Jew and Judean: A Forum on Politics and Historiography in the Translation of Ancient Texts

MRB August 26, 2014 3

Have scholars erased the Jews from Antiquity?

Jew or Judean SliderThe Marginalia Review of Books aims to host conversations about serious books and important ideas. Taking advantage of the opportunities supplied by new media, we are providing space for constructive debates on the questions that shape how we understand the world.

Adele Reinhartz’s essay in MRB on June 24 set off a vibrant discussion in the comments section and in the MRB editors’ inboxes. The range of responses to the piece dotted the spectrum from full support to indignation, proving that a sizable readership wanted to debate these ideas further. The forum is released today only two months after the Reinhartz essay thanks to the good will and the efficiency of the participants. The essays, beginning with Reinhartz’s original piece and concluding with her response to the collection, investigate the political and historiographical considerations involved in the translation of ancient texts, in particular how modern translators and historians ought to deal with the translation of the Greek word ioudaios (Ἰουδαῖος).

Along with the forum, MRB is excited to release an e-book version of the discussion free for our readers. We hope that you will read and share with as many people as you wish, and we hope it becomes a resource for use in seminars, classrooms, and other group settings. You can download the e-book in epub format (most readers), mobi format (Amazon Kindle), or as a PDF.     — Timothy Michael Law

Adele Reinhartz

I am alarmed by the growing invisibility of Jews and Judaism in English translations of ancient texts and scholarship about them. The use of “Judeans” to translate all occurrences of ioudaioi achieves neither the scholarly precision nor the ethical high ground that scholars claim. On the contrary, the proliferation of Judeans inadvertently creates confusion and misunderstanding and merely sidesteps the issue without addressing the anti-Jewish or even anti-Semitic potential of texts such as the Gospel of John.

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Steve Mason

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.

The problem of translating with sensitivity to ancient contexts is basic to the research and teaching of all ancient historians.

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Daniel Schwartz

The question whether we should use “Jew” or “Judean” when writing about antiquity should, I assume, be approached no differently than other questions concerning the use of our modern English vocabulary for ancient phenomena. Just as we normally look at the evidence concerning antiquity and, when turning to describing what we see, strive to choose the English words that best correspond to what we see, so too in this case.

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Annette Yoshiko Reed

At first sight, the debate might seem to pivot on the choice between Mason’s search for the most accurate English equivalent of the term’s meaning in the first century and Reinhartz’s concern to tailor its translation to the understanding (and potential misunderstandings) of present-day readers. Yet the ramifications are also much wider. Just as Mason shows how the translation of a single term can engage the very nature of identity in the ancient world, so Reinhartz also calls us to critical reflection concerning the degree to which modern historical research can be isolated from its own historical contexts. Rather than arguing for one side or another, I would thus like to push further on both fronts — in part by asking what we miss when we plot the different meanings of ioudaios along a straight line towards the concept of “Judaism” as “religion.”

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Joan Taylor

To say, as Malina does, that a “Jew” is an anachronistic category in the first century erects a wall between modernity and antiquity. I do not want to sever Jesus from the designation “Jew” and insist on it being relevant only to a later time, because that might sever him from a Judaism today that embraces diversity within its past. To say that Jesus was a Jew is not to say that he was a Jew as the rabbis would define that term but a Jew as one might define him in the first century.

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Malcolm Lowe

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.

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Jonathan Klawans

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.

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Ruth Sheridan

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.

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James Crossley

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.

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Adele Reinhartz

While not all participants in the Forum explicitly address anti-Semitism or its seemingly more benign variant, anti-Judaism, I believe that all recognize that the ioudaios question does have implications for this sensitive issue. As some of the responses note, the question of translation may matter less when readers have ready access to commentaries and more in the case, for example, of New Testaments that are used liturgically and therefore, in most cases, without commentary.

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  • Tzur

    This controversy about whether we can eliminate the terms “Jews” and “Judaism” from the history of both in the Graeco-Roman period, and replace these terms with others allegedly more accurate, reminds me of the comments by Evan Zuesse in his “Phenomenology of Religion” article in The Encyclopaedia of Judaism, Second Edition (Brill, 2005), Vol. III: pp. 1968-1986, particularly pp. 1973-1977 regarding “Old Testament Scholarship.” He remarks about Christian Old Testament studies, p. 1973, “As is the case with every academic discipline, the basic terminology of Old Testament studies gives important insights into what Tendenz underlies the entire field. Thus, it is striking how many terms, including those describing Scripture itself, the God, land, people and religion of ancient Israel are anachronistic and explicitly anti-phenomenological, ignoring and implicitly rejecting Judaism’s values and normative self-understandings. … Taken together, they produce a radical de-Judaization of the religion, culture, and even people of ancient Israel, removing Jews and Judaism from their own formative religious history and replacing them with proto-Christians. Nothing like this can be found in the Western academic treatment of any other religion. Judaism and Jewry, in this approach, become a late, degenerate, and perhaps even marginal development in their own tradition …” Of course, as Zuesse points out, secularist Old Testament studies have replaced the proto-Christians of Christian seminary usage with polytheistic pagans, but the result remained the same. There is the same endorsement of terms that de-Judaize the Scriptures, the God, the land, the people, and the religion of Biblical times. Whether Christian or secularist-academic, we find endorsement of the same terminological de-Judaization, so it obviously serves a deep motivation. We constantly hear of, to take each category listed by Zuesse above, the “Old Testament” Scripture, or “Law” (instead of “Jewish Scriptures” or the Torah or “Teaching” of God as cited by the prophets and others even within the Jewish Scriptures); the reduction of the universal Jewish God to a Canaanite god like Chemosh or Baal, with the casual naming of “Yahweh” (directly contrary to the Ten Commandments and instead of the usage of Adonai, “Lord,” or Elohim, “God,” as the Torah text itself provides for and Jewish tradition demands); the constant preference for the term for the land as “Palestine” rather than as the “Land of Israel” or other terms actually found in the Jewish Scriptures and even in the New Testament; the adamant refusal to use the term “Jews” to apply to the people before the exilic period, who were allegedly only “Israelites” or “Hebrews,” so there were apparently no “Jews” around in the ca. 700 years stretching from Moses through the prophets, and, finally, the claim that there was no “Judaism” at all in the pre-exilic period, only “Israelite religion” which allegedly was radically different and comparable to the religions of the Moabites, Edomites, etc. — even though as everyone knows none of those neighbouring religions produced a Torah whether monotheistic or not, nor were sustained in situ or in exilic conditions down to the present. Zuesse mentions that since according to the school of thought that “Early Judaism” only arose after the Exile, it became a scholarly commonplace up to the last generation to claim that this religion only had a vital life of about 500 years, culminating in the “Late Judaism” of the Pharisees, after which it supposedly became a fossil which wondrously has maintained its skeletal life for the next two-thousand years. Now, in our present generation, it has become fashionable to deny even that short-lived “Judaism” the right to the title. “Judaism” now is said only to have emerged around 200 CE, making it a mere “sibling” of Christianity.

    Zuesse argues that regardless of the claim that “religion” as such was first defined by early Christianity (or rather, in his account, the terminology first emerged in the late medieval period and was applied to other religions subsequently), the phenomena that it described has certainly been part of the essential reality of all major religions, including Judaism long before the rise of Christianity. So it is the worst sort of anachronism to deny other religions their own piety, religious experience and faith merely on the grounds that the specific general term for all that emerged only with Christianity. He discusses this point in his footnote 18, p. 1986, in connection with the study of Wilfred Cantwell Smith, The Meaning and End of Religion (1963). As for the meaning of “religion” itself, he offers a phenomenological definition that avoids some of the pitfalls of several essays in this collection.

    • daized79

      I may have more to say after I read this, but I would be sympathetic to the arguments if everyone agreed of course these are all Jews, we are just using different terms to delineate eras. But that’s probably not the case, right?

  • brianleport

    This has been a great series. I’ve gone back and forth which each argument and it has stretched my thinking on the matter. Wonderful job MRB.