A Genius for Mentorship: A Forum in Honor of Ben Wright on his 65th Birthday
~ presented by his students ~
Erasing the Hyphen from the Study of Early Judaism
Benjamin Wright is one of the premier scholars of Jewish literature produced in the Hellenistic era. His many careful studies on Ben Sira and the Letter of Aristeas alone make his work an indispensable resource in the study of Hellenistic Judaism. In addition, he has been a tireless advocate for the field of Early Judaism, arguing for its autonomy from traditional theological and canonical categories. He has helped to secure it as a field in its own right. For these many and great contributions to wisdom and instruction he deserves great praise. Moreover, on a personal note, because of his proactive interaction with younger scholars, Ben has become a wonderful mentor, and I am happy to say, a good friend. It is my pleasure to offer this essay in tribute to Ben’s long and remarkable career by focusing on one of the ways in which he continues to inspire my own contributions to the field.
Ben is best known as the don of Ben Sira research (at least in North America), and one of the most prominent voices in both Septuagint translation theory and the Letter of Aristeas. But his contributions are far more widespread. I would like to highlight one area of Ben’s work that has been both longstanding and overshadowed by his prominence in other segments of the field: his careful reflections on the contours of Hellenistic Judaism. Like much of Ben’s work, his treatment of this subject has questioned a fundamental set of assumptions upon which so many theories are built in our field. He has thus called upon scholars to reexamine the very sense of what is meant by the label “Hellenistic Judaism” itself.
Ben has been publishing on various aspects of this question for nearly two decades. One particularly interesting contribution he has made comes in a 2015 conference paper entitled “The Problem of the Hyphen and Judean/Jewish Ethnic Identity: The Letter of Aristeas, the Septuagint, and Cultural Interactions.” This work is representative of the type of thinking about Jewish identity that has inspired my own current research project investigating the feasibility of discerning a coherent Jewish ethnicity in the ancient sources. In this conference paper, Ben gets to the heart of the scholarly discussion concerning Hellenistic Judaism. He questions whether it is appropriate to use the term “Hellenistic Judaism” at all. He points out that, though there is no grammatical hyphen in the term “Hellenistic Judaism” the way in which it is used implies a notional hyphen. He shows that in the scholarship on the subject people often speak of Hellenistic Jews in the same way they would Italian–Americans. Ben goes further by pointing out that this implied hyphen is problematic when examining ancient Jewish identity from an emic perspective. He notes that this notional hyphen suggests that there is something incongruous about the terms which are linked by the hyphen. Using this terminology asserts that there is something about being identified as a Jew that is at odds with being identified as a Hellene. Otherwise, scholars would not speak of Hellenistic Jews, they would simply call them Hellenes or Jews. In short, for these scholars, to be a Hellenistic Jew is to have a hybrid identity. Yet, when one looks at the ancient sources, especially the Letter of Aristeas, Ben argues that none of this anxiety over hybridity is present. One can be a Hellene in full stature and be a Jew all at once, with no need to resort to a notional hyphen. In fact, Ben shows that the very concept of this hyphenated identity would be nonsensical at least for the Jewish compositional agent responsible for the Letter of Aristeas.
Ben’s point is well founded. To write about Hellenistic Jews, even in an era after Martin Hengel’s Judentum und Hellenismus is still to assert an essential character to both the concept of Judaism and that of Hellenism. This model of ethnic identity is antiquated and problematic in that it fully buys in to the stories of shared genealogy and primordial origins ethnic groups tell about themselves. In the social sciences, ethnicity is never treated as a fixed category, whether based on genealogical lineage, geographic origin, or some other criterion. Rather, ethnicity is treated as a construction by which population groups are defined and define themselves. This construction is never static. It is the product of constant negotiations among members of a group and between ethnic groups. Approaching ethnicity from this perspective makes it difficult to speak of being Italian–American or being a Hellenistic Jew because it assumes that some of the ethnic identity is constructed in one sphere and some in the other, producing a result that is neither really Italian nor really American, neither authentically Hellenistic nor authentically Jewish. But, if one pays due attention to the discourse on ethnic classifications, the makeup of anything like authentic Hellenism and authentic Judaism is rather difficult to pin down. Ben’s point thus signals that a new model of thinking about Judaism in the Hellenistic and Graeco–Roman periods must be formulated.
Two sometimes competing social–scientific models attempt to understand the phenomenon of ethnic construction. These outline both how it is claimed and the means by which an ethnic group might be recognized. Followers of Frederik Barth focus on boundary marking performance as the locus of assertion of ethnic identity. These scholars would emphasize that it is not the whole basket of practices of a people that constitute their ethnic identity. Rather, they argue that it is only a few select practices given special significance as demarcators in specific circumstances that are employed in the construction of ethnicity. So, although all those identified as Jews in a given context might participate in myriad practices including keeping the sabbath, abstaining from some set of unclean food, or attending a synagogue, scholars investigating ethnicity from this perspective would only be interested in those practices the community itself identified as separating them from outsiders. These boundary–marking practices might include sabbath observance, abstention from unclean food, or attending a synagogue, but they need not. No practice is treated as a universal marker of ethnicity. The meanings asserted for these practices are only accessible in a specific context, determined by both time and place. Such scholars of ethnicity suggest that these boundary markers arise because they function simultaneously as status markers within the ethnic group. So the reason members of the group are drawn to perform these meaningful acts may be out of a sense of social cohesion, but it is also out of a desire to gain praise and social standing. Stewart Moore, who is also contributing to this forum, has written a wonderful book employing this approach to consider the ethnic identity of Jews in Hellenistic Egypt.
A second method for studying ethnicity is most often associated with Anthony D. Smith. The approach, called ethno–symbolism, asserts that the construction of ethnic (and national) identity has deeply rooted myths, symbols, and practices at its foundation. That is, scholars from this perspective would note that an ethnic group can be recognized by a long term insistence on group identity, appeal to specific myths of founding and golden ages, assertion of an ancestral homeland, common codes of communication that are only discernible by an in–group, and a sense of shared customs and practices. These scholars do not simplistically reassert the claims for myths, territory, language, and custom as primordial truths. Rather, they argue that these ideas develop as resources from which groups draw, and through which they construct a concept of ethnicity. The result is that such scholars examine the reappearance and re–signification in various settings of these myths, symbols and practices in order to discern ethnic identity. So, they would be interested in which myths Jews uphold for their origins and golden ages, which territory the Jews assert as their homeland, which symbols gain a special sense among Jews, and which customs are presented as Jewish. They would neither expect group members in a particular setting to agree on the interpretation of the myths and symbols asserted, nor would they expect the specific myths and symbols employed in any of these categories to be stable across time and space. However, they would expect a certain progression from one symbol to another or one meaning to another. Such scholars suggest that these myths and symbols are communicated through popular institutions which are allocated a certain degree of authority. We see an interesting example of how this approach might be used when considering Hasmonean Judea in David Goodblatt’s Elements of Ancient Jewish Nationalism (2006).
Each of these approaches is fundamentally different. The Barthian approach focuses on the areas in which an ethnic group interacts with outsiders, while the ethno-symbolic approach centers on the myths and practices upon which groups claim their identity is based. Both are useful methods, and both Moore and Goodblatt’s studies move in the direction Ben’s work on the subject suggests. They de-essentialize Judaism. They construct Judaism not as a set of myths, symbols, or practices that must be followed in order to be an authentic Jew. Instead, they assert that Jewish identity is a cultural product constantly under negotiation. It is a Judaism whose walls are porous, allowing for the phenomenon of ethnic conversion one can recognize in myriad ancient sources. Yet, neither of these approaches is entirely satisfying when trying to understand Judaism of the Hellenistic era. Because the Barthian approach is concentrated on localized manifestations of Judaism, and even there, only on boundary–marking practices, it can reify the idea of plural Judaisms. This concept of plural Judaisms has been popularized by Jacob Neusner, Jonathan Z. Smith, and Gabriele Boccaccini. They argue that because Judaism is expressed diversely across eras, locales, and texts the idea of a single Judaism is a construct, and an insufficiently descriptive one at that. However, this proposal ignores the fact that Jews of the ancient world appear to recognize each other as Jewish without resorting to the scholarly construct of multiple Judaisms. They thus avoid a paradoxical essentialism baked into this idea. For this and other reasons the concept of plural Judaisms should be avoided. Moreover, the lack of attention to the basket of cultural practices has the potential to leave unexamined many rather broadly performed behaviors within Judaism, simply because they are not used to distinguish Jews from outsiders in many places. For example, would a description of Judaism that did not involve some reflection on the Jerusalem temple or sacrificial worship be satisfying? Probably not.
The ethno-symbolic approach has its own problems. Because it highlights the myths and symbols of Jews as loci of meaning, it tends to emphasize continuity and broad reach. Those myths or practices that might constitute meaningful ethnic resources for Jews in a specific locale are recognized as valid, but not concentrated upon because of their relative marginality. Further, while this concentration upon myths and symbols documents quite well how an ethnic group maintains itself, it is quite poor at explaining how this ethnic identity is asserted in the first place.
My own approach to defining and describing Judaism of the Hellenistic and Graeco–Roman periods attempts to borrow the strengths of each of these approaches and overcome some of their weaknesses. In my current book project Who Was a Jew, and How Would We Know It? The Problem of Jewish Ethnicity in Antiquity, I follow John Hutchinson in granting great value to the myths and symbols of Judaism, but understand them to be social processes of boundary demarcation. That is, I interpret Judaism to be recognizable through understanding the diverse myths, symbols, and acts recognized and practiced by those identified as Jews to be particular examples of broader processes allowing the Jews to differentiate themselves from those around them in distinct surroundings.
So, while one group might call itself Israelite, a second Hebrew, and another Judean, all three are participating in the process of self–definition, even as they disagree about the proper terminology. By performing this process they are providing evidence for a group–ness despite their disagreements about what it should be called. Likewise, while Hebrews 11 and Ben Sira’s Praise of the Ancestors (44–50) each present a separate catalogue of paradigmatic heroes praised for distinct practices, each are participating in the construction and reproduction of myth. These catalogues of myths construct a link between the past and the present in order to assert a set of customs that will win one status. These customs only make sense within a distinct group that is amenable to claiming these specific figures as part of their past. The assertion of customs through the link with the past thus erects a boundary too. So this process, even when both the figures and customs or practices differ, provides evidence for the erection of boundaries.
The same can be said for the processes of territorial assertion, building codes of symbolic communication, and the maintenance of a public culture. Each of these can present themselves in a variety of antagonistic ways, but can simultaneously be understood as part of a wider project of boundary production and maintenance. Even when there is dispute about the extent of the homeland, or whether one must live there, the development of a concept of a home territory erects a boundary.
The very fact that individual figures or texts dispute what is the central set of customs or whether the temple is a divine dwelling underlines the existence of a concept of Jewishness. Otherwise, there would be no reason for conflict. This means that Judaism as practiced in Alexandria by Philo’s nephew is no less authentic than the Judaism of Judas Maccabeus. Ultimately it means that Judaism can only be “Hellenistic” insofar as the term is used to describe the range of expressions of Judaism observable throughout the Hellenistic period.
Barth, Fredrik. 1959. “Introduction.” In Ethnic Groups and Boundaries: The Social Organization of Cultural Difference, ed. Frederik Barth. Boston: Little, Brown, 9–38.
Boccaccini, Gabriele. 1998. Beyond the Essene Hypothesis. Grand Rapids, MI. Eerdmans.
Goodblatt, David. 2006. Elements of Ancient Jewish Nationalism. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
Hengel, Martin. 1973. Judentum und Hellenismus: Studien zu ihrer Begegnung unter besonderer Berücksichtigung Palästinas bis zur Mitte des 2 Jh.s v. Chr., Rev ed. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck.
Hutchinson, John. 2005. Nations as Zones of Conflict. London: Sage.
Moore, Stewart. 2015. Jewish Ethnic Identity and Relations in Hellenistic Egypt: With Walls of Iron? Leiden. Brill.
Neusner, Jacob. 1992. The Way of Torah. An Introduction to Judaism. Belmont, CA., Wadsworth.
Smith, Anthony D. 2009. Ethno–Symbolism and Nationalism: A Cultural Approach. London: Routledge.
Smith, Jonathan Z. 1982. “Fences and Neighbors.” In Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Wright, Benjamin. “The Problem of the Hyphen and Judean/Jewish Ethnic Identity: The Letter of Aristeas, the Septuagint, and Cultural Interactions.” Paper presented at University of Lausanne, 8 October, 2015.
Francis Borchardt is Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies at Lutheran Theological Seminary Hong Kong and Senior Researcher in the Academy of Finland Centre of Excellence “Changes in Sacred Texts and Traditions.”