Religious phylogeny and the “Kike on a stick”

Our text for the day is from the prophet Zechariah 9:9, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem: behold, thy King cometh unto thee: he is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass.”

I.

For a very long time, the poz people have been insinuating nasty things about the origins of Christianity to raise doubts about its theological content and psychological effects, and to demoralize Christians.  A relatively recent attack — initiated by Voltaire, but taken up with relish by Friedrich Nietzsche — has tried to associate Christianity with the unpleasant habits and principles of Ashkenazi jews, in particular.  But the attack is not only intermittently demoralizing to Christians: it breeds spectacular ignorance about the history of religions!

The question comes down to this. Was Jesus Christ a jew? Is a Bible consisting of an Old and a New Testament therefore Judeo-Christian? If the members of the ethno-religious group who have been called “jews” since there has been an English language are jews, then the answer to both questions is No.  If the answer to those questions is Yes, then the “jews” are not jews.

Allow me to explain.

II.

JudenhutIlluminatedThe word jew was originally used to refer to a non-Christian religious group that has lived in and traveled through Europe without belonging to any European nationality; often living in ghettoes and engaging in commercial activities prohibited to Christians; speaking a peculiar dialect of German (in Central and Eastern Europe) or Spanish (in Iberia and other Hapsburg possessions).  Jew, and similar words in other modern European languages, is derived from the Latin word iudæorum, reflecting the fact that this community descends partly or mainly from emigrants from Iudæa.  In the early modern period, this was so well-understood that the translators working on the English Bible (and other Latin texts) translated iudæorum as “jews” rather than “Judæans”.  An innocent enough translation choice, but one that has contributed to an absurd conflation.  In the first place, jews are not Judæans: that is, they are not inhabitants of the Roman province of Iudæa, nor of the eponymous kingdom of Judah which preceded it.  More significantly, the jews have never (since the name existed) practiced the same religion as the Judæans.  The Judæans’ religion was administered by a hereditary priesthood and revolved around a sacrificial cult at a central and unique temple complex.  The jews’ religion has no priesthood, no sacrificial cult, no temple complex; instead it revolves around encyclopedic knowledge of an immense body of texts composed in the Middle Ages, whose earliest elements date back only to the century after the Judæan religion was put down by the Romans (who destroyed the temple complex and its priesthood in 70 AD).  The two religions only share two elements; the creators of the jewish religion continued to use a dialect descended from classical Hebrew as a liturgical language, and the jews also continued to revere some texts which originated with the Judæans (the “Tanakh”, i.e. the Pentateuch, the Prophets, and the books of Wisdom) along with their medieval inventions (the Talmud and the Mishnah).

SPQRManhole.jpgIn other words, the religion of the Judæans is as dead as the senatus populusque romanorum (whatever Rome’s manhole-covers say).  It does have living descendants, though.  In fact, the situation is rather more complicated than “descendants”, which implies a family tree.  The graph of religious communities inspired by the beliefs expressed in the Book of Genesis would resemble a mangrove swamp.

III.

The word Abiru (our “Hebrew”) appears in various ancient sources as a sort of pejorative for the loathed herder/robbers who existed in the interstices of the Near East’s irrigation-centric agricultural empires.  If we take Genesis as a record of these herders’ attitudes towards the urban priesthood and its empire, the loathing was mutual.  Of the people following this early desert religion, we can tease out at least two strands; the Jebusites, whom the Judæans considered to practice the same religion, and the Chaldean Abiru, who all claimed kinship through the patriarch Terah, the father of Abraham. The Moabites and

CanaanNationsMaps
Canaan, in the time of Moses.

Ammonites were recognized as descendants of Abraham’s nephew, Lot.  The Arabs were recognized as descendants of Abraham’s illegitimate son, Ishmael.  The Edomites, even more closely related to the author of Genesis, were acknowledged to be cousins to Jacob’s descendants.

 

The descendants of Jacob or Israel, the Israelites, are an intriguing historical enigma — but the origin of these tribes and the circumstances under which they decided to adopt one another as descendants of a single band of brothers is a topic for another day.  For our purposes the important point is that twelve tribes living in historical Palestine forged a relatively long-lasting military-religious federation, and part of the symbolism of this federation was the belief that the founding patriarchs of each of the tribes were brothers, and that their father was Jacob/Israel.  (These were the people who codified the Pentateuch.)

One of these tribes was the tribe of Judah, which later gave its name to the Kingdom of Judah and to the region of Judæa. The division of Israelites into Judæans and non-Judæans is the first division of this family tree with multiple surviving branches.  The northern tribes formed the Kingdom of Israel, which was eventually destroyed as a

CanaanDividedKingdom
The Divided Kingdom, from circa 930 BC to 722 BC. Judah survived until 586 BC.

political unit, but its non-Judæan inhabitants continued to practice their traditional religion in the region known as Samaria. We meet the “Good Samaritan”, who aids a Judæan ignored by his own tribesmen, in the Gospel of Luke (10:25-37).  As the story hints, relations between Samaritans and Judæans were proverbially frosty, so it is a small irony that recent anthropologists have labelled the surviving members of this group “Samaritan Jews”. (Samaritan Judæans?!?)

 

IV.

Now, according to the history recorded in the Old Testament, after the political destruction of the Kingdom of Judah, the inhabitants of Jerusalem (at a minimum) were deported to the Assyrian Empire and remained there several generations before a new Persian dynasty permitted the Judæan elite to return to Judæa in order to refound Jerusalem and its temple cult.  (This was the time at which Ezra and Nehemiah compiled the Old Testament in its present form.)  The Persian-sponsored Judæa was short-lived; Persia fell to Alexander’s armies and Judæa was held by the diadochē until the Maccabean revolt founded the Hasmonean kingdom.  (This was the period of the LXX translation.)

The exposure of the Judæans to the culture of their conquerors — first the Persians, then the Greeks — produced a cultural split between Judæans who continued to hold a clannish loyalty to the temple cult and its priesthood, and those willing to conform to the new political dispensation.  The very word for “apostate” which survives from late-classical Hebrew is apikouros: i.e., Epicurean, after the most influential and popular philosophy of the Hellenistic era.  But divisions were also beginning to show among traditionalist Judæans; some remained loyal to the priesthood and the temple cult, while others, the so-called Essenes, escaped into the desert to live a life more centered on personal asceticism and a direct relationship with God unmediated by the temple cult.  These Essenes gave rise to new cults whose characteristic ritual was symbolic immersion; the most famous practitioner of this branch of Judæan religion was Iokaanon, or John the Baptist.

Religious splits within the temple cult continued towards the end of the Hasmonean dynasty.  The two major currents were the Saducees (the traditional hereditary priestly aristocracy, the “sons of Zadok”) and the Pharisees (self-styled religious gurus).  The Pharisees might best be compared to astrologists, numerologists, witch-doctors, psychics, and other popular entrepreneurs of the paranormal.  The Sadducees encouraged the Judæans to worry as little as possible about the trivialities and perplexities of religious revelation and the rituals it commanded; their attitudes towards religious requirements might best be described as “don’t call us, we’ll call you”.  But if someone with a religious preoccupation went to the Pharisees, they would be happy to humor any superstition and offer a satisfyingly complex solution – for a modest consideration, of course!  The Pharisees also seem to have been more receptive to foreign religious and magical doctrines, in particular Babylonian numerology and Zoroastrian mythology; their base of support may have been among the large Judæan communities which remained behind in the Persian Empire.

Enter the son of man.  Jesus of Nazareth was not, technically speaking, a Judæan; rather, He was a Galillean.  Nor was He a Hebrew-speaker; available evidence suggests that sayings of Jesus were originally recorded in the Aramaic language. But He was a member of

JesusWhip01.jpg
Jesus with a whip, Jn 2:15/Mt 21:12

the tribe of Judah and a practitioner of the traditional Judæan religion, well-versed in its prophetic texts and attentive to the dignity of the temple cult.  (For example, He was notably unhappy about the impropriety of conducting forex operations on temple premises.) Theologically, He endorsed and amplified the mild pietism of the Sadducees, as against the superstitious orthopraxy of the Pharisees; but He also showed a strong affinity for the ideals and practices of the ascetic Essenes.  His distaste for the Pharisees was strong enough that “pharisee” is still, two millennia later, a term of abuse.

 

The crucifixion of Jesus ended His personal ministry in Galilee, but His message was kept alive by His apostles.  It was the Sadducees, ironically, whom the Romans were to extinguish.  The destruction of the temple in 70 AD and the active persecution of the priesthood decimated both the Sadducees themselves and the source of their religious authority (control of the sacrificial temple cult).  Over the next century, most Judæans and Judæan expatriates either abandoned Judæan religion entirely, or converted to the more universalistic Christian strand of it.  These Judæans and their descendants ceased to have a distinct Judæan ethnicity, and blended in to the host population.  However, at the same time the remaining Pharisees were compiling their superstitions and esoterica in two collections, the Talmud and the Midrash.  As they reached peak complexity in the high Middle Ages, the religious doctrine of these books proved capable of preventing the Pharasaic diaspora from (a) converting to other religions or (b) mingling with non-Pharisee populations to the point of losing their distinct Judæan ethnicity.  As a result, the small fraction of the Judæan communities around the Mediterranean which had not yet assimilated when the Talmud and Midrash became available, and who subsequently adopted them, became the foundation of medieval Judaism, the stable form which brought the Pharasaic strain forward through the next dozen centuries.

Masada
Was zealotry the last stand of implicit Sadducee identity?

IV.

A “jew”, to my way of thinking, is a member of that tribe whose ancestors lived in the medieval Talmudic ghettoes.  Jesus of Nazareth may have been Rex Iudæorum, but not even Pontius Pilate accused him of being King of the Talmudic ghettoes.  Christianity may have suffered Zoroastrian, Manichæan, and Mithraic influence; but Jesus was no more influenced by the Talmud than Plato was, or Arjuna.  And while there is not shame in scrutinizing our favorite writers for the long shadow of “deplorable ghetto inbreeding”, the Fathers of the Church hammered out Christian doctrine centuries before the first wall was build around the first ghetto.

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4 thoughts on “Religious phylogeny and the “Kike on a stick”

  1. A fairly interesting account of the origins of modern Judaism/Talmudism.

    I must confess though that I’m having a difficulty with the description of the Pharisees as “self-styled religious gurus” without further qualification. I’ve been under the impression that the following verses of St. Matthew (23, 1-3) attribute legitimate teaching authority to the Pharisees:

    Then Jesus spoke to the multitude and to his disciples, saying: The Scribes and the Pharisees have sitten on the chair of Moses. All therefore whatsoever they shall say to you, observe and do: but according to their works do ye not: for they say and do not.

    (Still, since the teaching of the Pharisees had been tainted with many superstitions and false ordinances, it would have been binding only so far as not contrary to the law of Moses.)

    How would you harmonise the Jesus’s statement with the “self-styled” description?

    Thanks,
    Charles

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I take the description of the scribes and Pharisees as occupants of “the chair of Moses” as akin to:

      >they love the place of honor at banquets, and the chief seats in the synagogues, and respectful greetings in the market places, and being called by men, “Rabbi”

      and, in a parallel passage,

      >Woe to you Pharisees! For you love the front seats in the synagogues… [Luke 11:43]

      In other words, the unusual mood of “they have sitten on” is meaningful (well, imho: if you check the Greek tell me what the verb is!); it is not just that they sit there but that *they have seated themselves there* i.e. they have arrogated the spot. They are not in any sense the authentic heirs and interpreters of the Mosaic law, but rather status-seekers in a community governed by Mosaic law.

      Now – as for why the Lord asks his audience to obey their words –

      My casual interpretation of the passage was that with high social status comes the right to read passages from the Pentateuch out loud on the Sabbath and on other occasions.

      Re-reading it now it also seems conceivable that He intends a message similar to the Pauline “The powers that be are ordained of God.” Where hypocrites’ interpretation of the law is backed by the power of punishment, you must do exactly what they tell you to do.
      (Cf. the similar passage on settling legal disputes before they come to the law-court.) But the emphasis in this verse is probably on the reading of the text of the Law, I assume, not the danger of ignoring pharisaical legal rulings.

      Regardless, to answer your question narrowly: the Sadducees had priestly responsibilities by hereditary right, the Pharisees set themselves up as religious soothsayers out of personal ambition.

      Like

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