Daniel Boyarin and the Christian Invention of Judaism

How did Judaism and Christianity become separate religions? There are three problems with this question: the words religion, Christianity, and Judaism! These words have evolved in meaning over time, and it simply isn’t possible to separate them out so neatly. Nevertheless, renowned Jewish historian Daniel Boyarin helped to puzzle out the conundrum at the Fall 2016 session of the Christianity Seminar by sharing from an evolving chapter of his forthcoming book The Christian Invention of Judaism.

Ten or fifteen years ago, Boyarin explained the relationship of Judaism and Christianity like this: First came the invention of religion in the 4th and 5th centuries. Then Christianity was able to claim it was the first community built of all the peoples of all the nations of the earth, separating religion from ethnicity for the first time.

Boyarin pointed out that he made a rookie mistake in reaching these conclusions: “I wish there were a hundred graduate students in this room,” he only half-joked, “because they might be tempted to do this. I worked with respectable translations of ancient texts—but they were still translations.” It’s a mistake he says he will never make again, and has gone on to rectify in his later works.

The resulting problems were uncovered, much to Boyarin’s gratitude, by Brent Nongbri of Macquarie University in Australia:

  • Even in the 4th and 5th centuries, religio was not religion in the modern sense of a religious-secular divide.
  • Jews didn’t use the word “Judaism” in the religious sense to describe themselves until modern times. If they used a word at all, it was something more along legal lines, like “Jewishness,” that is, “does this person have a Jewish mother?”

Nongbri nevertheless acknowledged Boyarin's point that something was changing in this period—but what?

After ten more years of publishing articles, discussing and debating the issue, Daniel Boyarin has revised his initial thesis to better account for the evidence, especially the changing language (semantics) surrounding religion, Christianity, and Judaism. First, the modern word “religion” should be struck out of early works and read as something else. The actual, significant change that took place was the adoption of the word ecclesia, the Church as a body. Once that happened, “Christians” as a body needed a double and an opposite by which to create a field of existence for themselves. What word did they choose? “Judaism.” It needn’t have meant heresy (“wrong” teaching) but simply a different group to create contrast. There may not have been an explicit malignant intent behind the invention of the term, Boyarin pointed out, even though it came to have unquestionably malignant effects on Jewish-Christian relations in future generations.

Just because Christians started using the word in the early centuries of its existence, doesn’t mean the people of Israel adopted the word, too. They had no need for it. They went on living their lives as Israel without separating supposedly “religious” activities from “secular” activities, all the way up until the modern period. Only when the people of Israel wanted to participate in the civic work of specific societies around them, when individuals wanted to be fully fledged members of other societies, too, did it then become useful and helpful to be able to say, “I’m Jewish, but that’s my religion. I’m also German, American, an Englishman…” In order to participate, at last, they had to enter the semantics field of play.

There were a lot of ballot items on the Christianity Seminar’s agenda, not all of which had to do with Danial Boyarin’s presentation. I’ll share the official list online as soon as a formal report is available, but here are some key results that were called to my attention by Seminar Co-Chair Hal Taussig. I’ve paraphrased here, as his more detailed observations will appear in The Fourth R magazine later this year:

  • There was no such thing as “Judaism” before (at least) the third century.
  • There also was no “Christianity” as such before the third century.
  • The Seminar is becoming increasingly oriented toward understanding the movements around Jesus as addressing, in some significant way, the experiences of people living in diaspora across the Roman Empire and having to cope with the violence of that empire.

In an effort to continue to understand these issues in a more nuanced way, the Spring 2017 session of the Christianity Seminar turns to the topics of (1) death and suffering in the Roman Empire and (2) apostleship and authority in the 2nd century, with significant input from scholars including Richard Ascough, Judith Perkins, Tony Burke, Jason BeDuhn, Carly Daniel-Hughes, and Maia Kotrosits.

Thank you for reading this report on the Westar Institute Fall 2016 national meeting, which took place in San Antonio, Texas!

Cassandra Farrin

Cassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history.

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