Footnotes to John Howard Yoder’s The Jewish–Christian Schism Revisited 1

by Daniel Boyarin


At the very beginning of his posthumously published volume, "The Jewish–Christian Schism Revisited," John Howard Yoder wrote:

A wide stream of literature, some erudite and original, some creatively popular, has opened up the inadequacies of the traditions through which both Jews and Christians have interpreted our differences for centuries. Yet most of the redefinition going on in the vast scholarly literature still is engaged in making adjustments within the framework of the received schema. The corrections being made weaken that schema yet without replacing it. What this present study contributes is not another volume of details within those debates, but an alternative perspective on what the problem was and still is.2

Innocent (although I shouldn’t have been) of Yoder’s work until very recently, I have been carrying on a scholarly–ethical project for a decade and more that dogs his steps in many ways and carrying it on, as it were, from a “Jewish” perspective, that is, as one self–defined and communally located within historical Judaism and historical Jewry. Yoder’s work, almost by definition, invites dialogical response.3

Perhaps one could say that I have been (and am) inadvertently writing footnotes to Yoder. Let me begin to lay out for you my starting place in this conversation that I am about to begin. At about the time that Yoder’s book was being published, I was struggling to complete a book of my own on the Jewish/Christian schism and not managing to do so. As I indicated finally in a pathos–filled preface something seemed lifeless in the work, flaccid; I wasn’t confronting the political core of the book and consequently couldn’t find the desire and energy to write it (although it was 90% complete at the time.) I realized that a piece of work that I had insisted was not political must discover and uncover its political and ethical power in order for me to find the passion that alone would let it be done. I had to discover where my passion lay, or I could not finish the book. Convinced that the passion could not be for what seemed like it might be the obvious consequence of the book, calling the Jewish/Christian difference into question, I searched elsewhere.

Although the book is called Border Lines: The Partition of Judaeo–Christianity, a revisionist reading of the Jewish/Christian schism, I still insisted in its preface— the preface that made it possible for me to finish the book—that the historical work was just that, history (at least of a certain sort) and that the politics of the work lay elsewhere entirely, allegorically, in my deep and ongoing concern for justice for the Palestinians.

Indeed I asserted rather loudly that:

Why does my book want me to “come out?” Why need I tell about the love that (almost) would not dare to say its name, the love of this Orthodox Jew for Christianity? Even more grandiosely, I could pose the question (but very hesitantly, almost taking it back as I ask it), what purpose might this strange attraction play? Perhaps it has led me to uncover something: Implicitly through this scholarship and explicitly right here, I suggest that the affiliation between what we call Judaism and what we call Christianity is a much more complex one than most scholars, let alone most layfolk, imagine and that that complexity has work to do in the world, that we can learn something from it about identities and affiliations. The world that I have found in this research is one in which identities were much less sure than they have appeared to us until now, in which the very terms of identity were being worked on and worked out. Not only had there not been the vaunted “parting of the ways,” but Christianity was deeply engaged in finding its identity, its boundaries and even busily and noisily sorting out what kind of an entity it would be, what kind of an identity would it form. There was no telling yet (or even now) what the telos of the story would be. Non–christian Jews, and especially an important group of Jewish religious elites, were busy, as well, working hard to discover how to define their own borders in a discursive world being dramatically changed by the noise that Christians were making, soundings of “New Israels,” “true Jews,” and “heretics.” “Judaism”—an anachronism—was up for grabs as well, as it were, by which I don’t mean only the by now well–accepted notion that there was no normative Judaism, only Judaisms, but something more. Even rabbinic Judaism was struggling to figure out for itself what a “Judaism” is and who, then, could be defined as in and out of it. My book is a narrative of that period of struggle, of false starts and ruptures and abandoned paths during the initial phases of this site under construction. . . .

I am not, after all, a heretic from either the orthodox Christian or orthodox Jewish point of view, neither a Judaizing Christian nor a Christian Jew [a min], for all my attraction to Christianity and Christians. I do not choose, in any way, to be a Messianic Jew, a Jew for Jesus, or anything of that sort, but actually, to be just a Jew, according to the flesh and according to the spirit. Let me state here the obvious, the simple, the straightforward, and definitive: I do not believe that Jesus the son of Joseph of Nazareth was (or is) the Messiah, let alone do I subscribe to even higher christological glories ascribed to him as “Son of God.” I am not, I think, a Jew against Jesus but there is no credible sense in which I could be construed as a Jew for Jesus either. I do not seek, of course, covertly (as sometimes Jews for Jesus do) nor overtly, to convert myself or any other Jew to Christianity, nor claim that Christianity is the true Judaism, nor preach that somehow Jews must accept John as Gospel truth.

In the wake of all that insistent denial, all that allegation of who I am not, there really was nowhere for me to go but to assume that my book was (for me) about something else. I agree with nearly every aspect of Yoder’s account of the historiographical revision itself. As Yoder remarks, in the standard account, “the historical development of the first three centuries of our era ended with the presence, in many of the same places, of two separate, mutually exclusive systems (intellectual, cultural, social) called ‘Jews’ and ‘Christians’. Therefore the standard account claims that this mutual exclusiveness must be assumed to have been inevitable, i.e. logically imperative, even when and where the actors in the story which led to that outcome did not know that yet.” But, as Yoder has also written, “The new angles on the story in which recent scholarship has been so prolific modify this account in one detail or another. They leave standing the overall outline,” that overall outline in which “we know perfectly well what ‘Christianity’ and ‘Judaism’ are.”4 In my own work, I retold the whole story and strikingly along the lines of Yoder’s own retelling, but I still (through my baroque denial and in defiance of all logic) managed to leave standing the overall outline, of knowing perfectly well what Christianity and Judaism are, or at least that they are not each other. When my own spirit wouldn’t let me call it just scholarship, I found some other explanation for it. Now, in the trail of Yoder I seek to undo the denial and ask more fully two questions that I could not confront even two years ago: What are the implications of such a radical revision of the history of the Jewish/Christian schism for the diaspora lives of Jews and Christians now? and How do those implications impact on our response to the tragedy of Zionism? Do we (I) need to rethink indeed what Christianity and Judaism are?; and Is the refusal to do such rethinking an implacable obstacle on the way to justice and peace (for Palestine!) and does the radical reformation in any way provide for a possible way towards such a rethinking in the wake of the historical work I have done, in some ways more radical even than Yoder’s, on the origins of the divide between something we call Christianity and something we call Judaism?

The Jewish/Christian Schism Revised

Yoder was clearly ahead of his time in his historical conception vis–ŕ–vis the so–called separation between Judaism and Christianity. Before most of the more properly historical work had been done, he had already adopted a highly revisionist understanding of the matter; he had understood that there was no definitive form of Judaism that could claim either temporally or phenomenologically to be the one true Judaism before the rabbinical period beginning in the early third century with the publication of the Mishna and also that Paul did not understand himself as breaking away from Judaism to found a new religion but as constituting a strand, the “true” one, as everyone else was doing, within Judaism.5 I would go further than Yoder in fact. From my scholarly point of view, rabbinic Judaism cannot claim (historically speaking) to be the one true Judaism even long after the Mishna was promulgated. I have argued that the Mishna was part of a project to establish a Judaic orthodoxy but one that ultimately failed, such that throughout late antiquity there were various kinds of Jews, rabbinic and para–rabbinic who had as much “right” to the name “Jew” as anyone else did. Some of those Jews held religious convictions strikingly like ones that are otherwise understood as definitive of Christianity; indeed, I would assert that there is no particular theological claim or expectation that marks Christianity as “other” to the Judaism of its time, excepting, of course, the claim that Jesus of Nazareth is the one. This is not to say that I consider all Christians always as Jews. Many Christians resist and reject that name from quite early on and with rejection of the name come shifts in practice and belief that might be said, phenomenologically speaking, to define themselves out. This is analogous to the situation with the Karaites later, some of whom who remain Jews till this day and others that have clearly left Jewishness entirely.

Yoder himself understood that the very project of a Jewish orthodoxy is, in large part, a response to the Christian formation of proto–orthodoxy: “We do not know for sure of any rabbi trying to drive a wedge between himself and the nozrim before Justin began driving his wedge between himself and the Jewish church. If Justin’s need for Gentile respectability6 had not lead [sic] him to be ready to split the church, we cannot be sure the rabbis would have reciprocated in kind.”7 Like Yoder, I too think that there were Christians who were Jews late, very late, into late antiquity, Jews who continued to hold to Logos theology, expectation of the Son of Man, and some who even believed that Jesus of Nazareth was that Son of Man. I have argued that it takes an army (Theodosius II’s army) to pry Judaism and Christianity apart and that is a major aspect of the Nicene project. Adam Becker adds that outside of the Roman limes, the separation may have been even messier and longer than inside the Empire.8 Thus where Yoder considers the Jewish–Christian schism as a product of the second and third centuries,9 I am more inclined to see it as a product of the fifth10 and even then never quite a done deal. Yoder draws radical theological conclusions from his revision of the history; what theological conclusions shall I draw, in dialogue with him, from my own somewhat more radical historical revisionism?11

Yoder presents a remarkable and important set of reflections on the historiography of the partition of Judaeo–Christianity (my term) under the rubric of “It did not have to be.”12 His primary ethical (although he does not design it such) claim is that it is a wrong to the people of the past to assume in any way that what came to be had to be that way and no way else, that a given moment of decision before a Rubicon was crossed could only have gone the ...

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Source: Cross Currents, Winter 2006-7, Vol. 56,  No 4.