Jesus Was Neither Jewish Nor Christian

In Jew or Judean? I explained why “Jew” is probably a mistranslation in the New Testament. Now, coming from the current issue of The Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, Jack Elliott confirms my convictions. Everyone should read his essay, even if debates about nomenclature tend to leave you cold.

It’s called “Jesus the Israelite was Neither a ‘Jew’ nor a ‘Christian’: On Correcting Misleading Nomenclature”, JSHJ Vol 5.2, pp 119-154. Elliott discusses identification, insider and outsider language, the fact that Jesus is never called Ioudaios in the NT (save on three occasions, and by outsiders), that Ioudaios was understood in either a narrow regional sense or broader ethnic sense (depending on context) — but in any case correctly translated as “Judean” and not “Jew”, and the usage of Ioudaios in the Gospels, Acts, and letters of Paul. In the end, he outlines his “Resulting Picture” (pp 146-147):

(1) Jesus identified himself and his associates as Israelites, and his mission was directed to the House of Israel. He was identified by other Israelite insiders according to his Israelite family and lineage and by his place of birth and upbringing, Nazareth and Galilee. He was Yeshua bar Yoseph, an ‘Israelite’, a ‘Galilean’, a ‘Nazarene from Nazareth of Galilee, but not a ‘Judean’ resident in Judea.

(2) Jesus never called himself a Ioudaios and was never designated as such by fellow Israelites. He was called, or thought of as, a Ioudaios only by non-Israelite outsiders whose terminology was consistent with Hellenistic and Roman practice, designating as ‘Judean’ all residents of Judea, together with all those connected to Judea by blood relations, Torah allegiance, patriotism, and loyalty to Judea, the holy city of Jerusalem and the Temple.

(3) His first followers were identified by fellow Israelites also as ‘Galileans’, ‘Nazarenes’, or members of ‘the Way’, but never as ‘Judeans’.

(4) They too, like Jesus, viewed themselves as Israelites. They preferred ‘Israel’ and ‘Israelite’ as self-identifiers when speaking to the ingroup Israel and when addressing fellow disciples.

(5) Paul’s usage is consistent with this pattern. He too prefers ‘Israel’ and ‘Israelite’ as self-identifiers in settings where Israelite Christ followers or Israelites outside the Christ movement are present. With an eye to the Israelite fellow believers who are in the audiences of his letters to the Philippians, the Corinthians, and the Romans, he identifies himself as an ‘Israelite’. With an eye to his Gentile readers, on the other hand, he can also identify himself, as a concession to their nomenclature, as a Ioudaios.

So Jesus was no more Jewish than Christian. He was a Judean in the broad ethnic sense often used by Greco-Roman outsiders, and even better a Galilean Israelite from the insider perspective. With Elliott I’m concerned that we “agree to employ terms of identification and self-identification today that reflect, and are consistent with, the historical, social, and cultural situation and practice of Jesus and his early followers” (p 154). Sometimes we don’t do this well: the tendency of some scholars to pluralize “Judaism” (and “Christianity”) for the sake of emphasizing ancient diversity is unnecessary and patronizing. But replacing Judaism with Judeanism isn’t a scholarly fad. There are good reasons for it.

UPDATE: April DeConick reacts strongly to Elliott’s proposal, and there are some nice replies in comments (:)).

9 thoughts on “Jesus Was Neither Jewish Nor Christian

  1. Loren,I’m growing in my confidence of this position. (Cf. my post on how France treats this in his 2007 commentary on Matthew, NICNT.)As you note, the meaing of Iudaios seems to depend on whether a speaker is etic or emic. An interesting parallel is the word, “Yankee” or “Yank.” If one is a “foreigner” (Brit, for example) a Yank is any American. If you are in the States, however, a Yank is only someone from New England, the upper Mid-Atlantic, and arguably the Great Lakes states.Note also the way Americans and many Europeans carelessly throw the word “Arab” around.

  2. Loren,Thanks for linking back to my response. Actualy, I don’t see my argument exactly as the “case against” – I think mine is a mediating position: that is, I think there is usually an ethnic component to the word, and that sometimes that component is dominant, and sometimes almost submerged. In other word, the ethnic denotation sometimes becomes an ethnic connotation.

  3. Loren, I don’t understand how you can possibly say that “Judaism” should be erased from the picture of Jesus. He preached in the synagogues (would any Gentile have done that?), he read from the Torah, he was circumcised, he referred to the prophets of Israel, he and his followers went up to the Temple… the list goes on. I think that this distinction you’re making between “Jew” and “Israelite” is entirely specious. You should be aware that at least to me, you’re beginning to sound like the bad old days in the study of the New Testament, when scholars did their best to divorce Jesus from Judaism, in order to make him look so much better than the “legalistic, “dessicated” caricature they drew of current-day Judaism.

  4. Rebecca wrote:

    You should be aware that at least to me, you’re beginning to sound like the bad old days in the study of the New Testament, when scholars did their best to divorce Jesus from Judaism, in order to make him look so much better than the “legalistic, “dessicated” caricature they drew of current-day Judaism.

    I’ve combated these caricatures as much as anyone. No one is using Judaism as an implicit foil here. And to be clear: I don’t assume that Jesus’ way of being a Galilean Israelite was inherently better than (say) a Pharisee’s way of being a Judean Israelite. Good guy/bad guy contrasts have no more place in an historical discussion than do foils and false starts.

  5. I’m a couple months late commenting, but better late than never, as they say. Just had a chance to read this, by virtue of Sage’s free month (man has that increased my reading list. . .). Excellent paper. I found pages 128-130 to be particularly compelling–a sizable number of passages presented there seem to read more sensibly as “Judean.”

  6. I believe these recent attempts to rename and redefine ancient Jews and their culture are theologically motivated. I’ll explain.Has anyone noticed that the suggestion to use “Judean” instead of “Jew” (made by Steve Mason and others) is undercut by John Elliott’s article? Mason for one claims to be interested in understanding the ancients as they understood themselves (his article was in the “Journal for the Study of Judaism” 38 [2007] 457-512). His concerns are broad and not tied to historical Jesus studies or to the question of how the NT’s use of Ioudaios should be translated, though he admits that Christian theology has often determined how Jewish history is understood. But as Elliott brilliantly argues, giving many examples, “Judean” was the outsider term for this people. It is not how ancient Jews identified themselves. So the suggestion to use “Judean” completely fails. It represents an outsider or imperialistic approach to Judaism.What about Elliott’s recommendation to use “Israelite”? At least this makes some sense, but I’d have to reject it. “Israelite” means something different today than it meant back then. For most people, it denotes the children of Israel in the written Bible. Calling Jesus an Israelite would tie him too closely to a previous time.Jesus was part of an ongoing, developing culture, in particular Pharisaic/rabbinic culture, and a rich oral tradition. That is the essential point about Jesus which no one gets. “Jew”, “Jewish”, and “Judaism” are still the best terms for that culture. The Gospels abundantly illustrate Jesus’ participation in the oral tradition. “Israelite” fails to capture that because it has a static meaning today. What “Israelite” meant back in the 1st century is best conveyed by “Jew”.Whether it’s Judean, Israelite, or Galilean, Christian scholars are using these terms to drive a wedge between Jesus and Pharisaic/rabbinic culture. This is historically false and should not be allowed to stand. And translating the NT’s Ioudaios as Judean would also foster notions of divorcing Judeans from Galileans and Jesus from the former that cannot be justified.The real harm in historical Jesus studies has come from using theological terms to study history (and not from the use of the word “Jew”), yet hardly anyone complains of their use: the antitheses of Matt 5, the Passion, the Cleansing of the Temple, the symbolic act of destruction of the Temple, the (Jewish) trial of Jesus, the betrayal, and more. All these terms have little or no evidentiary foundation in the Gospel texts. Scholars use them as a substitute for evidence to paint a historically false picture of Jesus in hostile relations with other Jews. It is a shame this continues, while scholars divert attention to the specious problem of finding words to replace “Jew”, “Jewish”, etc. — specious and potentially harmful because it results in rewriting Jewish history.Leon Zitzer

  7. Dominic Crossan gives the most convincing historical account of Jesus that I have yet to read. Jesus was neither Jew nor Christian. The stories re Jesus doing things that only Jews could do were never objectively and historically confirmed. Further, it would have been odd for a man committed to radical egalitarianism to participate in rituals that were racially restricted.

  8. Jesus repeatedly calls the Pharisees hypocrites. There is no question of Christian scholars trying to drive a wedge between Jesus and Pharisaic/rabbinic culture.

    The question is the validity of the easy identification of the children of Israel with today's “Jews,” an identification which Mr Zitzer claims when he writes “Jews should get to decide how to describe their own history.”

    Jesus regarded the Torah as definitive, not the Talmud. Most Jews are descendants of converts to their religion.

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