Judaism and Christianity as they would live together in the West met for the first time in the fourth century. It was then that Judaism addressed the historical triumph of Christianity in a political form that would persist, and that Christianity met the Israel defined by the sages of the dual Torah, the Israel that would enjoy enduring life in the Jewish people from then until now. Beginning with the conversion of Constantine in 312 and ending with the recognition of Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire in the Theodosian Code of 387, Christianity reached that position of political and cultural dominance that it would enjoy until the twentieth century. In our own day Christianity has entered an age no longer responsive to its politics. This book is about the first meeting, a confrontation that, for Judaism, defined three important terms of the Judaic system from that time onward. Specifically, in the fourth century, in response to the triumph of Christianity in the Roman Empire, Judaism as shaped by sages in the Land of Israel defined its doctrines of history, Messiah, and the identity of Israel. Those doctrines successfully countered the challenge of Christianity from then to the point at which Christianity lost its status as self-evident truth in the West. It follows that Judaism as we have known it was born in the matrix of triumphant Christianity as the West would define that faith.1
The age of Constantine was marked by the interplay of issues that were defined in the same way by Judaism and Christianity. In the context of triumphant Christianity, Judaic thinkers represented in the important documents of the late fourth or early fifth century, the Talmud of the Land of Israel of the Land of Israel, Genesis Rabbah, and Leviticus Rabbah, sorted out those three central questions that had long presented points on which each party framed its own ideas. But, transformed by the events of the age from merely chronic
1. In my Death and Birth of Judaism (1987a) I argue that the success of Judaism in the West derives from its response (a self-evidently valid one, to Jews) to the urgent and paramount question presented by triumphant Christianity. This is a point I further work out in my Self-Fulfilling Prophecy (1987b).
to urgent and acute issues, these matters demanded the attention of the Judaic sages. A debate unfolded in which the issues were framed so that a confrontation of an intellectual character took place: people arguing about the same things, drawing upon the same logic, appealing to essentially the same facts. I claim that the issues as framed by the Judaic sages and Christian theologians encompassed precisely the same questions, that the modes of argument on these issues followed the same rules of reason and discourse, and that the facts adduced in evidence by the two parties derived from a shared core of texts available, in essentially the same wording, to both parties; that there was, in short, an argument, a dialogue, a true debate.
The two groups—one represented by the authorship behind the sages' documents, the other by three important theologians, Eusebius, in the beginning of the century, Aphrahat, in the middle and in the Iranian empire, and Chrysostom, at the end—resorted to the same corpus of Scripture, framed the issues in nearly identical terms, and drew from Scripture answers and implications that exhibit a remarkable congruence. This is the first—and last— moment in the history of Judaism in the context of Christianity when both sides asked and answered the same questions, framed the same way, in response to the same circumstances. Because for once both parties asked the same questions and answered them in parallel ways, the shape of the dialogue between Judaism and Christianity was set for the rest of their shared history in the West.
In many ways, therefore, the fourth century marks the point of intersection between the histories of the two religious, Judaism and Christianity. Before that time there was no confrontation. For Judaism and Christianity in late antiquity present histories that mirror each other. When Christianity began, Judaism was the dominant tradition in the Holy Land and expressed its ideas within a political framework until the early fifth century. Christianity was subordinate and had to operate against the background of a politically definitive Judaism. From the time of Constantine onward, matters reversed themselves. Now Christianity predominated, expressing its ideas in political and institutional terms. Judaism, by contrast, had lost its political foundations and faced the task of working out its self-understanding in terms of a world defined by Christianity, now everywhere triumphant and in charge of politics. As Rosemary Radford Ruether first pointed out, the important shift came in the early fourth century, the West's first century.2 That was when the West began, in the union of Christian religion and Roman rule. It also was when the Judaism that thrived in the West reached the definition it was to exhibit for the next fifteen centuries.
The thesis argued here contradicts the theory that Judaism ignored its competition and went its way in splendid isolation. Historians of Judaism take as
2. The conception of the fourth century as the first century of Christianity and Judaism originates with Rosemary Radford Ruether, "Judaism and Christianity: Two Fourth-Century Religions" (1972).
dogma the view that Christianity never made any difference to Judaism. Faith of a "people that dwells apart," Judaism explored paths untouched by Christians. Christianity—people hold—was born in the matrix of Judaism, but Judaism, from the beginning until now, ignored the new "daughter" religion and followed its majestic course in lonely dignity. Since (the argument is implicitly made) Judaism is supposed always to have ignored, and never to have been affected by, Christianity in any form, the future security of the faith of Judaism requires the continuation of this same policy, pretending that Christianity simply never made, and now does not make, any difference at all to Israel, the Jewish people. This dogma of scholarship carries with it an imperative for contemporary policy. Without intending to comment on how to shape Judaic policy for the future, I argue here that quite to the contrary, the Judaism expressed by the writings of the sages of the Land of Israel in the fourth century—the age of Constantine—not only responded to issues raised for Israel by the political triumph of Christianity but did so in a way that, intellectually at least, made possible the entire future history of Judaism in Europe and beyond.
Let me now place this book into its larger context in my own work. It forms the middle component of a trilogy, in which I present a general theory of the history of Judaism, beginning, middle, and, in its received form for most of the Jews of the West, end. The work begins with Judaism in the Matrix of Christianity (1986a), continues with the present work, and concludes with The Death and Birth of Judaism (1987a). In the first work I set forth the thesis that Judaism in its received and classical form took shape in the fourth century. That thesis, further, is argued on the strength of the results of my Foundations of Judaism series: vol. 1, Midrash in Context (1983a); vol. 2, Messiah in Context (1984a); vol. 3, Torah (1984b). In those exercises I repeatedly came to a single result, which is that, when we come upon the first expression or, at least, adumbration, of what becomes the definitive statement of a matter, we find ourselves time and again in the pages of the Talmud of the Land of Israel. That led me to the thesis that it was in the fourth or early fifth century that Judaism took shape in the form that became normative.
To extend and test that thesis, this second book of the trilogy compares the treatment of three important topics confronting the two fourth-century heirs of ancient Israel's heritage, asking how each dealt with an issue that both had to consider. In this way I wish to compare and contrast the one with the other and so to place into a larger context the initial results of the Foundations of Judaism series and Judaism in the Matrix of Christianity. In The Death and Birth of Judaism I place the issue in the context of the Christian West. My view is that, when Christianity lost its status as self-evident truth to Christians, the Judaism framed in the encounter with that claim likewise lost its self-evidence to Jews. After the end of self-evidence—looking back, we call it innocence—came self-consciousness. For Jews, that is when the modern age in the history of Judaism began. The trilogy proposes a general theory on why Judaism worked—that is, enjoyed self-evidence for Israel, the Jewish people—when it worked, and therefore, also, why it did not work when it did not work. Perhaps, in time to come, I may make some suggestions on how it may be made to work again. That theological interest formed part of my original intent, but I hear no compelling call to realize that intent very soon. But the initial probing led me to Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: Exile and Return in the History of Judaism (1987b), a historical study pointing in theological directions.
It remains to point to a feature of this book. I have quoted in the chapters of the book only a small sample of important passages on the themes at hand of the Talmud of the Land of Israel, Genesis Rabbah, and Leviticus Rabbah. Too many sources given verbatim present formidable obstacles to the reader and render the book tedious. On the other hand, I wanted readers to have access to a rich repertoire of pertinent sources. The documents at hand, which I have translated, do not rest on every reader's bookshelf.3 So to provide readers with a broad selection of relevant statements, I have added in appendixes extensive citations of materials, which, in the body of the book, I cite only in abbreviated versions. What I do, then, is present in toto materials given in brief abstract in the pertinent chapters. This leads to a slight measure of repetition, but I think it improves the book.
Let me close on a personal note. I place myself in the tradition of those who, by rereading the past, imagine that they can find a direction for the future. This project does not pretend to deserve the exalted status of theology. It is, rather, a humble and pedestrian sort of description, a mere collection of facts; that is, the history of a religion, one among many, perhaps intending also to contribute, by way of supplying an example of a general theory, to the history of religion. But that intent does not bring us upward to theology. Still, my original motive in turning toward these sources rather than others, or to another way of life rather than the scholarly one altogether, was theological. I revere these sources, which is why I lovingly collect and present so many of them in the appendices. I began, thirty years ago, to study the Judaic sources because I wanted to make myself, then merely a believing and religious Jew, into a knowledgeable one as well. For the ignorant person cannot attain true piety. I wished, on my own and for myself, to see the whole, altogether, in its entirety, and all at once. I further determined that I should read the sources myself, and so, on my own, I would form a vision of my own. I wanted to take it all apart and put it back together, to possess what was mine by making it totally and completely my own.
In all this I find myself a disciple of Goethe, who, at what for Judaism was the beginning of the modern age, said what it meant to be "modern":
3. The Talmud of the Land of Israel: A Preliminary Translation and Explanation (1982-); Judaism and Scripture: The Evidence of Leviticus Rabbah (a fresh translation of Margulies' text and a systematic analysis of problems of composition and redaction) (1985b); Genesis Rabbah: The Judaic Commentary on the Book of Genesis (1985a); Aphrahat and Judaism: The Christian-Jewish Argument in Fourth-Century Iran (1971).
Was du ererbt von deinen Vaetern hast, Erwirb es um es zu besitzen. Whatever you have as a heritage from your fathers You must earn it if you would possess it.4
What comes as heritage has yet to be possessed in full consciousness and therefore, of necessity, in prickly self-consciousness. By citing Goethe through the medium of a later writer, I move squarely into the modern situation of Judaism: making one's own what in times past came as a heritage unearned and possessing, rather than possessed. That is to say, I move from self-evidence to self-consciousness.
But that, after all, is what we do when we sign our own names to our books, rather than speaking in the name of inherited Scripture and tradition, as did the Christian theologians whom we shall take up, and rather than speaking anonymously, collectively, as did the sages of Judaism in the age of Constantine. We who understand that we have to earn, possess, and so make our own what reaches us as heritage stand for what it means to live in our own day and not in any other. We affirm where we are and what we are: to be ourselves, unashamedly, unregretfully, children of a wretched but challenging century. Our time of radical turning is more like the fourth century than, I think, any time in between. That is my message in this book.
That, and one more: Judaism and Christianity in the age of holocaust come together as they have not since the beginning, and as they have not been able to since the fourth century. The relationship of subordinated, patient Judaism and world-possessing Christianity—a relationship which began in the age of Constantine—has ended, to be sure not in ways either had anticipated. The confrontation has ceased. In their contemporary encounter Judaism and Christianity have entered a new epoch of relationship—not yet dialogue, but no longer confrontation. For that, at least, we have, all of us, to give thanks. Why at just this time, in just this dreadful way, God has brought us to the threshold of mature reconciliation, no one knows. Perhaps it is for a blessing, held back until, mourning unspeakable tragedy, we rejoined ranks, not before "Auschwitz" or Golgotha but before Sinai. There, in a cleft in the rock, we shall shelter before the Presence. There we shall hear, after the mighty noise, a voice of silence. And that is all.
Erev Rosh Hashshanah 5747
Program in Judaic Studies Brown University Providence, Rhode Island 02912
4. Faust, 682-83, quoted by Jaroslav Pelikan in his introduction to the Torchbook edition of Adolf Harnack, The Mission and Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries (1972).
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