Judeans In the New Testament

I’ve been gratified to observe a small flurry of activity on the web recently, supporting a proposal I first made a long time ago: that we stand better to understand the New Testament and the history and politics surrounding it if we read the Greek word Ioudaios as “Judean” rather than “Jew.” A while ago, Bruce Malina, John Pilch, and Philip Esler (in separate publications) advanced this position on social-scientific grounds. Frederick Danker indicated that “Judean” best defined Ioudaios in his revision of the Bauer Lexicon. Back when I put it forward (first in a seminar paper at YDS in 1986, then in print in Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha 14 (1996) 15-21 and in the Greek textbook I wrote), I made the case on a more general semantic/historical/cultural basis. Since then, in reading the New Testament, my tentative hypothesis has been confirmed over and over again — the narratives just make more sense if you shift the focus of attention from the Jews to the Judeans.

At this point, it’s vital that I stress that I’m not saying “There were no Jews in the New Testament” as though there were only Aryans, or no one practiced the faith and laws handed down from the judges and prophets through the priests and rabbis. Indeed, part of the strength of the Judeans proposal lies in the fact that it appropriately subsumes Jesus and his bunch under the same cultural umbrella as their Pharisaic and Essene and Sadducee neighbors. They were all adherents of the Torah and Temple; some were Judeans strictu sensu, some were Galileans, some were Nabateans or Idumaeans, and outsiders such as Romans didn’t bother to make nice distinctions among them. The goal isn’t to produce a Judenrein Gospel, but to make clear that Jesus and his buddies weren’t an exception in the theological-cultural milieu of citizens with whom they lived, worked, and argued.

About a year ago, Loren Rosson revived the question in his blog to which Carl Conrad assented on the B-Greek mailing list). Since then, John Elliott has published a pertinent article in the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, which Rosson summarizes in a separate post — and A.-J. Levine has published a fervent riposte to advocates of first-century Judeans. A flurry of blogged responses to Rosson ensued. And now, Phil Harland points to an article by Steve Mason in Journal for the Study of Judaism.

As the testimonies stack up, we should pause before concluding to note (a) that none of the “Judean” proposals involves deprecating anything about the religion, ethnic identity, practices, literature, integrity, or any other aspect of the cultural life of Judaism — indeed, many proponents of “Judean” demonstrate a consistent interest in promoting appreciation of the lives, beliefs, and practices with which we’re concerned; (b) the arguments they’ve advanced all rest on pretty uncontroversial premises, save Esler’s argument that we are obligated to show our respect for ancient forebears by characterizing them in accordance with their self-identification (and even that is not an outlandish claim, albeit controverted); (c) antiquity did not draw the strong distinction between state, ethnicity, and religion that 20th-century liberal democracies do, so that an ancient observer will justifiably assume that a “Judean” worships the god of the Judeans, owes loyalty to a Judean head of state, and is descended from (or adopted into) the Judean ethnic group; (d) a great many texts of the New Testament, as well as other ancient sources concerned with the people of Israel, make more sense if the retrospective term “Jew” is not used; (e) one particular benefit of that usage entails clarifying the conflict in John’s Gospel as a dispute among regional factions (Judeans vs. Galileans) rather than rivalry between “Jews” and “Christians.”

I do not suppose (as Harland does) that Mason’s article closes the question. I do hope that this groundswell of exegetical energy banishes glib dismissals (one eminent Neutestamentler is reputed to have said, “That’s just political correctness”) and forces the issue out into the open terrain where we can muster contending arguments. The longer I live with the conclusion that Ioudaios should be understood as “Judean,” the sounder it seems to me.

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