Religion and Political Change

This book proposes to contribute to the study of religion a theory for the impact of political change on theological confrontation between two religious groups. At issue is how theological ideas relate to political circumstances. Religion as a fact of politics constitutes a principal force in the shaping of society and imagination alike. I want to know how, in a particular case, a stunning shift in the political circumstances of a religion affected that religion's thought about the outsider, the other, the brother, and the enemy. The particular case involves Judaism at the moment at which Christianity became first licit, then favored, then for a brief interval persecuted, and finally, at the end of the fourth century, the official religion of the Roman Empire. The age of Constantine, the fourth century (roughtly, from 312, when Constantine extended toleration to Christianity, to 429, when the Jewish government of the Land of Israel ceased to enjoy the recognition of the state), marks the period in which Christianity joined the political world of the Roman Empire. In that century Christianity gained power, briefly lost it, and, finally, regained the pover that assured its permanent domination of the state. Christians saw Israel as God's people, rejected by God for rejecting the Christ. Israel saw Christians, now embodied in Rome, as Ishmael, Esau, Edom: the brother and the enemy. The political revolution marked by Constantine's conversion forced the two parties to discuss a single agendum and defined the terms in which each would take up that agendum.

The politics of Rome in the fourth century, therefore, produced the first true confrontation between Judaic and Christian intellectuals. By confrontation I mean not actual face-to-face discourse but substantive debate, each party speaking to its own group in its own idiom, to be sure, on issues defined in the same terms, through the medium of the same modes of argument, with appeal to the same facts. This had not happened before and it never happened again, until our own time. In the fourth century, the age of Constantine, Judaic sages and Christian theologians met in a head-on argument with a shared agendum and confronted the fundamental issues for the historical existence of politics and society in the West: doctrine, specifically, the meaning of history; teleology, specifically, the eschatological teleology formed by the messianic doctrine identifying Jesus as Christ; and the symbolism of the godly society, specifically, the identity of God's social medium—Israel—in the making of the world. Here I wish to prove that, for the first and probably the last time in the history of Judaism and Christianity in the West, differing people argued about the same things, sharing common premises and a single core of probative facts.

My thesis evokes the centrality of political change in shaping theological discourse. The reason that the two parties addressed issues defined in the same way, I maintain, derives from the political challenge facing them both. Each party, in its own setting, had to take up that challenge in terms essentially identical to those that confronted the other. When emperors convert and governments shift allegiance, the world shakes under everyone's feet. There was an argument on these issues, but no argument on any other issues, for a simple reason. The issues under debate bore political consequences; the others did not. True, both sides shared an interest in the issues of the scriptural canon and the exegesis of Scripture. But I cannot find points in these other issues on which they argued on the same topic in the same terms invoking the same corpus of evidence. That is why I say that the reason both parties could share a single program of debate is political.

Enormous shifts in the political facts of the world, represented by the growing control of Christianity over the institutions of state and government, raised for both Judaic sages and Christian theologians issues that, to begin with, the Scriptures of ancient Israel ("the Written Torah," "the Old Testament") had defined. These issues focused on the meaning of history, viewed by epochs, each with its message; the identity of the Messiah; and the definition of Israel, God's people, with special reference to the social metaphor and theological value imputed to that "Israel after the flesh" constituted by the Jews of the day. These three issues proved paramount, I claim, specifically because the political revolution effected in the course of the fourth century by the Christianization of the Roman Empire made them urgent and transformed them into matters of public policy. Prior to that political change, Judaic and Christian thinkers had no common argument.

No form of Christianity made an impact upon the systematic thought of any of the Judaic authorships known to us. That fact will become clear in the next section, in which we consider a Judaic system formed without any relationship to the interests of Christianity, e.g., the Messiah, the meaning of history, and similar eschatological questions. And the contrary also is the case. The formulation by Judaic thinkers of important theological categories, and the doctrines that imparted to those categories the meaning that they would have, never made an impact on the thought of the Church. What the Church knew was simply that the Jews did not believe in Jesus Christ. Before that time, the Christian theologians and Judaic sages had not accomplished the feat of framing a single program for debate. Judaic sages had earlier talked about their issues to their audience, Christian theologians had for three centuries pursued the arguments of their distinctive agenda. The former pretended the latter did not exist. The latter framed doctrines concerning the former solely within the logical requirements of the internal arguments of Christianity. There had been no confrontation of an intellectual character, since neither party had addressed the issues important to the other in such a way that the issues found a mutually agreeable definition, and that the premises of argument, the core of shared facts and shared reason, likewise formed a mutually acceptable protocol of discourse. Later on, as we shall see in the epilogue, the confrontation would shift, so that no real debate on a shared set of issues, defined in the same way by both parties, unfolded. The politics did not require it, and the circumstances prevented it.

In the fourth century, by contrast, issues urgent for Christian thinkers proved of acute, not merely chronic, concern for Judaic ones as well. In my view, this came about not because differences on Scriptures and its meaning produced, by themselves, debate. Those differences became urgent only when matters of public policy, specifically, the ideology of state (empire, for the Christians; supernatural nation or, as we shall see, family, for the Jews) demanded a clear statement on the questions at hand. When the Roman Empire and Israelite nation had to assess the meaning of epochal change, when each had to reconsider the teleology of society and system as the identity of the Messiah defined that teleology, when each had to reconsider the appropriate metaphor for the political unit, namely, people, nation, extended family, only then did chronic disagreement become acute difference. It was the progressive but remarkable change in the character of the Roman government—at the beginning of the century pagan and hostile to Christianity, at the end of the century Christian and hostile to paganism—that was decisive. In the age of Constantine the terms of the fifteen-hundred-year confrontation between Judaism and Christianity reached conclusive formulation.

Thus far I have spoken of "Judaism" and "Christianity," as though each formed an undifferentiated system. In fact I refer only to specific, but I believe exemplary, books of the former and figures in the latter, all from th fourth and early fifth centuries. When I speak of "Christianity," I mean three fourth-century theologians; and when I speak of Judaism, I refer to three fourth- (or early fifth-) century documents. In the writings of the one and the pages of the other, I claim to find a single, sustained, and systematic argument in which important intellectuals (individual authors on the one side, a collective authorship on the other) address in common three fundamental issues.

To state matters in a simple way, before the fourth century Judaism and Christianity (as defined by their intellectuals) comprised different people talking about different things to different people. In the fourth century the shape of discourse shifted. Because of a political event that Israel could not ignore and the Church deemed probative, discourse between Judaism and Christianity would find different people talking to different people about some of the same things. The reason for the shift and for the particular topics at hand is a common politics. There is a second factor, namely, common premises, deriving from common Scriptures, about the importance of politics, that is, history. Both parties to the common argument shared a single canon—the Hebrew Scriptures ("Old Testament," "Written Torah") and, more important, both parties confronted the same political facts and had to deal with them. The common argument proved possible, therefore, because the intellectuals of the two parties shared a single intellectual and social world.

My argument in favor of the reason I propose pursues a positive course in chapters 2, 3, and 4, and a negative one in chapter 5. In the book I review what Christianity (as defined in three significant figures) and Judaism (in three critical documents) in the fourth century said about a given topic and demonstrate that both sides agreed on the definition of the issue. At the end, in chapter 5, I turn to a test of falsification. I take up two points on which both parties worked, and for which each party had its own definition and program of thought. There we do not have the case of different people arguing about the same thing for different people. We have different people talking about different things to different people: there is no point of intersection. The reason is that politics in common did not generate discourse on the same things.

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