Judaism without Christianity

Christians and Jews in the first century did not argue with one another. Each— the family of Christianities, the family of Judaisms—went its way. When Christianity came into being, in the first century, one important strand of the Christian movement laid stress on issues of salvation, maintaining in the Gospels that Jesus was, and is, Christ, come to save the world and impose a radical change on history. At that same time, an important group within the diverse Judaic systems of the age, the Pharisees, emphasized issues of sanctification, maintaining that the task of Israel is to attain that holiness of which the Temple was a singular embodiment. When, in the Gospels, we find the record of the Church placing Jesus into opposition with the Pharisees, we witness the confrontation of different people talking about different things to different people. The issues presented to Jews by the triumph of Christianity, which do inform the documents shaped in the Land of Israel in the period of that triumph, do not play an important role in prior components of the unfolding canon of Judaism, in particular, in the Mishnah and closely allied documents which reached closure before the fourth century. These present a Judaism, not despite Christianity, but in utter indifference to Christianity. The contrast between the Mishnah and the Judaic system emerging in the fourth-century documents tells the tale.

The two events that defined that setting of the Mishnah, a late second-century document, were, first, the destruction of the Temple in 70, and second, the defeat of Bar Kokhba in 135. The former put in motion expectations of redemption three generations later, just as had happened in the time of the destruction of the first Temple in 586 b.c.e. and the return, after three generations, to Zion. But the catastrophe of Bar Kokhba's war discredited a picture of the salvation of Israel that had enjoyed prominence for nearly seven hundred years. For it was clear that, whatever would happen, it would not be what had occurred before.

The Judaism without Christianity portrayed in the Mishnah did not present a richly developed doctrine of the Messiah. It worked out issues of sanctification rather than those of salvation. The reason is that the Mishnah laid its emphasis upon issues of the destruction of the Temple and the subsequent defeat in the failed war for the restoration. These issues, the framers of the Mishnah maintained, raised the question of Israel's sanctity: is Israel still a holy people, even without the holy Temple, and if so, what are the enduring instrumentalities of sanctification? When sages worked out a Judaism after the destruction of the Temple and cult, they produced in the Mishnah a system of sanctification focused on the holiness of the priesthood, the cultic festivals, the Temple and its sacrifices, as well as on the rules for protecting that holiness from levitical uncleanness—four of the six divisions of the Mishnah on a single theme. In the aftermath of the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity and the triumph of Christianity in the generation beyond Julian, "the apostate," sages worked out in the pages of the Talmud of the Land of Israel and in the exegetical compilations of the age a Judaism intersecting with the Mishnah but essentially asymmetrical with it. That Talmud presented a system of salvation, but one focused on the salvific power of the sanctification of the holy people. The first of the two Talmuds, the one closed at the end of the fourth century, set the compass and locked it into place. The Judaism that was portrayed by the final document of late antiquity, the Talmud of Babylonia, at the end, laid equal emphasis on sanctification in the here and now and salvation at the end of time.

If Christianity presented an urgent problem to the sages behind the Mishnah, for example, giving systemic prominence to a given category rather than some other, we cannot point to a single line of the document that says so. The figure of the Messiah in no way provided the sages of the Mishnah with an appropriate way of explaining the purpose and goal of their system, its teleology. A teleology appealing to the end of history, with the coming of the Messiah, came to predominate only in the Talmud of the land of Israel and in sages' documents beyond. What issues then proved paramount in a Judaism utterly out of relationship to Christianity in any form? We turn back to the Mishnah to find out.

The Mishnah presents a Judaism that answered a single encompassing question concerning the enduring sanctification of Israel—the people, the land, the way of life. What, in the aftermath of the destruction of the holy place and holy cult, remained of the sanctity of the holy caste, the priesthood, the holy land, and, above all, the holy people and its holy way of life? The answer is that: sanctity persists, indelibly, in Israel, the people, in its way of life, in its land, in its priesthood, in its food, in its mode of sustaining life, in its manner of procreating and so sustaining the nation. That holiness would endure. And the Mishnah then laid out the structures of sanctification: what it means to live a holy life. But that answer found itself absorbed, in time to come, within a successor system, with its own points of stress and emphasis. That successor system, both continuous and asymmetrical with the Mishnah, would take over the Mishnah and turn it into the one whole Torah of Moses, our rabbi, that became Judaism. The indicative marks are, first, the central symbol of Torah as sages' teaching; second, the figure of Messiah as sage; and third, the doctrine that Israel today is the family of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, heirs to the legacy and heritage of merit that, in the beginning, the progenitors earned and handed on to their children.

The system portrayed in the Mishnah emerged in a world in which there was no Christianity. What points do we not find? First, we find in the Mishnah no explicit and systematic theory of scriptural authority. We now know how much stress the Judaism in confrontation with Christianity laid on Scripture, with important commentaries produced in the age of Constantine. What the framers of the Mishnah did not find necessary was a doctrine of the authority of Scripture. Nor did they undertake a systematic exegetical effort to link the principal document, the Mishnah, to Scripture. Why not? Because the authors saw no need. Christianity made pressing the question of the standing and status of the Mishnah in relationship to Scripture, claiming that the Mishnah was man-made and a forgery of God's will, which was contained only in Scripture. Then the doctrine of the dual Torah, explaining the origin and authority of the Mishnah, came to full expression. The sages had produced a document, the Mishnah, so independent of Scripture that, when the authors wished to say what Scripture said, they chose to do so in their own words and in their own way. Whatever the intent of the Mishnah's authors, therefore, it clearly did not encompass explaining to a competing Israel, heirs of the same Scriptures of Sinai, just what authority validated the document, and how the document related to Scripture. Second, we look in vain for a teleology focused on the coming of the Messiah as the end and purpose of the system as a whole. The Mishnah's teleology in no way invokes an eschatological dimension. This Judaism for a world in which Christianity played no considerable role took slight interest in the Messiah and presented a teleology lacking all eschatological, therefore messianic, focus. Third, the same Judaism laid no considerable stress on the symbol of the Torah, though, of course, the Torah as a scroll, as a matter of status, and as revolution of God's will at Sinai, enjoyed prominence.

It follows that the position outlined in the fourth-century documents repre sents the first reading of Christianity on the part of Israel's sages. Prior to that time they did not take to heart the existence of the competition. Afterward, of course, they would draw on the position outlined here to sort out the issues made urgent by the success of Christianity throughout the Roman world. Prior to the time of Constantine, the documents of Judaism that evidently reached closure—the Mishnah, Pirqe Abot, the Tosefta—scarcely took cognizance of Christianity and did not deem the new faith to be much of a challenge. If the unsystematic and scattered allusions are meant to refer to Christianity at all, then the sages regarded Christianity as an irritant, an exasperating heresy among Jews who should have known better. But, then, neither Jews nor pagans took much interest in Christianity in the new faith's first century and a half. The authors of the Mishnah framed a system to which Christianity bore no relevance whatsoever; theirs were problems presented in an altogether different context. For their part, pagan writers were indifferent to Christianity, not mentioning it until about 160 (Palanque et al. 1953). Only when Christian evangelism enjoyed some solid success, toward the latter part of that century, did pagans compose apologetic works attacking Christianity. Celsus stands at the start, followed by Porphyry in the third century. But by the fourth century, pagans and Jews alike knew that they faced a formidable, powerful enemy. Pagan writings speak explicitly and accessibly.

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