Reconceiving Borders

How might I best launch this blog, a blog devoted in part to understanding the formation of a border line between Christianity and Judaism[1], a blog that I hope will inspire participation by people otherwise separated by present-day religious borders?

The best way I can think to get started is with a discussion of U.C. Berkeley professor Daniel Boyarin. Boyarin’s most recent book is The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ, and I plan to discuss this book in upcoming posts, but first I’d like to approach Boyarin’s work here in general and personal terms. I find Boyarin the ideal place of beginning for this blog because, to put it in simple terms, Boyarin dislikes borders.

In particular, Boyarin does not like the way the border was formed between Judaism and Christianity. In his earlier book Border Lines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity, Boyarin writes that “the borders between Judaism and Christianity have been historically constructed out of acts of discursive (and too often actual) violence.” (p. xiv)  Boyarin does not merely argue that the Jewish-Christian border has been territory where violent acts have taken place – that’s way too easy an argument for the likes of Boyarin. Instead, he claims that the creation of this border was a violent act, that the border was “an imposed partitioning of what was once a territory without border lines.” (p. 1).

Boyarin writes that early Christians and Jews co-existed for hundreds of years with no border, within a generally open space of Judeo-Christianity, a space that was sectarian but pluralistic, where no sect managed (or perhaps even sought) to impose an orthodoxy on the others. The people living within this space had freedom of movement, theologically speaking: for example, Jews could believe that Jesus was the Jewish messiah, and Christians were free to spend time both in church and synagogue.

All this began to change in the mid-second century, with the emergence of Christian heresiologists such as Justin Martyr. These heresiologists created a new kind of identity, a “religion”, marked off with borders defining those who were in (those with orthodox Christian beliefs) and those who were out (the heretics) (p.4). (Personally, I doubt that the Judeo-Christian space was as free or pluralistic as described by Boyarin, or that the impetus to impose a Judeo-Christian border came solely from the heresiologists. But these are matters to discuss in later posts.)

According to Boyarin, the Christian focus on heresy was, in the early centuries, “always defined with reference to Judaism” (p. 12). The Christian heresiologists needed Judaism to function as the Christian “other”, to represent what Christianity was not, in order to make it clear what Christianity was. It is as if Justin Martyr in some sense invented Judaism (for confirmation, see Boyarin’s article “Justin Martyr Invents Judaism”), so that Christianity could properly understand itself in contrast to something that was un-Christian by definition.

What was the Jewish reaction to all this? According to Boyarin, the Rabbis – the leadership of Judaism just emerging in the mid-second century – effectively cooperated with the Christian heresiologists and created a Jewish orthodoxy to mirror that of the Christians. In his book Dying for God: Martyrdom and the Making of Christianity and Judaism, Boyarin described this cooperation as “a kind of general collusion”, while in Border Lines he refers to it as a “virtual conspiracy”. The result of this cooperation was the eventual creation of a religious border enforced by complementary notions of heresy: Christians who crossed the border in the wrong direction were labeled as “Judaizers”; Jews who crossed this border in the other direction were labeled as minim. The result in either case was the same: the border crosser was “out of bounds”, a heretic, anathema.

I find it hard to understand Boyarin’s imagined Jewish-Christian conspiracy to impose a border on the heretofore happily heterodox residents of Judeo-Christianity. Of course, Boyarin is not saying that the Rabbis and the church fathers actually met in some kind of interfaith council! Instead, Boyarin speaks of Jews and Christians in a “dialogic” or “discursive” relationship, with some of this dialog or discourse taking place in the everyday “conversation” between Jews and Christians in sites such as Palestine, Antioch and Rome where the two groups had substantial communities. But Boyarin also pictures religious movements exchanging information in a less obvious way, as part of the interaction we should expect between cultures in close proximity. Boyarin compares this to the way languages develop, where something new in one dialect may be passed on in a “wave” to other dialects, and where “convergence [of dialects] is as possible as divergence”.

While I disagree with many of Boyarin’s arguments and conclusions (I’ll get to some of these disagreements in later posts), I love what I see as his personal program to undermine borders wherever he finds them. I know people of different faiths who have been hurt by being placed on the wrong side of a religious border. Judaism seems to be chock full of such borders: first generation American Jews not accepted by those Jews who are more fully assimilated, or converts not fully accepted as “real” Jews, or ba’al tshuva distinguished from those “frum from birth”. Even the border drawn between “secular” and “religious” Jews leaves us divided from each other, and wishing it were easier to move from one side of the border to the other.

But I know that Jews hold no monopoly on present-day border drawing. I’ll note in particular the ferver of those defining the orthodoxy of Christian biblical fundamentalism. It strikes me as a legitimate question, one I’m not in a position to answer personally: is the importance of this orthodoxy worth the pain it causes to enforce it?

A religious border that causes injury is a religious border begging to be reconceived – and I’d argue that any religious border contains within it the potential for injury.  But religious borders are not entirely negative things. Boyarin himself noted this in his discussion in Border Lines of the work of Judith Butler, where he compared border-drawing to name-calling. Being called a name is one of the first forms of linguistic injury, but it can also be a moment of social recognition, a “hailing”, an initiation “into a temporal life of language that exceeds the prior purposes that animate the call.” In other words, a name can be a good thing.  So perhaps even Boyarin may see something positive in a border that is properly drawn and made sufficiently open.

A door is a sort of border. It is by means of an open door that we assume the roles of host and guest.

More on Boyarin will follow shortly. Thanks for reading.


[1] Let’s get this one out of the way. For many scholars, it’s anachronistic to discuss “Christianity” and “Judaism” in the first century of the Common Era, or even in the first few centuries of the Common Era. This is a topic we’ll have the opportunity to analyze later on. But for the moment, I need words to describe historical Christianity and Judaism, or if you prefer: the social, cultural, political, national, historical, linguistic, cultic, religious (and yes, referring to “religion” in certain eras may itself be anachronistic) and other identifiable activities and traits of those who would (sooner or later) be identified as “Christians” and “Jews”. I might adopt some post-modern appellation such as “proto-Christianity” or “nascent Judaism”, but to do so would avoid anachronism at the risk of utterly confusing my readers. Instead, I plan to use the terms “Christianity” and “Judaism” anachronistically for the time being, with the understanding (to be shared, I’m afraid, only with those who read endnotes) that I’m not prejudging when or how these movements emerged as religions.