Border Lines, Daniel Boyarin

Boyarin, Daniel Border Lines: The Partition of Judaeo-Chrstianity
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, © 2004. 392 pages.1

Reviewed by Joshua Brumbach

Do the terms “Judaism” and “Christianity” represent two distinct religious
.entities in late antiquity, and are they the direct result of a very early parting of ways over the issue of an exalted messianic figure? In Border Lines, Daniel Boyarin, Professor of Talmudic Culture at University of California, Berkeley, seeks to dispel commonly accepted notions of each community’s origins and presents a striking case for re-imagining the historic development and partition of Judaeo-Christianity.

Boyarin suggests that Judaism and Christianity developed as distinct entities as a result of “an imposed partitioning of what was once a territory without border lines” (p. 1). He likens this partitioning to the artificial borders erected by colonial powers. The means by which these two communities would determine the answers to the very difficult questions of identity, Boyarin argues, is through heresiology. He proposes that authorities on both sides sought to establish an artificial border, that when crossed, implied a clear departure from one community for another. Through such labels as “Judaizer” and “minim,” Boyarin contends each group attempted to eradicate the “fuzziness” of their borders (both semantic and social). Paradoxically, however, the two communities evolved in surprisingly parallel ways.

Boyarin proposes that it is not until the fourth century that we can even begin
to speak of Judaism and Christianity as separate “religions.” Prior to this time (and even after) it seems the borders between the two communities were far more permeable than previously supposed. There were not only varieties within Judaism (and Christianity), but even varieties of “Jewish Christianity” (i.e. Nazarenes, Ebionites, etc.). The result
of such plurality is hybridization—which purists on both sides perceived to be a hazardous mixing of species. Therefore, heresiology provided the response to the need to establish “purity” (the opposite of hybridization). As Boyarin proposes, the ultimate distinctions between Christianity and Judaism did not develop organically, but were artificially constructed.

The book is divided into three parts. In the first section, Boyarin attempts to show through selected second and third century texts an engaged process for creating the difference between ‘Judaism’ and ‘Christianity,’ including the invention of heresy. The first chapter places an emphasis on Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho, which Boyarin suggests should be read as a working out in dialogue form “the whatness of Christianity” (at least as Justin would see it). Building on this point, Boyarin then delves into the beginnings of what will be a key component of his thesis, namely Logos theology, which we will explore further in a moment.

Boyarin’s second chapter explores the relationship and development of a constructed apostolic succession within both communities—a clear attempt to establish legitimacy. This is constructed by the rabbis through a “Mishnaic succession list” as seen in Pirkei Avot, whereby certain groups (like the Priesthood) are totally left out, while certain influential families are written in. This apostolic succession was simultaneously being established within Christian circles at roughly the same time. Along with establishing paralleled apostolic successions, the concept of minut (a close cognate to Christian heresy) developed within Jewish thinking. Boyarin contends that this theological discourse served as the primary vehicle for establishing the difference between the two communities.

In the final portions of the book, Boyarin attempts to show how the culmination of this paralleled heresiological process resulted in both communities “crucifying the Logos,” whereby Logos theology became identified as “Christian,” and the rejection of binitarianism (let alone trinitarianism), became the ultimate touchstone of Judaism. Boyarin concludes by presenting an account of what happened to these two new entities with particular attention to the development of Rabbinic Judaism.

Building upon points illuminated in Justin’s Dialogue, in the second part of his book, The Crucifixion of the Logos, Boyarin introduces various texts demonstrating that Logos theology was a commonly held view by Jews of all stripes (not just “Jewish Christians”). He describes Logos Theology as:

A doctrine that between God and the world, there is a second divine entity, God’s Word (Logos) or God’s Wisdom, who mediates between the fully transcendent Godhead and the material world. This doctrine was widely held by Jews in the pre-Christian era and after the beginnings of Christianity was widely held and widely contested in Christian circles. By the fourth century, Jews who held such a doctrine and Christians who rejected it were defined as ‘neither Jews nor Christians’ but heretics. (pp. 30–31)

Throughout the rabbinic period, Boyarin contends there is evidence of a vital form of Judaism that was not only extra-rabbinic but which the Rabbis explicitly named as a heresy – the belief in ‘Two Powers in Heaven,’ or in our terms, Logos theology.2 Most Jews possibly resisted Justin’s efforts to appropriate the Logos exclusively for Christianity and additionally detested the efforts of the Rabbis to corroborate that exclusion. For those Jews, even in Israel, the Logos (referred to as memra, or “word” in Aramaic) remained an important theological being (p. 89).

Chapter 4 undertakes a close intertextual reading of the Prologue to the Gospel of John. Likening John’s prologue to early Midrash, he proposes that it is “conceivable to see the Prologue, together with its Logos doctrine, as a Jewish text through and through rather than, as it has often been read, a ‘Hellenized corruption’ of Judaism” (p. 31). In late antiquity there were plenty of Jews who “firmly held theological doctrines of a second God, variously called Logos, Memra, Sophia, Metatron, or Yahoel; indeed perhaps most Jews did so” (p. 92). Boyarin argues:

The Logos of the Prologue [in John 1]—like the theological Logos in general . . . is the product of a scriptural reading of Genesis 1 and Proverbs 8 together. This reading will bear out my conclusion that nothing in Logos theology as a doctrine of God indicates or even implies a particularly Christian as opposed to generally Jewish, including Christian kerygma . . . we must pay attention to the formal characteristics of Midrash as a mode of reading Scripture . . . This hermeneutical practice is founded on a theological notion of the oneness of Scripture as a self-interpreting text. (p. 95)

Boyarin emphasizes, “Gaps are not filled with philosophical ideas but with allusions to or citations of other texts. The first five verses of the Prologue to the Fourth Gospel fit this form nearly perfectly” (ibid). Boyarin points to wisdom texts and hymns as aids in exploring this hypothesis further, noting that Philo identifies Sophia and Logos as a single entity. Additionally, within certain Wisdom texts, Proverbs 8 became important in the Jewish interpretive tradition of Genesis 1 (ibid). Demonstrating how Sophia (wisdom) became a personified midrashic tool to decipher other passages, he uses an illustration from Baruch 3:37 to illustrate an incarnation of God’s pre-existent Wisdom: “Afterward she appeared upon the earth and lived among men.” Using midrashic method, Boyarin argues that it is not so unusual to arrive at an interpretation of “God’s extraordinary incarnation of his son, the Logos” (p. 97). His conclusion is that what would become orthodox to Christianity was the “combination of Jewish messianic soteriology with equally Jewish Logos theology in the figure of Jesus” (p. 105).

In chapter 5, Boyarin explores how widespread Logos theology was within various streams of Judaism, both preceding and coinciding with the Rabbis, and how rich and vibrant it was. Beginning with Philo, he proposes, quoting David Winston, that “Logos theology is the linchpin of Philo’s religious thought” (p. 113). Philo’s writings echo the Alexandrian Jewish community’s pre-Christian concept of deuteros theos, a sort of “second god” intimately linked to the idea of God’s Word. Boyarin demonstrates that Philo asserted that by means of God’s Word, which was the same as his Wisdom, God created the world and revealed himself to the prophets. For Philo, it appears the Logos is both a part of God, and yet a separate being. It is the Word created at the beginning which creates everything else. For Philo, the Word is both God, and with God. According to Boyarin, “Philo oscillates about whether the Logos, God’s Son, exists separately or is totally incorporated within the godhead” (p. 114). What is unique about Philo is that his Logos theology is not just the Wisdom personified in the biblical text, and neither does it completely corroborate with Stoic or Platonic thought on the Logos. Rather, it seems this Word Philo describes is a new synthesis of all of the above. For Boyarin, the Logos as a divine mediator is found only in Jewish (including Christian) theologies, and historically speaking, is “more of a scriptural interpretation rather than a Platonic speculation” (p. 115).

Turning to Aramaic texts, Boyarin demonstrates that Logos theology is native to Judaism. He does this by exploring the concept of Memra—a term used in Aramaic texts similar to the Logos (p. 116). By examining the role of the Targumim, it follows, according to Boyarin, “that the strongest reading of the Memra is that it is not a mere name, but an actual divine entity, or mediator” (p. 117). Boyarin concludes the chapter by returning to John 1, and its implications for understanding Jewish Logos/Memra theologies:

The Gospel of John, according to this view, when taken together with the Logos of Philo and with the targum, provides further important evidence that Logos theology, used here as a general term for various closely related binitarian theologies, was the religious koine of Jews in Palestine and the Diaspora . . .
In saying this, I am arguing . . . that in the doctrine of God there is no essential and crucial difference between Judaism and Christianity. (pp. 126–27)

Boyarin does a great job connecting the Logos and Memra, and presenting an understanding of a binitarian theology that is firmly rooted in Jewish soil. However, Carl Kinbar points out that Boyarin is missing a key component in his argument. According to Kinbar:

Strangely, Boyarin does not introduce the uses of the Hebrew dibbur, also meaning “a spoken word.” Since logos, memra, and dibbur share highly overlapping semantic domains. I suggest that Boyarin’s work suffers from this gap, largely eliminating from his work a significant body of rabbinic material written in Hebrew. This is not a minor omission from Border Lines, as dibbur is used of a hypostatic Word in a number of midrashim attributed to rabbis of the second through fifth centuries C.E. 3

In the following chapter (Chapter 6), Boyarin demonstrates through specific examples from rabbinic literature how the Rabbis eventually took a significant theological position towards Jews who held versions of Logos theology, rendering them heretics, and thereby excluding them along with ‘Christian’ Jews from normative Judaism. The Rabbis agree, as it were, to cede traditional Jewish Logos theology to Christianity, declaring it, and those who held positions of “Two Powers in Heaven” (symbolized by no less than Rabbi Akiva), as outside the parameters of normative Judaism.

Boyarin’s Border Lines carries significant relevance and implications for Messianic Judaism, and how we are to understand ourselves. It is also a significant contribution to our efforts to develop a mature Messianic Jewish understanding of the nature of God. Although he builds a strong case, there are also a few weak spots that can, however, be filled by additional support from the Second Temple period. When weighed together with texts like the Dead Sea Scrolls, and recent inscriptions such as “Gabriel’s Revelation,” we can gain an even clearer perspective.4 Boyarin provides a serious proposal for understanding complex unity, and how it developed in Early Judaism. He also provides an analysis for how it was adapted among the earliest followers of Yeshua. Boyarin additionally helps demonstrate how, through artificially constructed means, this once very Jewish understanding of God became defined as “beyond the pale” of normative Judaism. <

Joshua Brumbach is the new Senior Rabbi of Ahavat Zion Messianic Synagogue in Beverly Hills, CA.
He previously served as Young Adult Liaison for the UMJC and as a rabbi in congregations in California and Maryland. He holds a BA in Ancient Near Eastern Civilizations and Biblical Studies from UCLA and is completing a Master’s degree in Jewish Studies at Towson University.

1. Adapted from a paper originally presented at the Hashivenu Forum, January 2010, in Agoura Hills, Calif.

2. Boyarin emphasizes, “There is no reason to imagine, however, that ‘rabbinic Judaism’ ever became the popular hegemonic form of Jewish religiosity among the ‘People of the Land,’ and there is good reason to believe the opposite” (p. 89). Rather, Yavnean development evolved over time, which he explores further in chapter 7.

3. Carl Kinbar, Addendum to “Israel, Interpretation, and the Knowledge of God.” Paper presented at 2010 Hashivenu forum,
Agoura Hills, CA., 24.

4. Israel Knohl, “The Messiah Son of Joseph,” BAR (September/October 2008).