A Snapshot of Daniel Boyarin: Part II


“Some Jews,” Boyarin quips, “are destined by fate, psychology, or personal history to be drawn to Christianity.”[1] Boyarin is one of them, and his later scholarship reflects this long-held fascination, as well as his continuing interest in Hellenistic culture. During the next decade or so, Boyarin seriously explores the ways in which Judaism and Christianity in Late Antiquity might be considered part of a single cultural system.[2] He is intent on disabusing readers of the idea that one can speak of Judaism or Christianity as ‘religions,’ in the sense of a bounded institution, before the fourth, perhaps even fifth, century. Rather, Judaism and Christianity existed for several centuries in “situation of hybridity.”[3] Only through the discursive practices of early heresiologists, who sought to delineate orthodox language, were border lines fixed, and the groundwork laid for conceiving of “religion.”[4]

Boyarin’s reliance on comparative analysis of text comes to the fore in both Dying for God (1999) and his second book on the relationship between Christianity and Judaism in Antiquity, Border Lines (2004). In Dying for God Boyarin begins to develop his model of socio-religious interactivity, focusing on the historical relationship of Judaism and Christianity in Late Antiquity.[5] In this comparative project, he sets up a fresh model that rejects the long-held paradigm in which Christianity was born out of first century rabbinic Judaism before parting ways as its own religion. Boyarin draws on David Chidester’s description of apartheid comparative religion: that the conceptual demarcation of human diversity in rigid categories, the creation of ‘border lines,’ by the dominate group was a strategy for achieving “some cognitive control” over the period’s pluralism.[6] Through heresiology, the ancient form of this apartheid comparative religion, Christianity as ‘religion’ was eventually born. Boyarin argues that before this fourth century birthing of religion, even the extreme manifestations of Christianity and Judaism were merely points on a continuum, between which stretched many gradations of religious life.

In other words, one can model a situation in which there will be persons or groups who will clearly be “Christian” or “non-Christian Jewish,” that is, who will form definable clusters of religious features, while the boundaries between the two categories will remain undefinable.[7]

Perhaps Boyarin’s principle historical contribution is that those groups who fell on this continuum need not have shared any features in common—excepting perhaps membership in a semantic family that appeals to Hebrew Scriptures—nor were there set traits that uniquely defined early Christians over and against non-Christians.[8]

It has been argued that the similarities between Christian and Jewish traditions are a matter of a common origins and the diffusion of innovations and ideas [Stammbaum theory]. Boyarin rejects this model in favor of the wave theory, which envisions Judaism and Christianity as part of a single circulatory system “within which discursive elements could move from non-Christian Jews and back again, developing as they moved around the system.” [9] Thus, their similarities  are the product of an ongoing conversation, “crisscrossing lines of history and religious development.”[10] According to Boyarin, the eventual separation of Judaism and Christianity into separate entities did not occur until very late antiquity—though he does not deny the presence of identifiable separate social groups—through a processes in which religious ideas and practices were chosen as “indicia for Christian and Jewish separate religious identity.”[11] Boyarin goes so far as to say that it was only due to the work of heresiologists in the Orthodox Christian and Rabbinic traditions that it was possible to phenomenologically declare one person a Jew and another a Christian. Drawing on his remarkable facility in rabbinic texts, Boyarin explores the ways in which emerging rabbinic traditions interacted and reacted with Christian discourse.[12] Through comparative readings of Talmudic texts about martyrdom and concurrent Christian texts, Boyarin demonstrates how nascent Jewish and Christian orthodoxies were confronting and shaping each other within a shared cultural world. As Boyarin says, “Sometimes, partings can seem more like encounters.”[13]

A few years after the publication of Dying for God, Boyarin again took up the relationship between Judaism and Christianity in Late Antiquity. In Border Lines, he builds on his wave-theory model and begins to tackle the modern conception of ‘religion.’ Boyarin highlights how second and third century Jewish and Christian writers used the concept of “heresy” or minut [in rabbinic texts] to cultivate and clarify borders “and thus create Judaism and Christianity as fully separate (and opposed) entities—as religions, at least in the eyes of Christianity.”[14] Eventually, in its final stages, rabbinic Judaism backtracked and rejected religio in favor of ethnos, denying the Christian construction of Judaism as a similar but lesser type of “religion,” constituted as a distinct mode of self-definition.[15] Thus, the borders between Judaism and Christianity were artificial and political, structed and imposed. Expanding beyond his earlier comparative focus on martyrdom, Boyarin analyzes a wide variety of second and third century texts, highlighting their various technologies for creating orthodoxy. For instance, the Christian tradition co-opted the idea of the Logos, turning it into a touchstone of orthodoxy, while later rabbinic discourse “crucified” this theology and connected it with a heretical Jewish group that maintained “Two Powers in Heaven.”[16]

Beyond supporting his alternative theory of Christian and Jewish origins, Boyarin also used his careful comparative analysis of Christian and rabbinic texts to argue that first and second century Judaism held in common with nascent Christianity key theological ideas and conceptions of Divinity.[17] For instance, Boyarin engages in a comparative study of Philo’s logos, Memra in the Targum, and Logos in the Gospel of John. While he acknowledges direct linkages are unlikely, these texts do suggest that Trinitarian theology—at least the idea of a second and visible God—had its roots in embryonic stages of early Judaism. For instance, Boyarin says, “Philo’s Logos seems, therefore, a close congener of the Logos theology that we find among almost all ante-Nicene Christian writers, and which would appear, therefore, to have a “Jewish” beginning.”[18] Semitic-speaking Jews had similar notions of the Memra as the transcendence of God in para-rabbinic Aramaic translations, though these notions were suppressed in ‘official rabbinic’ theology. As Boyarin points out, the Memra in the Targumim performs all the same functions as the Logos of Christian theology; thus, while Exodus 3:12-14 reads “I [God] will be with you” the Targum reads “I, My Memra, will be with you.” Boyarin notes that the desire to preserve the absolute uniqueness of Christianity has warped inquiry into the Logos of John.[19]  Rather than assuming a supersessionist move from Torah to Christ vis à vis Logos theology, Boyarin emphasizes a universal Jewish Logs theology in the pre-Christian world of ideas, in the works of Koine Jews in Palestine and the Diaspora. Boyarin’s comparative analysis of Second Temple literature reclaims the “Jewishness” of John’s Prologue.  In labeling this Logos or Memra of God doctrine a “Two Powers in Heaven” heresy, rabbinic theology essentially repudiated Christianity from their midst and Christian orthodoxy returned the favor by embracing Logos theology. [20] By the fourth and fifth centuries, Judaism and Christianity “…were not two species of the same genus, but the difference between them consists in their asymmetrical understandings of what Judaism is.”[21] Only at this point is Boyarin willing to speak of “two different separate, mutually exclusive systems (intellectual, cultural, social) called ‘Jews’ and ‘Christians.’”[22]

In his 2012 The Jewish Gospels, Boyarin likewise challenges non-Jewish theological conceptions of Mark by comparatively reading the Gospel with Talmudic and Second Temple texts. Boyarin’s comparison of early Jewish theologies and practices leads him to conclude that Mark’s author “was a Jew and his Jesus kept kosher.”[23] Unfortunately, The Jewish Gospels is one the instances in which Boyarin over-stretches the usefulness of Rabbinic literature for comparison to early Christian texts.  It is one thing to compare Tertullian or Justin Martyr to their Jewish near-contemporaries or posit widespread familiarity with Jewish theological ideas, but it is another thing entirely to posit that the earliest Christians knew of particular rabbinic distinctions about halakha or kashrut.

After being sharply criticized for arguing that the Mishnah evidenced a nascent conception of a Jewish “orthodoxy” and that Christian discourse directly impacted the early rabbis, Boyarin adjusted his position slightly.[24] Instead, he suggests that Christian and Jewish scholastic producers evidence the impact of philosophical schools, as well as their own developing notions of orthodoxy and authority.[25] Still, Boyarin maintains that the Christian identification of Judaism as a religion served its own discursive and polemical needs and in turn complexly effected Jewish self-definition in late antiquity.[26] One cannot help but compare Boyarin’s heresiologists to Stanley Stower’s literate culture producers, the specialists who shape and produce authoritative texts.[27] Unfortunately, Boyarin does not stray from these texts. Indeed, his theory is perhaps hampered by his privileging of theological discourse—that is the language of the literate cultural producers—above the larger pre-Constantine world of Greco-Roman law, politics, and culture.[28]

Both Dying for God and Border Lines have aided in the scholarly re-construing of the traditional model of the “parting of the ways” as “the ways that never parted.” Though scholastic elite sought to define a person as Jew versus Christian, many did not actually consider religious identity an either/or proposition before the fourth century. As Stuart S. Miller rightly notes, Boyarin’s work compels us to “think and rethink the diversity that characterized ancient Judaism.”[29] His wave-theory model—in which Judaism and Christianity influence and are influenced by each other—is incredibly useful because it resists notions of ‘uniqueness,’ both in Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity, and his work positions Talmudic Literature as an important comparative component in the study of Late Antiquity.

Turning from his narrower focus on Christian texts and Palestinian Talmudic discourse, Boyarin expands the borders of his comparative project in his 2009 book Socrates and the Fat Rabbis. In it, Boyarin compares Greek culture with Rabbinic Judaism of Sasanian Babylonia, suggesting points of contact through a careful reading of select Babylonian Talmud (BT) and Platonic texts. It is here that Boyarin’s distinctive triangulation—of comparative approach, rabbinic texts, and literary theory—really shines. Working within a Bakhtinian theoretical framework, Boyarin argues that the literary hybridity of the BT, the embedding of non-serious material into the discourse that the Bavli defines as a serious business, simply marks the BT as part of its “literary and cultural world.”[30] Though his textual study of Plato and the BT—as well as his semantic study of the dialogical relations between spoudaios (the serious) and geloios (the non-serious) and their BT parallels, אימתא and מילתא דבדיחותא—Boyarin says that though the Bavli and the Socratic dialogue are enterprises of the monological, their character is that of the Menippean, dialogue between the serious and comic.[31] Significantly, Socrates and the Fat Rabbis resolves the tension between the differing exegetical subfields of narrative exegesis and conversational pericope by characterizing the Bavli as juxtaposing the bizarre and comic, such as the story of the fat rabbis in BT’s narratives, with the serious in the shakla ve-tarya.[32] In designating the Bavli as Menippean satire, Boyarin leaves the comic and serious in tension, as the stamma did in editing the Talmud and using carnivalistic legends to critique the monological dimension of the BT. Boyarin certainly continues his project of redeeming marginalized textual voices and ‘accents,’ while also dipping into the comparative and semantic approaches he favors.[33] This work also illustrates how Boyarin’s comparative approach, which focuses on specific ideas within textual corpora, can illuminate such seemingly disparate bodies of text.

Daniel Boyarin is part of a particular genealogical strand of postsecular scholarship which has been rethinking religion and the secular.[34] While some scholars, such as Talal Asad, focus on colonial history and on ‘use’ rather than ‘meaning,’ others, such as Daniel Boyarin, use Foucault’s genealogical approach to explore the construction and ideological use of the Western term religion. [35] Strongly suspicious of the universals “religion” or even “secular,” Boyarin traces the origins of ‘religion’ to Late Antiquity.[36] In his co-authored book, Imagine No Religion (2016), Boyarin deconstructs the anachronistic category of religion and illustrates the range of semantic meanings for the Latin term religio and Greek term thrēskeia. Much like his previous deconstruction of terms like “sexuality” and “diaspora,” Boyarin complicates the these terms in their textual, cultural contexts. Indeed, Boyarin has been moving toward this analysis of “cultural forms” rather than religion(s) for almost two decades.[37] As he has also illustrated through his earlier work, not looking for ‘religion’ in Roman and Greco-Roman texts allows for “comparisons of their multifaceted strategies for coping with life in the Roman Empire that would be missed were we worrying that one is a ‘Christian’ and the other a ‘Jew.’”[38] As a self-identified “micro-historian of ideas,” his approach successfully illustrates how one can and should go about careful philologically rooted comparisons between cultures and textual corpora.

*Adapted from my Emory University seminar paper, submitted to Dr. William Gilders.

[1] Boyarin, Border Lines, i.

[2] He first forays into this argument in “The Talmud meets Church History,” reprinted in Sparks of the Logos (246-84).

[3] See “Semantic Differences; or, “Judaism”/ “Christianity,”’ in The Ways that Never Parted: Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (eds. Adam H. Becker and Annette Yoshiko Reed; Mohr Siebeck 2003), 65-7. Boyarin here wrestles with the theoretical question of language, arguing that Ioudiaismos did not mean “Judaism” until coming of the Christian era with its new sense of identity other than ethnic.

[4] “Heresiology—the “science” of heresies—inscribes the borderlines, and heresiologists are the inspectors of religious customs” (Border Lines, 14).

[5] Ra’anan S. Boustan, Review, JQR Vol. 96, no. 3 (Summer 2006): 441-446.

[6] Boyarin, “Apartheid Comparative Religion in the Second Century: Some Theory and a Case Study in Reading,” in Theory and the Pre-Modern TextThe Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 36.1 (Winter, 2006), 3. Fascinatingly, Boyarin draws comparison between the factors which led to “apartheid comparative religion” in the nineteenth century and those which produced the ideas of heresy and orthodoxy in the second century CE.

[7] “Semantic Differences,” 65-85.

[8] Ibid., 84-85; This is similar to Jonathan Z. Smith, who prefers pointing to a set of traits rather than classifying a group with specific, fixed traits, see Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown (Chicago Studies in the History of Judaism; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), 1-18.

[9] Dying for God: Martyrdom and the making of Christianity and Judaism (Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 1999), 9-10.

[10] Ibid., 8.

[11] Border Lines, 19-21.

[12] Throughout the book, Boyarin returns to the shared theme of martyrdom to demonstrate how Christian and Jewish discourse engaged a tangled process of innovation and learning as they reflected on this shared topic. For instance, He frames his chapters with the Talmudic story of Rabbi El`ezer ben Hycanus, which he suggests illustrates both a rabbinic intimacy with Christianity and ongoing work of cultural separation (Dying for God, 22-41). Just as Christianity sought to identity itself as the “true son by being born last, now each of them seeks to identity himself so by having been killed” (Dying for God, 126).

[13] Dying for God, 126.

[14] Border Lines, 2.

[15] By the final stages of the development of classical rabbinism, “a reassertion of the “locative” of identity as given and not as achieved—or lost—came to be emblematic of Judaism.” In the end, Judaism became a different product of historical religious culture than Christianity, a different kind of thing altogether, not “religion” in the sense of Christianity: an orthodoxy in which heterodox views label one an outsider. Boyarin maintains that while from the Church’s view, Judaism and Christianity are both examples of the category ‘religion,’ in the rabbis’ categorization, Judaism is not a religion (Border Lines, 11-13, esp. 12).

[16]According to Boyarin’s comparative reading, Justin Martyr ‘constructed’ Judaism in an attempt to produce Christian identity. Particularly, Justin Martyr took a common theological inheritance, the logos, and construed it as a distinguishing mark of Christianity. Boyarin unearths the beginnings of rabbinic heresiology—the development of the concept of minut (heresy) and a notion of belonging by belief—in the editing of the Mishna and Tosefta, proposing that this was a response to nascent Christian orthodoxy.

[17]Boyarin, “The Gospel of the Memra: Jewish Binitarianism and the Prologue to John,” Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 94, No. 3 (Jul 2001): 248.

[18] Ibid., 252.

[19] Ibid., 256; See also Jonathan Z. Smith, Drudgery Divine: On comparison of Early Christianities and the Religions of Late Antiquity (Chicago Studies in the History of Judaism; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990).

[20] Boyarin, “Two powers in heaven: or, the making of a heresy,” in Idea of Biblical Interpretation: Essays in Honor of James L. Kugel (Leiden: Brill, 2004), 332. Elsewhere, Boyarin delves into texts like Daniel 7, Parables of Enoch, and Talmudic material for evidence of what he believes may have been ancient cult of a second divine person, i.e. the “Two Powers of Heaven” later rejected by Tannaitic sages (b. Hag.14a). See “Beyond Judaisms: Meṭaṭron and the Divine Polymorphy of Ancient Judaism,” JSJ 41 (2010): 323-365.

[21] During this period, the “most salient phenomenal differences” between the two religions were put in place, including their major textual corpora. Boyarin highlights fourth and fifth century Christian discourses and Talmudic narratives to show the “asymmetry of the development of the notion of religion in the Christian empire, with the Church defining Judaism as a religion, whereas the Rabbis refuse this interpellation and ethnicize their distinction from the Christians…” (Border Lines, 33).

[22] Boyarin here is quoting John Howard Yoder, whose scholarship Boyarin discovered after the publication of Border Lines. See, “Judaism as a free church: footnotes to John Howard Yoder’s The Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited,” Cross Currents 56, no. 4 (2007): 6-21.

[23] Boyarin, The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ (New York: New Press, 2012), 126.

[24] As Jonathan Z. Smith rightly notes about comparative analysis, “the question is not ‘which is first?; but why both, at more or less the same time?” (Smith, Drudgery Divine, 114). See also, Amram D. Tropper, “Tractate Avot and Early Christian Succession Lists,” in The Ways That Never Parted: Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (Eds. Adam H. Becker and Annette Yoshiko Reed; 1st Fortress Press ed. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 179. Boyarin privileges the function of theological discourse and does not consider what other factors, besides Christian theology, might have caused the rabbis to flirt with doctrinal self-definition, see Ra’anan S. Boustan, “Border lines: The partition of Judaeo-Christianity,” JQR Vol 96, no. 3 (Summer 2006): 445.

[25] Boyarin, “Rethinking Jewish Christianity: An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category (to which is Appended a Correction of my Border Lines),” JQR Vol 99, No. 1 (Winter 2009): 7-36.

[26] Though ultimately “heresy” was crucial only for Christian self-definition and not rabbinic, with its identity so strongly tied to the ethnic. In fact, it is only in modernity that Jews began to see themselves as a “faith” (Ibid. 35-6).

[27] Stanly Stowers, “The Religion of Plant and Animal Offerings Versus the Religion of Meanings, Essences, and Textual Mysteries,” in Ancient Mediterranean Sacrifice (eds. Jennifer Knust and Zsuzsanna Varhelyi; Oxford University Press, 2011), 41.

[28] Boustan, “Border lines,” 445.

[29] Stuart S. Miller, “Roman imperialism, Jewish self-definition, and Rabbinic society: Belayche’s Iudaea-Palaestina, Schwartz’s Imperialism and Jewish society, and Boyarin’s Border lines reconsidered,” AJS Review 31, no. 2 (November 2007): 351.

[30] Boyarin connects “latish” Babylonian texts—like B. Baba Metzia 84a—with a “Hellenistic topos,” concluding that “Hellenism and Babylonian rabbinism are hardly as far from each other as generally surmised” and that late eastern Hellenism and Syriac Christianity may have had a role in the formation of BT rabbinism of the Gaonic period. “Hellenism in Jewish Babylonia” in The Cambridge Companion to the Talmud and Rabbinic Literature (eds. Fonrobert & M. Jaffee; Cambridge Companions to Religion; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 336-364, esp. 337.

[31] The genre of Menippean satire or spoudogeloion mixes high and low elements (serious and non-serious) in order to both mock and assert the practices of intellectuals, like philosophy or the halakha of the rabbis. For instance, this seriocomic reading strategy explains why a story of Socrates acting like a buffoon seems to undercut ‘serious’ philosophy of the Platonic dialogue. See Socrates and the Fat Rabbis (Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 26-32.

[32] The subgenre of conversational pericopae [shakla ve-tarya] charts the gap between and evolution of amoraic and stammaitic ideology, while narrative exegesis redeems historiographic narratives as literature. See Barry Scott Wimfheimer, “The Dialogical Talmud: Daniel Boyarin and Rabbinics,” JQR Vol 101, No. 2 (Spring 2011): 245-54, esp. 248-9.

[33] Boyarin controversially argues that Plato and the Bavli have a cultural rather than merely typological parallelism. He argues that Babylonian rabbis were in cultural contact with Hellenism. Thus, while the Bavli certainly has Iranian roots, it is also one articulation of Hellenism (Socrates and the Fat Rabbis, 134). Because of this cultural exchange, Boyarin sees fruitful comparison between modes of discourse in Plato and BT.

[34] Arvind-Pal S. Mandair and Markus Dressler, “Introduction: modernity, religion-making, and the postsecular” in Secularism and Religion-making (Reflection and Theory in the Study of Religion; Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 1-36. Scholars like Jonathon Z. Smith and Timothy Fitzgerald fit here as well. See Smith, Relating Religion: Essays in the Study of Religion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003); Fitzgerald, The Ideology of Religious Studies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

[35] Tala Asad, Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam (London: John Hopkins University Press, 1993).

[36]  “Semantic Differences,” 65-85; Dying for God, 7-19.

[37] Early on, Boyarin began to move away from conceptions of “religion,” defining rabbinic Judaism instead as “…a particular Jewish formation of late antiquity…just one form of Judaism” (Carnal Israel, 230-1). In a recent interview, he went so far as to suggest academics use the terms “Judean culture” of “Jewish culture” in their research. See Boyarin, “A Conversation with Daniel Boyarin,” University of Toronto Journal of Jewish Thought, Vol. 1, no. 5 (2015): 6.

[38] Carlin A. Barton and Daniel Boyarin, Imagine No Religion: How Modern Abstractions Hide Ancient Realities, (New York: Fordham University Press, 2016), 8.


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