William Horbury

Jews and Christians in Contact and Controversy

(Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1998)

ISBN 0-8133-3780-1   viii + 344 pp.  $54.95 cloth.

by David P. Efroymson, La Salle University, Philadelphia 

This is a slightly expanded and updated version of a review which originally appeared in Church History 69/3 (September 2000), 639-40.  It is posted here with the generous permission of that journal and the Society of Church History.

The twelve previously published essays gathered here exhibit Horbury’s competence in the literature of early Judaism and Christianity, but equally his willingness to challenge scholarly convention when he thinks the evidence warrants it.  The essays range widely, but certain frequently recurring emphases provide substantial cohesion.  He has added an up-to-date bibliography and full indexes of authors, references, and as sensible and usable an index of subjects as one is likely to find anywhere.  He has further provided a brand new forty-two-page introduction that situates each chapter within current scholarly discussion and comments on that discussion. The result is an enhanced collection, far more valuable than the cumulative weight of the individual pieces.

The “contact” of the book’s title is affirmed in several chapters.  In one brief essay, Tertullian is shown to be aware of Jewish polemic in De spectaculis 30.5-6.  A common Bible together with real debate in exegesis are the focus of “Jews and Christians on the Bible.”  More Christian knowledge of Judaism (communal prayer; imprecation against Christ and Christians; the rise of the synagogue, including buildings—and earlier than many scholars concede) is manifest in “Early Christians on Synagogue Prayer and Imprecation.”  Horbury defends the value of the relevant early Christian evidence in a fine essay on “The Benediction of the Minim and Early Jewish-Christian Controversy.”  This and more early Christian knowledge of Judaism may not be in accordance with the prevailing wisdom, but the case for it is carefully argued here.

An even more contested kind of “contact” appears in the essays on “Jewish-Christian Relations in Barnabas and Justin Martyr” and “The Purpose of Pseudo-Cyprian, Adversus Iudaeos.”  Horbury argues that Barnabas is not merely an “academic exercise” (135) but defensive, concerned with real Jews, written “to ward off the danger of Christian lapse to the Jewish community,” whose “overshadowing presence” (138) had to be neutralized.  Similarly, the pseudo-Cyprian text is “relevant to a real situation” (186) and “genuinely anti-Judaic” (190), evincing a genuine anxiety to counter the influence of the synagogue; it too was not a “mere rhetorical exercise” (193, 198).  Here again, Horbury seems successful in his resistance, at least in specific cases, to what he calls “the influential view that the Jewish and Christian communities were largely insulated from one another” (1).  He argues, further, that the attraction to Judaism that had provoked Barnabas and that he sees operative elsewhere, was not due simply to the antiquity and relative prestige of Judaism, but “was encouraged . . . by active propaganda” (138).  The evidence he gathers, he sees as “part of a fuller picture of Jewish-Christian missionary rivalry, in competition for the same potential non-Jewish adherents, and not without hope for converts from the other side” (140).  If one could remove the adjective “missionary” from the previous sentence, and if one takes account of the crucial difference between simply welcoming proselytes and active proselytization (recently emphasized by Martin Goodman, on early Judaism:  Mission and Conversion [Oxford: Clarendon, 1994]), he seems to have made a better case for rivalry and perhaps for some Jewish proselytization than anyone before him (see, for instance Marcel Simon, Verus Israel [Paris: Boccard, 1964; Eng. Trans. Oxford: Oxford  University Press, 1986]).  None of this, however, can counter the overwhelming evidence (nor does Horbury claim that it does) that most of the adversus Iudaeos texts are written for Christian consumption and that the Jews and Judaism therein depicted and opposed are largely a caricature.  (A good deal of welcome and sensible--if sometimes tentative—reflection on this latter point can be found in Judith Lieu’s Image and Reality: The Jews in the World of the Christians in the Second Century [Edinburgh:  T & T Clark, 1996]). 

Horbury also mounts a limited challenge to a recent scholarly consensus on the diversity of pre-rabbinic Judaism.  In an essay on “Extirpation and Excommunication” he contends that there were “stronger elements of order and cohesion than is usually allowed” (1).  In this and other chapters, including evidence from Justin in two essays, he points to an “intercommunal network of officeholders and teachers” and “a good measure of common practice and tenet, in particular on the question of norms and exclusion” (6).  Here (and in the paragraph above) it seemed necessary to quote him, especially to preclude any overstatement of his careful and limited claims.  He has succeeded, I think, in underlining some elements of communal organization and cohesion, especially with regard to exclusion, which seem to have been operating among some Jews.  However, the diversity of early Judaism, and the evidence adduced for it by most scholars today, still stands.

His sense of the cohesiveness of early Judaism, whatever its extent, leads him to infer a “less tolerant” Judaism (6) and an early and inevitable “parting of the ways” from Christianity.  He sees a “separative tendency” (11) in the implied claim to authority in the teaching of Jesus, but adds that this need not imply that the followers of Jesus were seeking separation.  On the other hand, he sees evidence of “early and continuing [Jewish] hostility” in several essays and views this as best explained by “the incompatibility of Christian messianic obedience with the zeal, norms, and solidarity of the Jewish majority” (13).  The evidence for Christian acceptance of the separation comes later.  The data can be read in the way that Horbury reads them, and the suggestion of the difference between the way Jews and Christians are likely to have perceived the eventual separation is helpful.  Nevertheless, those who emphasize the diversity of early Judaism tend to see the severance later, at least in many locales, whatever the case for “inevitability.”  Horbury has demonstrated some early hostility, by some Jews, against some early followers of Jesus.  There remains a serious question as to whether this can also be construed precisely as part of the lively and sometimes competitive Jewish diversity, with less hostility by other Jews toward other followers of Jesus.  It is worth adding that there has now (2004) appeared a collection of essays examining different bodies of evidence and pointing to aspects of the early history of Judaism and Christianity which at a minimum counterbalances what is argued in this book:  The Ways That Never Parted:  Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. Edited by Adam H. Becker and Annette Yoshiko Reed (Tubingen:Mohr Siebeck, 2003).          

Less controversial are three final, somewhat more technical chapters with a later period in view.  “The Basle Nizzahon” deals with a 12th-c. manuscript of a “Nizzahon”, a polemical confutation of Christian claims and attestation of a Jewish hope for the messianic restoration of Israel.  The textual problem of Ibn Shaprut’s Touchstone follows, and a study of the work of Judah Briel, chief rabbi of Mantua at the end of the 17th c., concludes the book.

To identify disagreement or hesitation is not to take anything away from this stimulating collection, at once careful and provocative, with several essays of enduring value.  We need to continue to hear from Horbury, perhaps especially those of us who are hesitant about some of his emphases and his angle of vision.