A Lesson from Scholars of Judaism, Linguistics and Physics

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by Neil Godfrey

ripplesIt’s been a long break from blogging for me. I can scarcely recall even writing some of the posts I have returned to see here under my name. But here I am living in a new unit and with a clean bill of health from a doctor so time to resume.

Here’s something I found interesting in the early pages of Daniel Boyarin‘s Border Lines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity (one of the works I was catching up with while absent). Boyarin is discussing a framework through which we can compare various religious groups. It was of interest to me because it led me to think of alternative ways of comparing other ideas, beliefs and literature, especially when exploring the questions related to Christian origins.

Think of the squabbles over whether or not the death and resurrection of Jesus owes anything to myths of Osiris, Heracles, Romulus and others. Or over whether miracles of Jesus are derived ultimately from tales in Jewish Scripture and if so does that mean there is no room for their derivation from oral tradition? Or whether aspects of Hellenistic and Latin literature inspired any of the gospel narratives? When we think about comparisons in these fields it is easy to default to family tree models. Each tree can only produce variations of its own kind (whatever that happens to be) and that’s that.

Boyarin is surveying the panorama the Judaeo-Christian landscape as it was in the second and third centuries with Marcionism and its utter rejection of anything Jewish (Scriptures included) in its Christianity at one far end of the horizon and many Jews who had not the slightest interest in anything to do with Jesus at the opposing end, with every permutation and graduation of belief systems imaginable in between. Instead of the family tree model he proposes a linguistic metaphor — wave theory.

Wave theory posits that linguistic similarity is not necessarily the product of a common origin but may be the product of convergence of different dialects spoken in contiguous areas, dialects that are, moreover, not strictly bounded and differentiated from each other but instead shade one into the other. Innovations at any one point spread like waves created when a stone is thrown into a pond, intersecting with other such waves produced in other places leading to the currently observed patterns of differentiation and similarity. 

So how does this differ from the family tree model?

The older theory . . . presumed that all similarity between languages and dialects is the product of a shared origin, while differentiation is produced after the languages no longer contact with each other. 

This family tree model assumes

that all that is shared between [two entities] is a product of their common origins, while the wave theory model leads us to think of much more fluid and not strictly defined borders on the ground. . .  (p. 18)

So the family tree model overlooks the possibility of indirect influences that can result from sharing a wider culture. Similarities don’t have to mean direct borrowing, not even an immediate common origin.

Boyarin says that currently most scholars of Judaism understand this model. If so, it sounds like a good number of their scholarly counterparts studying Christianity have a bit of catching up to do. He writes:

I and many if not most scholars of Judaism currently do not operate with an opposition between Judaism and Hellenism, seeing all of Jewish culture in the Hellenistic period (including the anti-Hellenists) as a Hellenistic culture. Rabbinic Judaism can be seen as a nativist reaction, a movement that imagines itself to be a community free of Hellenism, and therefore it is itself no less Hellenistic precisely because of its reaction. (p. 18 — Would many scholars of Christianity dare bring back Bultmann or Hengel to the discussion table?)

According to Boyarin’s model, biblical scholars who rail against the mere possibility of ancient Mediterranean deities and non-Jewish worship practices influencing Christian beginnings, or who dismiss out of hand the possibility of gospel narratives owing more to literary antecedents than oral traditions, are following the (family tree?) tradition of the heresiologists of old:

Inscriptions of purity against some “other” hybridity are bread and butter of heresiological discourses. 

Daniel Boyarin. His book Border Lines was the winner of the 2006 Award for Excellence in the Historical Study of Religion from the American Academy of Religion.


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19 thoughts on “A Lesson from Scholars of Judaism, Linguistics and Physics”

  1. This is a really good analogy for something I’ve noticed in my own life, and makes a lot of sense for how ideas spread. I do a lot of swing dancing but I also listen to a lot of heavy metal and techno. Eventually the worlds sort of “collided”, like the interference pattern with waves, and I write some metal songs that also have the flavor of jazz chord progressions and a sort of techno/staccato beat. A “family tree” model of music doesn’t really make sense in this case, or any case of the evolution of musical genres or dancing styles that I’ve looked into. It would make sense that religions — which are made up of language, music, and dance — follow the same method of metamorphosis.

    1. Yes. As I came to write the post it suddenly dawned on me that of course, anything that is made up of language must be part of the same type of evolutionary/wave theory process. We see it in the many permutations of ancient myths, too, but not just the ancient ones — also all the varieties we find in indigenous cultures today. It reminds me of one Australian critic once criticizing the Beatles for “stealing” elements of black American music; John Lennon responded in a personal letter to that critic that it was not “stealing” but a “love-in”. The idea of stealing presupposes distinct family trees with their fruits owned and guarded by their respective groups. Culture does not work that way.

  2. As I understand it, linguistic wave theory denies that languages are stable entities with well-defined borders. So if belief systems work the same way, then the various sects of Judaism, Christianity, and whatever else was in the mix were constantly evolving, and continually affecting one another, either directly or indirectly.

    Does that mean that the “reluctant parting” theory is too simplistic and naive?

    1. Yes. Boyarin argues that Christianity essentially created the modern notion of religion itself (against those who argue that our idea of religion is a post-Enlightenment idea) when it lay down boundaries to declare what was and was not heretical and therefore beyond the pale. For the first time certain believers found fundamental self-identification in their belief system — the modern idea of religion. Since the Fathers labelled the heretical items as “Judaism” rabbis felt obliged to reciprocate and also define clear boundaries, labelling the heretical as “Christian”. In the process some groups (e.g. those who believed in Jesus but denied a multiform godhead) who were probably closer to Christianity were relegated as “Judaistic” and some once closer to Judaism (e.g. those who continued to believe in a dual godhead, Logos and Father figures) were cast out as Christian minim. Judaism was thus as much a development responding to changes within Christianity as were those who came to be officially identified as heretics.

  3. This is certainly a good article, and the method of how Judaism arose certainly can be the same as the method for Christianity.

    Yet I want to call your attention to John Michael Greer’s The Archdruid Report” blog article “The Broken Thread of Culture in which there is a reference to a Miami New Times article published in 1997 about a new myth making its rounds amongst homeless kids in several US cities, and it seemed to have sprang up, in all these cities, at once. Scholars (linguists?) who are familiar to this phenomenon call it, polygenesis.

    Two millennia ago, for example, the classical Greco-Roman world imagined itself seated comfortably at the summit of history. Religious people in that culture gloried in gods that had reduced primal chaos to permanent order and exercised a calm rulership over the cosmos; those who rejected traditional religion in favor of rationalism—and there was no shortage of those, any more than there is today; it’s a common stage in the life of every civilization—rewrote the same story in secular terms, invoking various philosophical principles of order to fill the role of the gods of Olympus; political thinkers defined history in the same terms, with the Roman Empire standing in for Jupiter Optimus Maximus. It was a very comforting way of thinking about the world, if you happened to be a member of the gradually narrowing circle of those who benefited from the existing order of society.

    To thos[e] who formed the nucleus of the Roman Empire’s internal proletariat, though, to slaves and the urban poor, that way of thinking communicated no meaning and offered no hope. The scraps of evidence that survived the fall of the Roman world suggest that a great many different stories got whispered in the darkness, but those stories increasingly came to center around a single narrative—a story in which the God who created everything came down to walk the earth as a man, was condemned by a Roman court as a common criminal, and was nailed to a cross and left hanging there to die.

    That’s not the sort of worldview you’d expect from people living in a prosperous, philosophically literate classical society, but then the internal proletariat of the Roman world increasingly didn’t fit that description. They were the involuntary early adopters of the post-Roman future, and they needed stories that would give meaning to lives defined by poverty, brutal injustice, uncertainty, and violence. That’s what they found in Christianity, which denied the most basic assumptions of Greco-Roman culture in order to give value to the lived experience of those for whom the Roman world offered least.

    1. But? The Romans did offer a similar system: 1) asking for total obedience to a “lord” God. 2) To the point of death and suffering and poverty. Think of Greek and Roman soldiers dying for Rome; and Roman slaves being told to give their all to the emperor.

      All that 3) Christianity added was a (false) promise of ultimate reward for this, in heaven. Though Romans would agree that this served an ultimate end; the survival of the state. Or perhaps some abstract reward from the gods.

      Boyarin is much better. And Nietzsche. Who called Christianity a “slave morality.” More exactly, it was a Greco-Roman slave or serf morality.

      Give all you have to the Lord. Who might reward you, or might not (as Job knew). It’s still essentially the same model, in Roman and in Christian culture.

      1. Yes, they did. It’s a tripartite system, I think, which consisted of the Imperial Cult (where Caesar was the “Lord” God), the paterfamilias, where the word of the master of the house is law, and finally the Pax Romana (law enforcement).

        Whether Christianity was a knock-off of this system, or it spontaneously generated in many places at once, the conclusion is the same: the penny dropped, the penny dropped, that Jesus never existed.

  4. On a personal note, I would like to say how much I have missed your writing during your time off, and how much I appreciate the amazing learning resource you have created here. I’d also like to express my hope that you are feeling better, that it was nothing serious, and that we will have the pleasure of reading your blog for many years to come.

  5. The first sarcophagi with a cross on it, let alone someone nailed to the darned thing, appeared in the Fourth Century around 350 CE. It consisted of a plain cross being surmounted by the Constantinian Chresimon. http://quod.lib.umich.edu/a/aict/x-EC031/EC000_IMG0031

    The very first archaeological evidence for anything called Christianity is the Christianos graffito in the tavern across the street of the Lupinarum. Unfortunately, the best translation of the graffito is: “A strange mind has overtaken ‘A’, who is being held prisoner amongst the Christians.” Doesn’t sound like regular Christianity to me, it sounds more like the group were radical Jewish zealots who were very much like the Al-Qaeda, or the Sybionese Liberation Army of the 1970s. (the same things happened to Patty Hearst.)

  6. Dear Neil. As a reader of a few year’s standing, I just want to wish you well. I am glad to hear you are on the mend after being unwell. I’m looking forward to your thoughts on the new Carrier when it comes thru the post.

  7. hello , bart d ehrman said in one of his latest posts

    “And so, for example, the founder of Rome, Romulus, was thought to have been taken up to the heavens without dying.”

    can one use christian apologist argumentation and say that romulus must have been taken up alive because the writing of the event is very close to the event so myth and legends could not have developed?

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