Home > Christianity, Early Christianity, History > The Formation of Christianity in Antioch: A Social-Scientific Approach to the Separation between Judaism and Christianity

The Formation of Christianity in Antioch: A Social-Scientific Approach to the Separation between Judaism and Christianity

Routledge | ISBN: 0415298962 | edition 2003 | 320 pages

One of the major puzzles of Western civilization is how early 2nd century Christianity was transformed into a non-Jewish, Gentile religion, when Christianity began as one of many Jewish factions in the diverse Judaism of the period.

Zetterholm uses theoretical insights from the social sciences to deal with the complex issues raised by the parting of Judaism and Christianity, and the accompanying rise of Christian anti-Semitism in ancient Antioch. While previous attempts to solve this problem have focused mainly on ideology, his study emphasizes the interplay between sociological and ideological elements.

Undoubtedly, most Jews and Christians of today consider that they belong to different religions. For modern people this division between Judaism and Christianity seems normal because, in Christian tradition, Judaism has often been pictured as the ultimate contradiction of Christianity. As J. D. G. Dunn has put it, “[i]t would hardly be surprising if someone brought up in Protestant Christianity thought of Judaism as the antithesis of Christianity.” G. Boccaccini, however, has suggested that we should understand Judaism as denoting “the whole family of monotheistic systems that sprang forth from the same Middle Eastern roots.” Seen in this way Judaism includes Rabbinism, Karaism, Samaritanism—and Christianity. In Boccaccini’s model Judaism denotes the genus, while the branches, such as Christianity, denote the species.

To picture the relation between different religious expressions in this way has its obvious advantage, especially over previous confessionally oriented models, and it certainly emphasizes the aspect of continuity. Boccaccini is undeniably right in drawing attention to biases that have led to a confessional

terminology. His choice of an all-inclusive extreme, however, can lead to other problems. One must, for instance, reflect upon the meaningfulness of a terminology that for many Jews and Christians might even be considered offensive. Boccaccini admits that his statement “may be shocking.” I would, however, go further—it is simply incorrect.

For the majority of Christian conceptions, Christian identity is not consistent with a Jewish life. In most Christian ideologies, Christ is considered to have invalidated the torah. This process is operative from the other side of the divide as well. According to secular Israeli legislation, a Jew who has converted to Christianity (or any other religion) loses the right to immigrate to Israel according to the Law of Return, which applies to Jews only. Thus, according to this definition, a Jew who converts to Christianity ceases to be Jewish. G. G. Stroumsa has summarized the fact of the matter in the following way: From the second to the fourth centuries, we can follow the birth out of the traditional faith of Israel, of not one, but at least two religions. Rabbinic Judaism, which emerged at Yavneh before the end of the first century, grew into a fullfledged religion with the development of the Talmudic culture, during the same centuries in which Christianity developed into a new religion with a structure and an identity that were quite different from those of its genitor.

Christianity certainly was a variety of Judaism but definitely ceased to be so. Already at the beginning of the second century we find the first signs of the Adversus Iudaeos literature, which can be taken as early evidence of a development that resulted in Judaism being considered as heretical. Henceforth, Judaism and Christianity are best understood as two different religions. One early and rather clear indication of the emergence of Christianity as a new religion is to be found in the writings of Ignatius of Antioch.

Probably during the end of Emperor Trajan’s rule (98–117 CE), Ignatius, the bishop of Antioch, was sent to Rome to be executed. During the journey he wrote several letters to various churches in Asia Minor, addressing local problems he knew either from personal visits or from delegations sent to him from local churches. In two letters, to the Magnesians and to the Philadelphians, the local situation led Ignatius to comment on Judaism. It is clear from these comments that Ignatius understood Judaism to be something profoundly different from Christianity. In Magn. 8:1, for instance, he warns against Jewish influences: Be not led astray by strange doctrines or by old fables which are profitless. For if we are living until now according to Judaism, we confess that we have not received grace.

In this text it is evident that Ignatius sees a clear contradiction between Christianity and Judaism. To some extent he probably draws from popular prejudice of Judaism: dependency on fables or myths were common accusations against Judaism. While the text seems to echo Paul in Galatians 5:4, the context of the situation is completely different. As J. Lieu has noted, Ignatius opposes not law and grace but Judaism and grace. While Paul addressed the question of how Gentile adherents to the Jesus movement should relate to Judaism from a position within Judaism, Ignatius argues from a position outside Judaism in order to nullify the whole Jewish religious system. As he states in Magn. 10:3: It is monstrous to talk of Jesus Christ and to practice Judaism. For Christianity did not base its faith on Judaism, but Judaism on Christianity, and every tongue believing on God was brought together in it.

We may conclude that, less than a century after the execution of Jesus, we find in many respects one part of the Jesus movement that had turned into something profoundly different. For instance, it seems clear that Jesus directed his mission predominantly, if not completely, to the people of Israel and

that, while it cannot be ruled out that in some ways he may have represented a novel interpretation of Jewish traditions, he was deeply rooted within the Judaism of the period. The same, I venture to say, is true for Paul, who most certainly lived and died as a torah-obedient Jew, convinced that the god of Israel intended to fulfill his covenantal promise to the people of Israel, at the same time extending his grace to include also the Gentiles.

We have thus identified the main problem of this study: namely, if the Jesus movement started out as a Jewish messianic faction, how can it be explained that a representative of the same movement, about eighty years later, finds the basic religious outlook of Judaism to be incompatible with the movement he represents? What mechanisms lie behind a development that makes Christianity an anti-Jewish religion, entirely separated from Judaism?

These questions have certainly been dealt with before.10 One modern work of vital importance is Dunn’s The Partings of the Ways: Between Christianity and Judaism and their Significance for the Character of Christianity (1991). Dunn claims that, during the end of the first century, two new religions emerged: rabbinic Judaism and Christianity. He states that the fact that they emerged from the same matrix makes relevant the question of why they split and became distinct. Despite the obvious merits of Dunn’s work, there are reasons for taking a fresh look at the separation between Judaism and Christianity.

Firstly, Dunn’s theoretical outlook and analytical tools are almost exclusively focused on ideological aspects. He identifies what he considers to be the

four pillars of second temple Judaism, namely, monotheism, election, the covenant focused in the torah, and land focused in the temple. His basic hypothesis is that the partings of the ways was a result of the new movement’s questioning and the redefinition “of these four axioms in greater or less degree—at any rate, to a degree unacceptable to mainstream Judaism.” While ideological aspects certainly played a vital part in the process, it seems more correct to assume that what Dunn understands to be the cause of the separation process actually represents the result of the separation defined in ideological terms. The reason for this assumption is that concrete cultural resources (e.g., church architecture, symbolic practices, liturgical forms) are more likely to be the object of contention, while abstract resources (e.g., ideas, ideologies, values) are easier to manipulate and often function as strategically mobilized resources in conflicts over other kind of resources. A full historical analysis of the separation between Judaism and Christianity has to take into consideration the role of social mechanisms as well as the function of ideological aspects in a social conflict perspective. In this study I intend consequently to focus on the sociological aspects of the separation process: while naturally I will not disregard the ideological aspects, these will be treated within a sociological framework. Secondly, while Dunn takes into account the extensive reappraisal of the character of Judaism and even refutes what he views as too simplistic a dichotomy between gospel and torah,14 he reiterates the old dichotomy in a new way. Paul does not attack the torah or the covenant, Dunn, states, but “a covenantal nomism which insisted on treating the law as a boundary round Israel, marking off Jew from Gentile, with only those inside as heirs of God’s promise to Abraham.

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