Category Archives: Judaism in the homeland

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.

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.