Joan Taylor in the Jew and Judean Forum
Bruce Malina — one of the most respected scholars of the social world of the New Testament – recently posted a provocative paper online: “Was Jesus a Jew? Was Aristotle a Greek-American? Translating Ioudaios.” He argued that it is inappropriate to translate the Greek word Ioudaios by the English word “Jew.” Calling Jesus “a Jew,” Malina says, is inherently misleading because it anachronistically defines Jesus according to a religion based on a rabbinic model of the Babylonian Talmud of the 5th-6th centuries. Malina would prefer to translate the Greek word Ioudaios, as found in the New Testament, as “Judean”in order to break an association with rabbinic Judaism while preserving the sense that it refers to Judean “customs and behaviors.” [See Crossley in the forum.]
Malina has some support in this translation from a leading scholar of the ancient historian Josephus. Steve Mason, another participant in this forum, suggests the translation of “Judeans” for the Greek term Ioudaioi in Josephus’s writings. The trouble is that the Greek word Ioudaios is not just one thing or another. It has multiple senses and we have to make a call on how to translate this word. Strictly speaking, “Jew,” in English, is just a contraction (i.e., “Ju”) of the term that in western Europe became dispersed into other tongues via Latin: Judeus. The Greek word Ioudaios is a rendering of Hebrew Yehudi, or Aramaic Yehuda`i, a term essentially defining the ethnic group descended from the patriarch Judah, who gave his name to their tribal territory, Judah, which was then expanded through conquest in the 2nd and 1st centuries BCE and designated in Latin as “Judea.” The Ioudaioi are indeed Judeans. People could be included within the Judean ethnic group (ethnos) by marriage and/or by following Jewish/Judean law.
But Ioudaioi came to refer to much more than this ethnic category, since Judaism travelled far and wide, and there were many converts to Judaism as a kind of sacred philosophy that should be followed, in accordance with the laws of Moses. The distinction between a “Jew”and a “Judean” lies here, in that the latter, to me, refers to someone who not only follows the law of the Judeans, but lives in Judea, and not in the Diaspora. I am therefore going to resist an either-or approach, and consider Judaism as a philosophical entity — which I have done at length (in Jewish Women Philosophers of First-Century Alexandria ) — that requires adherence to an interpretation of the law of Moses, one to which people can adhere (following a lifestyle) by conversion, and thereby be defined as Jews. We ourselves can rightly refer to it as a religion, even though in the ancient world the categories of thinking were not the same as ours: Judaism was a kind of philosophy governing life that also involved cultic aspects for its adherents. [On the question of “religion” as a modern category, see Annette Yoshiko Reed’s essay in the forum.] We can usefully talk about Diasporan Jews and Judean Jews. We can also talk about Judahites as opposed to other tribal groups, in even narrower ethnic terms.
Let’s think about Jesus. Jesus was both a Jew, in terms of his religious identity (involving law), and also a Judean, in terms of his location: he lived in the land of Judea, which was a land that comprised regions stretching from Idumaea in the south to Galilee in the north and included the old territorial homeland of the Judahites — Judah/Judea — in its center. This is quite different to someone like the apostle Paul, who was originally a Jew living in the Diaspora, in the city of Tarsus. Jesus was additionally a Judahite, in that he was of the tribe of Judah. The fact that as an adult he lived in Galilee does not take away his tribal affiliation, even though Ernst Renan, for example, notoriously argued in his book Vie de Jésus (1863; English translation The Life of Jesus in 1935) that Jesus was fundamentally a Galilean and noted that this was a region of ethnic mixing, so that Jesus’s “blood” would be difficult to determine. Ethnically, he was of a long line of Judahites that could be traced back to David: the earliest evidence we have on Jesus is from Paul, who twice stresses that he was “born from the seed of David” (Romans 1:3) and from “the root of Jesse”of Isaiah 11:10 (Romans 15:12).
In being a resident of the wider region of Judea called Galilee, Jesus can be classified in broader regional terms as Judean. The whole country was designated “Judea” since Judean laws governed the area, except for the Hellenistic cities that had their own (Syro-Phoenician/Hellenistic) city law. The northern part of the region of Galilee lay within Syrian “Ituraea” but had been converted to Judaism by Judah Aristobulus in 103-4 BCE: men were circumcised and from this time Judean religious law governed the people (so Josephus, Antiquities 13:318). The southern part probably lay within Samaria until its inclusion in Judea by John Hyrcanus (Antiquities 13:275-81), when the city of Scythopolis was also taken. The Galileans, in abiding by the legal system of Judea imposed upon them, became converted Ioudaioi (= Judean Jews), but Jesus was a Ioudaios from ancient antecedents, a child of immigrants to Galilee from Judah/Judea of old, hence a Judahite.
The legal system of Judea also happened to be religious law, as in many ancient Near Eastern societies. The definition of a Ioudaios in antiquity is not therefore merely an issue within the territory of Judea; it becomes an issue outside this territory, where there were people maintaining or adopting the traditions of Judea within regions where the legal systems often ran according to a variety of Hellenistic city states.
All the distinctions I make in terms of words like “Jew,” “Judean,” or “Judahite” are actually that one word in Greek: Ioudaios. Much rests on the correct understanding of it. No one English word covers all its meanings. We do not have simple solutions; we have complex ones. Each term does not have hard and fast boundaries: a Diaspora Jew could be also a Judean, in terms of origins, and a Judahite, in terms of tribal background, but a Diaspora Jew could be Helena of the royal house Abiadene, who converted to Judaism (Antiquities 20: 34-53) In each text, the context and subtleties of language need to be carefully understood for the proper translation of the term Ioudaios. One word in Greek is used for variants of identity and belonging that we today will want to distinguish.
Importantly, when the word Ioudaios is used in the New Testament, it can also refer to an even more precise group. In the Gospel of John, the Ioudaioi generally are either“people who live in Judea and have certain traditions there” or “the leading Judean authorities, namely the chief priests”, who are opposed to Jesus and his movement. If you always translate this word Ioudaioi simply as “Jews” — which is usual in our English Bibles — you create an intrinsic opposition between two groups of people who are actually both Jewish, strictly speaking. On one side you have a group of Galilean (Judean) Jews, who go up to Jerusalem properly according to the Jewish customs for the Passover festival. On the other hand, you have the Ioudaioi, usually translated as “the Jews,” who hate them.
However, on the basis of their actions and authority in the Gospel of John these Ioudaioi are generally in charge of the religious and legal administration of the Temple and the city of Jerusalem, along with its territory. “The Jews” are then those in power in Jerusalem, opposed to Jesus the Jew from Galilee, and are designated in this Gospel as children of Satan (John 8:44), because they (as those in power in Jerusalem) are accused of being responsible for murdering certain prophets who testified to those in power in Jerusalem in former times: thus “the Jews” of the Gospel murdered Judean Jews who were prophets. As Wayne Meeks and John Ashton have argued, the inter-regional suspicions and class-based dimensions of Jesus’s opposition are totally lost in translation. And, as we all know, that has led to ghastly consequences when fused with Gospel of Matthew’s presentation of a certain Jerusalem mob, who — influenced by “the chief priests and the elders” — call for Jesus to be killed by saying, “Let his blood be upon us and on our children”(Matthew 27:25).
If the term “Judean” is used instead of “Jew” in the translation of the Gospel of John, it does dislodge something of the problem, but it still needs explanation, because we would still miss the power politics. “The Judeans” are the authorities in Jerusalem who are opposed to Judean Jews who follow Jesus. The word can also have a wider reach: for example, in terms of describing Passover as a “festival of the Judeans”(John 2:13; 6:4). But the Ioudaioi who oppose Jesus in Jerusalem are not every Jewish man, woman, and child of his time.
This goes to show that how we use words is important, and we should not translate things without understanding the world in which Jesus lived. The inter-regional and class-based conflict indicated here is part of the historical context of the times. In referring to “the Judeans” in the way the writer of the Gospel of John does, there is not necessarily an incipient anti-Semitism but a kind of shorthand. We find it exactly duplicated in Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians (2:14-16). Paul, a Diaspora Jew, exhorts his followers by saying:
For you, brothers and sisters, became copies of the communities of God existing in Christ Jesus in Judea, because you also suffered the same things from your own compatriots, just as they did from the “Judeans,” the ones who even killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and they were driving us out, and they are not pleasing to God, and they are hostile to all people, hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles that they might be saved, so as always to fill up the measure of their sins. But at last wrath has come upon them.
Here, as with the Gospel of John, Paul is heavily criticizing the Judean authorities in Jerusalem, and those who supported them, who persecuted the Judean church and who happen to be Judean Jews. The authorities also considered Paul a serious trouble-maker because he was claiming as a divine message to the Gentiles that they could become grafted onto the tree-trunk of Judaism (Israel) without being converted to Judaism (see Romans 11). The “wrath” Paul identifies is unclear but should refer to a misery for the Judean authorities and their associates.
Paul knew exactly who he was talking about because he was himself an associate of the Judean authorities: he served them in trying to quash the incipient churches of Jesus’s disciples not only in Judea but also in Jewish communities elsewhere —in synagogues in Damascus — where the authority of the High Priest stretched (Galatians 1-2, cf. Acts 7:58-8:3). For Paul, “the Judeans” here refers to the Judean authorities whose responsibility was to uphold Jewish law: men who could chastise certain Jews under their power. It is power here that is key, not ethnicity.
Such language against certain groups wielding power could be used as much in the ancient world as today: one can see it in contemporary contexts in areas of conflict when “the Russians” or “the Americans” are responsible for some military or administrative oversight. It raises questions about who wrote the Gospel of John, when, and for what reason, and this language remains dangerous in terms of its legacy, but it prompts us to think about who held power and what the issues were when Jesus lived.
If we were to call Jesus a “Judean” only, rather than a “Jew,” I think we would drive a wedge between the Judaism of the time in which he lived and later Judaism.
In my own terminology, then, “Jew” tends to have a broader reach of meaning, referring to a religious/philosophical category of people who follow the Mosaic law as it was interpreted, while “Judean” is more linked to the land of Judea. “Judahite” I use in terms of tribal categories that were still relevant in the first century. The identification of Ioudaioi in the Gospel of John as the “Judean authorities” is a kind of contraction or spin-off from the regional sense “Judean,” used really by people (Paul and the writer of the Gospel of John) who are themselves Jews.
If Malina is to be followed, the contraction“Jew” should apply only to forms of Judaism in Late Antiquity, not to Jesus and his contemporaries within the ambiance of their age. Yet, if we were to call Jesus a “Judean” only, rather than a “Jew,” I think we would drive a wedge between the Judaism of the time in which he lived and later Judaism. This could lead to an unfortunate consequence, severing the Judaism of the first century from the heritage of Jews today.
I agree with Adele Reinhartz and Amy-Jill Levine in critiquing the language that avoids using the term “Jew.” 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.
With all this in mind, let’s think again of definitions and go back to Paul’s statements about the birth of the historical Jesus as a Jew: he was “born of a woman, born under the (Jewish) law” (Galatians 4:4). Paul also situates himself as a Jew and yet, in a way that indicates he had stepped away from the law. We can dip our toes into this simply to show the issues, before moving on, to explore also how Paul connects being normatively “under (Jewish) law” (in terms of a legal adherence) with being a Jew.
In the Letter to the Galatians — in debate with those who wanted non-Jews (Gentiles) to follow Jewish customs and law, including circumcision of males — Paul scorns the hypocrisy of the apostle Peter and states: “We are Ioudaioi by nature, and not Gentile wrong-doers” (Galatians 2:15). Peter and Paul are both “by nature” Ioudaioi, contrasting with Gentiles who are defined in religio-legal terms as wrongdoers, and we might translate Ioudaioi as “Jews.” But, paradoxically, in the same breath Paul could claim: “through the law I died to the law that I might live to God”(Galatians 2:19). By this he means that the law (the books of Moses, from Genesis to Deuteronomy) predicted Christ, and for him Christ’s death — as a new covenant between humanity and God — led to his release from needing always to follow the law.
In the narrative of the Acts of the Apostles Paul states, literally: “I am a man, a Jew” (Acts 22:3, cf. 21:39). One cannot present oneself more clearly and straightforwardly than that. While this wording of the author of Luke-Acts, Paul affirms this adamantly in every way he could define himself in the Letter to the Philippians (3:5): he was “circumcised on the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew (child) of Hebrews.” When Paul states that he was of the tribe of Benjamin he refers to another tribe of Israel than that of Judah, but he was Jewish (here designated as “Hebrew”) in terms of the over-arching ethnic-religious category of Judaism and in terms of his Hebrew tribal heritage. In his Letter to the Galatians, while defining himself and Peter as Ioudaioi, Paul could note that “my former manner of life” in Judaism was one in which he was earnest for “the traditions of my ancestors,” but he rejected that. Paul rejected the necessity of the practice of the law (including keeping kosher food laws), but “by nature”he was still a Jew.
Paul the Jew was, as he calls himself, anomos, “unlawed,” like a Gentile, but one who could move back and forth on this very issue depending on context. So he says in 1 Corinthians 9:21:
And I became to the Ioudaioi like a Ioudaios, in order to win Ioudaioi; to those under law as under law, not being myself under law, in order to win those under law; to those unlawed (anomos) as a one unlawed, not being God’s unlawed but Christ’s in-lawed (ennomos), in order to win the unlawed.
No contemporary English translation will have this passage as I have it here. In Greek it is as repetitive, rhyming, and rhythmic as a rap. I keep the words very literal to show concepts about who was a Jew in the first century. Here Paul defines Jews as normatively those “under law,” meaning the sacred laws that actually governed Judea administered by the Judean authorities in Jerusalem, which could stretch to wherever Jews lived, via synagogues; but he can be anomos, “unlawed,” while being a Jew to Jews like Peter.
But Paul was not “un-Scriptured”: at the very same moment he proclaims himself as “unlawed,” he has just quoted a“law of Moses”(Deuteronomy 25:4) as indicating the deeper allegorical meaning that workers should be allowed to eat (1 Corinthians 9: 9-12). For Paul, Jewish Scripture read and interpreted in this symbolic way leads to truth but not necessarily to the practice of law, because that would mean literal reading and, as he said, “the letter kills but the Spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6).
Therefore, when Paul refers to Jesus as being born “under law” (Galatians 4:4) he defines him as a Jew, categorically, in his own terms. And, incidentally, he never indicates that Jesus himself was anything but a “lawed” Jew all through his life. Not once does Paul appeal to Jesus as breaking the Jewish law in order to justify what Paul himself does. Jesus was under that law that Paul defines as “material” (cf. Galatians 3:3; 4:24-31). Paul knew that he was the anomaly, not Jesus. For Paul, the possibility of living in an “unlawed” way, as a Jew, was only available by means of the death of Jesus, not the life of Jesus.
Curiously, I have to note here that there were apparently other Jews who were also willing to let go of some of the distinctive laws of Judaism, valuing the deeper meaning of Scripture. Around the year 40 CE the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria states (The Migration of Abraham 89):
There are some who, regarding the words of the laws as symbols of things of the mind, are scrupulous about the latter, while they carelessly neglect the former (my translation of the Greek text in Whitaker’s Loeb 275).
Philo never indicates that they are no longer Jews. They are even quite admirable, except that other Jews criticized them for their carelessness with the law. These Jews Philo discusses are an example of the diversity within Judaism at this time. Whatever ways we define Ioudaioi in antiquity, in all its variant senses, our designations need to include them.
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