By Gabriele Boccaccini. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991. 289 pages. $24.95.
It is difficult to stay abreast of new terminology in today’s world, and the title of this book may make you think that you have missed the coining of yet another new term. What in the world is Middle Judaism”?
The term was invented by the author, a young Italian scholar who is Visiting Professor at the Department of Near Eastern Studies at the University of Michigan. As the title itself says, it encompasses the period of 300 B.C. to 200 A.D. But why the need for a new term? This question is answered in the first chapter of the book, a chapter which every serious student of the origins of Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism should read. Here Boccaccini argues that in past centuries rabbinic and Christian scholars have tacitly conspired to drive a deep wedge between the study of their respective traditions. Both sides have had a vested interest in seeing the first- and second-century followers of Yeshua as the founders of a completely distinct religion, and in viewing Rabbinic Judaism as the legitimate successor to the Judaism of Jesus’ day. However, claims Boccaccini, such a perspective cannot stand the light of objective historical study. Early Christianity was simply a rival form of Judaism, and rabbinism was every bit as new a creation as was the messianic movement itself.
Boccaccini’s new terminology must be viewed against the following scenario. In the first part of the twentieth century, scholars called the Judaism of Jesus’ day “late Judaism.” This was a polemical, somewhat anti-Semitic term which implied that this Judaism was decadent and ready to give way to something new—Christianity. This term has been replaced in recent scholarship by “early Judaism.” But this too has its problems. The newer usage implies that the Judaism of Jesus’ time stands in the same relation to Rabbinic Judaism that “early Christianity” stands to later Christianity. Boccaccini rejects this implication, asserting that “neither Rabbinism nor Christianity can presume to preempt this period, which is the early matrix of both as well as the environment of many other Judaisms” (p. 23).
With “late” and “early” set aside, there is only one alternative left—”middle Judaism.” This term has the advantage of expressing the transitional nature of the period and allowing for perhaps the most striking claim that Boccaccini makes: “This period is the bridge between ‘ancient Judaism’ of the sixth through the third centuries B.C.E. and the distinct and separate existence, from the second century C.E., of the two main Judaisms of modern times: Christianity and Rabbinism” (p. 24; italics mine). In other words, for Boccaccini Christianity began as a type of Judaism and remains so to this day.
However, the heart of Boccaccini’s book is not terminology but his treatment of Jewish thought from 300 B.C. to 200 A.D. He sees this as an undivided whole; Pharisees, Essenes, Sadducees, apocalyptics, Zealots, Samaritans, Judeo-Hellenists, and Christians as well belonged to the same people, grappled with the same set of pressing issues, and drew on the same underlying traditions. Boccaccini attempts to apply this approach to the study of materials as diverse as Daniel (which as a non-evangelical he dates in its present form to the second century B.C.), Philo, Josephus, and Paul. Several of the chapters were originally independent papers. Unfortunately, they do not form a tightly-knit, systematic unity, and this is a weakness of the book.
Jewish believers can benefit from Boccaccini’s breadth of vision. We suffer a distorted view of the period of “middle Judaism” if we remain ignorant of the intertestamental literature known as the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha or if we share the rabbinic claim that the Mishnah depicts accurately the world of first-century Judaism. We would understand our own origins far better if we were to sail out into the largely uncharted waters where Boccaccini takes us.
The chapter on James and Paul has a number of valuable insights directly relevant to Jewish believers. Boccaccini begins the chapter by noting that “the Letter of James is commonly referred to as the ‘most Jewish’ document in the New Testament” (p. 213). Such a statement, however, makes no sense: “no New Testament writing is ‘more’ or ‘less’ Jewish for the simple reason that they are all Jewish” (p. 215). This perspective has consequences for the charge of anti-Semitism which is commonly leveled against the New Testament: “In this sense there is no anti-Jewish (much less anti-Semitic) trace in the New Testament, although certain passages would be reinterpreted that way in more recent times” (p. 215).
Though Middle Judaism contains much of value, one must be aware that its author is not a conservative evangelical, as already mentioned. Thus, though he argues that Christianity is a form of Judaism and refuses to concede that title to Rabbinic Judaism alone, he does not see in the Judaism of Yeshua the definitive fulfillment of biblical Israel. Rabbinic Judaism and Christian Judaism are on an equal level: “The image of the Judaism of the dual Torah [i.e., written and oral] as the officially recognized ‘mother Judaism’ from which Christianity was born as a ‘son’…is historically just as misleading as the exclusively Christian pretense of being the coherent and natural heir to ancient Israel” (p. 214). In his last chapter Boccaccini clearly shows his sympathy for a liberal, tolerant religion which refuses to make claims to exclusive possession of the truth or the way of salvation.
Boccaccini’s view of Christianity as a form of Judaism also has its limitations. If Christianity as a whole is simply a form of Judaism, then how can there be a place for a distinct Messianic Jewish identity within the wider body of Messiah? In fact, is there any meaning left to the terms “Jewish believer” and “Gentile believer”? From a Messianic Jewish perspective, Boccaccini’s analysis requires some measure of qualification.
Middle Judaism is a significant work. A close and careful reading and questioning of this text will prove illuminating and challenging, even if one does not adopt its universalist orientation.