A Response to the Jew and Judean Forum – By Adele Reinhartz

Adele Reinhartz August 26, 2014 0

Adele Reinhartz wraps up the Jew and Judean Forum

I am grateful for these thoughtful responses to my essay on the ioudaioi, and for the opportunity to reflect on them briefly here. The responses demonstrate Steve Mason’s important point that scholars of good will may differ on a broad range of issues. At the same time, and despite the divisiveness of this issue, the responses reveal agreement on a number of key points. Most obviously, the respondents agree that “Judean” in the first instance denotes a connection to Judea, as a geographical location and/or political unit. Where they differ is in their assessment of where or when the Greek ioudaios evokes this connection and, conversely, whether or when — if ever — it is appropriate to translate ioudaios using terms other than “Judean.” The responses also agree that the issue is complicated by a range of historical and theoretical factors, and that its implications may include some sensitive, present-day concerns and emotions.

A complicated issue

Meaning. Every translation requires both an understanding of what a word meant in its ancient contexts and what English term or terms best conveys that understanding. Of course, the ancient meaning(s) are themselves difficult to determine. In the case of literary works, meaning may be tied to the author’s intentions as well as to the audiences’ interpretation(s) of those intentions, all of which may be elusive and subject to interpretation. In the case of inscriptions, where authorship is unclear, there may be conventions and protocols that also complicate the meanings that readers or donors may have ascribed to the term.

Translation. The relationship between these ancient meanings and modern translation into a particular language is also complex. On the face of it, we may intend our translations to convey the ancient meanings. In reality, however, the meanings of terms accrued both over the history of the Greek terminology and the history of the English terminology may both help and hinder that effort. While we may hope for “historical truth” (a term used by Philip Esler in his comments to my essay) it is in fact almost impossible, as Annette Reed notes, to divorce translation (and interpretation) completely from contemporary historical contexts. Translation theory can help to provide a vocabulary and framework for thinking more rigorously about the relationship between ancient source and English translation; Ruth Sheridan’s response, as well as her 2013 JBL article, provide a good starting point for learning more.

Anachronism. Reed’s observation that “presentism courts anachronism”cautions us against importing our own categories when analyzing ancient texts and artifacts. Anachronism occurs when, as Reed notes, we forget that many aspects of the ancient world, including Judaism or the ioudaioi “cut differently across the lines of what we are now accustomed to compartmentalizing as ‘geographical,’ ‘ethnic,’ ‘political,’ and ‘religious.’” Nevertheless, some degree of anachronism is inevitable, and perhaps even necessary, in order to engage with historical questions, including interpretation and translation, at all. The modern methods, theories, languages, and questions that guide our work and make it both interesting and possible are all anachronistic; yet without them our work would be difficult if not impossible, and also, in my view, far less interesting. Any effort to translate ioudaios, including the decision not to translate but simply to transliterate it, will entail anachronism of one sort of another; we must perhaps learn to think differently about the past, yet the language and categories at our disposal may not be adequate to the task.


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.

As several of the responses note, the “Judean” option potentially severs the relationship between ancient and modern Judaism in ways that can foment anti-Jewish sentiments. In this regard, I wish to emphasize that many, perhaps the majority, of scholars such as Mason and Esler, who consistently translate ioudaios as Judean, do not efface Jews from the first century, nor do they deny the continuity between ancient ioudaioi and Jews from later eras including our own. But, as Crossley’s essay makes abundantly clear, the same cannot be said for everyone. Mason is correct that referring to ancient ioudaioi as Judeans does not negate the fact that they were Jews. But I believe he is too optimistic in suggesting that no “intelligent reader” could draw such a conclusion. The work of Malina, who, as Taylor notes, is a respected scholar, suggests otherwise. While the use of The Judean War as the English translation for Josephus’s Bellum Judaicum makes good sense to me, a recent book title — Dressing Judeans and Christians in Antiquity — implies the absence of non-Judean Jews from the book (and perhaps also from antiquity?). Why not Dressing Jews and Christians in Antiquity, given that Paul and other non-Judean Jews appear in the Table of Contents?

Contentious questions

I wish to conclude with a brief remark about a sensitive subject: reading. Or more specifically: which books or articles are read, and how are they read? I think it is likely that all scholars, from undergraduate students to veterans, believe in the importance of reading as thoroughly as possible in any given area before or as they sit down to write about it themselves. But the sheer volume of publication in almost any corner of our disciplines is such that no one can hope to read everything that is relevant to every single aspect of the questions they seek to address in their scholarship. Malcolm Gladwell’s concept of The Tipping Point could help us understand the factors (aside from quality) that affect which articles and books become standard reading, and which others, often equally good, will gather dust on library shelves or in our pdf files.

Most of us might like our own work to be widely read and acknowledged. But such wide recognition also carries the risk that our work will be both misunderstood and used in ways contrary to our own intentions. My own experience is that misunderstanding is almost inevitable, though there are always some readers who (I believe) understand what I am trying to do. In this vein, I was very interested to know that Steve Mason does not in fact consider “Jew” to be an incorrect translation of ioudaios. Perhaps this point should have been clear from the fact that he does not require the use of Judean on the part of the scholars working with him on his excellent Brill Josephus translation and commentary project. Nevertheless, his 2007 argumentation in favor of “Judean” still reads like an assertion that “Jew” falls short. While Mason acknowledges that “there is no great harm in using the familiar terms [Jews and Judaism] for popular studies, which can gently explain the historical situation,” he systematically addresses every conceivable historical objection to the “Judean” option, stating that Judean is “the most adequate English option,” or that even when the ioudaioi developed identity aspects in addition to land or state, there is still “no basis for abruptly switching to Jews.” Strictly speaking, the view that “Judean” is preferable need not mean that “Jew” is incorrect but it is perhaps understandable that I (and others) have read his article that way.

Conversely, I wish to clarify that I do not hold Mason himself even partly responsible for catalyzing the trend to replace “Jews” with “Judeans” in a broad range of contexts. As he notes, his goal in the 2007 article was to clarify and justify his decision to use “Judean” in the Brill project. Yet his work has been taken as a basis for simply replacing “Jews” by “Judeans” in discussing ancient Jews and Judaism. The cogent and thoughtful critiques of the “Judean” translation — by Seth Schwartz, Cynthia Baker, Amy-Jill Levine, David Miller, and others — are rarely referred to in footnotes, let alone discussed, suggesting (to me) that they are not known, and therefore not read, by many who work in our field. Again, none of us can read everything about everything, but there are certain hot-button issues that require more than a reference to a single article, important as that article may be.

Finally, it could well be that widespread discussion of this question will make it ever more possible simply to transliterate ioudaios instead of sinking into the “Jew/Judean” quagmire. I have moved increasingly in this direction when teaching or writing about specific passages in the Gospel of John. But it is likely that we will still need a way to refer to these ioudaioi in English, at least some of the time. That being the case, it is my hope that this Forum will be a helpful companion for thinking through this issue, and perhaps for helping others — students, colleagues, friends — think through it as well.

See the Forum home page and download the e-book in epub format (most readers) or in mobi format (Amazon Kindle).