Sunday, June 18, 2006

Judaisms and Christianities

In a recent post Mark Goodacre writes:

Is it just me or is there something rather annoying about the trend over the last twenty years or so to talk about early Christianity as "Christianities" and early Judaism as "Judaisms"? I must admit that I am hoping that this is going to prove to be just a fad and something that we will look back on in twenty years time as an odd terminological aberration that characterized a particular kind of scholarship at the turn of the millennium.

The diversity of beliefs among Jewish authors and groups in the second-temple period has led some to speak of ‘Judaisms’. For example Kraft and Nickelsburg (1986:2) write, ‘early Judaism appears to encompass almost unlimited diversity and variety – indeed, it might be more appropriate to speak of early Judaisms.’ Yet one must wonder if this term, 'Judaisms' is really helpful at all. ‘Judaism’ in the singular is a word that was used by Jews themselves in the second-temple period: 2 Macc. 2.21; 8.1; 14.38; 4 Macc. 4.26; Gal. 1.13-14 (see for discussion Cohen 1999: 7-8, 105-06). These Jewish authors were probably more aware of diversity and varieties of Jewish belief than modern authors are. Judaisms can give the wrong impression that there was no underlying beliefs or praxis that held Jewish groups, however diverse, together. Several scholars then, whilst fully recognizing the varieties of Jewish belief, employ the singular noun 'Judaism' as a general term to refer to the religion of the Jewish people (e.g. Sanders 1990: 255-56; Bauckham 1993: 137-38; Goodman 1994: 39; Barclay 1996: 401).

I think the same goes for 'Christianities'. Ever since Bauer's Heresy and Orthdoxy and similar works by Koester and Robinson Trajectories in Early Christianity, Dunn Unity and Diversity, and more recently with volumes by Pagels and Ehrman, there is a tendency to over-play diversity in the early Christian movement. In fact using words like 'diversity' function much in the same way that 'kerygma' and 'hermeneutics' did a couple of generations ago: it is scholarly lingo that indicate that one is part of the NT academic club. Over and against 'unity and diverstiy' I prefer the terms 'complexity and accordance' because in some literature diversity means hostility, competition and opposition; whereas some groups were different but compatible (I think of Pauline and Johannine Christian groups for instance). Likewise, unity can be thought of as unanimity which is not the case and some Christian groups held to an accord of commonly agreed beliefs about Jesus as Messiah, Lord, Jewish Scriptures, monotheism, etc. To say that Christianity was diverse is a no-brainer, but that does not provide a license for anachornistic labels such as 'Christianities'.

Barclay, J.M.G. 1996. Jews in the Mediterranean Diaspora from Alexander to Trajan (323 BCE – 117 CE). Edinburgh: T&T Clark.

Bauckham, Richard. 1993. ‘The Parting of the Ways: What Happened and Why.’ ST 47: 135-51.

Cohen, S.J.D. 1999. The Beginnings of Jewishness: Boundaries, Varieties, Uncertainties. Berkeley: University of California.

Goodman, Martin. 1994. Mission and Conversion: Proselytizing in the Religious History of the Roman Empire. Oxford: Clarendon.

Kraft, Robert A. and Nickelsburg, George W.E. Editors. 1986. Early Judaism and Its Modern Interpreters. Atlanta: Scholars.

Sanders,E.P. 1990. Jewish Law from Jesus to the Mishnah. Five Studies. London: SCM.

7 comments:

Corn on the Robb said...

Great post!

Derek Brown said...

Thank you Michael! I am quite relieved to hear your (and Goodacre's) concerns over this issue, for I highly sympathize with them. The media attention of people such as Ehrman and Pagels too often (and wrongly) draws attention to their terminology and hobbyhorses.

I've had my own frustrations lately in reading many books and articles on the origins/development of NT Christology. Now there might be more of a case to speak of NT "Christologies" (vs. Christology) than "Judaisms" or "Christianities," but I am yet to be convinced so (though many insist on this very point). It's not that I don't recognize the variegated understandings people/groups had about Jesus, but there were just that: variegations of basically the same (high) understanding of Jesus. So back to square one: how fruitful is it to speak of NT "Christologies?" I find your "complexity and accordance" to be very helpful way forward, so thank you for the pensive post!

C G said...

The plurals currently in vogue can get quite amusing. I teach in the 'School of Arts, Histories and Cultures' at Manchester! I'm not quite sure what the plural 'histories' really means. Dunn has a good section on unity and diversity in second-Temple Judaism in his 'Partings of the Ways' (plurals again).

C. Stirling Bartholomew said...

The expression "Pagels and Ehrman" suggests that they are authors of the same sort. That could be viewed as a complement to Pagels or an insult to Ehrman who's recent publications do bear some points of similarity to Pagels work.

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Very nice, Michael! And happy blogbirthday!

I've found the same pluralizing pluralism annoying since it first appeared. The variety of "approaches" in Judaism and Christianity are well documented, but boundaries were still retained. The Samaritans were not considered part of Judaism, any more than the Gnostics were of Christianity. Thus, there was a line at which diversity was unacceptable. Where the ancients drew that line should be studied, not passed over.

slaveofone said...

Tom Wright also uses "Judaisms" in his Christian Origins series. I like the term. I don't think it "can give the wrong impression that there was no underlying beliefs or praxis that held Jewish groups, however diverse, together."

The nature of the word tells us there is something called "Juda" which defines all the isms and differentiates all those isms from other things like "Pagan"isms. The question, therefore, is what that underlying/unifying/defining Judaic praxis, belief, and symbol is. This is the only real question the word brings up--but a valid one, since many people will define it differently.

But I agree that "Christianities" goes too far since Christianity should be a subset of "Judaisms". If it's not, it shouldn't be called Christian.

Roger Pearse said...

I am glad to hear this point made by someone involved in NT studies.

From my perspective (patristics) the claim that Jesus taught nothing very specific which somehow taught equally a form of Judaism, something which looks a lot like pop-paganism from the philosophical schools and what we find in the fathers as Christianity, sounds very odd. Don't visionaries tend to sound a clear note?! But to then suppose that this muddle would produce the Christianity of the NT, of Ignatius and Irenaeus and Tertullian, all oblivious to the other 'strands' as being equally apostolic sounds like nonsense. Indeed these authors explicitly reject the idea.

So when I find NT scholars saying things, as the product of their discipline, that (a) sound culturally conditioned (b) sound like they amount to a religious attack on Christianity and (c) sound like nonsense, I don't dismiss them as lunatics, for I know that they have studied as long and hard as any academics. Instead I find myself wondering if NT Studies is a valid academic discipline, if this sort of stuff comes out of it. I fear that I am in no sense alone in this unavoidable feeling.

If I was promoting (e.g.) papyrology to a bunch of people who knew little about it, would I start by saying "papyrology proves your religion is a load of rubbish"? If I did, how many people would I interest in papyrology?! On the contrary I would try very hard not to insult their religion or their politics or their parents, etc. After all, I want open minds, in order to get more people involved and interested.

But whenever I open a book on NT Studies, I find things like the 'Christianities', seemingly calculated to effect the opposite. Again, I find myself asking whether I am dealing with a scholarly discipline, or the sort of 'economics' in the 70's that somehow was always just a platform for Trotskyite politics.

So it is a relief to hear someone else like Mark Goodacre and yourself express this feeling about 'diverse Christianities' also.

All the best,

Roger Pearse