Good Intent, Bad Law: Roe v. Wade’s 50th Anniversary

Today is the 50th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, and many is the lamentation that it didn’t live to see its 50th year. I remain divided in mind about it. As a firm pro-choice advocate I was dismayed by Roe’s overturning last summer, but from a judicial point of view I can’t deny it was a bad ruling. I had always been aware of pro-choice feminists who believed that Roe had little to no legal support (not least the late Ruth Ginsburg), but not until last year did I bother to give it much thought. Roe, I’d thought, was here to stay (my “prediction” in 2018 that it would be overturned in 2021 by Samuel Alito was just a dark fantasy I pulled out of my ass), and I was just thankful that abortion rights had the highest level of protection.

Why was Roe a bad ruling? Because it (a) fixated on a peripheral issue (privacy), and then (b) used that faulty element to make a judicially activist fiat, which ended up (c) putting the brakes on a trajectory in American consensus that was actually favoring abortion. In this I follow the late Ruth Ginsburg.

Pro-choice advocate Tom Flynn has also criticized Roe as an overreaching fiat that settled the abortion in an unstable and undesirable way:

“By enforcing a preemptive victory for those in favor of abortion rights, it brought the grass-roots debate about the subject to a premature end. The important questions, such as ‘When does a fetus become a human person?’ were never really thrashed out. So we arrive at today’s situation, where abortion rights exist only by court order because advocates never got the chance to build a broad-based constituency for them.”

Prior to Roe, the trajectory toward abortion acceptance was clear. Sixteen states had liberalized their abortion statutes. The American Medical Association had reversed its policies, shedding its strict anti-abortion skin and adopting strong pro-choice guidelines. If not for Roe, many states would have almost unquestionably established liberal abortion policies. Roe‘s overreach ignited religious-right activism, and when right-wingers are out in droves to “defend the most innocent lives from murder”, it’s hard to claim the moral high ground, especially when the pro-choice case rests lamely on one’s “right to privacy” (the basis of Roe) and one’s “right to choose” (to choose murder? asks the anti-abortionist). Without Roe, progressives could have finished their task in educating people as to why abortion is not just “my business” and “my choice”, but actually morally superior in a world of unwanted pregnancies, poverty, rape, and unnecessary suffering.

Fifty years after Roe, and one year after Dobbs, I’m hoping that the latter will enable the fulfillment of the former’s ambitions in the legislative arena where it belongs. And it’s not an unreasonable expectation. Polling shows that there is little support in America for an abortion ban, especially if it doesn’t make exceptions for rape and incest. 80% of Americans want to keep abortion legal, either entirely (32%) or with some restrictions (48%), while only 18% want it banned entirely.

In responding to the fury over Dobbs, Andrew Sullivan had this to say:

Dobbs will send the abortion issue back from a single court to democratic debate and discussion – where it is in every other western country. Even the most progressive countries regulate abortion through the democratic process. In Germany, it’s illegal after 12 weeks of pregnancy — more restrictive than the case of Dobbs that bars abortion after 15 weeks. European countries where the legal cutoff is even more restrictive: Austria, Spain, Greece, Italy, France, Belgium and Switzerland. Abortion enshrined as a constitutional right? Not even in super-progressive Canada. The United States, in other words, has been an outlier in the past and, with Roe reversed, it will return to a democratic politics of abortion, in line with most of the Western world. Abortion, if we wanted, could actually be an issue that restores health to a polarized polity by forcing us to come to various forms of compromise over an issue we’ve debated entirely in the abstract until now. We can no longer punt it.

“States can pursue different legal regimes, from the very permissive to the very restrictive, and the results can be weighed up. Remember federalism? This is a near-perfect reflection of its essential role in keeping this country in one piece. And, in my view, all of this actually calls the cheap, moralizing bluff of the religious right. Now they actually have to enforce and defend draconian bans — and see popular revulsion grow, unless they too can come up with a compromise. Leftists, if they could only snap out of their disdain for democracy, can make a powerful case for moderation on this issue against right-extremism. To do that, of course, they will have to back some restrictions on abortion in some states — which some seem very reluctant to do — and even allow some diversity of opinion within their own ranks.

“So let’s stop the hyperventilation and get back to democracy. Persuade people, if you can. Get them out to vote. Stop demonizing those you disagree with and compromise with them in office, however difficult that may be. What Roe did was kickstart the extreme cultural polarization that has defined and blighted the last few decades of American politics. Maybe the end of Roe can mark the beginning of a return to living together, and negotiating a way to make that bearable.”

With Sullivan I agree, as I do with Edward Lazarus, the law clerk for Justice Harry Blackmun (who wrote the opinion for Roe). Lazarus said: “As a matter of constitutional interpretation and judicial method, Roe borders on the indefensible. I say this as someone utterly committed to the right to choose and as someone who loved Roe‘s author like a grandfather.”

This may not be a triumphal way of honoring Roe’s 50th anniversary, nor the most respectful one, but I do honor what came of Roe, even if it was through a judicial error. And I stand with Ruth Ginsburg, Tom Flynn, Andrew Sullivan, and Edward Lazarus (and plenty of others) in defending abortion rights and wanting those rights codified in law — not by a judicial fiat which begs to be overturned by those who soundly interpret the Constitution, but by a democratic process that binds the judiciary to respect it.

The Meaning of “All Israel”, Part 2: “Saved or Safed?” (Mark Nanos)

Always know that Mark Nanos will shake things up. His Mystery of Romans (1996) had a major impact on me and is still one of my favorite books on Paul, even if I don’t buy all of its arguments. I’m hard pressed to think of a better treatment of Rom 4:18-25 and 14:1-15:6, and also some parts of Rom 11. (When it comes to Rom 13, he loses me.) At any rate, Nanos has done more work on Romans recently, and he is retracting some of his views set forth in that fabulous book. I find that unfortunate; his new reading of Romans 11 is (to me) less plausible. The good news is that it’s always rewarding to read Nanos; there’s always something I take away positively, even if in overall disagreement.

I’ll focus on two articles: “Paul – Why Bother?: A Jewish Perspective” (2019) and “All Israel Will Be Saved or Kept Safe? (Rom 11:26): Israel’s Conversion or Irrevocable Calling to Gospel the Nations?” (2021). The first is a revision of a lecture that Nanos gave at Lund University in Sweden, and the second is an article published in Israel and the Nations: Paul’s Gospel in the Context of Jewish Expectation (edited by Frantisek Abel). Nanos’ new reading involves re-translating a lot of terminology — the following three highlights in particular.

1. “Unpersuaded, not disobedient”. According to Nanos, it’s more accurate to translate Paul as saying that the Jews have “not yet accepted” the gospel instead of “rejected” the gospel, but this really amounts to a distinction without a difference. Even if the best translation for ἀπειθέω is “unpersuaded” — instead of either “disobedience” or “rejection of that which is known to be true” (p 282) — how different, ultimately, does that make Paul’s argument? Nanos asks:

“Would most Christians or Jews be accurately described as rejecting Islam or Muhammad as ‘the Prophet’? Does not that judgment require that they have been convinced that the claims made were true? Are they rejecting God’s grace? Or are they not persuaded of someone else’s claims for God, perhaps even not very aware of, or simply indifferent to those claims, more than likely convinced that what they do uphold as truth does not lead them to give this much thought?” (“Paul – Why Bother?”, p 283)

It’s actually very common, and accurate, to describe Christians or Jews (or any other non-Muslim group, like Buddhists or Hindus) as people who reject the claims of Islam. That judgment doesn’t necessarily require the non-Muslims to have accepted the claims of Islam in the first place. Christians reject Islam; Jews reject Islam; Muslims reject Judaism; Jews reject Christianity. All of these are common expressions in which “reject” could mean just about anything — “adamantly oppose”, “be unpersuaded by”, “be indifferent to”, etc. I always imagined that the non-Christian Jews of Paul’s day “rejected” his gospel for any number of these reasons — whether because they directly opposed it, were unconvinced by its claims, didn’t take it seriously, whatever. If there’s a difference between “not accepting Christ” and “rejecting Christ”, that difference is only on a high level of abstraction. Besides, Paul’s point about the Jews “not (yet) accepting Christ” is preserved (and acknowledged by most commentators) anyway, in the olive tree metaphor: there is still hope for the Jews; they may be grafted back in to the tree — or “unbent” and righted on the tree, if that’s the better reading. Which takes us to the next point.

2. “Bent, not broken off” (stumbling, not falling). On this point Nanos is more persuasive. He argues that the tree branches of the olive tree are better translated as being “bent” rather than “broken off”:

“In the early part of the allegory [of Rom 11:17-24], when discussing the bent branches, Paul only uses the verb ἐκκλάω, which just so happens to include the translation option ‘to break’ as in ‘to bend’. But when the allegory turns to threatening the foreign wild shoot with what it can expect if it should grow arrogant towards those branches temporarily bent aside to make a place for itself, then Paul introduces the verb ἐκκόπτω, which does indicate being ‘broken/cut off’, signalling a much more severe fate.

“When read this way, we can see that Paul was explaining why some Jews had not yet joined him to proclaim the message to the nations, which, he argued throughout the letter, was Israel’s special role, that over which some of Israel (even if many) were stumbling (Rom. 3:2; 9:6; 10:4, 15). This development represented a temporary anomaly that would soon be resolved, and that somehow had resulted in the best interests of the non-Jews anyway. In terms of branches, some among Israel were broken as in bent back, but not as if cut off of the tree, which fit the stumbling but not fallen metaphor that preceded.” (“Paul – Why Bother?”, p 280)

Only when speaking of the Gentiles (the wild olive shoot) does Paul threaten being broken or cut off altogether; the non-Christian Jews are simply “bent”. And instead of being “grafted back in” (Rom 11:23-24), these bent branches are “invigorated again”; Nanos again finds lexical support for the Greek phrase in these verses, which normally means “to goad” or “to spur on”. Now, if the lexical data does in fact support these translations of “bent”/”invigorated” branches for the Jews, then I agree with Nanos that it better supports the argument of Rom 11:11-32, especially what is announced in verse 11: that Israel has not stumbled so as to fall. On the other hand, I find it just as plausible that Paul used an imperfect metaphor. (The best theologians have been known to do so.) Either way, the overall argument of Rom 11:11-32 is clear: the situation for the Jews is temporary. So I don’t think anything stands or falls (pardon the mixed pun) on whether the branches come down or not.

3. “Safed, not saved” (protected in the interim, not redeemed in the end). Here’s where things get interesting. Nanos argues that the Greek word σώζω in Rom 11:26 was usually used to indicate being “saved” in the sense of being protected or kept safe (or “safed”, as he coins for English usage) more than in the sense of being converted or rescued from being lost:

“What the lexicons reveal is that the Greek word σώζω and cognates were normally used to refer to protecting and keeping safe — before and besides Paul’s supposed use, that is. This word group was not used to discuss someone or thing that had been lost being returned in the evangelical salvation sense that it has come to denote — converted in common parlance — but to prevent someone or something from becoming lost, or from the threat thereof; in this case, to preserve these Israelites in their covenant standing as Israel during this anomalous period so that all Israel could complete the calling to bring the ‘news of good’ to the nations: the gift of the entrustment with God’s oracles was irrevocable (cf. 11:28-29 with 3:1-2).” (“Saved or Safed”, p 244)

For Nanos, in other words, Israel wouldn’t need saving in the end; the Jews weren’t losing covenantal status for not accepting Jesus. What Israel needed was protecting; the Jews’ covenantal status was in jeopardy during this period of the apostolic missions, because they had been called to be a light to the nations, and most of them had not (yet) accepted Christ as the messiah, and so they could not be that beacon. For Paul, their covenantal status would be protected by the scheme he presents in the olive tree metaphor: the Jews (the bent branches) would turn to Christ as they witnessed more and more Gentiles doing so. That’s the first major takeaway of Nanos’ argument.

The second takeaway is that Jewish salvation itself doesn’t depend on accepting Christ. According to Nanos, for Paul the Jews should accept Christ (for the reason just mentioned), but whether they do or don’t, they will be redeemed in the end on account of being God’s chosen people. Yet strangely, Nanos denies that he advocates a two-covenant reading of Paul: “Some readers may be tempted to classify my argument as another expression of the various Sonderveg and Two Covenant alternatives. It should not be.” (p 254) With all due respect, it should absolutely be. What makes a two-covenant reading is that Jews can be saved apart from Christ, and that is exactly how Nanos reads Paul: the Jews should accept Christ (and be a light to the nations) but they don’t have to in order to be saved:

“As I understand Paul, he confessed Jesus as Messiah and upheld that his fellow Jews should do the same, but not in order to be saved in evangelical salvation-based terms by any mechanism, period. For Paul, that was a truth claim made within Judaism; it did not involve Jews being saved in evangelical soteriological terms because they were never lost in the logical way that paradigm requires. What he promoted was a chronometrically based propositional claim that an awaited event, when the reign of God would arrive to rescue those who were already in a living covenant relationship from sinfulness, from sinners, from enemies, and so on — so that they could complete their calling to bring the gospel announcement to the nations — had begun. That premise, central to the gospel, should shape the thoughts and lives of the non-Israelites he addressed toward humble concern for the well-being of those Israelites who were not persuaded that was the case yet: they remained the “beloved” because of the promises made to their fathers, not least to Jacob/Israel. To argue that Israelites were being protected during this anomalous period of alienation while retaining continued covenant standing is not the same as the later evangelical concept that Jews need to believe in Jesus Christ to become saved, which empties their historical covenantal standing as “irrevocable” of the substance that Paul labors to explain.” (“Saved or Safed?”, p 255)

Nanos thus argues that Jewish soteriological salvation doesn’t depend on the preserving of covenantal status — in other words, it doesn’t depend on accepting Jesus as Israel’s messiah which leads to the bent branches being straightened again on the olive tree. But it appears that Gentile soteriological salvation, in a way, does depend on the preserving of Israel’s covenantal status — so that Christian Jews can bring the good news to the nations and convert Gentiles before the end of all things.

I’ve always found Nanos to be a refreshing exegete who thinks outside the box. As I said, he often fails to convince me, but not because he can’t make a formidable case. The biggest problem with this reading is the same problem for all two-covenant approaches. It doesn’t make sense of Paul’s sorrow and “unceasing anguish” for his fellow Jews (Rom 9:1-5) that he can go so far as to wish himself “accursed and cut off from Christ” for their sake. Those aren’t the feelings of a guy who knows that his countrymen are going to be saved, no matter what. He wouldn’t wish the worst thing on himself simply because his fellow Jews aren’t “gospeling the nations”. That’s a much too limited point for the overall concern of Rom 9-11.

I believe it’s accurate to describe Paul as follows: He believed that most Jews were lost, in need of salvation, disobedient, for not accepting the gospel; he believed that they were rejecting the gospel (whether because they were unpersuaded, actively hostile to it, or indifferent about it), but that this was a temporary state for them — they were “bent” branches, as Nanos says, not “broken off” altogether, and would either be righted again during the apostolic missions, or redeemed at the end, by Christ himself. That’s assuming that “all Israel” referred to the Jews. If “all Israel” referred to both the Jews and the northern tribes, as Jason Staples has suggested (and talk about thinking outside the box), Paul may have envisioned the saving of all twelve tribes, of which Gentiles were actually a part. I find either one of those readings (the fourth and fifth listed here) about equally persuasive at the present moment. Regretfully, I remain unconvinced by any variation of the two-covenant reading, though I am glad that someone like Nanos is willing to go to bat for it. He’s one of its better advocates, and we need them.

The Meaning of “All Israel” in Rom 11:26: Five Views Ranked

After reading Jason Staples’ book, The Idea of Israel in Second Temple Judaism, I want to revisit Paul’s argument of Romans 11:25-27, in particular his claim in verse 26 that “all Israel will be saved”:

(25) I want you to understand this mystery: a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles come in, (26) and so all Israel will be saved; as it is written, “The Deliverer will come from Zion, he will banish ungodliness from Jacob”; (27) “and this will be my covenant with them when I take away their sins.”

What does “all Israel” refer to in Paul’s statement? Here are five possible answers, each ranked on a scale of 0 to 10.

1. The two-covenant reading: Israel in 11:26 refers to the Jews, who don’t need to believe in Christ to be saved (Stendahl, Gaston, Gager). Christianity is a separate path to salvation for Gentiles, not Jews who can be saved as they’ve always been saved, through the Torah. By rights this reading deserves a plausibility score of 0. Paul is clear that salvation comes through Christ alone, and damnation awaits you otherwise, no matter who you are. Not to mention that this view makes no sense of Paul’s sorrow for his fellow Jews  (Rom 9:1-5) and his intention to make them jealous in the section immediately preceding this passage (Rom 11:13-24). But I throw it a bone, since some interpreters (like Stendahl) give it more nuance than others (like Gaston and Gager) whose ecumenical/post-Holocaust sensibilities are so transparent. Plausibility ranking: 1/10.

2. The replacement reading: Israel in 11:26 refers to a spiritual Israel, that is, the church, consisting of Jews and Gentiles who believe in Christ (Wright especially). This reading earns a few points for the reason that Paul does imply that the church is Israel elsewhere, like in Galatians (6:16). The problem is that it makes nonsense of his argument in Romans, where prior to the passage cited at the top, Israel is clearly used in the traditionally ethnic sense — indeed the whole argument of Rom 9-11 is to explain how Gentile inclusion does not threaten Jewish salvation but actually reinforces it. If the ethnic Israel (of Rom 9:1-11:24) has been replaced by a new group just being called by the same name (Rom 11:26), that’s a baby-switcher and doesn’t prove Paul’s case at all. As Jason Staples says, “that would be like telling parents that they needn’t worry about their child’s safety because a substitute child with the same name can be provided.” While it’s true that biblical prophecies and promises are often understood by New Testament authors to be fulfilled in radically revisionist ways, that isn’t the case when the author is going out of his way to argue (at tortured length) why the recipients of the traditional promises have nothing to worry about. On the replacement reading of Rom 11:26 they have plenty to worry about; it’s bad news and hard to take seriously. Plausibility ranking: 4/10.

3. The causal reading: Israel in 11:26 refers to the Jews, who will be saved through jealousy — their jealousy of the Gentiles being saved through the apostolic missions without their co-participation (Sanders, Dunn, Watson). Their resentment will provoke them to reconsider the gospel and become saved, as Paul just argued in the preceding section (Rom 11:13-24). In other words, Jewish disobedience leads to Gentile salvation which in turn leads to Jewish salvation. The Jews still have a chance, and will indeed be ultimately saved (11:26). They are God’s enemy for the time being, but God’s chosen in the end (11:28). This is the most straightforward reading of the text and plausible — meaning that it’s a plausible interpretation of the text as it stands in Romans. As a salvation scheme it wouldn’t have sounded very plausible. Most Jews would have scorned the idea that they would be provoked to accept Jesus Christ because they were jealous of Paul’s success in converting pagans. The proof of the pudding was in the eating: Jews were obviously not being converted en masse as Paul intended. Plausibility ranking: 7/10.

4. The miraculous reading: Israel in 11:26 refers to the Jews, some of whom will be saved as in reading #3 above, through jealousy of the Gentiles during the apostolic missions (Rom 11:13-24), but most of whom will be saved miraculously, by Jesus himself, when he comes again at the end of all things (Rom 11:25-27) (Munck, Tobin, Esler). On this reading, verses 25-27 don’t reinforce verses 13-24; they are a “Part 2” argument. Paul knows good and well that his “jealousy” argument of verses 13-24 is a desperate scheme and not the way things are panning out. His people remain unconvinced by the gospel. So to keep God’s promises to the Chosen intact, he introduces in verses 25-27 a failsafe for any Jews (indeed, most Jews) who continue to reject Christ during the apostolic missions: Christ himself will save the bulk of the Jews in the end, whether by preaching to them directly or miraculously converting them at once. Plausibility ranking: 9/10.

5. The twelve-tribes reading: Israel in 11:26 does not refer to the Jews (readings #1, 3, 4) anymore than it refers to the Gentile dominated Christian church (reading #2). It refers to exactly that — the twelve tribes of Israel, which includes Jews (those like Paul who are descended from the tribes of Judah, Benjamin, and/or Levi) and those from the northern tribes of Israel who are not Jews. This is a new argument from Jason Staples, the foundations of which are laid in his book on Second Temple Judaism. His argument is that the restoration of Israel always, by definition, included more than just the Jews who returned from Babylon, and Paul makes that idea work to his advantage, arguing that since the northern tribes of Israel have become assimilated among the Gentile nations, the only way for Israel’s restoration to happen is for Gentiles to be included among Israel. That’s what the “fullness of the nations” is coming into (Rom 11:25). Says Staples in a blogpost:

“What does Paul mean by ‘fullness of the nations’? Why use that specific phrase? It turns out that phrase appears in one place in Paul’s Bible: when the patriarch Jacob blessed the two sons of Joseph [Ephraim and Manasseh], he declared a greater blessing over Ephraim (which also became another name for the northern kingdom since Ephraim was the ruling tribe), promising that Ephraim’s ‘seed [descendants] will become the fullness of the nations’ (Gen 48:19)… By echoing this distinctive phrase, Paul effectively argues that the plan of God has been hidden in plain sight: northern Israel would become gentile-ified but would then be restored — in the process fulfilling God’s promise to bless the nations through Abraham’s seed.

This reading can satisfactorily answer all questions. The ‘fullness of the nations’ represents the seed of Ephraim (the northern kingdom) assimilated among the gentiles. It enters and is reincorporated in Israel, and this is the means by which not only the Jews but all Israel will be saved. Thus Paul argues that incorporation of gentiles is a necessary part of Israel’s restoration and is in fact evidence of God’s faithfulness to Israel — God will go as far as incorporating gentiles (!) to essentially resurrect Israel from the dead (see Ezekiel 37; Rom 11:15).

“This reading explains how Paul can insist both on the continued special status of Israel while also emphasizing the equal incorporation of believing gentiles in early Christian communities. It also dispenses with the major weaknesses of the other proposals. Unlike the ‘replacement’ view, Paul has not replaced the ethnic understanding of Israel or argued that the gentile church has somehow become a ‘new Israel.’ Instead, the gentiles’ salvation depends on their inclusion in Israel, something that amounts to an ethnic conversion. And unlike the other common scholarly views, Paul has also not redefined ‘Israel’ to more narrowly refer to Jews only but instead continues to keep the broader emphasis on all twelve tribes.”

As I see it, this reading also doesn’t need to rely on the crutch of a “Part 2” miraculous end-time deliverance (reading #4). On the assumption that “all Israel” refers to the Jews, Paul’s “jealousy” scheme (Rom 11:13-24) is hollow since most Jews are not in fact accepting the gospel (out of jealousy or for any reason), and thus most of Israel is not in fact being restored — which is why the Jews require a divine bail-out at the end. But if Paul believes that Gentiles are included in ethnic Israel, then that goes a long way to solving the problem of so many Israelites (supposedly) being left out of the covenant promises. Jews are a subset of Israel; they are not (contrary to what most scholars assume) equivalent to Israel.

My only reservation with Staples’ reading is that it has the whiff of being too clever for its own good. (Sort of like Bruce Chilton’s interpretation of the eucharist.) But I have to admit, his book on second temple Judaism paves the way for it convincingly. I can’t see anything significant that is wrong with it. For now my assessment of his reading is very high. Plausibility ranking: 9/10.


Appendix: Romans 11:13-27:

(13) Inasmuch as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry (14) in order to make my fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them. (15) For if their rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead? (16) If the dough offered as first fruits is holy, so is the whole lump; and if the root is holy, so are the branches.

(17) But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in their place to share the richness of the olive tree, (18) do not boast over the branches. If you do boast, remember it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you. (19) You will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” (20) That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast only through faith. So do not become proud, but stand in awe. (21) For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. (22) Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness; otherwise you too will be cut off. (23) And even the others, if they do not persist in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again. (24) For if you have been cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these natural branches be grafted back into their own olive tree.

(25) I want you to understand this mystery: a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles come in, (26) and so all Israel will be saved; as it is written, “The Deliverer will come from Zion, he will banish ungodliness from Jacob”; (27) “and this will be my covenant with them when I take away their sins.”

(28) As regards the gospel they are enemies of God, for your sake; but as regards election they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. (29) For the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable.

The Spirit of Martin Luther King Day

On this day let’s keep in mind what Martin Luther King stood for:

“Identity politics is not a path to empowerment. There is no ‘unique voice of color’ or of women or of trans, gay, disabled, or fat people… Today’s social justice scholarship leads scholars and activists to deny the possibility of a universal human nature, which makes empathy between groups very difficult. This denial does not bode well for minority groups, and this view was not shared by Martin Luther King Jr., or by the liberal feminists and Gay Pride activists of the 1960s and 1970s. Their overall message was strongly (if imperfectly) liberal, individual, and universal, and it succeeded by appealing to empathy and fairness. “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” said Dr. King, appealing to white Americans’ pride in their country as the Land of Opportunity and their sense of fairness, and making common cause with them in their hopes for the next generation. He called upon their empathy and stressed their shared humanity. Had he, like Robin D’Angelo, asked Americans to be “a little less white, which means a little less oppressive, oblivious, defensive, ignorant, and arrogant,” would this have had the same effect? We think not. An understanding of human nature is essential to any attempt to improve society… What is most frustrating about [woke] theory is that it tends to get literally every issue it’s primarily concerned with backwards, largely due to its rejection of human nature, science, and liberalism. It allots social significance to racial categories, which inflames racism.” (Cynical Theories, pp 257-258)

So let us:

  • Affirm that racism remains a problem in society and needs to be addressed.
  • Deny that Critical Race Theory provides the most useful tools to do so, since racial issues are best solved through the most rigorous analyses possible.
  • Maintain that racism is defined as prejudiced attitudes and discriminatory behavior against any individuals or groups on the grounds of race and can be addressed as such.
  • Deny that racism is “prejudice + power”, that it is hard-baked into society, that it is unavoidable and present in every interaction to be discovered and called out.
  • Maintain that each individual can choose not to hold racist views and should be expected to do so, that racism is declining over time and becoming rarer, and that we can and should see one another as humans first and members of certain races second, that issues of race are best dealt with by being honest about racialized experiences, while still working towards shared goals and a common vision. (Ibid, pp 266-267)

Happy MLK Day!

The Idea of Israel in Second-Temple Judaism

On Facebook I posted a chapter-by-chapter review of Jason Staples’ new book, and here I gather all the entries into a single review. The book’s thesis is that throughout the 2nd Temple period, “Israel” was not an equivalent term for “the Jews”. It’s a solid argument and carries some interesting payoffs.

Chapter 1: Jews and Israelites in Antiquity: The Need for a New Paradigm

In this chapter Staples addresses the traditional assumption, shaped by Karl Kuhn in 1938, that “Israel” is positive insider language while Ioudaios (“Jew”) is negative outsider language. While it’s true that “Israel” is almost never used by an outsider to refer to a Jew, and while Ioudaios almost never occurs in the context of insider prayers, there are too many exceptions and theoretical problems with relying on Kuhn’s general idea. In particular, there’s not a single example of Ioudaios (“Jew”) ever being used as a disparaging term in pre-Christian antiquity. Ioudaios seems to have been the default term used by both insiders and outsiders. Kuhn had essentially explained the difference between “Israel” and “Jew” by superimposing the idiom of Nazi Germany onto antiquity (Kuhn was himself a Nazi). And while Staples (rightly) acknowledges that one “could be an anti-Semite, even a Nazi, and arrive at an accurate scholarly model”, the insider/outsider model really doesn’t account for all the data.

This is of interest to me, since modern scholars like Jack Elliott have actually relied on Kuhn’s model in order to *combat* anti-Semitism in biblical studies. Elliott wrote the well-known essay, “Jesus the Israelite was Neither a Jew Nor a Christian”, arguing that Jesus is properly understood as an Israelite, not a Jew. And for good reason: (1) Jesus identified himself and his associates as Israelites. (2) Jesus never called himself a Ioudaios (“Jew” or “Judean”) and was never designated as such by fellow Israelites. He was called, or thought of as, a Ioudaios (“Jew” or “Judean”) only by non-Israelite outsiders whose terminology was consistent with Hellenistic and Roman practice. (3) His first followers were identified by fellow Israelites also as “Galileans”, “Nazarenes”, or members of “the Way”, but never as “Jews” or “Judeans”. (4) They too, like Jesus, viewed themselves as Israelites. (5) The apostle Paul’s usage is consistent with this pattern. He too prefers “Israel” and “Israelite” as self-identifiers. 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. Elliott’s essay, to me, still carries persuasive power. We’ll see if I remain persuaded by the end of Staples’ book. [See the end of the review, where I return to the subject.]

Staples concludes the first chapter by taking his cue not from Kuhn but Josephus, who shifts from using “Israelite” (in Antiquities 1-11) to Ioudaios (“Jew”) (in Antiquities 11-20, Apion 1-2, Life, and War 1-7). “It would of course be absurd,” says Staples, “to conclude that this terminological shift is because Josephus wrote the first eleven books of Antiquities to an insider audience but the rest of his corpus for outsiders.” The shift is rather because Josephus is narrating a linear history, and after the point of the Babylonian Exile, the group in view has changed: only a subset of Israelites returned to the promised land — the two tribes of Judah and Benjamin, plus Levites. For Josephus, “Israelites” is no longer appropriate, because the Ioudaioi (“Jews”) are a subset of people within the whole house of Israel. Jews are Israelites, but not all Israelites are Jews. “In its broader sense, the term ‘Jew” includes those specifically from the tribe of Judah and at least Levites and Benjaminites.” Jospephus believes that the bulk of Israel never returned from exile.

Chapter 2: The Other Israelites

Staples shows further how “Israelite” and “Jew” weren’t equivalent through the examples of Israelites who were not understood to be Ioudaioi (Jews) despite scholars who say otherwise. In particular, the idea that Samaritans were a variety of Jews, or apostate Jews, or a Jewish sect is “a non-sequitur, akin to treating Canada as a part of the United States or Presbyterianism as part of the Church of England.” Josephus, for example, does regard Samaritans as apostates or imposters, but of Israel, not of the Jews, and he goes out of his way to clarify that neither the Ioudaioi (Jews) or the Samaritans themselves identify Samaritans as some breed of Ioudaioi (Jews).

Then there were the “Hebrews”, a linguistic label referring to either the ancient biblical Hebrews, who spoke either Hebrew or Aramaic, or to later speakers of a Semitic tongue: “When not referring to biblical figures, this term was most typically used of those Ioudaioi (Jews) who remained Semitic speakers, typically those living in Palestine. Not all Jews were Hebrews, as most Jews in the disapora were Hellenes rather than Hebraioi. Likewise, not all Hebrews were Jews, as the Samaritans in the land are an example of the former but not the latter.”

A sidebar from all of this what Paul means when he uses Hebraios on two occasions (2 Cor 11:22 and Philip 3:5), each time in order to assert his authority relative to rival apostles. Staples suggests that by claiming to be a Hebrew, Paul is saying that he can speak Hebrew and Aramaic — that he can read the Torah in its original language and speak in Jesus’ native tongue.

I have no real problems with anything in this chapter. Staples is right to reverse the commonly accepted idea. Those who called themselves “Israelites” in the 2nd-Temple period don’t fall under the umbrella of “Judaism”. It’s rather that “Judaism”, like “Samaritanism”, were “sects of a more broadly imagined ‘Israelism’.”

Chapter 3: Judah’s Bible and Biblical Israel

In this chapter Staples critiques the scholarly default-reading of the Old Testament, namely that since the northern Israelites had disappeared after being taken away by the Assyrians, the biblical writers and editors took the liberty of appropriating the term “Israel” and equating it with the people of Judah (later Judea) in their construction of biblical Israel. In other words, Judah became Israel after the fall of the northern kingdom.

That view admittedly has intuitive appeal, since the Hebrew Bible was edited from the perspective of the southern Judahites. But to the attentive reader, says Staples, that only highlights the true oddity — that the Bible “grapples with and constructs not Judahite/Jewish identity but Israelite identity, consistently constructing a biblical Israel larger than the Jews alone… Far from appropriating the full heritage of Israel or constructing a post-exilic Israel comprised of a remnant from Judah, the biblical stories construct, emphasize, and idealize a unified twelve-tribe Israel and lament its broken state, regularly depicting Judah as incomplete without its northern counterpart.”

The Hebrew Bible is thus “the great metanarrative of deportation, exile, and potential return” (Robert Carroll). The Torah, the Deuteronomist histories, and Chronicles “position their readers and their communities in a liminal position awaiting Israel’s restoration”. They do this by “establishing a continual reminder of the broken circumstances of the present, constructing an Israel *not* realized in the present… Put another way, at the root of exilic and post-exilic Judaism we find not a redefinition of Israel limited to Jews/Judahites, but a theology looking backward to biblical Israel and forward to a divinely orchestrated future restoration of Israel far exceeding the small return of Jews in the Persian period.”

Deuteronomy, for example, has a clear pattern of obedience and blessing, disobedience and chastening, return and mercy, exile and restoration. It doesn’t establish a new Israel limited to Jews, as often supposed, but rather the essential unity of the twelve tribes — promising the restoration and return of Israel much larger in scope than the Jew refugees from Babylon. This isn’t a Judean appropriation of Israel.

Likewise, the narratives of Samuel and Kings don’t appropriate Israel or legitimate Judah, but rather underscore the incompleteness of Israel in the present and point to future redress, by “constructing an Israel that once was, now is not, and is to come.”

At first blush the narratives of Chronicles seem different with their anti-northern bias. They heap disproportionate blame on the northern tribes and Jeroboam I instead of Solomon. They focus on the southern tribes of Judah, Benjamin, and Levi — suggesting to many scholars that these three tribes, in the Chronicler’s view, have become heirs to all of Israel’s heritage. Staples shows however that the Chronicler is actually open-minded to the north and concerned for their plight, and like the Deuteronomist histories upholds the ideal of a restored and reunited twelve-tribe Israel. The Chronicler, to be sure, gives that hope a different thrust: Deuteronomy and the books of Samuel/Kings rely on a model of accumulated sin and decline; the Chronicler presents a more immediate system of reward/punishment and repentance/restoration — “a model consistent with the concept of individual (rather than intergenerational) responsibility”. The theology isn’t uniform but the central grammar of discourse (restoration eschatology) is shared in all these Old Testament books.

As I read Staples’ arguments hand in hand with the biblical text, I don’t sense any hoodwinking. It may be, as he suggests, that the Hebrew Bible narratives “consistently place the reader in the implied context of exile, in a place awaiting reconciliation”. But part of me wonders if this business is being exaggerated. I’m thinking of Tom Wright’s work in New Testament studies which overplays the idea of first-century Palestinian Jews — especially figures like Jesus and Paul — feeling like they were in exile just because they lived under Roman rule. Is Staples arguing for a Wright-like paradigm on slightly different terms?

Chapter 4: Between Disaster and Restoration: The Prophets

A fairly straightforward chapter arguing that the prophets function overall like the Torah and historical narratives, putting the reader “in the liminal space between the tragedy of divine wrath and the reconciliation through divine mercy”, in other words, reinforcing hopes for the reunification of the tribes that were scattered by Assyria no less than the tribes scattered by Babylon.

This is seen in seven of the twelve minor prophets (Hosea, Amos, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Zechariah, and Malachi) and also in the major prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel). In the case of Isaiah, Staples refutes the common view that the idea of “Israel” becomes restricted as one moves from First to Second to Third Isaiah — from a broad vision of Israel chapters 1-39, to a narrower vision in chapters 40-55, and even narrower in chapters 56-66. [First Isaiah was written during Isaiah’s lifetime, 740-700 BCE, with some later editions; Second Isaiah during the Babylonian Exile, between 587-539 BCE; and Third Isaiah was written after the Jews (descendants from the tribes of Judah, Benjamin, and Levi) returned from Babylon to Judah in 538 BCE.] The obvious problem with the “narrowing” view of Israel in the Three Isaiahs is that premodern readers assumed a unified authorship (they didn’t read the Bible like modern historical critics) and so would have naturally read all references to “Israel” in (what we call) Second and Third Isaiah in the same broad sense used in First Isaiah. Not only that, says Staples, there’s no evidence for the assumed shifts of meaning in any case. Historical critics should read the entirety of Isaiah as the ancients did. While it’s true that Second and Third Isaiah are concerned with Zion/Jerusalem/Judah, that doesn’t mean the term “Israel” only refers to those points. The Israel-became-Judah theory assumes what it needs to prove.

Chapter 5: Israel’s Incomplete, Failed, and Delayed Restoration

A meaty chapter that sticks it in the eye of scholarly consensus, and sure to generate controversy. The first half covers Ezra and Nehemiah and the second half 1 and 2 Maccabees.

The academic consensus for Ezra and Nehemiah is this: The two books portray Israel’s restoration. The temple is rebuilt and the returned exiles from Babylon — that is, the southern tribes of Judah, Benjamin, and Levi — now constitute “Israel” while the “people of the land” are foreigners to be avoided and not married. The first problem with this consensus view, says Staples, is that to equate the Jews (the descendants of the southern tribes) with Israel “represents an uncritical acceptance of Ezra-Nehemiah’s argument and application of that perspective to the historical situation”. The second problem is that treating the events of Ezra-Nehemiah as the restoration or end of exile runs counter to both (a) the message of Ezra-Nehemiah itself and (b) how Ezra-Nehemiah was interpreted throughout the second temple period. It’s true that the books of Ezra and Nehemiah narrate many *attempts* to restore and redefine Israel, but the books make clear that those attempts failed and kept restoration a future dream. There is no “realized eschatology” in Ezra-Nehemiah, contrary to the consensus view.

Staples suggests that Ezra 3:12-13a — the people’s response to the laying of the foundation of the temple — is a fitting summary of the emotional response in general that runs throughout Ezra and Nehemiah: many weep, many shout for joy, so that no one can distinguish the shouts of joy from the sounds of weeping. The return to the land and rebuilding of Jerusalem and the temple are important events, but they also leave a hell of a lot to be desired, falling short of the golden age promised by the prophets.

The completion and dedication of the second temple in Ezra highlights its inferiority when compared to the first temple erected under Solomon. Solomon’s temple was dedicated with a huge feast of 22,000 oxen and 120,000 sheep; the second temple only with 100 bulls, 200 rams, and 400 lambs. Unlike Solomon’s temple, the second involved a sin offering (of twelve male goats), “underscoring the incompleteness of Israel and the continued hopes of a fuller (twelve-tribe) restoration. The returnees from Babylon thereby serve as the vanguard on behalf of the rest of Israel, whose restoration appears to depend on this atoning work.” And finally, unlike Solomon’s temple, there was the absence of any sign of God’s approval of the second temple.

Worth noting is that the people of the land, to say the least, could hardly have had warm and fuzzy feelings for the new temple regime, especially after having offered to help the Jews in their rebuilding efforts only to be given the cold shoulder. As Staples says, the Jews’ rejection of help shows that they didn’t regard the people of the land to be legitimate Israelites, even if the people identified themselves as Yahwists or Israelites (as surely those from Samaria, the descendants of Ephraim and Manasseh, did). They were seen as rejected by God, rebels and idolaters, squatters on the land, and their shrines as illegitimate places of sacrifice.

Basically, I read Staples as arguing that the narratives of Ezra and Nehemiah show a tension between desire and result, which accounts for why these books want to have their cake and eat it — that is, to imply that the Jews (the descendants of Judah, Benjamin, and Levi) are “Israel” while also implying that Israel extends far beyond the Jewish community. Each episode of Ezra and Nehemiah begins in the hope of restoration and ends in failure and disappointment, and each failure leads to a cranking up of purification efforts, especially in the defensive marriage strategies (to wed only Jews). Ezra’s procession to the land (around the time of Passover) was aimed at fulfilling restoration prophecies, but his efforts failed. Nehemiah’s mission to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem was actually a clear acknowledgment that restoration was far away (from prophecies like Zechariah’s that “Jerusalem will be inhabited without walls”). Etc.

And it is these repeated failures, concludes Staples, that provide the wider context in which Ezra and Nehemiah limit the term “Israel” to the Jewish exiles over against the people of the land. But that’s not the same thing as limiting “Israel” to the Jews in general (descendants of Judah, Benjamin, and Levi) in the way usually understood. “The Jewish returnees are the sole legitimate representatives of Israel *in the land*. They are the vanguard of Israel’s restoration, having separated themselves not only from the nations but also from other Yahwists in the land, all apparently in the hopes that the remainder of Israel would be restored under Jerusalem’s authority.”

Turning to the Hasmoneans, the case of 1 Maccabees is the exception proving the rule. Unlike all the other literature examined up to this point, 1 Maccabees uses Israel language more or less synonymously with “the Jews”. And yet on closer examination, Staples finds that even here, Israel is used in relation to restoration hopes. The military successes of the Hasmoneans against Gentile oppressors function in a similar way to the southern tribes returning to the land and the temple being rebuilt in Ezra-Nehemiah: I Maccabees, like those books, appropriates “Israel” in the belief that the promised restoration is almost taking place, though far from complete. I Maccabees appropriates the term even more so, so that “Israel” and “the Jews” are indeed almost equivalent; yet, as Staples emphasizes, not even I Maccabees supports the insider-outsider distinction as Kuhn thought (see chapter 1 above). For in I Maccabees, Ioudaios (“Jew”) is frequently used as insider term. The upshot for I Maccabees, is that while “Israel” and “Judah/Judea” mean very close to the same thing (and that is exceptional), the Judah/Judea/Jew language is the default “when speaking in a more mundane register”, while the Israel language is invoked to make a precise point that Judah/Judea under Hasmonean rule is fulfilling God’s promises about the restoration of Israel.

As a sidebar, I’ll note that I’m not surprised I Maccabees is exceptional in the way that Staples finds. It’s exceptional in other ways too, notably for being the only book (in the Catholic and Orthodox bibles anyway) that validates holy war in a prescriptive sense — to enforce the Jewish religion by force of arms. (The holy wars of Joshua, by contrast, aren’t presented as prescriptive or patterns to follow; nor do the armies of Joshua subjugate their foes by forcing Israelite religion on them.) Unlike 2 Maccabees, which teaches the superior resistance acts of spiritual protest and martyrdom — and unlike Daniel which (even better) is about the supreme faith that leaves the rightings of all wrongs to God — I Maccabees prescribes Taliban-esque violence and sacralizes warfare.

2 Maccabees of course was written much later than I Maccabees, takes a much dimmer view of the Hasmoneans, and even holds a measure of respect for “rebel” Yawhist groups like the Samaritans. It seems to recognize the Samaritans’ claim to Israelite heritage, “even if they are not at present united with (or under) Judah as the Jewish author believes they should be”. Staples finds that “Israel” in 2 Maccabees functions as it does in all the other literature and not as it does in I Maccabees. Here, Judah/Judea is not synonymous with Israel; it’s but a part of Israel, the full restoration of which lies in the future.

The chapter concludes urging that when we hear the word “Israel” in Jewish literature of the Second Temple period — even in the odd-ball case of I Maccabees — “our ears should be primed for eschatological, messianic, or theological-political claims”, and that conclusion seems sound.

Chapter 6: Exile and Diaspora Theology

This chapter shoots down more consensus views, this time pertaining to Jews in the diaspora, who supposedly discarded restoration eschatology. That view depends on two pillars: (1) that the Septuagint weakens the negative prophetic view of the exile in favor of a new “Hellenistic optimism”; (2) that the passage of time changed the perspective of those who voluntarily remained outside the land (unlike those captured and forced into exile) and prospered in stable communities. Staples knocks over these pillars with relative ease.

In the first place, neither the Septuagint or later Hellenistic Jewish literature dilutes what the prophets said about exile. They present the diaspora as a sign of judgment based on the Torah’s curses. It’s true that the Septuagint amplifies the concept of injustice of the nations toward Israel and Judah, but not to soften the prophetic passages that declare exile to be a divine punishment. “Like Zechariah, the Septuagint holds these two together as complimentary rather than incompatible.” And in any case, the idea of the nations being unjustly oppressive isn’t a “positive” or “optimistic” theology. The first pillar rests on sand.

With the regards to the second and more plausible pillar, it only sounds more plausible but really depends on caricature. Staples cites Eric Gruen as representative of the problem, as Gruen writes (speaking for many scholars): “It’s not easy to imagine that millions of ancient Jews dwelt in foreign parts for generations mired in misery and obsessed with a longing for Jerusalem that had little chance of fulfillment. To imagine that they repeatedly lamented their fate and pinned their hopes on the recovery of the homeland is quite preposterous.” But that’s just caricature and Staples rightly refutes it.

For obviously, just because Jews had thrived and acculturated in the diaspora doesn’t mean they replaced traditional restoration eschatology with a (supposed) positive universalist diaspora theology. Says Staples: “Evidence of prosperity is insufficient to come to such a sweeping conclusion; to suggest otherwise reflects a startlingly consumerist perspective.” As an example, Staples uses American Christian Evangelicals, who adhere to apocalyptic theology (that characterizes the present world as evil) while also being prosperous, politically active, and well integrated into secular society.

I’d suggest another example: Muslim jihadists who adhere to (mainstream) holy-war doctrine (the necessity of killing infidels and/or dying while trying to kill them, to be rewarded in paradise) though many of them are wealthy and some even well integrated into secular societies. (The idea that jihadists are usually poor and uneducated has been disproven.) To imagine that jihadists living in the secularized west experience everyday life in a state of anxious bloodthirst is as much a caricature as to imagine diaspora Jews constantly and miserably longing for the return to the promised land. But, as Staples says, it’s equally absurd to assume that social integration means the traditional values have been discarded.

A solid chapter that corrects naive understandings about the diaspora Jews.

Chapter 7: Israel, the Jews, and Restoration in Josephus

In his chapter on Josephus, Staples makes a comment which I enjoyed, namely that “it’s difficult to escape the sense that many of Josephus’ modern interpreters desperately want him to be positive about the diaspora and latch onto any possible indication of such a view, ignoring all evidence to the contrary.” Start reading the Qur’an and Hadith critically, and you’ll feel the same way about interpreters of Muhammad. They desperately want him to be positive (and peaceful) about all sorts of things. It’s hardly novel to point out that in the field of historical criticism a scholar is as likely to be led by his conclusions rather than to them, but it never gets any less exasperating.

The view that Josephus, as a Roman shill, was positive about the disapora is shown by Staples to be without foundation. He was prudently vague and subtle so as not to provoke his Roman patrons, but he repeatedly implies that Roman rule will be temporary and followed by the righteous rule of Israel. And he was clever and coy enough that Jewish readers would have understood him as saying that, while Roman readers (like many of our modern scholars) would have seen him saying the opposite. For example, in Antiquities 10, he cites Daniel’s prediction of the desolation of the temple by Antiochus Epiphanes and then goes on about Daniel’s writing “about the Roman empire, and that it would be desolated by them”. According to Staples, Josephus is being “deliciously ambiguous” here, as Roman would have understood ‘it’ as the temple and ‘them’ as the Romans, while Jewish readers familiar with Dan 9:26 and connecting it with the stone of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream (mentioned already by Josephus) would have known that Josephus was referring to the destruction of the Roman empire by a restored Israel.

In other places he appears just as subtle, as in Antiquities 11 where he speaks of the “two tribes now subject to the Romans [the Jewish ones, Judah and Benjamin]” and then writes: “But the ten tribes are beyond Euphrates until now and a re a boundless multitude, not to be estimated by numbers”. Rome may have subjugated the Jews, but the rest of Israel is beyond their control and dominion, and Josephus’ sly point here is that eventually even Roman power won’t be able to prevail against this “boundless multitude”.

I agree with Staples that Josephus didn’t take pride in the diaspora, but rather in “the superiority of the Jewish people’s laws and customs that gave them fortitude in spite of their calamities.” He didn’t reject restoration theology, just the opposite, but advocated a quiet version of it, as he wanted the Jews to serve their Roman masters while waiting patiently for the restored kingdom of Israel. In that sense, suggests Staples, Josephus was a lot like Jesus and Paul, urging his Jewish readers to “wait it out” and shun the violent insurrectionist approaches of any would-be messiahs on the make. I had never thought of it like that, but yeah, it seems about right.

Chapter 8: Israel and Restoration in Philo

Acknowledging the writings of Philo as complex, Staples nevertheless nails him down pretty well, and offers a corrective to the majority of scholars who tend to glide over Philo’s interest in practical nationalism and ethnic heritage, or who (like interpreters of Josephus) believe that Philo thought of the diaspora in positive terms.For example, Philo’s discussion of the Babel story makes clear that diaspora is a form of destruction (“to disperse is the cause of bad things”), though God uses it for redemptive purposes, and once the diaspora has done its dirty work, Israel’s restoration will follow. Staples largely follows E.P. Sanders’s view — for all Philo’s allegorizing, he never gave up on eschatology.

Philo’s treatise On Rewards and Punishment puts the matter beyond doubt, really. It’s an exposition of Lev 26 and Deut 28-30, retelling the biblical stories and urging his readers not to despair over the long-delayed restoration and rescue from the diaspora, but to obey the Torah, as collective Torah obedience will trigger the overflow of eschatological blessings. Granted that Philo is speaking of a virtuous transformation of the soul, but that’s not incompatible with a literal return of all the tribes of Israel. For Philo they go hand in hand, and indeed he specifies that the restorative promises apply to those scattered “in Greece and barbarian lands”.

The chapter gets interesting toward the end. Staples first shows that like Josephus, Philo doesn’t use “Israelite” as synonymous with “Jew”. “Israel” is an aspirational identity tied to restoration, and the relationship between God and Israel is portrayed differently that the relationship between God and the Jews. For Philo, “Israel is a class of virtuous people who embody the principles of the Torah and have come to see God” — but as long as the disapora reigns, Israel doesn’t.

The Jews, on the other hand, while a subset of Israel, are not *all* necessarily part of Israel, and this is something I never fully appreciated: just how close Philo is to the apostle Paul. Like Paul, Philo believes that some of the Jews have been “cut off” from Israel due to disobedience, while proselytes (Gentile converts) who follow Abraham’s example can be incorporated into Israel. Branches may be cut from the tree, “but the tree will always be preserved, with new shoots regenerating it to life”. The restoration of Israel isn’t the exclusive heritage of the Jews. The only difference I can see between this scheme and Paul’s (in Rom 9-11) is, as Staples says, that Paul goes a step further than Philo in doing away with circumcision and Torah-identity as a requirement for Gentile proselytes.

Staples’s book doesn’t cover the New Testament ideas of Israel, but he does have a sequel slated for publication this summer, Paul and the Resurrection of Israel, and it’s not hard to see where he’s going with Romans 9-11.

Interlude: The Introduction

Before moving on to chapter 9, I want to go back to the beginning of the book, since I skipped over the introduction, where Staples presents his reasons for translating the Greek word Ioudaios as “Jew” (as most do) instead of “Judean” (as some scholars prefer). In the past I have argued strongly for the “Judean” translation, so I feel I should comment.

It’s curious that Staples objects to “Judean” given his thesis. The point that he (correctly) drives home, chapter after chapter, is a point that is rarely recognized or acknowledged in modern scholarship, namely that “the distinction between Jews and northern Israelites persists with surprising regularity in the literature of the Second Temple period” (see p 315 for example). But that’s precisely one of the reasons scholars prefer to translate Ioudaios as “Judean” rather than “Jew”. “Judean” intrinsically distinguishes itself from the northern tribes. “Jews”, as we tend to think of them, refer to the adherents of beliefs and practices associated with the Mishnah rather than the temple cult of Judea, and it was only by the third century CE that “Judaism” (as we tend to think of it), really emerged — that is, a common pattern of religion irrespective of locale. The predecessors of the Jews, the Judeans, were localized and provincial, with a different pattern of religion based on the temple cult. And that doesn’t depend on a false distinction between ethnicity and religion, as Staples worries about. He writes in the intro:

“The attempt to distinguish between religion and ethnicity is anachronistic… There was no transition from ‘Judean’ ethnicity to ‘Jewish’ religion.” (pp 17, 19)

Of course not. I agree completely. But this objection is a bit of a smokescreen. The anachronism is a straw man. Some scholars may argue for the “Judean” translation on that basis, but not all do, and I never have. On the contrary, “Judean” is preferable for the reasons I stated above, and also — now that I think about it, and quite ironically — because it would probably enable more scholars to see what Staples wants them to see: the distinction preserved in the 2nd-Temple literate between Ioudaioi (“Judeans”) and northern Israelites.

That said, this isn’t a hill I want to die on. I’ve lost the will to go to bat for the “Judean” translation, for pragmatic reasons. It’s not only scholars who read my blog; many non-academics read it too, and while they’re a smart bunch, many feel like I’m pulling some kind of trick by saying that “Jews didn’t exist until the third century”. Even when I spell out that nothing substantive is being lost — that instead of plotting the history of “Israelites–>Jews” we should be viewing it as “Israelites–>Judeans–>Jews” — it’s perceived that an oblique agenda is at work. And I don’t want to write in a language that disorientates my readers. I also believe in bridging the scholarly ivory towers with the masses. From that point of view, re-writing our bibles to replace every instance of “Jew” with “Judean” is too impractical. So nowadays, instead of insisting on the trajectory of “Israelites–>Judeans–>Jews” I just go with “Israelites–>2nd-Temple Jews–>Rabbinic Jews”.

So that’s my hypocritical critique of Staples on translating Ioudaios.

Chapter 9: Exile and Restoration in the Dead Sea Scrolls

Turning now to the sect behind the Dead Sea Scrolls, Staples gives a lengthy treatment of these “exiles within the exile” — “exiles from rebellious Judah within the continuing exile of Israel”. They had withdrawn to the wilderness (the “new Sinai”), some to the desert region along the Dead Sea at Qumran, others to places that cannot be determined. From wherever in the wilderness they made their nest, they lived austere lives preparing for the coming of God. Thoroughly disgusted with the wickedness in the land of Judah, they had turned their backs on that wickedness to rejoin the larger body of Israel that had remained in exile ever since the Assyrians deported them. So while they consisted of the southern tribes of Judah, Benjamin, and Levi (Levites were the leaders) they never identified themselves collectively as “Judah”; the text at one point says that the sect is “in Judah”, but not actually “Judah”.

Nor, argues Staples, did these members see themselves as constituting “true Israel”, as often supposed. Israel was yet to return. These members were a vanguard — “the vanguard of a return to virtue and obedience that would eventually culminate in the restoration of the twelve tribes, with all the nations subjugated to Israel.” And yet, all the same, they were already a *part* of “true Israel”. Unlike most of the literature covered by Staples, the Dead Sea Scrolls don’t restrict the word “Israel” to the biblical past and/or the apocalyptic future; they portray the sect as already participating in the apocalyptic future — a realized eschatology made possible by following the levitical Teacher of Righteousness: “Although the full restoration has not yet occurred, the sect is the breakthrough, the leading edge of the divine moment.” Its members are already fulfilling the Deuteronomic requirements for restoration, and as such they have become the necessary atonement to trigger the restoration. They were part of “true Israel” already, but not to be strictly identified as such.

Thus, these southern tribes composing the righteous remnant will ultimately be joined by the “exiles of the sons of light from the wilderness of the peoples”, meaning the northern Israelites — the significance of which Staples believes has been widely missed in the scholarship of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Chapter 10: Israel, Jews, and Restoration in Tobit and Judith

Tobit and Judith should IMO have been included in the bible (not just the Catholic and Orthodox), if for no other reason to ensure wider readership of some entertaining literature. They were written by Jews long after the Jewish return from Babylon (early 2nd century BCE for Tobit, late 2nd century BCE for Judith), though each story takes place before both exiles, during the Assyrian period, and in a northern Israelite setting. Staples highlights things about them that are often unappreciated.

The book of Tobit is emphatic that one should preserve one’s tribal identity by not marrying outsiders, but Staples points out the overlooked implication, that this means shunning Jews as well, for the protagonists aren’t Jewish. “If Sarah were to marry a Jewish man, that would be as much a tragedy in this narrative as if she were to marry a Gentile.” She should marry an Israelite, and in particular a Naphtali Israelite.

Basically Tobit reassures its readers that Israel’s restoration is on the way, provided that a faithful remnant of Naphtali exists to be restored. Endogamy is the key to keeping the tribe alive. The story is a survival story and a clear model for any of the twelve tribes to follow, including the Jewish ones who are the book’s audience. As in the other 2nd-Temple literature surveyed by Staples, the Jewish return from Babylon is not understood to have ended the exile. It was a “partial mercy” at best; the “times of fulfillment” await in the future, when all Israel — all twelve tribes — will be regathered and restored.

Moving onto Judith… I love that Staples calls this book an alternate-history revenge fantasy that Quentin Tarantino could have written. You know, the revisionist histories in which arch-villains get shafted: Inglourious Basterds, where Adolf Hitler is burned down in a theater by the French Jewess; and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, where Sharon Tate is not killed by the Manson Sisters (they are instead brutally killed by the film’s protagonists). In the case of Judith, the Assyrian general Holofernes is decapitated by a Jewess whose home he is about to destroy — a ludicrous but deliciously thrilling fantasy.

There’s more. “Judith” means “Lady Jew,” but she’s actually not a Jew, rather a northern Israelite from the tribe of Simeon. She personifies “Israel” and is a stand-in for Jews who are the book’s audience. Likewise, Nebuchadnezzar is portrayed as the king of the Assyrians, but he was really the king of Babylon; he personifies the tyrants who brought down northern Israel and southern Judah, just as the Seleucid tyrants were (right before Judith was written) trying to bring down the Jewish Hasmonean kingdom (between 140 – 116 BCE). Nebuchadnezzar and the Assyrians are stand-ins for the Seleucids.

Staples suggests that the book of Judith is like I Maccabees. Just as the Maccabean military victories against the Seleucids initiated an age of righteousness, Judith’s actions — her deceit and seduction and decapitation of Holofernes — are portrayed as righteous, and also work for the benefit of Israelites (in the story), meaning for the benefit of Jews (whom the story is really about). Exceptionally, “Israel” and “the Jews” are almost (though not quite) synonymous, and Judith’s actions (like the Taliban-esque warfare depicted in I Maccabees) are portrayed in a positive light. The difference between I Maccabees and Judith is that “Israel” and “the Jews” are actually equated in the former, but made equivalent in the latter. As Staples says, the Assyrian period framing has the effect of connecting contemporary faithful Jews with their Israelite forebears. In any case, it’s an exceptional use of “Israel” in 2nd Temple literature.

Chapter 11: Israel in the Apocalyptic Literature

I’d never realized that the term “Jew” (Ioudaios) is almost completely absent from the apocalyptic literature of the 2nd Temple period — The Wisdom of Ben Sira, Psalms of Solomon, Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, Baruch, IV Ezra, 2 Baruch, and Testament of Moses. Staples covers all of these, and finds, in keeping with the pattern set forth in most of literature he covers in the book, that these apocalyptic texts set the reader in the “liminal space between exile and restoration of the twelve tribes”, on the brink of receiving God’s promises but unable to enter for now.

The term “Israel”, in all these texts, also matches the pattern found in most of the other 2nd Temple literature (except for I Maccabees and Judith), referring to either the unified biblical Israel of the past, the northern tribes, the “people of God” in prayer or liturgy, or the restored Israel of the future. Never “the Jews”, who are a small subset of Israel.

Staples is careful to stress particular variances across these texts. For example, the Testament of Moses is more like the biblical prophets and Josephus in the way it portrays the northern tribes as multiplying and increasing in huge numbers among the nations of their exile. IV Ezra, on the other hand, is more like Tobit, in that the gathering of Israel will not be from among the nations, but rather from more distant regions where the northern tribes had withdrawn to in order to preserve their tribal heritage.

Chapter 12: Bringing it all Together

The biggest takeaways of this book:

1. With only a couple exceptions (I Maccabees and Judith), “Israel” isn’t equivalent to “the Jews” in the 2nd Temple period. The latter is a subset of the former.

2. There’s no evidence that “Israelite” should be understood as an insider term, and “Jew” an outsider term. There are plenty of instances where “Jew” is used by insiders to refer to themselves.

3. “Israel” usually refers to either (a) the northern tribes or (b) the twelve-tribe covenant people who will be regathered and restored. (Also sometimes to (c) the unified biblical Israel of the past, or (d) the diachronic “people of God” in prayer and liturgy.)

4. “Jew” refers to the subset of Israel derived from the kingdom of Judah, either by descent, marriage, or proselytism/conversion. However, since the kingdom of Judah included other tribes (esp. Benjamin and Levi), the term “Jew” does extra duty as a tribal label and umbrella term including those other tribes.

Staples makes a pretty damn convincing case IMO, and given that most scholars assume the equivalence of “Israel” and “the Jews”, I will be watching closely for academic reviews of the book. There are none as of yet.

And yes, to bite the bullet, I’m convinced that the insider/outside distinction should be discarded. However, it may be that Jack Elliott is right for the wrong reason. On Staples’ reading, the only reason to regard Jesus as a Jew is because of the testimony that Jesus descended from the tribe of Judah (in the Gospels, Hebrews, and Revelation). But if that lineage is a Christological fiction (which isn’t unreasonable to suppose), then the historical Jesus, as a Galilean, may have descended from a northern tribe, and perhaps that’s why he refers to himself in the gospels as an Israelite but not a Jew. I can see many a historical-Jesus scholar leaning in that direction.

Why South Park is Cancel Exempt

In my celebration of All in the Family I thought about South Park and how it’s managed so incredibly to survive the era of cancel culture. Some have suggested that, like Family Guy, the animation has something to do with it. Perhaps to a small degree. People could be more receptive to offense when the world is a cartoon and “doesn’t look real”. But last year’s furor over Dr. Seuss makes me doubt very seriously that this is a significant reason.

There’s a big difference between South Park and Family Guy in any case, and it’s one that makes Family Guy not a good example of a show that has “survived cancellation”. Seth MacFarlane has actually succumbed to a significant amount of woke pressure. Family Guy doesn’t joke about the same things it did back in 2005, especially when it comes to LGBTQ issues. MacFarlane has even recast actors to match the skin color of the animated characters they voice. South Park, on the other hand, has never pandered like this or watered down its offenses. Just the opposite: Trey Parker and Matt Stone have gone in the other direction — escalating offense, pushing the envelope more each year. The question presses: How do these guys keep getting away with it, when anyone else would be panned and erased into obscurity?

I finally came across a satisfying explanation. According to this critic, South Park has been impervious to cancel culture for the following three reasons, each of which is critical.

(1) The frog-in-the-pot phenomenon. South Park has acquired its exempt status by a slow build — increasing its offensiveness gradually over time, crossing new lines that were previously thought uncrossable. Parker and Stone didn’t plan their success that way. Just the opposite: in interviews they say they never expected success and thought it was a given that they would be cancelled sooner than later. Their mindset has always been, “Since this is probably our last season, let’s push things further.” That consistent fearlessness in taking offense to the next level (instead of dialing back as Family Guy did) was, ironically, a key to their success. It’s like the urban legend of the boiling frog: if you want to cook a frog, you don’t have to kill it first; all you have to do is put it in room temperature water and heat the water very slowly. If you heat the water too quickly, or put the frog into hot water, it will jump out. But if you heat it slowly enough, the frog will remain in the water until it boils to death. Parker and Stone have been slowly cranking up the heat in their pot for 25 years now, and because of that, the frog has yet to jump. [In this analogy, the “frog” is Comedy Central” and “jumping” is canceling the show.] They might have cranked up the heat too fast on a few occasions and made the frog agitated, but as of today, the water is still on its way to boiling. If you look back at old South Park episodes, they are incredibly tame compared to what the show would later be like. That slow build has laid the groundwork for the show’s invulnerable status. If, for example, they had created an episode like “With Apologies to Jesse Jackson” (season 11, episode 1) — which uses the word “nigger” 42 times — back in season 1 or 2, the frog would have leaped from the pot in a heartbeat.

(2) Equal opportunity offense. South Park makes fun of absolutely everyone, including themselves. There is not a single person, group, or idea that is off-limits when it comes to criticism. Parker and Stone don’t choose sides. Atheists are skewered as much as religionists, Democrats are blasted as much as Republicans — often both sides within a single episode. Take the episode “Goobacks” (season 8, episode 7), for example, which satirizes events taking place at the U.S. border with undocumented immigrants crossing over. South Park ridicules those who are completely against it and those who are in full support of it. (The TV interviewer has two guests: “On my right is pissed-off white trash redneck conservative; on my left is aging hippie liberal douche-bag.”) The South Park philosophy that absolutely nothing is off limits is an important part of the show’s untouchable status. If you are equally offensive to everyone, it’s actually the ultimate form of equality. It’s almost like the offensiveness of the show cancels itself out. The show is never trying to push an agenda or make you feel a certain way about a topic. It makes fun of everything and lets you decide what you want to believe. Parker and Stone aren’t preaching to you. They’re showing the flaws in your beliefs as well as those of people you disagree with. Because of this, South Park is the last true social satire to exist in the mainstream — finding comedy in the absurdity of our society, rather than taking sides.

(3) South Park is not, in the end, offensive. That sounds contradictory, but to those who watch entire episodes of South Park, and invest in watching a lot of episodes, it becomes clear that the show is not ultimately offensive. Consider one of the most controversial episodes, “Red Hot Catholic Love” (season 6, episode 8), which follows Father Maxi as he goes to the Vatican to help deal with the Catholic priest molestation scandal. When he arrives, he learns that every single Catholic priest in the entire world molests kids. That may sound offensive, but Parker and Stone aren’t literally suggesting that all priests are pedophiles. They’re using hyperbole and caricature to highlight a real issue. That’s what they do in most episodes: take real issues and exaggerate them to make a point. The actual message of “Red Hot Catholic Love” is neutral and inoffensive: that if you look too deeply into religious texts, you create expectations and ideas that are absurd in modern times; but if you refuse any set of moral standards, your expectations and ideas can become just as absurd. The episode follows the same formula as almost every episode of South Park: (a) select a topic; (b) hyperbolize and exaggerate to the point of silliness; (c) end with a neutral opinionThe reason there is so much outrage about things that happen in the show is because people who are offended probably don’t watch the entire episodes. You can’t claim a show is offensive based on short clips of priests insisting that they should have the right to molest their altar boys. You can’t claim a show is anti-Semitic or insensitive from watching short clips of Cartman impersonating Hitler and being anti-Semitic. You can’t say Parker and Stone are racist for depicting the character of Tuong Lu Kim as a slant-eyed Chinese man; Parker and Stone over-emphasize stereotypes associated with Chinese people, just as they do with other peoples (like flapping-head Canadians) to show how absurd the stereotypes are. Fans of South Park understand that the show is ultimately not offensive, but rather the opposite.

This analysis makes perfect sense to me. I suspect that all three factors account for South Park‘s cancel-exempt status. The show has survived because it built a reputation for itself before taking the gloves off completely, and has offended everyone impartially in a way that the overall presentation is never truly offensive. Each is not enough in itself to account for South Park‘s survival. The second factor in particular (equal-opportunity offense) is often parroted by many people as “the” answer, but there are plenty of equal-opportunity offenders who come under cancel fire (or even physical assault), like Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock. South Park lives on for a combination of reasons, and it stands to reason it will keep going until Parker and Stone decide to retire because they’ve run out of ideas and are boring people instead of offending them.