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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 […]

Christianity and Colonialism (Gnosticism series)

In my last blog post about Karen King’s What Is Gnosticism?, I used the metaphor of maps and boundary-making to point to the problem of always keeping in mind the purposes behind our “map” of early Christian history. This has proven to be a problem in the study of Christianity because it’s too tempting to take what early Christian writers claimed about themselves—and about their opponents—at face-value.

King goes on in chapters 3 and 4 to give examples of actual scholars who fell into this trap, complicated by the rise of Western colonialism. Nineteenth- and twentieth-century scholars like Adolf von Harnack and the history of religions school tried to move beyond the church’s language of heresy without, however, endangering Christianity’s status as the highest form of religion. Some even went so far as to claim Christianity had taken over and improved upon the ideas of other religions on its path to ascendancy. Of course this or that brand of Christianity might get touted above another, such as Protestantism versus Catholicism, but the status of Christianity itself was left untouched. Scholars assumed the superiority of Christianity just like wider society assumed the superiority of white Europeans.

Today we study that phenomenon under the term “colonialism.” Arguably, we haven’t yet moved beyond colonialism. It is evident in the ways race, class, and gender are treated differently in pop culture, our legal system, and other social institutions. Bell hooks, an American feminist and cultural critic, links colonialism to our tendency to recycle old ideas in new forms for the sake of power. In Reel to Real: Race, Sex, and Class at the Movies, she gives a commonsense example of this phenomenon:

We keep coming back to the question of representation because identity is always about representation. People forget that when they wanted white women to get into the workforce because of the world war, what did they start doing? They started having a lot of commercials, a lot of movies, a lot of things that were redoing the female image, saying, “Hey, you can work for the war, but you can still be feminine.” So what we see is that the mass media, film, TV, all of these things, are powerful vehicles for maintaining the kinds of systems of domination we live under, imperialism, racism, sexism etc. Often there’s a denial of this and art is presented as politically neutral, as though it is not shaped by a reality of domination.

Sometimes people get upset in conversations about racism and other –isms because they don’t feel they should be held personally responsible for the actions of past generations. And that’s a fair complaint, to a point. What Hooks is talking about here is not the past as such, but our choices to reproduce past attitudes through new movies, books, and so on. If we reproduce sexist, racist, and other oppressive images without criticizing or challenging them, we keep them alive for the next generation.

Richard Reitzenstein

Richard Reitzenstein is credited (for better or for worse) by King with the invention of the “gnostic redeemer myth.” Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Scholars deal with this problem, too. King is claiming that gnosticism happens to be a tool used—consciously or unconsciously—by scholars of early Christian history to keep alive the basic structures of orthodoxy (“right belief”) and heresy (“deviance”). The orthodoxy-heresy divide served the church’s goal of claiming authority for itself, but it does not in any way serve a scholar’s goal of a better understanding of history.

I found this quote especially illustrative:

Possibly the greatest mischief [of history of religions school] was done by the invention of the Gnostic redeemer myth, that staple of two-page summaries of Gnosticism. This stirring narrative … was constructed by taking bits and pieces from particular motifs from a variety of historical and literary contexts, and combining them into a single, coherent narrative. … In reality there is no single existing ancient literary source that gives ‘the Gnostic redeemer myth’ as scholars have ‘reconstructed’ (i.e., invented) it. (109, italics in original)

Last week I mentioned Daniel Boyarin’s suggestion that the metaphor of “family resemblance” is a useful alternative to other kinds of definitions. No one member of the family has all the family traits, but they all share some. However, now I see that the case of the history of religions school shows one weakness of that metaphor. Because there is no family prototype, out of which the rest of the family members are stamped, we’re all family if you draw a large enough circle. The lack of a prototype allowed scholars who liked the history of religions approach to cherry-pick whatever traits they felt like assigning to gnosticism, without anchoring them in place and time.

All along, King’s point has been that the entire structure of a “good” Christianity and “bad” gnosticism, or vice versa, is flawed. We know things were never so monolithic in practice. The end result is absolutely going to look like a family of some kind, but I can safely say this much: the Christian family is not going to divide easily into two groups.

Join us in reading Karen King’s What Is Gnosticism? (Belknap Press, 2005)

This is the fourth post in a blog series on Karen L. King’s book, What Is Gnosticism? This book will form the basis of the Fall 2014 Christianity Seminar in San Diego concurrent with the Society of Biblical Literature conference. Don’t leave the last word to me. Share your thoughts below ↓

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Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as Associate Publisher and Director of Marketing. 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.

The Ancient Rhetoric of Exclusion and Its Modern Bedfellows (Gnosticism series)

“Ancient philosophical discourse identified truth with origin, purity and essence. … True knowledge was knowledge of the beginning, and above all, knowledge of the Divine. History was generally plotted as a story of decline from the moment of pure origin.”

—Karen L. King, What Is Gnosticism?

It’s pretty well established by now that historians have to be careful not to assume ancient people thought like they did. But there’s a less obvious facet of that problem that deserves our attention. Consider this parable from Jack Miles about a pair of twin boys, Benjamin and Joshua, from the preface of Daniel Boyarin’s The Jewish Gospels:

Because they are fraternal twins, not identical, they don’t look alike, and they are different from one another in other ways as well. Ben is an athlete, a scrappy competitor who makes up in hustle whatever he may lack in raw ability. Josh is a singer-songwriter with bedroom eyes whose second love, after his current girlfriend, is his guitar.

… Being twins, sharing a bedroom since they were toddlers, Ben and Josh know each other quite well. Ben knows—as no one else does—that Josh can beat him in one-on-one basketball. Josh knows that Ben can sing a two-part harmony in a sweet tenor voice never heard outside their bedroom. But what they know about themselves has mattered less and less as time has passed and as a received version of who they are has taken hold in their extended family. … By degrees, the brothers themselves have succumbed to the family definition. (x‒xi)

Later, Miles says, when a visitor was offered the family album and pointed out photos of the boys in roles that the family had come to associate with the opposite brother, “the family chuckled at these completely out-of-character moments” (xi).

Judaism and Christianity are like Josh and Ben. There was a time when they were not separated so dramatically, and yet over time it became “out of character” for a Jewish person to be associated with one idea, say the belief in a divine son of God, and for a Christian person to be associated with another, say, keeping kosher. As we continue to read Karen King’s What Is Gnosticism?, I find this a helpful metaphor for King’s cautions about concepts like heresy, orthodoxy, and gnosticism.

King explains that ancient polemicists like Irenaeus and Tertullian used certain social and rhetorical strategies both to create a uniform definition of Christianity and, in the same stroke, to exclude individuals and groups that muddied the waters with different beliefs and practices. While she gives a nod to the role of political power (such as the ability to excommunicate someone), she draws our attention to a polemical tool that doesn’t get quite as much attention: the interplay between widespread ancient beliefs about origins and a clever appeal by polemicists to metaphors of genealogy.

This is a crucial point because this rhetoric is still used, consciously or unconsciously, by scholars today in defining gnosticism. More on that in a moment.

Basilica Saint-Sernin - Simon Magus (Wikimedia Commons)

Relief on the Miègeville’s gate of the basilica Saint-Sernin in Toulouse. The relief shows Simon magus, demons, and birth of the wine. CREDIT: Wikimedia Commons

First, what were ancient beliefs about origins? As the quote with which I opened this post suggests, according to ancient rhetoric truth was associated with a pure origin, and an associated belief that everything deterioriates from there. This attitude toward history had a powerful influence on Christianity through the work of polemicists, who cleverly appealed to biological metaphors of “like follows like” to claim that “true” teachings led from the twelve apostles and their inheritors, while “false” teachings led from mistaken individuals like Simon Magus, as infamously depicted in Acts 8, to whichever individuals or groups a given polemicist wanted to attack in his own era. In other words, there was a genealogy of truth leading from God and a genealogy of falsehood leading from Satan, with certain iconic figures coming to represent one versus the other. As troubling as this is, King observes, “modern scholarship has tended to keep Irenaeus’ tactics alive by offering alternative genealogies” instead of challenging the whole model (32).

What all this amounts to, as I understand it, is that we’re like the family of Josh and Ben, only we’re trusting a couple disgruntled uncles to tell us what we ought to think about how things actually unfolded over the years. And that, as we’ve become aware of it, we’ve just grabbed a different uncle.

An awful lot of anxiety is implied by all this shoring up of boundaries while at the same time playing the old-fashioned trick of getting a person to look at the right hand while the left hand acts. Notice that there is no pre-existing orthodoxy to be defended. Rather, the polemicists are themselves creating an orthodox position through engaging with their opponents. They themselves are searching for past figures to represent their immediate problems. It’s only in looking back that the result seems inevitable. Yet all this was going on in close quarters. The anxiety underlying these acts is not caused by strangers but by individuals who threatened the immediate identity of the polemicists. King quotes Jonathon Z. Smith on this point: “Rather than the remote ‘other’ being perceived as problematic and/or dangerous, it is the proximate ‘other,’ the near neighbor, who is most troublesome” (in King, 25).

Philosopher Judith Butler has written extensively on boundary-making and anxiety about the near “other.” Although frequently she addresses this in terms of gender and, lately, political philosophy, one can easily see the connections to the issue we’re discussing here. In Undoing Gender she writes,

The Hegelian tradition links desire with recognition, claiming that desire is always a desire for recognition and that it is only through the experience of recognition that any of us becomes constituted as socially viable beings. That view has its allure and its truth, but it also missed a couple of important points. The terms by which we are recognized as human are socially articulated and changeable. And sometimes the very terms that confer ‘humanness’ on some individuals are those that deprive certain other individuals of the possibility of achieving that status. … These norms have far-reaching consequences. … (2)

Contemporary debates about a number of topics in Christianity—such as the role of the Bible and how it ought to be interpreted, gender and sexuality, and appropriate leadership—rest on what beliefs and practices are considered to fall inside the definition of Christianity and which ones don’t by those with the power to enforce it. I recognize that some people don’t like to hear the phrase “socially constructed” because it suggests these don’t have weight or influence in real life, but I can think of several examples offhand of this power to enforce a particular definition of Christianity: a minor whose behaviors fall out of line with the expectations of the head of household can face physical and financial punishment, for instance. On a broader level, Margaret Battin in Ethics in the Sanctuary cites multiple examples of church communities publicly humiliating members who fail to meet their expectations, not to mention shunning, denying resources, and other punitive actions. I remember at Westar’s Spring 2014 national meeting when we were discussing hell in American culture, one participant said, “Some of us are still dealing with this in our families. We know people for whom hell is a real, scary place they have to avoid.” It’s not just interesting history; individuals in families and communities everywhere are still enforcing such beliefs as a matter of course, with, as Butler says, “far-reaching consequences.”

I hope it is clear, then, that if we can break free of the orthodox-versus-heresy model, this can lead to a very real impact on the lives of the people around us. We can offer new possibilities not only for understanding the past but also creating a more flexible boundary line for the contemporary church. For those of us outside the church but still affected by it, it can give us the right to say, “It doesn’t have to be so.” Ben and Josh can be different, and they will still be Ben and Josh. Jews and Christians can be different, and still be meaningful communities; the seeds are still right there in history, waiting to be noticed by the right person, waiting to be nurtured.

Join us in reading Karen King’s What Is Gnosticism? (Belknap Press, 2005)

This is the second post in a blog series on Karen L. King’s book, What Is Gnosticism? This book will form the basis of the Fall 2014 Christianity Seminar in San Diego concurrent with the Society of Biblical Literature conference. Don’t leave the last word to me. Share your thoughts below ↓

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Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as Associate Publisher and Director of Marketing. 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.