Sunday, January 13, 2008

It’s High Time to Change our Terminology

This is the view of John H. Elliott in his excellent article appearing in the most recent issue of the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus: "Jesus the Israelite was neither a ‘Jew’ nor a ‘Christian’: On Correcting Misleading Nomenclature". The "terminology" I’m referring to is what we label Jesus and the early church. Here is one of his strongest statements:

It is time finally for interpreters, Bible Translators, and commentators to cease and desist. Jesus and the Jesus movement (with all its various movement groups) have their roots in Israel, not ‘Judaism’. They were , in the nascent period, predominantly ‘Israelites’, not ‘Jews’; Galileans, not Judeans; Nazoreans, not ‘Christians’. They belonged to the House of Israel, not ‘Christianity’ (p. 148).

Leaving aside the clearly anachronistic use of the term "Christian" or "Christianity". While we continue to use these terms anachronistically we seem to be more aware of the problem than with the terms "Jewish" and "Jew".
With verve Elliott rehearses the well-known contrast between insider/outsider language in the Second Temple period in reference to Israel, and convincingly shows that Jesus and the early believers (including Paul) preferred the term "Israelite" over the term "Jew" in their self-designations. He avers that the New Testament guild must be more careful in their language when referring these historical personages and events to at best avoid anachronisms and at worst promulgate false assumptions.

Elliott presents that case that in the Second Temple period outsiders (specially the Romans) referred to Israelites as Ioudaioi and that term was eventually adopted by Diaspora Jews as a self designation especially when conversing with non-Israelites although nonetheless infrequently used. What’s more, Elliott explains that the term Ioudaioi maintained a geographical connotation as it expanded to include ethnicity. While at first the term was coined in the Persian period to refer to those who resided in the region of Ioudaia, it later came to be used as a designation by outsides for all those who oriented their lives—politically, ethnically, economically, socially and culturally—around Judea: the Jerusalem and the Temple, and the cult and law as practiced there. Thus, Elliott argues that the term Ioudaioi be translated as "Judeans", not "Jews" since as he states, "The term ‘Jew’ as a translation for Ioudaios does not communicate the connection of the name with the name of the land" (p. 148).

Also important is his discussion of the term Ioudaisimos which is translated "Jewish". Not only does the term rarely appear in Greek (and has not Hebrew or Aramaic equivalent), but also it was not a conventional term of Israel parlance. He opines, "It is ironic and unfortunate that a name occurring so infrequently [Jew, Jewish] in the literature of Israel and the New Testament should have become in modern times the most frequent designation of the children of Israel" (p. 142-43). Furthermore, Elliott argues that it was used in the Maccabean period to designate not a social collectivity but a "Judean way of behavior".

As a Christian, New Testament scholar and teacher I am as guilty as anyone for the lack of precision in my language. I take Elliott's criticism to heart and will attempt to be much more careful in my writing and speaking. Here is my list of terms to work on:
Israelites, not Jews (Galilean Israelites, Judean Israelites, Diaspora Israelites)
Judeans, not Jews
Judean lifestyle, not Jewish
Believers in Jesus, not Christians
A caveat: It is not possible to avoid completely the terms "Jew", "Jewish", and "Christian" nor is it necessarily desirable in every instance since these terms are so widespread in secondary literature. And most discussing topics such as Jewish Christianity, for example, don't think for a moment that the appellation is anything more than a modern construct used to describe an ancient phenomenon. (By the way, Craig Hill in Jewish Christianity Reconsidered [pp. 40-41] has a nice discussion of the term and an argument for retaining it [or at least tolerating it] .


Geoff Hudson said...

Yet strangely: "To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews." 1 Cor.9.20. Does this mean that 'Paul' didn't think of himself as a Jew then? I thought 'Paul' tried to win 'Jews' all over the place, i.e. those who might be regarded as Israelites or diaspora Jews. And he seems to have paid very little attention to Judean 'Jews'. There is some nonsense about the extant text. So I ask myself was there was an original different version in which the writer did indeed pay very great attention to some Judean 'Jews'.

May be the key is in the words "Though I am free" of 9.19 echoing somewhat the words "Every Good Man is Free" of Philo in relalion to 'Essenes'. Was this how 'Paul' thought of himself, as an 'Essene' or prophet? In which case 'Paul' didn't make himself like a 'Jew', but like a priest to win the priests.

Naomi said...

1. I think SDJ Cohen is right to maintain "Judean" as the default setting but still recognize that the religious sense of "Jew" could be used in the Diaspora, esp. in relation to Gentiles.
2. Before giving the thumbs up to Jack Elliott, read April DeConick's post the subseuqent discussion in the comments:

Anonymous said...


Thank you for your response. I read April DeConick's post, but it doesn't appear she actually read Elliott's article. I think Elliott makes substantial points and while I agree that we cannot complete abandon terminology that is prevasive in culture and scholarly parlance, his argument is not discredited. He is not trying to do away with Judaism in the Second Temple period. He is merely pointing out that the term is not a common self-designation among those for whom the term refers. Your first point about the so-called 'religious' sense of Jew is not as useful as Elliott's point that outsiders referred to Diaspora Israelites as Jews because of their orientation toward the geographical place with Jerusalem and Temple, etc. Thus retaining both territorial and ideological connotations. The Diaspora did adopted the name, but it doesn't appear to be their preferred self-designation.

As for Geoff's point, the terms Jew and Gentile/Greek are regularly used as pairs when comparing them and this is clearly Paul's habit. It is interesting that he changes his terminology in Rom 9-11 using Israel/Israelite primarily. This is all the more interesting since Paul doesn't use Israel/Israelite anywhere else in Romans.

d. miller said...


It seems to me that Elliott's attempt to set Judaean over against Israelite is problematic since both were emic terms that good (?) Judaeans such as Paul were comfortable using. To be sure, they have different connotations, but it only confuses matters to maintain that we should consistently adopt Israelite when speaking of Jesus when the NT refers to him as a Ioudaios.

Equally problematic is Elliott's attempt to set Judaean over against Galilean, when Judaean often includes residents of Judaea, Galilee and, say, Rome.

I respond to Elliott in more detail here:


d. miller

Michael F. Bird said...

"Naomi" was actually was my wife's log-in which I accidentally used. Gorgeous ain't she! So moi is the real interlocutor.
Mike Bird

Geoff Hudson said...

Yes in Romans 9.11, it is interesting to see a blanket statement that "Israel who pursued a law law of righteousness has not attained it." The writer would have known this was not true since some 'Jews' were already 'Christians' who had obtained a righteousness as had the 'Gentiles' in 9.30. I suggest therefore that 9.30 did not originally refer to "Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness", but 'Jews' who did not pursue a law of righteouness, i.e. prophets. The contrast in 9.31 would then have been - but Jews (intead of Israel) who pursued a law of righteousnes, have not attained it. Thus I detect an original document written entirely in a Jewish context.

J. Matthew Barnes said...

And what about "Hebrews" as Paul uses in Phil 3?

I am not fully convinced by Eliott because the evidence is simply too complex for a simple answer (which goes for the insider/outsider distinction as well).

However, I do find his and your comments instructive to use more care with my language. And for that I say, "Thanks!"