Université d'Erfurt

Prof. Dr. Daniel Boyarin

Fellow am Max-Weber-Kolleg
von September 2016 bis Februar 2017



The Christian Invention of “Judaism”

The project in which I am engaged for my stay at the Max-Weber-Kolleg Erfurt represents an important stage in the production of a book that I have been working towards since fifteen years ago, a genealogy of the concept (and term) “Judaism” itself. This project finally finds itself a potential (contracted) part of the series, Key Words in Jewish Studies published by Rutgers University Press.

In the unexamined language (including my own, of course), Judaism needs no quotation marks. It is an entity out there in the world, one that has been there for well over two thousand years (and some would argue even longer): It is the religion of the Jews, or again in some views, the culture of the Jews (used throughout in this book as simply “the way we do things around here.”) Aside from the fact that the latter term is itself contested—are ancient Judeans “Jews”? how about ancient Israelites?—, we will see in this book that neither of those rough and ready definitions picks out something unique or self-consistent, such that we might want to name that thing “Judaism.” Starting with just the simplest and most well accepted of debates on this question: Assuming that the ancient Israelites had “a religion” and considering how different whatever that cult and way of life might have been from that of the Rabbis of the Talmud, ought that ancient Israelite cultural formation be called “Judaism”? Perhaps surprisingly, perhaps not, most scholars today would answer this question in the negative claiming that the transformations between the way that the folk in biblical times lived and the way that the folk lived in Talmudic times are so great and fundamental that we cannot or ought not give the same name to both of these cultural forms, even though the latter one is (arguably) descended from the former one.

Scholars today usually speak of ancient Israelite religion or culture and Jewish religion or culture as two separate albeit related entities. That being the case, what would happen were we to apply the same critical lens to the transition from the way that Jews lived before and after the Talmud, or in the medieval period, not to speak of modernity? Indeed, what would happen were we to focus on the profound differences between the practice of different groups of Jews at the same time at various points in history? How about, say, Philo, the Qumran folk, Josephus, Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, and the author of the Gospel of Mark, all in first-century Palestine or Egypt? There are only three possible outcomes of such a turn: 1) reduction to a least-common denominator (viz, the Temple, “monotheism”), 2) insistence that only one of these was the really real thing (the normative approach), while the others are in one sense or another impostors or heretics, or, finally, 3) dissolution of the category as such (into many “Judaisms” or none at all). The third option is the one to be pursued in this book.

As Brent Nongbri has delightfully reported on the basis of a personal conversation with distinguished New Testament scholar, Edwin Judge, the latter exhorted: “When one encounters the word ‘religion’ in a translation of an ancient text: First, cross out the word whenever it occurs. Next, find a copy of the text in question in its original language and see what word (if any) is being translated by ‘religion.’ Third, come up with a different translation: ‘It almost doesn’t matter what. Anything besides ‘religion.’”

I concur. Precisely what we want to find out is how those ancient folks divided up their worlds and conceived of the relations of various parts to each other and perhaps even how they felt about things, and we preclude finding that out if we assume the results via translation. Given these conclusions, it becomes quite clear that to assume a priori the existence of a Jewish religion in antiquity is a serious mistake. Demonstrating that no ancient writers referred to such an entity takes us a long way towards our goal.

Prior to this academic year, I presented work for this book as the Bampton Lectures in America, in the Spring of 2015, in which I extensively demonstrated the lack of a term paralleling “Judaism” in ancient Jewish Greek. Those lectures, revised, now form a major part of the first section of the book. Since the end of the academic year 2015-2016, I have been working in Germany on the third part of the book, namely developing the thesis of “Christian” invention of “Judaism” as the counter-church, the Synagoga that provides legitimacy for the orthodox Ekklesia. I began the writing for this section in May and June under the auspices of the Max Plank Institute in Berlin, have continued it, completing the chapter begun in Berlin, producing a near-final draft of a second one, and roughing out a third, during my stay at the Max-Weber-Kolleg Erfurt. I hope to do the major research and produce the middle part of the book during a following stay at the Freie Universität Berlin in the Spring of 2017 and thus to complete it this academic year.

The environment of Erfurt and especially the situation of the Max-Weber-Kolleg Erfurt and its wonderful staff have made my stay here so far as productive as could possibly be imagined and desired.

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