What's in a Name? The Great Nomenclature Debate

by Ancient Jew Review in


When we, three overly opinionated young scholars, sat down to brainstorm about a new exciting web platform, the last thing we thought we would get stuck on was what to call it.

After all, the field of Ancient Jewish studies, if you’ll allow us to use that title for a moment, has been debating this very issue over the last few years. We realized that any name we gave the website would potentially ally us with one group of scholars and against another, despite our general preference for nuance.

Well, we thought, let’s first lay out what topics, periods and resources the website would provide. We are all students of Second Temple, Early Christian, and Rabbinic culture, society and texts, so maybe something about Ancient Judaism? Of course, “Judaism” has become a dirty word in recent years, and with some merit. There are dangers in using modern terms, in this case inadvertently applying our own conceptions of what Jews and Judaism mean onto people from the past who thought differently. Perhaps instead we should use the terms employed by ancient people to describe each other and themselves, like the Greek ioudaios, the Hebrew yehudi or the Aramaic yehudaye or the more generic yisrael, Israelite?

Ioudaios caught our eyes. This term has become the touchstone for this entire nomenclature debate, as wonderfully exhibited by the recent Jew and Judean forum at  Marginalia. When translating the Greek ioudaios, does one translate it as Judaean, a mostly geographic and political affiliation, or with Jew, a mostly religious identification?

Ultimately, we rejected ioudaios for far more practical reasons. We asked a few random people, and some friends, how they would spell the word “ioudaios.” Four spelling mistakes later, we realized this wouldn’t work.

And for good reason. Our goal in this new web platform is to create and curate discussions about all things Ancient Judaism, for both scholarly and lay audiences. We intend this site to be academically rigorous, on the cutting edge, but also entirely accessible.

So, we settled. We went with Ancient Jew Review, not only because it was catchy and easily made into a compelling acronym (AJR), but because we think that AJR is inclusive enough to include all of our intended contributors and audiences. From Bible to Abu Bakr and everything in between, anyone and anything that can be considered part of, or indebted to, Ancient Judaism in all of its varieties and complicatedness.

We invite you to read, contribute, comment, and enjoy what we hope will be an embarrassment of riches. We’re not sure we are going to solve the nomenclature debate within this new community; but we’ll settle for making the picture even more complicated.

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