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.

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