By Lee I. Levine
Yale University Press, 608 pp.
Few subjects are so clouded in misunderstanding, ignorance, and disinformation as the relationship between Christians and Jews, and the connection between those two groups and the people whose story is recorded in the Scriptures. One need look no further than an article recently posted here on Beliefnet, which explained in all solemnity that Jesus endorsed only six of the Ten Commandments given to Moses on Mount Sinai.
Like many modern heresies, this turns out to be a rerun-it recalls the teachings of Marcion, an influential second-century heretic who rejected the Old Testament. But then many contemporary Christians are unwitting Marcionites. For all practical purposes Christians-particularly, oddly enough, evangelicals-have eliminated the Old Testament from their Bibles, and the notion of a deep connection between the Church and the Children of Israel would strike many of them as odd.
For generations, Christians and Jews have perpetuated the idea that once Jesus was rejected as the Messiah by his own people, Jews and Christians were sharply and neatly divided. Each had their own reasons. Christians could more easily rationalize their anti-Semitism; Jews could pretend that Christianity was a gentile religion-after all, real Jews rejected Jesus from the start.
Only recently have a number of scholars, Christian and Jewish, working in different fields, begun to suggest that the familiar picture is all wrong. In his new book, "Dying for God: Martyrdom and the Making of Christianity and Judaism," Daniel Boyarin argues that many believers were both Christians and Jews through the end of late antiquity, into the seventh century, and that the two groups profoundly influenced each other. A similar picture emerges from Lee Levine's "The Ancient Synagogue: The First Thousand Years."
Many of the features we think of as characteristic of Jewish community life appeared in the context of the synagogue. In the synagogue, unlike the Jerusalem Temple, Levine writes, "the congregation was directly involved in all aspects of synagogue ritual. In place of the silence and passivity characterizing the Temple's official sacrificial cult, the synagogue placed a premium on public recitation--communal prayer, as well as the reading, translation, and exposition of sacred texts."
In the interaction between the Jewish and early Christian communities, influence went in both directions. Despite the early Christians' disdain for the notion of "sacred places," church buildings became sacred places in part as a result of Jewish influence.
Alas, we know that from a very early date there were also savage polemics. Noting how diaspora synagogues attracted Christians as well as Jews, Levine quotes from the vituperative anti-Jewish sermons of John Chrysostom, preached in Antioch late in the fourth century. Chrysostom described the synagogue as "a dwelling place for demons," "a hideout for thieves," a "den of wild animals," and "a cesspool of debauchery," and warned Christians not to enter there. Nevertheless, many Christians "preferred taking oaths in synagogues," believing that oaths taken there "were more awesome."
Chrysostom's impulses won out. With the collapse of the Roman imperium and the destruction of the social world it fostered, the divide between Judaism and Christianity grew wider and was more rigidly enforced, leading to the pogroms of the Middle Ages and the subsequent history we know all too well. It is not possible to change that past. But hope for the future lies in the possibility that Jews and Christians take up the opportunity to understand and rethink their shared history. To such an enterprise, Lee Levine's book makes a splendid contribution.