Thursday, August 30, 2007

Judaism v. Judaisms

I am developing a real distaste for the trend in biblical studies toward variety, with no room for singularities. This is one of those "bad" consequences of post-modern thought in my opinion.

The notion that we shouldn't or can't talk about early "Judaism" because there was no normative expression borders on bogus. Also bogus is the notion that there was "normative Judaism" (=Pharisees) alongside other sectarian Jews like Sadducces, Zealots, Essenes, and the rest. Normative means that one understands one's particular expression of Judaism as normative. The Pharisees, Sadducces, Essenes, Zealots, etc. were Jewish - they all participated in Judaism as individual expressions of it.

To talk about early "Judaism" does not have to imply a static monolithic entity. It can just as easily refer to a dynamic religion in the second temple period with multiple expressions. It means that all Jews in this period identified with and participated in a particular set of traditions, practices, narratives, and memories as a community, although their interpretation of these may have differed from each other.

As I spoke in my NT class today, all expressions of early Judaism shared in a particular covenant relationship with a particular god YHWH, felt that the Torah was sacred and central to that relationship, and had a shared set of presuppositions about how the sacred texts were to be interpreted. They all worshiped YHWH as a god of holiness, a worship that was centered around the Temple and synagogues and that followed a liturgical festival cycle. They all shared a cosmology that pictured an enthroned king-like deity surrounded and supported by his court of angelic host. They all were involved in apocalyptic-thinking about Israel's future (even if to combat it as might be the case with the Sadducces).

So I retain the word "Judaism" in my academic vocabulary, and have begun resisting using the plural "-isms" except in rare well-defined cases.

10 comments:

Mark Goodacre said...

Excellent. I couldn't agree more.

Zephyr said...

What a great distinction. Thanks for your voice.

Josh said...

What is your thought on the trend of refering to "Early Christianities"?

Michael F. Bird said...

April, well said! Jewish authors themselves used the term "Judaism" (sg.) to describe their religious convictions and they were probably more aware of the diversity of Jewish beliefs more than we are. That does not require that we think of Judaism as uniform and monolithic, rather (as John Barclay puts it) we should envisage a "a web of shared beliefs and practices".

Pastor Bob said...

In the 1st century wasn't primitive Christianity also a form of Judaism?

Judy Redman said...

April, you say: 'To talk about early "Judaism" does not have to imply a static monolithic entity. It can just as easily refer to a dynamic religion in the second temple period with multiple expressions.' I agree, and have problems with the liberal use of "Judaisms" and "Christianities" but I wonder how else it is possible to indicate that very few world religions are anything approaching monolithic? I think it's really important to get this message across, because I think that one of the reasons the War against Terror has been so successful is that most people think about Islam as a monolithic religion characterised by fundamentalist tendencies.

Anyone who has done much in the way of biblical studies or studies in religion will realise that neither Judaism nor Christianity is monolithic, so I suspect that there isn't a great need to use the plural terms within the discipline, except as you say in rare, well-defined cases, but when we're speaking to those outside, I wonder if it's a different matter? Maybe it's just my particular philosophy, but I like to think that helping society in general to differentiate between different ways of practising particular faiths is an important contribution that we could make.

David B. Capes said...

April, you are absolutely correct. Thanks for leading the way to a new synthesis. There were many ways of being Jewish but they were all Jewish. Even the various debates, positions, expressions of zeal took place within Judaism. We should probably think of Judaism (or any religion for that matter) as points along a continuum.

Pastor Bob said...

How soon after the 1st Roman/Jewish war in the 60's and 70's do you all think the non Pharisaic/Rabbinic groups faded out?

Geoff Hudson said...

I think according to Jacob Neusner, the Pharisees kept a very low profile, which to my mind means they can barely be said to have existed. They are not in the DSS explicitly, they are not in Philo, and all the references to Pharisees in the writings attributed to Josephus look like later interpolations. In the NT, Pharisees are almost certainly later obfuscatory substitutes for priests.

And Judy is right about the possibility of dynamism in second temple Judaism. But it wasn't with the priests, but the prophets, who were turning against the temple cult of animal sacrifices for sins as being ineffective. To that effect, there are sufficient rumblings in both the writings attributed to Josephus and the NT.

Thus I don't believe that all Jews did identify themselves with the practices or traditions of the priests in the temple. There was a cultural revolution going on - wonderfully smoothed-over by scholars such as E. P. Sander's in Judaism, Practice and Belief.

Loren Rosson III said...

April,

I count you among the wise. My blood congeals whenever I encounter the pluralizing of "Judaism"; it's unnecessary and patronizing. But I wonder if you would consider telling us whether or not you think "Judaism" even has a place in the discussion. I.e. Is "Jew" the proper translation of Ioudaios? Despite my usual loathing for re-definitions, I've become convinced (following Jack Elliott, Philip Esler, Dick Rohrbaugh, etc.) that Jesus was no more Jewish than he was Christian; that Ioudaios should be translated "Judean". I'll be posting more about this today.