An Invented Revolution – By Jonathan Klawans

Jonathan Klawans in the Jew and Judean Forum

Many learned colleagues have written detailed analyses of these matters and Ive been asked to explain my view. I am glad to do so in this format for I have at this time little (but, I hope, more than nothing) to add in terms of evidence for consideration. But I have long felt unease with the recent developments about which Adele Reinhartz has written so eloquently in Marginalia. Both Seth Schwartz (in Journal of Ancient Judaism 2) and David M. Miller (in Currents of Biblical Research [disclosure: Millers pieces appeared during my years as CBR Editor for Ancient Judaism]) have also discussed the topic, and all of these writers have influenced my thinking. I have, however, been opposed to the revisionist approach from day one, and some of my reasoning follows.

I want to start with the argument offered by some, that using “Judean” in place of “Jew” could be an effective way to counter anti-Semitism. This argument strikes me as odd at best. Though I think its worse than odd. Its possibly manipulative, and potentially dangerous. But lets start with what strikes me as a bit off about it.

Is it really the case that the translation “Jew” has done great harm? If I am not mistaken, the question about “Jew” and “Judean” is, as it is taking place here, primarily an English-language question. Far be it from me to deny the influence of anti-Semitism in the English-speaking world. But lets be frank: on the whole, Jews have been and continue to be rather safe wherever the English language is spoken, even though all the Bibles talk about Jews.

Now lets consider, briefly, a different language and context where the situations were (and, alas, are) different. Russians generally refer to Jews as yevrai. Or zhids. Or worse. And yet Russian Synodal Bibles typically translate the Greek “ioudaioi” into Russifications of that term (e.g., Иудеям).  So the yevrai (or zhids) slaughtered at Kishnev and countless pogroms had the benefit of being semantically severed from the ioudaoi/Иудеям/Judeans of the Czarsofficial Synodal Bibles. Some help that was.

I also agree with Reinhartzs warning: does it make sense, in the cause of countering anti-Semitism, to disconnect current Jews from their claimed past? I suppose one could — and perhaps should — always be mindfully skeptical about the historical truth of any claim of descent. But lets face it: there are two ideologies that are well-served by disconnecting contemporary “Jews” from ancient “Judeans.” The first ideology is anti-Zionism and the second is anti-Semitism. (To be clear: to my perception, neither ideology is necessarily at work in any of these academic debates, but thats not the point.) While I grant, in theory, that these two ideologies are potentially separable, the fact is they often bleed one into the other, precisely on the issue discussed: one can more easily oppose the existence of a Jewish state of Israel by denying any connections that contemporary “Jews” claim to those “Judeans” who lived there in the Roman era. (To wit, the Khazar hypothesis.)

Perhaps Ive strayed off course; but this is why I think the anti-Semitism argument is not just odd, but manipulative. Its a clarion call to take one side on an unsolved question (on “Jew” or “Judean”) by appeal to a moral argument that is (or should be) one-sided (anti-Semitism, which is evil). Heres my view: anti-Semites can translate these terms as they wish. And they should go to hell. The rest of us should have an open conversation about this matter, without misleading ourselves into thinking that Jew-haters will somehow be countered by academicssemantic adjustments. I fear, not without reason, that some anti-Semites may just as likely find current revisionism on these matters conducive to their own pernicious ends. If that risk does not matter, then neither should any perceived benefit.

Another argument that strikes me as utterly irrelevant is all the debate about the category “religion,” to the effect that if religion is a post-antique phenomenon, then so too should be the terms Jew and Judaism. Let me be clear: as a Professor of Religion, I certainly dont mean to downplay the importance of this term or category. Nor could I pretend that any of these questions are settled (which is to say, also, that while Masons approach falls within range of the debates, his is not the only reasonable stance taken by thoughtful scholars of religion). The irrelevance of this question relates to the fact that a category requires multiple examples. But the question before us (Jew/Judean) is singular. We are not simultaneously considering how to translate a range of religious (or ethnic) terms. The category that matters is the nature of Jewishness. The existence of Judaism doesnt require the existence of religion per se. It is conceivable that there was only one religion (in the modern western sense) at that time. After all, the whole problem of the western category is that it was built, essentially, on one example alone (Christianity), to which a second example (Judaism) was quickly assimilated. And when we take that back to the pre-Christian era, we have at most one (Judaism, as understood religiously) and perhaps none (Jewishness, understood ethno-religiously). So lets put aside the question of “religion,” for it is a distracting sideshow. At least this one, I think, is morally neutral.

The real issue at stake in the choice we are being asked to make is one of continuity or discontinuity.  The arguments against “Jew” — moral, categorical, what have you — all come down to this choice. Judeans were not Jews; Judeans were in one way or another fundamentally different than later Jews. During the first century CE we dont yet have Jews (or Judaism). Just Judeans. The precise nature of this revolution, though (at least in so far as the Jews themselves are concerned) is utterly unclear to me. Perhaps the construction of Judaism was shaped largely or even entirely by the development of Christianity. This is one current trend — but there are dissenting voices (aside: please add mine to any list, if its not already there). And lets be sure to note the remaining atypicality of all this: these first century “Judeans” lived all over the Roman Empire (not just Judea), speaking Greek, waiting around for Christians to regularize their identities by inventing religion. To what other group does this experience compare? And if this set of phenomena is at all uncommon, what again is the problem with “Jew”?

In the present atmosphere of academic revisionism, it seems at times that nothing pains some historians more than continuity. But thats no reason to invent silent, unnoticed revolutions.

It seems to me that by many accounts throughout antiquity (from early to late), Jewish identity was a complex mix of ethnic, religious, and cultural factors. More than other ethnicities, it does appear that Jews understood themselves as distinct not only by virtue of customs but also by belief (Against Apion, 2.179-181). Less so than other ethno-cultural identities, it appears that Jewishness could function reasonably well with near to complete ignorance of the Judean mother tongue (to wit, Philo), and persist among diaspora groups centuries after leaving the Judean mother land. And perhaps more so than other “utopian” (that is, place-less) ethno-religious identities, Jews acquired an array of languages and ethnic co-diversities. Jews coming to Jerusalem from afar are described as differing from other (and local) Jews in a variety of linguistic-cultural ways (to wit, Acts 2). This fundamental Jewish ethno-religious-cultural fluidity appears in full force by the Second Temple period. The term “Jew” has been and will continue to be perfectly adequate to convey this complexity.

Far be it from me to suppose that Jewish civilization was static during this time period. But adopting the changes Mason and others propose requires asserting that some fundamental revolution (from Judean to Jew) took place — a change that must have gone largely unnoticed. No Jewish sources seem aware of any such fundamental change in Jewishness. Nor is any terminological shift discernible in our sources. And we cannot presume the silence of our sources on this kind of transition. Josephus, let us recall, notices the shift from Israelite to Jew, and places it in a particular timeframe, one of fundamental transition for the Jewish people — the early post-exilic period (Antiquities 11.173). We have nothing like this for the alleged transition from Judean to Jew.

So here, for me, is the rub: ostensibly in the name of countering anti-Semitism and other western, Christianity-centered biases about religion, we are being asked to suppose that “Judeans” were (at some unspecified time) transformed into “Jews” because of the development of Christianity (no quotes needed), which could eventually lead to the invention of “Judaism.”

Possible? Yes. Proven? No. Analytic benefit? Unclear. Moral gain? I dont see one.

In the present atmosphere of academic revisionism, it seems at times that nothing pains some historians more than continuity. But thats no reason to invent silent, unnoticed revolutions. There is much that we do not know, and so scholars will have to continue to consider hypotheses concerning the late-antique invention of Jews and Judaism. But if we choose to do so, we must also consider hypotheses concerning the early 21st century invention of “Judeans,” apparently by scholars who would rather do their work unencumbered by the possibility of a continuous, vibrant, and evolving ancient Jewishness.

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