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.