Sunday, April 22, 2012


Claude Rambaux, La genèse du judaïsme et du christianisme: les faits et les problèmes dans leur contexte historique. Collection Latomus, 332. Bruxelles: Éditions Latomus, 2011. Pp. 450. ISBN 9782870312735. €72.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Andrew S. Jacobs, Scripps College (

Version at BMCR home site


This volume, written by a prominent classicist, appearing in a premier Francophone series of classical studies, is not quite the historical critical study a reader might expect from the subtitle. Instead, it would be better to view Rambaux's extensive exploration of biblical Judaism and early Christianity as something of a historically-informed reflection on the possibilities and failures of Judeo-Christian faith in the West. In thirteen unnumbered chapters, Rambaux identifies the essential "heart" of the Revelation (always capitalized) in Judaism and Christianity and, in great detail, how these two historical traditions have deviated from this Revelation.

For Rambaux, the core of this Revelation is quite simple: a loving God inspires humanity to universal love of and care for one's neighbors (especially those who are in need). Such an ethical distillation of the core of the Christian message will be familiar to many students of Christian history: from the "Fatherhood of God and brotherhood of man" promulgated by Albrecht Ritschl, and given historical shape by his more famous student, Adolf von Harnack, to the "love patriarchalism" of Gerd Theissen, Rambaux's central theological principle evokes a staple of European Protestant historiography since the nineteenth century.

Rambaux structures his exploration of the discovery, and loss, of this theological principle in antiquity through a survey of biblical books, ancient parallels, and their modern interpreters. Much of the text is taken up with long quotes from ancient texts and modern scholars, often linked back to back like Byzantine catenae. We read how Yahweh emerged from the mists of tribal religion to take on the characteristics of a universal God, at first demanding cultic reverence and nationalistic unity from Israel, but eventually (through his prophets) emphasizing a call to universal brotherhood and moral care for the needy that transcends priestly ritual. This triumph of "justice" over ceremony marks the first major turning point of ancient Israel toward a truly ethical religious Revelation, but is simultaneously marred by distracting theological accretions: a belief in sin and punishment and hope for national redemption (figured in a messiah). The periods of Babylonian captivity and Persian rule continue this two-steps- forward-one-step-back narrative of thwarted religious evolution: pure monotheism brings Israel closer to universalism, but also engenders a growth in "sacerdotalism" and ritualism; hope for redemption increases a sense of God's love, but also introduces "novelties," such as messianism, sacrificial scapegoating, and nationalism.

Throughout this first section of the book, biblical texts are taken seriously as historical sources (historiographic skepticism is confined primarily to the voluminous footnotes), but also constantly compared with texts from far and wide in the ancient near eastern landscape: Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Persian religious contexts, we learn, often anticipated Israelite religious evolution toward universal love of God and all humankind. (Zoroastrianism emerges, in the footnotes at least, throughout this volume as a sort of morally superior elder brother of Judeo-Christianity.) As Rambaux moves into the Hellenistic period, the corpus of parallels expands to include Greek philosophical schools, but the central struggle of Judaism remains constant: a tug-of-war between a faith of universal love of God and care for humanity and the temptations of nationalism, clericalism, and ritualistic legalism. New "novelties" arise in the Greek and Roman contexts: belief in bodily resurrection, emphasis on individual purity, hope for the destruction of God's enemies, and eschatological messianism. Alone among the welter of Jewish sectarians, Hillel shows a glimmer of "humanitarian and universalist" promise (183).

At last, Jesus arrives on the scene. Free of baroque theologies and harmful cosmic dualism (the failure of his rough contemporary Philo), Jesus faithfully represents the true heart of the Jewish Law and Prophets: "love of God and neighbor" (212). Rambaux extracts his ideal Jesus from the synoptic gospels, but provides little discussion of method (again confining all historiographic discussion to the increasingly detailed footnotes). Paul and John, coming fast on Jesus' heels, begin already to lose this precious thread. While both keep focus on God's universal love, they also introduce "novelties" (noveautés and innovations are frequent terms throughout). Jesus becomes a divine figure, ontologically distant from the sinful mass of humanity; dualism and pessimism seep in from the Greek philosophical margins.

A highly traditional account of the "parting of the ways" allows Rambaux to dispense rather quickly with post-Temple Judaism and focus exclusively on Christianity for the remaining 150 pages. A rapid survey of the later New Testament texts and the apostolic fathers witnesses incipient Trinitarianism (evident in the hypostatization of the Holy Spirit in some second-century texts) as well as a rising emphasis on "conduct," such as fasting and asceticism, and a pessimistic view of humanity incompatible with the central call to universal love.

The long, final chapter on Christianity in the third and fourth centuries brings home the ultimate failure of the religion to live up to its revelatory promise. Unscriptural speculations on the Trinity, Christ's person, and veneration of Mary are read by Rambaux as concessions to the religious expectations of pagan converts. Moral teachings of love and charity remain present, but increasingly dislodged from the center of the faith: "love," Rambaux notes, does not even appear in the Nicene Creed (399). Christians in the fourth century and beyond are not animated by God's love, but a mixture of baser impulses: fear of God, hatred of enemies (blossoming into Crusader violence), and an ascetic focus on "purity" that calls into question the goodness of God's creation. The legalization and triumph of Christianity are, Rambaux concludes, a pyrrhic victory, in which more has been lost than gained.

In a brief conclusion, Rambaux wonders whether the "partial failure of Judaism and Christianity to remain faithful to the Revelation from which they derive, and to change human hearts and conduct, certainly shows the difficulties of a reform of humanity, the limits of religions, even when they derive from the great guides, [and] the relative powerlessness of the great reformers" (409). Such philosophical and moral statements pepper this book, amid thousands of footnotes and contemplation of biblical texts and their modern students. In the end, it is difficult to conjure a precise audience for Rambaux's reflections: students of biblical studies and early Christianity will not find new ground broken; Anglophone classicists might do better to turn to more standard studies in English, such as the works of Paula Fredriksen or E. P. Sanders (cited in French translation here). Perhaps the best audience for this volume are those readers most like Rambaux himself: smart, engaged, intellectually and philosophically curious Francophone scholars of antiquity desirous of pushing their investigations into new realms of religious and moral inquiry.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks a lot for this review! Please be aware that there are intellectually inquisitive people outside France who have a comamnd of the French language and a wish to keep up with off-mainstream ideas not articulated Anglophonically.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.