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  • Judaism in Antiquity:Ethno-Religion or National Identity
  • Martha Himmelfarb (bio)

Martha Himmelfarb, Shaye J. D. Cohen, From the Maccabees to the Mishnah, David Goodblatt, Elements of Ancient Jewish Nationalism, Dead Sea Scrolls, Jewish Nationalism, Hellenistic Judaism, proto-Christian Judaism, proto-rabbinic Judaism, Palestinian Judaism, Jewish Diversity

Shaye J. D. Cohen . From the Maccabees to the Mishnah. 2nd edition. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006. Pp. xiv + 250.
David Goodblatt . Elements of Ancient Jewish Nationalism. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. Pp. xvi + 260.

In the decades following the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls the scholarly fashion, at least in North America, was to emphasize the diversity of beliefs and practices that made up ancient Judaism. Some scholars preferred to speak of Judaisms in the plural on the theory that no single ism could do justice to the range and variety reflected in the ancient texts. In part this emphasis on diversity grew out of the effort to integrate the new and sometimes startling glimpses the Scrolls provided of the worldview of the sectarians who wrote and preserved them. In part—thanks to the work of scholars such as Elias Bickerman, Saul Lieberman, and Martin Hengel—it grew out of an attempt to take account of the new understanding of the importance of Hellenistic culture not just for the Greek-speaking Jews of the Diaspora but also for the Jews of Palestine. It also helped to move scholars away from the habit once common in New Testament scholarship of understanding ancient Judaism in dualistic pairs: (proto-Christian) Hellenistic Judaism in the Diaspora vs. (proto-rabbinic) Palestinian Judaism, or the (proto-Christian) prophetic strand of ancient Judaism vs. the (proto-rabbinic) legalistic strand.

There can be no doubt that the emphasis on diversity had some salutary effects, encouraging careful attention to the significance of the specifics of individual texts that might once have been too quickly assigned to a larger category. But it also raised questions of its own, most importantly, the problem of the connections among the various individual strands on which attention was now being lavished. Or, as Shaye J. D. [End Page 65] Cohen puts it in From the Maccabees to the Mishnah, his introduction to Judaism during the period indicated by his title, "With such diversity, was there any unity? What links these diverse phenomena together and allows them all to be called Judaism?" (p. 12).

Cohen answers his own questions thus:

The most potent [unifying] force . . . is self-perception or self-definition . . . the Jews . . . felt (and still feel) an affinity for their fellow Jews throughout the world, in spite of differences in language, practice, ideology, and political loyalty. Such feelings are normal for minority groups in both ancient and modern times


Though this description of Jewish identity is clear and apparently commonsensical, the parallel between the self-perception of the Jews of antiquity and the Jews of modernity is by no means as self-evident as Cohen implies. Evidence for the ancient world is so partial and fragmentary that scholars often draw on sociological or anthropological studies of contemporary groups in order to deduce things about antiquity that the surviving evidence does not reveal. Yet any discussion of similarities between ancient and modern Jewish identity should take account of significant structural differences. Most important, whereas in pre-Christian antiquity the Jews were one minority among many, with the rise of Christianity to imperial power Jews became the minority par excellence, a status they have retained at least in the West among the heirs of Christendom. Furthermore, one defining feature of Jewish modernity is the significant number of Jews who have no connection to Jewish communal life at all, sometimes on ideological grounds; as Cohen points out, in antiquity ideological rejection of Jewish identity was not a significant phenomenon (pp. 32–34).

From the Maccabees to the Mishnah was a first-rate introduction to ancient Judaism when it first appeared in 1987. It was one of the few introductions to treat institutions as well as texts in both the Diaspora and Palestine, and it did so in a thoughtful, historically informed fashion. It did an excellent job of taking account of early...


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