Wednesday, October 9, 2013


Stéphanie E. Binder, Tertullian, On Idolatry and Mishnah Avodah Zarah. Jewish and Christian perspectives series, 22. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2012. Pp. x, 258. ISBN 9789004234789. $149.00.

Reviewed by Mira Balberg, Northwestern University (

Version at BMCR home site


Among the various patristic writings on the topic of idolatry, Tertullian's De Idolatria stands out for its themes and major area of concern. Whereas most of Tertullian's predecessors and contemporaries are mainly interested in ridiculing the worship of idols and in decrying its fallacies, Tertullian dedicates much of his treatise to the question of how Christians should avoid being implicated in the idolatrous activities, spaces, interactions, and even language that permeate their surrounding world. In its preoccupation with everyday life in an "idolatrous" environment, De Idolatria is highly resonant, as several scholars have noticed, with tractate Avodah Zarah ("foreign worship" or "idolatry") of the Mishnah, an early rabbinic legal code which was compiled in Palestine around the beginning of the third century C.E. In her book, Stéphanie Binder takes on an extensive and detailed comparison of these two largely contemporaneous treatises, ventures to provide a historical and social context for both of them, and extrapolates more general conclusions on cultural contact between Jews and Christians in North Africa of the third century C.E. from the shared tropes, problems, and modes of conduct that she identifies in the two texts.

In the introduction, Binder states that her purpose "is not to try to prove that one side influenced the other, but to survey how both, within a common context… confront the same questions and respond to them" (2). Despite this disclaimer, however, Binder leaves no room for doubt that in her view, one side did, in fact, influence the other; and it was the rabbis – directly or indirectly – who influenced Tertullian (19, 213-216, and passim). Insofar as Binder explores the ways in which Tertullian and the rabbis confront similar circumstances and challenges, the book offers compelling analyses and convincing explanations of the choices these authors make vis-à-vis their social and rhetorical frameworks. Insofar as she argues that Tertullian was incorporating distinctly rabbinic ideas and teachings as such, the book is less successful. Its argument remains plausible but, for the most part, speculative and unsubstantiated.

The book consists of three parts. Parts One and Two, respectively titled "General Background" and "Direct Context," provide surveys of basic details, key questions, and existing scholarship on the different issues that inform Binder's examination of the two works. The third part, which comprises the second half the book and where lies its main contribution, is titled "Tertullian and the Jews on Idolatry." It draws an elaborate comparison between De Idolatria and tractate Avodah Zarah. While this part is by far the strongest, its title attests to one of the more problematic aspects of the book as a whole, which is its conflation of "Jews" and "rabbis." Although Binder acknowledges that scholars more regularly question the impact and centrality of the rabbinic movement both inside and outside Palestine during the second and third centuries CE (e.g. 2, 14, 174), the greater part of the book is guided by the unsupported premise that what the rabbis of the Mishnah teach is what "Jews" subscribe to and do.

The first and second chapters discuss the Christian and Jewish communities in Carthage, respectively. Chapter 1 is very short and provides general information on Carthage within the Roman Empire and its religious cultures, whereas Chapter 2 ventures to reconstruct the characteristics of the Jewish community in Carthage in Tertullian's time. Here Binder strives to show that this community was influenced by the rabbis of Palestine and was at least partially subordinate to their authority. The textual and archeological evidence for rabbinic influence on Carthaginian Jews is, as Binder concedes, scant and widely disputed in scholarship, and so her argument for such influence rests mainly on conjectures: she first claims that Jewish communities largely accepted the authority of the Palestinian center (mainly based on evidence that predates 70 CE), and then continues to argue that, in the rabbis' journeys to various communities – journeys which are mentioned in rabbinic sources – they must have also reached North Africa and disseminated their teachings there. The dependence of Carthaginian Jews on Palestinian rabbinic teachings explains, in Binder's view, why it was not necessary for them to develop an oral law of their own (19; repeated on 216). This line of argument is highly problematic. The fact that we have no textual remains from the Jewish community in Carthage in no way indicates that its members did not produce anything of their own, nor does Binder explain why some form of oral law is an ontological necessity for all Jews of antiquity. Ultimately, the strongest evidence for rabbinic influence on Carthaginian Jews is the similarity between the Mishnah and De Idolatria – a similarity that could indeed derive from Tertullian's engagement with rabbinic ideas through the mediation of Carthaginian Jews but could also, as several scholars have pointed out, derive from similar religious orientations generated in a common Roman Mediterranean environment. To be clear, I do not find it improbable that rabbinic teachings indeed reached Carthage and had some impact on its communities and possibly on Tertullian himself, but there are absolutely no grounds for Binder's references throughout the book to the rabbinic nature of the community in Carthage as a well-established fact (for example, on p. 51: "…the Cathaginian Synagogue, which tended to adopt rabbinic principles…"), when these rabbinic tendencies are actually contingent upon Binder's own rather shaky reconstruction.

The third chapter, "The Parting of the Ways," presents different views on and reconstructions of the relations between Jews and Christians in the first centuries and the process through which the two groups became mutually exclusive. Since none of the theories regarding the time and circumstances of the "parting" of Judaism and Christianity denies the continuous contact and dialogue between the two, it is not entirely clear what the book gains from this survey. Moreover, Binder's attempt to capture this incredibly complex topic in less than twenty pages leads her to make rather simplistic assertions and generalizations. For example, she writes: "The New Testament, in essence, becomes the Christian oral Law. The Christian authors who interpret the Old and New Testaments answer and engage with the Mishnah, which comprises the 'mysteries of Judaism'" (30). Binder's cited source for this assertion, which flattens "Christianity" to a mirror image of rabbinic Judaism, is an exegetical work from approximately the 9th century known as Midrash Tanhuma, which cannot be taken as a reliable source on third-century Jewish-Christian relations. No less troubling is a subsection of the chapter titled "The Failure," in which Binder attempts to judge which of the two religions can be defined as "the winner" – an endeavor as to the purpose and academic value of which I remain baffled.

The fourth and fifth chapters survey existing scholarship and evidence on Tertullian's religious influences and predilections, focusing mainly on his affinity with Judaism. These chapters are useful and informative, even if a bit repetitive. In the sixth and seventh chapters, Binder delves more closely into De Idolatria itself, providing important context for it: in Chapter 6, she compares De Idolatria to other early Christian works on idolatry, showing ably what makes this treatise stand out; and in Chapter 7 she elaborates on Tertullian's engagement with Graeco-Roman, particularly Stoic, philosophical ideas and the ways they inform his work. The analyses in these chapters are compelling and the background they offer is revealing. Binder's discussion of Tertullian's De Spectaculis (his earlier work on idolatry) in light of Seneca's moral epistles is especially noteworthy as astute and persuasive. I am curious, however, as to why Paul is almost entirely absent from this part of the book, save two fleeting references (85-86). Considering Paul's intense engagement with idolatry in 1 Corinthians 8-10 and Tertullian's multiple quotations from Paul in his work, it may have been worthwhile to discuss Paul at greater length. Finally, Chapter 8 makes the point that Jews were involved in and influenced by their Graeco-Roman environment (a well-established notion which does not, in my view, merit a chapter restating known facts).

Chapter 9, in which Binder draws the comparison between De Idolatria and Mishnah Avodah Zarah, and Chapter 10, in which she proposes her conclusions from the comparison, are unquestionably the best and most interesting in the book. Binder identifies the main concern that animates both texts – how can Christians/Jews avoid passively partaking of or endorsing idol-worshipping in a world perfused with idolatry – and attempts to explain the strategies proposed in each text to deal with this problem. These chapters successfully identify common themes and interests in the two works and reflect on them in their cultural and social contexts. The quality of the comparison is sometimes undermined, however, when Binder slips from a juxtaposition of De Idolatria with the Mishnah to a juxtaposition of De Idolatria with "rabbinic literature." When she does not find in the Mishnah materials that correspond with Tertullian's work, Binder does not hesitate to turn to significantly later Talmudic and Midrashic sources, and to present them as representing "the rabbis'" position (e.g. 130-131, 138-142, 167-171). Such indiscriminate use of rabbinic sources is methodologically problematic and needs at least to be explicitly defended.

Binder's conclusions, summarized briefly, are that Tertullian leaves more room for social interaction between Christians and Pagans so as to allow for the possibility of conversion, but advocates against economic and public interactions, whereas the rabbis take the opposite approach and attempt to carve out a neutral public space in which Jews and Gentiles can live together. This disparity, Binder claims, can be explained both in terms of genre (the rabbis are creating a practical guide whereas Tertullian is creating a theological manifesto) and in terms of the social and cultural realities of the groups to which the authors are referring and the audiences they are targeting. Binder's analyses are compelling and for the most part persuasive, yet I think they could benefit from going beyond the practical/theological dichotomy, which maps all too easily onto the dated letter/spirit dichotomy between Judaism and Christianity (which Binder actually echoes on p. 182). As various recent works in the study of rabbinic literature have shown, the Mishnah is just as much a project of ideological identity formation as Tertullian's writings, and its legal-pragmatic nature does not preclude it from being concerned with issues of group definition and differentiation.

In general, Binder's tendency towards dichotomizing can sometimes seriously compromise her otherwise sound arguments. While Binder repeats the now commonly held view that there were many ways of being Jewish or Christian in the late ancient world, and that the boundaries between the two groups were rather fluid for a long period of time (e.g. 60, 209), her discussion often falls into the kind of essentialism against which these views were formed. Thus, for example, on p.188: "a Christian remains a Christian even when he does not adopt a very stringent line of conduct, whereas a Jew is not a Jew anymore if he renounces the basic mitzvot of Judaism," and on p.93: "Tertullian seeks to define the boundaries of a Christian community which would [otherwise] be swallowed up by the wider pagan world… [whereas] The Jewish community is very well defined." Even more jarring to me is Binder's assertion that, whereas Christians were an "intrinsic" part of the Graeco-Roman world, the rabbis deal with "external Roman influence" on Jewish lives (188). This assertion suggests that, in Binder's view, one can distinguish some kind of pristine Judaism from the taint of its surrounding culture, instead of seeing "Judaism" as necessarily molded, shaped, and redefined in the environments in which its practitioners live.

While the reader may need to take care in questioning some of Binder more simplistic assertions, this book presents an erudite and interesting contribution to the study of the shared world of Jews and Christians in the Roman Mediterranean and will be of value to a wide range of readers interested in the dialogue between the two.

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