Issues of identity---national, ethnic, racial and sexual---preoccupy much contemporary discourse. Perhaps this is why the past decades have seen extensive scholarship on identity in antiquity, including Jewish identity. On the other hand, some specialists doubt the validity of this approach, questioning the creation of “quasi-ethnic” categories for the ancient world. Less radically, some scholars have denied the continuity of Jewish identity from Second Temple times through the early centuries of the common era. What follows summarizes my own view while also surveying some of the scholarship on the issue.
A useful place to begin is with Steve Mason’s observation regarding the Greek word we translate as “Judeans/Jews”: “According to both insiders and outsiders, the Ioudaioi (just like Egyptians, Syrians, Romans, etc.) were an ethnos with all of the usual accoutrements.” He goes on to specify what those “accoutrements” were thought to be by the Hellenistic period, when Greek authors took notice of the Judeans:
Each ethnos had its distinctive nature or character…, expressed in unique ancestral traditions…, which typically reflected a shared (if fictive) ancestry; each had its charter stories …, customs, norms, conventions, mores, laws …, and political arrangement or constitution…. The diversity among ethnic characters was connected with, sometimes directly attributed to, …environmental conditions….
This list echoes one appearing in Herodotus, though the term ethnos is not used there. I refer to the famous definition of “Greekness,” to Hellenikon, put in the mouth of the Athenians in the context of Persian invasion of 480-479 BCE: “we are all of one blood and one in language, those shrines of the gods belong to us all in common, and the sacrifices in common, and there are our habits, bred of a common upbringing.” Language, cult, habits and education can be reduced to culture while common blood refers to shared ancestry. While historians debate the intention of Herodotus in this passage, there is no doubt this late fifth century BCE author engages here in identity discourse.
The same components of group identity listed in the Hellenistic concept of ethnos and in identity discourse like that in Herodotus recur in modern definitions of ethnicity. Here is a relatively recent and representative example:
An ethnic group is a self-perceived inclusion of those who hold in common a set of traditions not shared by others with whom they are in contact. Such traditions include “folk” religious beliefs and practices, language, a sense of historical continuity, and common ancestry or place of origin. The group’s actual history often trails off into legend or mythology, which includes some concept of an unbroken biological-generational continuity, sometimes regarded as giving special inherited characteristics to the group…[italics in original].
Again, the definition can be reduced to a belief in a shared ancestry and a common culture. This combination of “descent and culture” seems to be the “vulgate” or default modern definition of ethnicity. And, as the above definition make explicit, that common culture includes taboos, rites of passage and beliefs about the cosmos—in other words, elements that people today often group in the category of religion.
So ancient authors (including Judeans themselves) saw the Judeans as an ethnos, which concept is quite similar to our modern notion of ethnicity. The shared ancestry might be fictitious to a greater or lesser degree. Moreover, that ancestry was open to accretion whether through an invented kinship or by some process analogous to modern adoption. The components of that shared culture might vary or their valences might change over time. Further, those categorized as “outsiders” might in fact share elements of the culture of the “insiders,” though boundaries could be constructed and maintained thanks to the narcissism of small differences. For example, at Ben Sira 50:25-26 the author expresses his hatred for “the foolish nation that dwells in Shechem,” i.e., the Samaritans. It did not matter that the Samaritans shared the Pentateuch and other cultural markers with the Judeans and claimed Israelite ancestry. Indeed, shortly after the time of Ben Sira the Seleucid authorities apparently found it difficult to distinguish between the two groups. At AJ 12:261 Josephus quotes a letter, purportedly sent by the Samaritans to Antiochus IV, seeking to exempt themselves from the decrees issued by that monarch against the Judeans. The Samaritans explain that they differ from the Judeans “both in race (genos) and in customs (ethos).” That is, they share neither of the two standard components of an ethnos. Similarly, while describing events in the following century, Josephus reports at AJ 14:403 how the Hasmonean Mattathias Antigonos called Herod a “half Judean” (hemiioudaios). The passage makes clear that the attack is based on Herod’s Idumean (i.e., non-Judean) ancestry, not his behavior. So the two halves required to make a complete Judean were ancestry and culture. Neither passage may be historically true. It suffices here that this understanding of Judean identity made sense to Josephus and his anticipated audience.
Notwithstanding the evidence that the Judeans were perceived as a “standard issue” ethnos, several scholars have suggested that the nature of Jewish identity shifted over time. In an article from 1936 Solomon Zeitlin argued that the collective identity of the Jews changed during the Second Temple period from an “ethnic-political-geographical” identity to a religious one. Subsequent scholars followed suit, often pinpointing specific turning points. Joseph Blenkinsopp suggested the first century of Achemenid Persian rule as the time when the gentilic yehudim/yehudaya shifted from an “ethnic-local-national” sense to an “ethnic-cultural-religious” one. Shaye Cohen named the Hasmonean era as the one in which the nature of Jewishness changed from an “ethnic-geographical” category to an “ethno-religious” one. Martin Goodman had argued for a shift in the idea of Jewishness from ethnicity to religion, a transformation accelerated by the policy of Nerva regarding collection of the fiscus Iudaicus. While Blenkinsopp, Cohen and Goodman point to specific if differing turning points, Daniel Schwartz argues for a more gradual shift in the nature of Jewish identity during the course of the Second Temple period, particularly as a result of the development of a permanent Diaspora. Diaspora conditions engendered a change in that identity from something territorial tied to land, state and nature to something focused on religion and/or ancestry. Schwartz’s territorial category tied to land, state and nature parallels Zeitlin’s “ethnic-political-geographic” identity, Cohen’s “ethnic-geographical” character and Blenkinsopp’s “ethnic-local-national.”
To be sure, Cohen and Blenkinsopp allow for the continuation of an “ethnic” element, while Schwartz mentions “religion and/or ancestry.” In any case, all these scholars agree on a shift over time in which the cultural aspect became at least more significant and, for some, even sufficient for identification as a Jew. The trajectory these scholars traced calls to mind the opinion of Jonathan Hall who argues for an analogous shift in the nature of Greek identity. In his view the shift was from a genealogical conception that emerged in the sixth century BCE to a predominantly cultural definition by the fourth century. It also parallels assertions concerning the nature of Israelite identity. For example, Hugh Williamson argued that by the end of the Persian period “Israel had been transformed from a national and political to a cultural and religious concept.” Or as Lemche put it dismissively, Second Temple Israel must be understood “as a religious community, not an ordinary living organism such as a normal people.” The alleged transitions in the meaning of “Hellene” and “Israelite” from one in which descent was a necessary prerequisite to an emphasis on the cultural factor would, if true, reinforce the argument for a similar development in the nature of Jewish identity.
Against the views that the nature of Jewish identity shifted to a greater emphasis on the cultural component, let alone seeing that component as sufficient, stands a considerable body of evidence. That evidence consists of indications in ancient sources, including the “half Judean” canard mentioned above, for the ongoing importance of the kinship factor as a necessary condition for Jewish identity. According to Cohen II Maccabees marked a turning point in the evolution of the meaning of the term Ioudaios by emphasizing the cultural/religious aspect of Jewish identity. But the same book appears to privilege the element of blood relations. II Maccabees 4:13 blames Jason for “the height of Hellenism” and the adoption of “foreignness” (allophulismos). For this he is condemned as “impious and no high priest.” But the author does not say “no Judean.” Despite the adoption (in the author’s eyes) of a gentile lifestyle, Jason is still a Judean. This is because no one could doubt his birth pedigree. Further evidence appears in authors from the first century C.E. and later. I begin with the testimony of an outsider, Tacitus, who comments on people of non-Jewish origin who adopt Jewish practice (Historiae V, 5, 1-2). Those who do so, he writes, not only renounce their "ancestral religions" and adopt practices like circumcision, but they also are taught "to disown their country (patria), and to regard their parents, children, and brothers as of little account." This is the view of a non-Jew not particularly well disposed toward the Jews. But Jewish sources agree that becoming Jewish involves not only cultural or religious changes but also a change in patria and family. Philo is particularly explicit on this point. He explains the Pentateuchal injunction to love the ger by noting that proselytes have abandoned "their kinsfolk by blood, their country (patria)…." Consequently "all the members of the [Judean] nation (ethnos)" are enjoined to love the proselytes as "friends and kinsfolk (sungeneis) (On the Virtues 102).” Similarly, in another passage, Philo observes that having left "their country, their kinsfolk and their friends for the sake of virtue and religion," proselytes should not be denied "another citizenship (poleon) or other ties of family (oikeion) and friendship…(On the Special Laws I, 52; compare IV, 178)." He thus agrees with Tacitus that the behavioral change dissolves the ties of kinship and blood and seems to add that the Jewish ethnos should establish a new, if fictive, kinship for the convert.
Similar sentiments may appear in rabbinic tradition. The mid second century master Yosi son of Halafta appears as the author of the statement (Bavli Yevamot 48b and parallels) that "a convert is like a newborn child (ger shenitgayyer keqatan shenolad dame)." This could be construed to mean that the convert is "born again," this time as a member of the Jewish people. If so, then one branch of rabbinic tradition disagreed. Mishnah Bikkurim 1:4 forbade converts to recite the prayer formula "God of our fathers." This indicates that culture is not sufficient for full membership in the Jewish people. A dissenting view at Yerushalmi Bikkurim 1:4, 64a permitted converts to recite the formula because they could claim the fatherhood of Abraham. A probably later source, Tanhuma Lekh Lekha, 6, stated, "Abraham is the father of converts." While this may mean only that Abraham was the original convert and hence model for all subsequent proselytes, it also could be taken as literal adoption. Such a literal reading may be the source of the still later tradition that has converts adopt the patronymic "son of Abraham our father."
The fact that adopting the culture of a group entailed establishing a new kinship relation shows the tenacity of the idea that ancestry and behavior belong together. Further evidence of this concept in ancient thinking about ethnic identity is how Greeks commonly described the culture of an ethnos as "ancestral" as in "the ancestral customs" or "the ancestral laws." That is, the culture is connected to the physical forbears of the group. Sometimes authors writing in Greek even omit the substantive “laws” or “customs,” etc., and refer simply to ta patria, “the ancestral things.” Josephus provides several examples of this usage. Introducing his account of the Jewish sects at AJ 18:11, he writes
The Jews, from the most ancient times, had three philosophies pertaining to their traditions [literally “their ancestral things,” ton pateron], that of the Essenes, that of the Sadducees, and, thirdly, that of the group called Pharisees.
As this passage shows, ta patria, the ancestral things, are what all the sects share, however much they disagree on interpretation and details. Another example of this usage occurs in AJ 19:331 where Josephus praises Agrippa I:
He [Agrippa] enjoyed residing in Jerusalem and did so constantly; and he scrupulously observed the traditions of his people (ta patria). He neglected no rite of purification, and no day passed for him without the prescribed sacrifice.
A third example appears at AJ 17 where Josephus describes the military colony established by the Babylonian Jewish cavalry commander Zamaris and his troops. Josephus adds in 17:26 that settlers from all over, men devoted to "ta patria of the Judeans," joined the colony. On the other side of the issue, at JA 18:141 Josephus reports that some of Herod's descendants adopted "the ancestral things of the Greeks," ta Hellesi patria. Similarly, but restoring the substantive, at AJ 20:100 Josephus criticizes Tiberius Iulius Alexander for abandoning the ancestral customs, tois…patriois…ethesin.
In sum, the connection of the behavioral expressions of Jewish identity to the ancestors reminds the reader that ancestry and culture (normally) go together. Further evidence for the ongoing significance of ancestry in Jewish identity appears at Bavli Sanhedrin 44a. The context is a discussion of the incident in Joshua 7 where Akhan violates the herem. Verse 11 is quoted, where God tells Joshua "Israel has sinned…." Rabbi Abba son of Zavda (late 3rd-early 4th century) comments, Af al pi shehata, yisrael hu, “Even though he has sinned, he is [still] an Israelite.” A popular proverb is then cited to illustrate this view, asa deqa'e be hilfe asa shmeh ve'asa qero leh, "a myrtle standing among the willows--its name is a myrtle and it is called a myrtle." The myrtle's identity is determined by its biology. Even if it lives among the willows and acts or looks like a willow, it is still a myrtle. So too, ancestry is determinative of Jewish identity, not behavior. A Jew may be a bad Jew, but he is still a Jew. This appears to be how the author of II Maccabees saw Jason, as noted above. Still more evidence on the ongoing role of ancestry comes from the phenomenon of the “Godfearers.” While debate continues, the understanding that these were gentiles who adopted Jewish practices but refrained from becoming full-fledged Jews seems the consensus position. What they lacked was adoption/absorption into the Jewish people.
To conclude I observe how in maintaining the element of ancestry Judaism differs from Christianity and Islam, both of which severed culture from ancestry. Christianity adopted Paul’s famous claim that there is neither Jew nor Greek in Christ (Galatians 3:28), while Islam ultimately accepted that non-Arabs could be full-fledged Muslims. Both may occasionally use ethnic language, but their ethnos is based entirely on belief, not ancestry. As a result, for the latter two faith communities everything depended on culture, particularly belief systems. This explains their preoccupation with orthodoxy and heresy. In Judaism, as we saw, a bad Jew was still a Jew. The belief in shared ancestry was the anchor that permitted some to drift without breaking loose. Scholars fret over whether we should speak of “Judaisms,” in the plural. In my view what we have are people of (believed) shared ancestry emphasizing or modifying different elements of a common culture. Only later in Jewish history were there attempts to de-emphasize the element of ancestry. Perhaps this happened first in the early modern era as Sephardic communities had to resolve issues raised when conversos or their offspring reverted to Judaism. In any event, it was following the Enlightenment and the enfranchisement of Western Jewries when some argued that Judaism was (now) purely a matter of belief. Still the significance of ancestry continues today. Traditionalists certainly agree with the view of Abba son of Zavda as the case of Brother Daniel, born Oswald Rufeisen, demonstrated. It was the Orthodox Israeli chief rabbinate that insisted he was still Jewish. And the many contemporary non-believing, self-proclaimed “ethnic Jews” agree that ancestry is determinative.
Dr. David Goodblatt is Emeritus Professor of History
at the University of California San Diego.
 For the skepticism—albeit referring mostly to periods earlier than those treated here—see for example P.-A. Mumm, ed., Sprachen, Völker und Phantome. Sprach- und kulturwissenschaftliche Studien zur Ethnizität (Munich: Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, 2018; Münchner Vorlesungen zu Antiken Welten 3). On an alleged eclipse of Jewish identity after 70 CE see the views of Seth Schwartz and Daniel Boyarin discussed in D. Goodblatt, “Population Structure and Jewish Identity” in Oxford Handbook of Jewish Daily Life in Roman Palestine, C. Hezser, ed., (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), pp. 114-116.
 A recent post on AJR attributed to me a view on Jewish identity in antiquity that was the precise opposite of the position I have argued in print. I am grateful to the editors of the AJR for affording me this opportunity to do a better job explaining my opinion. Space constraints limit citations of literature to material not in my Elements of Ancient Jewish Nationalism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006). Translations of classical literature are from the Loeb Classical Library editions unless otherwise indicated.
 Steve Mason, “Jews, Judaeans, Judaizing, Judaism: Problems of Categorization in Ancient History,” Journal for the Study of Judaism 38 (2007), pp. 457-512. Citations from p. 484 and compare p. 489, where he notes “the universal tendency to discuss the Ioudaioi alongside other ethne.”
 VIII, 144, translation of D. Grene, The History. Herodotus (Chicago/London: University of Chicago Press, 1989), p. 611.
 George A. De Vos, “Ethnic Pluralism: Conflict and Accommodation,” in L. Romanucci-Ross, G.A.
De Vos and T. Tsuda, eds., Ethnic Identity. Problems and Prospect for the Twenty-first Century (Fourth Edition. Lanham/New York/Toronto/Oxford: Altamira Press, 2006), p. 4
 Steve Fenton, Ethnicity (Cambridge: Polity, 2003), pp. 13, 20.
 See Eric Gruen, “Kinship Relations and Jewish Identity,” in Lee I. Levine and Daniel R. Schwartz, eds., Jewish Identities in Antiquity. Studies in Memory of Menahem Stern (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2009), pp. 101-116.
 For a recent treatment see Benedikt Eckhardt, “‘An Idumean, That Is, a Half-Jew.’ Hasmoneans and Herodians between Ancestry and Merit,” in B. Eckhardt, ed., Jewish Identity and Politics between the Maccabees and Bar Kokhba (Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2012), pp. 91-116. I am not aware of any concept of “half Jew” in rabbinic literature. The concept of “half free and half slave” appears in the Mishnah at Pesahim 8:1 and parallels. The concept of half nazarite appears at Mishnah Nazir 2:6.
 Joseph Blenkinsopp, “Judaeans, Jews, Children of Abraham,” in O.Lipschits, G.N. Knoppers and M. Oeming, eds., Judah and the Judeans in the Achemenid Period. Negotiating Identity in an International Context (Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 2011), pp. 466-67. A similar transformation of the Hebrew term at around the same time was already argued by Moshé Bar-Asher, “Il Y Avait À Suse Un Homme Juif,’ REJ 161 (2002), pp. 227-231.
 See also Andrea M. Berlin, “Manifest Identity: From Ioudaios to Jew. Household Judaism as Anti-Hellenization in the Late Hasmonean Era,” in R. Albertz and J. Wöhrle, eds., Identities in Ancient Judaism and the Interaction with Foreign Powers (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 2013), pp. 151-175.
 Daniel R. Schwartz, Judeans and Jews. Four Faces of Dichotomy in Ancient Jewish History (Toronto/Buffalo/London: University of Toronto Press, 2014), pp. xiii, 8, 86-87 and passim.