Monday, December 15, 2008

Flash Review III: Daniel Boyarin, Dying for God

by J J Cohen

The thesis of Daniel Boyarin's Dying for God: Martyrdom and the Making of Christianity and Judaism is simple yet breathtaking: Rabbinic Judaism did not precede Christianity, but the two were twin births, two versions of the same religion, Judaism. Until the end of late antiquity, Boyarin argues, it was possible to be both a Christian and a Jew. Separation of the faiths was a retrospective process engaged in by both communities, after both religions had ceased to be new and were settling into comfortable orthodoxies that projected keen difference into a past actually filled with interpenetration, ambiguity, messiness:
for at least the first three centuries of their common lives, Judaism in all of its forms and Christianity in all of its forms were part of one complex religious family, twins in a womb, contending with each other for identity and precedence, but sharing with each other the same spiritual food, as well (6)
Judaism and Christianity are as a result not differentiated religions, but ongoing and vexed "conversations":
Without the power of the orthodox Church and the Rabbis to declare people heretics and outside the system it remained impossible to declare phenomenologically who was a Jew and who was a Christian. At least as interesting and significant, it seems more and more clear that it is frequently impossible to tell a Jewish text from a Christian one. The borders are fuzzy, and this has consequences. Religious ideas and innovations can cross borders in both directions (15)
You get the idea: acts of separation tend to be retroactive, and are never as clean as they make themselves out to be. Though Boyarin argues that "definitive schism" is evident by the fourth century (114), medievalists will likely pick up on his frequent mention that successful differentiation likely never occured in a full sense: "a tangled process of innovation and learning, competition and sharing of themes, motifs, and practices" keeps these twins bound, "jostling." "Sometimes," Boyarin observes in closing, "partings can seem more like encounters" (126).

Boyarin's method is to proceed via historically contextualized close readings of select texts. His careful exegesis typically reveals the double meanings and the contemporaneity of works that have often been taken as straightforward and faithful to the history they narrate. Having been reading quite a bit about over the past few years about the inherent mestizaje of most cultures, I can't say that I learned anything new about cultural hybridity per se, but the book was an excellent spur to rethinking the story of Christian-Jewish origins.


Nic D'Alessio said...

JJC: I'm glad to hear you think highly of Boyarin's book. I haven't picked it back up for a long while, but immediately, with a shudder, tore into my bookcase to revisit the matter. I first read the book while in a course on late antique martyrdom and apocalyptic literature at Yale. It was a truly eye-opening moment for me. I was at that time, despite my ever present historicist impulses, still very steeped in philosophy and theology and their worlds of intra-disciplinary speech. Reading Boyarin, along with several other late ancient studies scholars, became my first forays into contemporary critical/cultural theory.

I've since gone back and found something I wrote on Boyarin and another scholar, Judith Perkins. I cleaned it up a bit, and will post it on my blog. It's not much, and only an excerpt from a larger paper. And it was written in 2003 - I cringe now reading it.

Since you liked Boyarin so much, you might also be interested in reading his most recent book, where he takes up and works out the theme of a Jewish/Christian "parting of the ways" that's already present in "Dying for God." It's called "Border Lines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity" (Penn, 2004). It's part of a really fantastic series that he co-edits, "Divinations: Reading Late Antique Religion."

Also, Boyarin's good friend, co-editor, and collaborator, Virgina Burrus, has two volumes in that same series that are really worth a look: "Sex Lives of Saints" and her recent "Saving Shame." Other recent martyr studies I'd recommend are Elizabeth Castelli's "Martyrdom and Memory: Early Christian Culture Making" (Columbia, 2004); and Stephanie Cobb's "Dying to Be Men: Gender and Language in Early Christian Martyr Texts" (Columbia, 2008). These last two are part of the same series at Columbia, "Gender, Theory, and Religion," edited by Amy Hollywood.

I've always lloved late ancient Christianity, and often find some of stunningly exciting historiographical/theoretical work being done there. I worked for some time on, and still think about, martyrdom, especially issues of gender and historiography.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks for the comment Nic. I've been reading Border Lines in tandem with Dying for God and hope to do a flash review of it as well.

I too have always found myself drawn to late antiquity, not just because I have an inordinate fascination for desert dwelling hermits, but also because it seems a time period when many of the identity categories we take for granted in the Middle Ages were quite in flux: not just Christian/Jew, but also Roman/barbarian (where "barbarbian" stands in for many, many possible ethnic/racial identifications).

Thanks for the additional references, some of which are cited in Boyarin's own work. And since you bring up mrtyrs, here is my main question about Dying for God: Boyarin posits that Jewish and Jewish Christian martyrs are versions of the same thing, those who die for (eroticized) love of deity. I'm wondering, though, if in the martyrs we don't also see a difference: that is, could we say that the heterogeneous Judaism that Boyarin argues Christianity was one version of was mainly NOT at all concerned with conversion and proselytizing, but that Christian Judaism was? Maybe the only way to make that question work is to broaden it: most Judaism was (maybe) not significantly invested in questions of conversion or proselytizing; Christian Judaism and other, similar messiah sects were. Doesn't that indicate a difference that needs to be accounted for? You won't find much in Boyarin about conversion...