But Is It Good For the Judeans?
by Marilyn Cooper
These days, all eyes are on what many are calling the new anti-Semitism, arising from both far-right and far-left politics, radical Islam and virulent anti-Zionist ideologies. But the old anti-Semitism isn’t forgotten—a 2013 Anti-Defamation League poll showed that 26 percent of Americans believe that “Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus.” The historic basis for this claim lies in the New Testament, particularly in key sentences from the Gospels of Matthew and John. While all four Gospels contain passages that portray Jews as opponents of Jesus, Matthew and John emphasize the role that “the Jews” as a group played in Jesus’ death, and in John 8:44 Jesus condemns “the Jews” as being “from [their] father the devil.”
These passages and others from the New Testament laid the groundwork for millennia of anti-Semitism. The slur “Christ-killer” was commonly used during pogroms and other acts of violence against Jews well into the modern period throughout Europe. Much of the hatred was predicated on the use of the word “Jews” in biblical texts. But in recent decades, scholars and translators of the New Testament have taken part in an academic debate over the translation of the Greek term ioudaios, which is used in the New Testament. An increasing number now believe that ioudaios is more accurately translated as “Judean,” not “Jew.”
The difference in how this one word is translated could change the entire sensibility of the passages in Matthew and John. Translating ioudaios as “Jew” could give ammunition to the claim that the Jewish people killed Jesus. When Judean, which refers to the inhabitants of the ancient region of Judah, is used instead, only a relatively small number of people are deemed culpable—and it’s unclear whether they would even be considered Jewish in the modern understanding of that word.
The ioudaios were an ethnic group defined mostly by geography and common cultural practices, says York University biblical scholar Steve Mason, a major proponent of translating the word as “Judean.” Ioudaios, he says, is in the same linguistic class as a number of Greek terms such as Romaios (Roman), Aigyptios (Egyptian) and Galilean (Galilean), all of which are ethnic labels for people from a particular ancient region or polis (an ancient city-state). The ioudaios were famous in antiquity as people from the East, thought to have originated from Egypt, who came to be associated with the mother polis Jerusalem and its famous temple. They were, Mason explains, seen as “unusually aloof in that they kept to their own sacrificial cult and would not join in those of others.” They were also unusual in that their laws and customs enjoyed an extremely wide circle of admirers.
The ioudaios were not Jews in a way that would be recognizable to modern readers, says Harvard University history professor Shaye Cohen. Ioudaios refers to an ethnic geographic group that existed well before people conceived of modern spiritual religious practices, says Cohen. Being a Judean, essentially, is a function of geography and ethnicity; being a Jew is a function of religious belief and practice. Over time, Cohen says, as “the people of Judah morph into being part of an emerging Jewish religion and practice,” and only then does it become “appropriate to use the term Jew.”
Not everyone believes ioudaios should be translated as “Judean.” Classicist Adele Reinhartz of the University of Ottawa objects to the growing use of the term in translations of ancient texts. She is “alarmed by the growing invisibility of Jews and Judaism in English translations of ancient texts and scholarship about them,” she wrote last year in The Los Angeles Review of Books. The use of “Judean,” she says, confuses rather than clarifies the already complex question of what it meant to be a Jew in the ancient world and “simply sidesteps the issue without addressing the anti-Jewish or even anti-Semitic potential of texts such as the Gospel of John.”
The use of the term Judean undermines the continuity between ancient Jews and modern ones, Reinhartz argues—distorting the history of anti-Semitism. “Not using the word ‘Jew’ lets the Gospel of John off the hook for its role in the history of anti-Semitism. It whitewashes the Gospel of John and relieves us of the difficult but necessary task of grappling with this gospel in a meaningful way.” While many disagree, some say that substituting “Judeans” for “Jews” undercuts Jewish claims to Israel—effectively arguing that Jews never lived there. “As Jews we understand ourselves as a product of a long history that has its origins in the Middle East and that has a sense of connection with the land, to the state of Israel,” says Reinhartz. “If you pull Jews out of the ancient period, if you are saying that ioudaios are not Jews but Judeans, that changes our whole history.”
Ultimately, there is no one correct way to translate ioudaios, explains Naomi Seidman, director of the Center for Jewish Studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. Translation happens in a context, revealing more about the translator’s point of view and political or religious ideology than about the original text. As Seidman says, every translator has a point of view that is “infused by personal faith tradition.”