Sunday, May 18, 2008


There has been so much confusion lately over the attempts to replace "Jew", "Jewish", etc. with "Judean" or "Israelite" that considerable clarification is called for. I get the sense that too many scholars approve of this new terminology.

In the post for Feb. 2008, I was critical of Steve Mason's article calling for "Judean" to be the new word for ancient Jews, and, in the Jan. 2008 post, critical of John Elliott's suggestion to use "Israelite", though his is the better article. As Elliott notes, "Judean" (the Greek Ioudaios ) was the term that outsiders (pagans or gentiles) used for the people of Israel. The terms this people use for themselves all involved Israel — children of Israel, member of the House of Israel, etc. My problem with Elliott's suggestion is that it will encourage an anachronism — identifying Jesus with biblical Israelites, which he was not — and alienate him from the continually developing culture of his time and place, Pharisaic/rabbinic Judaism. "Jewish" is still the best word for that culture.

Also afoot here (even in Elliott's article) is an effort to separate Judeans and Galileans, claiming they are from very different cultures. Scholars will try to pin the Judeans to the Temple and its rituals, while they assert that Galileans practiced a different kind of Judaism. By identifying Jesus with Galilee, scholars hope to make conflict with Judeans one of the causes of his death. I predict that this will become the new way to blame Jews for Jesus' death (a wider circle of Jews than just Jewish leaders), only now they will say Judeans did it and use this to escape the charge of being anti-Jewish. Here is a point for point clarification of the whole mess (this is from a new preface I have been writing for Ghost, or it might be a new, short book):

1) In any passage from any text, if there is sound reason to think that only the people from the geographical area of Judea are meant, then "Judean" would be appropriate.

2) Where "Judean" refers to all of this people with their customs and folklore which grew from the written Torah (whether they were in Judea, Galilee, or the Diaspora), then "Jews" should be used because that is the term we use today and have been using for centuries now. "Judean" was the gentile or pagan term for this people and it is how the Romans referred to them. There is no good reason we should use imperialist terminology for the Jewish people.

3) But isn’t "Jew" originally an outsider term because it stems from "Judean"? Yes, but it is also the word this people chose to identify with and designate themselves with. That makes it the insider expression of choice and we should respect that.

4) What about distinguishing the Judeans, supposedly centered around the Temple, from the Galileans who supposedly practiced some other kind of Israelite culture? Nonsense for the reasons set forth below.

5) What is this other Galilean Israelite culture? No one explains it in any detail. Remember too that the so-called Judeans did not call themselves Judeans. They called themselves children of Israel just as the Galileans did. They were all Israelites and shared the same stories.

6) The allegation that there was some separate tribal group more immersed in Temple practices is false. All Jews were devoted to the Temple, including those in Galilee and the Diaspora.

7) So what group, if any, was most closely associated with the Temple? That would be the priests. But they did not constitute a separate cultural or ethnic group. They were part of the Jews or children of Israel. Jesus would certainly have recognized them as fellow members of Israel. They all saw each other as compatriot insiders as opposed to the Romans. For all the disagreements the Pharisees had with the priests (many of which were fiercer than anything you will find in the Gospels), the Pharisees never would have labeled them as an alien group, completely other.

8) The next two groups that were most deeply involved with the Temple were the Sadducees and Pharisees. But these two groups also did not constitute separate ethnic or tribal entities. They too were children of Israel and would have identified themselves as such and would have been recognized as such by other Jews, including Jesus and his followers.

9) It would be untrue to say for either the Sadducees or Pharisees that the Temple was the center of their identity.

10) The Sadducees were more or less the aristocratic class. Most of the upper class of priests were Sadduceean. They ran the Temple on a daily basis.

11) The Pharisees controlled the interpretation of the written Torah on all matters, including how the Temple rituals were to be performed. They took a vital interest to make sure things were done right as they saw it.

12) The Temple was not the center of existence of the Pharisees and Sadducees. As important as the Temple was to them, it was not the be-all and end-all of their lives. They debated a lot more issues than just the Temple and its rituals. There was a much wider world to Judaism, incredibly wider, I might add. The Temple was only one aspect of their concerns.

13) The only group here whose existence revolved around and was perhaps identified by the Temple were the priests themselves who actually worked there. There was no such group as the Judeans whose existence was more closely bound up with the Temple than any other Jewish group. It was not the center of anyone’s identity, except perhaps the priests. For historians to create a fictional idea of Judeans for whom the Temple stands as central to their identity is a reprehensible thing to do and serves only to disappear from history the real Jews and Jewish life of that time..

14) The Romans, it must be noted, understood none of this. They identified the Judeans, as they called these people (in all of Israel and not just Judea), with the Temple because that is what they knew in their own culture — temples, priests, animal sacrifices. The Romans had no clue about the importance of the Pharisees as interpreters of a written constitution and their power over priests and Sadducees.

15) So the Roman understanding of the Judeans was way off base. They had an excuse for not understanding Jewish culture in all its complexity. Modern scholars do not.

16) If anyone really cares (hard to imagine, I know) about the identity of these ancients and how they understood themselves, then the proper thing to do is to ask them. Ask Hillel, ask Shemaiah and Avtalyon, or Honi the Circle Drawer, or Simeon ben Shetach (all of them lived just before Jesus of Nazareth). What information is there in the historical record about how they saw themselves?

There is more in this new preface, which I may or may not include in Ghost one day. It is becoming long enough to be a short book on the misrepresentations that continue to be perpetrated by the scholarly world.

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