By Daniel Boyarin, UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA PRESS ©2004 • PHILADELPHIA , PA
Reviewed by Paul L. Saal
In recent years many books have been written which bolster the Messianic Jewish claim that Yeshua and his earliest talmidim would have been at home within the normative Jewish culture and practices of their day. Both post-critical studies of the Gospels and the “New Perspective” school of the Pauline epistles have sought to build bridges between nascent Christianity and the soon-to-emerge Rabbinic Judaism. To date though, not much credible scholarship of late antiquity has aided in the historical validation of a movement such as Messianic Judaism, which recognizes the messianic claims of Yeshua haNatzrati, while at the same time finding its cultural and religious home tenuously within the post-rabbinic Jewish people. Not until now, that is. In his most recent book, Border Lines: The Partition of Judeao-Christianity, Professor Daniel Boyarin has imaginatively laid out a thoughtful new reading of the emergence of Christianity and Judaism that can only prove helpful when considering the legitimacy of modern Messianic Judaism.
Border Lines is an extension of the thesis that Boyarin advanced in his book Dying for God: Martyrdom and the Making of Christianity and Judaism. 1 In his most recent volume, he continues to challenge the conventional wisdom, which assumes that Christianity and Judaism were two clearly defined religious entities, with distinct and identifiable practices, which separated at inception. Boyarin notes that there were no unique characteristics that could be called “Christian” or “Jewish” in late antiquity. Applying the “wave theory” of linguistics and culture,
1 Daniel Boyarin, Dying for God: Martyrdom and the Making of Christianity and Judaism (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999).
2 E.g. Daniel Boyarin, Carnal Israel:
Professor Boyarin approaches the two religions as related hybrids, influencing each other and influenced by the “ripples” of the ideas composite in the “Judaisms” of late antiquity.
Most Messianic Jews would not be surprised by his assertion that both “Jesus following Jews” and “non-Jesus following Jews” maintained such practices as keeping kosher or observing Shabbat, but might feel delightfully enlightened by his allegations that beliefs in a second divinity and the divine logos were also variably held across the broad cultural landscape that is anachronistically called Judaism. Therefore separation between those Jews who followed Yeshua and those who did not was primarily limited to that distinction, and the division among the broad landscapes of “Judaisms” in late antiquity was ambiguous at best.
Boyarin makes a striking case from both rabbinic texts, where he is a recognized scholar, and patristic texts, of which he is more auto-didactic, that the ultimate distinction between Christianity and Judaism did not organically arise but rather was constructed by heresiologists invested in creating a unique Christian identity.
He contends that these “border-makers” created Boyarin notes synthetic boundaries that could divide ideas, that there beliefs, and practices into either Christian (and
therefore orthodox,) or Jewish (and, by implica
were no unique
tion, heretical) categories. Boyarin opines, “I characteristics reckon that Christianity, in its own develop-that could ments, struggles, and the forms of its triumphs
was a vital player in the drama of the invention
of Judaism, not just vice versa” (71).
If Boyarin “Christian” or is correct, then the Church fathers did not only “Jewish” in help to invent Rabbinical Judaism, but in fact
originated the concept of religion, as we now
understand it. Prior to Christianity (a term Boyarin attributes to Ignatius as well as Judaism), religious practice and belief had never historically been severed from the broader cultural network of ethnic and geographical locus and has never since. In this respect, according to Boyarin, Christian orthodoxy remains the only religion of its type on earth, since the Rabbis inevitably refused the option of defining their faith universally and outside of ethnic borders. So, “Jewish” remains an adjective, which describes a far less defined set of beliefs and its inseparable, ethnicity.
Such a set of assertions is certainly good news (pun intended) for Messianic Jews, who contend that they remain Jewish despite their belief in Yeshua. If early Christian writers contrived the Jewish/Christian schism, then eradication of that schism would be the only just and appropriate response. Continued alienation of Messianic Jews by religious professionals within the present power structures of Judaism, could be viewed as mirroring the behaviors of the early Christian heresiologists in as much as they rely upon the dissonant and disenfranchised other to foster negative identity formation. Such an approach undermines centuries of Jewish resistance to such artificial boundaries.
Is Professor Boyarin aware of these implications for Messianic Judaism and the implications of Messianic Judaism for the broader Jewish world? I believe he is. As early as the preface to the book he is careful to distinguish himself from those who claim faith in Yeshua. “I am not, I think, a Jew against Jesus but there is no credible sense in which I could be construed a Jew for Jesus either.” (xii) It is as though he is reluctantly preparing for an inevitable identification with Messianic Jews as a result of his conclusions. The book ends with him stating succinctly the dilemma facing modern Judaism.
Refusing to be different in quite the same ways, not a religion, not quite, Judaism (including the bizarrely named Jewish
orthodoxy of modernity) remained something else, neither quite here nor
quite there. Among the various emblems of this different difference remains
the fact that there are Christians who are Jews, or perhaps better put, Jews
who are Christians, even up to this very day (225).
His use of the terms “Christian” and “Jew” here are quite telling. Throughout the book Boyarin dodges anachronisms, as much as is feasible, avoiding the use of “Jewish Christians,” the usual nomenclature in theological discourse for the early followers of Yeshua. Most often he chooses the rather clumsy “Jesus following Jews” and “non-Jesus following Jews” rather than revert to the convenient but inaccurate convention. At a 2003 presentation on similar material at the Conference of the American Academy of Religion he semi-jokingly referred to them as “messianic Jews of the Jesus variety.” But in his conclusion he uses the contemporary terminology with all of the inherent irony. Moreover, in the very last sentence, Boyarin inverts Jews and Christians making Jews the identity of priority, a rhetorical device not unlike Hebrew Christians changing their nomenclature to Messianic Jews.
I believe that Boyarin is motivated by a high sense of justice to set the historical record right, even if it creates his own inner dissonance. He admits,
On the one hand I “occupy an
“orthodox”—or at least conventional—form of Jewish identification, belief,
and practice, but on the other hand, I find myself driven to write a history
which calls the very terms of that orthodox identity into question. I need to
figure out in what way the position of monster, of heretic, calls me in order
to discover the meaning of the work to me. I think I read the record, in
some sense, from the point of view of the hybrids, the heretics, not because I
wish, then to revive their particular religious modality, whether we call it
Jewish Christian or find some other name for it, but because there is some
Reading Sex in Talmudic Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993) and Unheroic Conduct: The Rise of Heterosexuality and the Invention of the Jewish Man (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997).
other sense in which the position of those “monsters” is close enough to my own to call me to it, to identify with it as my own place (xii).
Professor Boyarin has long been an outspoken advocate for the disenfranchised. His nuanced writings concerning subjects such as misogyny and sexual orientation in religious writings, his vaunted “love” for Christianity, and his criticisms of the Israeli governments’ handling of Palestinian conflicts have often caused him to occupy a position of marginality within the orthodox Jewish world. 2 It would seem that his own sense of liminal positioning allows him to empathize with the “hybrids,” the “heretics,” and the “monsters” of which he writes. As Daniel Boyarin seeks to be understood, so it would appear that he seeks to understand.
Though it was clearly not his intention to write a book for the benefit of Messianic Judaism, Daniel Boyarin has authored a significant reading of the emergence of Jewish and Christian religious identity, which can only serve to bolster the apologia for the existence of this modern movement. Though Messianic Judaism is often criticized as being syncretistic, if Boyarin is correct and Judaism and Christianity emerged from the same organic soup without natural dissonance, then eradication of the boundaries of animus is not syncretism but rather restoration. His thinking is creative and his historical exegesis is thorough, well documented and highly plausible. Border Lines is a thesis that scholars of Christianity and Judaism should consider, and Messianic Jewish scholars cannot afford to ignore.
Paul L. Saal is the rabbi of Congregation Shuvah Yisrael, Simsbury, CT. He received smicha from the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations and has served on its steering committee for the past decade, presently as the chairperson of the Jewish Community Relations Committee.