Was Jesus a Jew?

Was Aristotle a Greek-American?

Translating "Ioudaios"

By Bruce J. Malina

Creighton University


Introduction: The Problem

Most historians, professional and non-professional, play fast and loose with

the term "Jew." They find Jews all over the ancient Mediterranean world as well as in the modern world. There is even a Jewish state on land, which from a biblical viewpoint was actually willed by God to Jesus and those who believe in Him (Galatians 3:16: ‘Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring; it does not say, "And to offsprings," as of many; but it says, "And to your offspring," that is, to one person, who is Christ’ . . . 3:29: ‘And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise’). This is something Christian biblical backers of the Jewish state overlook or refuse, thus denying their Christianity.

Be that as it may, the historical question is: Is it historically accurate to find Jews in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible? Is it a fair assessment of the past? Or is it simply ethnocentric anachronism, like calling Cicero an Italian-American, or Seneca a Spanish-American, or Plato and Aristotle Greek Americans? After all there are Italian, Spanish and Greek immigrants in the U.S., now citizens, so their ancestors must have been the same as they are? Since there are Jews today, their alleged ancestors must have been the same as they are.

The Translation of Ioudaios.

Nearly twenty years ago, I noted the inadequate and fundamentally incorrect translation of the Greek word: Ioudaios with the contemporary English: Jew. I published this observation for the first time in a book review of: The Social and Ethnic Dimensions of Matthean Social History: "Go nowhere among the Gentiles. . ." (Matt 10:5b), by Amy-Jill Levine (Lewiston: Mellen, 1988) in Biblical Theology Bulletin 20 (1990): 129-130. The main reason for my contention is linguistic. The fact is that meanings in language always derive from the social system of speakers.

The word "father", for example, as used in English-speaking, non-bilingual U.S. communities refers to persons who fulfill the roles, behaviors and values expected of adult males in prevailing American society. The meaning of "father" derives from the roles, behaviors and values practiced in society. While we might translate "padre" or "Vater" or "père" with "father," the accuracy of the translation is doubtful since the social roles of each of the persons called by those names is not the same as in American society. An accurate translation would be "Spanish father," "German father," "French father."

The same holds for the words "Jew" and "Christian." In contemporary U.S. society, a Jew is a person who embodies the roles, behaviors and values characteristic of Jews in American or European society (the Jewish state is culturally a central European entity according to Israeli sociologists at the University of Haifa). The fact is that Jews of whatever ethnic pedigree and of whatever religious adherence all trace their Jewishness to the Jewish religion made normative by the Babylonian Talmud in the 5th-6th century. The Jewish religion(s) and Jewishness in all its contemporary forms derive from the Babylonian Talmud of the 5th-6th century A.D. Jewish origins thus trace back only to the 5th-6th century A.D. This is not unlike the fact that all forms of Christianity today trace back to the Christendom of the Council of Nicea of 325 A.D. and the Nicean Creed formulated for and in the political religion of Emperor Constantine.

Hence it comes as no surprise to read among Jewish scholars, for example: "It is common knowledge that Christianity is different from the religion of the Old Testament, but some are still unaware that Judaism (sometimes referred to as Rabbinic Judaism, as opposed to the religion or the Judaism practiced during biblical times) is a different religion from that of the Hebrew Bible. What is different about it? Nearly everything: its liturgy, its forms of worship, its codes of laws and its theologies" (Prof. Reuven Firestone in The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, December 14, 2001). This common knowledge is not so common, it seems. And if the Rabbinic scribes that emerged in later centuries formed the matrix of modern Jews and Jewishness, it could not have existed during the time of Jesus, the period of Israel’s political religion rooted in Torah and Temple.

First-Century Usage of Ioudaios

The term "Ioudaios" as used during the time of Jesus, is formed by a place name plus the ending "aios." Greek words ending in "aios" mean: of or pertaining to the place name, hence in this case, of or pertaining to "Ioudaia." By extension a "Ioudaios" is a person following Judean customs and mores, even as an Israelite emigre. For this reason, it leads to no confusion at all to always translate the word "Ioudaious" as "Judean." "Ioudaismos" or "Judaism," means the customs and behaviors of Judeans.

Perhaps it should be emphasized that the problem with translation is due to the significance of the word "Jew" in contemporary usage. To put "Jews" in the first century is simply anachronistic and, for modern Jews, ethnocentric. Yet there may be reason for confusion since the term "Ioudaios" was made to bear double freight in the first century.

As previously noted, the term "Ioudaios" means "of or pertaining to the people and/or land of Judea; a person following Judean customs and mores; an Israelite emigre." While in Judea, first-century Judeans distinguished themselves from Galileans and Pereans, with all three making up the "house of Israel," or "Israel." (Note that in Josephus’ Life, for example, the word "Ioudaios" likewise always means "Judean" and refers to that section of the country and/or the people living in it.) Outside Judea, Hellenistic peoples called members of the house of Israel "Judeans," after the location of their major city and temple. Emigre Israelites likewise called themselves "Judeans," regardless of whether they were Galilean, Judean or Perean in the land of Israel. "Judean and Greek" served as an Israelite self-designation for Israelites resident in Judea and Israelites resident outside Judea who were "Greek," speaking Hellenistic Greek, practicing Hellenistic customs and sharing Hellenistic values and ideals.

Reading Gospels without "Jews"

Consider, first, the Gospel of Matthew. Since Jesus is born in Bethlehem of Judea (Matthew 2:1,5), he is sought after as king of the Judeans (2:2), which is what Herod the king also must be in 2:1,3 (although this is implied from context and 2:22). Similarly, Archelaus ruled Judea (2:22) and not Galilee, or Syria, or émigré Judeans in the Roman world. Note that throughout his Gospel Matthew contrasts Judea and Galilee (2:22). John appeared not in the "Jewish" desert but in the Judean desert, the desert located in Judea (3:1). Jerusalem and all of Judea (not all the inhabitants of "Jewishland") came out to John (3:5). Jesus is clearly not from Judea, but from Galilee (3:13; 21:11) by whose sea (of Galilee; 4:18; 15:29) significant events took place. Similarly, a large crowd from Jerusalem and Judea came out to Jesus (4:25) and are distinguished from the crowds from Galilee and Decapolis. Later we are told that Jesus went to the hill country of Judea (not "Jewishland") beyond the Jordan. He warns that those in Judea, presumably Judeans, will have to run to the hills (19:1). In the passion account, we find out that non-elites knew Jesus as "Jesus the Galilean" (26:69), something unknown to the Romans who label him, in spite of protest, as "king of the Judeans" (27:11,29,37). It is clearly an incorrect designation, even ironically. Eventually the authorities of Israel mockingly, yet correctly, call him the "king of Israel" (27:42) the group to which, as Matthew has told us (15:24), Jesus in fact was sent. Finally the locals, Judeans, tell the story of the tomb (28:15). By contrast, at the time of Jesus’ execution some found themselves in Judea who had followed Jesus from Galilee (27:55). Moreover, it was in Galilee (28:7,10,16; see 26:32) that the final commissioning takes place.

The same is true of the Gospel of John. Given the prominent role of the "Judeans" in John’s Gospel, usually as opponents of Jesus, this is an important translation correction. The term "Ioudaios" (Judean), used either as a substantive or adjective, appears 70 times in John’s Gospel. It is used only 5 times in Matthew, 6 times in Mark and 5 times in Luke. This striking contrast between John and the Synoptics, makes understanding the term critically important.

The territorial designation of "Judea" connoted different territories at different times in Israel’s history and the use of that word can also be confusing. During the period of Persian rule it designated only the small area around Jerusalem since that is where all "Judeans" were to be found. Other members of the house of Israel were designated otherwise. Under the Maccabees , the term "Judea" was used to refer to the larger population which the Maccabees controlled. This population dwelt both in Jerusalem and environs, as well as in Samaria, Galilee, Idumea, the coastal plain (except Ashkelon) and much of Transjordan. Thus under the Maccabees, the number of "Judeans" grew appreciably.

In the Roman period, the Roman province of Syria-Palestine included Galilee, Samaria and Judea, which, along with Perea (the name Josephus gives to Transjordan), included the population controlled by Herod the Great under the title, "King of Judea". After the death of Herod, his son Archelaus became ethnarch of a Judea which included only the Jerusalem area, Idumea and Samaria. It excluded Galilee and Perea. When Archelaus was removed in 6 A.D., subsequent procurators governed only this same smaller area. Thus in Jesus’ time Judea, Galilee and Perea constituted three population areas which together made up "house of Israel." On the other hand, other peoples of the Mediterranean called all members of the house of Israel, "Judeans," after the region in which the Temple, the central place of worship was located — Jerusalem in Judea.

In sum, when the terms "Judea" or "Judean" are used in the Gospel of John, they should be understood as referring to the persons living in a territory located in the southern and western part of the Roman province of Syria-Palestine. Thus John notes correctly that the Judeans send priests and Levites from Jerusalem (1:19). The Passover of the Judeans was near so Jesus goes up to Jerusalem (2:13, 5:13, 6:4, 7:11, 11:55). A discussion arises between the disciples of John and a Judean (3:25). Judeans do not share things in common with Samaritans (4:9). Jesus goes about in Galilee where he is safe, but does not go about in Judea because the Judeans were trying to kill him (7:1). In 8:31 there are Judeans who initially believe in Jesus, but after the conversation deteriorates they decide Jesus is not really one of them. Hence he must be a Samaritan (8:48). In 10:31 and 11:8 we again learn that Judea is dangerous territory for Jesus, and in 20:19, following the crucifixion/resurrection, it will be a dangerous place for Jesus’ followers as well. Judeans console Mary and Martha after the death of Lazarus (11:31), but after raising Lazarus, Jesus can no longer go around openly among Judeans so he retreats to the region near the wilderness of Judea (11:54). At the supper with his disciples, where he washes the disciples’ feet, Jesus distinguishes between Judeans and his inner group (13:31). Jesus is arrested by the Judean police (18:12) and in the trial before Pilate he asks Jesus if he is king over the people and area governed by Pilate, namely, Judea (18:33). Jesus then makes it very clear to Pilate that his kingdom has nothing to do with Judean society (18:36), even though his tormentors taunt him with the mock title, "King of the Judeans" (19:3). The inscription over the cross (19:19) has in it a wonderful irony that would have rankled Jesus’ Judean opponents: it spells out Jesus’ identification as "Jesus of Nazareth." That is, Jesus, a Galilean, is being designated "King of the Judeans."

The fact that the author of John uses the term "Judean" to designate "others" suggests to some that the author himself was a Galilean. That may be true. In Syria-Palestine, the common ingroup name for members of the house of Israel was "Israel." When members of this ingroup sought to distance their own group from others in Israel, the distinction between Judea, Galilee and Perea came into play. As noted previously, the common outgroup name for the house of Israel was "Judeans," largely perhaps due to the presence of the Temple of the God of Israel in Judea, along with the priesthood and traditional kingship. Now since "Judean" was not normally the way inhabitants of that geographical area referred to themselves (they were "Israelites"), but rather the way outsiders referred to them, the most we can say for certain is that by using this term for his opponents John strongly asserts their outsider status in relation to his anti-society. He and his group are not "Judeans," but those who are in opposition to them are.

First-century Israel was the matrix for Jesus groups, formed as fictive-kin groups by the time of St. Paul (40-50 A.D.). Note that the domestic religion of Jesus groups antedates the formation of Pharisaic-scribal domestic religious groups by a generation. For after the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D., Pharisaic scribal groups formed (during the time of Johannan ben Zakkai, the founder of scribal Judaism some forty years after Jesus groups), and these groups lie at the root of the lists of customary, Torah based scribal sayings called the Mishna. This Ben Zakkaism led to the emergence of Rabbis in control of one stream of Israelite ideology in the fourth century (after Constantine). It is this Ben Zakkaism that formed the basis for contemporary Jewish religion with the Babylonian Talmud. The council of Nicea of 325 A.D. marks the beginning of Christendom, just like the Ben Zakkaist Talmud of the 5th century A.D. marks the beginning of the Jewish religion. Consequently, the Jewish religion as it exists today is rooted in the 5th-6th century Talmud, just as Christianity today is rooted in the 4th century Council of Nicea and the Christendom founded by Constantine.

21st Century Jews

However there is an even greater anachronistic and ethnocentric agenda for Central European Jews ("Ashkenazi") for their claiming the name "Jew." They retroject the label even to the patriarch Abraham, now the mythological founder of 5th-6th century Talmudic Jewishness. Again, the fact is that most of those Central European Jews and hence most U.S. Jews from Central Europe are descended from Khazars, a people who accepted the Jewish religion in the 8th century A.D. They did so, it seems, to be unencumbered by either Byzantine Christendom or Islam. They chose to "convert" to one of the three non-Muslim religions of the book mentioned in the Qur’an. (Further information about these Khazar American can be found on the following web site: http://www.khazaria.com/ and http://198.62.75.1/www2/koestler/.)

Thus most U.S. Jews are essentially Khazar Americans rather than "Jewish" Americans. The same is true of the majority of people living in the Jewish State. In this regard we might note, finally, that there really is no Judaeo-Christian tradition since Jews and Christians did not begin to speak with each other until the 19th century AD. For further information, see Rabbi Arthur A. Cohen, The Myth of the Judeo-christian Tradition, New York, Harper & Row, 1969, c1970, and Rabbi Arthur A. Cohen, The Myth of the Judeo-Christian Tradition, and Other Dissenting Essays, New York, Schocken Books (1971)

Bibliography

A. For a general overview of the question see:

Pilch, John J 1999. "Jews and Christians." Pp. 98-104 in The Cultural Dictionary of the Bible. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press.

Notice the translation and treatment of "Ioudaios" as "Judean" in the latest edition of the classical source of New Testament lexicography:

Arndt, William, 2000. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature revised and edited by Frederick William Danker. 3rd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

C. For the first translation of the Gospels to use Judean every time the word "Ioudaios" occurs, see:

Miller, Robert J. (ed.) 1992. The Complete Gospels: Annotated Scholars Version. Sonoma: Polebridge Press.

D. Scholars who have insisted on dropping the word "Jew" from the study of the New Testament period:

Cohen, Shaye J D 1999. The Beginnings of Jewishness: Boundaries, Varieties, Uncertainties. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press. Cohen dates "Jewishness" earlier than the Talmud, but without strong argument.

Elliott, John H. 2000. I Peter: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. (The Anchor Bible 37B). New York: Doubleday.

Horsley, Richard A 1994. "The Death of Jesus," in Bruce Chilton & Craig A. Evans (eds), Studying The Historical Jesus: Evaluations of the State of Current Research,. Leiden: Brill, 395-422

Koester, Helmut 1994. The Historical Jesus and the Historical Situation of the Quest: An Epilogue, in Bruce Chilton & Craig A. Evans (eds), Studying The Historical Jesus: Evaluations of the State of Current Research, Leiden: Brill, 535-45

Malina, Bruce J. and Richard L. Rohrbaugh 1992. A Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Minneapolis: Fortress.

Malina, Bruce J. and Richard L. Rohrbaugh 1998. A Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John. Minneapolis: Fortress.

Malina, Bruce J. and John J. Pilch 2000. A Social-Science Commentary on the Book of Revelation. Minneapolis: Fortress.

Pilch, John J 1995-1997. The Cultural World of Jesus Sunday by Sunday. Three volumes. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press

Bruce J. Malina is professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Creighton University.