I’m about to tackle a series of posts here on Christian anti-Judaism and Jewish anti-Christianity. Neither are pleasant topics! But we are devoted here to interfaith discussion of topics at the Jewish-Christian intersection, including our shared histories. Sadly, much of this history is a history of animosity. We must understand this history in order to understand each other, and hopefully, move past this history into a new and friendlier era.
But before we get started … I want to try something new here. The purpose of this site is to encourage interfaith dialogue – encourage this dialogue generally, but also encourage that it take place right here, in the comments to my posts. We’ve had some good discussion here so far, but I want to see if we can do better. So in this post, and maybe in a few posts upcoming, I’ll suggest a topic for discussion in the comments. You can ignore my suggestion, and discuss anything related to my posts that comes to mind … but as my posts can be a bit esoteric, I’ll try to suggest more concrete discussion topics.
Today’s discussion topic: what do you think makes for a “good Jew”? What personal qualities do you associate with being a good Jew? If a Jew is striving to be a better Jew, what should the Jew get better at doing? Don’t be afraid to suggest qualities that might strike you as less than earth-shaking! In the recent Pew Study of Jewish Americans, 69% of Jews said that leading an ethical and moral life is an essential part of what it means to be Jewish. But 42% said that having a good sense of humor is essentially Jewish, and 14% said it is essentially Jewish to eat Jewish food, so obviously not everything that makes one a “good Jew” has to be deadly serious.
I’m asking here about what it means to be a good Jew, in part because I’m writing a chapter for a book related to this question. But there’s another reason. If we’re going to discuss anti-Judaism, we have to understand what it means to be a “Jew” – and not just what it means today, but also what it meant in the first century, at the earliest moments of the emergence of Christian identity.
To get a sense of what the word “Jew” meant back then, consider how the word is used in what might be the earliest writing in the New Testament, Paul’s First Epistle to the Thessalonians. You cannot proceed two pages into this earliest of Christian writings without confronting the following:
For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of the churches of G-d in Christ Jesus that are in Judea, for you suffered the same things from your own compatriots as they did from the Jews, who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out; they displease G-d and oppose everyone by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. Thus they have constantly been filling up the measure of their sins; but G-d’s wrath has overtaken them at last. [emphasis added]
It is tragic: in the very beginning of Paul’s very first letter, he described the Jews as Christ-killers, and a people rejected by G-d. Or did he?
Paul’s letters, like the rest of the New Testament, were written in Greek. The word Paul uses in 1 Thessalonians to describe the people who killed Jesus is the Greek word Ἰουδαῖος, pronounced Ioudaios, and commonly translated as “Jew.” The word derives from the Hebrew word Yehudi, which is itself derived from the name Judah, who was the fourth son of Jacob and the founder of one of the twelve tribes of Israel. It is likely that Yehudi originally referred to a member of this tribe. But after the return of the Israelites to their homeland following the Babylonian Exile, the term “Yehudi” became an ethnic-geographical identifier for the people resident in Judea. In other words, the original meaning of Yehudi and Ioudaios was not “Jew,” but “Judean.”
Would we render the New Testament less anti-Jewish if we translated Ioudaios as “Judean” instead of “Jew”? Let’s use 1Thessalonians as a test case. With this proposed change in translation, Paul would not be naming the Jews as the Christian enemy. Instead, he’d be saying that the Christians in Judea were encountering opposition from non-Christian Judeans, just as the Christians in Thessalonica were being opposed by non-Christian Thessalonians. While I imagine that Paul might prefer for his churches to face no external opposition, so long as there was going to be opposition, it was going to come from a local source: Thessalonians opposing other Thessalonians, Judeans opposing other Judeans. It could hardly be otherwise! If this change in translation seems right to you, you’re not alone. The New King James Version of the Bible translates 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16 to refer to “Judeans” and not “Jews.”
But there are problems with translating Ioudaios as “Judean.” For example, this translation has been seized upon by anti-Semites who would like to argue that Jesus wasn’t Jewish. If in Jesus’ day, “Jewish” meant “Judean,” then it can be argued that Jesus was Galilean, hence not Judean, hence not Jewish. Perhaps a bigger problem is that our present-day reading of “Judean” is likely to be geographic only: a Judean is someone from Judea, regardless of whether the person is Jewish or pagan. This is almost certainly not what Ioudaios meant in Jesus’ day. Instead, people in Jesus’ day would have associated Ioudaios with the set of beliefs, rites, customs and practices of the residents of Judea – a “set” that we’d identify today as Judaism. As Amy-Jill Levine argues in her book The Misunderstood Jew, if we want modern readers to get a sense that Ioudaios conveyed a sense of a people with characteristic beliefs and practices, then the correct modern translation of Ioudaios should be “Jew” and not “Judean.”
The arguments on both sides of this debate are good ones. In truth, the issue is complicated. The identifier of Jewish (or “Judean”) was and remains a complex mix of ethnic, religious, cultural, national, political and geographic factors that practically begs to be misunderstood, particularly when paired against a word like “Christian” that does not carry with it the same sorts of meanings.
Nevertheless … regardless of the difficulty … we’re still left with the problem of understanding what Paul meant in 1 Thessalonians, and with the bigger problem of how to interpret passages in the New Testament that appear today as anti-Jewish. We can, I think, safely assume that Ioudaios does not neatly translate into any word or term in common use today. But is our problem even greater than this? Is it possible for us to identify who it was, exactly, that Paul meant to condemn in 1 Thessalonians?
I’ll address this question in my next post.