John J. Collins on the Invention of Judaism

In ASOR’s publication, The Ancient Near East Today (August 2017, vol. 5, no. 8), John J. Collins provides a very informative summary of his new book:

The Invention of Judaism: Torah and Jewish Identity from Deuteronomy to Paul. Taubman Lectures in Jewish Studies 7. Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2017.

Notably, for Collins, there is something distinctly religious (in concept, if not in name) about being Jewish by the second century BCE:

“In the second century BCE, the Syrian king Antiochus Epiphanes issued a decree proscribing the ancestral laws of Judea…. According to 2 Maccabees, chapter 6 “it was impossible either to keep the Sabbath, to observe the ancestral festivals, or openly confess oneself to be a Ioudaios.”…  It is clear that Epiphanes was not forbidding people to say where they were from. The decree presupposed a normative understanding of what it meant to be a Ioudaios: to observe the Law of Moses, at least in its distinctive practices. What Epiphanes tried to do was to suppress the distinctive identity of the people of Judah, by proscribing the traditional formulation of their way of life.”

Collins then describes how the Jewish Torah (Law) was largely unknown before Ezra’s arrival in Judah (traditionally dated to 458 BCE), and even then its laws were not followed in any literal sense until “the attempt by Antiochus Epiphanes to suppress it”.

It’s a good summary of the early development of Judaism, Jewish identity, and Torah observance: read the article here.

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The Ideological Unconscious: Bruce Malina echoes Zionist Discourse but Circulates Holocaust Denial “Joke”

The Giant with Feet of ClayAn interesting article appears in Bible and Interpretation today:

Robert J. Myles and James G. Crossley, “Biblical Scholarship, Jews and Israel: On Bruce Malina, Conspiracy Theories and Ideological Contradictions”, The Bible and Interpretation (December 2012)

The article explores a caesura in the ideological views and practices of Bruce Malina, New Testament scholar and founder of The Context Group. On the one hand, Malina takes a firm stance against the modern state of Israel and for Palestinians, going so far as to deny any Semitic ancestry for most modern Israelis – a stance based on the discredited Khazar hypothesis propagated by far right conspiracy theory groups. On the other hand, in his academic work on the meaning of the term ‘Jew’ or ‘Judean’, Malina “actually ends up buying into a Zionist discourse he so dislikes” in defining first-century Jews/Judeans in relation to an orientalising ‘Middle Eastern’ or ‘Mediterranean’  stereotype.

The examples provided in Myles and Crossley’s article elucidate the complex workings of ideology, in which proponents “know not what they do”. This complexity is important in assessing Malina’s work on the meaning of Ioudaios, which has been very influential in recent mainstream New Testament scholarship, which is largely (if superficially) pro-Jewish. For while Malina may unconsciously practise a pro-Zionist discourse, he personally holds to some highly suspect views. This was no more evident than when he sent an email to a list of 88 biblical scholars in 2006 which contained a pro-holocaust-denial “joke” written by a far-right holocaust denier with the pen-name of Michael James. The “joke” circulated by Malina, entitled “Big Pharma Pushes ‘Miracle Cure’ For Holocaust Denial Syndrome”, is a spoof news story about a drug called Holozac which the establishment attempts to employ against holocaust deniers. The gist of the “joke” is that the establishment is trying to suppress free thought (i.e. holocaust denial conspiracy theories): “the drug works by closing down the brain’s center of intellectual inquiry. It also blocks the re-uptake of politically incorrect neurotransmitters involved in critical thought processes, making it more difficult to distinguish between truth and lies”. The “joke” defends David Irving and other prominent holocaust deniers, as “People Who Read Books” and as people who “ask lots of questions and … have an unnatural and very unhealthy obsession with finding out the truth”. The drug causes holocaust deniers to put aside holocaust denial literature such as Juergen Graf’s The Giant with Feet of Clay and to read only “government-controlled newspapers”. One of the drug’s main side-effects, however, is that it causes “a pathological hatred of Palestinians and Muslims in general”.

By exposing the inconsistency which subsists between Malina’s beliefs and practice, Myles and Crossley unveil the illusion of the illusion: “the illusory status of the illusion itself”. Despite Malina’s joking claim to unveil a vast holocaust “conspiracy”, what is unveiled – through suspicion of suspicion itself – is the inconsistency between Malina’s conscious views and unconscious practice.

Jim West justifies Genocide

According to Numbers chapter 14:11-12, the national god of Israel, Yahweh, once made up his mind to kill the entire population of Israel – about two or three million Israelites – but for Moses and his family.

The background is provided in Num. 13, a story in which Israelite spies discover monstrous Giants in the land to which Yahweh has brought them, after their escape from slavery in Egypt. After the spies describe these Giants, called Anakim, the Israelites get scared and decide to return to Egypt. Israel’s fighting men numbered just over 600,000, so together with those aged under 20, women, and Levites, there are some two to three million Israelites who God decides to kill in the story. Of course, it is just a fictional story, with no basis in reality. There never was a migration of two to three million people from Egypt; Egypt”s population never exceeded three million during the relevant period (the late Bronze Age). But despite the fictional nature of the story, as a story it does present a rather jealous and irascible god, who is eventually partially placated by Moses (Num. 14.13-20a), but who still decrees the deaths of two to three million Israelites aged 20 and over (except Caleb, who is oddly not previously excepted in Num. 14.11-12). That is, the story sees no contradiction in proclaiming grace and forgiveness in one breath and the genocide of all those aged 20 and above in the other.

After a century of genocides – including the genocides orchestrated against Jews, Armenians, and Tutsi – justified by various extreme nationalist ideologies, Numbers 13-14 should be read as an example of how human life can become worthless when viewed against some mythical Big Idea – whether that mythical Big Idea is “Yahweh is Almighty God” or “Germans are the Uebermenschen” or “the Tutsi are Hamite invaders from the north”. Allegiance to such ideas not only requires genocide, but perversely justifies it as a good, a kindness or “grace”.

However, those who cling to some Big Idea will of course still consider that genocide is justifiable.  Jim West thinks that the death of every Israelite, in the story of Num. 13-14, is justifiable. And his position is as logical as it is absurdly unsound. For if the idea of a genocidal god is worth more to you than the lives of two or three million people, you too should support genocide. The obvious alternative, of course, is that ideas about Yahweh shouldn’t be taken seriously enough to justify the killing of any people, let alone an entire nation.