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Identity Matters: Judean Ethnic Identity In The First Century CE

By Philip F. Esler
Principal and Professor of Biblical Interpretation
St Mary’s University College
Twickenham, London
May 2012

“Identity Matters” is the title of a recent book by a group of social scientists on ethnic and sectarian conflict.1 And so it does. If a person is explaining who he or she is or a group who they are, they are answering one of the most fundamental questions of all. It is also invariably true that people or groups answering the question “Who are you?” have a much richer understanding of themselves than outsiders will. Indeed, one of the major problems in human and social relations is the practice of stereotyping the other, of reducing the enormous complexity and richness of what it means to be the people they are to a handful of characteristics alleged to typify them.

Accordingly, when we explore issues of personal and group identity we are obliged to take the question very seriously and to be sensitive to the self-understandings of the people and groups we are investigating. If those in focus come from a different culture, we are also into the distinction between emic and the etic, between insider, indigenous viewpoints and outsider, often social science informed viewpoints. When the people in question are in the past, we encounter the additional complication of how the subsequent course of history of their descendants, physical and spiritual, affects, or should be allowed to affect, our interpretation.

The issue I am raising here is that a central feature of both scholarship on, and popular understanding of, the first century CE Mediterranean sits very awkwardly with this approach to identity. This is the assumption that in talking about that world and the impact Jesus had on it, we are dealing with two religions, “Judaism” and “Christianity,” whose adherents can appropriately be called “Jews” and “Christians.” These are widely regarded as two entities of the same genus, with a symmetrical relationship to one another, so that, for example, it is appropriate to use the metaphor of “the parting of the ways” to describe the eventual separation between them. This two-religion view is a deeply embedded and largely unexamined assumption in discussion of the first century CE yet is difficult to reconcile with even a modest amount of historical scrutiny informed by the social sciences.

The key issue is to get right the identity of the people referred to in our sources as Ioudaioi (in Greek) or Judaei (in Latin). Rather than seeing them as “Jews” who were adherents of the religion “Judaism,” they are, in my view, best viewed as the members of an ethnic group originating in Judea most appropriately called “Judeans.” Even scholars who have now begun to drop words like “ethnic” or “national” into discussion of people they continue to refer to as “Jews” rarely appreciate the implications of this step.

Here is a contemporary example of the difference between ethnic and religious identities. The “troubles” in Northern Ireland, now on the road to resolution, concern two groups of people whom many social scientists describe as the “Unionist” and “Nationalist” communities.2 Many non-specialist observers, however, understand the issue in terms of “Protestants” and “Catholics.” The reason that the Unionist/Nationalist terminology is preferable is that the identities in issue cover far more than denominational allegiance. These identities embrace: (a) a proper name identifying each group; (b) a tradition of common ancestry; (c) a shared history or shared memories of a common past, including heroes, events and their commemoration; (d) a common culture, embracing such things as customs, language (with Irish important for Nationalists) and religion (Protestant or Catholic); (e) a link with a homeland, whether in actual occupation or in diaspora contexts; and (f) a sense of communal solidarity. These characteristics are precisely the six indicators of ethnic identity identified by John Hutchinson and Anthony Smith in their well-known formulation.3 Note that religion forms only one part of one of these six characteristics, which shows the extent to which ethnicity is a far more inclusive category than religion. Nevertheless, we must also realize that in some contexts, including Northern Ireland, the religious dimension of a broader ethnic identity can become quite prominent. Ethnic and religious identities are different but each can impact the other.4 In times of ethnic conflict, the religious dimension can increase, as happened among both (Orthodox) Serbs and (Catholic) Croats in the war following the break-up of Yugoslavia.5

In the Contra Apionem of Josephus we have a work by a Ioudaios from the late first century in which, as I have shown elsewhere;6 he vigorously defends his people, his ethnic group, the Ioudaioi, against an attack that has been made on them. He does not argue that his people belong to a different category from others, quite the contrary. His strategy is to show that they are a particularly impressive example of a category that also includes the Romaioi (Romans), Hellenes (Greeks), Aigyptioi (Egyptians) and some forty other peoples. These are all ethnic groups, and the six characteristics of ethnicity identified by Smith and Hutchinson featured in Josephus’ account of his own people and also appear for many of the others discussed. While Josephus mentions religious elements of ethnic identity relating to his own and other groups, he is not defending what we would call a “religion” (a concept which is in itself anachronistic for the first century CE, as Wilfrid Cantwell Smith and Bruce J. Malina have pointed out),7 but his people in a far broader and recognizably ethnic way.

My position, therefore, is that to at least the end of the first century CE (and I would suggest considerably later) when we see the word Ioudaioi in texts (including all those of the New Testament) we should follow Josephus and treat these people as having an ethnic identity that includes but is much more encompassing than its “religious” aspects. To speak of “Judaism” —which denotes a religion in the same way that Buddhism and Hinduism do—in relation to these documents represent a serious category error that will result in their misunderstanding. “Judaism” in this context is simply the wrong lens with which to view the data in that it either misses other aspects of ethnic identity or tortures all those it does focus upon into a “religion” box.

An important consequence of this is that the identity of Christ-followers, as soon as they began to admit non-Judeans to their communities (especially to the Lord’s Supper with its one shared loaf and one shared cup), was not ethnic. While there is no one epithet that easily captures that identity, we will probably not be too inaccurate in loosely describing it as socio-religious or even “religious” (so long as we avoid the anachronism of imputing a religion “Christianity” or its adherents, “Christians,” to the first century). This means that the relationship between the ethnic identity of Judeans and the socio-religious identity of Christ-followers was starkly asymmetrical. They were not specimens of the same category (as presupposed in the immensely misleading “parting of the ways” metaphor). Significant aspects of the meaning of certain New Testament texts depend upon recognizing the authorial intent on highlighting just such a difference in their identities, as I have shown recently in publications on John and Hebrews,8 and will soon do in relation to Matthew.

In addition, my view is that when interpreting first century CE texts, we should always translate Ioudaios as “Judean” and not “Jew” or “Jewish.” A major consideration driving this conclusion is that of the forty or so ethnic groups mentioned by Josephus in the Contra Aprionem all are named by reference to their ethnic homeland (except for the anomalous Hycsos whose origin was unknown), whether they were currently living there or not. To translate Ioudaios as “Jew” or “Jewish” means giving them a name of a sort that is unique for first-century ethnic groups. Such exceptionalism rests uncomfortably with a desire for historical accuracy which, since identity matters, must entail doing justice to the sense of self possessed by the ancient peoples we are investigating. It is no defense to this to assert that “Jew” or “Jewish” today cover a wide range of aspects of identity since those words lack the explicit territorial connection that typified the names of all ethnic groups in the first century CE.

It is also better to speak of Jesus as a “Judean” and not a “Jew.” Since this conclusion and the position taken in the previous paragraph seem to arouse strong opposition among some New Testament commentators, including Jewish ones, they need careful explanation. I consider the most appropriate theoretical approach to ethnicity to be that of Fredrik Barth.9 For him the primary consideration is a group’s sense of itself as a group, interacting over time with other groups across the boundary between it and them. On this view, a group is not defined by cultural indicators but at any one time valorizes those indicators that best express its sense of identity in a particular context. These indicators (sometimes including the group name) change over time. In my view the Judeans of the first century CE and Jewish people of our era form the same group. There can, indeed, be no doubt that some Jews contemporaries with us are actually biological descendants of first-century Judeans. First century CE Christ-followers also form the same group as today’s Christians. To say that Jesus was a “Judean,” not a “Jew,” does not deny that he belonged to the group now called “Jews” (for he did), but rather acknowledges the need in historical research to understand phenomena (like a group’s name for itself) on their own terms and not in ways that are clearly the result of subsequent historical developments.

If it were to be suggested that insisting that Jesus was a Judean not a Jew plays into the hands of contemporary Nazis and other anti-Semites and should be avoided for that reason, I would counter with the view that we must not abandon proper historical research for the reason that it may be misused. In this area, such a retreat would hand a victory to anti-Semitism, which should be vigorously contested wherever it raises its ugly head but in ways that do not entail forsaking historical accuracy. In fact, the case I have made here provides resources for countering one aspect of Nazi anti-Semitism: the image of “the eternal Jew,” a figure who allegedly killed Jesus in the first century and remains exactly the same today. Leaving aside the rather glaring fact that it was the Romans and not Judeans who crucified Jesus, this vicious stereotype of a people that portray them as unchanged for two thousand years cannot survive the type of historical analysis advocated here. Identity matters.


1 James L. Peacock, Patricia M. Thornton, and Patrick B. Inman, editors, Identity Matters: Ethnic and Sectarian Conflict (New York and Oxford: Bergahn Books, 2007).

2 Claire Mitchell, “Behind the Ethnic Marker: Religion and Social Identification in Northern Ireland,” Sociology of Religion (2005) 66: 3-21, at 3.

3 John Hutchinson and Anthony Smith, eds. Ethnicity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 3-14, at 6-7.

4 Claire Mitchell, “The Religious Content of Ethnic Identities,” Sociology (2006) 40:1135-52.

5 M.Sells, “Crosses of Blood: Sacred Space, Religion and Violence in Bosnia-Hercegovina,” Sociology of Religion (2003) 64: 309-32.

6 Philip F. Esler, “Judean Ethnic Identity in Josephus' Against Apion,” in A Wandering Galilean: Essays in Honour of Sean Freyne. Edited by Zuleika Rodgers with Margaret Daly-Denton and Anne Fitzpatrick McKinley (Leiden: Brill, 2009, 73-91). Also see Philip F. Esler, Philip F. Esler, Conflict and Identity in Romans: The Social Setting of Paul’s Letter (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003), especially 63-74.

7 Wilfrid Cantwell Smith, The Meaning and End of Religion (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991 [1962]) and Bruce Malina, “Mediterranean Sacrifice: Dimensions of Domestic and Political Religion,” Biblical Theology Bulletin 26 (1996): 26-44. I utilized Smith in 2003 in Conflict and Identity in Romans, supra, pp. 7-8.

8 See Philip F. Esler, “From Ioudaioi to Children of God: The Development of a Non-Ethnic Group Identity in the Gospel of John,” in Anselm C. Hagedorn, Zeba A. Crook and Eric Stewart, eds., In Other Words: Essays on Social Science Methods and the New Testament in Honor of Jerome H. Neyrey (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2007), 106-37, and “Judean Ethnic Identity and the Purpose of Hebrews.” In Method & Meaning: Essays on New Testament Interpretation in Honor of Harold A. Attridge, edited by Andrew B. McGowan and Kent Harold Richards (Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 2011), 469-89.

9 Fredrik Barth, “Introduction,” in Ethnic Groups and Boundaries: The Social Organization of Culture Difference, ed. Fredrik Barth (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1969), 9-38.