Baker Academic

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Was Jesus Religious? - Le Donne

This weekend I completed the Abrahamic traditions trifecta. I was unexpectedly invited to Friday Prayers by my new friend Ahmed Younis. I was invited to Synagogue by my friend Larry Behrendt (this we had been planning). And I attended Sunday worship, as is my custom. I also attended a wonderful religious studies conference at Chapman University. I am not usually a religious studies tourist; I do not seek out such experiences on my own. But having been invited and having attended all of the above, I'm thinking more about the category of “religion” more than usual.

A few months ago, a friend put this book on my radar: Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept by Brent Nongbri. The intriguing thesis of the book is that religion is a category developed by post-Enlightenment scientists to reduce and classify the world. 

“Religious” is not how pre-modern folk would have described themselves or their ways in the world.  Over dinner Friday night, a Hindu colleague confirmed a point that Nongbri makes in the introduction to his book: there is no native word for “religion” in Sanskrit. Whatever words for “religion” have been incorporated into Hindi are loan words or words that do not quite capture what anthropologists, sociologists (et al.) might think of as religion.

Saturday afternoon I was over at Larry’s house browsing his library (as one with an ego does when one wants to inflate the ego of another) when I noticed a book that Larry had recommended to me before: Border Lines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity by Daniel Boyarin. According to Larry, Boyarin is one of his favorite writers to disagree with. If you know Larry, this is high praise indeed. He kindly lent me his copy which I have been reading with great pleasure. 

On page 8, Boyarin picks up our topic: “The difference between Christianity and Judaism is not so much a difference between two religions as a difference between a religion and an entity that refuses to be one.” Accordingly, argues Boyarin, Christianity projected the category of religion onto the life and worship of Israel. He explains:
In western language one habitually speaks—in both the scholarly and the quotidian registers—of “Judaism” and “Christianity” (and, for that matter, Islam, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and Hinduism) as members of a single category: (names of) religions , or even—faiths. This scholarly and popular practice, as the last term particularly reveals, involves the reproduction of a Christian worldview. The questionable appropriateness of projecting  a Christian worldview or a Christian model upon peoples and practices who don’t quite fit, or even don’t wish to fit that model and worldview should seem evident. Indeed, speaking for Judaism, it seems highly significant that there is no word in pre-modern Jewish parlance that means “Judaism.”  When the term Ioudaismos appears in non-Christian Jewish writing—to my knowledge only in 2 Maccabees—it doesn’t mean Judaism the religion but the entire complex of loyalties and practices that mark off the people of Israel; after that it is used as the name of the Jewish religion only by writers who do not identify themselves by that name at all, until well into the nineteenth century.  It seems, then, that Judaism has not, until sometime in modernity, existed at all, and that whatever moderns might be tempted to abstract out or to disembed from the culture of Jews and call their religion was not so disembedded nor ascribed particular status by Jews until very recently.
Now, because I have Larry’s copy of this book, I also benefit from his marginal notes. Larry quips to himself: “a thing does not come into existence at its naming!” Maybe so, Larry, but Boyarin has a point. We ought to be interested in "insider and outsider" language when we’re discussing identity.

I know that I have met many modern Christians who have told me that loving and following Jesus is spirituality, not religion. In all of the above cases, it seems that regular folk think of themselves in terms other than religion or religious. One wonders if we have done a disservice to one another by imposing inappropriate labels.

Where I would take issue with Boyarin (and situate my position closer to Nongbri) is in his easy association between religion and Christianity. Isn’t this just another attempt to define from the outside without listening to how regular folk self-identify? But as I'm only through chapter one of Border Lines, I will bracket that question for now.

I wonder whether “religion” isn’t a specifically Christian category, but rather a category that emerges from the intellectual elite. Boyarin suggests that the heresy hunters of second-century Christianity begin to impose borders and thus invent “religion.” It is exactly this period when Christianity begins to attract intelligentsia. This is the period when trained minds begin to philosophize about Christianity in unprecedented ways. So more to my point: does the religiosity of Christianity emerge from intellectual elites?

Again, I will leave the question open. But it is interesting to note that the word “religion” is quite rare in the New Testament. James 1:27 is among the few instances: “Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” Acts 26:5 is another interesting use of θρησκεία. But neither of these suggest the sort of systematized “ism” that we might expect from later centuries.

I have written often that Jesus was a deeply religious Jew. I have done so hoping to convey that Jesus’ Jewishness wasn’t simply an ethnic identity or nationality. But am I importing an anachronistic category here? If so, do I risk misinterpreting Jesus in the process?




  1. <>

    So that's where my copy of "50 Shades of Gray" went to!

    1. honestly, I thought it was a novel about summer time in England.


  2. Pat McCullough comments on FB:

    Nongbri reflects what has been a trend in the academic study of religion for some time now. "Religion" is a freighted category with a traceable genealogy (a "second order" category), and not timeless, essential, sui generis. This was the main topic of the course I taught last quarter, The History of the Study of Religion. I actually assigned Nongbri. The students weren't crazy about it, but that was more about the execution than the idea itself (he gets lost in the weeds quite a bit and his argumentation loses its footing several times). Nongbri follows Talal Asad and others who have demonstrated that "religion" really comes to life (so to speak) as a category in the process of differentiation. So, it gets articulated as something that is internal and private for the benefit of public discourse and "toleration" (Locke), but then also in colonial encounters where Christians were looking for systems that looked something like their own system. Do we follow Tim Fitzgerald and toss the category all together? Or do we follow J. Z. Smith and accept the multiplicity of this second order category? I'm with Smith, but I think we need to move forward carefully. NT scholars haven't really entered this conversation much, which is why I think Nongbri stepped out of his original dissertation topic (Paul and "religion") to tell the whole narrative.

    Personally, I think your point about elite intellectuals is on the mark, though I'm not sure it applies to the *term* religio at the time that Boyarin is discussing. My view is that the sort of infancy of what would later come to be called "religion" started to get systematized by the elite intellectuals of Christianity before Locke and the process of colonialization.

    I strongly recommend Bill Arnal's and Russell McCutcheon's book, The Sacred Is the Profane: The Political Nature of "Religion" from OUP. Bill has a chapter in there on Christian origins that is really outstanding, very helpful for us NT folks to reframe our conversations.