The Fourth Century and a Parting of Ways between Christianity and Judaism

In many ways, it’s fair to view the history of Christianity as a history of debates. From the Iconoclastic Controversies of the Byzantine Empire to the Protestant Reformation of post-Renaissance Europe, any student of theology is likely familiar with at least a few such debates. Dr. Emanuel Fiano, a member of the Theology department at Fordham, specializes in the earlier debates of the fourth century. Dr. Fiano explains that historians tend to neglect the controversies of this time period due to the dense, abstruse nature of the disputes.  Fourth-century Christian authors employed a wide variety of puzzling vocabulary to settle their debates, spelling out –for example— the precise differences between the “essence,” the “substance,” and the “nature” of something. In addition, disagreements about Christ’s role in the trinity relied on daunting distinctions between what it means to be “born,” “created,” or “begotten.” While such intimidating terminology might scare away most scholars, the puzzling quality of these early Christian discourses lies at the core of Dr. Fiano’s research.

Until the fourth century, the religions of Judaism and Christianity were largely not two separate entities; instead, they were still one vague continuum of traditions. Dr. Fiano argues that these abstruse fourth-century Christian debates mark the point in history in which Christianity and Judaism began to diverge for the first time–but not for the reasons one may expect. According to Dr. Fiano, the divergence of Christianity and Judaism had little to do with the actual theological content of each faith’s doctrine. For example, some historians believe that the split occurred when Jewish scholars simply refused to accept the idea of a “second entity” that exists in addition to God (Christians, of course, thought that Christ was such an entity). Despite what one might expect, records show that Jewish communities would have been willing to accept such a belief at the time.

Dr. Fiano argues that Christianity and Judaism diverged simply as a result of different intellectual practices. According to Dr. Fiano, “It’s not that they were saying different things about the same problem, they were just dealing with different problems.” Groups that would develop into Christianity tended to focus on abstract logical problems and the development of highly-technical terminology to solve them. Groups that would develop into Judaism started asking different kinds of questions; they tended to focus their writings on what the norms and the laws of communities should be or how to interpret Biblical narratives. Then after this initial intellectual divergence, Judaism and Christianity would have developed into the two notably distinct traditions that we are familiar with today.

In addition to research on the Jewish-Christian continuum, Dr. Emanuel Fiano also conducts work on Christian texts in ancient Middle Eastern languages like Syriac and Coptic. He offers courses on both of these languages at Fordham, and he particularly recommends that students interested in Middle Eastern Studies or the history of Islam spend some time getting to know the interesting field of Eastern Christianity. Moreover, he expresses that he is always open to help undergraduate students interested in research similar to his own.


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