Who was (in antiquity) a Jew ? Or who was considered a Jew, and by whom ? When did Judeans become Jews, and what did that mean ? And in what circumstances were those considered Jews by some, not so considered by others ? And what did these former consider themselves to be ? In what ways did people who were not, become Jews ?
These are just some of the many variations of the questions around a theme that is the focus of this book. After dealing lucidly with the question of whether Herod the Great was a Jew ( he was considered as one, though he may not have been so today), each of the following chapters involves an intense examination of texts – contemporary Jewish and non-Jewish historians, old and new Testaments, Mishna, Talmud and the writings of the Church Fathers – which shed different light on the definition of Jewishness. Certain texts – such as the source texts in Exodus and Deuteronomy for the banning of intermarriage, and the rabbinic exegeses on these, or the Mishnaic text which appears to be the source of the matrilineal principle – are held up to the light and examined from many different angles. in order to try and deduce a historical narrative. The scholarship of this book is profound (and it is not always an easy read), but is written non-dogmatically and with occasional flashes of humor.
An historic event which is minutely examined is the supposed forced-conversion of the Iddumeans to Judaism by the Hasmonean king, John Hyrcanus around 118 BCE. A number of historians – Josephus, Philo, Strabo and Ptolemy – record this, and the parallel event concerning the Ituraeans in the Galilee who were also supposedly forced to either convert or leave by Hyrcanus’ son Aristobulus in 104 BCE. These events are extraordinary because, until that time there is no evidence of what we call Judaism i.e. a religion; the way the Judeans lived their lives – rejecting polytheism, worshiping in a Temple in Jerusalem, circumcision, various dietary restrictions, etc – was just that; the life style of the Judean ethnic group. Although non-Judeans might choose to adopt one or more of these practices, and to live among Judeans, they would in effect lose – or have to suppress – their ethnic identity (as for example did any women who married into another ethnic group). What the Hasmoneans had absorbed – and it was this that enabled them to pursue this novel course – was the Hellenistic distinction between ethnicity and polity. In other words, you might chose to join another polity, and adopt the customs and mores of that polity, while still retaining your own ethnic identity. By this time, the whole area was full of “Greek” polises – cities belonging to the Hellenistic polity, whose citizens were Syrians, Cappodocians, Egyptians, etc. What the Hasmoneans did was to create a Judean polity, whose citizens were both Iddumean and Ituraeans as well as Judeans. This was indeed the first step in creating a “portable” Jewish religion.
The question of the matrilineal principle – when did it start, how and why – occupies a long and complex chapter. The author first deals with the popular belief that it was instituted among the returning exiles from Babylon by Ezra in the middle of the 5th century BCE. He points out that Ezra’s motivation in driving away the non-Judean wives was the original Biblical fear that – like the Canaanites of old – they would corrupt their Judean husbands into idol worship. The impetus for sending away the children of these Judean men by their non-Judean wives actually came from one of them, in his zeal to demonstrate his determination to reform – not because they were “not Jewish”. As for the other half of the matrilineal principle – the status of children of Judean mothers and non-Judean men – this was not even considered, as Judean women who “married out”, like all women in the ancient world, became – along with their children – part of their husband’s tribe and ethnic group. Although the author effectively eliminates Ezra as the originator of the matrilineal principle, in typical fashion, he refuses to completely rule out the possibility. He points out that neither Josephus nor Philo knew anything of the matrilineal principle, and in fact there is no trace of it at all until it suddenly appears “out of the blue” in a Mishna, probably written during the Yavnean period at the end of the first century CE. Cohen provides a number of alternative explanations for it – his two preferred are; that it was influenced by a Roman law which has an almost exact parallel with the Mishanic formulation; his second explanation is that it emerged from a rabbinic concern about the status of the progeny of “mixed species”. In addition the author provides a full account of the later Talmudic attempts to find a source for this Mishna in the Bible.
The author ends the book by describing his training and point of view in the “historical positive” school of Judaism. What this means is that he is not trying to convince anyone of what Jewishness should or should not be today; he is just trying to shed light in some of the darker corners of its beginnings. He does that admirably.