Wednesday, December 26, 2007

What's in a name? Part 6: Preliminary Conclusions

In antiquity, Ioudaios was an ethnic term that designated the people whose homeland was Judaea, who worshiped the God whose temple was in Jerusalem, who observed the ancestral law (of Moses), and who believed themselves to be descended from Abraham through Isaac and Jacob. In other words, it combined together what we think of as geographical, religious and cultural elements. The term was ambiguous in that it could be used in a narrow geographical sense (Judaean as opposed to Galilean) as well as in its more common ethnic sense (Judaeans from Judaea and Galilee).* The Ioudaioi were an ethnic group considered distinctive in part because of their strange and exclusive views about God. There was, however, no separate religious meaning of the word. Those from other ethnicities who wanted to worship the God whose temple was in Jerusalem and adopt the Ioudaios way of life had to convert from one ethnicity to another.

[*I am now inclined to distinguish between ethnic and geographic meanings of the same term instead of dual or nested ethnicity. This would explain Acts 2:5-13 where the Ioudaioi in 2:5 (here an ethnic designator) consisted of Ioudaioi and Cappadocians (2:9; here a geographic designator). Dual or nested ethnicity could be reserved for instances where someone was a citizen of the Greek ethnos of Alexandria and a Ioudaios at the same time.]

We do not have an English word that does justice to the meaning of Ioudaios. "Jew" captures the religious, cultural and sometimes the narrow ethnic aspects of the word, but misses the strong geographical element. Translating Ioudaios by "Jew" also distinguishes the word unjustifiably from other ethnic nouns. "Judaean" by contrast, captures the tight connection between the people and their homeland, but to a modern ear misses the religious and cultural aspects of the ancient term. "Judaean" might help avoid anachronism, although the danger of anachronism will always linger. "Judaean" also lacks continuity with the ongoing tradition of contemporary Judaism.

I do not think either translation is wrong. I lean towards Judaean in academic settings because its very unfamiliarity encourages more careful reflection on what would have been meant by the term in antiquity. On the other hand, I have no desire to be innovative or to follow the latest fad in my use of terminology. The important thing is to explain the semantic range underlying the word behind our English translation. (I can imagine someone concluding, "So Jesus wasn't a Jew after all. He was just someone from Judaea who lived among a bunch of Jews." ...If one Ioudaios is a Judaean, all Ioudaioi are Judaeans.) Ideally, one would take a course on Second Temple "Judaism." Unfortunately, I do not have a handy catch-all alternative to "Judaism."

These are my tentative conclusions. I have used this series of posts to force myself to think through the literature and issues more carefully than I would otherwise do. One advantage of doing this in a public forum is that others can correct my mistakes, push me to consider implications I may have overlooked and encourage me to revise my conclusions as necessary. Please join in.

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


Leon said...

You are right that the danger is that some people will conclude that Jesus was not a Jew after all — when he very much was, I would add. The goal of historical Jesus studies should be to understand Jesus' Jewishness. Scholars created this field in the 19th century to avoid this and they are still avoiding it — actually, preventing it by more and more sophisticated means.

What I find dismaying is that scholars are playing games with terms like "Judean" and "Israelite" in order to accomplish the same thing that "late Judaism" once did — which is, to sever Jesus from his Pharisaic/rabbinic culture. According to scholars, Jesus' deep immersion in this culture must never be revealed.

As I put it in my own writings, "Jew" and "Jewish" are the proper terms for that people and culture which never stopped arguing with itself, with its God, and with the book that recorded its birth in history. Scholars are just finding fancier ways to avoid this.

Thus, I could say that rabbinic literature has a lot to say about chutzpah (an Aramaic word) towards others and towards God, and that Jesus says the same things in the Gospels, and by comparing the two, we can learn a lot about him. A genuine scholar or scientist should be excited by all this evidence. But my experience is that scholars give all such work the silent treatment, and instead play games to cover up what kind of Jew Jesus was, and just as important, to create the false impression of hostility between Jesus and other Jews (especially Pharisees and priests).

Leon Zitzer

J. Matthew Barnes said...

David: If the ethnic and geographical aspects which you are highlighting are sometimes overlooked by the Ioudaioi themselves (with regard to conversion and people outside of Judea), doesn't that indicate that the "theocentric" aspect of Ioudaios represents the semantic center of the term in question? If the former changes based on circumstance but the latter is always applicable, shouldn't the latter win the day?

Leon: You say, "The goal of historical Jesus studies should be to understand Jesus' Jewishness." This is perhaps part of the problem with the whole enterprise of historical Jesus studies. If a scholar goes about an investigation of the historical Jesus hoping to find and authenticate his Jewishness, then s/he will find her/his conception of Jewishness under every rock and around every corner. Would it not be better for those seeking the historical Jesus to set as a goal an objective-as-possible investigation of the sources about Jesus and their historical settings in order to better reveal to people today who Jesus "really" was? Going into the search looking for Jewishness will certainly color the findings!

Leon said...


I don't think Jewishness colors things in a biased way. Would you object to understanding what ia American about Mark Twain or Indian about Gandhi or Apache about Geronimo? Why is Jesus the only one who is separated from his culture? Why is doubt cast on understanding his Jewishness when this is not done for anyone else?

By "Jewish", I mean that people and culture which maintained its relationship with the content and language of the written Torah and was constantky wrestling with it. The Pharisees and rabbis certainly did this. There is plenty of evidence in the Gospels that Jesus/Joshua was doing the same thing. Far too many parallels to be mere coincidence.

Other approaches are the ones lacking in objectivity. They start from a premise — Jesus must be divorced from his culture and in conflict with it — and then the evidence is rearranged (some of it actually erased) to make it fit the premise. I don't see why there should be such trouble with the word Jewish. "Jewish" identifies a continually developing culture and Jesus participated in that. The evidence is there. Whatever they called themselves in their time, those terms can be very misleading today. "Israelite" makes us think of biblical Jews or Hebrews and Jesus was not a biblical Jew. He participated in the continual oral culture of his time. That is still being suppressed in scholarly studies.

Leon Zitzer

d. miller said...

Hi Leon,

Thanks for your comments. Do you care to expand on the conspiracy you see at work? I don't get the sense that contemporary scholarship as a whole is suppressing Jesus' connection to his Jewish/Judaean culture. Scholars do question the uncritical use of rabbinic sources to reconstruct Second Temple Jewish/Judaean life, but this is common to Jewish as well as Gentile scholars.

Leon said...

Hi David,

Thanks for responding. I will post a better answer to your query in a day or two. But I wanted to quickly note a couple of things here.

First, I posted a detailed critique of Steve Mason's article on Phil Harland's blog, which you gave a link to in Part 5a of this series of yours. I think my critique is No. 16.

Second, if I list 100 parallels between Jesus' sayings and parables, and rabbinic literature, that cannot be mere coincidence. I do not way that everything in rabbinic lit existed in the 1st century but a lot certainly did. It is standard practice in the study of any culture that whatever is found in an official document was probably in development for many generations. The Mishnah did not suddenly pop into existence around the year 200 CE. It was developing for a very long time. It should not be shocking, but rather quite expected that much of it can be seen in the Gospels as well.

It should be exciting to learn that Jesus speaks so much about chutzpah in the Gospels and you can see this clearly by comparing his words to what is in the Mishnah and the Talmud. Genuine scholars should always be delighted to be surprised by the facts, the evidence, wherever they lead. But it has been my overwhelming experience that even scholars are indifferent or horrified to learn that Jesus is totally permeated by Jewish ideas of chutzpah. They are not even mildly curious. They do not want him to be this Jewish.

Third, there is an agenda in scholarship to make Jesus a victim of some Jewish hostility. They do not want to hear there is solid evidence in the New Testament that Jewish leaders did not relate to him this way. Josephus too contradicts this worldview. But everything gets subjected to a Christian theological lens so that evidence in the New Testament or Josephus or anywhere else that Jewish leaders tried to save Jesus from a Roman execution is erased from the record. I have a long list of the evidence that scholars erase from history — that is, erase from our consciousness of what happened in history. I consider this appallingly prejudiced scholarship. It is so bad to alter the historical record in the service of a theological worldview which says Jesus must be surrounded by Jewish enemies. Perhaps I will give some examples in another post.

Leon Zitzer

J. Matthew Barnes said...

Leon: I agree that we shouldn't divorce Jesus from his culture, but "Judaism" was not the only viable culture that influenced him or the writers of the NT.

My point is that when we approach a historical question with the answer in mind (that Jesus "Jewishness" needs to be reasserted) we will find answers to that question under every rock (100+ similarities between the record of Jesus' words in the Gospels and the rabbinic material).

Speaking of the rabbinic material, much of it dates much later than the Gospels, while some of it seems to have a pre-70 origin. Did you take this into account?

Leon said...

Matthew and David:

We will not know anything until we fully explore what can be found in the material and that has not been done. This actually leads me to an additional point I wanted to make for David, so I might as well do it now.

Jesus' Jewishness has never been fully explored. In fact, no one has even attempted to do a full exploration. Why is that? Why is every treatment we get so cursory, so incomplete, barely scracthing the surface?

For one thing, the precise parallels from rabbinic literature to each and every saying and parable in the Gospels has never been completely revealed. Why is everyone avoiding this? And there is another missed opportunity here.

With any historical figure, it would be appropriate to study him or her in their cultural context. For Jesus, there was a continually developing oral culture that has not been delved into by scholars, almost not at all. Jesus shared cultural memories and stories with his audience. I do not know of anyone who reads the Gospels and thinks about them from the point of view of Jesus' original Jewish audience. What memories and stories was Jesus tapping into when he spoke? What would his Jewish audience have been thinking of as they listened?

I will give one example. You probably know the story of Shemaiah and Avtalyon, the two Pharisaic teachers of Hillel, and their enocunter with a high priest. The high priest insulted them by referring to them as sons of the Nations, thus reminding them that they were descended from converts. Their response was to remind him that it was better to do the deeds of Aaron (the first high priest) than to be descended from Aaron. In Jewish folklore, Aaron had a reputation for being a peacemaker. Hillel would later say, "Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace ..." (Pirke Avoth 1:12). Hillel also mentions loving mankind, not Jews or Israelites only, but all mankind. Shemaiah, Avatalyon, and Hillel were making a point about what is real Jewishness — which is not determined by bloodline but by being a peacemaker.

At Matthew 5:9, Jesus says, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall called be sons of God." I hear an implied "and you will not be insulted as sons of the Nations". Both Jesus and his audience would have been thinking about that story of the two Pharisaic teachers and the insult aimed at them and their response about peacemaking. Jesus is tapping into that memory. There are other points in Matthew where Jesus talks about true Jewishness in contrast to how gentiles/pagans behave. The entire Sermon on the Mount can be read as a sermon on what is real Jewishness.

I am not claiming I have proven this. I am saying that there are many places in the Gospels where you can hear (in addition to all the exact parallels) these echoes from the oral culture of Jesus' time. Searching for such echoes is just plain good scholarship. Exploring rational possibilities is good scholarship. In any other field, it would be considered legitimate scholarship to search for these cultural memories and echoes, yet it is almost never done in historical Jesus studies. Why?

I am looking at all that is missing from historical Jesus studies and I am wondering why. There is another important aspect of Jesus' Jewishness that is also absolutely never explored (with incredible consequences for historical studies), but I'll save that for another post.

Leon Zitzer

d. miller said...


In general, I see no evidence for a cover-up. Take, for example, E. P. Sanders' Jesus the Jew or, from a quite different league, Brad Young, Jesus the Jewish Rabbi.

There are some good and some not-so-good reasons for the scholarly reluctance to use rabbinic evidence. Scholars rightly hesitate to employ late evidence in the reconstruction of Second Temple Judaism. (See, for instance, the work of the Jewish scholar, Seth Schwartz.)

Poor reasons include laziness. Rabbinic literature is difficult and easily abused; it is easier simply to ignore it.

Leon said...


Perhaps I can make this conspiracy or cover-up clearer from another angle. This will be may last shot and I won't take up anymore of your time. There has always been and still is a deep fear that a fully Jewish Jesus will undermine Christianity. There is some interest in making Jesus minimally or marginally Jewish à la John Meier, so that scholars can claim to be free of prejudice. But on the whole, Jesus is divorced from his oral Jewish culture (which is not all about religion).

What does the Talmud say about spit and healing, or figs and hunger? Is it coincidence that Jesus uses spit to heal, etc.? I know of only a handful of scholars who are curious about even relatively minor items like these, and mainstream scholarship ignores them. As for something like the word games that the rabbis played with Hebrew words and the likelihood that Jesus played similar games and what might they have been, I know of only one scholar who has done any work on this. In a truly rational field, there ought to be hundreds.

The end result of the fear of Jesus' Jewishness is that Christian theology predominates in so-called historical Jesus studies. Scholars still use theological terms to bias the evidence — antitheses, the Passion, the cleansing of the Temple, the symbolic act of destruction of the Temple. Even the "trial" and the "betrayal" are theological terms unsupported by the evidence. Scholars should be concerned about this and not whether "Jew" is the appropriate term for Jesus and others of his time.

How many people know that, at Acts 13:28, Paul says there was no Jewish death penalty against Jesus? Or that in Josephus, priests ripping their robes is an act of persuasion, not condemnation? Or that Josephus gives an example of Jewish leaders refusing to comply when a procurator demanded that some Jewish troublemakers be turned over to him? Or that Mark's version of Judas contains not one single feature of a story of betrayal (he does not use the word for betray, gives no motive, no conflict with Jesus or other disciples, and not even recriminations from other disciples for the supposedly dirty deed)?

There is a fixed theology operating in New Testament scholarship and it centers around putting Jesus in hostile conflict with other Jews. No voices are allowed to contradict this. Any evidence which demonstrates how wrong this is will be weeded out. If anyone shows how theology is distorting the evidence, scholars will silence them. Yes, this is a kind of cover-up. (And, by the way, no book by Sanders or Young or anyone else comes even close to seeing Jesus' Jewishness in all its fullness.) A lot more can be said on this, but I think I myself will fall silent at this point.

Leon Zitzer

Anonymous said...


I was happy to find this discussion. It will be interesting to follow up on the many citations given in the various parts to date.

Have you read Fabian Udoh's recent book _To Caesar What Is Caesar’s: Tribute, Taxes, and Imperial Administration in Early
Roman Palestine 63 B.C.E.–70 C.E._? He seems to suggest that from the time of the early emperors onward Jews enjoyed a quasi-political "ethnos" which guaranteed certain rights and privileges to the members, regardless of place of residence. These included the right to practice ancestral customs unmolested, right to assemble for worship according to these customs, and transport money offerings to Jerusalem. I believe that he thinks this "ethnarchy" was centered on the temple in Jerusalem, sort of like a "temple state." Have you considered this "political" understanding of Judaios?"

David Hindley

d. miller said...

David: Thanks for the Udoh reference. I'll add it to my list. Your summary of Udoh's argument sounds like what I was trying to get at in my Alexandria example.

Anonymous said...


I seem to recall Udoh assuming the existance of a oriental style temple-state centered on Jerusalem, which perhaps operated in a manner resembling that of a polis, especially after the time of Antiochus Epiphanes.

On the other hand Jack Pastor (_Land and Economy in Ancient Palestine_, 1997) doesn't seem to agree that the temple organization ever was formally a "temple state," or had that much clout, although he does seem to think it functioned like one (a temple with land under its authority).

Whether this hypothetical temple state had any authority in the diaspora is questionable, but might serve as a symbolic skeleton upon which to base the priviliges that the Roman emperors granted to Jews (oops, "Judaeans" used as an ethnic designation) in general.

The question is whether a quasi-political "temple state"/ethnarchy, extending beyond Judaea proper, had any bearing on the implied meaning of the term "ioudaios."

Dave Hindley

Anonymous said...

Leon evidently has never heard of the 7 years of research into "The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah" done by Alfred Edersheim, a 1,500 page tome (in two parts) in which he "impartially weighs all the facts and views of the life and teachings of Christ according to principles of historical inquiry. For such a task he vividly reconstructs that life and teaching in all its surroundings of place, society, popular life, and intellectual and religious development. He makes extensive use of detailed quotations from rabbinic writings." Edersheim, of Jewish extraction, also wrote a study of the civil life of Palestine during Christ's time called "Sketches of Jewish social life in the days of Christ".