Ancient Jews or Judeans? Different Questions, Different Answers – By Steve Mason

Steve Mason August 26, 2014 2

Steve Mason in the Jew and Judean Forum

In 2006, when the first volumes of Brill’s Flavius Josephus: Translation and Commentary had appeared, an anonymous user of the PACE [Project on Ancient Cultural Engagement] website, which hosted the online version, was irate enough about our nomenclature to leave an anonymous complaint: “Josephus wrote the Jewish War, not the Judean War!” How could I respond? The problem, of course, is that Josephus did not write in English. He called his work The War (O Polemos), The War of the Ioudaioi against the Romans, The Ioudaikos War, or simply The Ioudaikē. How to render the un-translated terms? Josephus did not leave a will conveying his wishes to English-speakers. It is entirely up to us, if we are willing to face the perils of translating ancient texts, to figure out some principles and criteria.

How we set those standards will depend partly on the purposes of our translations — for example, whether we produce our texts for rapid uncomplicated reading (as Penguin editions), for religious-liturgical use, as a doorway to research into Antiquity, or as the anchor for a specialist commentary (as the Brill project). Even if our orientation is toward the past, our choices will differ in light of our philosophy of translation (e.g., favoring the source or target language [see Ruth Sheridan’s essay in the forum], or translating phrases or concepts rather than individual words and sentence parts), our personal understanding of ancient values, categories, and assumptions (no two historians agree on everything), and our personal sense of intent and nuance. Every translator knows that there is no correct rendering for all conditions, and each of us is likely to make different choices at different times. Even such a short and famous phrase as Shakespeare’s Caesar’s Et tu, Brute (or Greek kai su, teknon) has occasioned debate. Caesar may have asked, “You too, Brutus?” or declared, “You’ll get yours too, kid!”

The translation of Greek Ioudaios is thus only one of countless issues on which scholars of good will differ. Differing and discussing and debating are what we do, in the open-ended search for understanding. Some of my collaborators in the Brill commentary prefer to use Jew as a translation throughout. Because I as editor respect their choice, in the Series Preface (2000) where I explain our general effort to match English word-groups with Greek counterparts, I also insist on the irreducible freedom of translators. We are not robots but individuals. The parade example I offer there is Ioudaios, translated Judean (we prefer the Latinized spelling Judaean in the series) in some volumes but Jew in others. An editor can ask that Greek terms be translated with consistency where possible and even suggest phrasing options to colleagues. I cannot and would not interfere with each colleague’s unique sense of the best way to render key terms. We wanted independent experts, not worker bees.

Adele Reinhartz’s piece in Marginalia (June 24) gives the impression that I have insisted on Judean: she chides me for not explaining why Jew is incorrect. The explanation is that I don’t consider Jew incorrect. The 2007 article to which she refers was also not my effort to tell other scholars what to do. It was framed as my attempt to explain my unorthodox preference, which had drawn a range of responses from polite questioning to indignation. Most were not in print, and I deliberately chose the mild challenge from a sympathetic review as my departure point, to neutralize the seemingly obvious heat. I also sought to reposition the Judean issue by considering it last after mapping out a much larger framework of ancient assumptions and categories.

Reinhartz’s essay expresses alarm over “the vanishing Jews of Antiquity.” That concern may seem surprising, given the growth in Jewish Studies over the past three decades, with a reach that typically includes ancient Israel and Greco-Roman Judea. In Toronto I belonged for two decades to a Centre for Jewish Studies that had such breadth, and it was a wonderful experience. When our History department developed a Collaborative Program with the University of Toronto, I succeeded in establishing ancient Jewish texts as part of the scene, which otherwise would have focused only on Greece and Rome. Many doctoral students were interested at least partly in Judea, so this was a reasonable development. Scholars elsewhere have been doing similar things, with the result that the last generation has witnessed both the establishment of ancient Jewish history as a field and the broadening of Greek and Roman history to include it. Now we have many journals, conferences, and book series devoted to the whole and its many parts — for their own sake and no longer as “preparation for the gospel.” Intensive study of the Septuagint, Dead Sea Scrolls, Josephus, Philo, and post-biblical Jewish texts has never flourished as now. We have long been stuffed with commentaries on classical, biblical, and New Testament texts, but international teams are now producing the first commentaries to Philo and Josephus. Doctoral seminars and dissertations in these areas are appearing at such a pace one can hardly keep up. In what sense, then, are Jews and Judaism vanishing from the academy?

Reinhartz seems to think that the translation Judean portends the disappearance of ancient Jews from the scene. I do not understand this.

I write this having just left a Classics conference on Flavian-Roman literature in Edinburgh. Amidst dozens of papers on authors such as Silius Italicus and Valerius Flaccus, I was invited to contribute a talk on Josephus’s handling of Roman civil war. Such invitations were rare before about 2000, for Josephus was not much read by classicists or even included in surveys of either Greek or Roman authors — though he is the most prolific surviving author from first-century Rome. He was always “the Jewish author Josephus,” seemingly impenetrable and left to theologians or Israeli archaeologists — except for the decontextualized bits on military and political matters that interested Roman historians. The scene has changed greatly. One classicist in Edinburgh remarked to me how odd it was that Classics had so long ignored such a rich corpus as that of Josephus, and such a large, widely dispersed, and literate population of the Roman Empire as the Ioudaioi.

Many would welcome the new prominence of Jewish history and literature as well as its integration into the study of Antiquity. Reinhartz, however, seems to think that in spite of all that, the translation Judean portends the disappearance of ancient Jews from the scene. I do not understand this. Is the concern that when we write about the most famous Jewish author outside the Bible, Josephus, and explore in detail this priest’s account of Jerusalem’s fall and understanding of Moses’s laws as a peerless constitution, if we call him a Judean people will conclude that he was not a Jew? Is this a serious risk? What intelligent reader could draw such a conclusion?

No one doubts that ancient Israelites began the Jewish story, and Judahite is a term scholars commonly use for the early post-exilic period. No one seems bothered by these terms. We do not need to stamp them all Jews to understand that they are part of Jewish history, do we? Why is Judean, for the Graeco-Roman period with its ethnographically grounded discourse (below), such a special problem?

What if this translation preference (which incidentally has had little effect on the major studies of ancient Jews or most prominent scholars), rather than posing a threat to Jewish history, does the opposite? What if it is a function of the newly prominent and secure place of Jewish Studies in the university, of the increased prominence of such authors as Flavius Josephus among the Greek and Roman classics, and therefore of the greater interest of translators in reading Greek-Jewish authors in the standard terms of Greco-Roman discourse? If Judean reflects the efforts of scholars to make Jewish writers more intelligible in the ancient context, is that a bad thing for Jewish history?

Because Reinhartz holds me partly responsible for catalyzing the trend that alarms her, I thought it might be useful to explain why some — by no means most — historians prefer to translate ancient Greek Ioudaios, Latin Iudaeus, and Hebrew Yehudi as “Judean.” For me at least, this has nothing to do with either attempted historical precision (a category mistake in my view) or ethical considerations, the aims that she attributes to me. My concern is to understand how the ancients organized their knowledge of the world, and how they communicated with each other about peoples or national groups. Let me make a general point about this before turning to the specific question of Greek Ioudaios and cognates.

All humanities disciplines invite us to explore the possibilities of human existence, but history opens the door to conditions that have really existed before our time. No one should be naïve enough, however, to think that we can simply enter the distant past as it really was, for it does not exist now. The vehicle that takes us there we construct today. We pose our questions about the past and gather any surviving evidence that seems relevant. Then we try to go back, in our minds, studying the remains of the past and imagining the scenarios that could have produced them. The problems we pose may be anything at all: How did ordinary women in Corinth dress? What were particular athletic or dramatic competitions like in this or that city? What was it like to serve in the auxiliaries? What motivated Gessius Florus’s raids on the temple treasury? But we can make no progress if we do not first grasp the values, categories, and assumptions of their time and place. We can’t know what the words of an inscription or literary text mean unless we understand the way of seeing that gives it sense, just as no ancient could understand our references to human rights or international law, police forces, or the banking system.

Learning about their world requires, therefore, also unlearning our ingrained assumptions. Our values and categories have been shaped by the rise of Christianity in the West, centuries of mediaeval life, the rise of science, the Enlightenment, and the American and French revolutions, among other things. To understand Athenian, Spartan, Roman, or Egyptian cultures we must first accept their alienness from ours, then try earnestly to construct a picture faithful to the evidence.

Our need to learn their perspectives means that our translations of ancient texts into contemporary English will change as we gain new insights (or think we do). Here I must stress that this rectification of names (apologies to Confucius) affects in principle every word and phrase we come across. Ioudaios is just one of thousands. When Reinhartz declares that that I “clearly” feel strongly about Ioudaios, she is mistaken. I wrote an article that included that term in connection with several others, and my real concern is with the larger picture. The problem of translating with sensitivity to ancient contexts is basic to the research and teaching of all ancient historians.

For example, we commonly speak about the Roman Empire, emperor, provinces, and allied kingdoms. These expressions are not wrong, and experts use them for convenience too. But students quickly learn that there was no office of emperor in the first century, hence no coronation or the like, and that dependence on our familiar terminology would create many problems. They need to learn the different valences of Latin Caesar, imperator, and princeps, and why “emperor” is a dangerous convenience. Likewise, the Latin terms for empire and province mean something different from our territorial understanding of the terms. Life as a shopkeeper or soldier in the legions can be recovered only with great effort. Comparing a centurion with a modern army captain or the twenty-one-year old tribune with a colonel would be disastrous for understanding. Traditional terminology for early Christianity (e.g., church, disciples, the gospel, faith/belief, salvation) is a particular minefield. So it’s not all about Ioudaios. The problem is a general one, and my concern is equally with all the rest.

Among competent historians, there is rarely a question of merely correct or incorrect translation, much less of precision — a property of gauges. The challenge is to understand an alien culture from long ago, to figure out the function of any given term in relation to the whole langue.

And so to Ioudaios. The earth’s diverse populations and their ways of living fascinated the ancient Greeks. Their writings across many genres include much ethnographical material. From Herodotus in the fifth century BCE to Stephanus of Byzantium a millennium later (via the Hippocratics, Polybius, Diodorus, Strabo, Pliny, Josephus, Tacitus, and Pausanias), Greco-Roman literature shows the durability of a fairly simple model, which they preserved even though they knew of many real-life complications, perhaps as we prefer to ignore complications when it comes to others’ identities.

The simple model was roughly like this. Everybody belongs to an ethnos: a people or group or nation. Ethnos is an exquisitely elastic term, but everyone has one primary belonging. Each ethnos comes from somewhere, usually deriving from another one in a neighboring region. What gives each its distinctive qualities is the unique series of experiences that formed it. These begin with its particular place and environment: the kind and temperature of air, terrain, and access to water, as well as remoteness from the center of the earth in optimally balanced Greece. Mountains created one kind of ethnos, marshes and deserts others. The experiences that bring a given ethnos into being temper such “environmental determinism”: migration to its home region, vestiges of an earlier identity, founding figures including lawgivers, defining wars or conquests, and resulting political constitution. The ancient Greek found a world populated by societies with distinctive physical traits, charter myths, folk- and personal habits, laws, and customs. These express themselves in unique political and social structures (politeiai), calendars, festivals, the unique deities honored in their temples, and peculiar modes of sacrifice. There was considerable diversity even among the peoples called Greek (cf. Pausanias).

In civilized regions, an ethnos will inhabit one polis or more. The polis is the intensively built-up citizen-settlement, its small, usually walled center, where the customs of the ethnos find their quintessential and concentrated form and where the principal institutions (court, council chamber, market, theatres, sport facilities, temples) are housed. Judea was the territory surrounding the mother-polis Jerusalem, the home and center of the Ioudaioi, where their special calendar, laws, customs, and worship prevailed.

Because of the importance of place in shaping the nature (physis) of an ethnos, ethnic names transparently reflect places. This is as clear for large-scale populations such as Egyptians, Hellenes (or Dorians), Syrians, and Indians as for smaller populations such as Spartans, Athenians, Romans, Ascalonites, Scythopolitans, Idumeans, Samarians, and Ioudaioi — hence Judeans. Just as the Spartans — though they were originally Dorians who adapted some Cretan customs — became a distinctive ethnos when Lycurgus laid out their famous laws, and just as the Romans — though their forebears had migrated from Troy and borrowed much from the Etruscans — developed a unique constitution and polity, so too the Ioudaioi — commonly thought to have originated in Egypt — were famous for their Judean homeland, lawgiver Moses, and unique observances of Sabbath, male circumcision, and dietary laws.

This model of ethnic identity was not merely abstract. It had direct practical consequences. Syrians, Egyptians, Gerasans, or Ioudaioi living outside of their homeland remained foreigners, without citizen rights where they lived (except in Rome). Such tenuous existence could last for generations, as it did with the Ioudaioi of Alexandria. A grateful Caesar and other Roman leaders offered protections to Judeans in the cities of Asia Minor to ease the demands of living by other people’s calendars and customs. The emperor Claudius felt moved to remind the large Judean minority in Alexandria, however, that the polis was not theirs. They enjoyed certain rights and should not be molested, but they were not citizens: their own polis was Jerusalem. The same assumptions are at work when we see Judean minorities expelled from various Greek cities in Syria during the First Revolt. They explain the desperate effort by Caesarea’s minority to have that polis re-chartered as Judean, just before the war. Nero’s refusal left the Judean minority fatally vulnerable. Immediately after the war, likewise, the citizens of Antioch pleaded with Titus to expel their Ioudaioi as foreigners. Titus entertains their request, but points out that the only place to which they could be deported, being Ioudaioi, was their homeland (patris) of Judea. But this now lay in ruins, and no other polis would take the foreigners in.

In the second through fourth centuries the Neo-Platonists significantly developed this model of ethnos-belonging. Assuming that everyone belonged to an ethnos, and that each had a specific regional character, writers such as Celsus, Porphyry, and the emperor Julian added the thought that each ethnos had a guardian deity watching over its unique identity and laws. The Ioudaioi with their God and temple cult in Jerusalem fit well in this ethnic map. Christians — lacking place, ethnos, legal system, political structure, or temple cult — really didn’t. The classical ethnographic model undergirded Julian’s efforts to restore Jerusalem and its temple to the Ioudaioi, and to compel the anomalous Christians (derisively “Galileans”) either to return to the life of their native Greek polis or to properly join the Judean way of life, observing Jerusalem’s laws and cultic system. Otherwise they had no place, and Julian rejected the Christian attempt to rewrite the lexicon.

How then “should” we translate Ioudaioi? I have proposed that there is no should. Everything depends on our purpose, questions, and lexical framework. If our interest is in the long span of Jewish history, then the people known as Yehudim (Hebrew), Ioudaioi, and Iudaei (like Israelites before them) form the foundation. Studies in Jewish history include these periods, as they always have done. But if my goal is to understand the framework, values, and assumptions of writers in the Greco-Roman period — such as Strabo, Pliny, Tacitus or Josephus — who treat Iudaei empire-wide as a people connected with Jerusalem’s laws and customs, then “Judeans” (Ioudaioi) seems to me the most straightforward translation. “Jew” is not incorrect; it simply does not reflect as clearly the connection with place-bound identity that ancient writers assumed. There was a famous region called Judea (Ioudaia) and the noun for persons from there (Ioudaioi, plural) inescapably meant “Judean,” whatever else it might mean, in keeping with the same discourse that produced Romans, (militarily proficient) Spartans, (crocodile-worshiping) Egyptians, (nomadic) Nabateans, Idumeans, Samarians, and all the others. Josephus participated in the same discourse when he, as their priestly spokesman, described the distinctive laws, customs, and cult of his people and especially when he compared them with others.

How “should” we translate Ioudaioi? There is no should. Everything depends on our purpose, questions, and lexical framework.

Such peoples did not lose their regionally-conditioned identity when they travelled or resided abroad. They remained Egyptians, Syrians, Gadarenes, and Samarians if they lived in Rhodes, Cos, Ephesus, or Alexandria. No matter how long Josephus breathed in Rome’s air he viewed himself and his people as Judeans. To the end he remained proud of the destroyed mother-polis, to which all Judeans around the world had travelled and sent annual support. For us he was a Jew. Because of their ethnographic heritage, ancient Greek-speakers unavoidably heard Ioudaios first as Judean.

In the long span of Christian-dominated culture Jewish Studies has never enjoyed such a presence as it now has. The energetic exploration of ancient Jewish texts has now an unprecedented constituency, which promises only to grow. There seems little prospect of ancient Jews vanishing from the academy. I don’t think that Adele Reinhartz intended to disparage the efforts of scholars who have worked so successfully to establish ancient Judaism and integrate with ancient history generally. But the cost of making Josephus and Philo intelligible to other ancient historians is that the language of these authors must now be understood in terms of the common lexicon and not only in relation to the comfortable, familiar terms of older scholarship. It is difficult for me to understand how the ever-growing and deepening recognition that Jews were an important part of the Greco-Roman world before the rise of Christianity or the English language — as what we call Israelites, Judahites, and Judeans — could be bad for Jewish history.

I have never imagined challenging colleagues who prefer to translate Jew in all or most cases, though I have challenged arguments against the use of Judean. When speaking of the long span of history, I too would speak of Jews without differentiation. When it comes to research into the Greco-Roman period, I can only explain the reasons why I prefer to translate “Judean” there. One can hardly expect to convince others in a short essay such as this, and that is not my goal. I hope to have outlined enough of the historical issues facing the translator to preclude imputations of moral hazard.

See the Forum home page and download the e-book in epub format (most readers) or in mobi format (Amazon Kindle).

  • brianleport

    Helpful clarification and response highlighting the central rationale and motivations for the translation. Thank you.

  • Michael Helfield

    Steve, as usual, you explained your position with the utmost lucidity. You have an almost unique ability to do so. As far as I recall, your explanation here is consistent with that outlined in your 2007 article. And I think you have done scholarship a tremendous service in getting this debate or exchange of views on “Jew/Judean” going.
    Michael