PSCO Presentation: 17 February, 2011

“Saints and the doctrine of the ex nihilo: Jewish or Christian things?”

Virginia Burrus (Drew University)


PSCO’s theme “Words and Things” evokes so-called ordinary language philosophy (one thinks of J L Austin’s 1955 William James Lectures How to Do Things with Words) and/or its detractors (Ernest Gellner’s 1959 Words and Things). It may bring to mind not only the linguistic turn but also the turn to things (Bruno Latour’s 2000 “How to Do Words with Things,” Bill Brown’s 2001 “Thing Theory”—or, half a century earlier, Heidegger’s “Das Ding”). What kind of things do the words “Judaism” and “Christianity” do, when invoked by scholars of antiquity? we are invited to ask. And also: Is Christianity or Judaism a thing? Alternatively: are there Jewish or Christian things, and how do we use words to talk about things that are both Jewish and Christian, that might be both at once, either in their specificity (“this here thing”—say, the Septuagint) or in their generality (“that … thing people do”—say, a certain style of exegesis). Much depends, of course, on how one defines thingliness.

The subtitle of our theme invites us to equate things with objects of study. Yet arguably the thingliness of things lies largely in their capacity to exceed or elude linguistic objectification. As Bill Brown puts it, “we look through objects …, but we only catch a glimpse of things. We look through objects because there are codes by which our interpretive attention makes them meaningful, because there is a discourse of objectivity that allows us to use them as facts. A thing, in contrast, can hardly function as a window. We begin to confront the thingliness of objects when they stop working for us: when the drill breaks, when the car stalls, when the windows get filthy” (“Thing Theory,” 4). Things draw or provoke language yet they also withdraw from it: after all, we often call something a “thing” if we aren’t sure what else to call it. Things may seem to be both here and absent, strangely immediate and yet also strangely hard to grasp. We tend to associate thingliness with the most concretely material particularity—a door knob, a pencil, a jug. Thingliness can also apply to the most abstract phenomena: as Augustine asks famously, “But what is time? If no one asks me, I know; if I want to explain it to someone, I don’t know” (Conf. 11.14).

So we might ask: But what is Christianity, what is Judaism? If no one asks me, I know; if I want to explain it to someone, I don’t know. We have learned, rightly, to be suspicious of our own categories, of the things our words do, yet I suspect that most of us still use the words Christianity and Judaism, with or without scare quotes, quite routinely with reference to Mediterranean antiquity. The point is not merely that we need some kind of language if we are to speak at all (a banal enough observation). In fact, our sources tempt us, for better or worse, with ways of speaking that dramatize and foreground, and also isolate, questions of identity as such—that allow Christianness, for example, to take on the status of thingliness precisely as a performative utterance (Christiana sum!), pushing at the limits of language from within language, as it were. A certain slippage between between Christianness as an isolable, self-sustaining thing (a perception encouraged, even demanded, by our ancient sources) and Christianness as a contingent object of scholarly discourse — a window to see with, not a thing-in-itself — is both unavoidable and often problematic, I suspect.

In this paper, I want to approach the question of the thingliness of Christianity or Judaism indirectly, by considering the question of Christian and Jewish things — two things in particular, namely, sainthood and the ex nihilo doctrine. These are topics I happen to have been thinking about in the last few years; however, they are not simply randomly chosen for this talk. Both sainthood and the ex nihilo are generally considered very Christian-y things from the perspective of late antiquity studies (and not only from the perspective of late antiquity studies); yet arguably they also come to characterize what might be considered some of the most Jewish-y forms of Judaism — that is, Hasidic forms. This paradox invites us to reconsider our classification of late ancient hagiography and the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo: might these be Jewish things too, and if so, what difference, if any, might this make? I will first discuss the hagiography thing with reference to tales of rabbis in the Babylonian Talmud and tales of saints in Christian collective hagiographies, then turn to the ex nihilo thing in Athanasius, Augustine, and Genesis Rabbah.


Virginia Burrus is professor of early church history and chair of the graduate division of religion at Drew University. For further information, visit her profile at Drew University.

Meeting and Dining

All are welcome! Those wishing to dine together before the seminar will meet at 6:00 pm in the Cohen Hall Second-Floor Lounge to go next door to the food court in Houston Hall.

Suggested Reading

Virginia Burrus, “A Saint of One’s Own: Emmanuel Levinas, Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, and Eulalia of Mérida,” L'Esprit Créateur 50 (2010): 6-20.

Virginia Burrus, “Carnal Excess: Flesh at the Limits of Imagination,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 17 (2009): 247-265.

Maren Niehoff, “Creatio Ex Nihilo Theology in Genesis Rabbah in Light of Christian Exegesis,” Harvard Theological Review 99, no. 1 (2005): 37–64.

PDF copies of these articles are available on request from Phil Fackler (

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