The Vanishing Jews of Antiquity – By Adele Reinhartz

How should one translate the Greek term ioudaios?

As a young girl in 1950s and 60s Toronto, I attended the Workmen’s Circle Peretz School (Arbeter Ring Peretz Shul) each day after public school. Most of my classmates were like me: children of Holocaust survivors from Poland affiliated with the secular socialist movement called the Jewish Labor Bund. The Bund valued Yiddish over Hebrew, the Diaspora over Israel, and culture over religion. At the Peretz Shul, we did not study Mishnah or Talmud, or the prayerbook. Instead, we learned Yiddish, read the works of the great Yiddish authors, and sang songs from the Yiddish theater. We also studied Jewish history, from the Babylonian exile in 586 BCE through the Maccabean revolt; the revolts against Rome; the Golden Age in Spain; the Inquisition and expulsion; the pogroms, blood libels, and ghettoes of Europe and Russia; the creation of the State of Israel, and Jewish life in North America.

In our corner of the Jewish community, Jews did not attend synagogue, even on the High Holidays, nor did we fast on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) or refrain from bread on Passover. We had our own rituals and traditions, our secular seders commemorating the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, our Sunday evening gatherings to eat, sing, and argue about politics. We had a strong Jewish identity rooted not only — and not primarily — in the Holocaust but in the rich secular Yiddish culture in which our parents had been raised. Only at the age of 11, when we moved “up north,” did I meet Jewish children with Canadian-born parents. Only then did I learn that synagogue life had not died with the East European shtetl but was alive and well in suburban Toronto. And only then did I understand that there were different ways of being Jewish, and that some of these even included religion.

The complexity and diversity of Jewish identity was a major feature of the Pew Research Center report on American Judaism released in October 2013. The report revealed that 22% of the participants in the Pew Survey of Jewish Americans claim to have “no religion” and that the majority of respondents do not see religion as the primary constituent of Jewish identity. Fully 62% ground Jewish identity primarily in ancestry and culture, only 15% in religion. Among Jews who gave Judaism as their religion, 55% based Jewish identity on ancestry and culture, while 66% did not view belief in God as an essential component.

The Pew survey sparked heated debate throughout the Jewish world, about intermarriage, assimilation, Jewish education, Israel, synagogue attendance, and numerous other aspects of Jewish identity. Jewish navel-gazing is hardly a new or novel activity. But it may be surprising to learn that the question of Jewish identity also generates considerable heat in the Ivory Tower, especially, in recent years, among scholars of early Judaism and Christianity.

At stake for these scholars is not so much the question of “who is a Jew” — a preoccupation of many Jewish communal organizations — but whether there were any Jews at all, anywhere, prior to the third or fourth centuries CE. This issue may puzzle those who view the Essenes, Sadducees, Judah the Maccabee, Judith of Bethulia, and Jesus of Nazareth as Jews. Nevertheless, at this very moment, at computers across the English-speaking world, there are professors and graduate students tapping out books, articles, and blog posts in which the word “Jew” never appears as a designation for Josephus, Philo, Paul, the Pharisees, or other formerly Jewish denizens of antiquity.

I am alarmed by the growing invisibility of Jews and Judaism in English translations of ancient texts and scholarship about them.

From a scholarly perspective, the underlying question is specific and technical: how should one translate the Greek term ioudaios? Until recently, the answer, for most, was straightforward: ioudaios/ioudaioi should be translated into English as “Jew/Jews.” Increasingly, however, these ancient Jews are being replaced by “Judeans.” We can trace this trend back to a small number of widely-read publications that have appeared in the last ten to fifteen years, the most cited of which is Steve Mason’s 2007 article, “Jews, Judaeans, Judaizing, Judaism: Problems of Categorization in Ancient History.” Mason and others argue that “Judean” is both a more precise and a more ethical translation of ioudaios than is “Jew ”: more precise because it corresponds more closely to the complex meaning of ioudaios in ancient Greek sources, and more ethical because it counteracts the anti-Semitism that historically has been associated with some of these Greek texts, most notably the New Testament.

I am all for historical precision and sharply attuned to potential anti-Semitism. Yet as a scholar and a Jew, 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.

Ecce Homo – Image via Wikimedia Commons
Ecce Homo – Image via Wikimedia Commons

Steve Mason, the general editor of Flavius Josephus: Translation and Commentary, makes the argument for precision most forcefully. Ioudaios/ioudaioi, he argues, was initially a geographical term, referring to people of the region of Judea. But by the first century the ioudaioi are no longer merely the residents of a certain geographic area: they are members of an ethnic-political entity. Although they share a set of ancestral traditions and customs involving priests, temple, and sacrifices, as well as a number of foundational narratives (included in the Bible), the ioudaioi did not constitute a religious community because religion did not yet exist as a concept and as a type of institution. For this reason, Mason urges us to overcome our tendency to view Judean as a primarily geographical designation and use it consistently as the translation for ioudaios in Josephus, in the Gospel of John, and, indeed, in all ancient sources: “Just as ‘Roman,’ ‘Egyptian,’ and ‘Greek’ (etc.) had a wide range of associations beyond the geographical … so too ‘Judaean’ should be allowed to shoulder its burden as an ethnic term full of complex possibilities.”

Mason clearly feels strongly that Judean is the best translation of ioudaios, and he has followed through consistently in his translations of Josephus and in his other scholarly work. Nowhere, however, does he explain directly why Jew is incorrect. He does comment that the English word Jew, although etymologically derived from ioudaios, does not sound like ioudaios (presumably because of the absence of “d”) and therefore disrupts the relationship with the land that is inherent in the term Judean. It seems Mason is trying to have it both ways: discounting Jew because it does not evoke the geographical meaning of Judean, while urging that Judean takes on a meaning that goes far beyond geography.

One suspects, however, that the real problem with the descriptor Jew is its supposed religious meaning. If religion did not exist prior to the third or fourth centuries CE, then Judaism did not exist, and neither did adherents to the religion of Judaism, that is, Jews.

Mason is surely correct that ioudaios was a complex term that carried ethnic, political, cultic, and many other dimensions, even if the jury is still out on the existence or non-existence of religion in antiquity (see Shaye Cohen, Cynthia Baker, Seth Schwartz, and Daniel R. Schwartz, who have more nuanced positions on the matter). But why broaden the referent of Judean from its primary geographical meaning when there is a perfectly good English word — Jew — ready to hand? As the Pew Report and many previous surveys and sociological studies have shown, Jewish identity includes the same elements — including ethnic, political, cultural, genealogical, and, yes, geographical — that, in Mason’s view, are conveyed by the Greek terminology. To define Jew solely or even primarily in religious terms is simply wrong. Further, erasing Jews from Jewish antiquity, while presumably solving one historical problem, creates another historical dilemma: how to account for the sudden appearance of Jews in late antiquity as a fully-formed ethnic and religious group that saw itself — and was seen by others — as continuous with the ioudaioi of the Greco-Roman era? Scholars of the Greco-Roman period may not feel called upon to answer such questions, but the dilemma cannot be ignored.

And yet, the trend to adopt Judean as the default translation of ioudaios is increasing. Many now use the term without any comment, or with merely a footnote citing Mason’s 2007 article. Ironically, the widespread usage, intended to be more precise, often introduces vagueness, ambiguity, and even confusion. To describe Josephus as a Judean historian, or the revolt of 66-74 as the Judean war, strikes me as excessively narrow given their broad importance for Jewish history. We could perhaps excuse this usage, given that Josephus lived for the most part in Judea and the first Jewish revolt against Rome was centered in Judea. But on what grounds is Philo of Alexandria a Judean philosopher? How did the Hebrew Bible become the Judean Scriptures and Judaism the Judean religion? And why, pace Mason, refer to Josephus’s grand history of the Jews as “The Judean Antiquities” when the narrative covers far more geographical and chronological ground?

Frederick Danker’s brief lexical note on the term ioudaios in the third edition of the classic reference work, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, articulates the most succinct ethical argument in favor of using the term Judean. Danker commented:

Incalculable harm has been caused by simply glossing Ioudaios with ‘Jew,’ for many readers or auditors of Bible translations do not practice the historical judgment necessary to distinguish between circumstances and events of an ancient time and contemporary ethnic-religious-social realities, with the result that anti-Judaism in the modern sense of the term is needlessly fostered through biblical texts.

The ethical consideration is most directly relevant to the Gospel of John. The term ioudaios/ioudaioi appears approximately seventy times in the Gospel of John, far more than in the other three Gospels combined. Despite some neutral or even positive occurrences, the ioudaioi figure most prominently as the opponents of Jesus, whose lying and murderous conspiracy to have him crucified demonstrates that they are children of the devil (John 8:44). The seventy-fold repetition of the term does not allow readers to ignore or make light of this hostile portrayal; the potent association between the ioudaioi and the devil remains deeply embedded in anti-Semitic discourse to this day.

In theory, of course, one could cut the problem out at its root by revising the original Greek. Such revision — though for the purposes of supporting rather than eliminating anti-Semitism — was undertaken by pro-Nazi German theologians in 1936. This revision omitted references to Moses and the prophets, as well as to all Hebrew place names and Jewish inhabitants of the Galilee, but retained references to the Jews’ culpability for Jesus’ death. Revision is hardly a viable option, however, for those who respect the integrity of the text and its canonical status. While some translate ioudaioi according to its context within the Gospel of John (see, for example, the New Living Translation), others replace some or most instances of Jews with Judeans.

Already in 1976 in an article in Novum Testamentum, Malcolm Lowe argued that rendering ioudaios/ioudaioi as “Jew/Jews” is not only wrong but pernicious: “As long as the mistranslation continues, generations will continue to read that ‘the Jews’ had Jesus killed and (by combining this with Mt xxvii 25) to infer that they declared themselves and their descendants responsible. Thus this philological error … has provided, in practically all modern translations of the gospels, a constant excuse for anti-Semitism whose further existence cannot be permitted.” In 2007, Philip F. Esler went further — in “From IOUDAIOI to Children of God” — to argue that the Gospel of John’s supposed role in Christian anti-Semitism is due to the mistaken assumption that “there is a persistence of identity between the ioudaioi of John’s time and the Jews of ours.”

Why not embrace a translation that has the Judeans, rather than the Jews, as the architects of the plot to kill Jesus and his followers (cf. John 16:1-4)? For one thing, there is no evidence that using Judeans instead of Jews deflects attention from Jews as guilty of Jesus’s death. Jews do not have to be present, physically or linguistically, in order for anti-Judaism to exist.

More important, however, eliminating the Jews lets the Gospel of John off the hook for its role in the history of anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism. Whether or not centuries of readers and hearers were mistaken to associate John’s ioudaioi with the Jews of their time, as Esler asserts, the fact remains that John’s hostile portrayal of the ioudaioi did contribute to anti-Semitism, most obviously through the image of Jews as the devil.

Anti-Semitism cannot be eradicated simply by replacing Jew with some other term.

To be sure, translating ioudaioi as Jews risks perpetuating the rhetorical hostility of the Gospel itself. But to use Judean instead of Jew whitewashes the Gospel of John and relieves us of the difficult but necessary task of grappling with this gospel in a meaningful way. As Amy-Jill Levine notes: “The Jew is replaced with the Judean, and thus we have a Judenrein (‘Jew free’) text, a text purified of Jews … So much for the elimination of anti-Semitism by means of changing vocabulary.” Continuing to use Jews as a translation of ioudaioi allows readers to see the link between the Jews that are vilified in the Fourth Gospel, and those who fell victim to anti-Semitism that arose out of long habits of vilification.

Mine is no lone voice crying in the wilderness. Others (like Ruth Sheridan in JBL last year) too have called for the restoration of the Jews to the Gospel of John, and to the study of antiquity more generally. Choosing Jew over Judean does not posit a complete overlap between ancient and contemporary Jewish identities, only that both are complex and may or may not include religious beliefs and practices. Nor does this choice ignore the possibility that reading or hearing that Jews killed Christ in the first century risks reinforcing anti-Semitic attitudes and behaviors in the twenty-first century. But just as anti-Semitism is not created by the mere usage of Jew in a particular text, so can it not be eradicated simply by replacing Jew with some other term.

Those who propose to turn all ioudaioi into Judeans claim that Judeans is both a more precise and a more ethical translation. I argue the opposite. The term Jew is more precise because it signals the complex type of identity that the ancient sources associate with the Greek term ioudaios and also because it allows Judean to retain its primary meaning as a geographical designation, so useful when discussing, say, the inhabitants or topography of Judea. The term is more ethical because it acknowledges the Jewish connection to this period of history and these ancient texts, and also because it opens up the possibility, indeed the necessity, of confronting the role of the New Testament in the history of anti-Semitism.

Let us restore Judean to its primary geographical meaning, as pertaining to the region of Judea and its residents. Political designations such as the Judean People’s Front, the People’s Front of Judea, the Judean Popular People’s Front, or the Popular Front of Judea would also be appropriate, as per one authoritative source (see Monty Python’s Life of Brian). Let us not make the mistake of defining Jews only in religious terms. Let us rather understand the term Jew as a complex identity marker that encompasses ethnic, political, cultural, genealogical, religious and other elements in proportions that vary among eras, regions of the world, and individuals. Let us not rupture the vital connection — the persistence of identity — between ancient and modern Jews. And let those who nevertheless elect to (mis)use Judean to translate all occurrences of ioudaios justify their usage beyond merely footnoting others who have done so.

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

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