Ioudaios before and after “Religion” – By Annette Yoshiko Reed

Annette Yoshiko Reed in the Jew and Judean Forum

When did the Greek term ioudaios come to mean “Jew”? The debate surrounding this question exposes the gaps separating contemporary English speakers from the ancient Greek writings that preserve so much of our evidence for formative periods of Judaism and Christianity. Difference in language is compounded by distance of time, but also by varying approaches to defining and distinguishing identities. In the case of ioudaios, there is much at stake for scholars who study the New Testament, Flavius Josephus, and early Judaism and Christianity. Even beyond the bounds of Biblical Studies, however, this case may offer an instructive example of how modern assumptions about “religion” can pose challenges for understanding pre-modern texts, terms, and taxonomies.

Among specialists in Biblical Studies, the debate surrounding the translation of ioudaios was reinvigorated by the new Brill translation of the writings of Josephus, the first-century Jewish author to whom we owe most of our knowledge of the history of Jews under Roman rule. That translation rendered some occurrences of ioudaios as “Judean,” and Steve Mason defended the decision by tracing a trajectory in the term’s meaning — from the geographically-rooted origins of ioudaios (i.e., “Judean” as a resident of Judah/Yehud/Judea) to its early Christian reinterpretation as a religious affiliation (i.e., “Jews” as an adherent of Judaism). By this logic, all first-century uses of the term retain an ethno-political sense — not yet religious. Reinhartz agrees, but she suggests rendering even first-century uses of ioudaios as “Jew,” in part by adducing examples from the Gospel of John and their afterlife in Christian anti-Judaism; she draws attention to the contemporary ethical consequences to a scholarly practice that results in “the growing invisibility of Jews and Judaism in English translations of ancient texts and scholarship about them.”

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.”

When did the Greek term ioudaios shift in meaning from “Judean” to “Jew”? There are telling assumptions embedded in the very question. First is the assumption that the one-to-one choice of an English equivalent might suffice to solve the challenges that we face when trying to describe ancient identities in modern terms. Second is the assumption that shifts in the conceptualization of identity can be tidily mapped onto the axis of time, such that we would be able to translate ioudaios accurately if only we could determine when its meaning shifted. To be sure, I doubt that any of the scholars involved in the debate would defend such assumptions when stated quite so starkly. But this makes it all the more telling that the framing of the main question nevertheless presumes and reinforces them.

The focus on word-level translation reflects a longstanding tendency in Biblical Studies to treat the etymologies and histories of specific words as direct windows onto ancient thought — with the first known occurrence of a word in writing too often conflated with the birth of a concept. [See Malcolm Lowe’s essay in the forum.] If such approaches feel natural, even despite their bizarre atomization of language, it is in part because modern scholars of ancient ioudaioi have long delighted in quests for the “origins” or “invention” of concepts now common in the West. Teleology, of course, makes for poor history, and presentism courts anachronism. Yet their enduring power may help to explain the appeal of reducing the meaning of ioudaios to a question of when. To assert a moment before which aword bore a now-familiar meaning, after all, is also to evoke the point after which we might confidently presume what it means to us today.

Teleology, of course, makes for poor history, and presentism courts anachronism. To assert a moment before which a word bore a now-familiar meaning, after all, is also to evoke the point after which we might confidently presume what it means to us today.

For the limits of such approaches, we need look no further than to the use of the English term “Jew.” Those who prefer to translate first-century uses of ioudaios as “Judean” argue that “Jew” is a religious affiliation and therefore anachronistic prior to the Christian invention of “religion” in the third or fourth centuries. But this line of reasoning, as Reinhartz notes, presumes that “Jew” denotes a religious affiliation for “us” — an assumption not all English speakers who self-identify as Jews today share, as 2013 Pew polls made dramatically clear. The persistence of multiple meanings can be seen even in the scholarly debate about ioudaioi. If anything, the debate demonstrates how the term “Jew” can seem self-evidently religious to some people from the very same time and culture (and even the same profession and similar education) as others who understand it as self-evidently ethnic, political, cultural, or otherwise not or not just religious. It is not simply that the history of the meaning of ioudaios might be told differently if we chose a different end-point, such as the modern equivalents in Hebrew or Japanese or German. Even the English term “Jew” resists reduction to a single meaning at the end of a single story.

Something may be lost when the different senses of ioudaios are collapsed into a series of points along one straight line to one present-day meaning. In focusing on changes in its meaning before and after “religion,” for instance, there is some risk in reifying what came before. It can be tempting to imagine pre-Christian collective identities as all stable and of the same sort — devoid of the cult so often adhering to culture, the ritual practice so often tied to place, and the inextricability of so many local lineages and landscapes of memory from devotion to deities. That such elements have been habitually neglected in scholarly disciplines like Classics makes it all the more pressing not to write them out of history just because we cannot find a Greek or Latin term directly equivalent to “religion.” Brent Nongbri is surely right to remind us of the dangers of universalizing a modern sense of “religion” as “a kind of inner disposition and concern for salvation conceived in opposition to politics and other ‘secular’ areas of life.” Yet one need not posit Jewish exceptionalism to recognize that different ancient identities (and a good many modern ones) cut differently across the lines of what we are now accustomed to compartmentalizing as “geographical,” “ethnic,” “political,” and “religious.”

The ancient Mediterranean world was hardly a realm of clear-cut bounded lands occupied only by autochthonous peoples. The same centuries that biblical scholars study as the Second Temple period (538 BCE-70 CE) saw the consolidation of forms of education whereby even elites with no connection to Greece could become “Greeks,” and also the articulation of new spatial ideologies whereby Macedonians like the Seleucids could redefine what it meant to be “Syrian.” Greek terms for peoplehood like ethnos may remind us of our words for ethnicity, but the etymological connection should not lead us to treat them as identical to what we now categorize as race or nationality. At times, Greek historians and Roman jurists may use terms of this sort when trying to impose order on the sprawling diversity of the ancient Mediterranean world. Nevertheless, labels for different ethnoi do not necessarily denote stable entities of the same sort. Even under the Roman Empire, there was no static sense of land-bound or genealogical identity from which Jews might be posited as the sole exception — or against which Christians might be heralded as the only agents of change. The second and third centuries might see the beginnings of a Christian discourse re-reading “Jewishness” (ioudaismos) as an entity more comparable to “Christianity” (christianismos) than “Hellenism” (hellenismos), but in these same centuries, Lucian could call himself “Greek” or “Syrian” depending on the point he wished to make; even Bardaisan could be variously described as “Christian,” “Parthian,” “Mesopotamian,” “Babylonian,” and “Armenian.” Despite the tendency in Biblical Studies for scholars to describe even Paul as self-evidently “Christian,” even this label is not “religious” in any manner always and everywhere distinct from ethnic reasoning; not unlike ioudaioi, the Greek term christianoi and its cognates continued to be reinterpreted in creative and productive ways into Late Antiquity and well beyond. We may wish to be wary, thus, lest we refract the differences between ancient ioudaioi and modern Jews through the lens of a misleadingly static concept of “Christianity,” as inventor and exemplar of “religion.”

There’s a compelling case to be made that early Christians like Ignatius and Tertullian innovated a new sense of Jewishness by reducing ioudaismos to the Christian past and by redefining ioudaios as a term of Christological error. These particular senses of “Judaism” and “Jew” would have a long afterlife in medieval and modern Christian polemical discourse — with dire consequences for European Jewry in particular. Looking back, we may glimpse some modes of categorization akin to our current taxonomic practice of distinguishing “religions.” But in their own contexts, many of these cases might be better explained as the use of ioudaios and related terms as negative exempla of Christianness. Nor are Jews the sole focus for such efforts; rather, as Douglas Boin reminds us, the meanings of christianoi and its cognates were negotiated through multiple contrasts with constructed categories of various sorts (e.g., Greek hellenismos, haeresis; Latin paganus). Likewise, our sense of the development of ancient identities may be skewed when we globalize those patterns that so happen to be attested in Greek and Latin literary evidence. These patterns are partly a result of accidents of preservation: the later in time, the greater percentage of surviving Greek and Latin writings that are Christian. Would our picture of the changing meanings of ioudaioi and ioudaismos look different, for instance, if there were more surviving literary evidence for Greek-speaking Jewry in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages? We certainly find different self-designations and other approaches to categorizing identity and difference in the pre-modern Jewish writings richly preserved in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic — although these have been comparably neglected by modern scholars, and only rarely (if ever) culled for evidence for dramatic narratives of “invention” of the sort commonly told from Greek and Latin sources.

Mason and Reinhartz both present the problem of translating first-century ioudaioi as a matter of defining identity before the rise of “religion,” and they look to a late antique horizon when Christian discourses of difference constructed both “religion” and “Judaism” as we now know them. In this, they follow Daniel Boyarin’s influential argument for the fourth century as a determinative era for the disembedding of “religion” from ethnic, political, geographical, and other elements of ancient identity. Boyarin’s argument has important ramifications for understanding the Roman Empire in Late Antiquity. Yet it remains that late antique shifts did not suffice to produce “religion” as we now know it. The genealogy of our current system of categorizing “religion” and “religions” owes more to modern European colonial and related contexts — as Talal Asad, Daniel Dubuisson, Tomoko Masuzawa, and others have variously demonstrated.

If scholars can defend different moments of “invention,” moreover, it is in part because none of them was ever quite complete. Just as Boyarin himself points to the Rabbinic resistance of “religion” in Late Antiquity, so Leora Batnitzky has shown how the reduction of “Judaism” to “religion” continued to remain contested well into modernity; “Judaism” has never fit neatly only in the category “religion,” and this very misfit, in fact, has spurred much creativity within modern Jewish thought. Seen from this perspective, it is not surprising that the twenty-first-century English term “Jew” is no more static, set, or stable than the first-century Greek term ioudaios; like many terms of communal identity, they have been continually constituted as relevant in part through creative contestation.

That “Jew” becomes a category that is both opposite and equivalent to “Christian” is an axiom of much modern research on the New Testament, Christianity, and even Jewish-Christian relations. This contention, however, may tell us as much about the modern histories of these academic subfields as about pre-modern trajectories in the meanings of Greek ioudaios and its cognates. Susannah Heschel, for instance, emphasizes the influence of nineteenth-century German Protestant theologians on modern ideas about “Judaism” as a category akin to “Christianity.” Like their late antique counterparts, their acts of categorization were far from neutral in their aims and effects:

Judaism as a religion is a modern invention, developed in mimicry of Christianity; pre-modern Jewish texts speak instead of Torah and mitzvot. “Judaism” was similarly invented by nineteenth-century Protestant theological discourse as a religion of legalism, literalism, and an absence of morality, and was made to function discursively as the abject of the Christian West.

It is perhaps not surprising that the results can seem natural or invisible nonetheless — especially to scholars who study early Judaism and Christianity; after all, this particular image of “Judaism” was forged within the same settings that were also formative for the modern Western discipline of Biblical Studies. Indeed, this is part of the reason that Mason’s intervention was so powerful. The new Brill translation unsettled a longstanding tendency in Biblical Studies by challenging us to re-read Josephus’s representation of his people’s history anew, apart from older assumptions about the narrowly religious nexus of Jewish peoplehood. As effective as this intervention has been, however, it makes a bit less sense outside of this one specific context — as Reinhartz has shown.

The debate over the translation of ioudaios has been valuable in opening up a broader perspective and bringing insights from the study of Late Antiquity and Religious Studies to bear on the often isolationist study of Josephus and the New Testament. But the more we delve into the complexity of ethno-political discourse in the ancient Mediterranean world, the long and winding prehistories of modern Western notions of “religion,” and the tenacious multiplicity of identity-labels like “Christian” and “Jew,” the less it seems plausible to solve the problem of anachronism just by choosing one or another rote translation depending on the date of the text in question. Even the challenge of translation might be better understood on the level of sentences or paragraphs or texts or corpora, rather than single words interpreted in isolation.

As this particular example becomes more widely discussed — especially in public and accessible settings such as this online forum — it also becomes increasingly feasible just to transliterate ioudaios in those cases where rendering “Jew” might seem unduly misleading. If our aim is to avoid anachronism, it might be better to begin by historicizing our own scholarly habits, diagnosing our blind spots, and avoiding presentist narratives that uncritically reinforce them. However one translates ioudaios, it remains misleading to trace a thin line in the development of Jewish/Judean identities that flattens their ancient Mediterranean contexts and ignores their manifold afterlives outside of Greek, Latin, and Christian literature. The very challenge of translating ancient ioudaioi into modern terms points to the power and limits of categorizing “religions” — in antiquity and modernity alike.

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

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