Phil Harland Puts Things to Rest: The "Judean" is Here to Stay

Phil Harland deserves a gold star, calling attention to an article by Steve Mason, “Jews, Judaeans, Judaizing, Judaism: Problems of Categorization in Ancient History,” The Journal for the Study of Judaism 38 (2007) 457-512. In Phil’s view, it puts to rest debate over the correct translation of Ioudaios — meaning people had best start getting comfortable using “Judean” in place of “Jew” for the 2nd-Temple period.

“Mason builds his argument in three stages. First (pp. 457-480), he deals with the relatively rare ancient terms ἰουδαίζω (verb) / Ἰουδαισμός (noun), which have often been erroneously translated as referring to “Judaism” as a system of belief and practice, rather than to the practice of adopting the ways of a particular ethnic group…

“Second (pp. 480-488), Mason goes on to show how some scholars continue to uncritically employ the concept of ‘religion’ in studies of ancient Judean culture. In particular, theories by Shaye Cohen and others that propose a shift in the meaning of Ioudaioi from an originally ethnic-geographic category (i.e. ‘Judean’) to a religious category (‘Jew’) are built on problematic notions regarding the category of ‘religion’. Mason emphasizes that what we as moderns think of as ‘religion’ was, in fact, not known in antiquity and also intersects or envelopes at least six different categories that were familiar to the ancients (ethnos, cult, philosophy, familial rites of passage, associations, and astrology / magic)…

“Third (pp. 489-512), Mason argues that the Ioudaioi / Iudaei ‘of Graeco-Roman antiquity understood themselves, and were understood by outsiders, as an ἔθνος, a people comparable to and contrastable with other ἔθνη’. Ancient authors including Strabo, Posidonius, Tacitus, Philo, and Josephus consistently speak of Ioudaioi in terms of them being an ethnos, a people or ethnic group. Here Mason also deals with common objections to the use of ‘Judeans’ to translate Ioudaioi, (p. 489)…

“This article, in my mind, has put this question to rest. It is time to speak of ‘Judeans’, ‘Judean practices’, and ‘Judean culture’ in the same way that we would speak of the identity and practices of the many other ethnic groups or peoples that existed in antiquity. The Judeans of antiquity are not a special case.”

Bravo, Phil. You’re certainly preaching to the choir on this end. I only wish the matter was so easily put to rest!

Amy-Jill Levine Critiques Esler and Elliott on the Use of "Judean"

It’s been a while since I read Amy-Jill Levine’s The Misunderstood Jew (see here), and can’t believe I forgot her critique of Esler and Elliott who insist on using “Judean” instead of “Jew” when discussing the 2nd-Temple period. It’s found on pp 159-166 of the book. Let’s consider it.

Levine warns that replacing “Jew” with “Judean” in the New Testament leads to “a Judenrein (‘Jew-free’) text, a text purified of Jews” (p 160) which feeds neo-Nazi fantasies. Recounting a skinhead who interrupted one of her public presentations, she insists on “the need for the church to recover Jesus as a Jew” (p 161) to fend off dangerous crackpots. She’s completely candid about her agenda being driven by political as much as historical concerns (ibid), but in my view, you can’t mix the two at the same time. The former precedes the latter. The historical-critical task should be engaged without fear of potential abuse, and only after should we worry about building bridges with today’s world.

To be fair, and as I noted in my first post on the subject, Philip Esler does the same thing on the other side of the debate, insisting that it is actually the term “Jew” itself which is so dangerous: it “encourages the anti-Semitic notion of ‘the eternal Jew’ who, it is alleged, killed Christ and is still around, to be persecuted if possible” (Conflict and Identity in Romans, p 63; noted also by Levine in her book, p 160). And of course, if Jesus’ foes in the gospels are understood as Judeans rather than Jews, it dilutes the gospels’ inherent anti-Semitism. But this almost amounts to an apologetic trick.

I think Esler and Levine are playing the same game by invoking political concerns about anti-Semitism — making each other potentially unwitting allies of neo-Nazism. I happen to think they’re both right (the use of either “Jew” or “Judean” in NT studies can be pressed into anti-Semitic service, and indeed each has), but also both irrelevant. We shouldn’t be basing our historical assessments on how such assessments might (will) be abused. If we did that, we could never practice the scientific method with integrity. We should decide whether “Jew” or “Judean” is the proper term based solely on historical concerns, and then leave the political worries to theologians, pastors, and other responsible teachers.

Of course, Esler and Levine also offer historical reasons for their term of choice, and as I’ve made plain in many blogposts, I think Esler and Elliott are on the stronger ground: “Judean” is the better term for Ioudaios; Judeans should be distinguished from later Jews. I don’t accept Levine’s repeated insistence that “continuity outweighs discontinuity” (p 162) when comparing the 2nd-Temple period to the rabbinic one. This completely undermines the territorial relationship the chosen people had with land and temple prior to the latter’s destruction. There is continuity, to be sure, just as there is continuity between pre-exilic Israel and post-exilic Judah. But we don’t refer to the earliest Israelites as Jews. Nor should we call the Judeans such. On top of this, “Judean” is the more elastic term befitting the time period when geography and ethnicity could blur or not, depending on context. As such it’s more useful, even if at first confusing.

I do agree with Levine that portraits of “Jesus the Jew” have erased a lot of damage done in the realms of theology and politics. But as Bill Arnal’s trenchant analysis shows, they have also played into contemporary agendas where historical concerns take a back seat. It is perfectly possible to speak of Jesus as a Judean (or better, a Galilean Israelite) and avoid the political spectre of anti-Semitism. And since it’s historically accurate, we should do just that.

Jeffery’s Reply to Brown

If you waded through Scott Brown’s lengthy RBL review about Secret Mark, you’ll want to read Peter Jeffery’s reply. It isn’t finished yet (“to be continued as I have time”, says Jeffery), but off to a tantalizing start:

“Where [Brown’s review] gets into problems, I think, is in its tendency to miss the big picture, ignoring the main thrust of some of my arguments for the sake of scrutinizing the fine points. He does this for the best of reasons, of course, because he’s trying to engage honestly and fully with what I wrote. Brown is not the sort who invents straw men or puts words in your mouth, fortunately. And he’s absolutely right that the minutiae matter. An argument not built up from small facts is resting on thin air. But when you’re testing a foundation, it’s a good idea to look up once in a while, to get a sense of the entire building.”

Be sure to read it. I’ll post more as it unfolds.

The Death of Debate about the Death of the Author

One of my favorite critiques of postmodern foolishness is in Philip Esler’s New Testament Theology, which blasts “death-of-the-author” agendas to smithereens. But a shorter and sweeter rebuttal comes from fantasy novelist Stephen R. Donaldson. From the Gradual Interview (2/23/04) on his website:

Q: “What do you think of the postmodern movement to ‘reject the author’s message’? I read that a lot of writers now expect readers to read their own interpretation into a text. Is this necessarily a bad thing, that the message can be ignored or missed?”

A: “Here’s what I think: there’s less to this than meets the eye. Reading is an interactive process. Readers have always supplied their own interpretations of what they read. In my case, the issue is simple: I’ve never had a ‘message’ I wanted to communicate (impose on the reader), so rejecting my message should be effortless. (I’m a storyteller, not a polemicist. As such, my only mission is to help my readers understand my characters and appreciate what those poor sods are going through.) In general, however, one might say that the task of any writer is to communicate his/her intentions so clearly that the reader will — as it were spontaneously — arrive at the appropriate interpretation. And if that task has been accomplished, what would be the point of rejecting the author’s message?”

Trust a writer like Donaldson to render superfluous decades of scholary debate. I love it.

Insanity at the Movies

Here’s a list worth checking out: Shiznit’s Top 20 Crazy Bastards in Cinema.

20. Frank Costello in The Departed
19. Garland Greene in Con Air
18. Billy Loomis and Stu Macher in Scream
17. Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski
16. Michael Myers in Halloween
15. Mr. Blonde in Reservoir Dogs
14. Martin Riggs in Lethal Weapon
13. Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now
12. Francis Begbie in Trainspotting
11. Leatherface in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
10. Bruce Wayne in Batman
9. Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs
8. Ichi in Ichi the Killer
7. Tommy DeVito in Goodfellas
6. Gary Oldman, period
5. Don Logan in Sexy Beast
4. Frank Booth in Blue Velvet
3. Patrick Bateman in American Psycho
2. Norman Bates in Psycho
1. Jack Torrance in The Shining

See the link for selected video-clips. Five of these (9, 7, 5, 4, 1) are on my own top-20 Great Villains and Psychos amazon-list. Granted no two lists will be the same, I do think it’s shortsighted of these raters to omit Max Cady from Cape Fear, Albert Spica from The Cook, the Thief, his Wife, and her Lover, John Doe from Seven, and Seth & Richie Gecko from From Dusk Till Dawn. (I’d readily drop Garland Greene, Martin Riggs, Bruce Wayne, and Gary Oldman in favor of these.) Against myself, I should definitely have included Francis Begbie.

Curious that these lists are indeed dominated by “bastards” (though note Hayley Stark from Hard Candy and Annie Wilkes from Misery on my list). We need more feminine crazies in film.

DeConick on the Jerusalem Council

April DeConick asks how Gal 2 may be reconciled with Acts 15, without resorting to either artificial harmonization or torching Luke. We’ve tackled this subject before on the biblioblogs (see here for instance) and it’s worth revisiting. Let’s take April’s points in turn.

1. The solution that Acts 15 never happened doesn’t make sense of the fact that Luke knows about a decision (letter?) from James that resorts to Noahide laws, nor that these laws appear to have been known and observed by Christians as late as the third century. These laws have to have been instituted or invoked by someone somewhere in the first century in order to deal with the Gentile problem.

I agree that the apostolic decree is historical and dates to the first century, though not as early as Luke would have us believe. It may belong at Acts 18:22 (as Mark Goodacre suggests) or perhaps even later.

2. Paul’s understanding of his meeting in Jerusalem recorded in Galatians 2 does not correspond to Acts 15, neither in terms of outcome or in terms of who was there and what was discussed. Trying to harmonize them results in apology, not history.

Yes. There’s nothing worse than artificial harmonization on these questions. While Acts 15:1-29 (not Acts 11:27-30) is reporting basically the same event as Paul recounts in Gal 2:1-10, Luke isn’t reporting everything as it really happened, nor even when it really happened.

3. If the decision of Acts 15 had been made prior to the Antiochean Affair, it doesn’t make sense that the apostles would then begin a counter-mission to Paul after the Affair and demand circumcision of the Gentiles in the churches Paul missionizes.

No. This is the most common mistake made with the Antioch incident, and it boggles my mind that so many scholars cannot bring themselves to accept the obvious: Paul had extracted an agreement out of James and Peter (against the necessity of Gentile circumcision), which they in turn broke. I’ve written about this before and would emphasize there is nothing shocking about the pillars’ treachery. It makes perfect sense in the agonistic milieu of the ancient Mediterranean; it’s what we would expect from them. There is evidently a need on the part of many exegetes to reconstruct more harmony and equanimity in the early church than warranted. Why? For apologetic reasons? To make Paul appear less offensive than he was?

So… how can the Jerusalem Council best be explained given the evidence we have?

I think it can be accounted for rather easily. Bearing in mind that Luke goes out of his way to claim the support of Peter and James by reversing their historical roles (historically they were a lot more like Matthew than as portrayed in Acts), we have as follows: Gal 2:1-10 should be identified with Acts 15:1-29 (rather than Acts 11:27-30), but on the understanding that Luke offers a revisionist account in two important ways. First he brings the apostolic decree forward, conflating the circumcision question with later Noahide concerns. Second he smooths things over in general, portraying things far less controversial as they were. But it wasn’t Christians with Pharisaical links who caused the trouble at Antioch (as he depicts in Acts 15:1,5), rather Peter and James (Gal 2:11-14) who broke their own agreement.

UPDATE: More from April, and see also Doug Chaplin.

Gazing into the Well

By far the most popular sentiment in historical Jesus studies is the idea that a biographer sees his own reflection at the bottom of a well. Albert Schweitzer illustrated this with a vengeance, but he’s actually not the one responsible for that metaphor — which John Dominic Crossan later associated with a Robert Frost poem:

“Always wrong to the light, so never seeing,
Deeper down in the well than where the water
Gives me back in a shining surface picture
Me myself in the summer heaven, godlike,
Looking out of a wreath of fern and cloud puffs.
Once, when trying with chin against a well-curb,
I discerned, as I thought, beyond the picture,
Through the picture, a something white, uncertain,
Something more of the depths — and then I lost it.”
(For Once, then, Something)

It was George Tyrell, not Schweitzer, who used a similar metaphor soon after Schweitzer closed the curtains on the liberal quest for Jesus:

“The Christ that Adolf Harnack sees, looking back through nineteen centuries of Catholic darkness, is only the reflection of a liberal Protestant face, seen at the bottom of a deep well.” (Christianity at the Crossroads, p 49)

Schweitzer may as well have written that, but he didn’t. I didn’t know that until I read John Poirier’s essay in The Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, called “Seeing What is There in Spite of Ourselves” (Vol 4, No 2, pp 127-138), made freely available at the Sage Journals website. Poirier focuses on John Dominic Crossan’s misuse of the metaphor. According to Crossan:

“There is an oft-repeated and rather cheap gibe that historical Jesus researchers are simply looking down a deep well and seeing their own reflections from below. I call it cheap because those who use it against others seldom apply it to themselves. Second, it is almost impossible to imagine a reconstruction that could not be dismissed by the assertion of that gibe…What could anyone ever say that would not fall under that ban?” (The Birth of Christianity, p 41)

But I say that’s cheap postmodernism. Poirier describes the evolution of the well-gazing metaphor as follows:

“Tyrrell’s well gazer, as a figure for Harnack and company, sees nothing beyond the reflection of his own face. (That is, he sees nothing of the true historical Jesus but rather renders Jesus in his own image.) Frost’s well gazer, on the other hand, is more cautious in his claim but successful (albeit marginally) in his attempt to see ‘something more of the depths’. Yet Tyrrell and Frost share an important element that sets them apart from Crossan: they intend to limit the analogue to their well gazer to a particular person or group, while Crossan uses the well gazer to describe what he considers a universal condition.” (“Seeing What Is There In Spite of Ourselves”, p 128)

In other words, Frost held out some hope for seeing beyond one’s reflection, Tyrell not so much — though at least he saved his indictment for those who deserved it. Crossan thinks everyone is equally guilty, and as Poirier shows, this misrepresents Frost as portraying an unavoidable and universal condition. But perhaps this isn’t suprising, since Crossan is one of the worst offenders in writing autobiography. His portait of Jesus the egalitarian cynic tells plenty about himself and next-to-nothing about the historical prophet. In the above citation, Crossan tries bringing everyone under the ambit of his crime (which he sees as no crime at all), but as we should know by now, some biographers are more objective than others. E.P. Sanders is not a well-gazer, whatever his faults are. Complete objectivity is never possible, but it’s the goal to strive for as best we can.

I’m with Poirier: let’s not take Robert Frost’s name in vain. The well-gazing metaphor is a great one (and can certainly be applied to someone like Crossan) but should be used judiciously. Let’s be sure we have the right historians in our sights when we use it, and let’s recognize that it’s certainly possible to overcome our subjective inclinations in studying figures of the past.