Have scholars erased the Jews from Antiquity?
The 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
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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 let’s 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.
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.
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.
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.