Monday, February 18, 2008


In the post below this one, I discussed John Elliott's article "Jesus the Israelite Was Neither A 'Jew' Nor a 'Christian'". I gave my reasons why I think his suggestion of replacing 'Jew' with 'Israelite' is a wrong move. Basically, it will encourage people to associate Jesus with biblical Jews and disassociate him from the ongoing culture of his time.

Now I turn my attention to Steve Mason's article "Jews, Judaeans, Judaizing, Judaism" (I gave the citation in the post below; it was published a few months after Elliott's article). Mason's suggestion is much worse. He wants to replace 'Jew' with 'Judaean'. As Elliott noted, this was the outsider term for Jews, the term used by pagans, notably the Romans. Now why should we use the term that Romans or any other gentiles used for Israel? Because Jews would use this term for themselves when communicating with pagans? That is not a good enough reason.

At least Elliott's notion of 'Israelite' is technically correct as a term Jews used for themselves, though I am not sure that 'Israelite' is quite right. Would not the fully correct term be 'children of Israel' or 'sons of Israel' (Elliott discusses both)? If you want strict technical correctness and a pure feeling of insiderness, maybe that is the way to go.

Mason's choice of 'Judaean' is particularly odd when you consider that it is his stated goal to understand a people as they understood themselves. 'Judaean' certainly does not accomplish that. Nothing else in the article does either. He keeps repeating that ancient Jews (or Judaeans, as he would have it) were an ethnic group. That by itself does not tell us much. He gives no idea of how they thought about themselves. In fact, the constant repetition of Jews as ethnos rather seems to fit with an ancient Christian theological point that Jews were a tribal group but Christians were universal. Mason completely misses how much universality was a part of Jewish consciousness; he never even alludes to it as part of their self-understanding.

In general, when Christian scholars talk about 1st century Judaism, they sum it up as being about Temple, (written) Torah, rituals, purity, and territory (Mason for some reason focuses on the last one; it's the one he mentions most often). That's all you get. None of them ever sums up 1st century Judaism as being about spirituality, justice, mercy, and learning. The bias of most scholars is really apparent. Yet they claim to have an objective understanding of history and a concern for letting ancients speak for themselves. Hah! Not to mention that none of them delve into the brilliance of oral Torah in interpreting and keeping up with the changing circumstances of their own time. Scholars erase it all.

Mason never says whether he would also refer to Galilean Jews as Judaeans or would he keep them distinct, thus breaking the bonds of commonality that the two groups felt. Mason says he wants to stay close to their understanding of themselves, but his suggestion separates them where they might have felt united. Lastly, he reveals his own bias when he twice calls Paul a Christian, even though Paul never heard of this term. How does Mason capture the self-undertanding of someone like Paul who never stopped thinking of himself as a Jew bringing the pagans into Abraham's covenant with God?

The spectacle of so many scholars re-defining and re-naming ancient Jews to suit their own purposes is more than I can take. This isn't history. This is imperialism. Jewish history is apparently something these scholars want nothing to do with. Just consider the conversation that Shemaiah and Avtalyon, the two Pharisaic teachers of Hillel, had with a high priest. They rebuked him for making bloodline descent from Aaron, the first high priest, the most important part of Jewishness. Being a peacemaker, as Aaron was, is the more vital attribute of what it means to be Jewish, they told the high priest. Now that tells us something about the self-understanding of Jews, at least as expressed by Pharisees, a not unimportant part of the culture of the time.

No more disappearing Jews (with or without quotation marks) from history.

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