Fuzzy Ioudaios

ryeIn my last post, I looked at what is probably the earliest anti-Jewish statement in the New Testament, Paul’s diatribe in 1 Thessalonians that it’s the Ioudaioi (commonly translated as “Jews”, but possibly meaning “Judeans”) who killed Jesus, persecuted Paul’s followers and murdered the prophets, thus incurring G-d’s displeasure and earning G-d’s wrath. My question there, and here, is: who, exactly did Paul intend to accuse? Did Paul mean to be understood in the way many Christians historically have understood him, to condemn all Jews as being murderers and enemies of G-d? Or is it possible that Paul meant to make a different and more limited statement?

In the discussion following my last post, some of my readers made helpful suggestions on how Paul’s diatribe might be interpreted in a less anti-Jewish way. Following the version of 1 Thessalonians set forth in the New Living Translation of the New Testament, we discussed the possibility that Paul meant to condemn only those Jews directly involved in the death of Jesus and the prophets. But while it might have been possible to distinguish a segment of Jews who played (or did not play) a role in the death of Jesus, we were not able to identify in our discussion what subset of Jews might (or might not) be associated with prophet-killing. There’s no evidence in Tanach that any Jews killed prophets (we have one minor prophet reportedly killed by one King of Israel), but if Paul meant to condemn those Jews who had failed to heed the prophets … well, that would cover pretty much everyone.

Perhaps last time, we approached this question in the wrong way, as a problem in the translation of Paul’s epistle from the ancient Greek into modern English. We approached this question as if, if we lived in Paul’s day and spoke Paul’s Greek, we’d know exactly who Paul meant to condemn. But perhaps Paul’s accusation lacked this kind of clarity from the get-go. Perhaps Paul intended a “fuzzier” sort of accusation.

Here, I am going to set forth a “modest proposal” for how I think Paul’s apparent anti-Judaism can be best understood. In making this proposal, I will rely heavily on the thinking of my teacher Joshua Garroway, set forth in his book Paul’s Gentile-Jews: Neither Jew nor Gentile, but Both. Key to Garroway’s thinking is this: the boundary separating Jew from Gentile in Paul’s day was “fuzzy.” Some people (for example, the Jerusalem High Priest Caiaphas) were clearly Jewish, and other people (Pontius Pilate, for example) were clearly Gentile, but a number of people in the first century fell into a fuzzy gray area in-between.

The idea of a “fuzzy” Jew may sound strange at first. Either you’re Jewish or you’re not, right? But when you think about it, there must have been a lot of “fuzzy” Jews in Jesus’ day. Let’s consider one such “fuzzy” Jew from back then: the infamous King Herod. Herod was the Roman client king of Judea for 33 murderous years. Many historical accounts (including that written by the first century Jewish historian Josephus) identified Herod as a Jew, an Ioudaios. But one of Herod’s rivals famously accused Herod of being a “half-Jew” (hemiioudaios), and we have later evidence that some thought Herod to be a Gentile Ascalonite (Philistine). The Talmud also remembers Herod as a Gentile, reporting that Herod was born a gentile slave. How can it be, that we’re not sure whether this King of the Jews was himself Jewish?

Herod derived his fuzzy Jewish status from father, Antipater, who was an Idumean – the people referred to in the Old Testament as Edomites. Idumea was a region south of Judea, and shortly after Judea became an independent Jewish state under the Hasmoneans in the second century BCE, Idumea was conquered by and incorporated into Judea.  According to Josephus, the Idumeans became Ioudaioi upon their conquest. But others disagreed. A historian identified as “Ptolemy” wrote a history of Herod, and in that history Ptolemy claimed that Ioudaioi and Idumeans were different, the Idumeans being originally Phoenicians and Syrians who were compelled to adopt the customs of the Ioudaioi. Another Roman historian, Strabo, argued that the Idumeans were Nabateans who came to Judea as refugees and voluntarily agreed to live there in accordance with the customs of the Ioudaioi.  Even Josephus, who claimed in no uncertain terms that the Idumeans were Ioudaioi, continued to refer to the Idumeans as having a nation of their own. So as Garroway puts it, “The Idumeans are alternatively Ioudaioi, Ioudaioi in name only, distinct from, but related, to the Ioudaioi, or not Ioudaioi at all!”

So … was Herod Jewish? The answer would probably be “yes,” but in a fuzzy sort of way. Like everyone in ancient antiquity with an Idumean father, Herod was sort of Jewish. (Interestingly, the fact that Herod’s mother was a Gentile Arab did not seem to affect Herod’s perceived Jewishness or lack of Jewishness!)

For another example of a “fuzzy” Jew, we can turn to the New Testament. In Acts 16:1-3, the apostle Paul met Timothy, “whose mother was Jewish and a believer, but whose father was a Greek.” Paul decided that Timothy would make a good travelling partner, so he took Timothy and “circumcised him because of the Jews who lived in that area, for they all knew that his father was a Greek.” This has to be one of the stranger stories in the New Testament – Paul was a mohel? The story is made even stranger (as Shaye Cohen points out in The Beginnings of Jewishness) by the fact that one chapter earlier in Acts, Paul had won the concession from the great council that Gentiles joining the church need not be circumcised. So, why is Paul circumcising when he doesn’t have to? Paul’s action might make sense if Timothy was already deemed Jewish before his circumcision – presumably, Paul had no issue with Jewish followers of Jesus being circumcised. But how could Timothy be Jewish if he’d never been circumcised? Alternatively, if Timothy was already Jewish, why bother to circumcise him? Cohen concludes that Timothy was a Gentile before his circumcision, and he notes that two of the most important figures in the early Church, Augustine and Jerome, both considered Timothy to be a Gentile. But he also notes that other Christian scholars considered Timothy to be Jewish before his circumcision, and that the important Church figure John Chrysostom considered Timothy to be “half-gentile.” For our purposes, I think we can understand Timothy best as a “fuzzy” Jew, or perhaps a “fuzzy” Gentile – “fuzzy” being the operative word here.

Besides Timothy, Herod and the Idumeans, who else in the first century might we classify as a “fuzzy” Jew? How about the “G-dfearers”? The term “G-dfearers” refers to Gentiles in the Roman Empire who participated in varying degrees in Jewish synagogues and communities without taking the ultimate step and becoming Jews. The G-dfearers are referred to in the New Testament – for example, the centurion Cornelius is described in the Book of Acts as “devout” and “G-d-fearing,” a man who gave generously to the (Jewish) people and prayed continually to G-d. In similar fashion, Paul addressed a speech in Acts to the “men of Israel” and the “G-d-fearing Gentiles” of Antioch. We know from inscriptions found by archaeologists that these G-dfearers were a recognized category of people in the ancient world who had an interest in Judaism, along with (of course) Jews and proselytes to Judaism.

By definition, there would appear to be little “fuzziness” in being a G-dfearer: these people were Gentiles interested in Judaism, much as many readers of this blog are Christians interested in Judaism. Today, you do not become Jewish (or become suspected of being Jewish) by reading this blog, or eating kosher food, or listening to Barbra Streisand, or cursing in Yiddish. But in the first century, when there was no clear and recognized procedure for converting to Judaism, the line between a proselyte and a G-dfearer was … fuzzy. As an example, let’s consider another “fuzzy” category of Jews discussed by Josephus and mentioned by Garroway in his book. According to Josephus, the Ioudaioi in Antioch “brought over to their forms of worship a great number of Greeks, and had made them in some way a part of themselves.” Were these Greeks proselytes, or G-dfearers? It’s not clear. Or consider Josephus’ description of the situation in Syria at the outbreak of the first Jewish Revolt against Rome, when the Syrians were killing Ioudaioi:

Days were spent in blood and the nights were even more trying. For even though [the Syrians] thought that all the Ioudaioi had been eliminated, each city held the Judaizers under suspicion. No one dared rashly to kill the ambiguous entity and they feared the mixed group as though it were genuinely foreign.

It’s not clear from Josephus whether he considered “the Judaizers,” the “ambiguous entity” and the “mixed group” to be one group, or separate groups. But it is clear from Josephus that the Syrians themselves could not determine in every case who was Jewish and who was Syrian. Were these “Judaizers” proselytes, G-dfearers or something else? For our purposes, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that their status was “fuzzy”: somewhat Jewish, somewhat not.

Garroway points to many other types of “fuzzy” Jews: proselytes, of course, but also apostates. What did it take to effectively leave the Jewish people? It’s not clear. What about Samaritans? Josephus insisted that Samaritans were not Ioudaioi, but he also reported that the Samaritans at times identified themselves as Ioudaioi. Gentile slaves acquired by Ioudaioi were treated as Ioudaioi in a sense, and may have been granted proselyte status when they were freed. If Ioudaios can be translated today as both “Jew” and “Judean,” what about those first century Jews who no longer lived in Judea? It is clear from the sources that Jews living in established Jewish communities in places like Alexandria and Rome were considered Ioudaioi because they continued to live in accordance with Judean cultural practices. But would an Ioudaios in Rome have been considered to be a fuzzy Ioudaiois if he engaged in some Greek practices, like attending the theatre or going to a gymnasium?

There’s a whole area of fuzziness we haven’t even addressed yet: that possessed by those Jews and Gentiles who chose to follow a certain itinerant rabbi from the Galilee …

How, exactly, do we understand this fuzziness? Garroway argues (and I am sure he is right) that when we look at the ancient world, “’Jew’ and ‘Gentile’ do not reflect a binary division into two distinguishable essences, but a continuum along which, theoretically, every shade of Gentile-Jew can exist.”Along with thinkers such as Jonathan Z. Smith, Garroway argues for a “polythetic mode” of classifying who is and is not a Jew. Under this polythetic way of thinking, Jewishness and Gentileness are not “pure” categories, but are ways of reckoning individual identity based on a confluence of characteristics, such as: circumcision (h/t Yahnatan for catching this omission), keeping kosher and obeying  Jewish law, celebrating Shabbat and Jewish holidays, having a Jewish mother and/or father, birth or residence in Judea, knowledge of the Bible and the ability to speak Hebrew, belief in G-d and/or an expressed relationship with the G-d of the Bible, membership and/or participation in a synagogue and/or recognized Jewish community, and so forth. Presumably, anyone who possessed all of these characteristics would be indisputably Jewish, and anyone who whiffed on all of these characteristics would be indisputably Gentile, but in the ancient world (and perhaps today as well) there would have been no set number of these characteristics necessary or sufficient to make one a Jew. Presumably a different number or combination of characteristics might be required for different purposes, at different times, and in different places. Fuzzy, fuzzy, fuzzy, is the nature of the label Ioudaios.

This is not to say that Jews and Gentiles were always willing to abide a fuzzy boundary between them – synagogues had to determine who was eligible for membership, and (as Josephus noted in the passage discussed above concerning the Syrians during the Jewish War) crowds seeking to kill Jews had to determine who would be spared. But the fact that lines had to be drawn did not mean that they could be drawn easily or consistently, and that certain “fuzzy” people might not be considered Jewish at some times and Gentile at other times.

So … I have labored long and hard here to describe something fuzzy in a way I hope you can see clearly! But now that we understand Jewish “fuzziness,” what does this fuzziness have to tell us about the anti-Jewishness we find in 1 Thessalonians? I think that a full answer to this question will require another post. But allow me to hint where I think this discussion is going: I think that in 1 Thessalonians, Paul meant to condemn all Jews. But at the same time, Paul’s condemnation of Jews has to be seen on a continuum, just as the Jewish status of the people Paul condemned can be viewed polythetically as a continuum. Not everyone Paul condemned would have been condemned to the same extent, or in the same way …

But it is time to pause for reaction. Does this polythetic way of reckoning Jewishness make sense to you? Do you see a better way to distinguish Jew from Gentile? Do you agree with me, and Garroway, and Cohen, that some people in the ancient world were fuzzy Jews? Can you think of other examples of fuzzy Jews? And perhaps the most interesting question of all: do you think that the fuzziness I’ve described in late antiquity applies equally well to the question of religious identity today?


  • Have you considered Romans 15:8-12 and the invitation to the Gentiles to worship? The openness to the Gentiles is also a theme that is evident in the Psalms in the phrase, all who fear HaShem, twice as a climax to the invitation to Israel, Aaron, Levi, those who fear, etc. as in Psalms 115, 118 and 135. It is this invitation that makes what we call Jewishness fuzzy for me today. The phrase ‘those who fear’ is one that has neither religious nor genetic component. The worship of all nations is very clear in the second half of Psalm 22 also.

    Related is the movement and focus in the story of TNK from Israel to Judah (Consider that movement reflected in Psalm 78:68). Curious that Jew/Jews is used 66 times in John, 79 times in Acts and only 48 in the rest of the NT. Israel is used only 70 times in the NT and is more evenly distributed – 10 or more only in Matthew, Luke, Acts and Romans.

    • lbehrendt

      Bob, I want to consider Paul and passages like Romans 15:8-12 in my next post. It’s a bit complicated, I think, what Paul is doing with the concept of Ioudaioi. I think there’s fuzziness at work here, but it’s complicated, and I haven’t completely worked it out.

      I was not thinking about openness to Gentiles, or an invitation for Gentiles to worship G-d, as a kind of Jewish “fuzziness.” As you’ve pointed out, the Jewish worldview ultimately considers G-d to be the G-d of all, and Tanakh does view the ultimate fate of the Gentile in varying ways (Psalm 115 and Psalm 118 appearing to take dramatically different points of view!). But the fact that G-d may be the only true G-d of the Gentiles does not necessarily make “fuzzy” the line between Jews and Gentiles. Judaism teaches that the righteous of all nations have a share in the world to come, but that does not necessarily eliminate the distinction between nations. (It does, of course, problematize any ability of Jews to claim a privileged relationship with G-d.) However, once we factor Paul into all this, then the border between Jew and Gentile DOES seem to grow fuzzier! Maybe you and I should pick up this idea after my next post.

      You bring up a great point, the relationship of Ioudaios to Israel. Back in Paul’s day, Ioudaios was the term with the clear connection to geography; today, the situation has flipped, and Israel is the name more connected to the land. Some argue that in Paul’s day, “Israel” was insider language, and Ioudaios was the identifier Jews used when speaking to outsiders. If so, then it makes sense that Acts (a book that is more Gentile-oriented than any of the Gospels) would frequently use the term Ioudaios. (Why John so heavily uses this term is a topic for a post down the road.)

      What do you mean when you say, “The phrase ‘those who fear’ is one that has neither religious nor genetic component”? In Psalms 115:11 and Psalm 118:4, the phrase (following as it does a reference to Israel and the house of Aaron) might well refer to Gentiles and not Jews.

      • I do take ‘those who fear’ as inclusive, regardless of other identity. Neither genetic nor religious was simply a phrase that came to my fingers to express this. When you say Gentiles and not Jews, I am inclined to think that fear is appropriate to all, regardless of background. I have moved off your carefully constructed topic. I will wait to see where you go in this series.

  • “Presumably, anyone who possessed all of these characteristics would be indisputably Jewish, and anyone who whiffed on all of these characteristics would be indisputably Gentile, but in the ancient world (and perhaps today as well) there would have been no set number of these characteristics necessary or sufficient to make one a Jew.”

    I was very surprised that circumcision was not on Garroway’s list, especially since (according to Cohen, Dunn, Tomson, Rudolph, etc) it seems to function for many ancient writers as a metonym for Jewishness. Could one truly be “indisputably Jewish” in the Second Temple period without possessing the characteristic of circumcision?

    • lbehrendt

      YIKES! How did I leave that one off the list? It must be my budding feminism, shining through. ;^)

      Seriously, that’s the number one item on Garroway’s list. I will correct my post accordingly.

      Could someone be indisputably Jewish without being circumcised? Garroway mentions two categories of such Jews: women, and hemophiliacs. And of course, Jews weren’t the only people in the ancient world to practice circumcision. Plus, there’s the complicating factor of epispasm, the surgical reattachment of a foreskin. While this practice was (I think) universally condemned in Jewish sources, there was at least one Jewish opinion that the epispasm procedure should not be reversed, see here. I am no expert on this topic, I’m just setting forth a few things I’ve read.

      Evidently, there were Jews during this period who tried to avoid circumcision and having their children circumcised. I mentioned Timothy above, he may have been one such Jew.

      So, the need remains for a polythetic reckoning of who is Jewish — circumcision or lack thereof is not going to suffice as a single defining Jewish characteristic. But for your question: yes, I think you’re right, for most men, not being circumcised would remove the man from being “indisputably Jewish.”

  • To respond to your general question (“Does this polythetic way of reckoning Jewishness make sense to you? …” etc) – yes and no. It does make sense to me to the extent that we need to recognize that how to answer the question “Who is a Jew?” was not universally agreed upon in the Second Temple period–in ways not dissimilar to today (per your last, most interesting, question). However, I suspect much of what appears like “fuzziness” on this question is actually a result of our trying to fit these ancient ways of being into a post-Enlightenment category like religion. So, one question I would have in mind as I delve further into Garroway’s work (I haven’t read it, so I can’t really critique it) would be whether the “fuzziness” he is arguing for can really be connected uniquely to this question of “Who is a Jew?”…or if the same sort of “fuzziness” can be found when answering many of the major questions related to ethno-religious practice in the ancient world.

    A correlative question to “Who is a Jew?” which I would pursue to test Garroway’s thesis is this: “Is there a fuzziness between Jew and Gentile?” If a survey of ancient sources provided a variety of answers to the question of how to determine who is a Jew, but all of the survey respondents answered “No, there is no fuzziness between Jew and Gentile,” then I would think the “fuzziness” phenomena would be more accurately described as a diversity of views than actual “fuzziness” on anyone’s part.

    • lbehrendt

      Yahnatan, I don’t think the “fuzziness” I describe here was recognized as such in the first century. To the contrary: from what I’ve read, I’d say that the classification of Ioudaios was seen as something essential and binary: either you’re Jewish or you’re not, and if you’re Jewish, then Jewish you should stay. I’d also say that from the perspective of the Roman intellectual elite (a perspective that probably permeated most of Roman society), there was nothing unique about the classification of Ioudaios; this classification described the peculiar practices of the Judeans, and while these practices might have been particularly peculiar, every ethnos (nation, or ethnic group) had its own set of peculiar practices. But I DO think that Romans recognized it (and in general, disapproved) when members of one ethnos adopted practices of another ethnos. The examples of this that I know about all relate to Judaism or Christianity; I can’t say whether the Romans would have objected if people from Gaul started acting like Egyptians. So, when you wonder if “fuzziness” was a particular problem with ancient Judaism, the answer may be “yes,” but not because Jewishness was the only potentially fuzzy category within the Roman sphere, but because so many Jews and folks associated with Judaism behaved fuzzily!

      Agreed that “religion” as we understand the term is a post-Enlightenment category (one that is the creation of Christians, designed — perhaps unintentionally — to show Christianity in a relatively favorable light). But we should not say that “religion” is an anachronistic concept if applied before the year 1700. I think it’s clear that the early Christians (post-Paul; perhaps beginning in the mid-second century) were already thinking about what they were doing in terms we can recognize as a religion. And I find it difficult to discuss the Judaism of late antiquity without at least making occasional reference to terms of religion (even if I have to apologize for doing so!). There is a weak sense in this Judaism, one developed more powerfully by the early Christians, that what they were doing should be done exclusively by all peoples. I think this goes to what distinguishes religion from the cultural practices of an ethnos, which is that a religion is something distinguishable from culture, geography and ethnicity, even if in some cases it retains a connection to all three things. I think this emerging sense of religion (possibly a distant precursor, but I think recognizable as such) is part of what might have made Ioudaios a fuzzier concept than that of other ethnos markers in the Roman world.

      Lots of speculation here. And plenty of room for people to disagree with me. In fact, I’d like to leave at least some room for me to change my mind!