Published online by Cambridge University Press: 08 March 2010
Among the issues defining the limits of corporate tolerance in Christianity and Judaism are matters of morality and lifestyle. In this context it can be quite revealing to examine the distinctive characteristics of how Jews and Christians explained and justified that morality in public discourse. By ‘public’ discourse I mean that which is carried on in terms that would be relevant to outsiders, within the early imperial environment of pluralistic paganism. Such public dialogue may be real or only notional, just as apologetics may be internal as well as external dialogue; indeed the difference between internal and external need not always be clear. Ethics for present purposes is ‘public’ regardless of whether its communication to outsiders is intended to be persuasive, reassuring, or straightforwardly explanatory.
Before going on to look at some of the substantive questions on this subject, it is worth considering briefly the social Sitz im Leben of such public discourse. It must be admitted from the outset that for both Judaism and Christianity, deliberate thought about public ethics probably always remained a fringe activity on the part of a social and intellectual elite. What is more, Jewish life and practice at least in the larger centres like Palestine, Alexandria or Antioch was a sufficiently established reality on the ground to make popular preoccupation with this subject the exception rather than the rule.
However, it would be erroneous to conclude that the subject of public moral discourse is therefore only of marginal interest for the study of early Jewish and Christian attitudes to tolerance. There are in fact a number of points worth raising in reply.