New Religion of the Late Axial Age

Aphrodite and the Rabbis
by Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky
pp. 226-230

I have suggested here that rabbinic Judaism is a new religion, divorced and separate from the biblical, Israelite religion of the Temple cult that preceded it. Yet my discussion of the late biblical antecedents of Hellenism, added to the evidence I quoted earlier in this book about the possibility of synagogues’ existing before the destruction, should raise a flag of caution. In fact, the rabbinic obsession with Scripture, manifest in the rabbis’ interpretations of every detail of biblical law, including the minute facets of the moribund Temple and its procedures, makes it clear that rabbinic Judaism is not a wholly new religion, created ex nihilo, out of nothingness. This shift was already under way before the time of the rabbis. On one hand, there would be no wholesale assimilation to Hellenism with a loss of Jewish identity. On the other, ancient Jewish rituals were not abandoned. Rather, there would be a measured appropriation and adaptation of Greco – Roman culture that found its expression in post – 70 CE Judaism.

The ways in which I have characterized Judaism, whether as utterly new or as a remix of an old tune, are fraught with ideological significance. What characterizes the new Judaism and separates it from other emerging ideologies? Is rabbinic Judaism just one more new religion, one more flavor of many Judaisms in the Late Antique world, there to take its place alongside Christianity and other Greco – Roman religions? Or is rabbinic Judaism the one and only authentic inheritor of biblical “Judaism,” genetically similar by virtue of both the performed commandments ( mitzvot ) and the constant justyfying of those mitzvot through tying them to their presumed Scriptural origins? Remember that in the period I am considering, rabbinic Judaism was not the major face of Judaism it would become for the millennium of its European ascendance, say from 940 to 1940 CE. It was only in that much later period that rabbis had the actual power to enforce their dicta. The first millennium of rabbinic Judaism resembled the Judaism we have now, in which each individual Jew chooses adherence to the commandments and how that adherence is manifested in daily behavior. To get to now, the rabbis then needed persistence, vision, and Roman Stoic stolidity to survive. The very virtues the rabbis adopted from Roman culture were among the forces that allowed Judaism to survive against oppressive odds. […]

Even as one could distinguish between the rabbis and other Jews within the Jewish world—the rabbis themselves made this distinction—nevertheless they all shared a common Judaism that was heavily inflected by their common Hellenism. The details I have surveyed in this book have made it clear that by and large, the water they swam in was very good. And when they were asked “What the hell is water?” the answer, surely, was that among the many tributaries that made up the empire—from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, from the Euphrates to the Caspian Sea—Judaism took its place within the Roman Empire as a Roman people and religion. Its transformation from the Jerusalem – centered Temple cult to a world religion was a reinvention, a resurrection if you will, accomplished through the vivifying waters of Greco – Roman culture.

The Minds of the Bible
by Rabbi James Cohn
Kindle Locations 1089-1103

It is fascinating to consider that in the same moment that the New Testament is championed in Christianity as the fulfillment (and operatively the replacement) of the Old Testament, the Jewish world creates a new system of Rabbinic Judaism that accomplishes the same thing by a different route. Like the New Testament, the Mishnah cannot afford doctrinally to discard the Old Testament. Both insist that the Old Testament is divinely authored (and authorized), since neither could set aside the idea of a perfect, infallible revelation. But, like the New Testament, the Mishnah insists that it (and only it) is the true interpretation of the “voices” of the Old Testament — and then, like the New Testament, it proceeds to limit those voices for all time.

So I would re-frame this (wrong) question:
“As a religion, why is Christianity so much kinder and more loving that Judaism, which by contrast is sterner and more legalistic?”
The right question is,
“Why is it that, in the space of a scant millennium, religious authorization moves from the auditory reception of articulated voices, to the idea of an indwelling spirit whose essence is revealed in the written word (and, in the process, in the specific de-authorization of all future ‘voices’ as sources of binding religious belief and/ or law)?”

Neither the New Testament nor the Mishnah/ Talmud will admit that it is a new religion: both Christianity and Rabbinic (modern Orthodox) Judaism claim that they are simply fulfillments of the Old Testament. This is philosophically untrue (modern Orthodox Judaism has very little in common with Old Testament Judaism), but strategically effective (and successful, historically, in terms of survival).