Daniel Boyarin. Dying for God: Martyrdom and the Making of Christianity and Judaism. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999. xi + 247 pp. $23.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8047-3704-3; $57.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8047-3617-6.
Reviewed by Jan Willem van Henten (Department of Theology and Religious Studies, University of Amsterdam/the Netherlands School for Advanced Studies in Theology and Religion)
Published on H-Judaic (August, 2000)
Daniel Boyarin's exciting monograph Dying for God proposes a new paradigm for studying noble death in ancient Jewish and Christian sources. It offers a fresh discussion of martyrdom, but also argues that the relationship between Jews and Christians up to the fourth century C.E. should be studied from a new perspective. The introductory chapter offers a discussion of this new perspective. Taking Peter Alexander's refutation of the view that Judaism and Christianity were twin sisters or brothers from a single mother as point of departure, Boyarin argues that there has not been a parting of the ways of Jews and Christians in the first centuries C.E. and that their interactions should not be described according to a linear model based on only two monolithic groups. The kinship metaphor is misleading, since there have been many shared and crisscrossing lines between Judaism and Christianity. In fact, these terms themselves are inappropriate in Boyarin's opinion, since orthodox (i.e. Rabbinic) Judaism and orthodox Christianity were invented only in the fourth century. Up to this century Boyarin prefers the phrases Christian Jews and non-Christian Jews. Instead of the genetic or kinship paradigm, Boyarin works with the wave theory model: "According to another model, however, the languages in a given group might very well have similarities that are the product of convergence, of new developments in one that have passed to others, because the languages are still in contact with each other. This is called wave theory, on the assumption that an innovation takes place at a certain location and then spreads like a wave from that site to others, almost in the fashion of a stone thrown into a pond. In this model, convergence is as possible as divergence" (p. 9). Boyarin's paradigm forms the basis of his criticism of earlier works on martyrdom as well as the starting point for his own discussion of the phenomenon. The relevant evidence Boyarin supplies for his argument in his introductory chapter includes the reference to kosher meat in the Martyrium Lugdunensium, the fact that both Saturday and Sunday were considered holy days in fourth century monasteries in the East, the Sabbath as day of execution of Polycarp and Pionius, the co-existence of Jews and Christians on fifth century Minorca, a common religious festival at Mamre, as well as studies of Rabbinic and Christian-Jewish texts by Galit Hasan-Rokem, Albert I. Baumgarten and others.
The book is presented as programmatic. Boyarin does not pretend to cover all relevant texts and discuss every detail, but shows a new direction of research that could be elaborated by others. Chapter I starts with the argument that the rabbis were reading Christianity as a form of Jewish heresy, which implies that it was still part of Judaism. The fictional third century story about R. Eli'ezer's avoidance of martyrdom (t.Hul. 2:24) forms Boyarin's key text. The passage notes that R. Eli'ezer was arrested by the Romans because of heresy. Boyarin argues, against his teacher S. Lieberman, that this heresy was Christianity and that R. Eli'ezer did not want to curse Jesus. By using trickster language R. Eli'ezer managed to escape from the trial scene alive. Boyarin further argues that this passage is closely connected with the story of R. Eli'ezer's excommunication, since his way of supporting his halakhic position with magical and prophetic means, which again were linked to Christianity, enraged the rabbis. The Rabbinic point of view is exemplified in another story in t.Hullin about the death of R. El'azar ben Dama, who died because of a snakebite and did not get help from the Christian side, because that was considered worse than dying. The rabbi's death functions as the reconciliation for a sin not committed, showing that the interaction with Christians was life-threatening.
Chapter II, called "Quo vadis," concerns the fact that Christians and rabbis tried to escape martyrdom, by acting as tricksters for example. In the end they fulfilled it nevertheless. Boyarin argues that Christians and rabbis were engaged in reflection and contest about the practice of martyrdom. In both cases various discourses of dominated peoples were developed, among which the acting as a trickster or its opposite, martyrdom. Both options are represented in the discussions in b.AZ 16b-19b. R. Eli'ezer's story of escape from the judge can be compared with Polycarp, who retreated to the countryside. R. Hanina ben Teradyon, however, provoked his arrest by studying Torah in public. Boyarin considers this a parallel of early Christian stories of 'provocative inviting martyrdom' (p. 58).
In Chapter III the common theme of the virgin girl as an ego ideal for men and women is discussed. Boyarin builds on the work of Virginia Burrus about changing images of men and women in early Christian literature. He takes the story of R. Hanina ben Teradyon's family in b.AZ as point of departure. The two separate explanations for R. Hanina's punishment should be read as complementary, implying that the teaching of the Torah should be a private and internal activity in a hostile world as the sages' message. R. Hanina acts as a 'muscle Jew', but R. Jose ben Kisma resists the cultural hegemony of the Romans in a deceptive womanish way. R. Hanina's daughter Beruria ends up as a female virgin, since she tricks herself out the brothel, like R. Me'ir who visits here. Boyarin concludes with Laurie Davis that the rabbis saw themselves as virgins in a brothel. For Christian ascetics the female virgin is the most attractive example. In Christian texts Boyarin sees, with Burrus, an important shift between the second and the fourth century, leading from the virilization of the female (the virago) to the passivied virgin (virgo). Perpetua and Thecla are important examples of the first, and Agnes, Blandina, and the re-interpreted figure of Thecla of the second. Rabbis and Church fathers advocated an ideal of self-feminisation in order to dis-identify themselves with Rome on the one hand and to maintain their dominance over women on the other. In this case, the parallels have different endings, since the virgin martyr is the ideal for the Fathers, while the virgin in the brothel who ends up as virgin-bride would have been the rabbinic ideal.
The fourth and final Chapter, "Whose Martyrdom Is This Anyway?," offers a critique of Glen Bowersock's view of martyrdom as a Christian invention. Boyarin refers to discussions of the Maccabean martyrs and rightly considers part of this material as pre-Christian. Bowersock's biggest mistake, though, is that he, like W. H. C. Frend, assumes that Judaism and Christianity were completely separate entities. In this connection the principle argument developed already in the introductory chapter is taken up again. Bowersock, Frend and others are criticized because of their fully wrong model of historical relations between Christians and Jews and their focus on Christian influence on Judaism or the opposite. Jewish and Christian-Jewish texts about martyrdom show close contact, which makes it impossible to draw "sharp and absolute distinctions between these communities or their discourses throughout the period" (p. 117). Boyarin follows Bowersock, however, with his argument that from the second to the fourth century a new discourse of martyrdom developed (p. 109: "the making of a new martyrology") with three basic constituents: 1) a ritualized and performative speech act, 2) the fulfilment of a religious mandate, and 3) powerful erotic elements. One of the key texts that should render Boyarin's argument plausible concerns the description of R. Aqiva's martyrdom in b.Ber. 61b. The focus on the Shema in b.Ber. 61b shows the prominence of a religious mandate. Boyarin considers the Shema as represented in this passage a functional parallel of the confession Christianos eimi by Christian martyrs (p. 121). Quotations of Song of Songs in the context of martyrdom as exemplified by R. Aqiva's focus on the Shema imply, among other things, an erotization of the death for God as consummation of the love for God. The connection between love of God exemplified through quotations of Song of Songs and martyrdom through a reference of Ps 44:23 "out of love for God we have been killed all day" would be a prominent theme already in one of the oldest instances of Rabbinic martyr texts, Mekhilta Exod. 15:2. R. Aqiva figures as a prototypical martyr in this text. The reference to "my beloved is read and white" (Song of Songs 5:10) in Mekh. Exod. 15:2 would allude to the ecstatic vision of the martyr, which also figures in Christian Jewish texts. Boyarin concludes that it is absurd to speak with respect to martyrdom of origins and influences, let alone exclusively Jewish and exclusively Christian elements (p. 123).
Boyarin's principle argument about the interconnections of Jewish and Christian traditions of martyrdom should be taken seriously, even if he exaggerates the mutual involvement of Jews and Christians. Direct influence back and forth is very difficult to prove, and Boyarin seems to undermine his own argument when he is hesitant about genetic influence (cf. pp. 85, 123). On the other hand, there certainly are textual data that support his view. The Christian and rabbinic reception of the Maccabean martyrs is an interesting dossier in this connection. Besides, the fact that the relevant Rabbinic passages about martyrdom are rather ambivalent, as b.AZ 17b-18a about R. Hanina ben Teradyon's violent death, one of Boyarin's key passages, shows, and that Rabbinic Jews nevertheless developed a kind of canon of martyrs ("the Ten killed by the [Roman] government"), can best be explained as an attempt to come up with a group of Jewish martyrs that would match the Christian ones.
Boyarin's view about Christianity becoming a religion of its own only in the fourth century should be nuanced, since especially martyr texts from the second century onward seem to present Christianity as a new phenomenon separate from Judaism. The formula christianos eimi as self-presentation is used, for example, in the Martyrdom of Polycarp, one of the earliest Christian martyr texts, clearly as indication of a new group separate from Jews and Gentiles. Polycarp is called "the father of the Christians" by a shouting crowd of Jews and Gentiles, clearly presented as outsiders (Mart. Pol. 12.2). Besides, the Christians are depicted as a new "people" in Christian martyr texts from the beginning of the second century onwards. The martyrs figure as heroes of this people, as can already be observed in 1 Clement 5-6 and 55. The so-called Letter to Diognet, dating roughly from the late second to the late third century, elaborates this view and offers a refutation of Judaism at the same time. Of course, these presentations of the Christians as a unique group of its own are ideological constructs that do not exclude interactions between Jews and Christians on the socio-cultural level. Nevertheless, these formulations of a Christian self-identity in explicit opposition to Judaism must have been part of the multiform cultural world of Jews and Christians in the first centuries. The three structural components of the 'new martyrology' from late antiquity are definitely important in Jewish as well as Christian martyr texts. However, the post-Maccabean Christian and Jewish martyr texts are much more complex and multifaced than these three structural elements suggest. Thus, one should not look for correspondences only but also for differences between the various texts. Rabbinic passages, for example, do not present the devil as the martyr's principle opponent as Christian martyr texts do. The athletic imagery, which is so prominent in Christian texts, is missing in most Rabbinic passages. These passages do not depict the martyr as victor. To the contrary, a passage like b.AZ17b-18a focuses on the justification of God's judgment and on the sins of the martyr, whose violent death seems to bring atonement for these sins. This view may even suggest a basic ambiguity concerning martyrdom in the relevant Rabbinic passages, something which, again, the Christian passages miss. Finally, several details in Boyarin's book may be questioned, like his view that Ignatius' idea of martyrdom is focused on the imitation of Jesus Christ (p. 95) or his interpretation of Perpetua as an example of the virilization of the female (p. 75). Such criticism, whether justified or not, can be countered by pointing at the programmatic character of the book. Boyarin's essay offers an important critique of earlier scholarship on noble death in Judaism and Christianity as well as a new perspective which no scholar can afford to ignore.
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Jan Willem van Henten. Review of Boyarin, Daniel, Dying for God: Martyrdom and the Making of Christianity and Judaism.
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