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.