Category Archives: Early Judaism and the diaspora

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.

Contexts of early Christianity (NT 3.1)

One of the things that needs to be emphasized when approaching the study of early Christianity is the fact that the early Christians, and the writings they produced, were part of a real world (for my course outline and discussion notes for Christian origins go here). Writings such as those found in the New Testament were not floating up in heaven somewhere. Instead, they were written by real people in real places. As a result, they both reflected and were products of broader social and cultural contexts, both Greco-Roman (or Hellenistic) and Judean.

On the one hand, it is important to consider the complicated conglomeration of things we scholars simplify with labels such as “Hellenistic (Greek) world” or “Greco-Roman world”. There is far too much to cover under such terms, but among the issues are the ways in which Hellenistic (Greek) culture came to prominent position in the ancient Mediterranean, something that I have discussed in a post on Alexander the Great (d. 323 BCE) and Christian origins (NT 1.2). You might also get a taste, but only a mere taste, of how complicated this world was by reading some of the posts in my category Greco-Roman Religions and Culture.

There is a sense in which dividing the Judean world from the Hellenistic world is itself a problem, since the two cultures were in interaction for more than three centuries before the emergence of the Jesus movement in Judea. A similar thing could be said of interaction with Roman (better: Greco-Roman) culture once the Romans were in charge of things (beginning in the second century BCE but climaxing with the imperial period, beginning about 31 BCE). The so-called Maccabean revolt of the 170s BCE, which I discuss in ‘Tis the season . . . : Jewish and Roman holidays, involved a sustained war arising from conflicts with certain actions by Hellenistic rulers and those Judeans who adopted certain aspects of Hellenistic culture. However, the relation between Judaism and Hellenism was by no means entirely hostile, and there were varying reactions by Judean individuals and groups to particular facets of Greek culture both within Israel and in the dispersion (cities across the Mediterranean). The fact that the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek (a translation known as the Septuagint = LXX) beginning in the third century BCE is indicative of the less antagonistic interactions that were going on in various places.

This discussion of varying Judean responses to Hellenistic culture segues well into the second main cultural sphere: Judean culture. To understand a movement that began within Judaism, such as the Jesus movement, one needs to consider Judean culture in its many forms in the first and following centuries. This is a tall order, since Judaism itself was marked by a variety which I have discussed in posts including Let’s talk about sects: Diversity in Second-Temple Judaism (NT 2.3). The Jesus movement was just one among many groups within second temple Judaism and it is important to consider how to plot out these followers of Jesus in relation to others. As we shall soon see in the case of Paul and the situation at Galatia, even early followers of Jesus could have different answers regarding the relation between the Jesus movement and certain aspects of Judean culture (circumcision among them).

There is a sense in which a course on the New Testament or early Christian literature is, through and through, a study of these two worlds and the interplay between them.  So we will continue to struggle with these issues for a while.

Immigrants adrift in the Greco-Roman world?

What was it like to be an immigrant in the Greco-Roman world? Well, the answer given by many scholars of the past has been that it was not very good at all for immigrants. Without necessarily actually looking at any archeological or inscriptional evidence, some scholars tend to assume that foreigners were faced with significant hardships and feelings of rootlessness. Robert Turcan is somewhat representative of common views when he speaks of a “troubled and drifting world” in which “uprooted people”, particularly immigrants, lived “on the fringes of a disintegrating world” in both the Hellenistic and Roman eras (Turcan, The Cults of the Roman Empire [A. Nevill trans.; Oxford: Blackwell, 1996], 16-17).

Often this view of immigrant hardship is coupled with overstated notions regarding the decline of the ancient city in the Hellenistic and following eras, which resulted in general feelings of detachment and a lack of social connection. I have dealt with such problematic theories of decline in a full article under my publications (“The Declining Polis? Religious Rivalries in Ancient Civic Context”).

It is true that immigrants, foreigners or minorities could, at times, be faced with negative attitudes or treatment associated with xenophobia (fear of foreigners), so there were certainly negative sides to immigrant experience (see ‘Come! Plunge the knife into the baby’: Tertullian’s not-so-subtle retort). Nonetheless the all-encompassing scholarly picture of immigrants adrift in a disintegrating society does not fit with the actual evidence we have available, at least in the case of Syrian or Phoenician expatriots in the Hellenistic and Roman eras.

My recent research into inscriptions that involve Syrians who settled elsewhere and formed themselves into associations points rather to the ways in which such “foreigners” maintained connections with the cultural traditions of their homeland while also finding a home for themselves in the society of settlement. Syrian immigrants acculturated, to various degrees, to local customs while also sustaining a sense of distinctiveness. In particular, there is a consistency in Syrians’ attention to the “gods of the homeland”. I am developing these ideas further for a forthcoming publication, but you can also see an inscription or two in an earlier post: For the gods of the homeland: Immigrants from Beirut on a Greek island.

In this respect, there are significant commonalities between Syrians and Judeans (Jews) or Israelites (Samaritans) in the ways that they found a place for themselves in cities of the ancient Mediterranean world. See, for example my post ‘Tis the season . . . : Jewish and Roman holidays and my article Acculturation and Identity in the Diaspora: A Jewish Family and ‘Pagan’ Guilds at Hierapolis.

Golden rule: Do unto others according to the “pagans”

“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (attributed to Jesus in Matthew 7:12 [NRSV]; cf. Luke 6:31).

As you may know, rabbi Jesus was not alone among those in antiquity in advocating that ethics and treatment of others should be based on how one would like (or not like) to be treated. Thus, for instance, in a story involving another first century rabbi, rabbi Hillel, like Jesus, summarizes the ethical basis of the Torah in speaking to a Gentile convert:

“What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow neighbor. That is the whole Torah, while the rest is an elaborate commentary on it; go and learn” (Shabbat 31a; trans. by Moshe Gold, “Ethical Practice in Critical Discourse: Conversions and Disruptions in Legal, Religious Narratives,” Representations 64 [1998], 21).

And the book of Tobit in the apocrypha preserves a similar concept (Tobit 4:15). This was by no means a solely Jewish (or, later, Christian) way of thinking, however.

Despite what you may have heard about the “pagan” Greeks or Romans (a friend of mine — perhaps representative — thought they were all about wild orgies), “pagans” too were very concerned with proper behaviour as they defined it, and sometimes they defined it in similar ways. Educated philosophers, in particular, focussed their attention on questions of what behaviours were most fitting, desirable, or appropriate in particular circumstances. Such philosophers were often very concerned with “family values”, and so they spent considerable time thinking about what were the appropriate relationships among members of the household: husband-wife; parent-child; sibling-sibling; master-slave (the so called household codes which also appear in variant forms in Christian writings such as Colossians 3:18-4:1 and 1 Peter 2:18-3:7).

Among these “pagan” philosophers is Hierocles, who wrote a handbook in the second century that incorporated many ethical ideas from Stoicism (partially preserved in the works of Stobaeus). In the midst of discussing proper relations among members of the family and in society generally, Hierocles has this to say:

The first bit of advice, therefore, is very clear, easily obtained, and common to all people. For it is a sound word which everyone will recognize as clear: Treat anybody whatsoever as though you supposed that he were you and you he. For someone would treat even a servant well if he pondered how he would want to be treated if the slave were the master and he the slave. Something similar can also be said of parents with respect to their children, of children with respect to their parents, and, in short, of all people with respect to others” (Hierocles, On Duties 4.27.20; translated by Abraham J. Malherbe, Moral Exhortation: A Greco-Roman Sourcebook [Library of Early Christianity; Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1986], 93-94. ).

Think of that bit of Greco-Roman wisdom the next time you’re watching some modern film or show depicting those supposedly wild Roman “pagans” with their orgies and gladiatorial slaughter.

Want more on “pagan” ethics and family values?:  See my earlier post on Paul and Philemon, in which I discussed the views of Galen and Seneca, both philosophers, on the proper treatment of slaves.  Also see my articles on the use of familial language including  “brothers” and “mothers or fathers”, within associations.

Origins of an apocalyptic sect at Qumran: Teacher of Righteousness vs. Wicked Priest (End 1.6)

The difficulty in studying groups that lived two thousand or so years ago is that we often know very little about them, let alone knowing how they came to form in the first place. The discipline of “Christian origins” is a case in point regarding just how difficult it is to explain the origins of a movement. When it comes to the apocalyptic sect that left civilization to live out its life in the desert on the edge of the Dead Sea, we happen to get some hints as to the origins of this group at Qumran, which may or may not be a group of Essenes (see my earlier post on Josephus and the “sects” within Judaism).

The writing known as the Damascus Document (written around the early to mid first century BCE) begins precisely with a description, however loaded with metaphors, of the origins of a penitential group of Judeans, probably around the 190s BCE:

“[God] remembered the covenant of the very first, he saved a remnant for Israel and did not deliver them up to destruction. And at the moment of wrath, three hundred and ninety years after having delivered them up into the hands of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, he visited them and caused to sprout from Israel and from Aaron a shoot of the planting, in order to possess his land and to become fat with the good things of the soil . And they realised their sin and knew that they were guilty men; but they were like blind persons and like those who grope for the path over twenty years. And God appraised their deeds, because they sought him with a perfect heart and raised up for them a Teacher of Righteousness in order to direct them in the path of his heart” (Damascus Document = CD 1.4-11; italics mine).

This little passage tells us quite a bit, even though we need to be careful in how literally we approach this. It speaks of a particular group among the Judeans as the remnant and goes on to speak of a penitential movement that emerged as a “sprout” (with the years mentioned roughly lining up with the turn of the second century, around the 190s BCE). It speaks of a time when these men who recognized their “guilt” felt a lack of direction until a special leader emerged just decades later (20 years), the “Teacher of Righteousness”. So far so good: we have a penitential movement among the Judean population around the 190s BCE and a leader emerging perhaps around the 170s BCE.

We hear more of this “Teacher of Righteousness”, who was evidently a central figure of the past in the view of the group that lived at Qumran, from other biblical commentaries (pesharim) found among the Dead Sea Scrolls (on pesher as a form of interpretation, see this post). In the commentary on Habbakuk we gain further glimpses into some aspects of the origins of this splinter group, as well as the centrality of apocalyptic expectation in connection with these origins. The author of this commentary interprets a passage in Habakkuk as referring to the Teacher of Righteousness himself:

Its interpretation concerns the Teacher of Righteousness, to whom God has disclosed all the mysteries of the words of his servants, the prophets. For the vision has an appointed time, it will have an end and not fail [Hab. 2:3]. Its interpretation: the final age will be extended and go beyond all that the prophets say, because the mysteries of God are wonderful (1QpHab 7.1-8).

Here we see the centrality of the expectation of an apocalyptic end among these particular Judeans. The Teacher of Righteousness, it is thought, had special access to interpreting the mysteries of God concerning the prophets and the coming end. Through this teacher, the Qumranites believed, they alone had access to secrets about how to interpret scripture and about how and when the final intervention of God would come.

Added to this scenario is the “Wicked Priest”. It seems that disagreements between this priest, likely a Hasmonean (Maccabean) high-priest of the temple in Jerusalem (in the 150s BCE), and the Teacher, who was also a priest, led to a fall-out that inspired members of the penitential movement to leave “wicked” society altogether and to found the community at Qumran. The sort of tensions and conflicts that led to this foundation are evident when the author interprets a passage in Habakkuk in terms of the “Wicked Priest who pursued the Teacher of Righteousness to consume him with the ferocity of his anger in the place of his banishment, in festival time, during the rest of the day of Atonement” (11.4-7). The language of consume here suggests violence, perhaps even an attempt to kill the “Teacher”. The Qumran group emerged out of contentions among priests in the temple of Jerusalem.

The negativity toward the Wicked Priest and the leadership of the temple generally which made these Judeans feel a need to abandon society altogether is further confirmed in the comment that the priest “did not circumcise the foreskin of his heart and has walked on paths of drunkenness to slake his thirst; but the cup of God’s anger will engulf him, heaping up [shame upon him]” (11.11-14).

Here we have, then, a sectarian group who felt the end of the world and the end of the evil leadership of the temple was coming soon. They went out to the desert to prepare and await the “visitation” of God that is spelled out most clearly in the “two spirits” material in the Community Rule. Soon, they thought, the “dominion of Belial” (Worthless one = Satan) or the Prince of Darkness would end with the destruction or eternal torment of evil and those who aligned themselves with the way of the wicked (“the sons of darkness”), including the current “wicked” leadership of the Jerusalem temple. The destiny of the “sons of light”, namely the members of the Qumran sect, was much better: “eternal enjoyment with endless life” (1QS 4.7).

All translations in this post are from Florentino García Martínez, trans., The Dead Sea Scrolls Translated: The Qumran Texts in English (2d ed.; trans. Wilfred G.E. Watson; Leiden/Grand Rapids: E.J. Brill/Eerdmans Publishing, 1996).

Interpreting Judean scriptures in Paul’s time (NT 2.10)

One thing that is difficult for modern students to get their minds around (and, perhaps, for modern lecturers to explain properly) is the range of methods or styles of interpretation employed by first century Judeans like Paul (who was trained as a Pharisee, of course). When a person like Paul approached the Judean scriptures, he had a variety of options on how to extract meaning from those writings. And these options go far beyond what a modern person would consider a “normal” method of interpretation, of getting the meaning out of certain passages in the Bible.

Among these styles or methods of interpretation were: 1) Midrash, 2) Pesher, 3) Allegory, and 4) Typology. There are times when a number of methods are employed at once, and the lines between these modes of interpretation can be blurry, I should add. It is the modern scholar that speaks in these clear-cut terms more so than the ancient intepreter; nonetheless there are times when, for instance, Paul explicitly says he is putting forward an “allegory” (Gal 4:24) or when an author of Daniel or of one of the Dead Sea scrolls repeatedly speaks of his “pesher” of a particular prophetic writing.

1) Midrash, which comes from the root “to study” or “to interpret”, comes closest to what we as moderns would call interpretation proper. But even so this involves going beyond what we would call a literal interpretation. Thus, for instance, Paul unpacks the story of Abraham in a somewhat literal way, focussing on the chronological sequence of Yahweh’s relations with and establishment of a covenant with Abraham (in Galatians, as discussed in my other post). Yet he also juxtaposes a variety of other scriptural sources in relation to his exposition of Abraham’s story in a way that goes beyond a literal interpretation and is also focussed on the somewhat hidden, spiritual significance of the scriptures in question. In the process he also employs typological thinking, as explained below, in presenting Gentiles as sons of Abraham, or new Abrahams. Like all forms of interpretation discussed here, the interpreter is almost always concerned with applying the meaning that is found to the current situation of the interpreter and his (or her) listeners.

2) Pesher (literally, “solution” or “interpretation”) likewise involves finding the meanings presumed to be hidden within the Torah and, especially, prophetic writings like Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Hosea. Pesher may be considered a type of Midrash in some ways, but there is more of a focus on one-to-one correspondences in the interpretation of specific details of the scripture in question. Pesher is very much focussed on the hidden meanings that cannot be readily detected by just anyone.

The author of Daniel frequently uses the term “pesher” to describe Daniel’s method of interpreting the details of dreams. Some members of the Dead Sea sect use the term pesher when they are doing very detailed, one-to-one intepretations regarding how details in the prophets (8th-6th centuries BCE) are in fact referring to specific powers or persons who can be identified in their own time (2nd-1st century BCE). By doing pesher, the interpreter is unlocking or decoding the “mystery” (raz). Pesher was (and still is) very important for apocalyptic thinkers who look for the veiled meaning behind details in the scriptures in order to find one-to-one correspondences with specific incidents or people in their own times, namely the end-times.

3) Allegorical approaches involve extracting the deeply hidden but always spiritual meaning in a particular passage or story in the Bible. Allegorical interpretation, which is figurative, is very far removed from a literal interpretation and often seeks to find hidden and seemingly obscure meanings that noone else had or would find in a passage. When Paul uses the story of Sarah and Hagar from Genesis (in Galatians 4:21-31) and interprets these two women as two covenants, two mountains, and two cities, he is doing allegorical interpretation. There is also a sense in which Paul concludes this allegory with typological application, however, since he finishes by saying that the readers who follow Paul are “children of promise”, like Isaac (they are new Isaacs).

Philo of Alexandria, the first century Judean philosopher, is well-known for his allegorical interpretations. For instance, as David Runia notes: “In the so-called Allegorical Commentary, which contains 21 books, Philo gives an elaborate commentary on the first 17 chapters of the book Genesis from a purely allegorical perspective. These chapters are not interpreted in terms of the primal history of man and God’s election of the people of Israel, but are read at a ‘deeper’ level as a profound account of the nature of the soul, her place in reality, and the experiences she undergoes as she searches for her divine origin and gains knowledge of her creator” (pp. 5-6 in article linked below).

4) Typology involves viewing key figures or events in the stories of the Bible as ideal types that repeat themselves in subsequent history, particularly in the time of the interpreter. Paul is thinking typologically when he speaks of Jesus as the “second Adam”. Typological interpretation is evident throughout the Gospels, as when people in the story are presented as wondering whether Jesus is Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets (Mathew 16:14) or when Jesus is presented as seeing John the Baptist as the new Elijah (Mark 9:11-13). The Gospel of Matthew, in particular, provides a clear case of more thoroughgoing typological interpretation in the author’s presentation of Jesus as a new king David and a new Moses (see my post of Matthew’s portrait of Jesus here). For example, in the birth narrative Matthew juxtaposes particular stories about Moses’ birth with the birth of Jesus, and he sometimes quotes or alludes to specific passages or phrases relating to Moses’ story in the process of telling Jesus’ story.

In writing this post, my memory was refreshed by: J.D.G. Dunn, Unity and Diversity in the New Testament (2nd edition; Harrisburg: Trinity Press, 1990) and R. N. Longenecker, Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period (2nd edition; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999). The four types outlined above are also those listed by Dunn.

Let’s talk about sects: Diversity in Second-Temple Judaism (NT 2.3)

Judean culture in the second-temple period (c. 500 BCE-70 CE) was diverse. And it is important to remember that what we often call “early Christianity” or, perhaps better, the Jesus-movement was in fact one among many Judean groups or sects in first century Palestine and the Mediterranean diaspora (Jews also lived in Greek and Roman cities outside of Israel).

Among groups within Judaism or Judean culture, we happen to know most about the sects that the Jewish historian Josephus styles as three (or four) Judean “philosophies” (especially in War 2.119-166 and Antiquities 18.11-25, produced in the 70s and 90s CE).

In more than one passage, Josephus speaks of the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes. In one of them he tacks on the so-called “fourth philosophy,” a violent group stemming, Josephus’ claims, from the tax-related rebellion (c. 6 CE) associated with Judas of Galilee and including, in his view, the sicarii assassins of the mid-first century. The difficulty is that Josephus’ account of each of these groups is brief and sketchy, and he has certain axes to grind. It is from Josephus, for instance, that we hear some reliable information that the Pharisees were concerned with the exact interpretation of the law and that they believed in some form of future resurrection (“immortality of the soul”), while the Sadducees did not believe in such a resurrection (War 2.162). Josephus doesn’t hesitate to make value judgements in his descriptions, though. Thus he says that the Pharisees are friendly and nice to the public while the Sadducees treat one another badly and treat outsiders worse (War 2.162).

Our other sources for the groups mentioned by Josephus are likewise not unbiased. One could say that the gospels, especially Matthew, reverse the bias regarding Pharisees in that this Jewish author of Matthew would not feel bad if readers (or hearers) of his writing came away with the notion that “Pharisees” and “hypocrites” were synonyms (see Matthew 23). So we lack clear and detailed information concerning these groups. Discoveries such as the scrolls found on the edge of the Dead Sea since the 1940s may expand our picture of at least one of the groups that Josephus discusses, but the identification of the Dead Sea community as Essenes is uncertain (see Pliny the Elder’s description of the Essenes on the Dead Sea coast in his Natural History, 5.15.17). So our information is meager for even these best known groups, let alone the many other movements that were active in the first century.

Rather than go into the details of what Josephus says about each, what I want to emphasize here is that the ones he mentions in these substantial passages were by no means the only groups. In fact, it seems that Josephus has in mind only the more educated classes in his discussion (hence his use of the designation “philosophies” for his Greek-speaking audience). All four of these groups consisted primarily of the literate, probably less than ten percent of the population at the time. In fact, Josephus explicitly states that the Essenes numbered only in the thousands (he says four thousand in Ant. 18.1.5 [20]), and it is likely that each of the other three were likewise in the thousands at most. So what about the remaining population of Judea, Samaria, and Galilee, which would have been into the millions?

Once again, Josephus happens to give us hints in his incidental stories of this or that prophet or “king” (messiah), though he tends not to like these other popular movements within Judea, Samaria, or Galilee. He gathers together a number of cases in just one time period alone, in a collection of what he calls a sampling of “ten thousand disorders” (Antiquities 17.269-285). One example from another period will suffice here, this one involving a prophetic figure named Theudas who gained a following in the 40s CE:

Now it came to pass, while Fadus was procurator of Judea, that a certain magician, whose name was Theudas, persuaded a great part of the people to take their effects with them, and follow him to the river Jordan. For he told them he was a prophet, and that he would, by his own command, divide the river, and afford them an easy passage over it; and many were deluded by his words. However, Fadus did not permit them to make any advantage of his wild attempt, but sent a troop of horsemen out against them; who, falling upon them unexpectedly, slew many of them, and took many of them alive. They also took Theudas alive, and cut off his head, and carried it to Jerusalem. This was what befell the Jews in the time of Cuspius Fadus’s government (Antiquities 20.97; trans. by William Whiston).

The Jesus-movement (what we now call “early Christianity”) should be understood, in part, within the context of many popular and not-so-popular Jewish movements and sects in the first century. We need to remember that this was a movement within Judaism, not a separate religion.

In writing this post, my memory was refreshed by Lester L. Grabbe, Judaism from Cyrus to Hadrian. Volume Two: The Roman Period (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), especially pp. 463-554.

Rebellious, fallen angels and the flood: 1 Enoch (Satan 4)

A very important part of Satan’s identity within Christianity is the notion that Satan is the chief angel among a group that rebelled against God and fell from their original position in the heavenly realm. We first have clear signs of this critical component in Satan’s story around 200 BCE in a Jewish writing in the Pseudepigrapha known as 1 Enoch (text and introductions online here). 1 Enoch is an apocalypse in terms of genre and is a composite work, divided into five books, with book one (chapters 1-36) being among the earliest (on which go to my earlier post here for further clarification).

What is most important here is that book one of 1 Enoch presents a midrash (interpretation) and considerable expansion of a few mysterious verses in Genesis (6:1-8): the account of the “sons of God” (angelic figures) mating with human women that immediately precedes the story of God sending the flood. “Enoch’s” visions explain the origins of evil and sin among humanity, and in this case suggest that ultimately evil came from the divine realm by way of fallen angels. Issues regarding the degree to which humans, on the one hand, or divine beings (angels), on the other, were responsible for the introduction and continuation of evil and sin among humanity would continue to occupy those who told and re-told the story of Satan in subsequent centuries. Some would configure things differently than book one of 1 Enoch does.

In the process of explaining the origins of evil, this author seems to blend together two separate traditions that existed before his time concerning a conspiracy among certain angels (perhaps drawing on a lost work called the “Book of Noah”, mentioned in the book of Jubilees ch. 10, for one of these traditions). The reason we can detect these traditions is that, in 1 Enoch, there are inconsistencies in who was the leader of the rebel angels (see further John J. Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination). At times the author speaks of Semyaz (Semihazah) as the chief and at others of Azazel (Asa’el). Not only that, but the author seems to have preserved the different emphases of each tradition. The Semyaz material portrays the conspiracy against God as centred on the sexual act of union with humans and the Azazel tradition focusses on how the fallen angels subsequently reveal secrets of heaven to humanity, including skills that led to war and seduction, to the general chaos that brings the flood. For this author, the offspring of the mixing of divine and human are giants whose spirits after death are demons that continue to mislead humanity (15:8-12).

The result of this whole conspiracy is war and chaos on earth. God consults with his trusted angels, such as Michael and Raphael, to arrange punishment of both the humans and the fallen angels, referring to the end of days in the process:

“then spoke the Most High. . . ‘the earth and everything will be destroyed. And the deluge is about to come upon all the earth; and all that is in it will be destroyed.’ . . . And secondly the Lord said to Raphael, ‘Bind Azazel hand and foot and throw him into the darkness!’ And he (Raphael) made a hole in the desert. . . he threw on top of him (Azazel) rugged and sharp rocks. And he covered his face in order that he may not see light; and in order that he may be sent into the fire on the great day of judgment.” (1 Enoch 10:1-7; trans. by E. Isaac in James H. Charlesworth, ed. The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha [2 vols. New York: Doubleday, 1983-85], p. 17)

The imprisonment and end-time fate of this fallen angel here resembles the fate of “the ancient serpent, who is the Devil and Satan” in John’s Apocalypse (20:1-10), as we shall soon see. As in other apocalyptic writings, the flood of long ago becomes a precursor or foreshadow of God’s final intervention in the end times, the “great day of judgment”, when the angels who rebelled, along with the humans who sided with them by doing evil, will meet their end. The righteous ones, on the other hand, will go on to live in a new world cleansed “from all sin and from all iniquity” (see 10:17-22).

The name “Satan” itself does not appear here at all, but the fallen angels story was soon to be linked up with passages involving the angelic adversary (“satan”) in the Hebrew Bible, as we begin to see in the likes of Jubilees (chapters 10-11; c. 150-105 BCE). Still later (in the second and third centuries CE), this notion of fallen angels would also be linked up (by Christian authors) with a passage that originally referred to the Babylonian king as cosmic rebel in Isaiah 14, the “Day Star, Son of Dawn” who falls from heaven (where he imagines himself to belong). Part of the phrase just mentioned was translated into Latin by Jerome (in 410 CE) as “Lucifer”. Looking far ahead to the 1600s, it would be hard to imagine Milton’s Paradise Lost without the story of Satan or Lucifer as the chief rebel angel who fell from heaven’s height.

A guided tour of the heavens: The Ascension of Isaiah (NT Apocrypha 21)

When scholars of early Judaism and Christianity identify a writing as an “apocalypse” (in terms of genre), they usually have in mind a first-person visionary report that claims to narrate a “revelation” (apocalypsis) from God himself. Almost always the content of the visions that are narrated also presuppose or directly pertain to an apocalyptic worldview, namely, an ideology in which this present world is dominated by evil forces (headed by Satan, or Beliar, or what have you) which will ultimately and imminently be destroyed (or perpetually punished) in the final intervention of God and his angelic forces (there is a thoroughgoing dualism in this way of thinking).

One of the two main types of apocalyptic writing that have been identified is the so-called “historical apocalypse”. Here the focus of the visions relates to the unfolding of God’s historical plans (on this, see John J. Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination, which is browsable online here). The Book of Daniel in the Hebrew Bible (written about 160s BCE) and John’s Apocalypse or Revelation (written about 70-90 CE) in the New Testament are largely characterized by this historical focus: both relate the unfolding of God’s plan for history in relation to actual political powers (Hellenistic kings and Roman emperors, respectively), and these political powers are cast in the role of the ultimate evil opponents of God (on John’s Apocalypse see my earlier post on Worshiping the Beast / Honouring the Emperor).

The second main type of apocalypse is the “otherworldly journey”. Here the visionary is taken on a tour of the far reaches of the world and beyond, usually a tour of either the heavens or the underworld (hell). The earliest surviving example of this type is the first book (chs. 1-36) of 1 Enoch (online here) written about 200 BCE, in which the Enoch of Genesis is presented as the visionary who expounds the story of the fallen angels (Gen 6) and is guided by an angel in order to witness the workings of the universe.

In its present Christian form, the Ascension of Isaiah (reflecting materials ranging from the second century BCE to as late as the fourth century CE; online here) consists of the story of the prophet Isaiah’s martyrdom (who is sawn in half) and a report of Isaiah’s vision in which Isaiah is taken on a journey through the seven heavens with an angel as guide (chs. 1-5 and 6-11 respectively). The martyrdom and the vision are linked in their present form, since it is because Isaiah had gone on the tour, witnessing God’s plan to send his Beloved (Christ) to destroy the evil powers, that Beliar (Satan) seeks to have Isaiah killed (through the evil angel Sammael and king Mannaseh) (3:13).

Isaiah’s otherworldly journey begins as he ascends with the angel-guide to “the firmament” above the world, but below the heavens. Isaiah then proceeds through each of the seven heavens. In each heaven he witnesses a throne flanked by angels, and the glory of each heaven and its angels increases until he reaches the final, seventh heaven, the dwelling place of the Most High (God) and his “Beloved” (Lord Christ). There, says Isaiah,

“I saw all the righteous from Adam. And I saw there the holy Abel and all the righteous. And there I saw Enoch and all who were with him, stripped of the garment of the flesh, and I saw them in their higher garments, and they were like the angels who stand there in great glory” (Ascension of Isaiah 9:7-9; trans. by Müller in Schneemelcher)

Isaiah then gains a revelation of what will occur in the future, final intervention of God (the end times). Ascending and descending are important not only for Isaiah here, but also for other key figures in the apocalyptic visions. Isaiah hears the voice of the Most High himself calling on his Beloved (Lord Christ) to descend, to trace the steps that Isaiah had just traversed, in other words:

“Go and descend through all the heavens; descend to the firmament and to that world, even to the angel in the realm of the dead (on the descent to hell see my other posts on Satan) . . . that you may judge and destroy the prince and his angels and the gods of this world and the world which is ruled by them, for they have denied me and said ‘We alone are, and there is none beside us’. And afterwards you will ascend from the angels of death to your place, and you will not be transformed in each heaven [i.e. you will not be affected by the inferiority of each heaven in relation to the seventh heaven], but in glory you will ascend and sit on my right hand. And the princes and powers of this world will worship you” (Ascension of Isaiah 10.7-14).

Almost immediately, Isaiah then witnesses the descent and ascent of the Beloved (Christ). But there is more of this ascending and descending. Earlier in this writing we learn that, as part of the “consummation” of the world, an anti-Beloved (so to speak), Beliar himself, will be sent before the Beloved comes:

“And after it has come to its consummation, Beliar, the great prince, the king of this world who has ruled it since it came into being, shall descend; he will come down from his firmament in the form of a man, a lawless king, a slayer of his mother, who . . . will persecute the plant which the Twelve Apostles of the Beloved have planted; and one of the twelve will be delivered into his hand. . . All that he desires he will do in the world; he will act and speak in the name of the Beloved and say ‘I am God and before me there has been none else’. And all the people in the world will believe in him, and will sacrifice to him and serve him saying, ‘This is God and beside him there is none other’ . . . And after (one thousand) three hundred and thirty-two days the Lord will come with his angels and with the hosts of the saints from the seventh heaven with the glory of the seventh heaven, and will drag Beliar with his hosts into Gehenna” (4:1-14).

In a manner reminiscent of John’s Apocalypse (esp. ch. 13), the author is here presenting an end-time evil figure in the form of an actual king and, more specifically, a king modelled on a returning emperor Nero (Nero redivivus) who is worshipped as a god. It is important to remember that the line between “otherworldly journey” apocalypses and “historical” apocalypses is by no means stark (as with the fluidity of genre as a whole), and there are some apocalypses with the characteristics of each, of course.

The ascending and descending theme is an important component in this apocalyptic author’s worldview, and the apocalyptic seer’s own guided tour gives him a first-hand experience of otherworldly travel himself.

A Hellenistic Twilight Zone episode (and a Jewish parallel story)

Further to my earlier post on Greco-Roman paradoxography, there is another that I thought may be of interest. (See the earlier post two entries below). I talked about the second century author Phlegon. Another was Apollonios, who may have written in the second century BCE. One of his “marvels” (drawing on an author named Theopompos) comes across like a Twilight Zone episode:

It is said that Epimenides of Crete was sent by his father and uncles to their farm to bring a sheep back to town. When night overtook him he left the path and slept for fifty-seven years. . . In the meantime the members of Epimenides’s household died, and when he awoke from his sleep he looked for the sheep he had been sent to bring. . . he assumed that he had awoken on the same day on which he had fallen asleep–but he found that the farm was sold and the equipment was changed(Hansen, p. 6).

Now that’s a good long nap.

UPDATE: Ken Penner (McMaster U.) comments that there is an interesting parallel story in the OT Pseudepigrapha in 4 Baruch, chapter 5. There Abimelech, a contemporary of Jeremiah, gets tired while carrying figs, lies down for a nap, and doesn’t wake up for 66 years. He similarly is confused by all the changes when he returns to Jerusalem. In this case, God sent this “stupor” upon Abimelech so that he would not have to witness the Babylonian attack on Jerusalem and the exile of its people. After the 66 year nap, Abimelech wakes up and (with humorous effect) says, “I would like to nap a little longer, because my head is weighed down, but I’m afraid I might fall fast asleep and be late waking up” (trans. by S.E. Robinson in James H. Charlesworth, ed. The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha. 2 vols. New York: Doubleday, 1983-85). The Greek text is available at the Online Critical Pseudepigrapha (OCP) site.

Those other (“pagan”) synagogues

Unofficial groups in the Greco-Roman world that I (and others) typically call “associations” used a variety of terms to describe themselves. Some of the favourite Greek terms were synodos (“synod”), koinon, synergasia (“guild”), thiasos (“cult-society”), and mystai (“initiates”). Today, when people (including many scholars) hear the term synagogue or head-of-the-synagogue (archisynagogos) they tend to assume some Jewish group (or building) is in mind. However, the term synagogue (stemming from the Greek synagō, meaning to gather or bring together) was also used by other “pagan” associations and was not necessarily a sign of Jewish connections.

Thus, for instance, one monument from Apamea in Bithynia (northern Asia Minor / Turkey), which involves a group of men and women devotees (thiasitai and thiastides) honouring a priestess of Cybele (the Great Mother), mentions that the inscription was set up in the “synagogue” of Zeus (IApamBith 35). Across the Propontis in Perinthos-Herakleia in Thracia, there was an occupationally-based “synagogue of oar (or small-ware) dealers” that shows no sign of Jewish connections (IPerinthos 59 [first or second century]). At both Beroia and Hagios Mamas in Macedonia there were associations (devoted to Poseidon and a hero-god respectively) whose main leader was known as the head-of-the-synagogue (archisynagogos) (IMakedD 747 [second century]; SEG 27 [1977] 267). And there are many other “pagan” cases where the chief leader of the group, as in some Jewish gatherings, was termed head-of-the-synagogue (e.g. NewDocs I 5; IG X.2 288-289; SEG 42 [1992] 625).

Diaspora Jewish groups (including Jesus-devotees) shared more in common with “run-of-the-mill” associations of the Greco-Roman world than often acknowledged, and their “gatherings” would have been viewed as such by outsiders in some important respects.

To read more about associations in the Greco-Roman world, as well as their relevance to early Judaism and Christianity, go to the Associations in the Greco-Roman World site (under my websites above).

Multiple memberships in the world of the early Christians

Until recently, the suggestion that members of the early Christian congregations may have simultaneously been members in other associations and guilds remained under-explored. In Associations, Synagogues, and Congregations (click the Books / Articles tab for a free download), I dealt with the question of multiple memberships in connection with the Christians at Corinth (addressed by Paul in 1 Cor 8 and 10) who were attending banquets alongside non-Christians (“pagans”). I also considered the possibility that the opponents addressed by John’s Apocalypse, especially those accused of eating idol-food (or idol-meat) with “Jezebel”, may have been encountering sacrificial food as members in the guilds of Thyatira (something that William Ramsay suggested, but did not explore, long ago).

In a more recent article dealing with Sardis and Smyrna, which you can read on my publications page, I looked at the implications of multiple memberships for questions of rivalries and competition among different groups.

I have now just read a very interesting article on associations on the island of Rhodes by Vincent Gabrielson, which drew my attention to another interesting case of multiple memberships in associations (dealing with IG XII[1] 155). A man named Dionysodoros, who was an immigrant from Alexandria (in Egypt), was honoured by a number of associations (koina) at Rhodes in the second century BCE, including the “Haliasts and Haliads,” the “Paniasts,” and the “Dionysiasts” (devoted to the god Dionysos). A closer look at this lengthy inscription shows that he was not only honoured by these groups, but was also a member in at least four associations at Rhodes! (See Vincent Gabrielson, “The Rhodian Associations Honouring Dionysodoros from Alexandria, ” Classica et mediaevalia 45 [1994] 137-60.)

And these memberships were not fleeting. Dionysodoros was a member of the “Haliasts and Haliads” for 35 years, and he acted as their chief-of-banquets (archeranistas) for 23 years. Simultaneously he was a faithful member and benefactor of other associations, including the “Paniasts” whom he served as chief-of-banquets for at least 18 years. This is the sort of atmosphere of multiple affiliations and interactions in which the early Christians and diaspora Jews found themselves. So we should not be too surprised if we find some Jews or Christians going to synagogue or church one day, and hanging out with friends in the guild or association the next.