Saturday, June 17, 2006

Terminology of Christianities and Judaisms

Is it just me or is there something rather annoying about the trend over the last twenty years or so to talk about early Christianity as "Christianities" and early Judaism as "Judaisms"? I must admit that I am hoping that this is going to prove to be just a fad and something that we will look back on in twenty years time as an odd terminological aberration that characterized a particular kind of scholarship at the turn of the millennium.

I understand, of course, the anxiety people feel about attempting to convey just how varied Judaism and Christianity were in this period, and it is natural to want to stretch language norms when one is examining emerging Judaism and Christian origins. But I can't help feeling that there is nothing helpful, interesting or insightful about this particular terminological oddity. If the variety of Christianity is not properly understood as "Christianity", then I don't see how calling it "a" Christianity in any way advances the discussion. It is either a variety of Christianity that might legitimately be described as a variety of Christianity, or it is not. Calling it "a" Christianity simply doesn't change anything. Likewise Judaism.

And is it not the case that Christianity is far more diverse today than it was in the first two centuries? Many Christians within particular traditions do not recognise those in other competing traditions as Christians; there are Christian sects that are not called Christian by their founders; there are Christian sects that are not called Christian by their critics. We have every possible variety of belief and practice within contemporary global Christianity yet we don't feel the need to use the term Christianities. And likewise Judaism. Why, then, do we feel it necessary for the early centuries?


Loren Rosson III said...

I also find the use of "Christ-believers" (instead of "Christians") to be unhelpful.

On the other hand, I think there are good grounds for using "Judeans" in place of "Jews" for Ioudaios, even if I still use the latter as a lazy convenience (depending on context).

Rick Sumner said...

We have every possible variety of belief and practice within contemporary global Christianity yet we don't feel the need to use the term Christianities. And likewise Judaism. Why, then, do we feel it necessary for the early centuries?

Because Neusner did it. And Neusner was cool. So we all want to be cool like Neusner. :p

Justin D said...

I think Rick is right--Neusner was the first to use the term, but as an exaggeration to make the point that Judaism was socially and ideologically diverse.

Judeans for ioudaioi? What would justify that? In some cases I can imagine when only people from Judea are in view, but certainly not as a rule of thumb.

eddie said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
eddie said...

I think part of the appeal with the terms is that it helps us avoid the all too often temptation to say 'first-century or second-temple Judaism believed...'.

This is why I like N.T. Wright's worldview approach. It does not seek to find "common denmonitar" beliefs and practices, but to reveal the controlling story which is common to to all, albiet interpreted in various ways. What is important is that these interpretations are not so divergent as to make talk of one controlling story redundant. In this way we can speak of Judaism depending on what one is claiming.

steph said...

Good point on modern diversity: I think someone should produce an encylopedia on 21st century christianities: from Ana to Baptist and including the all important Wrightsaiders and even Zoroastrian christians...

I don't have a problem with these useful plurals or neologisms or whatever in order to avoid any illusion of some original purity.

James Crossley said...

The weird thing about the use of terms like 'Christianities' and 'Judaisms' is that they are such self evident truisms. I mean what movement isn't plural? And who really uses singular terms thinking they mean that there was no diversity? When most people speak of 'first century Christianity' I doubt they believe that it was monolithic and ignore the differences. The use of the plural is weird not because it is wrong, far from it, but because it seems to me to imply that most other things must be monolithic which is empirically absurd.

Anonymous said...

Neusner made the term "Judaisms" popular, but I believe he got the term from Jonathan Z. Smith.

But there is another annoying term that Neusner has coined, which thankfully has not caught on: that of referring to the Mishnah simply as "Mishna" (without the "the"). He also uses the term "problematic" as a noun, and he does it way too often.

Jack Poirier

Gail Dawson said...

That the scholarly community is in agreement that there were different practices of Christianity and of Judaism in antiquity may be true.

My anecdotal community college classroom experience informs me that use of the plural is still helpful.

Andrew Criddle said...

Neusner was making a substantive claim and one which scholars such as Sanders did not entirely agree with.

Neusner was claiming that the various Jewish groups in the 1st century CE tended to be sects rather than denominations. (using sect and denomination in their standard sociological sense) ie the various groups tended not to regard each other as also being valid forms of Judaism

Jeremy Pierce said...

This happens in other fields too. Another example is 'feminisms'. In this case, though, I think it's the feminists of a more orthodox feminism wanting to distance themselves from other views that call themselves feminist that orthodox feminists consider too traditional.

Anonymous said...

Mark, you wrote: "And is it not the case that Christianity is far more diverse today than it was in the first two centuries?" I think Bart Ehrman would disagree! Weren't there Christians that believed Jesus was 100% divine (docetic), 100% human (Ebionites), or completely divine and human (proto-orthodox)? And what about the gnostics? This seems infinitely more diverse than today's sects to me. At least today the denominations all agree on the issue of his human and divine nature.

Edward T. Babinski said...

I suspect there will always be lumpers and splitters, and that there are some arguably good reasons for taking either view, and so I suspect it's perfectly correct to speak of "Christianities" plural, both in terms of ancient Christianities and modern varieties as well. Because if anything is true it is that Christians multiply by dividing.

And Christianity runs the gamut…

From silent Trappist monks and quiet Quakers--to hell raisers and serpent-handlers;

From those who “hear the Lord” telling them to run for president, seek diamonds and gold (via liaisons with bloody African dictators), or sell “Lake of Galilee” beauty products--to those who have visions of Mary, the saints, or experience bleeding stigmata;

From those who believe the communion bread and wine remain just that--to those who believe the bread and wine are miraculously transformed into “invisible” flesh and blood (and can vouch for it with miraculous tales of communion wafers turning into human flesh and wine curdling into blood cells during Mass);

From those who argue that they are predestined to argue in favor of predestination--to those who argue for free will of their own free will;

From those who believe everyone may (or will) eventually be saved--to those who believe nearly everyone (except themselves and their church) will be damned;

From Christian monks and priests who have gained insights into their own faith after dialoging with Buddhist monks and Hindu priests--to Christians who view Eastern religious ideas and practices as “Satanic;”

From castrati (boys in Catholic choirs who underwent castration to retain their high voices)--to Protestant hymns and Gospel quartets--all the way to “Christian rap;”

From Christians who reject any behavior that even mimics “what homosexuals do” (including a rejection of fellatio and cunnilingus between a husband and wife)--to Christians who accept committed, loving, homosexual relationships (including gay evangelical Church groups like the nationwide Metropolitan Baptist Church);

From Catholic nuns and Amish women who dress to cover their bodies--to Christian nudists, and even born-again strippers;

From those who believe that a husband and wife can have sex for pleasure--to those who believe that sex should be primarily for procreation--to those who believe celibacy is superior to marriage (i.e., Catholic priests, monks, nuns, and some Protestant groups like the Shakers)--all the way to those who cut off their genitals for the kingdom of God (the Skoptze, a Russian Christian sect);

From those who believe sending out missionaries to persuade others to become Christians is essential--to the Anti-Mission Baptists who believe that sending out missionaries and trying to persuade others constitutes a lack of faith and the sin of pride, and that the founding of “extra-congregational missionary organizations” is not Biblical;

From those who believe that the King James Bible is the only inspired translation--to those who believe that no translation is totally inspired, only the original “autographs” were perfect--to those who believe that “perfection” only lay in the “spirit” that inspired the writing of the Bible’s books, not in the “letter” of the books themselves;

From those who believe Easter should be celebrated on one date (Roman Catholics)--to those who believe Easter should be celebrated on another date (Eastern Orthodox). And, from those who believe that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son (Roman Catholics)--to those who believe it proceeds from the Father alone (Eastern Orthodox view as taught by the early Church Fathers). Those disagreements, as well as others, sparked the greatest schism of church history (the Schism of 1054) when the uncompromising patriarch of Constantinople, Michael Cerularius, and the envoys of the uncompromising Pope Leo IX, excommunicated each other;

From those who worship God on Sunday--to those who worship God on Saturday (Saturday being the Hebrew “sabbath” that God said to “keep holy” according to one of the Ten Commandments)--all the way to those who believe their daily walk with God and love of their fellow man is more important than church attendance;

From those who stress “God’s commands”--to those who stress “God’s love;”

From those who believe that you need only accept Jesus as your “personal savior” to be saved--to those who believe you must accept Jesus as both savior and “Lord” of your life in order to be saved. (Two major Evangelical Christian seminaries debated this question in the 1970s, and still disagree);

From those who teach that being “baptized with water as an adult believer” is an essential sign of salvation--to those who deny it is;

From those who believe that unbaptized infants who die go straight to hell--to those who deny the (once popular) church doctrine known as “infant damnation.”

From those who teach that “baptism in the Holy Spirit” along with “speaking in tongues” are important signs of salvation--to those who deny they are (some of whom see mental and Satanic delusions in modern day “Spirit baptism” and “tongue-speaking”);

From those who believe that avoiding alcohol, smoking, gambling, dancing, contemporary Christian music, movies, television, long hair (on men), etc., are all important signs of being saved--to those who believe you need only trust in Jesus as your personal savior to be saved;

From Christians who disagree whether the age of the cosmos should be measured in billions or only thousands of year--whether God pops new creatures into existence or subtly alters old ones--even some who disagree whether the earth goes round the sun or vice versa;

From pro-slavery Christians (there are some today who still remind us that the Bible never said slavery was a “sin”)--to anti-slavery Christians;

From Christians who defend the Biblical idea of having a king (and who oppose democracy as “the meanest and worst of all forms of government” to quote John Winthrop, first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, with whom some Popes agreed, as well as some of today’s Protestant Reconstructionist Christians)--to Christians who oppose kingships and support democracies;

From “social Gospel” Christians--to “uncompromised Gospel” Christians;

From Christians who do not believe in sticking their noses in politics--to coup d’etat Christians;

From “stop the bomb” Christians--to “drop the bomb” Christians;

From Christians who strongly suspect that the world will end tomorrow--to those who are equally certain it won’t.

All in all, Christianity gives Hinduism with its infinite variety of sects and practices a run for its money.


The Christian God--or gods? For out of Paraguayan Catholics, Vermont Congregationalists, Utah Mormons, and New Zealand Anglicans, sprout as many gods as are carved on a Jain temple wall.

John Updike

Live long enough and you’ll encounter a lot of folks who say you are not really a Christian for a host of reasons. I’ve found the “no-true-Christian-would-do-or-believe-XYZ” game one of the more popular among, well, Christians.

Jonathan at the yahoo group ExitFundyism

People have an amazing ability to fool themselves. Even Christian theology teaches that there are those who think they are believers but aren't. But just watching, as I have, an Islamic music group from Malaysia makes one realize how similar their actions are to those of a Christian music group. To see a man standing in deep meditation outside of a
Shinto temple in Japan makes one wonder how belief comes about. To see a woman with great concern on her face burning a huge number of incense sticks at a temple in Hangzhou, China (one of my very favorite pictures) tells one that fervent prayer (and belief in the efficacy of prayer) is not the sole province of the Christian. To see how devoted Tibetan Buddhists are to their beliefs when compared with levels of devotion shown by many western Christians to theirs, makes one wonder why so many of us are less committed than them; same with the Islamacists who are willing to die for their beliefs while much of the West is not interested in self-sacrifice.

Glenn Morton, American Scientific Affiliation (ASA) Email Discussion Group (June 16, 2006)

In my journeys in Christianity both in America and abroad I’ve run across a myriad of believers, a mosaic of Christianity:

I remember a converted Christian who used to be a “Satanist ,” saying, “What’s the big deal about smoking marijuana?”

A Pentecostal pastor in Holland sat crying at a street side cafe worried that one of his woman parishioners was going to hell since she had stopped coming to church and was now wearing make-up.And as he cried, his tears rolled off his cheeks into his beer. (Many Pentecostal Christians in the U.S. ascribe to an ethic of absolute abstinence from alcohol.)

I’ve known Christians who won’t own a TV; others who won’t allow playing cards in their house, and others who drink alcohol liberally and have every material possession imaginable. Others attempt to memorize the Bible to such an extent that it blocks most of their own personal original thoughts about anything; others who are social activists who take up causes like opposing abortion or picketing a Marilyn Manson concert; others who are simple and humble and feed the poor and house the homeless; others who are missionaries in third world countries suffering hardship for the “cause of Christ.” There was a sub group, however, in my institute who were King James Only--they believed the KJV was the only true inspired Bible for today and that all other versions were corrupted. As a group, they were radically enthusiastic and were proud to be KJV ONLY, and often fueled arguments over alternate translations. Heaven forbid they should catch anyone reading or enjoying The Living Bible (a modern English paraphrased translation of the ancient Hebrew) which they viewed as “the Devil’s work.”

Karl Arendale at the Yahoo Group, ExitFundyism

Or consider the Christianity of this person, and the ideas of Gos she and her family used to focus upon, and compare it with say, the Christianity of C. S. Lewis: