A d F o n t e s

(Latin: "to the sources")

Ιυδαιοι = "Judeans" or "Jews"?

There has been an interesting ongoing debate over whether the term ιυδαιος in Greek sources should be translated as “Jew” as is traditionally done, or “Judean.”  See Phil Harland on Steve Mason the matter here, and Michael Bird on it here.  I look forward to reading Mason’s article. 

This is an interesting question.  I’m very disposed toward Mason’s reported view.  The point in the terminological shift, in short, is to try to underscore that ιυδαιος is not first and foremost a “religious” category.  It’s an ethnic category, bound up with certain beliefs and practices pertaining to that ethnos.  That’s not to say that religion is a separable issue, but that religion as Westerns use the term, especially as Judaism often referred to as a “religion,” misunderstands both the people group in question, how they understood themselves, and how others understood them when they used that term.  This “religious” understanding is actually very influenced by modern Western Christianity’s self-understanding as a “religion” is first and foremost in terms of belief/theology over any other category.  Not so by contrast with modern Judaism; calling Judaism “religion” in that sense oversimplifies how it works. 

In any event, I’m seriously doubtful the academy will start using “judean”–“jew” is too engrained.  Moreover, Bird is certainly right that ιυδαιος cannot be geographically constrained to Judea only. There are too many counterexamples.  For example, this this past week I’ve found Latin references to “Iudaei” in satires of Horace and Persius, whose use I don’t think can plausibly connected to a belief of the group’s origin to Judea per se.  The term refers to people from the east who have certain practices, beliefs, etc.  Horace and Persius refer to that group as though it had been there for quite a while.  That said, I do think Mason has a good point, and I hope Mason’s point is felt. 

I would like to add one observation that I’m surprised hasn’t been made thus far–or if it has, I haven’t seen it.  I think direct comparison with the term ιυδαιος should be made with terms like αθηναιοι, λακεδαιμονιοι, Romani, Graeci, Galli, etc.  The point Mason is making, it seems to me, applies equally to these terms, and strengthens his case.  When ancient authors referred to “Athenians,” “Spartans,” “Romans,” “Greeks,” and “Gauls,” they were referring to people groups, their locations, their customs, etc. summed up in one word.  To refer to a Gaul, for instance, didn’t mean to invoke only one’s location of origin, and it didn’t mean only to invoke one’s fighting style or gods.  It meant to invoke the whole stereotype:  a people from the north who believed in different deities, still rode chariots, fought nude painted in blue, had long shaggy hair, and had decent boats.  Those were Gauls.  Each of those characteristics implied one another, and the same applies to the other terms as they do “Jews.” 

Now, of course there are exceptions to this.  My favorite is Tiberius Julius Alexander, the nephew of Philo Judaeus who participated in the sack of Rome under the Flavians.  But then again, when “ιυδαιος” or Iudaeus” is used in ancient sources, it’s a stereotype–on which TJA doesn’t fit.  That’s how ethnic terminology works. 

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November 5, 2007 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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