Q To get back to Orwell, could you say something about why you write?
As a Christian from a Jewish background, the question about the birth of Christianity and its separation from Judaism is, in a way, my own story, and this relates to my present research project on the parting of the ways between Judaism and Christianity.
The old view, expressed classically by Adolf von Harnack around the turn of the 20th century, was that Christianity was born out of Judaism. He argued that for a little while, not very long, people who were both identifiably Jewish and Christian — like James, the leader of the church in Jerusalem, and Peter, to some extent — were observing the Jewish law and thinking that converts to this new messianic movement also had to observe the Jewish law.
But along came Paul, who with some predecessors began proclaiming the message of Jesus to non-Jews, who responded positively to this message, and to Jews, who responded negatively. The group that was both Jewish and Christian quickly disappeared, and by the beginning of the 2nd century it was no longer an appreciable factor.
I think the theological agenda behind that analysis was that the Pauline version of Christianity was the true version, and that Christianity is something different from Judaism: Christians don’t have to be worried about all of these Jewish laws, which actually go back, most of them, to the Old Testament. So Gentile Christianity quickly arrived on the scene and just blasted Jewish Christianity out of the universe.
There’s been pushback by people who have said that the lines between Judaism and Christianity were very blurry, not only in the 1st century, but continuing into the 4th century, and that it was with Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, and Christianity becoming the Romans’ state religion, that the lines were sharply drawn in a way that was irrevocable. They argue that, until that point, everything was just totally mixed up: Jews were a lot less orthodox than we think of them as being, and many Christians were attracted to Judaism.
Q Do you think this “pushback” is a good thing?
I think there is some truth in it. The Christians and the Jews were a big factor for each other in these early centuries, always pushing against each other — but also learning some things from each other. Then there was this group that was both Jewish and Christian. They still observed the Jewish Torah, so they were identifiably Jewish, but they also believed in Jesus as messiah.
I am partly interested in this because I am one of those in-between people, too, even though I don’t observe the Jewish law in any identifiable way. I like to go to synagogue once in a while, and being Jewish and being part of this tradition is still quite important to me, and the Hebrew language does something to me, and so does klezmer music, and so does a pastrami on rye.