What a Difference a Translation Makes! An Ideological Analysis of the Ioudaios Debate – By James Crossley

James Crossley in the Jew and Judean Forum

My own take on the recent debate over the translation of ioudaios into English as “Jew” or “Judean” is that the translation itself might not, on one level, be so important. If we assume what would have been understood by ioudaios (with all the connotations of geography, customs, practices and so on) what does it matter if we translate the Greek as “Jew” or “Judean,” or even “x”? But I have consciously chosen to continue using “Jew” because, while accepting all the complexities, historical changes, differences, and the like, is there not a connection between people who identified as “Jews” now and people we identify as part of that tradition 2000 years ago? I do not think “Judean” in English can do this particularly well, as Adele Reinhartz (and Amy-Jill Levine before her) have shown, though in certain cases advocates of the Judean hypothesis would be content with this result.

But what I am also doing is making an ideologically-informed translation decision, just as Reinhartz did. So too do other people who have been involved in this debate (e.g., Danker, Esler, Mason, Elliott) by making it clear that they are in part driven by an ethical concern to combat anti-Semitism. We should not, of course, doubt the motivations of these scholars, but sensitivities likewise show that even this most sober sort of philological and historical work is ideological, irrespective of whether the scholars involved are always aware of this. Let me push this further by looking at explicit and implicit tendencies at work in scholarship on ioudaios.

First, to understand why Reinhartz and Levine display a reasonable concern about the disjunction between Jews now and then in the use of ioudaios, we need to look at the influential work of Bruce Malina, particularly from the 1990s onward. In their commentary on John’s Gospel, Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh claimed that

…modern readers will think John makes reference to those persons whom readers today know from their experience to be Jews. The fact is, from a religious point of view, all modern Jews belong to traditions developed largely after the time of Jesus and compiled in the Babylonian Talmud (sixth century CE). As for ethnic origin, Central European Jews (called Ashkenazi Jews) largely trace their origin to Turkic and Iranian ancestors who comprised the Khazar empire and converted to Judaism in the eighth century CE (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th ed. Micropaedia, 5:788; on the Internet: www.khazaria.com). Thus, given the sixth-century CE origin of all forms of contemporary Jewish religion, and given the US experience of Jews based largely on Central European Jews, themselves originating from eighth-century CE converts, it would be quite anachronistic to identify any modern Jews with the ‘Judeans’ mentioned in John’s Gospel or the rest of the New Testament … in all of the sixty-nine other instances in John where the term Judeans (Greek Ioudaioi) appears, there is nothing of the modern connotations of ‘Jew’ or ‘Jewishness.’

Note here the shift from modern Jews, at least from a “religious” perspective, belonging to traditions developed “largely after the time of Jesus” to the “sixth-century CE origin of all forms of contemporary Jewish religion” and “there is nothing of the modern connotations of ‘Jew’ or ‘Jewishness’.” As Reinhartz and Levine feared and showed, Judaism prior to the rabbis is more-or-less removed. Yet it is the very evidence Malina and Rohrbaugh produced that might actually support an argument in favor of the labels “Jew” and “Jewish” — anachronistic or not — as relevant for discussing people like Jesus as well as for discussing those “modern connotations.” The rabbinic evidence contains huge amounts of biblical exegesis and discussion of long deceased rabbis, Pharisees, and various quotable figures, many of whom discuss very similar things to people like Jesus. It should be obvious, then, that there were clear connections and continuities with the past. To claim that so-called “Judeans” of John’s Gospel have “nothing of the modern connotations of ‘Jew’ or ‘Jewishness’” depends, of course, on what definitions are used. But with all the cultural and historical differences duly acknowledged (when is this not the case?), not to mention John’s own ideological interests and the use of different labels, John’s Gospel still uses ioudaioi in the context of, for instance, Passover (John 2), a festival which is obviously associated with modern Judaism and modern Jews.

But with the historical rights and wrongs of translation aside, Malina gives more detail on the disjunction between then and now in his co-written (with John Pilch) commentary on Paul’s letters, provided with further reference to the Khazar theory of the origins of contemporary Jewish identity:

It is a common mistake in scholarship to consider first-century Israelites around the Mediterranean basin as the type of single-voiced entity one finds in the forms of modern Ashkenazi Jewishness in the United States and northern Europe. The Khazars were a Turkic people who converted to rabbinic Judaism in the ninth century CE, to eventually settle in largely Slavic lands. Eight-four percent of all Jews before World War II lived in Poland, and they were Khazar Jews (see the website www.khazaria.com). Most Christians derive their image of ancient Semitic Judeans from images of contemporary non-Semitic Khazar Jews. The point is there was no lineal development from early Israel to contemporary Khazar Jewishness … As Diane Jacobs-Malina (manuscript in progress) has written:

‘Cutting through layers of Jewish image-management to get at the facts of Jews-in-relation-to-Everyone Else is a daunting procedure. The propensity to substitute flattering stories for the unvarnished historical kernels has emerged as the unifying element from the creation of Israel-in-the-Bible, through the Hellenistic revisions which produced instant antiquity, to writers like Josephus. This tendency manifested itself in the creation of the Oral Torah and its many interpretations culminating in the Bavli [the Babylonian Talmud]. A greater challenge presented itself with the descendants of Central Asians living in Khazaria (southern Russia) who converted to Rabbinic Judaism in the ninth century. These Khazars had to be recast not only as a Semitic people, but as the biological heirs of the Old Testament’s literary characters. This mythical transformation has been accepted as a fait accompli by many Zionist Jews and Christians. From Israel-in-the-Bible to Hollywood, from marketing to the contemporary media; story-telling and image-management are the core values of Jewish group identity which characterize their relations to Everyone Else.’

The point is, for readers of Paul interested in understanding Israelites in the first century CE, the accretions of the past two thousand years have to be removed. Ancient Israelites have little in common with the Jews of today aside from Israel’s scriptures, which Christians share as well.

As I have previous argued with Robert Myles, the Khazar theory of Jewish origins Malina uses is a conspiracy theory far-right millenarian groups in America have used and genetic studies of varied Jewish populations have discredited. It is striking that Malina does not use credible academic studies for his arguments. Put another way, this is a clear example of an ideological tendency at work. Even the person behind www.khazaria.com, Kevin Brook, has since strongly criticized such uses of his website and pointed out that the website does in fact make connections between Jews in ancient and modern contexts. What this does is further illuminate the already obvious political ramifications of Malina’s translation of ioudaios, as well as suggest once again that the fears of Levine and Reinhartz are hardly without substance.

It is helpful to contextualize Malina’s work further, particularly as there are common, and related, comparisons made with Israelis and the modern state of Israel. In one recent essay, he labels all Israelis as “non-Semitic, central European people of Turkic origin.” Elsewhere, Malina makes the following claim:

Consider the language used in the United States relative to contemporary Israel. Israeli squatters are called ‘settlers’; Israel’s army of occupation is called a ‘defense force’; Israel’s theft of Palestinian property is called a ‘return’; Israel’s racist anti-Gentilism is called ‘Zionism’; and any and all criticism of Israel’s chosen people’s behavior is labeled ‘anti-Semitism’! … Dissidence, as my statements indicate, is in essence a semiotic phenomenon employing meaningful signs that result in cognitive disorientation of true believers. Israelis and Christian fundamentalists in the United States find my statements quite disorienting; as a matter of fact, they are sufficient to label me ‘an enemy of Israel,’ or, more derogatorily, ‘an anti-Semite.’

That Malina is not positively disposed towards the state of Israel ought to be clear enough. In his co-written commentary on Paul’s letters, he also provides the following stereotyping of Israelis:

By contrast, to ‘have shame’ meant to have proper concern about one’s honor. This was positive shame. It can be understood as sensitivity for one’s own reputation (honor) or the reputation of one’s family … To lack this positive shame was to be ‘shameless’ (compare the modern Hebrew term ‘chutzpah,’ the Israeli core value and national virtue; the word is often translated ‘arrogance,’ but means ‘shamelessness,’ that is, without positive shame or concern for honor).

Significantly, this stereotyping of Israelis is further brought out in a comparison where Malina makes a clear disjunction between “ancient Judeans” and “modern Mediterraneans,” on the one hand, and “contemporary Israelis,” on the other:

Further, since they rarely say ‘Thank you’ in their interactions, it is equally untrue to think that ancient Judeans (or modern Mediterraneans) are simply an ungrateful people, or that they presume the world owes them a living anyway. While this attitude may be true of contemporary Israelis, it is not true of first-century Judeans.

Malina also supports this potential removal of Jews from the New Testament, embedding his argument in his especially influential construction of the “the Mediterranean” as the overarching context for understanding the New Testament. Yet critics have also noted that the localized identities have a tendency to be overridden by the “the Mediterranean” in Malina’s analysis. Markus Bockmuehl, for example, made the following criticisms:

And it is Jews, after all, whose role in the ‘New Testament world’ arguably matters more than most. Both in their own eyes and in those of their pagan critics, they were culturally unique. Little of that distinctness, however, comes into the fore in this book. Malina refers to ancient Jews and their literature in curiously arm-waving and unspecific terms (‘Semites,’ ‘Semitic subculture,’ ‘Ben Zakaiists,’ ‘late Israelites’), citing the Mishnah only twice and the Dead Sea Scrolls not at all, and virtually ignoring the first-century role of the Pharisees, who (rather than the priests) were in Josephus’s view the real ‘bearers of the Great Tradition.’

In the very methodology of Malina’s more specific arguments, the potential for a Jewish-free New Testament is perhaps even stronger than Reinhartz and Levine thought.

Elite academic discourse mimics elite political discourse on matters of Israel and Palestine.

Malina’s perspective on Jews and Israel are unusual in contemporary scholarly presentations. Over the past forty years there has been a strong (but not unqualified) rhetoric of hostility towards anti-Semitism. This has been particularly clear in the debates over ioudaios where, as we saw, major contributors are explicit in their disdain for anti-Semitism. Malina’s rhetoric on Israelis and the modern state of Israel is also unusual because since 1967 scholarship has typically produced, often implicitly, positive sentiments towards the state of Israel. Such positive concerns are found in the debates over ioudaios, even (presumably unconsciously) in the work of Malina. In the same work that argued for the khazah theory of Jewish identity, and despite all his comments about Israel and Israelis, Malina and Rohrbaugh also wrote comments that appear to run against their political motivations as they come across as somewhat “Zionist” (as their “Mediterranean” likewise also functions as a classic Orientalist construct). It might be argued that such comments would be more expected in racializing discourses from the nineteenth and early twentieth century (e.g., “organically related to and rooted in a place”):

Rather, Judean meant a person belonging to a group called Judeans, situated geographically and forming a territory taking its name from its inhabitants, Judea. Judea is precisely a group of people, Judeans, organically related to and rooted in a place, with its distinctive environs, air, and water. Judean thus designates a person from one segment of a larger related group, Israel (John 1:47, 49), who comes from the place after which the segment is named, Judea (Ioudaia). The correlatives of Judean in John are ‘Galilean’ and ‘Perean,’ and together they make up Israel.

It is difficult to see how Malina’s attitude towards Israel and Jewish history would ever take off in contemporary scholarship, but the view he advocates towards the geography and land certainly has, particularly in the “Judean” debate. Developing Malina’s ideas in a related argument, John Elliott has shifted from labelling Jesus a “Jew” to an “Israelite.” Elliott, who is certainly sensitive to issues of anti-Semitism, foregrounds the physical land of Israel:

… his Israelite ingroup, identified him, also … more broadly as a member of the people of Israel, the House of Israel, not of ‘Judaism’ … ‘Jew’ is still a misleading identifier of Jesus and ‘Israelite’ should be preferred … Let us refer to Jesus and his earliest followers as ‘Israelites’ or members of the ‘House of Israel’ … Let us stress their roots in Israel, not in ‘Judaism’ … My point is that calling Jesus an Israelite rather than a Jew is consistent with Israelite usage in Jesus’ time and more accurately indicates his identity and that of his earliest followers.

Despite Malina’s arguments concerning the plight of Palestinians, it is the focus on the land and boundaries that have survived in the scholarly reception where issues concerning the implications for Palestinians are not discussed or deemed worthy of concern. On one level, we might ask: should this even matter? What have contemporary Palestinians got to do with debates about ioudaioi in the ancient world? This is why it is important to observe the ideological tendencies at work in the scholarship on ioudaios. As we have seen, issues concerning anti-Semitism have been at the forefront of the debates — and understandably so. Yet if scholars are to consider ethical ramifications of research, is it not striking that it is in a debate about land, geography, and Israel that Palestine and Palestinians cease to factor? Presumably it is not simply the case that Malina’s insensitive analysis has discredited such concerns, and it probably should not be a surprise that elite academic discourse mimics elite political discourse on matters of Israel and Palestine.

The ioudaios debate is an especially good example of the impossibility of escaping ideology, no matter how disinterested a given scholar might be and no matter how unware a scholar might be. We have seen how easy it is to detect what we might crudely label “pro-Israel” and “anti-Israel” stances, ethical concerns about anti-Semitism, and a marginalizing of Palestinian concerns. Of course, there are genuine concerns about the pervasiveness of ideology for academic research. But we can perhaps calm some of these fears. The social history of scholarship uses scholarship as its primary source and the contextualization has no more or less inherent value as an object of scholarly research than the New Testament. But the scholars under review here, including myself, also want to know something about the ancient world. There are no easy answers for the historian concerning the impossibility of escaping ideology but we should not be too scared about embracing it. This is precisely what Reinhartz did (successfully, I think) in her Marginalia essay and precisely what I did far more modestly concerning the use of the word “Jew” to translate ioudaios.

As Derek Gregory put it, we can agree with L.P. Hartley that the past is a different country where they do things differently without neglecting William Faulkner’s comments, with reference to the American South, that the past is not dead and it is not even past. Distance and difference is not absolute, fixed, and given but “set in motion and made meaningful through cultural practices.”

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