Most people familiar with the Judeo-Christian tradition would be surprised by recent claims that the Greco-Roman world had no category for religion, and that the label ‘Jew’ in Bible translations and popular-level books is a misnomer. Within scholarship on ancient Judaism, debate about whether the Greek word ’Iουδαῖος (Ioudaios), as well as its Latin, Hebrew and Aramaic cognates, should be translated as ‘Jew’ or ‘Judaean’ has created a new Shibboleth. Although the traditional translation ‘Jew’ remains dominant, ‘Judaean’ is now common enough that it can be employed without justification—thanks, in part, to the influential arguments of Malina and Rohrbaugh (1992: 32), Danker (2000: 478), Esler (2003), and Mason (2007), who maintain that the religious connotations of ‘Jew’ are anachronistic, and that Ioudaios is best understood solely as an ethnic label. The debate is volatile, urgent and unresolved. According to one scholar, translating Ioudaios as ‘Jew’ has caused ‘incalculable harm’ (Danker 2000: 478). Another argues that translating Ioudaios as ‘Judaean’ threatens a slippery slope towards anti-Semitism (Levine 2006: 160, 165). Scholars must choose a translation, yet no one wants to be accused of anti-Semitism, anachronism or sheer ignorance merely by their choice of terminology. Underlying the translation debate, however, is a more crucial conversation about the meaning of Ioudaios in the Greco-Roman world, about the identity of the people it designates, and about how we study the past.
This article addresses what is perhaps the central question in current scholarship on the meaning of Ioudaios during the Second Temple period: Did the term sometimes denote an adherent of the religion of Judaism (a religious meaning) or was it merely the name of an ethnic group (an ethnic meaning)? Section one begins by mapping the scholarly terrain, noting when scholars have isolated a religious meaning of Ioudaios and why they have done so. I then review five notable contributions from the last fifteen years in more detail, beginning with Cohen’s (1999) influential argument that Ioudaios first acquired a religious meaning during the Second Temple period, and concluding with S. Schwartz’s (2011) recent claim that a ‘disembedded’ concept of religion was a unique development among Second Temple period Ioudaioi. Esler (2003; 2007; 2009; 2012) and Mason (2007) represent the main alternative, arguing in response to Cohen that the transition to a religious meaning of Ioudaios happened much later. Since the meaning of Ioudaios is only incidental to her project, Buell’s (2005) monograph on ‘ethnic reasoning’ in early Christian discourse may seem out of place in this context, but her argument for an interrelationship between ethnicity and religion, on the one hand, and for continuity between the kind of ethnic practices employed by early Christians and Ioudaioi, on the other, offers an instructive contrast to the other contributions. In addition to introducing recent scholarship on the subject, these five case studies prepare for the next section’s analysis of methodological issues. Section two compares how the case studies define ‘ethnicity’ and ‘religion’, examines ways to bridge the gap between modern and ancient categories, and advances definitions of ‘ethnicity’ and ‘religion’ designed to help address the question of whether it is legitimate to speak of religion as an ancient category of thought and a component of the meaning of Ioudaios. Section three evaluates the case studies in light of important primary evidence.
I argue—in substantial agreement with S. Schwartz—that if Cohen errs in suggesting that a transition to a religious meaning of Ioudaios had already occurred, Esler and Mason err in suggesting that it had not begun. The result in both cases is a confusion of categories that distorts our understanding of what it would have meant to be a Ioudaios during the Second Temple period. As S. Schwartz maintains, something like what we call religion was emerging as an ancient category before there was language to describe it. The evidence indicates that ‘What is a Ioudaios?’ was a live question in the Second Temple period, and that ethnicity was not the only ancient answer. Yet, in his attempt to demonstrate that a concept of religion had already emerged, Schwartz minimizes the extent to which conversion is still depicted in our sources as ethnic transformation, and posits a tension between ethnicity and religion that may have more to do with our categories than ancient realities. Ultimately, I argue that our conventional static categories do not do justice to the meaning of Ioudaios or to the dynamic identity of the people it designates. The most that can be said is that by the end of the Second Temple period a religious meaning was in the process of emerging.
An appendix returns to the translation of Ioudaios. Although conclusions about the meaning of Ioudaios in the Greco-Roman world play an important role in the term’s translation, I argue that they do not settle the issue. Modern translations must also consider the reception history of the term and the contemporary political and ethical implications of its use. In the end, there are compelling contemporary reasons for translating Ioudaios as ‘Jew’ instead of ‘Judaean’.
You can also view the abstract on the CBR website (here), or read about the series and its genesis on this blog (here).