In my comments today, I would like to offer my reflections on three trends I perceive in the study of early Jewish/Christian relations, both here at the SBL and more broadly. The first two trends are, I believe, major achievements of this particular group and of the wider field of early Jewish/Christian relations—and which I’d like to see continue. The third point reflects what I perceive to be an ongoing blind-spot in the field. I should also stress up front that each of these points no doubt reflects the parochial perspective of a scholar of late antique Judaism. But I hope you will forgive me for talking about what I know as well as for highlighting work that I find valuable and exciting.
The first trend I will discuss is the shift in the field beyond the question of the function of Jews and Judaism in defining the boundaries of Christian communal identity and proper Christian practice also to include consideration of the function of Christians and Christianity in defining the boundaries of Jewish communal identity and proper Jewish practice.
The second is a shift beyond a predominant focus on the first three Christian centuries and the so-called “parting of the ways” also to include the ongoing dynamics of differentiation and contact throughout late antiquity, down into the sixth and seventh centuries.
The third issue relates to a shift that I believe has not yet taken place—but that I hope will. In my view, the field, with some exceptions, has maintained an almost exclusive focus on elite discourses, whether ecclesiastical or rabbinic, and has had little occasion to engage with non-elite texts or artifacts.
I’d now like to unpack each of these points in succession:
First, this group and the field as a whole have focused important attention on the function of Jews and Judaism (and especially anti-Jewish rhetoric) in defining the boundaries of Christian communal identity. In recent years, however, increasing numbers of scholars have focused on the function of Christians and Christianity in defining the boundaries of Jewish communal identity.
This impulse to explore the dynamics of identity formation from the perspective of Judaism has naturally entailed a shift in the materials under investigation. The past fifteen years has seen a flowering of research into such topics as the use of Christian exegetical traditions in rabbinic midrash; the relationship between Jewish and Christian discourses of martyrology and heresy; the impact exerted by the Christianization of the Roman Empire on Jewish communal institutions; the intersecting reception of Second Temple apocalyptic literature among Jews and Christians in late antiquity; and representations of Jesus in the Talmud and in the Toledot Yeshu literature. This is to name just a few areas that have seen renewed interest in recent years.
It is now quite common to see articles in journals like the Harvard Theological Review or the Journal of Early Christian Studies that don’t just explore such venerable topics as the meaning of the designation Ioudaioi in the New Testament or the representation of Jews in early Christian martyr acts. These topics—and others like them—remain enormously important and will continue to attract new perspectives. But, happily, scholarship on such questions is now in fruitful dialogue with inquiries into Jewish knowledge and use of Christian traditions. This more balanced state of affairs highlights the mutually constituting histories of Judaism and Christianity as distinct religious formations.
But it is important to remember that this shift tracks developments in the wider field of Jewish/Christian relations beyond the early period of the first two or three centuries of the Common Era. Most notably, more than twenty years ago, the work of the medieval Jewish historian Israel Yuval began to open up important and challenging new avenues for approaching the Jewish relationship to the Christian other. In a series of provocative studies, Yuval showed that, during the post-Crusader period, blood imagery—and the sacrificial model of martyrdom embodied in it—became the cornerstone of Jewish anti-Christian discourse, in many cases to paradoxical and tragic effect.
I don’t think it unfair to say that the increased interest that scholars of Jewish studies have shown over the past 25 years in Jewish anti-Christian discourses reflects perceived changes in the relationship between Jews and power. On the one hand, the past two decades have seen Jews (especially in the North American context) achieve an unprecedented level confidence in their social standing and cultural integration. This development has gone hand-in-hand with ecumenical efforts among both Catholics and Protestants to challenge the Christian legacy of anti-Judaism. At the same time, beginning with the first Lebanon War and escalating with the first Intifada, many academics, first in Israel and later in the United States and Canada, began to reevaluate the deeper past in light of Jewish dominance over—and indeed domination of—Palestinian society.
The early Jewish/Christian relations group surely has its roots in the fundamental insight, championed by scholars like Geza Vermes and E. P. Sanders, that the early Jesus-movement and early Christianity more broadly can only be understood in the historical context of first-century Judaism. But we seem to be in a vastly different world from the 1970s and 1980s. The legacy of Christian anti-Judaism remains a fascinating historical problem as well as a pressing contemporary concern. But the Jewish use and abuse of the religious or ethnic other now likewise seems to present us with important intellectual and ethical challenges. It is my hope that this group will continue to cultivate scholarship that is committed to studying the two-sided dynamic that characterized the encounter between Jews and Christians in late antiquity.
Closely related to this first development is the salutary growth of interest among scholars of early Jewish/Christian relations in sources, writers, communities, and events from the post-Constantinian period. The early years of the Early Jewish/Christian Relations group were characterized by papers on the early Jesus-movement, on the figure of Paul, and on the Gospel accounts and the communities for which they were redacted. Some papers took the group into the second century, exploring topics like the Birkat ha-minim (the curse against heretics of the Jewish liturgy) or the “parting of the ways” after the Bar Kokhba Revolt. But, apart from a few exceptions, the focus remained solidly pre-Constantinian. By contrast, after the year 2001, we see a clear uptick in the number of papers that include the phrase “late antiquity” in their title.
I do not think that this trend is merely a side-effect of the maturation of the field of late antique religions in the decade or so following Peter Brown’s arrival at Princeton and the program at Duke reaching its full flourishing under Elizabeth Clark. It also reflects the important insight that the story of Jewish/Christian relations in antiquity need not be primarily about the awkward and vexed separation of these religious communities and traditions, but can also be about the ongoing interaction of a wide spectrum of Jews and Christians long past the watershed of the fourth century.
Indeed, we now have a much greater appreciation of the fact that one of the hallmarks of late antiquity was a preoccupation with dividing people into discrete categories. This preoccupation was motivated in part by concerns over the porous boundaries that imperfectly separated various religious communities from one another in social reality. As Andrew Jacobs has taught us, this drive to define “self” and “other” represented a potent means for managing—while never homogenizing or eliminating—difference. Moreover, this period saw the rapid crystallization of the ideological desire and institutional capacity of both church and state to classify, manage, and, in some cases, subject to targeted acts of violence various dissident religious groupings with whom Christians felt themselves to be in conflict, Jews among them. For their part, Jewish historians and scholars of rabbinic Judaism have persuasively stressed the formative impact that the Christianization of the Roman Empire had on the nature of Jewishness as a social category, as well as on the forms and structures of Jewish culture and society from the late fourth to early sixth century.
At the same time, it has been rightly observed that, to a significant degree, the Jewish populations of the Roman Empire remained fully integrated in the venerable structures of Mediterranean life well into the sixth century. This historical puzzle challenges us to consider how to make sense of the juxtaposition between the far-reaching impact of Christianization on Jews and Judaism, on the one hand, and the broad continuities in the fabric of Mediterranean society, on the other. This question has increasingly informed studies of Jewish life and culture, whether focusing on rabbinic texts, synagogue architectural and artistic remains, or inscriptional evidence from throughout the wider Mediterranean Jewish diaspora. And rightly so.
Third, I would like to address what I see as a major desideratum for the field of Jewish/Christian relations. With some exceptions, the field and this group has tended to focus on elite discourses rather than the material evidence for “lived religion.” When scholars do refer to artifacts such as the God-fearer inscriptions, they often invoke them rhetorically to highlight the diversity of Judaism or Christianity in practice and thus as a check on the hegemonic perspectives advanced by ecclesiastical or rabbinic elites. These materials deserve greater attention in their own right. I think we can do better—much better—on this front.
To take one example from recent research I have been conducting together with Joseph Sanzo: The intersecting histories of the Jewish and Christian “magical” traditions have too often been studied within the field of ancient magic, cordoned off from the concerns of scholars of early Jewish/Christian relations. Naturally, scholars of ancient magic could gain much from greater engagement with the field of early Jewish/Christian. In particular, they might move beyond simply labeling elements in amulets and spells as Jewish, Christian, Graeco-Roman (or whatever) to consider the fluctuating nature of religious idioms and communal boundaries. But for those primarily interested in Jewish–Christian relations in late antiquity, such materials offer a window into how boundaries between Jews and Christians were drawn and understood in the “lived” contexts of late antique religion. Scholars have yet to consider fully the implications of amulets and other ritual objects for the study of Jewish–Christian relations at least in part because of the prevailing assumption that the eclectic and even inclusive strategies that ritual practitioners pursued were fundamentally at odds with the exclusionary discourse that characterized efforts at religious differentiation. But careful analysis of these materials suggest that the concerns of ritual efficacy and boundary demarcation could not only be mutually reinforcing, but also on occasion could overlap in ways that eclipsed the distinctions between Jews and Christians that ecclesiastical or rabbinic elites often promoted.
If we ask what late antique ritual specialists were actually doing when they clustered elements from seemingly different religious traditions in their amulets and spells, we must immediately confront a series of questions with important implications for the study of the social and cultural interaction between Jews and Christians: Do symbols and idioms that originally belonged to a given culture or group retain their original associations and identifications when applied by an individual from another group? If so, under what conditions do those associations and identifications persist and for how long? No doubt, we will find that ritual experts—much like the authors of other discursive genres from late antiquity—constructed religious difference in range of ways. Likely, one cannot speak of a single approach to the boundaries between Judaism and Christianity in “magical” discourse any more than one can speak of a single perspective on the boundaries between Christianity and Judaism in late antique literary texts. But that hypothesis needs testing.
And, in the process, a great deal of valuable research will be conducted that will shed new light on Jewish/Christian relations from the ground up, so to speak. Indeed, once unfettered from the shackles of simplistic labels and taxonomies, amulets and spells can play an important role in reimagining how religious difference was configured in “lived” contexts during late antiquity. I would hazard to suggest that we will find that, in the late antique Mediterranean at least, the very same conditions that promoted exchange across communal boundaries often went hand in hand with efforts at religious differentiation. This is a field that has been enormously fascinated in the rhetorical uses to which “blood” has been put (the blood of the martyrs, the blood of deicide, the blood of circumcision, the blood of the sacrifice). We would do well not to turn the dynamic encounter between Jews and Christians of various kinds into an overly abstract and wholly bloodless affair.
Ra'anan Boustan is an Associate Professor in the Department of History (fields: Ancient and Jewish history) at UCLA.
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