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.

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.