- Playing a Jewish Game: Gentile Christian Judaizing in the First and Second Centuries CE
In its first few centuries, when the church was supposedly preoccupied with the Roman world (both as agents of persecution and as objects of mission), most of its leading figures somehow found time to write tractates 'against the Jews.' The tractates vary in tone from the civil (Justin Martyr) to the virulent (Melito), but they share a common purpose: to demonstrate that the true meaning of the 'Old Testament' is to be found in Christ and that Jewish religion is both inferior and obsolete.
This adversus Judaeos tradition has been variously understood. In an earlier era, when the tendency was to think that after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD the Jewish community retreated into isolated self-absorption, it was common to see it either as an attempt to convert Jews or as an inwardly directed exercise in self-definition vis-à-vis the Israel of old. In more recent decades it has been recognized instead that Jewish communities continued to play a vibrant role in the Roman world and to present a religious option that many non-Jews found appealing. With this new recognition, Christian writing 'against the Jews' now tends to be seen as directed primarily at the opinion-makers of the Roman world, attempting to further the Christian cause by responding to uncomfortable questions about Christian appropriation and reinterpretation of Jewish tradition.
In Playing a Jewish Game, a revision of her doctoral dissertation (Toronto), Michele Murray offers an alternative reading. She recognizes that many Gentiles were attracted to Judaism in this period (chapter 2) and so does not reject the idea that Judaism and Christianity were engaged in a kind of rivalry (though she does not believe that Jews were engaged in a similar active 'mission' to Gentiles). But in her interpretation, the effects of the rivalry were felt much closer to home. She argues that throughout this period many Gentile Christians demonstrated an attraction to Judaism and a willingness to adopt certain Jewish observances. Christian writings 'against the Jews' can thus be seen as an attempt by Christian leaders to reinforce the separation of Christianity and Judaism and to dissuade these 'Judaizers' from their boundary-blurring practices.
Murray is able to anchor her case on two fixed points: Paul's letter to the Galatians, in which he castigates his recent converts for their willingness to submit to circumcision; and a series of sermons by John Chrysostom in fourth-century Antioch, in which he bitterly denounces church members who were attending the synagogue and adopting Jewish ways. Her challenge is to demonstrate that these were not isolated instances.
Murray restricts her investigation to Syria and Asia Minor and to the period 50-160 AD. After an introduction and the chapter on 'Gentile [End Page 229] Attraction to Judaism in the Roman Empire,' she deals with Syria in chapter 4 (Barnabas, Didache, Pseudo-Clement) and with Asia Minor in chapters 5 (Revelation, Ignatius, Justin Martyr) and 6 (Marcion, Melito). A concluding chapter and an appended survey of scholarship round out the volume.
The primary - and by no means insignificant - contribution of this book is its demonstration that the adversus Judaeos material can be read as an attempt to dissuade Gentile Christians from Judaizing. Its primary problem, however, is the paucity (between Paul and Chrysostom) of clear references to such Judaizing as an actual phenomenon. Even the most likely passage that she adduces (Justin Dial. 47) could be read, along with the handful of others (from Revelation, Barnabas, and Ignatius), as dealing with hypothetical situations for the sake of theological argument. Still, even if the evidence is more suggestive than conclusive, it is highly probable that in such a fluid religious environment Christians were to be found among the larger number of Gentiles who found Judaism appealing. Thus her suggestion that this material was directed 'against the Judaizers' is quite possible, at least as one aspect of its purpose. By demonstrating this possibility and thus...