On the surface, the hot topic in Biblical Studies that I am trying to describe, evaluate and contribute to comes down to the question, Should the Greek word, Ioudaios, be translated ‘Jew’ or ‘Judaean’? This appears to be the kind of hair-splitting about minutiae that typifies scholarship at its “best” (like an academic conference on The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs). But if you are studying ancient ‘Judaism’ the question has a certain urgency to it because you have to call Jesus’ contemporaries something, and you don’t want to embarrass yourself by using a discredited label. The scholars themselves would protest that the debate is much more important than terminology. According to Philip Esler,
[T]ranslating Ἰουδαῖοι [Ioudaioi] as ‘Jews’ is not only intellectually indefensible . . . 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. (Esler 2003: 68).By contrast, Amy-Jill Levine claims that switching from ‘Jew’ to ‘Judaean’ will do more harm than good:
The Jew is replaced with the Judean, and thus we have a …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 (Levine 2006: 160, 165).The reference to anti-Semitism points to a deeper issue. Last week I had my Gospels students brainstorm answers to the questions: Why did Jesus die? What is the significance of his life? What is the connection between the two? When I asked, “humanly speaking, what got Jesus killed?”, the Pharisees kept coming up: They were jealous. They were bad. I was doing my best to smile and nod. Now I wish I had recorded the answers because I can’t remember whether the student who said that Jesus was sent to earth to show how “they” were wrong was speaking about the Pharisees or “the Jews”. But one gets the impression that they amount to the same thing. And who can blame them?
In Matthew 27, Jesus is on trial, accused by Pilate of being the “King of the Jews,” when “all the people” said, “his blood be on us and on our children!” (27.25). In John 8 Jesus is in conversation with the “Jews who believed in him” when he declares “You are from your father the devil” (8.44; cf. 31, 48). In 1 Thessalonians 2, Paul tells the Thessalonian believers:
For you, brothers, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea. For you suffered the same things from your own countrymen as they did from the Jews, who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out, and displease God and oppose all mankind …But wrath has come upon them at last! (1 Thess 2.14-16)These passages trouble me not* because I think the New Testament is anti-Semitic, but because of the role they have played in the tragic history of Christian anti-Semitism: Gentle St. Bernard of Clairvaux calling the Jews “a race who had not God for their father, but were of the devil” (source); Martin Luther who—if Wikipedia is to be believed—wrote, “"[w]e are at fault in not slaying them” ; Easter pogroms against the Jews in 19th century Europe, the holocaust, and my memory from junior high school of someone telling a Jewish classmate, “you killed Jesus.”
This is one place where the translation question comes in. According to the NET, Jesus is talking with “Judeans” not “Jews” when he says “your father” is “the devil” (John 8:31). In the NLT, where the truth is “made clear,” the Jews disappear altogether and are replaced with the benign “people.” The NLT and NET are following the advice of the standard lexicon of New Testament Greek, which says:
Incalculable harm has been caused by simply glossing Ἰουδαῖος with ‘Jew’, for many readers or auditors of Bible translations do not practice the historical judgment necessary to distinguish between circumstances and events of an ancient time and contemporary ethnic-religious-social realities, with the result that anti-Judaism in the modern sense of the term is needlessly fostered through biblical texts.I am with Amy-Jill Levine on this one: Leaving “Jews” out of our translations may make unsuspecting readings think Jesus was not a “Jew,” and deny to contemporary “Jews” their ancient heritage. I am also not convinced that the best way to atone for a troubling past is to sweep the issue under the carpet.
*Correction: 1 Thess 2:14-16 troubles me. Period.