Cohen on Gentiles and Judaism

I’m continuing my way through Shaye Cohen’s The Beginnings of Jewishness: Boundaries, Varieties, Uncertainties.  In this post, I’ll talk some things that I got out of Chapters 4-5.

In Chapter 4, “From Ethnos to Ethno-Religion”, Cohen addresses a question.  In the second century B.C.E., Judea managed to convert Idumaea and the Ituraeans and made them part of Judea.  I said last time that this was a forcible conversion, but, while many ancient historians indeed present such a picture, Strabo does not, for he asserts that these people-groups cooperated with Judea and formed an alliance with her.  My impression is that Cohen believes a little of both happened, but the question with which he wrestles is this: Where did Judea get the idea that she could convert other people-groups to the Jewish religion and thereby make them Judeans?  According to Cohen, we don’t really see this idea in the Hebrew Bible, for that presents a picture of Gentiles worshiping YHWH with the Judeans as Gentiles, not as people who become Israelites themselves.  Probably the closest we get to conversion is Genesis 34, in which some people of Israel propose to become one people with the Shechemites through circumcision, but Cohen does not think that the Hasmoneans got the idea of making other people-groups into Judeans from that passage, for the proposal there is merely a ruse.  Cohen’s conclusion is that the Hasmoneans got the idea from the Hellenists, who tried to make much of the known world Greek-like.  If the Greeks could do that, why couldn’t the Judeans do something similar?

In Chapter 5, “Crossing the Boundary and Becoming a Jew”, Cohen talks about different approaches among Gentiles to Judaism.  Some admired Judaism because they deemed its monotheism to be a pure religion, in contrast to the vulgar worship of images.  Some incorporated YHWH into their pantheon, or they regarded YHWH as the equivalent to Zeus, in accordance with their tendency to look for equivalents to their own gods in other cultures.  Some were friendly to the Jews, probably for political reasons (like Cyrus).  This could lead to conspiracy theories about the Jews, as when nationalists in Alexandria, Egypt accused the imperial Romans of being too pro-Jewish on account of their support for Jewish rights, and they accused one Roman emperor of being the “cast-off son of the Jewish Salome”.  Some Gentiles practiced Jewish rituals, leading Seneca to lament: “the customs of this accursed race have gained such influence that they are now received throughout all the world.  The vanquished have given laws to their victors.”  Some embraced monotheism, and some converted, which entailed circumcision.

Cohen touches on the issue of matrilineal descent, the notion that one is Jewish through his mother.  Cohen notes that this was a second century rabbinic idea, whereas first century figures such as Philo and Josephus believed that one was Jewish through one’s father.  And the rabbis also believed that, if a Gentile woman converted to Judaism, then her children would be Jews.  At the same time, Cohen notes that proselytes had an ambiguous status within Jewish communities, for they were not Jews by blood.

Page 158 has a statement that stood out to me, for I am interested in how Judaism has regarded Gentile observance of the Torah, which was given to Israel: “Perhaps the God of the Jews would be pleased with gentiles who venerated him and practiced some of his laws, and perhaps in the day of the eschaton gentiles would not need to be circumcised to be part of God’s holy people, but if those gentiles wanted to join the Jewish community in the here and now, they had to accept circumcision.”  I have read that the rabbis did not like the idea of Gentiles observing the Sabbath, but, in rabbinic passages that I have encountered, they appear to be rather neutral on Gentiles honoring their parents or abstaining from unclean meats.

I’ll stop here.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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