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Playing a Jewish Game

Interview with Michele Murray

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Who were Gentile Christian Judaizers and why is your book called Playing a Jewish Game?

Gentile Christian judaizers combined a commitment to Christianity with adherence in varying degrees to Jewish practices without viewing such behavior as contradictory. From the perspective of certain Christian leaders of the first and second centuries CE, these Christian community members were “playing a Jewish game” by living like Jews and adhering to certain Jewish practices, and thereby were dangerously blurring the boundaries between Christianity and Judaism. There were attempts to suppress this phenomenon, and Gentile Christian judaizers became the target of anti-Jewish rhetoric found within various early Christian writings.

Why are Gentile Christian Judaizers important in the understanding of Jewish/Christian relations in antiquity?

Recently early Christian scholarship has shown an appreciation for the pluralism and rich diversity of Judaism and Christianity and has reflected an interest in advancing new interpretations of the history of the relationship among Jewish and Christian communities. The reasons for this change are associated with the effect the Holocaust had on New Testament scholars’ investigation into how anti-Jewish teachings in the church might have contributed to the Nazi attempt to destroy European Jewry. Scholars have come to understand that modern notions of Jewish and Christian identity as distinct and rigid categories ought not to be projected into antiquity. There is acknowledgement, moreover, that the boundaries between the two communities were more fluid than was formerly held, and that each religious community expressed itself in a wide variety of ways in belief and practice. In particular, scholarly perceptions of how the history of early Christianity developed and unfolded, and definitions of the terms “orthodoxy” and “heresy,” have changed significantly. It is understood that in many geographical areas, “heresies” were actually the primary forms of Christianity, and that the voices of these groups were deliberately suppressed by other Christians who eventually triumphed in the struggle for dominance There is recognition that in order to appreciate more fully the diversity and vitality of nascent Christianity, the muted voices of “heretics” - who had been part of the variegated Christian movement - must be heard. Playing a Jewish Game contributes towards the current discussion by addressing one of the largely neglected points of contact in the spectrum of Jewish-Canadian relations in the first two centuries CE. It argues that significant strands of early Christian literature which have been interpreted as expressing anti-Jewish sentiment were actually directed against Gentile Christians - more significantly, Gentile Christian judaizers - rather than against Jews or Jewish Christians, as is usually understood. Certain passages of adversus Judaeos material often understood to be reflective of conflict between Christian and Jewish communities is more accurately to be understood as expression of an intramuros debate among Christians. Through exploration of a variety of first and second century CE Christian documents containing criticism of Jews, Judaism, and specific Jewish religious rites, this study advances the position that the phenomenon of Christian judaizing is a heretofore neglected point on the continuum of Jewish-Christian relations in antiquity.

What are the central goals of your book?

By examining this phenomenon within the broader issue of Jewish-Christian relations in the early centuries CE, my study enables the suppressed voices of Gentile Christian judaizers, once part of the rich diversity of nascent Christianity, to be heard. One of the central goals of this exploration is to contribute towards a more carefully defined and nuanced understanding of the larger picture of Jewish-Christian relations in antiquity. Playing a Jewish Game’s task is to draw all possible references to Gentile Christian judaizers together and to consider the evidence in its geographical context for the first time in a single study.

Which questions do you seek to answer, and which documents do you look at in your book?

Evidence in early church documents determined to be pointing to th criticism or encouragement of Christian judaizing in Syria and Asia Minor during the first and second centuries CE is explored with a view to addressing the following questions: What motivated certain Gentile Christians to become judaizers? Who desired Gentile Christians to judaize? Which Jewish customs were invoked? Throughout, the socio-cultural and religious contexts of the documents will be re-examined in order to elucidate the sociological and historical circumstances behind the reaction to or encouragement of Christian judaizing. The texts discussed include canonical documents, both early (e.g., Galatians) and late (e.g., Revelation); non-canonical documents of an “orthodox” nature (e.g., Epistle of Barnabas, the Didache, the letters of Ignatius) as well as literature of a “heterodox” nature (e.g., Marcion’s writing, the Pseudo-Clementine literature) and the Apologists (e.g., Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho, Melito’s Peri Pascha).

What effect did Gentile Christian Judaizers have on the development of Christianity as a separate religion from Judaism?

An understanding of Gentile Christian judaizing enriches our perception of the complexity of Jewish-Christian relations and elucidates the broader issue of the “parting of the ways” of Judaism and Christianity. Contrary to the conclusions reached by other scholars, I would assert that there is ample textual evidence to demonstrate that the boundaries between nascent Christianity and Judaism remained fluid well beyond the period of Paul, who is sometimes incorrectly perceived to have successfully established a distinct Gentile Christian identity exclusive of Judaism. Well into the second century CE there were those Gentiles who did not distinguish differences between “Christianity” and “Judaism,” hence they required instruction from their leaders on how to behave. The reaction of ecclesiastical leaders towards this Christian judaizing contributed towards shaping what constituted acceptable “Christian” behavior, and was a driving force in the forging of a Christian identity separate from Judaism.