Ancient Social Identity: The Case of Jews

How, then, did you know a Jew in antiquity when you saw one? The answer is that you did not.

I started reading two fascinating books. Both are about Judaism. The first one I was looking at is The Beginning of Jewishness by Shaye J. D. Cohen (the source of the quote above, Kindle Location 796). And the other is The Invention of God by Thomas Römer.

Having read a little bit of each, I realized that they offered a useful angle in thinking about claims of ancient proto-racism. In my recent post on the topic, I did briefly use it an example:

“the early Jews probably were darker-skinned before outbreeding with Europeans and Arabs (Palestinians are descendants of the original Jews that never left). Or consider how those early Jews perceived the Samaritans as a separate people, even though they shared the same holy texts.”

That post was more wide-ranging. My thoughts were fairly general, as the point I was making was general. Sometimes, though, such issues become more interesting as you focus in on the details of a specific example.

In perusing the two books mentioned above, I was reminded me once again of how little I know and hence how much there is to learn. Certain books are able to change how you see something. The second book, The Invention of God, is more familiar territory, although still fascinating. Relevant to my thoughts here, I noticed the following (p. 13):

“Its origins do not lie, as the book of Joshua claims, in the military conquest of a territory by a population invading from somewhere else; rather “Israel” resulted from a slow process that took place gradually within the framework of the global upheavals of the Late Bronze Age— that is, it had its origin in indigenous populations. The opposition we find in the Bible between “Israelites” and “Canaanites” was in no way based on an existing ethnic difference, but is a much later theoretical construction in the service of a segregationist ideology.”

We modern people read ancient texts or, more likely, historical interpretations of ancient texts. In doing so, we come across labels like Israelites, Canaanites, etc. Our frame of reference include modern politics and conflicts along with media portrayals in movies and on television.

Also, there is the issue of how words changed over time. Looking at ancient texts, most people read a translation. But even reading the original language requires care, as there is a vast scholarship analyzing the context of texts and how, intentionally or unintentionally, they were altered over time. (See: David M. Goldberg, Reading Rabbinic Literature; and Michael L. Satlow, Jew or Judaean?)

I just found it fascinating. It turns out, like most people, I had no idea how social identities were formed and perceived in the ancient world. Cohen’s book makes this particularly clear.

There was no certain way to know someone was a Jew, as most ancient people living in the same area tended to look, dress, act, and speak more or less alike. Even circumcision in the Eastern Roman Empire was practiced by other groups besides Jews, and besides no one used circumcision to prove their social identity. Besides, many people who might have been perceived as Jewish because of following certain customs didn’t always perceive themselves as Jews and among those who did identify as Jews there was diverse lifestyles. The rants of the priestly class about what defined a real Jew were more prescriptive than descriptive, which is to say driven by ideology and politics rather than how people actually lived their lives.

It’s not as if there was an official record kept of all Jews. It was originally a rather informal social identity, besides a few basic rules that were more or less agreed upon.

Anyone could become a Jew, as conversion was simple. All you needed to do was be circumcised by a Jew and you were a Jew. No rabbi or ritual was necessary. Conversion was quite common at different points, as their were many incentives. Rulers were known to give special privileges to various groups, depending on the needs of rulership, and that sometimes included Jews having dispensation from certain laws and taxes. There was so much conversion going on that even anyone who claimed to be a Jew was treated as such.

Even the simple act of denying idolatry or abstaining from eating pork because of vegetarianism often got ancient people labeled as Jews, no matter what the individual claimed. If someone did anything like a Jew, however vague, for all intents and purposes they might as well have been a Jew.

There was much permeability of social identities, not just in perception but also in practice—as Cohen notes (Kindle Locations 739-740): “There is abundant evidence that in the first centuries of our era some-perhaps many-gentiles, whether polytheist or Christian, attended Jewish synagogues, abstained from work on the Sabbath, and perhaps observed other Jewish rituals as well.” It went the other way around as well. Some—perhaps many—Jews attended gentile religious services (e.g., mystery schools), participated in gentile holy days, and observed other gentile rituals as well.

“In sum: people associating with Jews were not necessarily Jews themselves. selves. Even people assembled in a synagogue or present in a Jewish neighborhood were not necessarily Jews themselves. In the Roman diaspora social mingling between Jews and gentiles was such that, without out inquiring or checking, you could not be sure who was a Jew and who was not” (Kindle Locations 697-699).

What distinguished and identified people wasn’t religion, ethnicity, or race. It was mostly about location and politics. A Judean wasn’t necessarily a Jew. Rather, a Judean was someone who lived in Judah and fell under Judean law and governance. It was a particular population and nothing more. The idea of a religious identity disconnected from all else would take many more centuries to fully form, under the influence of grand totalizing and imperialistic religions like Roman Catholicism. It was upon that basis that later notions of race would develop.

Even with the early disapora, an absolutely distinct ethno-religious identity hadn’t yet formed. “In the Roman diaspora, certainly after 70 C.E.,” as Cohen explains (Kindle Locations 609-610), “there is no evidence for obsession with genealogical purity and hardly any evidence for public archives and archival records.” Our modern obsessions were irrelevant to ancient people. They didn’t so easily and quickly turn to broad abstract categories. And the categories that did exist, context-dependent as they were, had a mercurial quality to them.

20 thoughts on “Ancient Social Identity: The Case of Jews

  1. a brilliant reminder, B., thanks. I like to say that ancient people weren’t simple or stupid, but this is a terrific concrete example, they were humans, complex as Hell, just like us. Besides pointing out the fallacious analogies of the politicians courting the Religious Right, there’s another nasty irony this idea suggests: that it’s the same stupid myth that justified the Crusades – “Jews” killed our Lord – but wait, it means the same for antisemitism ever since then too, doesn’t it? It’s always been a useful lie, the hate based in a construction of a past that never was.
    (Even worse, if Thiering was right, and I kinda think so, Jesus’ contemporaries used the Romans to punish him, but saved him before he died and revived him, then there was no murder in the first place, no corpus delecti. The irony just gets thicker as it goes on, because according to Thiering and the Pesher Technique, it was Jesus himself who wrote the Mysteries of his own miracles, including his death and resurrection. Jesus himself wrote the whopper that justified the Crusades, antisemitism generally, the Holocaust, and Netenyahu’s atitude! Irony.
    – actually, Benjamin,I’ll ask you to apply your fancy mind to that for a minute. Doesn’t it make some kind of intuitive, poetic sense? That Christendom and Jewry have been at odds is no new development, it was what it was from the very start, Judaism the Father and Christ the Son in some Oedipal death match?)

    Wow, a thought provoker for me, B. Good one.

    • Humans are complex. It rarely works well when we try to put people into simplistic boxes.

      As for Christianity, the same complexity applies. Jesus was a Jew, of course. But early Christians themselves often identified as Jews. They were also often identified by others as Jews.

      People back then didn’t think of religion in the way we do. In fact, they had no category for ‘religion’. There were just various shifting and overlapping social identities.

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    • We still find this topic of interest and of relevance. But, if we were posting it now, we probably would’ve written it differently with more care and nuance, possibly along with more quotes and references. It is a rather skimpy post, if it gets to the point. It’s just, in reading it again, we could imagine where some might respond with critique and complaint.

      For example, we could have more fully explored the sensitive topic of European Jews, Palestinians, Samaritans, and the diverse Semitic peoples; specifically in context of who gets to be called a real Jew and a real Semite, such that oppression against some Semites (e.g., Palestinians) doesn’t get the official Israeli approval of being anti-Semitism. Part of the point of talking about all of this is that these ancient histories and pseudo-histories are used to justify modern identities, politics, and practices.

      The other thing we might emphasize more, if we were to write a new version, is simply the fascinating strangeness of ancient culture and identity. This could require discussing pre-WEIRD and pre-Jaynesian mentalities as they lingered into the Axial Age and following. The more we study the ancient world the more we can sense how alien and foreign it was. It’s probably impossible for us moderns to imaginatively enter into their mindspace, maybe especially for those who try to claim them as their ancestors.

    • There was a post we wanted to write some years back, but we’ve never gotten around to it. It’s about the modern invention of the nation-state and ethno-nationalism. Prior the world war era, most Europeans and Americans still primarily identified with local culture and ties of kinship, community, and region.

      This has to do with the disease of nostalgia that appeared in the 1700s and became a major problem in the 1800s. The once rooted peasantry was being forced into modern urban life and military conscription. In order to build the new nation-states, the old identities had to be actively destroyed and it was socially and psychologically devastating.

      This relates to the ancient identity, as large abstract identities had yet to form. So, identity was very much organically context-dependent, in being both more concretely real and fluidly open to a mix of immediate influences. But this had dramatically changed with increasing mass urbanization, particularly heading into the 20th century.

      We were reminded of this again recently when reading Sam Apple’s Ravenous. It’s about the Nazi research on cancer, but specifically focuses on Otto Warburg. Like many other German Jews, he had mixed ancestry that included European and other non-Semitic ancestors. With the takeover of ethno-nationalism, Jews like Warburg no longer identified as Jews but as Germans.

      The Nazis, of course, changed that identity forever. But we forget that, prior to WWII, most Jews did not identity with a global community of Jews. The creation of modern Israel was something entirely new and had little to do with ancient Israel or its inhabitants, as was made clear in the treatment of the Semitic and ancestrally Jewish Palestinians.

    • By the way, when we first read your comment, we assumed you were probably being sarcastic or otherwise dismissive. Immediately before you left this comment, you posted another comment elsewhere in the blog where we responded critically and your response in return was defensive and aggressive. So, we assumed you were still feeling irritable and looking to attack us in order to vindicate yourself in your own mind. Or maybe this is another example of one of your occasionally strange and indecipherable comments. Or maybe your comment expressed something else entirely. We haven’t a clue, as you left no clue to what you meant. Feel free to offer us a clue, as we’d find it helpful. If we misunderstood you, we apologize in advance.

      Certainly, we’re not in the mood to attack you or argue with you, not that you’re likely to return anyway, as your habit is to usually do drive-by commenting, rather than engage in intellectual discussion. In any case, your statement of “right” doesn’t seem to imply agreement, at the very least. But, as with the other comment, you don’t explain yourself as if you think people can read your mind. Unfortunately, we can’t read your mind. Good luck with finding anyone who can read your mind. To make a wild guess, we might speculate that you took this post as being antisemitic or unfairly critical or something like that. If so, that would be an odd response, as our intention was quite the opposite. We realize that, to the modern mainstream Western mind, it’s incomprehensible that human reality hasn’t always conformed to modern mainstream Western thought. In this case, that would be a result of the infamous WEIRD bias, as motivated by WEIRD mentality and shaped by WEIRD culture, that we’ve written about elsewhere.

      For centuries, the conventional view has been to treat ethnic and ethno-nationalist groups as essentialist realities, as if the Jews are a singular distinct group that has always existed as we presently know them, rather than being a diversity of populations that were a part of the complex semitic and gentile cultures that they were mixed into and influenced by over a vast history. The point of this post is to take a leftist position of anti-essentialism, as motivated by leftist principles of egalitarianism and universalism, and for the purpose of demonstrating social constuctionism and social constructivism; but basically to understand the ancient Jews on their own terms, as opposed to projecting onto them our present assumptions. This isn’t really about Jews, but simply an example of how vastly identity has changed over the millennia. So, we’re not sure why you would disagree or exactly what would be the basis of disagreement.

      This post was inspired by the work of two major scholars in the field, one of them probably being Jewish going by his last name. From Wikipedia: “Shaye J. D. Cohen (born October 21, 1948) is a scholar of religion who is currently the Littauer Professor of Hebrew Literature and Philosophy in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations of Harvard University.” “Thomas Christian Römer (born 13 December 1955 in Mannheim) is a German-born Swiss biblical scholar, exegete, philologist, professor, and Reformed minister. After teaching at the University of Geneva, he became professor of the Old Testament at the University of Lausanne and, from 2007, has held the chair “Biblical environments” at the Collège de France, of which he became administrator in 2019.” Assuming you were being dismissive, why anti-intellectually dismiss out of hand the scholarship of leading experts in the field? But if you didn’t mean to express such criticism, what were you trying to say by your mystifying one word comment? And do you have an opinion about the post itself?

      To be fair, we should admit to our own biases, beyond the general left-liberal bias in opposition to all forms of essentialism and modern pseudo-tribalism, and even more critical of clannish religiosity. We are the product of a long line of American mutts going back to the colonial period with regular injections of immigrants over the generations. Our family has no shared living memory of cultural and ethnic ancestry, and there are no obvious remnants of where ‘our people’ came from. We have been fully assimilated and Americanized. And, growing up, our family moved around multiple times, such that we spent our early years in multiple states in multiple regions of the United States; none of it spent near extended family. To exaggerate this further, we were raised in a hyper-Protestant and uber-liberal New Thought church of extreme egalitarianism and universalism.

      So, our bias is to find almost incomprehensible the strong ethnic and ethno-nationalistic ties that some people take as the norm. That doesn’t make our bias right, while other people’s biases are wrong. But it is what it is. And it makes sense to us, in our own WEIRD mentality that is WEIRDness on steroids. We really do see humanity as a single race… yes, with immense diversity but no essentialist identities beyond what we imagine into existence, for good or ill. The WEIRD mind is caught up in abstractions. The social construction of modern ethnicities and ethno-nationalities was one level of abstraction, whereas the social construction of a universal humanity is an even more extreme degree of abstraction. Those ancient Jews wouldn’t have understood either form of modern abstract identity. That is our point. It’s not that our bias is better, per se, however attached we are to it. The purpose of this post is to take our best knowledge in order to help us to stand outside of our most familiar and preferred biases. There is something truly fascinating by attempting to enter the alien mindsets of those far different from us. The ancient world truly is a foreign land.

    • This is where we have a hard time. The last two comments you left, at this post and the other one, had no clear connection to the post itself. The comment at the other post indicated you hadn’t even read what we wrote but maybe were just responding to the title or something. In neither comment was there any actual intellectual engagement or, for that matter, simple human engagement — that is to say no acknowledgement of the humanity of the other person to whose blog you are commenting in, much less acknowledgement of what was being communicated. Such comments don’t seem to be in response to anything or anyone in particular, but more like private mental ejaculations that just so happen to get posted on the internet, in the way a stranger might mumble to themselves while passing you on the sidewalk.

      To say the very least, it’s hard to know how to respond back or if one should simply ignore such comments or else not even approve them to be posted in the first place. What does the comment “right” meaningfully express or contribute to this post or any of the prior comments? Your comments on this blog sometimes are so opaque or non sequitur that they verge on what can feel like the trollish. When a comment is utterly disconnected from a post, we sometimes wonder if there is some underlying mental illness, such as a personality disorder or whatever. It can feel like the person is lost in their own world and must be responding to things in their own minds because such comments don’t seem to be in response to anything on the blog itself. So, we probably shouldn’t take it personally, even as it is irritating. But the problem is that this is not an isolated incident and so ignoring it doesn’t make it go away.

      This is one of the many things that makes us want to give up on blogging, as we’ve mostly given up on social media. There is so much bizarre strangeness in so many of the interactions one has, and we’ve conjectured about this in discussing the WEIRDing of New Media. We’re starting to suspect that the New Media makes us all a bit crazy, related to how irritable we feel when people leave short and strange drive-by comments. Irritability has always been connected to our depression, having preceded the internet by decades, and interactions or rather non-interactions like this exacerbate our depressive symptoms, one of our own mental health issues. The internet seems to have become dominated by a variety of mentally ill and mentally unstable people clashing in mutual incomprehension. The few remaining mentally healthy people have mostly vacated the premises; and we’re thinking we maybe should follow suit for the sake of our own sanity or what semblance of sanity we have remaining.

    • Also, what makes this and the other comment stand out is that you’ve commented on this blog many times before, maybe over many years at this point. So, at some basic and superficial level, we already have an established relationship, if one can consider occasional short responses on a blog as a relationship. And it’s not even that you always leave short and strange comments. In fact, some of your comments at this blog have been appreciated as they actually engaged with posts and contributed to discussion, including respectful dialogue between us. It’s not like we’ve had a bad relationship, up to this point. So, what is motivating your recent comments?

      As one human to another, let me suggest that you try an experiment of sympathetic understanding in using cognitive empathy and by putting yourself in our place. And, to make it even more viscerally and emotionally real, imagine this was an interaction in the real world, rather than it being the internet treated as a socio-psychological contact sport. Here we go. Think about yourself having an interesting intellectual conversation with a friend in a public place. Suddenly, a casual acquaintance you barely know walks up, says “right” in a tone that is hard to interpret, and then without further explanation immediately walks away. You’d probably think that person was either Looney Tunes or an asshole or else having a really bad day. Yet such bizarre incidents as this happen all the time online and people act like it’s normal.

    • This commenting behavior of yours has been repeated too often at this point. And, to be frank, we simply are no longer interested in such comments. You’ve lost all rights to comment on this post. But, for the time being, you are still allowed to comment at other posts.

      Take this as a chastisement and warning. Any future comments that are cryptic and incomprehensible or irrelevant and off-topic will not be approved and you will be permanently banned from the blog. For clarification, please read the Comment Policy before all commenting.

    • The response of our last comment may seem harsh. But we’ve reached a breaking point. We are simply tired of it all. There is too much weird tension and conflict on the internet.

      We want nothing to do with it and so we won’t allow it on our blog. If we were a better person, we might deal with it better. But we don’t know how to not let it exacerbate our depressive irritability.

      Either we enforce a zero tolerance policy or we quit blogging entirely and maybe give up on the internet altogether. We aren’t quite prepared to go that far. So, for now, we draw a line in the sand.

      Our blunt honesty comes from our sensitivity. We aren’t one of those people who hides behind a username and internet persona. In wearing our emotions on our sleeves, we don’t know how to pretend that others don’t affect us.

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