- Book Review Index
Hermeneutics of Holiness: Ancient Jewish and Christian Notions of Sexuality and Religious Community, by Naomi Koltun-Fromm. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. 309 pp. $74.00.
Deriving from the central role it plays in the Hebrew Bible, holiness became a key differentiating point between Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity. As they “struggled to separate themselves from each other . . . [h]oliness loomed as a fulcrum of difference at the center of these struggles” (p. 7). Holiness often relates to purity, a subset of which, sexual purity, was disembedded from the complex notions of holiness and purity we find in the Hebrew Bible and elevated to a special status as a marker of difference between the Jewish and Christian communities. In her study of the history of this process, Hermeneutics of Holiness, Naomi Koltun-Fromm examines “how sexual practices, when mapped onto notions of holiness, become markers of community identity” (p. 11).
In the introduction of the book Koltun-Fromm lays out her basic arguments, emphasizing her subjects’ shared cultural background: the unfolding of the shared discourse of holiness and sexuality to be studied in the book took place, she argues, in an Aramaic cultural milieu. The Rabbis are to be set next to Syriac (Christian Aramaic) Christianity, particularly the writings of Aphrahat, a Syriac author of the fourth century CE. Aphrahat and the Rabbis, according to Koltun-Fromm, developed their ideas in the same “Persian-Mesopotamian context” (p. 4). This is significant because the strong ascetic tendency in the Syriac Christian tradition can be traced back in part to “exegetical expansions on notions of holiness and community derived from a reconfiguration of the various biblical hermeneutics of holiness that worked best in an Aramaic linguistic context” (p. 12).
Part I of the book offers chapters on the biblical background of holiness (pp. 31–52) and the linkage between sexuality, holiness, and purity in the Second Temple Period. She focuses in particular on the notion of ascribed holiness and its strict regulation through the maintenance of purity, such as we find in Ezra and the literature of Qumran. Part II offers chapters on the early Christian tradition, particularly Paul (pp. 77–96), and the subsequent Syriac Christian tradition, texts composed before Aphrahat’s, most notably the Acts of Thomas (pp. 97–125). Part III, which is the target to which the preceding chapters clearly point, compares Rabbinic notions of sexuality and holiness to those of Aphrahat. Chapter Five examines Aphrahat’s Demonstrations, which continue an internal Syriac Christian tradition of linking holiness and sexuality through achievement yet do so in an external anti-Jewish polemic (pp. 129–173). Despite their different positions it is clear when we compare Aphrahat to the Rabbis that points of difference are often points of similarity: Aphrahat employs an interpretive approach which he shares with the Rabbis, as is shown in Chapter Six, which compares his understanding of the exegetical tradition concerning Moses’ celibacy in Exodus 19 to that of the Rabbis (pp. 175–209). The final chapter addresses the Rabbis head-on and demonstrates how although Rabbinic positions are diverse there seems to be an Amoraic shift from an earlier concern to protect ascribed holiness to the notion that holiness could be achieved, that it was in fact “a category of spiritual advancement” (p. 237) (pp. 211–238). Even if the Rabbinic tendency is to advocate marriage and only temporary periods of celibacy, as compared to the more rigorous recommendations of Aphrahat, this notion of achieved holiness renders the Rabbis and Aphrahat alike and shows how both were differentiating themselves from one another on the same spectrum.
Implicit in the framework of the book is the new historiography of Jewish-Christian relations and the mutually imbricated history of Judaism and Christian now taken for granted by many scholars. Whereas past historiography tended to draw a line from Israelite religion through Judaism to Christianity, Koltun-Fromm’s book begins with Israelite culture and works its way through different channels to the late antique Christian and Jewish texts she aims to compare. As in many areas, Jacob Neusner long ago wrote a book on the broader topic of Aphrahat’s usefulness for the study of Rabbinic Judaism: his Aphrahat and Judaism: The Christian-Jewish Argument in Fourth-Century Iran (1971) concluded with generally negative results. Moreover, Koltun-Fromm sets herself up against Elizabeth Clark’s Reading Renunciation: Asceticism and Scripture in Early Christianity (1999), because Clark often treats patristic ascetic exegesis as a form of eisegesis, a reading into the texts something that is not necessarily there. Rather, Koltun-Fromm closely delineates the development of a pluriform tradition from the biblical text itself.
Koltun-Fromm’s forte is in closely reading texts and following the development of certain traditions over time. The book slackens in addressing historical details for the possible engagement she imagines, such as the political context of Sasanian Iran or even the basic geographical issues of the “Mesopotamian-Aramaic milieu.” Furthermore, to be sure, sexuality became a primary category for the demarcation of communal boundaries in this period, but the significance of Late Antiquity for the history of sexuality has been long noted, and the book could have been better framed within this historiography and the category of sexuality itself further interrogated. Sexuality is after all an area often addressed by scholars of antiquity due to the impetus of Michel Foucault’s and Peter Brown’s work. In relation to this, the important role the mutual development of Judaism and Christianity against one another played in the religionizing process, something implicit in Koltun-Fromm’s book, could have been set next to the emergence of new notions of the body and sexuality. What is the precise relationship between the history of sexuality and the new ideas of religious community that were simultaneously developing?
Despite these criticisms the author deserves congratulations for unlocking a complex history that required her to engage with several distinct fields: Hebrew Bible, Second-Temple Judaism, New Testament, Syriac Studies, and Rabbinics. As a Syriacist, I especially appreciate that she treats the Syriac tradition as both autonomous and complex and yet relevant to broader issues in the history of the religious world of Late Antiquity. Her book makes an important contribution to the history of Judaism by employing non-Jewish material, especially some generally unread within Jewish Studies.
Adam H. Becker
New York University