Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.10.56 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.10.56

Eric C. Smith, Jewish Glass and Christian Stone: A Materialist Mapping of the “Parting of the Ways.” Routledge studies in the early Christian world.   New York:  Routledge, 2017.  Pp. 168.  ISBN 9781138202122.  $116.00.  

Reviewed by Michail Kitsos, University of Michigan (


In Jewish Glass and Christian Stone: A Materialist Mapping of the “Parting of the Ways,” Smith discusses the “parting of the ways” between Judaism and Christianity in late antiquity, not on the basis of textual references, but in terms of materiality. The value of this easy-to-read book is that it looks at the intertwined identities of ancient Jews and Christians through a diverse range of material objects. Smith analyzes ancient objects—each made of different materials—that at first seem to be distinctly Jewish or Christian, to challenge the assumptions that elite texts make when they describe Jews and Christians as separate religious groups with clear-cut boundaries. Smith studies these artifacts through critical race theory, intersectionality, hybridity, and consumer theory to discuss the intersectional identity of things and people to open a window “into the lives of everyday persons, who did not recognize or respect textual boundaries” (71).

In the Introduction, “The Geographies of Identity” (1-9), Smith describes the importance of exploring the “emergence (or divergence) of Christianity and Judaism” (1) and identity-formation by studying material culture. He aims to show the nuances of Christian identity in late antiquity, especially when Jewish identity is in play, by exploring “the complexity found in the material lives and living materiality of ancient persons” (6). Giving the plan of his book, Smith anticipates his ambitious endeavor to describe a “materialist mapping of the ‘parting of the ways’.”

In Chapter 1, “Mountains, Valleys, and Stones” (10-25), Smith describes his methodological approach and the sources he examined to construct “a materialist account of formative Judaism and Christianity” (11). Smith’s goal with his book is to provide an alternative look at Judaism and Christianity that moves beyond the typical metaphor of the “twin daughters.” Without disregarding altogether the twin daughter metaphor, which has been used to describe the relationship of Judaism and Christianity stemming from second-Temple Judaism, Smith privileges another metaphor based on a third-century CE work, the De Duobus Montibus Sina et Sion. This metaphor presents “Judaism and Christianity as two mountains on a landscape” (11) to describe the relationship between Judaism and Christianity and the “parting of the ways.” By examining a diverse range of artifacts made of glass, stone, clay, papyrus, paint, ink, and vellum, Smith narrates the history of people who lived in the space between Judaism and Christianity to question the clear-cut boundaries between “religions” established by modern scholarly perceptions. Smith explains convincingly that texts written by elites constructed the binary between Judaism and Christianity but these boundaries in texts did not necessarily reflect reality. He shows that people who lived in the space between Judaism and Christianity either did not conform to boundaries or these boundaries were unimportant to them. For example, he analyzes the inscription on the grave stone of a certain Germanos which bears a cross and a menorah and concludes that the inscriptions indicate the non-conformity of the deceased or, I would say, of those who chose this grave stone, with being either Jewish or Christian.

Because Smith’s monograph deals exclusively with the concepts of Jewish and Christian identities within the conventions of the religions of Judaism and Christianity, Chapter 2, “Mountains: The Construction of World Religions” (26-38) is a succinct but informative exploration of the modern construction of religion, which originates in European imperialism and colonialism that imposed identities on people outside Europe and defined their religions. These constructions of religion and identity have their beginnings in the ancient period. They stem from the works of ancient Christian authors and heresiologists who wrote about Christianity as a distinctive religious phenomenon and defined themselves to distinguish themselves from the “other.” These works, consequently, created boundaries between Judaism and Christianity in particular. Thus, Smith explains how when we discuss the religions of ancient Judaism and Christianity, “we are always trafficking in the language and ideology of both ancient polemicists and the early modern colonizers who invented religion as we know it” (35).

In Chapter 3, “Valleys: Intersectional, Material Antiquity” (39-60), Smith underscores the importance of materialism in the investigation of religion and in discussing the reality of boundaries between Judaism and Christianity. He describes several theoretical approaches, feminism, critical race theory, intersectionality, and hybridity, and briefly explains each one to show how each informed his study. These theories explain that individuals have more than one identity and describe the porousness, permeability, and mixture of identities.

From Chapter 4 to Chapter 9, Smith analyzes different objects, each made of different materials, to explain the intersectional identities of these objects and, through each object, the “intersectional and hybrid lives of persons” in late antiquity (72). For the study of each object, Smith draws on one or more of the theories described in Chapter 3.

In Chapter 4, “Glass: The Identities of Things” (61-76), Smith analyzes a gold glass fragment from the Catacomb of St. Marcellinus and St. Peter in Rome that bears distinctly Jewish iconography. Using the frameworks of hybridity and intersectionality, Smith argues, an object with Jewish iconography in a Christian setting shows more interaction and commingling than separation between groups, because whoever placed the gold glass there had no reservations in doing so. The glass fragment with Jewish iconography was not seen as distinctly “Jewish.”

In Chapter 5, “Clay: The Economics of Belonging” (77-92), Smith uses consumer theory to examine an oil lamp from the necropolis of Beth She’arim that is adorned with a cross, an image of an oil lamp, and a seal stamp that combines images of a menorah and a cross. Smith reads the objects against consumer theory to reveal that, on the one hand, their buyers purchased the objects intentionally because they reflected their needs and, on the other hand, that their producers were making the objects to meet market demands. Therefore, Smith argues, these objects “are not transgressive of boundaries, [but] they are expressions of the way people thought about themselves” (87).

In Chapter 6, “Marble: Stories in Stone” (93-110) Smith examines four marble figurines of Jonah from Asia Minor that are now housed in the Cleveland Museum of Art and shows the processes through which objects assume multiple identities. The four Jonah figurines, which portray different phases from the prophet’s life (93) and draw their thematics from the ancient Israelite context, were used in a Christian funerary milieu. In analyzing these artifacts, which combine Jewish thematics and Christian use, Smith discusses the idea of hybridity through materiality within a Jewish and Christian context because they are examples of the negotiation of the Jewish and Christian identities in late antiquity.

Chapter 7, “Paint: The Hollowness of Symbols” (111-126) investigates the menorah and the cross to show that symbols which modern constructions of religion identify as strictly Jewish or strictly Christian in reality had multiple identities. Smith states that “symbols are always shared, polyvalent, and polysemous, reflecting their origins in the intersectional layered world of antiquity” (121-122). This polysemy appears in other Jewish and Christian symbols, too, such as the lulav, ethrog, shofar, incense shovel, the Torah ark, and the Temple façade, or the dove, the fish, the vines and peacocks, the anchor, the shepherd, and the orant. Symbols have more than one meaning—not only Jewish or only Christian—and as Smith explains “any sign we find for this period that points to anything like either ‘Judaism’ or ‘Christianity’ is hopelessly entangled with the other” (122). The author concludes that people in antiquity recognized those symbols that belonged to them and used symbols “that expressed whatever it was that they wanted to express” (122).

Smith examines the Vienna Genesis manuscript in Chapter 8 “Vellum: ‘Relations’ in Miniature” (127-141). By analyzing this medieval manuscript, which shows “signs of drawing upon previous texts and works of art” of Jewish origin (130), Smith demonstrates that Christian manuscript illustrations follow rabbinic interpretations and Jewish “artistic conventions” (136). Christian manuscript illuminations bear Jewish textual influences, and, thus, they illustrate the interrelated relationships between Judaism and Christianity in late antiquity. As Smith argues, Judaism and Christianity “were part of shared networks of influence and learning” (137), and Christian manuscript illuminations provide little support for rigid boundaries.

The production, consumption, and cultic function of books is the focus of Chapter 9, “Papyrus: The Practice of Text” (142-158). Jews and Christians both interpreted texts and engaged in scribal activity. Jews and Christians both used the codex and the scroll and Smith explains modern scholarly assumptions that Christians used exclusively the codex and the Jews used only the scroll should not be taken at face value. The book format should be seen more within the parameters of a shared tradition. Similarly, nomina sacra and the tetragrammaton should not be taken exclusively as indicative of the Christian and Jewish origin of a text but both should be seen as arising “from the same sensibility about representing special words in writing” (149) and both stand out in the flow of the text, calling the attention of the readers to the words. Smith, thus, concludes that “Jewish and Christian manuscripts were in some continuity and conversation with one another, and that the divisions we have imagined between Jewish and Christian textual practices were not always as rigid as we thought” (152).

In Chapter 10, “The Mountains from the Valley” (159-164), Smith summarizes his argument and reflects on the “parting of the ways” from a materialist perspective. He challenges the idea that texts from Judaism and Christianity can tell us reliably about the “parting of the ways” and reinforces his criticism of the “world religions” model and of terms such as “‘religion,’ ‘identity,’ ‘Jew,’ and ‘Christian’” (160). Smith argues that the former category promotes an understanding of Judaism and Christianity as isolated entities and the latter have been associated with the construction of binaries. Smith acknowledges that the objects he examined may not represent anything normative about Judaism and Christianity and that they are exceptional examples. However, he reminds us that “any notion of mainstream is a construct” and that what deviates from the mainstream stems from polemical literature (161). The chronological and geographical range of the objects he examines give a different picture of the “parting of the ways,” which seems to have happened later than texts usually present.

In all, this is a well-written and easy-to-read book that uses modern theories to examine material objects to explore the “parting of the ways.” Smith presents well-constructed and convincing arguments that offer an alternative way of reading objects with intertwined identities. This materialist approach sheds new light on the “parting of the ways;” however, reading this book, one sees that it follows a repetitive pattern. Each material object underlines the same argument. This approach is not necessarily negative, but it could be achieved with fewer artifacts. The author also does not fully explain why he uses a particular theory for each object. It seems that each theory could apply to any of the objects. Nevertheless, although the objects Smith analyzes serve the same argument, they represent the most prominent materials used in the ancient world. This approach shows the author’s desire to describe that Jewish and Christian objects made of diverse materials, such as glass, clay, marble, painted images, vellum, and papyrus, exhibited hybridity and intersectionality irrespective of their material makeup. By no means do these criticisms decrease the importance and contribution of this book. Smith’s monograph is a much-needed addition to the literature that studies Jewish—Christian relationships and the “parting of the ways,” for it uses material and not textual evidence to investigate, analyze, and discuss the “parting of the ways” in late antiquity.

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