Baker Academic

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Jesus and ‘Nationalism’

Following on from the post on the term ‘revolutionary’, I want to look at another term that is commonly used in historical Jesus research but which may also raise problems: ‘nationalism’. It is common enough to read phrases such as ‘nationalistic movement, ‘Jewish nationalism’, ‘nationalistic associations’, ‘nationalistic tendencies’ etc. Of course, as with any definition, people may be using it in ways that are based on ancient understandings but terms relating to ‘nationalism’ are not always defined and carry problematic connotations when studying the ancient world.

Probably the biggest problem is that assumptions surrounding ‘nationalism’ as associated with, for instance, the nation state, are part of a relatively modern phenomenon. In this respect it is also worth noting that the rhetoric and assumptions of modern ‘nationalism’ and nation states are embedded in the history of historical Jesus studies which emerged as a strong European nationalism was emerging. Might this not have had a profound historic impact on the assumptions of the field of historical Jesus studies?

There are criticisms and qualifications of this sort of thinking about the development of nationalism and the nation state and other possibilities can be raised, such as whether we can talk about ‘proto-nationalism’.  We can at least argue that ‘nationalism’ is a phenomenon or construct that has undergone significant historical and semantic changes over the centuries and to such an extent that it can be difficult to reapply its use from one context to another. Nevertheless, what do scholars actually mean when talking about ‘Jewish nationalism’, particularly when undefined? If we could say that one possibility is something like having a king or divine king ruling over territory, what kind of territory might this be? We might imagine some thinking about territory from Dan to Beersheba or seemingly ‘natural’ boundaries such as something that stretched as far north as the Taurus Mountains (1QapGen 17.10). But what more? What sorts of borders were envisaged in ‘Jewish nationalism’? Presumably not the strict borders sometimes confidently presented in a ‘biblical atlas’. Were borders even envisaged?  What sort of political infrastructure is envisaged? Towns dependent on Jerusalem? Armies? Garrisons? Unification across territory or communities over issues like Sabbath observance and taxation?

So, should the word ‘nationalism’ even be used when talking about the ancient world?

Or am I worrying too much about definitions?



  1. James, you’re not too worried about definitions. No, no.

    We do need a word to describe the “ism” behind the inclination of Jews/Judeans (another definitional problem there) to do something like revolt (last post’s definitional problem) against powers that were “foreign” (maybe I’ll just start using quotes) to establish something like a proto-nation (do I put “proto” in quotes, or does that prefix carry implicit quotes?). We can look at what the Maccabes accomplished and what Bar Kochba tried to accomplish, and see parallels, and contrast the “ism” (proto-ism? Is "ism" anachronistic?) at work here with that, say of the “revolt” of Boudica in Britain?

    I don’t know if the best word for this is “nationalism,” or “ethnos-ism” or “theocratism” (probably not theocratism). Another “ism” that gets implicated here is particularism. (Somehow, when Jews do this particular “ism”, we’re seen as anti-social, as opposed to, say, the “ism” that went into the formation of the European Union, which is seen more like “inclusive-ism,” or the “ism” in the American Revolution, seen over here as “patriotism.”) Of course, these “isms” serve as a foil for Hellenism, and later, Christianity. (How come Christianity gets to be an “ity”, when all of these other things have to be “isms”?)

    So, no. Not too worried about definitions.

    1. On the last paragraph, I think particularism is an underlying issue in the use of the term nationalism. I think should be an obvious point that particularism is particular to countless groups (including Christians) but if that was acknowledged (rather than focusing on Jews somehow being distinctive for being particular) then *maybe* we might be on to something. But I wonder if 'nationalism' in HJ studies might be smuggling in some of the old stereotypes about Judaism and used as a foil to make Jesus more open and universal...?

      I also wonder if there is an assumption that nationalism might be restricted in HJ to the sorts of things that the Maccabees of Bar Kochba got up to. Probably. But a case for so called implicit nationalism could be made for those who identified with different ways creating identity around a given people which does not echo the behaviour of the Maccabees (DSS for instance). And couldn't we call someone predicting that the god of Israel will change the world imminently, calls gentiles 'dogs', and says go nowhere among Samaritans or gentiles 'nationalistic'...?

      Another point: if it hasn't been done already, I think there is a great project or PhD thesis waiting to be done on the history of the term 'nationalism' in HJ scholarship...

  2. I think you're right that definitions do matter and that we must avoid transposing our concepts with all their baggage too directly upon the ancient world, but do we even have a word that better explains a unified people claiming a particular land over against other peoples and their claims on lands?

    1. Tricky, very tricky. Inevitably whatever word is used will be problematic. Nevertheless, I'm not even sure we are all aware of how much of that baggage associated with nationalism has been brought in. If someone would do that study (^^) then we could find out what has been going on in scholarship.

  3. Well, should we start with henotheism and nuance the discussion from there? After all, while we have an Empire / Republic and we have well-worn ideas of kings and kingdoms, the borders in question were first defined by clans and clan gods.

    Another way to get at this is to begin with a discussion of collectivism and add in a dimension of theocratic authority.

    Just a couple thoughts.


    1. Yes, perhaps you are on to something. Julian the, er, 'Apostate' tried to counter the imperial Christianity and Judaism precisely in terms of their god(s) and whether they stand up to the task as a god of the Empire or as mere rulers of local kingdoms.

  4. I’m going to take the opposite stance and say that I think we’re worrying too much about definitions here.

    The issue were discussing I think is more a philosophy of language issue than anything else. And what seems to be neglected is the question of how words are functioning in the sentences in which they’re imbedded, which are then imbedded in paragraphs, and those, in chapters, and those, in books, etc.

    The question here is whether or not ‘nationalism’ is the appropriate word to use in HJ studies since it comes with modern baggage that can perhaps obscure the issue or make the author anachronistic. The question is whether or not it *actually* comes with that baggage. I subscribe to the Wittgensteinian idea that the definition of a word is determined by its use. So if we were to come across a sentence, for instance, which was to the effect of, “Jesus’ nationalism is most observable in Matt. 10:5–6, where he says to the disciples he was sending out, ‘Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,’” ‘nationalism’ here cannot have anything to do with modern nation state systems, unless we really believe that the author is imputing to Jesus a modern understanding of nation and the ethnic and ethical

    The fact is that the use of that word in that sentence does not come with the modern sense, and to otherwise insist that the author is ‘smuggling’ modern sentiment into his reading of Jesus is to read the author, not only incorrectly, but uncharitably.

    The correct procedure is to ask what precisely the author means in his or her sentence. Are there possible worlds in which the use of the term does not come with all possible senses that may be associated with the word at any given time. To insist on pinning definitions to authors, because we can find those definitions in a dictionary is not how *reading* works. If I read the above sentence, I would say to myself, ‘he or she obviously does not have in mind the 19th or 20th century idea of the nation state. . . Thus, what does he or she have in mind?’ Well, likely the ideas associated with it are at least a perhaps vague but nonetheless real idea of a land area, occupied by a specific ethnic group, that is unified by (among other things) a particular way of life as embodied in belief and behaviour.

    The second issue seems to be the question of whether or not it is proper to use terms and language to describe things which the people at the time would not have used. The short answer is, of course it is. We are writing for a modern audience who is familiar with those terms. At the same time, it’s quite good at times to try show your readership what it’s like ‘inside’ the linguistic world of the ancients—insofar as one is able to do this. To insist that we can only do the one is just wrong.

    Of course, it’s possible that the author has chosen a word where a better one would work, but I’m assuming that the words we have in mind are those which have heretofore been considered and still pose difficulty. In the case where a better word will work, critique is proper. But I think it’s important that the ‘better’ word be truly better. If it requires more explanation than merely qualifying the ‘worse’ word, it’s truly not the better word.
    At any rate, Jacques Barzun’s point I think about this issue is golden:

    “All historical labels are nicknames—Puritan, Gothic, Rationalist, Romantic, Symbolist, Expressionist, Modernist—and therefore falsify. But “renaming more accurately” would be an effort wasted. Coming from diverse minds, it would re-introduce confusion. All names given by history must be accepted and opened up, not defined in one sentence or divided into subspecies.”


    1. Yes, I agree to an extent on looking at how a word is used but I really don’t think it is possible to overlook ideological inheritance, often unconscious. We use words and phrases (I certainly have) that carry all sorts of connotations and we don’t always know what we are doing and which can be framed by inherited debates. I don’t think the language of being ‘uncharitable’ is always helpful and saying something like focusing on specific word use and intentionality is the ‘correct procedure’ seems overly confident.
      As an example of more unconscious influence, I’d point to the use of ‘Jewishness’ in HJ scholarship which is ostensibly intended for use in a positive sense by scholars but which has perpetuated issues of superiority and excluded certain definitions of Jewishess (e.g. a Cynic-like Jesus is somehow ‘unJewish’ because it isn’t included in the scholarly assumptions of Jewishness). And it is possible to write a genealogy of the inherited assumptions of Jewishness.
      I don’t know if we can really find a better word or not (and anachronism certainly won’t be avoided) but I do think a sustained study/genealogy of the use of the term ‘nationalism’ in HJ would be revealing (as has already been done in a related way in studies of C19 scholarship and its influence – see esp. Halvor Moxnes). I suppose what I am trying to tease out here is back to what you said: what do scholars mean when they use the term because I’m not entirely sure even if I do have some general suspicions.

  5. I'm currently using the word "nationalism" in regard to roughly, Jewish Zionist desires to found a Jewish "kingdom." For several reasons.

    1) The Bible uses the word "nation" with regard to Israel/Judah in current translation.

    2) Nationalism is more easily understood by moderns; and is a dynamic equivalent at least, of the promised "kingdom."

    3) Being more understandable to moderns, it links ancient Biblical ideas to our present life; making it more relevant. Helping us see modern nationalism in a biblical light.