Elements of Ancient Jewish Nationalism

By Willitts, Joel | Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, March 2009 | Go to article overview
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Elements of Ancient Jewish Nationalism


Willitts, Joel, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society


Elements of Ancient Jewish Nationalism. By David Goodblatt. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006, xvi + 260 pp., $84.00.

Is it possible to speak of an ancient Jewish national identity or nationalism? Or, as most recent scholars have agreed, is such a perspective anachronistic? If it is possible to speak of a national identity in antiquity, how would such an identity have been constructed, sustained, organized, and expressed? What would be the elements of a Jewish nationalism?

These are the basic questions and issues that University of California professor David Goodblatt seeks to address in his book Elements of Ancient Jewish Nationalism. Goodblatt's own understanding of his contribution is evident in his concluding chapter, "Jewish Nationalism-What Rose and What Fell?" Here he articulates how his conclusions can serve to refine the issues raised by the recent contributions of particularly Doron Mendels, The Rise and Fall of Jewish Nationalism (New York: Doubleday, 1992), and Seth Schwartz, Imperialism and Jewish Society (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001). While affirming many of the central ideas of their work, he attempts to "reframe" these ideas by sharpening the focus of the debate and clarifying the questions (p. 210).

The result of Goodblatt's sharpening and clarifying endeavor-one which he tells took a decade of research and reflection (p. xiii)-is a convincing argument for not only the use of the term "nation" and its derivatives for ancient societal groups including the Jewish people of the Second Temple period (chap. 1), but also for a Jewish national identity and nationalism constructed from the sacred text, Hebrew language, and priesthood (chaps. 2-4) and expressed in the names they used for themselves (chaps. 5-7).

In the preface, Goodblatt explains that the focus of his work is on the human subjects who reside in "the province of Judah (Yehud, Ioudaia) of the Achemenid, Ptolemic, and Seleucid empires, on (nominally) independent, Hasmonean-Herodian Judah, and on the Roman province of Iudaea" (p. xiii). With the book's territorial focus one would expect that his use of the term "Jewish" in "Jewish nationalism" has in view those who are Judeans - making "Jewish" and "Judean" synonymous terms. Yet this is not the case. While Goodblatt's practice in the book is to translate the ancient terms referring to the people of the territory (e.g. Aramaic yehudai) with "Judean(s)" to preserve the ambiguity of the original languages, he nonetheless opts for "Jewish nationalism" instead of "Judean nationalism" for a specific reason: the phenomenon of the overlapping of Judean and Israelite identities. Because Second Temple Judeans saw themselves as Israelites as well and invoked the name "Israel" in support of their nationalism, Goodblatt consciously chose "Jewish" because it allowed for a broader field than the narrower "Judean," and he asserts that the ambiguous term "Jewish" can imply either "Judah" or "Israel" or both.

Chapter 1 provides the foundation for the book's six main chapters by establishing the appropriateness for the use of the terms "nation" and "nationalism" for ancient Judaism. Goodblatt states, "My purpose in this chapter was to justify the use of the concepts of national identity and nationalism in the study of ancient Jewish history" (p. 27). This was necessary because of the consensus of opinion among recent historians of the ancient world calling into question the use of the words "nation" and "nationalism" when writing about Jewish history. It has become commonplace to assume that such terms are a modern invention and therefore inappropriate when discussing ancient societies.

Through an application of recent social-scientific research along with detailed engagement with the ancient sources, Goodblatt convincingly argues that nationalism is not a modern invention as is supposed. Rather, a national consciousness can be found in the ancient world and especially among Second Temple Jews.

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