Daniel Boyarin on Jews, Christians, and “Religion”

Daniel Boyarin on Jews, Christians, and “Religion” May 24, 2015

I was surprised to get twitter and facebook notices that Daniel Boyarin had used me as a negative foil in his lecture on “Two Pharisees: Flavius Josephus and Paul the Apostle” recently given in Rome. See it here:

He quotes a review (at 16:08) I wrote of Adam H. Becker and Annette Yoshiko Reed (editors) The Ways that Never Parted: Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages which included some critical remarks about Boyarin’s essay :

Yet I remain unconvinced that it was Christianity that instigated the separation of cult from culture and then fostered the origin of ‘religion’ upon which the religion of Judaism was signified over and against Christianity and foistered upon Jews. Ioudaismos was considered a religio or a thrēskeia in the pre-Christian era long before Jesus, Paul, Luke, or John.

To which Boyarin replies: “The number of errors in these sentences is perhaps exceeded by the number of words, but not by much!”


But then comes the unkindest cut of them all, Prof. Boyarin accuses me of being “American.”

In response, I think I would mostly concede the point. I wrote that review back in 2008/9, but since then I’ve read E.A. Judge on “religion” in the ancient world and would now say that Christianity, especially post-70 AD, was definitely characterized by a separation of cult and culture. It seems to me, following E.A. Judge, that it was Christianity which forged a synthesis of belief and practice, morality and liturgy, to produce a social paradigm that encompassed belief and ethics entirely apart from ethnicity, political identity, and cultus. For that reason, it was able to become a totalizing intellectual and cultural force that was capable of taking over an entire civilization like Rome. This, without doubt, must shape our understanding of the origins of Christianity as an “ity” and Judaism as an “ism.” So point conceded to Boyarin.

To be fair to myself, I’ve always been cognizant of the fact that what we mean by “religion” as a comprehensive worldview did not correspond to what ancient authors called religio, pietas, latreiathreskeia, or eusebeia which was usually tied to something like negotiating a relationship with god and gods through a cultus (see Brent Nongbri, Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept [New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013]).  So I’d concur with Boyarin’s citation of Cicero about the Jewish religio as “rules or prohibitions” since religio is perhaps best translated as something like “scruples.” Moreover, it is certainly true that Ioudaismos (“Judaism”) is not reducible to what we moderns would call “religion” or even ancient versions of threskeia . I would translate Ioudaismos as “the Judean way of life and belief” of which worship was one part and a defining part. But it is noteworthy too that in the post-Maccabean period, being a Ioudaios became increasingly associated a particular social posturing and beliefs about a God rather than exclusively an ethnic or territorial designation (this is controversial, but I’m not alone on this score, see my Crossing Over Sea and Land, 13-16). Something recognized by Roman authors like Tacitus in Hist 5.4-5 who focuses very much on the type of social ethos and worship of the Jews as indicative of their identity as a distinct people (i.e., it involves features of religio and/or threskeia). Similarly, it was possible to deny Ioudaismos by eating foods prohibited by Mosaic law further indicating a cultural dimension to it (see 4 Macc 4.26). Boyarin recognizes as much in his essay (“Semantic Differences; or ‘Judaism’/’Christianity'” p. 71) since he says: “It should be emphasized that Ioudaismos, even before it became a ‘religion,’ nevertheless constituted a cultural complex that had important religious elements.” He also adds: “The argument, then, is that following the epistemic shift for which I am arguing, Ioudaismos was transformed into a religion containing the important national, ethnic and cultural elements,” and on that last part I’m more circumspect because if features of Ioudaismos can be analysed into discreet segments, then at some point they can be separated.

My biggest quibble is that I still  think the separation of cult and culture has antecedents in ancient Judaism. That is because, first, in ancient Judaism – in the Babylonian exile, to some extent in the Diaspora, and certainly in the rabbinic period – one had to improvise on how to perform  worship apart from temple and territory, and they did it largely by relying on the Torah and metaphoricalizing elements of the cultus. And it is here that we find the tendency to transfer language from the  cultus and apply it to other areas of life in devotion to God. I think we find examples of this in Philo and Qumran as well as Paul and James (esp. Jas 2:26-27 where threskeia describes mercy not cultic sacrifice). In addition, ancient Jews were able to successfully acculturate in Persian, Greek, and Roman contexts and even integrate non-ethnic Judeans into its ranks precisely because they operated with praxes and symbols that could be emulated without the cultus and away from Judea. Second, the Hellenistic Apologetic literature is premised on the notion that the beliefs and practices of the Jews can be shared with non-Jews entirely apart from political loyalty to Judea. Philo’s category of the “Israel who sees God” pertaining to any ethically upright monotheist is case in point. Another interesting fact – one I need to think more about – is the common cause that Idumeans made with Judeans in fighting the Romans during the Jewish war as their united cause was based not on territorial affiliation or shared ethnicity, but a common animus towards Rome and a common allegiance to the temple as the center of YHWH worship. My thinking is that although the Idumeans were not Ioudaios they were nevertheless loyal to the threskeia and latreia of the temple. What would we call that loyalty? I would call it Ioudaismos (unless someone has a better option). In other words, there was already a process within Ioudaismos whereby its socio-religious component was becoming separated from allegiance to a territory and designating an ethnic group.

HT: Biblical studies on-line.

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