Concepts and Words – By Malcolm Lowe

Malcolm Lowe in the Jew and Judean Forum

The contemporary debate over the use of “Judean” or “Jew” when translating ancient texts has its ultimate source in my two long articles in Novum Testamentum (1976, 1981). The first I devoted to showing that the word Ioudaioi does not have a peculiar theological sense in John but is used as in other ancient texts. I also explained that in the first Christian century the primary meaning of the word was geographical; for sure, Ioudaoi were seen as having their own particular religion, but just in the same way as Egyptians and others had a unique religion. To this end, I made a survey of Greek and Latin classical texts as well as of Hebrew sources. (“Hebrew” refers here mainly to the Mishnah, compiled ca. 200 CE.)

I also discussed Ioudaoi within the context of the use of words denoting nationality in general, both ancient and modern, in order to show that the peculiarities theological writers have claimed of John are not peculiar at all. For instance, commentators have thought it curious that “the Ioudaioi” often refers to the rulers in Jerusalem (to the Sanhedrin). But we today, too, often speak of “the Americans” or “the Russians” in reference to the respective governments; so this is a typical use of a word denoting nationality, not a sense of Ioudaioi peculiar to the Gospel of John.

In 2007 Steve Mason wrote that the word Ioudaioi “bears precisely the same relationship to the name of the homeland that Araps, Babylonios, Aigyptios, Syros, Parthyaios and Athênaios have to the names of their respective homelands.” This is exactly what I stated already in 1981, summarizing the article of 1976, about the meaning of Ioudaios during c. 200 BCE to 200 CE:

Ioudaios then had primarily a geographical meaning — it signified principally the inhabitants of hê Ioudaia or people originating from the latter, i.e. “Judeans” as dwellers in or emigrants from “Judea”; only secondarily did it have a religious significance as denoting individuals of any nation who had adopted the religion of Judea, while even in this respect it was no more a religious term than “Greek,” “Egyptian,” “Persian,” etc., each of which denoted primarily a nation living in a certain geographical area and only secondarily the unique religion proper to that nation and area.

Indeed, the 1976 article (n. 21) had already pointed out: “One may well wonder whether in the period of Cicero — or even Josephus — ‘Iudaeus’ was any more a religious term than ‘Romanus,’ ‘Aegyptius,’ etc.” There I also concluded that “the geographical senses of Ioudaioi, far from having died out, indeed formed the primary meaning of the term in New Testament times.”

Mason’s article complained that “neglected in these discussions as far as I can see is the fundamental and repeated criticism of the Christians by Celsus and Julian” for having “broken with the ethnic-ancestral tradition of the Ioudaioi.” My 1981 article made exactly that point about Julian, remarking that “then it [Christianity] was as much an exception from the rule as is Judaism today” (inasmuch as Judaism, even today, retains an element of peoplehood alongside religious observances).

Thus, the current debate that Reinhartz has re-opened has roots almost 40 years old. To put it briefly, Mason is correct in his decision to translate Ioudaioi as Judeans in Josephus, but he draws further incorrect conclusions. The necessary corrections can largely be taken from my two articles in Novum Testamentum in 1976 and 1981, where readers of this forum will find more points others have rediscovered in recent years.

Almost all of ancient literature in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew has been lost. We know this from such sources as the book catalogues of Diogenes Laertius and the references to other books in the Hebrew Bible. Consequently, if a word — or some use of that word — is lacking in ancient sources before a certain date, we should be cautious both about assuming and about denying that it existed in earlier times. Moreover, we should beware of assuming that if a word or use of a word is not found in ancient authors, then those authors did not have the concept denoted by that word.

For instance, the Hebrew word for a bridge, gesher, does not appear in the Bible. But it is cognate with the Arabic jisr. The word quite likely existed in biblical times, and it would be absurd to claim that no biblical author had any concept of a “bridge.” The Hebrew word for repentance, teshuvah, does occur the Bible, but not with that meaning. It is a noun derived from the verb lashuv. This verb, whose basic meaning is “to (re)turn,” is used in various derived meanings and teshuvah corresponds to some of them in the Bible. The verb itself, however, is often used in the same sense of “to repent” as in later Jewish literature. So the concept of repentance already existed, whether or not the noun teshuvah was already used to denote it.

Herein lies the biggest problem in Mason’s approach. The second section of the 2007 article bears the title “Searching for Ancient Religion” and is devoted to the claim that “[t]he concept of religion, which is fundamental to our outlook and our historical research, lacked a taxonomical counterpart in antiquity.” Yes, there is no word for it in antiquity. Yet, Mason overlooks precisely such a taxonomical counterpart in his quotation from the Against Apion of Josephus on that same page. The phrase Josephus used is tois oikeiois nomois peri eusebeian. Similar terminology occurs widely in ancient writers; the adjective oikeios may be replaced by another one (and sometimes nomima replaces nomoi). Such phrases can be translated as “the ancestral regulations concerning piety,” where “piety” signifies the relationship of humans to gods, “regulations” can be replaced by “customs,” and “ancestral” can be replaced with any of several other adjectives denoting one’s belonging to a people. The defense of Socrates in the opening chapters of Xenophon’s Memorabilia is based on the same concept of religion.

If a word — or some use of that word — is lacking in ancient sources before a certain date, we should be cautious both about assuming and about denying that it existed in earlier times.

So what one should say is roughly this: “The ancients had no word for religion, but they did express the concept in such phrases as ‘the ancestral regulations concerning piety.’ Typically those regulations pertained to a specific people and a specific land, which is why Christians claimed that they, too, were a people and that they, too, had a land, namely Heaven.”

The first section of Mason’s article, “Searching for Ancient Judaism,” demonstrates very convincingly that there is no evidence that the Greek word Ioudaismos or its Latin equivalent Iudaismus bears the modern meaning of “Judaism” before Tertullian, at the earliest. He is also correct in saying that “no ancient Hebrew or Aramaic words map closely to our ‘Judaism.’” But again, does that mean that there was no such concept? The phrase Josephus used, applied to his own people, does denote a range of content comparable with our modern “Judaism.” As for Hebrew, a possibility is found in the Mishnah at Ketubot 7.6: dat Mosheh vi-Yhudit (“the custom of Moses and Judean”). The appendage of vi-Yhudit, I suggested in 1976 (n. 53), was originally intended to make a distinction over against the dat Mosheh of the Samaritans. (Later on, when maybe the reason for adding vi-Yhudit had been forgotten, the phrase was changed to dat Mosheh ve-Yisrael in Jewish marriage contracts.) Consider also the uses (already in the Bible) of torah and avodah to designate what we would call, respectively, “religious observance” and “cultic practice.”

So when Reinhartz says she is “alarmed by the growing invisibility of Jews and Judaism in English translations of ancient texts and scholarship about them,” she is wrong about the absence of “Judaism” in translated ancient texts but is right to be alarmed about its absence in scholarship, since the concept of Judaism did exist. How about “Jews”?

Mason’s third and last main section, “Searching for Ancient Jews,” is again mostly right about the word Ioudaioi. But we must also consider the word Israêl (and its cognates in Latin and Hebrew) alongside Ioudaioi and Ioudaia. In the Mishnah, Yisrael is the self-name of the people throughout; it is also used constantly to denote a single member of that people (rarely Yisraeli). Yehudi, by contrast, is found only in a handful of places and never in those two senses. The word Yehudah, however, does occur, denoting that part of the Land of Israel (Eretz Yisrael) stretching southwards from Jerusalem.

In Greek and Latin authors, on the other hand, the word Israêl or Israel is rarely found. Instead, the whole Land of Israel is typically called Ioudaia or Iudaea and the whole people Ioudaioi or Iudaei.

What has happened here, as I pointed out in both articles, is not something peculiar to those words but a phenomenon that has numerous modern parallels in words denoting countries and peoples. Foreigners call Britain “England,” the Netherlands “Holland,” the USSR “Russia,” Iran “Persia,” and all Americans “Yankees.” In all these cases, what has happened is that, among foreigners, the name of the politically dominant area of a country has usurped that country’s name among foreigners. So also in the case of ancient Israel and Judea.

Eventually, even (say) Dutch people living abroad and talking to foreigners may call their country “Holland” because it is too tedious to keep on correcting the mistake. So also Israelites in the Diaspora acquiesced in being called Judeans (thus already in Esther 2:5; see my 1976, n.19).

The narrower sense of “Judea” and “Judeans” is rare in classical texts but is found in Josephus. Most important is Antiquities XVII.254 ff. Here, to quote my 1976 (n. 14):

Josephus states first that many Galileans, Idumeans and people from Jericho and Perea [Transjordan] had come to Jerusalem to celebrate Pentecost, where they were joined by autoi Ioudaioi. Since all had come to a Jewish festival and the Jewish areas of Palestine were precisely Galilee, Perea, Judea and Idumea, autoi Ioudaioi here indisputably signifies the Judeans in the strict sense. Yet, later in the same passage, he relates how the Romans attacked the Ioudaioi, now meaning the whole crowd … .

We learn from this passage, too, that ancient readers could recognize a switch between the narrower and broader meanings of Ioudaia and Ioudaioi.

In the four canonical gospels the usual denotation of Ioudaia is Judea in the narrower sense; Israêl is used to denote both the whole land and the whole people. Here, therefore, we have the geographical terminology of the Mishnah, not that which typifies classical texts. In the Gospel of John, moreover, the interactions of Jesus with Ioudaioi occur almost exclusively in Jerusalem and its surroundings (for the exceptions, see my 1976 article). Consequently, the writer sees confrontations between Jesus and the inhabitants of a specific area, Judeans in the narrower sense. To translate Ioudaioi as “Jews,” as if the writer opposes Jesus to all of Israel, is therefore not merely false but pernicious, as a constant excuse for anti-semitism. (My 1976 article made a comment to that effect at the end, but otherwise the entire discussion was linguistic and philological.)

In the vast majority of ancient Greek and Latin texts, written by non-Israelites and outside the Land of Israel, Ioudaia/Iudaea and Ioudaioi/Iudaei are used in the broader sense. Undoubtedly, most readers would have sensed a geographical reference in almost every occurrence. But there is an important text in Cassius Dio XXXVII.16.5-17.1 (see my 1976, n. 17 and n. 22). The author speaks of Palestine and says that this area and its inhabitants are also called Ioudaia and Ioudaioi; then he adds that the latter name is also applied to members of other peoples (alloethneis) who adhere to their customs (ta nomima autôn). That is, he says that the meaning of the word is primarily geographical but it is also applied in a derived manner to people who have merely adopted the religious observances of the Ioudaioi. This derived sense is pretty much what we mean by “Jews” today, although it is applied by Cassius Dio only to what we would call converts.

Note that Cassius Dio wrote ca. 200 CE, when the center of Israelite life and self-government, including the residence of the Patriarch, had shifted from Judea to Galilee. In 1976, I argued that on these and other grounds the shift from a primarily geographical to a primarily religious meaning began during the second Christian century — and not merely among Christians. Daniel Schwartz thinks that such a shift is possible in the outlook of Josephus between his composition of the War and the Antiquities. Regarding the readers of Josephus, however, surely their understanding of the term did not change within those two decades. So Mason is correct to translate Ioudaioi systematically as “Judeans” in an English version of Josephus. However, scholars who write commentaries on Josephus — and even more so commentaries on later writers — should be on the alert for an eventual shift to a less geographically focused understanding of the term; thus far Reinhartz is correct.

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