Book Review: The Beginnings of Jewishness: Boundaries, Varieties, Uncertainties PDF Print E-mail

By Shaye J.D. Cohen


Reviewed by Noel Rabinowitz

One of the central questions in Judaism today is “who is a Jew?” What defines us as Jews and can those who are not Jewish become Jewish? These are questions which have concerned scholars from time immemorial. In The Beginnings of Jewishness Shaye J.D. Cohen makes an important contribution to this ongoing discussion. He states two questions from the heart of this volume: “What is it that makes us us and them them? That is, what is it that makes a Jew a Jew, and a non-Jew a non-Jew? The answer to this question will lead directly to the second: can one of ‘them’ become one of ‘us’; that is, can a Gentile become a Jew?” This volume consists of eight previously published articles and two new essays which address these questions.

Part 1 (Who was a Jew?) consists of three chapters that advance Cohen’s thesis that the boundary between Jews and Gentiles in antiquity was not clearly marked. He argues that Jewish identity in the Greco-Roman world was “elusive and uncertain” for two reasons. He asserts that there was no single definition of a Jew during this period and that no objective criteria existed by which one might determine who was, and who was not a Jew.

In chapter one Cohen analyzes the question of whether or not Herod the Great was really Jewish. In chapter two he argues that the Jews of antiquity were indistinguishable from Gentiles with respect to looks, clothing, speech, names or occupations. Even circumcision, which clearly identified male Jews as Jews, was not a rite unique to the Jewish people. Moreover, clothing concealed a person’s circumcision, a mark which (obviously) identified only Jewish males. Observance of Jewish law was the one item that clearly distinguished Jews from other people. Yet even this was not an infallible proof as Gentiles sometimes observed Jewish laws and traditions. In chapter three he analyzes the meaning and history of the word Ioudaios. Cohen argues that the word was originally an ethno-geographic term that is properly translated as “Judean.” By the middle of the second century B.C.E., however, the meaning of the word had expanded to include a religious or cultural connotation; it is for this reason that the word is now translated as “Jew.”

Having argued that the boundary between Jew and Gentile was not clearly marked in Part 1, Cohen now advances the thesis in Part 2 (The Boundary Crossed: Becoming a Jew) that the boundary between Jew and Gentile was crossable. Part 2 is composed of four chapters. In chapter four he argues that a redefinition of Jewish identity takes place during the Hasmonean period. The ethnic definition of Ioudaioi was “supplemented”—but not replaced by, an ethno-religious one. The significance of this fact being that a Gentile could now become a Jew. In chapter five Cohen examines seven ways by which a person could lessen or completely cross the boundary separating Gentiles from Jews, with the seventh way being full conversion to Judaism. In chapter six he examines the meaning of the term Ioudaïzein (to Judaize) and demonstrates that it is not a clearly defined concept, although it is assumed to be by many scholars because of its use in the New Testament and early Christianity.

In chapter seven Cohen discusses the rabbinic conversion ceremony and provides a careful exegesis of b. Yebamot 47a—b (and Gerim 1 1:1) upon which it is based. The cre


One of the seven post-Talmudic minor tractates.

2 Alan J. Avery-Peck raises some similar

ation of the conversion ceremony was a defining moment in Judaism because it signified The creation that the boundary between Jew and Gentile of the converwas now clearly marked. The porous barrier sion ceremony that had separated Jew from Gentile was was a definingsealed and it was now possible to definitively

moment in

say who was, and who was not a Jew. Cohen


asserts that the conversion ceremony is not

because it

primarily concerned with the state of the convert’s soul or his inner being. Rather, the cere-signified that mony’s primary purpose is to provide Jewish the boundary society with a mechanism by which it can be between Jew assured that the requirements of conversion and Gentile have been met. By acceptance was now of commandments, circumcision, and immer-clearly marked. sion, a Gentile can become a Jew.

In Part 3 (The Boundary Violated: The Union of Diverse Kinds) he discusses the impact of intermarriage on Jewishness. The boundary between Jew and Gentile was now clearly fixed. While the rabbis permitted Gentiles to convert to Judaism, they prohibited marital or sexual unions between Jews and Gentiles. In chapter eight he surveys the prohibition of intermarriage and sexual unions between Jews and non-Jews in the Bible and Talmud. Cohen examines the key biblical texts (Deut 7:3-4, 23:2-9; Lev 18:21; Deut 21:10-14) upon which the rabbinic prohibition is based. He concludes that while Israelites were forbidden from marrying women from certain non-Israelite nations like the Canaanites, a general prohibition of intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews occurs nowhere in the Hebrew Bible. In the wake of new circumstances in which the Jewish people were scattered among the nations and deprived of their own national identity, the rabbis of the Talmudic period developed an apologetic against intermarriage on the basis of these biblical texts.

In chapter nine he addresses the question of what happens if the prohibition against intermarriage is violated and children are produced from an improper marriage or sexual union. The subject of this chapter is the matrilineal principle, which asserts that the status of offspring is determined by the status of the mother. Jewish identity is transmitted by the mother, not the father. Cohen observes, however, that the matrilineal principle is not attested in either the Bible or the literature of Second Temple Judaism. It appears for the first time in the Mishnah without reason or justification “like a bolt out of the blue” (283). Cohen dispatches with the common, but erroneous belief that the rabbis established the matrilineal principle because of the many Jewish women who had been raped by Roman soldiers during the wars of 66-70 and 132135 CE. He presents seven explanations that might account for principle’s introduction and concludes that the mishnaic laws regarding the mixture of diverse kinds or (more probably) the Roman law of status provide the best explanation. In chapter ten he continues the discussion about conversion but focuses on a single mishnaic text (m. Bikkurim 1:4-5) that touches upon each of the book’s chief concerns.

In the epilogue Cohen reiterates that before the rabbis came and invented the matrilineal principle, there were many ways that a Gentile could “cross the boundary” and become a Jew. He argues that uncertainty about Jewish identity in antiquity ironically foreshadowed uncertainty about Jewish identity in modern times. With the sharp distinctions between “us” and “them” blurred by the full integration of American Jews into middle class suburbia, contemporary Jews must decide whether on not the halakhic principles laid down by the rabbis apply to them. Four short appendices discussing texts from Martial (Was Martial’s slave Jewish?, Was Menophilus Jewish?) and the New Testament (Was Trophimus Jewish?, Was Timothy Jewish?) complete this volume.

There are several strengths to this volume. Cohen is a first-rate scholar and exegete and his knowledge of the original sources is impressive. His command of this material (Greco-Roman documents, inscriptions, and papyri) makes many of his arguments very persuasive. Moreover, his careful and very thorough analysis of the term Ioudaios, the verb Ioudaïzein, various Talmudic tractates and New Testament texts result in some very compelling (but not always persuasive) arguments. If nothing else, Cohen has provided the reader with an excellent discussion of the original sources.

This volume, however, is not without its weaknesses. A large part of Cohen’s argument is based upon his thesis that Ioudaios originally meant Judean, not Jew. However, even if the case can be made that some modern translations mistranslate Ioudaios as Jew, it is not entirely certain what the ramifications of this fact are. Cohen cites several examples from biblical (Esth 6:10; 8:7; 9:29, 31; Jer 34:9) and non-canonical (Sus 22-23; 1 Mac 2:23; 2 Mac 6:1-11) literature where the term should probably be translated as Judean instead of Jew, but this does not in and of itself lead us to the conclusions that he suggests. Cohen’s argument rests upon the idea that when the term Jew does finally appear, it signifies an expansion in the Jewish community’s sense of self-identity from an ethnos (“Judean”) to an ethno-religious (“Jew”) identity. These distinctions, however, are exaggerated and create an artificial bifurcation of Jewish self-identity. While being a Judean had geographical and political significance, it also had religious implications as well.

A second criticism of Cohen concerns his misinterpretation of Paul to support the argument stated above. Cohen is very fair and even handed in his treatment of New Covenant sources. Nevertheless, his interpretation of Rom 2:28-29 and Paul’s alleged redefinition of Jewishness is simply incorrect. He asserts that the Hasmonean redefinition of Judaism led Paul “to the logical, if radical, conclusion that Jewishness is not ethnic but is completely a function of belief: ‘for he is not a real Ioudaios who is one outwardly... [but] he is a Ioudaios who is one inwardly.” Citing Origen (who himself radically misinterprets Paul’s statement), he adds, “Paul was prepared to shear Jewishness of all its ethnic connotations.” (134)

Cohen’s artificial bifurcation of Ioudaios as either political or religious in nature, leads him to misinterpret Paul’s statement. Paul is not saying that Jewishness is simply a function of belief. Elsewhere, he makes it abundantly clear that ethnic identity is a fundamental component of Jewishness (Rom 9:1-6; 11:1-10). In Rom 2:28-29 Paul is simply emphasizing that mere external conformity to the Torah will not deliver a Jewish person from judgment and that he too must experience the inward transformation which the Holy Spirit brings.

A third weakness of this volume has to do with the fact that Cohen’s treatment of the original sources is sometimes uneven. In one instance, he accepts as factual an account in the Sifre to Deuteronomy about a group of Roman soldiers who pass themselves off as Jews and attend a rabbinic academy (37-39). He accepts this account as proof of a general truth that Jews were indistinguishable from Gentiles during this period. However, he dismisses as unhistorical an account in the Babylonian Talmud (b. Pesahim 3b) about a Gentile who went up to Jerusalem and ate the Paschal sacrifices (62 –64). The criteria he uses to deem one story historical and

criticisms in his review of this work (JAAR 68 [2000], 886).

another fictional is clearly subjective. 2

The strengths of this volume far outweigh its weaknesses, particularly in Part 3, which is the most interesting part of this work. Cohen raises some truly intriguing issues here. His discussions about the prohibition of intermarriage (chapter nine) and the invention of the matrilineal principle (chapter ten) draw attention to the fact that these were not always hallmarks of Jewish identity. As late as the Second Temple Period, the offspring of a Jewish man and a Gentile woman was deemed to be unquestionably Jewish. The status of the woman was simply not an issue because she was automatically integrated into the Jewish community by virtue of marriage. Cohen’s insights and analysis of how and why these changes took place provide the reader with a fascinating study of the boundaries of Jewishness.

Noel Rabinowitz is on the staff of Chosen People Ministries. He earned a Ph.D. in New Testament Studies from Southern Seminary in Louisville, KY. He holds a B.A. in Jewish Studies from Moody Bible Institute and a Th. M. from Dallas Theological Seminary. He currently resides in New York City.


MJTI School of Jewish Studies
RocketTheme Joomla Templates