Sunday, January 27, 2008


Is historical Jesus studies going backwards or forwards? Backwards. Definitely backwards. Scholars are becoming more sophisticated and subtle than their predecessors, but their goal to defeat historical study remains the same. All these blogs are a kind of lament for the backwardness of historical Jesus studies.

Last year, two articles appeared, each one making their argument to stop using "Jew" or "Jewish" for ancient Jews of the 1st century and for Jesus too, of course. Of the two, the better one is the first one from July 2007: John H. Elliott's "Jesus the Israelite Was Neither a 'Jew' Nor a 'Christian': On Correcting Misleading Nomenclature", Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, Vol. 5, No. 2, pp. 119-154.

I was prepared to hate this article, but it is actually quite good, until you get to his conclusion. He is of course technically correct that the terms "Jew" and "Jewish" did not exist back then. They identified themselves by various formulations with the term "Israel" —children of Israel, sons of Israel, members of the House of Israel. Or, as Elliott suggests, Israelite. Elliott brilliantly argues that these were the words that they used to identify themselves, insider terms. The outsiders (pagans in general, Romans in particular) called them Judaeans. He points out that it is quite telling that, in all of rabbinic literature, the rabbis never called themselves Judaeans. They always resisted the outsider term.

So Elliott wants to use Israelite for Jesus because it is how he would have identified himself. Again, technically correct, but very misleading. "Israelite" today has a different meaning. It refers to Jews in the Bible. Jesus was not a biblical Jew, but "Israelite" will encourage people to associate him with Hebrew scriptures and cut him off from the ongoing oral culture of his time, which is exactly what historical Jesus studies has always been obsessed with doing. Scholars have always hated associating Jesus with Pharisaic and rabbinic culture and literature, and now this will give them the incentive to become even more entrenched.

The fact is that "Jew" and "Jewish" mean today more or less what "Israelite" meant back then. They are the right words to use for that continually developing culture which never stopped arguing with itself, its God, and the book that recorded its birth in history. "Israelite" will just destroy that continuity.

Elliott is good enough to admit that "Jesus the Jew" has done a lot of good and has reminded everyone of Jesus' connection to the culture of Israel. He praises how much good has been accomplished by talk of Jesus' Jewishness. I appreciate that. But the work of Jesus' Jewishness has not been completed. In fact, it has hardly begun. We have not even scratched the surface of explaining what makes Jesus so Jewish. All scholars have done is avoid it and now they will have more reason to avoid it. Jesus was not Jewish! So let's forget about it!

Elliott also says he wants to combat the harm that later antisemitic ideas of Jews have done to New Testament studies because we have imported these later ideas into the New Testament whenever we translate Ioudaios as Jew. But the harm has not come from this. It has come from importing later anti-Jewish theology into the New Testament by using terms completely inappropriate for historical study —terms like antitheses (from Matthew 5), the cleansing of the Temple, the symbolic act of destruction of the Temple, the Passion, and even the "trial" and the "betrayal". These are all theological terms which prejudice us to read an anti-Jewish outlook into the Gospels. These are the terms we should be fighting, not "Jew".

There is something outrageously wrong in advocating to discontinue the use of words like "Jew" and "Jewish", which have done no harm (or at worst, very minor harm), while allowing to continue unchecked terms which have done immense harm to historical study. It is reprehensible and quite fishy. Why put all this effort into "correcting" relatively trivial and harmless terminology while remaining quite comfortable with the really bad, theologically prejudiced terms? Fishy is an understatement.

The other article is Steve Mason's "Jew, Judaeans, Judaizing, Judaism: Problems of Categorization in Ancient History", Journal for the Study of Judaism 38 (2007), 457-512 . He wants to replace "Jew" with "Judaean", the outsider term as Elliott points out. This is an even worse idea! What is this obsession with getting rid of "Jews" from history?

This blog is already long enough, so I will offer my comments on Mason's article next time. I will just note here that one of his professed aims is to use only terminology that the people of their time would have used for themselves and to recover how these people saw themselves. Yet he is willing to call Paul a Christian (something Elliott would not do) though Paul never heard this term let alone used it to describe himself. And Mason does nothing to recover the oral culture (the oral Torah) that this ancient people used to define themselves more than written Torah or Temple defined them. Mason simply obsesses about words like "Jew", "Jewishness", and "Judaism" —now there's equal opportunity rewriting of history.

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