Zones, Gaps, Overlaps, and the Difference between One Thing and Another (ancient Judaism, early Christianity, rabbinic Judaism)

What’s the difference between ancient Judaism, early Christianity, and rabbinic Judaism? Is it this or that doctrinal assertion about the nature of God or “the Son of Man”? A most interesting part of Peter Schäfer’s recent critique, both caustic and careful, of Daniel Boyarin’s new Jesus book can be found in the conclusion.  

That Schäfer felt the need in his takedown to cite the line from Joseph Cedar’s film Footnote (“what’s original is not correct and what’s correct is not oringal” –or is it vice-versa?) does not commend itself, although it suggests how quickly a great cinematic quip can turn into a cultural cliche).

The part of the Schäfer conclusion that interests me here reads as follows:

A CONCLUSION strongly suggests itself: if we wish to evaluate “Judaism” and “Christianity” in the first centuries C.E. from a historian’s point of view, we need to stay away from the dogmatic notion of two firmly established religions, the one defined by its ultimate triumph over Judaism after it became the religion of the Christian state—with all its horrible consequences for the Jews—and the other defined by the victory of the rabbis over their enemies from within and from without. In doing so, we will discover that there is no single line or single point in the first centuries of the Christian era that distinguished Judaism and Christianity once and forever. There are several lines and several points. The binitarian idea of two divine powers does not constitute a definite line of demarcation between the faiths—but the Trinitarian idea of three divine powers does. The vicarious suffering of the Messiah, or even his death, does not constitute an impassable boundary—but the scandal of his death on the cross, so much emphasized by Paul, does…”

This remark speaks to how we go about delineating the overlap and difference between two inter-related phenomena –including the ones between ancient Judaism and early Christianity. Instead of identifying any single line separating the two, Schäfer suggests instead “several lines and several points.”

Schäfer may or may be right about the details. For this, see Alan Brill here. I am unable to intervene in this micro-logical argument, except to say that I always appreciate Boyarin’s audacity and Schäfer’s caution. There are many kinds of difference. They come in wholes and in parts. We should be clear about these, even when the differences, or parts of the difference, are unclear. With Schäfer, I think it should be possible to talk about difference without reification. Watch in his review for adjectives like “definite,” “firm,” and “impassible.” Instead of one definite line of distinction, always look for the 100 + 1 or 1000 +1 fine points that form the lines at the overlap between phenomena. The language used by Schäfer suggests that the lines might not constitute a single continuous, but something more porous like the system or zone of gaps in Kakfa’s “Great Wall of China.”

My own suspicion is that what separates Judaism and Christianity, historically and conceptually, is nominal, at least in part. Names, the order of names, devotion to names make all the difference, or a large part of the difference between one thing and another. This is especially true for the difference or the zones of distinction between things that are as close to each other as ancient Judaism, early Chrisitanity, and rabbinic Judaism.


About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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