Sunday, May 18, 2008

Elements of Ancient Jewish Nationalism by David Goodblatt

Is it possible to speak of an ancient Jewish national identity or nationalism? Or, as most recent scholars have agreed, is such a perspective anachronistic? And if it were possible to speak of a national identity in antiquity how would such an identity have been constructed, sustained, organized and expressed? What would be the elements of a Jewish nationalism?

These are the basic questions and issues that University of California professor David Goodblatt seeks to address in his book Elements of Ancient Jewish Nationalism. Goodblatt’s own understanding of the contribution is evident in his concluding chapter, “Jewish Nationalism – What Rose and What Fell?” Here he articulates how his conclusions can serve to refine the issues raised by the recent contributions of particularly Doron Mendels, The Rise and Fall of Jewish Nationalism , and Seth Schwartz, Imperialism and Jewish Society . While affirming many of the central ideas of their work, he attempts to “reframe” these ideas by sharpening the focus of the debate and clarifying the questions (p. 210).

The result of Goodblatt’s sharpening and clarifying endeavor—one which he tells took a decade of research and reflection (p. xiii)—is a convincing argument for not only the use of the term “nation” and its derivatives for ancient societal groups including the Jewish people of the Second Temple period (ch 1), but also for a Jewish national identity and nationalism constructed from the scared text, Hebrew language and priesthood (chs 2—4) and expressed in the names they used for themselves (chs 5—7).

In the preface, Goodblatt explains that the focus of his work is on the human subjects who reside in “the province of Judah (Yehud, Ioudaia) of the Achemenid, Ptolemic, and Seleucid empires, on (nominally) independent, Hasmonean-Herodian Judah, and on the Roman province of Iudaea” (p. xiii). With the book’s territorial focus one would expect that his use of the term “Jewish” in “Jewish nationalism” has the in view those who are Judeans—making Jewish and Judean synonymous terms. Yet this is in fact not the case. While Goodblatt’s practice within the book is to translate the ancient terms referring to the people of the territory (e.g. Aramaic yehudai) with “Judean(s)”, to persevere the ambiguity of the original languages, he nevertheless opts for “Jewish nationalism” instead of “Judean nationalism” for a specific reason: the phenomenon of the overlapping of Judean and Israelite identities. Because Second Temple Judeans saw themselves as Israelites as well and what’s more invoked the name “Israel” in support of their nationalism, Goodblatt consciously chose “Jewish” because it allowed for a broader field than the narrower “Judean”. Goodblatt asserts that the ambigous“Jewish” can imply either “Judah” or “Israel” or both.

Chapter one provides the foundation for the book’s six main chapters by establishing the appropriateness of using the terms “nation” and “nationalism” for ancient Judaism. Goodblatt states, “My purpose in this chapter was to justify the use of the concepts of national identity and nationalism in the study of ancient Jewish history” (p. 27). This was necessary because of the consensus of opinion among recent historians of the ancient world calling into question the use of the words “nation” and “nationalism” when writing about Jewish history. It has become commonplace to assume that such terms are a modern invention and therefore inappropriate when discussing ancient societies.

Through an application of recent social scientific research along with detailed engagement with the ancient sources, Goodblatt convincingly argues that nationalism is not a modern invention as is supposed; rather a national consciousness can be found in the ancient world and especially among Second Temple Jews. What’s more, Goodblatt asserts that the concept of nation should be distinguished, as it is today, from that of a state such that national identity in antiquity does not imply a state. This latter distinction dispels the false assumption equating the possession or dispossession of a political state with the presence or absence of national identity—an assumption that has characterized pervious research. Finally, having shown that the concepts of nationalism and ethnicity are synonymous, Goodblatt offers this definition of national identity and nationalism:

By national identity I mean a belief in a common descent and shared culture available for mass political mobilization. By shared culture I mean that certain cultural factors are seen as criteria for, or indications of, membership in the national group. Which cultural factors are singled out as criteria or indicators may shift over time. Also, the kinship or the cultural factors or both may not in fact be shared. What counts is that people believe they are and are ready to act on that basis. Finally, by nationalism I mean the invocation of the national identity as the basis for mass mobilization and action (pp. 26-27).

Chapters two through four deal with the social construction of ancient Jewish nationalism by discussing the role of Scripture (ch. 2), the Hebrew language (ch. 3) and the priesthood (ch. 4) in that creation. While some may wish to expand this list, I can imagine no one criticizing Goodblatt for the elements he has chosen. These no doubt represent some of the most important resources available to Second Temple Judaism for constructing and sustaining a national identity.

For the first of the three elements, Goodblatt, while entertaining recent critical scholarship’s assertion of a very late composition of the Scripture, side steps these critical issues by addressing the question within the context of the Second Temple period when the so-called “primary history” (David Noel Freedman’s term for Genesis through Kings) had been established for some time. Furthermore, Goodblatt argues for the widespread and regular practice of the public reading of biblical texts based on the preponderance of extant manuscripts from the Second Temple period. This, he believes would explain how ideas of common descent and shared culture could reach a mass audience. Of the latter two elements, Goodblatt first argues that Hebrew served to help construct Jewish identity because it was the language of Israel’ ancestors, the national literature and the national religion (p. 70). Second, the priesthood’s contribution to the construction of Jewish national identity as preservers and teachers of the national literature, their function as rulers of Judah and their provision of an ideology of resistance to foreign domination (p. 75). While one may wish to quibble here and there over details of Goodblatt’s argumentation, all three of these points on the whole are well argued and anchored in the documentary and literary evidence of the Second Temple period.

Chapters five through seven deal with three names that, according to Goodblatt, played a role in ancient Jewish nationalism: Israel (ch. 5), Judah (ch. 6) and Zion (ch. 7). Of the first moniker, Israel, he points out the curious fact that the term was avoided as a self-designation of the Hasmonean state for whom “the Judeans” was the preferred, although they would have had ample reason to have used it. In contrast, Goodblatt shows that with the use of the term by the rebels of the first and second Jewish revolts (p. 121), their nationalistic ideology was centered on the concept of Israel (p. 138). Within this discussion Goodblatt notes the use of the phrase “house of Israel” during the second revolt; a phrase that Jesus’ himself used according to Matthew’s Gospel (cf. Matt 10:6; 15:24). Interestingly Goodblatt suggests that the phrase may have a technical nuance in this context whose meaning represents a second-century Hebrew equivalent to what we would call the “state of Israel” (pp. 134-36).

Goodblatt argues that the name Zion was used during the first Jewish revolt, but not in the second. The phrase “freedom of Zion” is found on bronze coins of the late first century. He suggests the interest in Jerusalem and the Temple on the part of the rebels may explain its usage. What is interesting here is that Goodblatt does not perceive the Davidic implications in the name Zion and as a result does not think to inquire whether Davidic Messianism had any role in its usage. Perhaps this is because he early averred that evidence for Messianism in the first revolt is meager (p.137); with the use of the term Zion, perhaps less meager than he images.

David Goodblatt has made an important contribution to the study of Jewish nationalism in the Second Temple period both in the areas of method and information. No doubt Elements of Ancient Jewish Nationalism will be useful for specialists in Second Temple Judaism as well as the New Testament. The strengths of this monograph perhaps lie mostly in the wealth of primary source material in the form of epigraphic, numismatic and literary evidence contained in each chapter along with the numerous sub-arguments and discussions he offers in support of his primary agenda. From a New Testament perspective the latter may have the potential to open up new lines of thinking on old questions, not least questions surrounding the Kingdom of God in the preaching of Jesus of Nazareth.

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