Sunday, December 23, 2007

What's in a name? Part 3a: Ioudaios according to Philip Esler

In Conflict and Identity in Romans: The Social Setting of Paul's Letter (Fortress, 2003), Philip Esler, professor of Biblical Criticism at the University of Saint Andrews, argues that the Greek term Ioudaios should be consistently translated by "Judean":

1. The main reason is that Judean corresponds to ancient usage. Ioudaios is just one of many Greek gentilic adjectives that "name ethnic groups in relation to the territory in which they originated" (63). Since we translate Aiguptios as Egyptian and Suros as Syrian, we should translate Ioudaios as Judean. Indeed, ancient writers who commented on the term typically associated the name of the ethnic group with the name of the place. But just as ethnic Egyptians could dwell in Asia Minor and remain Egyptian, so Judeans could live in Rome and remain Judeans. The burden of proof is therefore on anyone who would argue that Ioudaios should be translated as something other than Judean. So far Cohen and Esler are on the same page.

2. "[T]o translate Ἰουδαῖοι [Ioudaioi] as 'Jews' removes from the designation of this ethnic group the reference to Judea, to its temple and the cult practiced there, that both insiders and outsiders regarded as fundamental to its meaning and that according with the almost universal practice of naming ethnic groups after their territories" (66). If we are talking about the connotations the term would have in the minds of modern readers I am not convinced. While "Judean" would definitely be associated with "Judea," it would not necessarily evoke the the temple or its cult in the way that the term, "Jew," with its religious connotations would. In both cases, it is necessary to inform readers what was involved in being a Ioudaios in the first century.

3. "[T]he words 'Jews,' 'Jewish,' and even 'Judaism' now carry meanings indelibly fashioned by events after the first that they are anachronistic in connection with the ancient period" (66-67). It is presumably for the same reason that Esler uses "Christ-movement" rather than Christianity and "Christ-followers" rather than Christians when discussing the social context of Paul's letter to the Romans. Observations:
  • The problem of anachronism is real, and I am willing to consider the use of "Judean" as a possible solution, so long as one is equally rigorous in avoiding anachronism in reference to first century Christ-followers and, perhaps, in reference to 7th century followers of Muhammad. (According to Wikipedia, the label "Muslim" did not come into common usage until later in the history of Islam.)
  • The label Ioudaioi unlike "Christian" was in common use in the first century. The issue is not whether to use the label, but how to translate it into English. If we were having this discussion in Hebrew, there would be no debate because the same term is used for both ancient and modern Yehudim.
  • If one chooses to distinguish between Jew and Judean, when should one switch terms? Esler proposes sometime after 135 CE when all hope of rebuilding the temple was abandoned. But this is to impose a modern (etic) category on rabbinic era Jews/Judeans/Yehudim who surely saw themselves as belonging to the same ethnic group.
  • There are, of course, also strong lines of continuity between first century Ioudaioi and contemporary Jews, just as there are lines of continuity between first century Christ-followers and contemporary Christians, and 7th century Muhammad-followers and contemporary Muslims. It is surely not wrong, at times, to focus on the continuities. Retaining the label "Jew" does this. There are other valid ways of countering anachronism.
  • (I note in passing that Esler, who elsewhere opposes tying ethnicity to physical descent, points to the conversion of the Turkic Khazars in the 9th century as one reason for emphasizing the differences between modern Jews and ancient Judeans.)
4. Like Danker, Esler is concerned about the continuing problem of anti-Semitism: "To overlook the way the cultural features expressing their boundaries with outgroups have changed across the centuries also encourages the anti-Semitic notion of 'the eternal Jew' who, it is alleged, killed Christ and is still around, to be persecuted if possible" (62-63). This argument rings hollow because it is advanced only by Christian and/or Gentile scholars. At present, Jewish scholars are not clamoring for a change in terminology.* To the contrary, the Jewish New Testament scholar, Amy-Jill Levine, claims that Esler's proposal will do more harm than good: "The Jew is replaced with the Judean, and thus we have a Judenrein ('Jew free') text, a text purified of Jews. Complementing this erasure, scholars then proclaim that Jesus is neither Jew nor even Judean, but Galilean....Once Jesus is not a Jew or a Judean, but a Galilean, it is also an easy step to make him an Aryan. So much for the elimination of anti-Semitism by means of changing vocabulary" (The Misunderstood Jew [HarperSanFrancisco, 2006], 160, 165. N.B. As I reread Levine I see that I could have footnoted her for much of the above).

5. "It is arguable that translating Ἰουδαῖοι as "Jews" is not only intellectually indefensible, for the reasons just given, but also morally questionable. To honor the memory of these first-century people it is necessary to call them by a name that accords with their own sense of identity. 'Jews' does not suit this purpose..." (Esler 68). Whatever. This is just a lame attempt to claim the moral high ground.

So we have the fact that most Greek adjectives like Ioudaios are related to place names and that, to be consistent, it would make sense to translate Ioudaios with this geographical connection prominent--that is, as Judean not Jew. We also have a problem with anachronism that can be avoided, in part, by choosing a different label than the one commonly in use. But what about Cohen's claim that Ioudaios came to be used with a distinctively religious meaning? I will consider Esler's response to Cohen in the next post.

*According to Elliott ("Jesus the Israelite," 134 n. 52), Alan Segal in Rebecca's Children: Judaism and Christianity in the Roman World (Harvard, 1986) "favours using 'Judaean' in reference to Ioudaios prior to the fall of the Judaean state and 'Jew' thereafter."

Posts in this series:
Part 1: On Jews and Judeans, Israelites and Israelis
Part 2: Ioudaios according to Shaye Cohen
Part 3a: Ioudaios according to Philip Esler
Part 3b: Philip Esler Responds to Shaye Cohen
Part 4: Judean vs. Israelite according to John H. Elliott
Part 5a: Ioudaios according to Steve Mason
Part 5b: Ioudaios according to Steve Mason
Part 6: Preliminary Conclusions

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