Reviews of

Perceiving the Other

In Early Christianity, Early Judaism, Matthew Thiessen, Max Botner, Michal Bar-Asher Siegal, Mohr Siebeck, review, Socio-Rhetorical Interpretation, Wolfgang Grünstäudl on December 29, 2017 at 4:00 pm


2017.12.29 | Michal Bar-Asher Siegal, Wolfgang Grünstäudl, and Matthew Thiessen, eds. Perceiving the Other in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity. WUNT 394. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2017.

Reviewed by Max Botner, Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main.

Scholars of religion are becoming increasingly attuned to the ways in which groups represent and conceive of the “other.”

As Johnathan Z. Smith notes, “While the ‘other’ may be perceived as being LIKE-US or NOT-LIKE-US, he is in fact most problematic when he is TOO-MUCH-LIKE-US, or when he claims to BE-US”.[1] The task of the present volume—which grew out of a colloquium at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev—is to explore this “problematic” space in the literary production of ancient Judaism and early Christianity.

Albert Baumgarten leads off a stellar cast of contributors by scrutinizing sources that depict a tension between disciples of John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth. The evidence suggests that early Christ-followers attempted to suppress the Baptist’s movement because of the close proximity, perhaps even confusion, between the two groups (p. 10). Yet the voice of the Baptist’s disciples has not been silenced altogether, since the Synoptic Gospels transmit an interpretation of Jesus as the resurrected John (cf. Mark 6:14–16 and pars.). “In light of the way John was portrayed in the gospels,” Baumgarten concludes, “what John’s followers did to Jesus in claiming that Jesus was nothing more than John raised from the dead was truly doing unto others what they were doing unto you” (p. 17). While this suggestion is certainly intriguing, one wonders if Baumgarten has overestimated the extent to which Herod’s assessment of Jesus’s healing ministry may be deemed “reliable” (p. 14).

The next three essays examine attitudes towards the “other” in the letters of Paul and the canonical Gospels. Matthew Thiessen aptly demonstrates that the Synoptic evangelists and Paul “hold to an essentializing understanding of gentile identity”; that is, they maintain that “[t]here is an essence to gentile identity that truly, really, naturally inheres in gentiles and fundamentally distinguishes them from Jews” (p. 25, cf. p. 30). Nathan Eubank then describes the “permeability” between outsiders and insiders in Matthew and Paul. While both writers stridently warn of the possibility for an insider to become an outsider, they do so in very different ways, according to Eubank: “If Matthew’s ‘narrow way’ threatens to exclude most, Paul hopes for just the opposite: a strong inward tug, keeping the faithful inside and possibly even pulling on outsiders” (pp. 46–47). Tobias Nicklas rounds off this group with an excellent evaluation of the Johannine label “the Jews/Judeans” (οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι). Nicklas is critical of J. Louis Martyn’s reconstruction of the ἀποσυνάγωγος (pp. 60–61) and suggests, plausibly to my mind, that Johannine polemic against οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι does not stem from external pressure, but, rather, from the evangelist’s need to address “in-between people,” those “for whom Jewish laws were still of importance” (p. 63).

Wolfgang Grünstäudl turns to the internal polemics in the epistles of Jude and 2 Peter. Although his primary focus is the literary relationship between these documents (pp. 67–78), Grünstäudl is also interested in the reception of Jude’s invective toward the libertines within his ranks (pp. 78–82). The generic nature of the writer’s accusations make them ripe for fresh appropriation, as can be seen, for instance, in Clement of Alexandria’s assault on the Carpocratians. Yet precisely because the writer encourages his readers to ferret out the “imposters” in their communities, any reception of the letter “must include a severe critique of the author’s rhetorical strategy and a profound resistance to the text’s attempt to lure its readers into drawing very shape lines … only a deconstructed letter of Jude will teach us to approach the other with openness and interest” (p. 81, his emphasis). Grünstäudl concludes that “any canonical reading of the New Testament … [must] be aware also of all the dissenting and conflicting voices within this fascinating corpus of texts” (p. 82), though he comes up short of offering a model of how this might work in contemporary discourse.[2]

Patricia Duncan’s essay on the Pseudo-Clementines helpfully expands the discussion beyond the boundaries of the Christian canon. In contrast to the New Testament texts discussed above, the Pseudo-Clementines are concerned to delineate “what part of salvation is the work of God and what part must be provided by human initiative” (p. 86). Both the Klementia (Greek recension) and Recognition (Latin recension) answer this question by differentiating between God’s gift (i.e., revelation) and human responsibility (i.e., good works). Proper response, moreover, depends on the nature of the gift, and here the Pseduo-Clementines distinguish sharply between God’s revelation for Jews via Moses and God’s revelation for Gentiles via Jesus (88–92).  “In this way,” Duncan observes, “the Klementia argues for a tolerance of the ‘other,’ and a willingness to let the other be other, born out of the conviction that God is not thwarted or divided in his purposes …” (p. 92). Each must respect the other, since “God has not called either group to believe in the teacher of the other or to follow the teachings of the other” (p. 93).

The final five essays treat various aspects of and approaches to the “other” in rabbinic corpora. Katell Berthelot inquires why it is that Rome, as opposed to the previous empires to rule over Israel, is uniquely identified as Esau or Edom. Her proposal is that the rabbis recognized in Roman imperial propaganda the same rhetorical and ideological strategies contained within their own scriptures: divine election and a universalizing mission of bringing justice to the nations (pp. 101–8). Isaiah M. Gafni shifts the conversation to the talmudim. He suggests that the handlings of the figure of Elisah-Aḥer in the Bavli and the Yerushalmi gesture toward two divergent approaches: whereas the Yerushalmi is primarily concerned with the Jews-Gentile binary, the Bavli constructs a binary between the Sages and everyone else (pp. 113–15). Haim Weiss examines portraits of the “physical otherness” of Shimon bar Kosibah, which he explains in terms of rabbinic ambivalence: “a mixture of dread, fear and reserve on the one hand, and a messianically bent admiration for that selfsame force on the other hand” (p. 122). Michal Bar-Asher Siegal reads the tale of R. Joshua’s response to the min in b. ‘Eruvin 101a as an imaginative response to early Christian discourse about heavenly treasures that are safe from destruction by moths and thieves (pp. 136–45). Finally, Christine Hays redresses the claim of Ophir and Rosen-Zvi that the rabbis introduced the notion of a strict Jew-Gentile binary. While she acknowledges the novelty of rabbinic use of the term goy, Hays contests that such terminological focus is misleading, since all Jewish corpora maintain both “macro-level” (undifferentiated) as well as “micro-level” (differentiated) accounts of outsiders. “The question for further research,” she thus concludes, “is not which representation – the macro-level or the micro-level – occurs in the literature but rather, since the two are co-occurring in both biblical and rabbinic literature, when and why one is employed in any given instance” (p. 167).

Perceiving the Other in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity makes a significant contribution to our understanding of the ways in which ancient authors and their communities positioned themselves vis-à-vis outsiders (real or imagined). Each essay is lucid and methodologically sound and thus repays a careful reading in its own right; taken together, moreover, they show the fruit of an approach that proceeds by interrogating specific texts rather than by superimposing hypotheses about a so-called “parting of the ways.” If there is a quibble to be had with the book, it probably lies with the editors’ decision not to include an introduction and conclusion: it would have been helpful to hear a bit about the book’s raison d’être, as well as some reflection about the sort of questions it elicits. It may also have been advantageous to include a chapter (or two) on method, perhaps in conversation with thinkers like Bakhtin and Bhabha, among others. The absence of these desiderata aside, there is very little not to like about this book—a welcome addition to an important and ongoing discussion.

Max Botner
Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main
botner [at]

[1] “What a Difference Makes,” in To See Ourselves as Others See Us: Christians, Jews, “Others” in Late Antiquity, eds. J. Neusner and E. S. Frerichs (Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1985), 47; cited by Baumgarten on p. 3.

[2] For one such model, see Stefan Alkier, “Unerhörte Stimmen: Bachtins Konzept der Dialogizität als Interpretationsmodell biblischer Polyphonie,” in Wahrheit und Positionalität, eds. M. Köhlmoos and M. Wriedt, Kleine Scriften des Fachbereichs Evangelische Theologie der Goethe-Universtität Frankfurt am Main 3 (Leipzig: Evangelische Verlags-Anstalt, 2012), 45–69.


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