The Myth of Judeo-Christian Origins

Krista Dalton

Last week, I had several guests post whilst I was away. I had asked Krista Dalton to send me something, and she did — but it got lost in the emailosphere. So I’m happy to post it this week. Krista has become one of my favorite bloggers of late. She’s currently doing graduate work at Jewish Theological Seminary, and she’ll be starting her PhD studies at Columbia University in the fall.

Everyone is familiar with the Christian origin story. The Ancient Jewish religion births the fledgling Christian child, and the two diverge upon separate paths. Now, depending on your religious bias, this divergence can be perceived a few ways. To a Jewish audience, the Christian child goes rogue, abandoning its cultural traditions and embracing a wholly other religious form. To a Christian audience, the Christian child surpasses its flawed mother and fulfills divine will in the glorious establishment of the Church.

However, Daniel Boyarin, esteemed scholar of Early Jewish and Christian origins, insists this is an artificially constructed myth. At the time of Jesus, “normative” rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity were hundreds of years in the coming. He explains, “In other words, in order to imagine a single mother religion that could give birth to a daughter religion, we have to find some way of reducing the diversity of Jewish religious life in the pre-Christian era to a single object that we can then designate as Judaism.”

Some scholars have sought to modify the genealogical relationship, instead suggesting the image of two twin brothers struggling for dominance. However, Boyarin notes that this metaphor is problematic. Esau, who becomes associated with Christianity in rabbinic writings, is the elder brother, denoting that Christianity is the elder and Judaism the younger.

Rather than subjecting the diverse entities of Judaism and Christianity to mere kinship metaphors, Boyarin insists we should consider them as planes of shared and “crisscrossing lines of history and religious development.” The first and second centuries were a complex time of religious negotiation between a variety of different sects; a heterogeneous space modern religious categories fail to linguistically capture.

I passionately believe this complicating of the religious world of Jesus is important to modern Christian perceptions of both Christianity and Judaism. First, we must recognize that Jesus was neither Christian nor Jewish according to our modern religious categories. Second, we must move past historical “supersessionist” arguments that miss the interconnected space of Jewish and Christian normative origins that happen simultaneously. Finally, in our efforts to achieve successful interreligious dialogue, enslaving ourselves to the “Judeo-Christian” myth is not necessary.

As I write in a similarly themed post on my blog, “Minimizing the fluidity of religious experience into romantic artificial categories does little to encourage dialogue; we do not need to invent a “common origin” to insist on the importance of inter-religious discourse.”  In approaching the convoluted religious world of Late Antiquity, we do better to embrace the fact that the earliest followers of Jesus believed and ascribed to a variety of diverse sects and philosophies, concurrently forgoing our simplistic religious assumptions of normative “Christian” and “Jewish” origins.

Tony piping in here: Did you read that, Rob Bell and Ray Vanderlaan?

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  • Jesse Pals

    I like this post! I appreciate the problematizing of a monolithic, homogenous Judaism. NT Wright also has emphasized the multiform Judaism(s) during the Rabbinic Era and yet I wonder if there is still room for finding theological commonalities situated in the Second Temple period and beyond not for the purpose of inter-faith dialogue but for the sake of Christian reflexivity and learning?

  • http:// Lausten North

    The early Genesis stories are some of the most difficult, especially they are used as lynch pins for many theologies. Thanks for helping to untangle that.

  • Curtis

    Marcus Borg has written quite a bit about the theological soup from which Jesus emerged. The fact that the region was so multicultural, in every aspect, is probably what enabled a new framework of thinking, starting with Jesus and morphing through Paul into Christianity, to emerge.

  • Buck Eschaton

    I get my Christian Origins fix from Margaret Barker.

  • Kent

    Well said. You mean Jesus wasn’t singing the “haggadah” at Passover while eating a boiled egg?

  • Luke Allison

    Tony’s p.s. resonates with me. Ray Van Der Laan has mastered the art of “Judaism as mysterious gnostic key” to unlocking the truths of, well, everything. Many scholars have pointed out that he has a hard time distinguishing Medieval Judaism from 1st Century Judaism.

    One of the more common fallacies that I encounter in the Christian world regarding Judaism is that there was a particular popular view of what the Messiah was supposed to be or do. There seems to have been any number of expectations regarding this figure. This makes the Temptation Narratives in Matthew and Luke particularly interesting, coming as they do after the “vocational assurance” given by God by way of the HOly Spirit in the previous passage. Jesus is figuring out his vocation in real time, and deciding what the Messianic expectation is going to look like FOR HIM, with no direction.

  • hansgustafson

    Of course, it’s great to see a post like this. It reminds me that what I too often take for granted to be simply “early Christianity 101″ – that is, the reality of the vast diversity of early Christianities and first century rabbinic Judaism that existed – is rarely on the radar screens for most Christians today.

    I do find this, as Dalton hints at, both liberating and constructive for interfaith discourse in an increasingly religiously plural world. I echo Dalton’s call to “embrace the fact that the earliest followers of Jesus believed and ascribed to a variety of diverse sects and philosophies.” What might faith traditions learn from this in twenty-first century?

    I am finding the blog-world helpful to gauge the religious literacy of the masses by paying attention to what the bloggers are discussing. Routinely I find myself nodding to posts in agreement and thinking, “of course, why does this even need mentioning?” But, it does need mentioning indeed! I am learning that what we often take for granted in academia has simply never been taught or emphasized beyond the walls of the university. Thank you to all the bloggers out there for helping me to continually get a realistic grasp on what the pressing questions are for those outside the ivory tower.

  • Bobby Gilbert

    Wow, you guys have like a language more difficult than speaking German on the street of Augsburg where half of the people are no longer related to mozart or brecht. Oh, Gott! I scratch my head and wonder about these jews. Oh, they are not jews. There ain’t a whole lot of them in Augsburg no mores. Although there must have been a Jewish joke somewhere when a jewish community tried to build a synagogue in the heart of a moslem community in Augsburg. They never occupied the building, but the menorahs are still on the walls of the outside of the building. I am surprised the moslems have not filled them in. Maybe the moslems want the candle designs to remain as a memory of a lost religion, artifacts. I scratch my skin and wonder if my Christian skin is Jewish when I think of this. I almost get goosebumps and mistake it for the holy spirit. I have stumbled on to something that cost the lives of 500,000 jews from each of the tribes which goes back to some oracle Daniel supposedly wrote about some 70 weeks which runs into equations that even Py the Greek gets confused over. The whole 70 weeks thing gets traffik jammed at the catch year 70 AD. Seventy must be something of major importance. Old Daniel might have been speaking of more than one week and we thank a short guy who asked the Question, “what to do with these people? He meant Jews. This guy with a funny mustache bought a week forward. I only realize Benjamin capped another week everytime I hear about Izreaal , the nation. I can hear Rachel’s children crying. In a 12 year period, this small guy with a mustache almost solved the problem, but instead helped develop bayer aspirin. If you go back some 1821 years, some Pliny asked the same question about a bunch of wanna be jews who got accused of following the way, they named them, Christians. Unknowings to all in 70 AD, those cannibal Jews had to die in a town nickname Salem to give birth to what we call the Chris-tian church. The whole event was uneventful in 112 AD. If it was not for the Pliny guy, it would have been forgotten. My Jewish blood by adoption makes me thinks we owe a favor. On the whole, Israeel has completed its seven weeks, I think. I am thinking now a days, if you wants me to believe “show me your week”.

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  • Brianna Kocka

    Great insights, great post.