Karl Steel's Reviews > Border Lines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity

Border Lines by Daniel Boyarin
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Aug 17, 10

bookshelves: nonmedieval_nonfiction
Read in August, 2010

"Earlier Christian groups (including, or even especially, the Johannine one) distinguished themselves from non-Christian Jews not theologically, but only in their association of various Jewish theologoumena and mythologoumena with this particular Jew, Jesus of Nazarth. The characteristic move that constructs what will become orthodox Christianity is, I think, the combination of Jewish messianic soteriology with equally Jewish Logos theology in the figure of Jesus."

"The vanquishing of real religious dissent in Israel and the safe haven of power and privilege which the Rabbis had achieved by the fifth century enabled a portrayal of themselves as the ultimate democrats and meritocrats. All who would once have produced real dissension were now firmly out of the community, so within: Let pluralism ring!"

Boyarin locates two key moments in the development of what we now call Christianity and Judaism: the second century, when thinkers in both camps developed the notion of heresy, and the late antique development of the Babylonian Talmud, which cemented the Rabbinical character of "Judaism," which, in contradistinction to Christianity, cherished endless disputation and dissensus, and disdained miracles and revelation; at the same time, Christians developed the notion of religion, a belief system disembedded from cultural practice (and, on this point, his diachronic philological analysis of "superstitio" vs. "religio" in the antique world works perfectly) and founded on revelation and miracles and on the unity of the "Fathers" (invented in the fifth century). Notably, there is no record of the disputations of Nicea.

The worst heretics for each camp were those who occupied the middle; each camp created itself as such, in fact, by defining itself against a pure conception of the other. This process of self-definition through othering is of course very familiar to anyone cognizant with postmodern philosophy; so too are the continual exclusions through which identity establishes itself. This is as true for the newly born Christians as Nicea as it is for the newly born Jews in the Babylonian Talmud: neither side is innocent, neither side is pure.

Along the way, Boyarin demonstrates the first- and second-century muddling of "Jew" and "Christian" through analysis of Logos theology, the notion of a second, distinct hypostasis of God (ditheism, more or less). This was a belief many "Jews" and "Christians" shared; and, as well, one that many did NOT share. The lines can be drawn, then, between those who believed in some form of the Logos (some of whom believed in the particular form of the Logos known as Jesus) and those that did not. Boyarin thus manages to save Logos Jews from accusations of being Hellenized: there is a non-Hellenic tradition of the incarnate Logos (Memra, Sophia, Metatron, Yahoel) that's picked up by Philo and as well by the opening to the Gospel of John, which Boyarin reads as a Midrash on the opening of Genesis. He also demonstrates that "both" "sides" ultimately do away with the Logos, the Rabbis by dissolving revelation in favor of disputation, and the Bishops by firming up the mysterious singularity of the Trinity, swallowing up the distinct Logos within a triune but still fundamentally singular God.

I'd give this 5 stars if it were more efficiently written. Boyarin repeats himself frequently; his paragraphs tend to be muddled, with key points buried in the middle and then raised again several pages later; he often engages with secondary sources in the body text rather than in the footnotes, where such disputes rightly belong. My dream version of this book would be about 50 pages shorter, with footnotes (not endnotes) about 50 percent longer. This would reduce the body text to about 100 pages, which would save the book from reading like a crazy quilt looks.
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