., Christians. Schremer concludes: "The ways of Judaism and Christianity did not 'part'; the followers of Jesus were labeled as minim, viewed as separatists who joined the nations of the world, marginalized, placed beyond the pale, excluded from the Jewish community" (p. 99).
Like Schremer, Rutgers claims that the separation between Judaism and Christianity must be examined in terms of social interaction as well as theology. In contrast to Schremer and Boyarin, he places a general separation in the first century C.E., although noting a continuous process of constructing boundaries via texts. Strangely, this is foreshadowed in the introduction and asserted in the epilogue, but it is otherwise underdeveloped. Moreover, Rutgers offers a bleak perspective on Christian-Jewish interactions in Late Antiquity, in large part because his focus is principally on the Christian literary ecclesiastical elite for whom firm boundaries were of greater importance than to many other followers of Jesus.
Both books are engaging, stellar contributions to a burgeoning literature. Schremer's study is somewhat more technical--eighty-six pages of notes--though eminently lucid. Both presuppose fundamental knowledge of the era, so neither would generally be accessible to undergraduate students. Reading these authors in tandem allows for immersion in a fascinating era. We may never know with certainty the many convoluted factors at play in the ultimate separation of Jews and Christians, but exploring Late Antiquity invites us to reassess our own understandings of the "other" in our time.
Mary C. Boys, S.N.J.M., Union Theological Seminary, New York, NY
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|Title Annotation:||Brothers Estranged: Heresy, Christianity, and Jewish Identity in Late Antiquity|
|Author:||Boys, Mary C.|
|Publication:||Journal of Ecumenical Studies|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2012|
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