Hiding from the Fourth Gospel’s Tragic Reception History – By Ruth Sheridan

Ruth Sheridan August 26, 2014 1

Ruth Sheridan in the Jew and Judean Forum

Reinhartz raises the important question of how we ought to translate the Greek word Ioudaios in the ancient sources, and she situates this within a broader context addressing different contemporary concerns: Jewish identity in the Diaspora today and the troubling issue of how anti-Semitism might be implicated in various translation choices and interpretations scholars and students make. Reinhartz contends that the translation “Jew” is both more accurate and more responsible than the main alternative now gaining ground (i.e., “Judean”). Her concern is that rendering every instance of Ioudaios as “Judean” unduly severs the continuity between Jews of later centuries and the texts of antiquity, and that it coveys an excessive narrowness in translation instead of a purported greater accuracy. I generally concur with her position. I also think that her title is not merely humorous hyperbole: it points to some problematic — albeit unintended — consequences of embracing “Judean” over “Jew,” namely, the effective “de-Judaization” of the literature of the Second Temple period. With characteristic wit, Reinhartz laments that Philo, Paul, and the Pharisees may now be considered “formerly Jewish denizens of antiquity.”

The debate isn’t new, but it has been intensifying: in 2007, John Elliot wrote an article that ignited the blogosphere (“Jesus the Israelite was neither a ‘Jew’ nor a ‘Christian’” — see some responses here). Others have followed Elliot’s lead in different directions: in 2009 Markus Cromhout wrote an article titled “Paul’s ‘Former Conduct in the Judean Way of Life’ (Gal 1:3) … Or Not?” (“Judean Way of Life” presented as the new cumbersome circumlocution for “Judaism,” or Ioudaismos). These specific studies can be seen in the context of the larger trend to dispense with “Jew” and to adopt “Judean” when translating Ioudaios. Reinhartz has already mentioned the work of Steve Mason, Philip Esler (2009, 2012 here) and Malcom Lowe, who have all developed arguments along these lines. It is not my intention in this short response to debate the cogency of these positions; I think that has been admirably undertaken in a comprehensive, three-part series of articles on the topic by David Miller, published in 2010, 2012 and 2014 in Currents in Biblical Research (here). My basic approach will be to voice my agreement with Reinhartz’s position from the corner of my own specialized area of research to date, which has been the Gospel of John and its presentation of hoi Ioudaioi — “the Jews.”

Reinhartz cited my article in JBL 2013 in which I addressed the various issues affecting the translation of hoi Ioudaioi in the Gospel of John (John’s Gospel almost consistently uses the plural; only thrice do we find Ioudaios in the singular: 3:25; 4:9; 18:35). Admittedly, the debate between “Judean” vs. “Jew” in translation was only a minor subsection in my overall survey of different English translation options, and I grouped both together under the broader rubric of “formal correspondence” translations — those translation choices that operate out of a theoretical concern to render the original language as literally (closely, accurately) as possible into the receptor language. In the translation theory developed by Eugene Nida, “formal correspondence” is typically opposed to the alternative practice of “dynamic equivalence.” The latter attempts to communicate an equivalent message, presenting the “gist” or “sense” of what was meant in the event that a literalistic rendering would actually hinder comprehension rather than facilitate it. In my discussion of “dynamic equivalence” translations for hoi ioudaioi in John’s Gospel, I grouped together various proposals such as “the authorities,” or other paraphrasing alternatives suggested on the assumption that a subset of extremely “Torah-loyalist” Jews were denoted by the term hoi Ioudaioi, and that this particularity ought to somehow be conveyed in translation.

Upon reflection, and as I continued to read more of the secondary literature on translating Ioudaios (beyond the Gospel of John), I began to anticipate that others might consider my grouping of both “Jew” and “Judean” under the label of “formal correspondence” quite odd. After all, the recent scholarly move to translate all occurrences of Ioudaios as “Judean” (as in the work of scholars like Mason and Esler) appears to arise out of the assertion that “Jew” is not at all a literalistic rendering of Ioudaios but a religiously-inflected (and therefore) anachronistic one — a translation choice more akin, in other words, to “dynamic equivalent” options. The translation “Jew” tries to convey the perceived “sense” of the term Ioudaios by producing a match-up of meaning between the complexities and diversities of the identities of ancient Ioudaioi and of Jews today, but, as Reinhartz asserted, this affinity speaks for accuracy rather than against it. On the other hand, those who favor “Judean” assert that such anachronism is happily avoided because the concept of “religion” is obviated: in its place is the notion of ethnicity (or “nested ethnicity”), and the more accurate connotations relating to a restricted geographic terrain — and so, it could be claimed that “Judean” alone obeys the logic of “formal correspondence” translation theories. It struck me, in other words, that in the broader scholarly conversation on this issue, there were two very different ways of assessing “accuracy” in translation.

As far as scholarship on the Gospel of John is concerned, this level of precision — between “the Judeans” and “the Jews” — has not been broadly adopted, with the exception of Malcom Lowe’s 1976 article advocating for the translation of hoi Ioudaioi as “the Judeans” [see also Lowe’s essay in the forum]. But generally, both “Jews” and “Judeans” are set together on the side of “literalistic” renderings of hoi Ioudaioi, and the alternative options such as “the authorities” (cf. Urban C. von Whalde) are considered to be equivalencies that generally don’t hold up to close scrutiny across the Gospel as a whole. Perhaps we could look at it as a spectrum of possible translation options: the narrowest, or most restricted, choice is represented by “the Judeans,” a middling or balanced choice is found in “the Jews,” and a “dynamic equivalence” choice is represented by “the authorities” on the assumption that this best captures the “leadership” connotations of hoi Ioudaioi’s textual role. It wouldn’t be accurate to say that, as yet, “the Jews” are “vanishing” entirely from the Fourth Gospel; most standard, English translations of the New Testament still translate hoi ioudaioi as “the Jews” (Revised Standard Version, New Revised Standard Version, King James Version, New Jerusalem Bible, New International Version). But exceptions have appeared: the New Testament: Judaean and Authorized Version (1970) translates hoi ioudaioi as “Judaeans” (and sometimes “Hebrews”), while the Contemporary English Version (American Bible Society) opts to render select instances of hoi ioudaioi as “the leaders of the people,” or simply “the leaders,” or “the temple police.”

The latter choice is broad, ambiguous, and potentially misleading; the former, too restrictive in light of the Gospel’s references to hoi Ioudaioi that bear political and “religious” as well as ethno-geographic resonances. However, the very existence of these translation alternatives suggests that Jews might be eventually “vanishing” from John’s Gospel, too. There can be no doubt that at times they vanish out of a noble concern to prevent (or circumvent) the reproduction of anti-Semitic readings of the Gospel by avoiding the loaded term “Jews” in translation. This appears to be the motivation of Norman Beck in his 1985 book Mature Christianity: The Recognition and Repudiation of the Anti-Jewish Polemic of the New Testament. Beck claimed that “translations according to the sense of the text” are to be adopted “in order to reduce emphasis upon the Jews, Judaism and the Pharisees.” Beck assumes that these equivalent translation options will automatically also reduce the “sting” of the polemic and effectively erase the ethical problem that the text presents. But the outcome — to “reduce emphasis upon the Jews,” etc. — has unintended negative consequences of its own.

Sometimes “the Jews” vanish from John’s Gospel out of a scholarly concern with linguistic accuracy — or “historical truth.” In those cases, “the Judeans” is the preferred translation (cf. Esler and Lowe). The potential to circumvent anti-Semitic interpretations is presented as an added bonus in these cases. The point of my 2013 article on the topic was to assess the hermeneutical implications of preferring a strong “dynamic equivalent” translation for hoi Ioudaioi advanced on the grounds of assumptions about the Gospel’s original readership, and about its communicative purpose. The freer we are with our translation, in other words, the greater the risk of imputing a “sense” to the text that is not there, and which has damaging consequences. But looking at the spectrum of translation choices available, I wonder if similar risks obtain when we opt for a highly literalistic rendering, such as “the Judeans.” Reinhartz addresses this in her essay when she cites Amy-Jill Levine to the effect that if we replace “Jew” with “Judean” in translation, it is a slippery slope that might lead to a Judenrein New Testament — a text “purified” of Jews. In this citation, Levine provocatively uses a term deployed by, and ineradicably associated with, the Nazi policies of deportation and murder of Jews in Europe in the Second World War.

Texts do carry within them the potential to become loosed from their authorial moorings and to reach beyond the particularities of their original reception. How later interpreters cited and made use of John’s Ioudaioi may not have been a misguided “abuse” of the text but an activation of its core direction.

In the comments to Reinhartz’s essay, Philip Esler has objected to this citation, saying, “it is difficult to avoid the impression that historical scholarship advocating a particular translation for Ioudaios is being likened to the Gestapo at work in the ghettoes.” Esler reasserts his commitment to opposing anti-Semitism, rather than reinstating it, and he identifies himself as a scholar working in the pursuit of “historical truth” without recourse to unhelpful distortions. The stakes are high — translation and interpretation reveal their ethical motivations on both sides of the debate: to pursue “truth,” to avoid anti-Semitism, to alert readers to the subtle, unintended consequences of both of those impulses. And Levine’s point is trenchant, not to be lightly dismissed — it asserts that the outcome of everywhere preferring “Judean” in translation eerily mirrors the deliberate “de-Judaization” of the New Testament undertaken by certain academics in Nazi Germany, even though, of course, this is far from the intentions of Esler and other scholars of his calibre. The question is: If “Judean” is adopted across the board, could it permit more explicitly anti-Jewish ideologies to creep in through the back door, as it were? A recent essay by Robert Myles and James Crossley [see also Crossley in the forum] indicates that this is a real possibility, and that the risks of suggesting, or even implying, a historical discontinuity between Jews of the first century CE and those of later centuries (and enshrining this in conceptually distinct terminologies) can become fertile ground for the importation of serious ideological excesses.

Returning to the Fourth Gospel, it is not sufficient to say that subsequent Christian interpreters of the Gospel of John mistakenly identified the narrative’s “Jews” with real flesh-and-blood Jews living among them — with disastrously violent consequences — and that they misinterpreted John’s sense. It is also not enough to claim, on that basis, that the imperative facing us now is to “restore” the correct meaning (the entho-geographic one) to the text, translating hoi Ioudaioi as “the Judeans.” This avoids the fact that texts do carry within them the potential to become loosed from their authorial moorings and to reach beyond the particularities of their original reception. On John’s use of “the Jews,” Judith Lieu wrote (in 2001) that “we cannot conclude that what the author or recipients might not have perceived is not part of the text.” John chose to use Ioudaioi rather than “rulers” (i.e., authorities) and this “becomes part of the text’s potential to be realized by interpreters at some future stage.” That means we must recognize that how later interpreters cited and made use of John’s Ioudaioi may not have been a misguided “abuse” of the text but an activation of its core direction.

We must not hide from the Gospel’s tragic reception history as it affected actual Jews. Translating hoi Ioudaioi as “the Judeans” in John’s Gospel could, over time, have the effect of “repristinating” a conflicted history of Jewish-Christian relations. But Daniel Schwartz has summed it up most powerfully in his 2007 article (titled “Judean or Jew?”): “When I use ‘Judean’ for Ioudaios … I have avoided saying ‘Jews.’ By doing so, I have made a statement about them.” What is the thrust of that statement? That is a serious and important question that should occupy scholars in the coming years.

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  • Urban C. von Wahlde

    Prof. Sheridan comments about my own view of the term Ioudaioi that “the alternative options such as “the authorities” (cf. Urban C. von Wahlde
    sic) are considered to be equivalencies that generally don’t hold up to close scrutiny across the Gospel as a whole.” Prof. Sheridan herself might scrutinize my position a bit more closely — to represent it a bit more accurately.
    Two things, one less important; one more so. I have never said that the Ioudaioi are generically “authorities”; I indicate that they are Jewish religious authorities. Secondly, and more importantly, I have never argued that all instances of the term refer to authorities. She need only consult among others of my articles on the subject: “The ‘Johannine Jews”: A Critical Survey” (1982) and my recent Commentary on the Gospel and Letters for the Eerdmans Critical Commentary series (2010).

    It is, in fact, only when the usage of the term in the gospel as a whole is viewed
    from the point of view of the compositional history of the Gospel that the complex
    usage of the term will ever be fully understood.

    Urban C. von Wahlde
    Professor of New Testament
    Loyola University Chicago