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HTS Theological Studies

On-line version ISSN 2072-8050
Print version ISSN 0259-9422

Herv. teol. stud. vol.67 n.1 Pretoria Jan. 2011




Disaffiliation in associations and the ἀποσυναγωγός



John S. KloppenborgI,II

IDepartment for the Study of Religion, University of Toronto, Canada
IIDepartment of New Testament Studies, University of Pretoria, South Africa

Correspondence to




This article tries to understand what might have been at stake for the synagogue from which the Johannine Jesus partisans had been expelled and what was at stake in the coinage of the term ἀποσυναγωγός. It we refuse to accept naively John's overlexicalised and retrospective account of the grounds for expulsions and pay attention to the practices of other groups in articulating a disciplinary code, I suggest that what was at stake was deviant behaviour on the part of the Johannine Jesus-partisans: either failure to comply with the larger group's practices concerning Sabbath observance, or more likely, clique formation.




The appearance of the term ἀποσυναγωγός in the Gospel of John (9:22, 12:42, 16:2) — apparently a neologism — has served as an important key to positing a date and setting for the gospel. In his influential History and Theology in the Fourth Gospel (1979), J. Louis Martyn argued that the term, which is featured prominently in the healing of the blind man in John 9 and his subsequent expulsion from the synagogue, reflects not the time of the historical Jesus in the 30s of the common era, but the time of the revision of the Birkhat haMinim at Yavneh ca. 85–90. The story in John 9 reports that this expulsion occurred ἤδη γὰρ συνετέθειντο οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι ἵνα ἐάν τις αὐτὸν ὁμολογήσῃ χριστόν, ἀποσυνάγωγος γένηται ('For the Judaeans had already agreed that if someone should acknowledge him as Christ, he should be expelled from the synagogue', 9:22) — thus making the basis for expulsion a christological confession.

The grounds for supposing that a time later than the early 1st century CE is reflected by John 9:22 are several:

• it is quite unthinkable that in Jesus' day such a decision had already been taken

• the Pharisees, who are depicted as the interrogators in vv. 13, 15, 16, and 40, were scarcely in a position in the 1st century to police membership in synagogues for the simple reason that there is little evidence to suggest that the synagogue was the special sphere of Pharisaic activity and influence

• the alleged decision singles out a christological confession that the healed man had not in fact made (nor does he in the course of chapter 9) and which could only have become a criterion for expulsion very much after the time of Jesus

• the alleged decision concerns expulsion from a synagogue but the story itself is set in the shadow of the Temple.1

Martyn's solution to these aporiae is well known. John 9:22 (and 12:42 and 16:2) is part of a bi-level narration: elements belonging to the experience of John's group in the last decade of the 1st century overlay an earlier healing story, and that second level reflects the situation that obtained in the wake of the revision of the Birkhat haMinim, when a 'blessing' (i.e., cursing) of the no,ѕrim and minim was added to an older benediction.2 This cannot have occurred much before 85 CE, since the Babli ascribed its revision to Samuel the Small, a contemporary of Rabban Gamaliel.3 Martyn allows a range of dates between 80 and 115 CE, preferring a date earlier rather than later (1979: 56–57).

Martyn's proposal is significant, not simply for the dating of the Fourth Gospel, but also for a general interpretation of its contents, in particular the development of its high christology and its relationship towards other Jews of the period. If the Birkhat haMinim had been promulgated and implemented generally by John's day, continued membership in synagogue communities would have been difficult or impossible for members of the Jesus movement and this, in turn, would help to account for John's ways of describing his Jewish opponents, his relationship to major Jewish institutions, and the very depiction of Jesus as a 'stranger from heaven'.4


The Birkhat haMimin in recent discussion

Martyn's thesis has garnered both positive5 and negative responses. The negative reaction has to do with the identities of the rim,nos and the minim of the Twelfth Benediction, its intended function, and the date of the composition or revision of the Benediction. Reuven Kimelman urged that the earliest secure references to a liturgical cursing of Nazoraeans is from Epiphanius (Haer. 29.9.1–2) and that Origen, who had close contacts with Jews and polemicised against them, knew nothing of a liturgical cursing. John of course says nothing of liturgical cursing and Kimelman points out that Justin' statement in Dial. 137.2,6 which is often cited as evidence supporting an early introduction of a synagogue curse against Christians, does not use καταρᾶσθαι ('to curse') but rather ἐπισκώπτειν, 'to scoff' and says that this occurs after prayers, not during them (1981: 135–37). Kimelman (1981) concludes:

the fact that the term no,ѕrim  a nan of,first appears in rabbinic literature in the mouth of R. Joh the third century warrants the conclusion that the Genizah formula which reads ha-no,srim ve ha-minim (the no,srim and the minim) was composed between the time of R. ,Joh anan (d. c. 279) and the writing of the Panarion (377). The data also warrant the conclusion that no,srim does not denote Christians, but rather Nazoraeans, a Jewish Christian sect whose existence is vouched for by at least two fourth-century sources.

(Kimelman 1981: 138)7

In Kimelman's view the Birkhat haMinim did not have Christians specifically in view, and the 4th-century revision, which added no,srim, was directed at Jewish Christians, not Christians in general. He claims that there is no unambiguous evidence that Judaeans cursed Christians in their synagogues, and that Christians were 'welcome in synagogues' (1981: 244).

William Horbury offered a very different assessment of the evidence, arguing that there is good evidence, beginning with Justin, that Christians were cursed in synagogues,8 and this can only have occurred during synagogue prayers, despite Justin's μετὰ τὴν προσευχήν. Hence, the traditional idea that the Birkhat haMinim was directed against Christians is essentially correct (Horbury 1982: 17–61). In a later article, Horbury argued that, even setting aside the issue of the particular form that exclusionary practices might have taken and the specific issues of the formulation and dating of the Birkhat haMinim:

the evidence for excommunication from the general Jewish body in the pre-rabbinic period is not plentiful, but it is enough to suggest the existence of a recognised custom. Groups such as the Qumran community and the 'Associates' of the Mishnah would have been likely, from their limited and exclusive character, to implement the custom more frequently than the general body.

(Horbury 1985: 38)

In assessing the debate, it is important to distinguish three issues. Firstly there is the issue of whether no,ѕrim included Gentile as well as Judaean Christians. Whilst important, this issue turns out to be irrelevant for the purposes of this paper. Kimelman and Teppler have shown that the term no,srim appears only late in Amoraic literature, that rabbinic allusions to the Benediction fail to mention the no,srim in those contexts, and that the benediction was always known as Birkhat haMinim, and never as Birkhat haNo,srim. This strongly suggests that no,srim is a late addition, probably not much earlier than the 4th century (Kimelman 1981: 234).9

A second issue concerns connotations of minim. Kimelman helpfully distinguishes between min in tannaitic, Palestinian amoraic, and Babylonian amoraic usages, and observes that in tannaitic literature min denotes any deviant Judaean (1981: 228).10 Since there is little in tannaitic literature to single out Jewish Christians specifically as minim, Kimelman argues that the benediction was directed against Jewish sectarians (1981: 244). Peter Schäfer argues: 'die in Jabne in das Achtzehn-Bitten-Gebet eingeführte birkat hammînîm richtete sich gegen die römische Obrigkeit und gegen verschiedene Gruppen von Häretikern' ('The Birkat haMinim that was inserted into the Eighteen Benedictions at Yavneh is directed against Roman authority and against various groups of heretics') (Schäfer 1978: 62).11

Schäfer recognised that amongst these heretical groups were Jewish Christians, but whether they were in view at the time of the composition of the Birkhat haMinim is uncertain.

Placing more emphasis on Justin's statements, Stephen Wilson argues that 'Christians were not the sole, or even the most important, group of heretics whom the Yavnean rabbis faced' but that Christians were included in the benediction against the minim (1995: 183). Whilst allowing that Justin's statements are confused and do not reflect firsthand experience with the synagogue, Wilson (1995) observes:

It is true that (Justin's) references to the cursing of Christians are vague, but it is hard to know what they refer to if not to the Birkat ha-minim. An exact correspondence between (Justin's statements and the Birkat ha-minim) is not to be expected. Unless Justin had firsthand knowledge of the wording of synagogue prayers—and he nowhere leads us to think that he had—a somewhat garbled account comes as no surprise. It is important, too, even allowing for all the qualifications in recent discussions of the malediction, to note the consensus that Jewish Christians were included amongst the minim. The omnibus curse against Jewish heretics could have been understood by Christians to have been directed specifically against them even though that was not originally its sole purpose.

(Wilson 1995: 182)

Wilson's view takes Justin's repeated comments seriously, but also recognises that his claim that the curse was directed at all Christians is likely a result of his misunderstanding. As various commentators have pointed out, a Gentile, Christian or not, cannot be a min.12

Other commentators hold that in the formulation of the Birkhat haMinim the Jesus movement was centrally in view. Beginning with the proposition that John 9:22, 12:42 and 16:2 must reflect an actual Judaean charge against Christians, Segal concludes that what was at stake was the claim of the Johannine group that Jesus was a mediator, which could then be construed as a claim that there were 'two powers in heaven', a position that tannaitic sages roundly rejected (cf. m. Sanh. 4.5). The revision of the 12th benediction was intended to apply to anyone holding that there were 'two powers' and although it was not aimed specifically at Christians, it applied 'implicitly to Christians' (1981: 254–57). Segal thus argues that 'the Christian community, in turn, appears to have correctly understood this as a criticism of their position (1981: 257). Quibbling only with Segal's 'implicitly', Teppler is in essential agreement with Segal: 'the stance of this Midrash (Gen. Rab. 1.713) on the question of the minim and in particular on the problem of the Two Powers, is essentially anti Christian' (2007: 347 (Author's emphasis)). The most recent contributor to the topic, Marius Heemstra urges that the Birkhat haMinim was 'intended to excommunicate Jewish Christians, besides other groups, as heretics' and that the issue was the Christian claim that the Messiah was 'from heaven', which implicitly conflicted with the divine origin of the Torah and thus fell under the condemnation of m. Sanh. 10.1:

But the following have no portion (in the world to come): He who maintains that resurrection is not a biblical Doctrine, the Torah was not divinely revealed, and an Epikoros.

(Heemstra 2009)14

Whilst most of the commentators discussed up to now conclude that the minim of early rabbinic literature included members of the Judaean Jesus movement either implicitly or explicitly, it is important to inquire into the function of the discussion of minut in Mishnaic sources. Martin Goodman has reflected on the curious fact that quite unlike Christian heresiologists such as Irenaeus (or much later, Epiphanius), who display a prurient interest in the beliefs and practices of heretics, not only are mishnaic authorities extremely laconic in their allusions to the beliefs of the minut, but it is impossible to deduce who specifically was in view, as there is no common denominator for the few beliefs and practices to which allusion is made.

Goodman accounts for this reluctance to describe heretical positions by arguing that the early rabbis exhibited a kind of solepsism: the 'tendency to think about their Jewishness almost entirely in terms of the life of an adult male rabbinic Jew' (1996: 507). Rather than attacking minim the rabbis ignored them:

There is no evidence that it served to hound out of the fold particular deviants whose continued presence was believed to threaten the health of the body politic of Judaism. Nor is there evidence that it served to define correct behaviour for rabbinic Jews by clarifying what was forbidden in thought or deed.

(Goodman 1996: 508)

Instead, the concept of minim served as a way for rabbis to think about a category of Jews 'whose theology or behaviour placed them outside the covenant between God and Israel' (Goodman 1996: 508). If, as Goodman suggests, the concept of minut functioned as a theoretical limit-concept for rabbinic identity rather than a practical mechanism for the regulation of Judaean life, there is even less reason to suppose that it had any function or effect outside the batei midrash.

A 3rd issue has the effect of relativising the force of the Benediction: it is in fact by no means probable that the Yavnean innovation could have met with immediate and universal acceptance, as earlier scholars sometimes tacitly assumed.15 Not only did the Yavnean sages not have the institutional base to enforce their rulings on synagogues generally,16 but they probably also lacked the prestige and influence that might incline synagogues beyond their immediate control to adopt their practices.17 Levine has identified a series of aspects of the social and institutional location of the sages that would have limited their influence:

• prior to the 3rd century CE the sages were primarily based in small towns rather than the larger cities of the Galilee

• the batei midrash were gatherings in private homes (and hence associated with particular sages) rather than in permanent institutions with regular rules of succession

• the well-attested animosity of 2nd-century sages towards other Jews, whom they designated as 'ammei ha-aretz, hardly indicates that they were influential in public affairs

• correspondingly, there is little evidence of 2nd-century sages holding public office.

This was to change in the 3rd century CE, in such a way that the rabbinic class could now assume a prominent political role, as it did under Judah ha Nasi:

These three major developments (in the 3rd century)—urbanisation, institutionalisation, and a more positive attitude toward Jewish society at large—are in many ways interrelated. By transferring the focus of their activity to large urban centers and creating independent permanent institutions, the rabbis were led, of necessity, to develop a closer relationship with other sectors of the population. Alternatively, the positive attitude towards non-rabbinic Jewish society (which may have developed for other reasons entirely...) certainly played a role in drawing sages to the centers of the Jewish population and in encouraging them to associate with these Jewish communities on a sustained basis.

(Levine 1989: 32)

Prior to 3rd century, in fact, rabbis are not represented as having much contact with the synagogue; their main institutional home was the bet midrash (Levine 1992: 206–7).18 It follows from whatever measures were taken at Yavneh, they could not have had the widespread effects that scholars of Christian origins have assumed. Commenting on the evidence for the formulation and influence of the 'amidah, Ruth Langer has concluded:

No single piece of evidence offered here definitively proves that the central prayer of Rabbinic Judaism, the 'amidah, began to influence Jewish practice at the earliest in the mid- to late-third century, several centuries after it was decreed at Yavneh... Whilst the rabbis may have developed relatively quickly a complex ritual response to fill the void left by the loss of the biblically mandated sacrifices, successful promulgation of this liturgy was an exceedingly slow process.