Standard study of the gospel tradition assumed that the gospel tradition was making a break from "Judaism." But "Judaism" is an essentialist modern concept, a largely European Christian scholarly construct, like Orientalism. It is not clear that "Judaism" has any historical referent, at least not until late antiquity at the earliest. (Horsley, Jesus in Context, 110)
I'm sympathetic to Horsley's point here, especially since it comes in his discussion of "social memory and gospel traditions" (109–25). But I think he's made it a bit too bluntly (i.e., without precision), and so some refinement seems in order.
- First, "standard study of the gospel tradition" continues to assume that "the gospel tradition was making a break from 'Judaism,'" so I question the past-tense assumed. A mere quibble, perhaps, but the contemporary awareness of (and even emphasis upon) the variegated expression of "Judaism" in the late second Temple period hasn't corrected the problem Horsley's identifying here.
- Second, I'm not sure it's helpful to say that "'Judaism' is an essentialist modern concept," but rather that gospels and Jesus scholarship have essentialized "Judaism," and that essentialization has had some unfortunate effects on our understanding of all things Christian origins and second Temple Jewish. Again, a mere quibble, perhaps. But "Judaism" [Ἰουδαϊσμός; Ioudaismos] was a category available in the ancient, non-European world (see, of course, Gal 1.14). The problem isn't the concept but our analytical use of that concept.
- "European" and "Christian," perhaps, but I'm skeptical that "Judaism" is "a largely . . . scholarly construct," whether or not like Orientalism. Horsley's discussion might be focused on scholarly essentializations of Judaism, and rightly so, but the problem seems rather more cultural than simply scholarly. This is yet another instance in which scholarship in the humanities has a significant opportunity to identify a blind spot in our larger cultural context, to illuminate that blind spot, and to speak meaningfully about the very real problems with which that blind spot has been associated throughout Western civilization (anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, of course, but also more general questions about how we interact with "the Other").
- And so I wouldn't say that "it is not clear that 'Judaism' has any historical referent" prior to late antiquity (again, see Gal 1.14). Instead, I happily note the opportunity to quote The Princess Bride with respect to New Testament scholars' (and others') use of Judaism: "You keep on using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."