Jewish-Christianity and the Origins of Islam: Papers Presented at the Colloquium Held in Washington DC, October 29-31, 2015 (8th Asmea Conference)

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 Jewish Christianity And The Origins Of Islam
  • Book Author:
Francisco del Río Sánchez
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The question raised by this meeting seems straightforward: Is there a Jewish-Christian influence at the core of the most primitive Islam, as several former and recent scholars have argued (sometimes in very differ-ent ways)? 1 However, straightforward questions do not necessarily admit straightforward answers –for example because they can be quite ambiguous.

 Therefore, the path to a putative answer might be full of pitfalls and meanders– and I want to explore here some of them. They pertain to words and formulas included in the question itself, namely “Jewish-Christian,” “influence,” and “most primitive Islam.” I am afraid I will have more doubts or questions than answers, and for reasons of space, I will have to leave aside several relevant issues.

Jewish Christianity

The first problem when we talk about the possible Jewish-Christian background of early Islam is to know what we mean exactly by “Jewish Christianity.”  2 Is there an accurate and useful definition? It seems – at first view – that there are basically three kinds of definition: the ethnic, the praxis-based, and the doctrinal.

Ethnic definition: Jewish Christians are ethnic Jews who became Chris-tians. Praxis-based definition: Jewish Christians are those (whatever their ethnic background) who accept Jesus as the messiah and continue practices associated with Judaism. Doctrinal definition: Jewish Christians are Christians who retain Jewish thought and literary forms.

These definitions raise various problems: to sum up, they look anachronistic and highly dependent on ecclesiological and heresiological categories. 3 A detailed discussion is out of place here, but it is certainly appropri-ate to add a few remarks about the ethnic and the praxis-based definitions (the doctrinal definition is not fashionable anymore, and rightly so).

The ethnic definition does not seem adequate enough: should an “eth-nic Jew” who becomes Christian but wholly gives up Torah practices be called a Jewish Christian? Most people would certainly answer no. Hence it seems necessary to add praxis-based elements, as do several scholars, like Mimouni or Broadhead. According to Mimouni’s most recent definition, Ancient Jewish Christianity is a modern term designating those Jews and their pagan sympathizers who recognized Jesus as messiah, who recognized or did not recognize the divinity of Christ, but who, all of them, continued to observe, in totality or in part, the Torah. 4

According to Broadhead’s definition, Jewish Christians are “Followers of Jesus who maintain a significant degree of Jewishness – they present themselves as faithful Jews standing in continuity, in both thought and deed, with God’s covenant with Israel.” 5 This presupposes, of course, that we already know precisely who the Jews are and what is Jewishness – and maybe this is less easy than it seems. Incidentally, it might probably be better to speak of Judaeans. 6

The praxis-based elements also raise difficulties (note that the praxis-based definition alone is unable to pick out Jewish Christians from Judaizers – that such a distinction should be preserved is another topic). For example: which proportion of Jewish practices should be kept for allowing us to speak of Jewish Christianity? What is the level of the “significant degree of Jewishness,” or the observance of the Torah, required? And who is legitimate in deciding where the limit has to be drawn, and which practices are essential and which are not? 7 Should we focus on circumcision and shabbat?

Yet these criteria are not so clear. For example, circumcision was sometimes not practiced inside Judaism, 8 and sometimes practiced outside. When we learn from Sozomen (Ecc. Hist. VI.38.11) that there were Arabs who practiced circumcision, should we suppose, as Sozo-men apparently claims, a Jewish influence? Or is it simply the way Sozo-men makes sense of such Arab customs? Circumcision was not confined to “Jews,” and to what extent was it really a way for the Arabs to commemorate the Abrahamic covenant? Please note, moreover, that according to these criteria (circumcision, shabbat), and regardless of ethnicity, Ethiopian Christianity looks definitely Jewish Christian.

Some scholars, like Daniel Boyarin, have therefore argued that the category of “Jewish Christianity” is too confused to be of any use. Others, while aware of these problems, are not ready to jettison it and award it, at least, some heuristic virtues. 9

I have nothing against giving up the label, but if people still want to use it, why not – provided it is reminded that this is a modern and elusive category, which does not refer to clearly identifiable groups 10 (contrary to what it is supposed to do), and which brackets together multifarious subcultures and religious sensitivities.

Much depends, of course, on our own reasons for using this term. If it is “to disturb (…) any unquestioned assumptions that we might harbor about the essential incompatibility and inevitable “parting” of Judaism and Christianity,” 11 or if it is to remind of the importance of Jewish believers in the making of Christianity, there should be no quibble – except that I am unsure this is the best way to achieve such a goal. For example, when we are dealing with the period before the 4th century, it would be far more accurate to rely on Carlos Segovia’s typology, and therefore speak of:

(a) the Christ-believing Jews who accepted Paul’s original message of integrating the gentiles qua gentiles into the people of God alongside Israel; 12

(b) the Christ-believing Jews, be they originally born Jews or proselytes, who opposed Paul’s message by claiming that the gentiles had to adopt all or almost all Jewish practices (I prefer avoiding the term “conversion” here);

(c)           the non-Jewish Christ-believers who sided with (a) or (b);

(d)          the non-Jewish Christ-believers who refused to join Israel. 13

Note that it is only group (d) which gives rise to supersessionism; and it is only a part of group (d) which will become mainstream Christianity –

Marcionism, for example, which also belongs to (d), will not.

On the other hand, after the so-called “parting of the ways,” we face

a very different problem. Indeed, our evidence on the so-called “Jewish

Christians” is very shaky: most of our extant data (first-hand 14 and second-hand) come from the 3rd, 4th and 5th centuries CE – in fact mainly from the 4th (that we have such data at this time is also related to the eye of the beholders, namely, the heresiologists). 15 Beyond the 5th century, we have almost no evidence (“almost no evidence” does not mean “nothing at all,” but it means that there is certainly no evidence strong and unambiguous enough to support the existence and influence of a specific sectarian Jewish Christian community behind the rise of Islam).

And here a remark is in order – about the connotation of the term “Jewish Christian.” Almost every work on this topic will focus on apparently marginal groups (most often the Nazarenes/Nazoreans, whose existence is

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