Was there such a thing as ancient “Judaism”?: Steve Mason’s recent article on “Judeans” (Ioudaioi) in antiquity

Steve Mason (a colleague of mine here at York U.) recently handed me an offprint of his new article that, in my mind, puts to rest a recent debate within scholarship regarding the appropriateness of using the term “Judaism” — as though it were an ancient, emic (insider) concept — to describe a whole system of practice and belief in the Greco-Roman world:

Steve Mason, “Jews, Judaeans, Judaizing, Judaism: Problems of Categorization in Ancient History,” Journal for the Study of Judaism 38 (2007) 457-512. (available online to subscribing institutions here).

Mason convincingly argues that Ioudaioi (traditionally translated “Jews”) and related terms should be understood in terms of ethnic groupings in antiquity. For the Hellenistic and Roman periods (at least until the third century CE) we should be speaking of “Judeans”, not “Jews”, and of “Judean customs” or practices, not “Judaism”. Mason is careful to point out that he is not arguing against the use of critically-employed, etic (outsider), scholarly categories in the interest of furthering scholarly knowledge (pp. 458-460). So while he is underlining the absence of the category “Judaism” as a system (i.e. the lack of an emic term such as this in ancient literature), on the one hand, he is also pointing to the ineffectiveness, scientifically, of the uncritical use of this specific modern scholarly (etic) category, “Judaism”, in connection with the ancient period.

Mason builds his argument in three stages. First (pp. 457-480), he deals with the relatively rare ancient terms ἰουδαίζω (verb) / Ἰουδαισμός (noun), which have often been erroneously translated as referring to “Judaism” as a system of belief and practice, rather than to the practice of adopting the ways of a particular ethnic group. Mason shows, that these “-ize” terms, like “barbarize”, “Spartanize”, “hellenize”, and “Romanize”, are used by the ancients to speak of those from one ethnic group going over to or adopting the practices of a people other than their own, adopting foreign ways. Christian uses of “Judaize”, as in Ignatius of Antioch, often occur in polemical materials pertaining precisely to this pull toward Judean ways among Greeks of western Asia Minor (“Gentiles”). Mason goes through the main cases of “Judaize”, including those in the Maccabean histories and in the inscription from Stobi, to show that there was no “static or systematic abstraction” known as “Judaism” in minds of those who used these Greek terms in antiquity.

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

Third (pp. 489-512), Mason argues that the Ioudaioi / Iudaei “of Graeco-Roman antiquity understood themselves, and were understood by outsiders, as an ἔθνος, a people comparable to and contrastable with other ἔθνη” (p. 489). Ancient authors including Strabo, Posidonius, Tacitus, Philo, and Josephus consistently speak of Ioudaioi in terms of them being an ethnos, a people or ethnic group. Here Mason also deals with common objections to the use of “Judeans” to translate Ioudaioi, most notably the objection raised by Cohen and others that “conversion” to Judean ways by non-Judean peoples in the Hasmonean period signals the shift to a “religious” understanding of the label Ioudaios. Mason effectively argues that we have no evidence from ancient authors that this proposed shift took place and that it is also problematic in regard to the notions of “religion” that lie behind it.

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

Among other things, my own recent research into immigrant groups of various kinds, including Judeans in the Greco-Roman cities, led me to speak of Judeans and Judean culture, Syrians and Syrian culture. Even in lectures I now speak of Paul, Philo, Josephus, and others primarily as “Judeans” and of the practices and beliefs they express as variations on Judean culture. At the moment and probably in the long-run, these are the most appropriate categories to work with.

20 thoughts on “Was there such a thing as ancient “Judaism”?: Steve Mason’s recent article on “Judeans” (Ioudaioi) in antiquity

  1. Bob Webb


    You may also want to see the closely related essay we just published in the _Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus_ by John H. Elliott, “Jesus the Israelite was neither a ‘Jew’ nor a ‘Christian’: On Correcting Misleading Nomenclature,” JSHJ 5.2 (July 2007): 119-54.


  2. Phil H.

    Hello Bob and Loren,

    Bob: I am familiar with the article by Elliott, which I have yet to study in detail. But my impressions are that, although there is overlap between Elliott’s point and Mason’s, the two are dealing with quite different things and come to different conclusions (despite some similarities). What I do know is that I agree with Mason’s article broadly speaking, but I’ll have to see about Elliott’s article.

    When I think of someone I most often trust on social scientific approaches to early Christianity, I think of Elliott.

    When I think of someone I most often trust on Judean culture of the Roman period, I think of Mason.

    Loren: No problem.

    Phil H.

  3. Bob Webb


    Yes, Elliott and Mason are doing different things, but they do overlap. I’ll cut and paste the abstract to Elliott’s essay:

    Distinguishing between insider and outsider groups and their differing nomenclatures is essential for accurate interpretation and translation. Jesus and his earliest followers, evidence demonstrates, were called ‘Israelites’, ‘Galileans’, or ‘Nazoreans’ by their fellow Israelites. ‘Israel’, ‘Israelites’ were the preferred terms of self-designation among members of the house of Israel when addressing other members—not 0Ioudai~oj ,‘Jew’ or ‘Judaism.’ Modern interpreters and translators of the Bible, it is argued, should respect and follow this insider preference. 0Ioudai~oj, an outsider coinage, is best rendered ‘Judaean,’ not ‘Jew’, to reflect the explicit or implied connection with Judaea. It was employed by Israelites when addressing outsiders as an accommodation to outsider usage. The concepts ‘Jew,’ ‘Jewish,’ and ‘Christian’ as understood today are shaped more by fourth century rather than first century C. E. realities and hence should be avoided as anachronistic designations for first century persons or groups. Use of ‘Christian’ is best restricted to its three NT appearances. The use of appropriate nomenclature is crucial for minimizing historical and social inaccuracies and misunderstandings.



  4. Bob Webb


    Following up on my preceding post: Elliott also argues for the “Judean” rather than “Jew”. But what he also does is argue for the emic term “Israelite.”

    Anyway, have a read when you have the chance.


  5. steph

    So many things going on – and then “Jesus the Jew” ends up as not very Jewish at all. Or Judean. I trust the work of Maurice Casey, and helpful here is his ‘Some Anti-Semitic Assumptions in The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament’, NovT 41 (1999), pp. 280-91.

  6. Phil H.

    Hello Steph,

    Jesus was not on my mind. Nor was it at all the topic of Steve Mason’s article. Mason’s article is on what concepts are most useful, scientifically or historically speaking, in studying ethnic groups like the Judeans in the ancient period.

    To argue that we are better off speaking of “Judeans” and “Judean culture” rather than some overall religious system “Judaism” (for the ancient period) is quite different from saying that Jesus — if we were talking about him — was not fully a part of that Judean culture (usually anti-Semitic approaches of the past try to remove Jesus from his Jewish/Judean context). In other words, someone such as myself would clearly affirm that Jesus was very much a part of Judean culture of the Galilean type.

    Nor do I think that Elliott is saying that Jesus is somehow unique and apart from his cultural context, although I have only skimmed that article so far.

    Hope this clarifies how this current debate has very little to do with anti-Semitism of a particular period and of a particular group of scholars of the past. Instead, it’s a question of method in studying ethnic groups of various kinds (not just Judean) in the Hellenistic and Roman periods.

    Phil H.

  7. Phil H.

    Hello Stephen. I had hoped that the result of the post would be that people would actually read that excellent article by Mason, so thank you. Phil H.

  8. Leon Zitzer

    I do not think that Mason’s article settles anything. All this debate about terminology is just a subterfuge. “Judean”, “Israelite”, and other terms serve the same purpose that “late Judaism” used to serve. Scholars are just finding more sophisticated ways to accomplish the same thing: To separate Jesus from his Jewish culture, particularly his Pharisaic/rabbinic culture.

    “Jew” and “Jewish” are the proper terms for that people and culture in history which never stopped arguing with itself, with God, and with the book that recorded its birth in history. The proper goal of historical studies is to understand Jesus in his Pharisaic/rabbinic context. This field was born in the 19th century to prevent this from being carried out. The prevention is still going on.

    There are so many parallels between Jesus and rabbinic Judaism, and they are all so revealing. But scholars are bent on suppressing this. In anthropology, there is a raging debate about how prejudices affect their field. That is because anthropolgy strives to be a science. No such debate occurs in historical Jesus studies because it is not even trying to be a science. The goal is just to play terminology games to cover up understanding Jesus’ Jewishness.

    A detailed examination of scholarship supports this conclusion.

    Leon Zitzer

  9. Phil Harland Post author

    Hello Leon,

    It seems that you have not actually read Steve Mason’s article, which has nothing to do with Jesus. As a result, much of what you say is addressing something that neither I nor Steve Mason are dealing with. I would suggest reading the article rather than dismissing it.


  10. Leon Zitzer

    Hi Phil,

    I am going to read Mason’s article as soon as I can get my hands on it. But I think it is disingenuous of scholars, especially New Testament scholars, to claim that when they are talking about 1st century Jewish culture, they do not have Jesus at least in the back of their minds. The same thing happens with Josephus. Scholars claim to be studying Josephus objectively, when it is very clear that so many of them have an agenda to make sure that Josephus never upsets the myth that some Jewish leaders were responsible for Jesus’ death.

    So I am a little suspicious when someone claims to be making discoveries about 1st century Jewish culture which are completely independent of concerns about the historical Jesus. I am also suspicious when 1st century Pharisaic/rabbinic culture is so undervalued in all these studies.

    Having said that, I agree that you are right to rebuke me for possibly jumping to conclusions about an article I have not studied yet. I apologize for that. But the entire history of New Testament scholarship right up to the present does not fill one with confidence about the ability of scholars to be objective in this area. There is still lacking a full discussion of how prejudice has deeply affected this field from the beginning; absolutely nothing here that is even close to what is being done in anthropology.

    Leon Zitzer

  11. Leon Zitzer

    I have now read Mason’s article. Thank God for the New York Public Library, its research divisions, and their wonderful staff.

    Mason has some good points to make, but overall his suggestions for changing terminology are misleading. I heartily concur with his goal of seeking to understand the ancients as they understood themselves (458-59) (I have the same goal in my own work), but he does not achieve that. I see four major problems in his article.

    First, his point that ancient Jews were an ethnic group or “ethnos” is correct, but his overempahsis on this distorts history. He is reinforcing the theological prejudice that Jews were a narrow ethnic group, while Christians had a universal vision. Jews also had a universal sense of things and overstressing ethnicity obscures that. Moreover, by “ethnos”, Mason means a group with a conglomeration of traditions, customs, stories, mores, etc. (457, 484). Fine, but “Jew”, “Jewish”, and “Jewishness” are perfectly good words for that. There is no reason to abandon these words for “Judaeans”. He may have a point about “Judaism”, but he is wrong when he says the category of “Jewishness” did not exist back then (503). He only proves they did not use this word, but the concept certainly did exist, even if they used other words.

    Second, he puts way too much emphasis on connecting Judaeans with memories of their ancestral land as a source of identity (486, 489, 511). He makes almost no mention of Torah and oral Torah which was even more central to their identity. He fails to capture their vitality, their creativity, their youthfulness, their constant wrestling with Torah. He mentions Torah once in a quotation of another writer (465). He mentions Mishnah and Tosefta once (474), but he never connects this to the wider phenomenon of oral Torah and makes a negative reference to rabbinic literature (502). “Judaean” misses some of the most creative things about ancient Jews.

    Third, he never brings up the Galileans. Would he call them Judaeans too? Or they will be separated and called Galileans? If so, that is a historical falsehood. Galilean Jews and Judaean Jews had more in common than they had differences. Calling them both Jews is historically appropriate, even if they would have used some different words. And Mason is opening the way for those who love to shout, “You see! Jesus was not Jewish! He was not Judaean! He was Galilean which is completely different.” More nonsense.

    Fourth, Mason claims that he wants to use words the people themselves would have used. But he has no trouble calling Paul a Christian (469, 495), even though Paul would never have used this word. I think (and I am not alone in this) that Paul never gave up his Jewish identity. And Paul is not converting gentiles to Christianity (a term Paul did not know) but to his brand of Jewishness. You could call him a Messianic Jew. Or you could use the expression from Acts and call him a follower of the Way, which is “halachah” in Hebrew. But Mason wants to disconnect Paul from what he calls Judaean views (495, n. 83). That is very wrong. But whatever your view on this, “Christian” does not fit in with Mason’s stated goal of using their own words. It is striking that he is so quick to call Paul a Christian and yet is obsessed with removing “Jew”. “Jewish”, and “Jewishness” from ancient history. How bizarre.

    I commend Mason for his awareness that ancient Christian authors denigrated Jews and Jewish culture (471-76, 499-500, 504), but he is subtly promoting, whether intentionally or unintentionally, a similar program. Christian theology is being used to rewriite Jewish history. Nothing has changed in scholarship. Everyone is still missing the vitality and creativity of Pharisaic/rabbinic culture (and missing Jesus’ participation in this youthful, vibrant culture), the universality of the Jewish vision, the continuity of this culture over the centuries, the Torah and oral Torah as close to the center of their identity, and much more. “Judaean” erases all this. “Jewish” captures the ethnic nature of ancient Judaism and it also serves to resist Christian imperialism and theology. I strongly object to reading Jewish history through a Christian lens and this de-Judaizing of Jewish history. It is not seemly and it falsifies history.

    Leon Zitzer

  12. Geoff Hudson

    I am not sure where the term ‘Judean War’ comes from. Is it simply a different translation of the title Wars of the Jews? May be Steve Mason’s article explains this. I don’t have acces to it. The designation ‘Judean War’ certainly rings a few bells for me. It could be taken to mean the war fought in Judea and Judea only. For a long time now I have thought that the war as portrayed in the writings attributed to Josephus was greatly exaggerated in its extent, probably by Flavian editors of Josephus’ original account. Thus there were no battles fought outside of Judea. Such battles were inflated propaganda to intimidate adjacent nations who might stir up trouble. Vespasian’s and Titus’ triumph was misclaimed. Titus merely ransacked Jerusalem which had previously been entered without seige by Roman troops under Nero. Nero’s so-called tour of Greece from 66 CE to 68 CE was pure Flavian propaganda.

  13. Geoff Hudson

    For example, the preface para. 3 to War has the phrase “nor are they ashamed to overlook the the length of this war”. This I suggest was the obfuscation of Josephus’ editors who were the true “they” who did indeed fictitiously increase the length of the war. Thus Josephus’ original true account of the war was much shorter than the extant version.

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