BMCR 2007.10.56

Elements of Ancient Jewish Nationalism

, Elements of ancient Jewish nationalism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. xvi, 260 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 0521862027. $75.00.

Table of Contents

In Elements of Ancient Jewish Nationalism, Goodblatt masterfully argues that nationalism can be found in the ancient world, and that the collective identity asserted by the Jews in antiquity fits contemporary definitions of nationalism. The notion that nationalism existed prior to the modern period, however, runs contrary to the widespread view that it is a phenomenon only of the past 200 years. Scholars in the field by and large maintain that it probably originated as a result of efforts made by rulers and statesmen to mobilize their subjects and utilize their loyalty, and thus to strengthen their states in order to keep pace with the exceedingly competitive European environment.

To be sure, there is an inordinate amount of literature on this very issue. Ever since 1882 when Ernest Renan delivered a lecture, “What is a nation?,” a cottage industry has flourished seeking to define the term. Attempts to do so range from Louis Snyder’s definition of no less than 208 pages to Goodblatt’s significantly briefer and more lucid definition. Thus, the first chapter of Elements of Nationalism in Ancient Judaism is a thorough review of the major works on the subject of nationalism and ethnicity. He deftly and comprehensively discusses several issues such as the relationship between nation and state, between nation and ethnicity, between nation and nationalism. This is no small task, for the various positions held on these matters are often complicated, and it does not take long to discover that, once one nettlesome terminological problem has been settled, another emerges.

For several reasons which are explained in detail, Goodblatt uses the terms ‘ethnicity,’ and ‘national identity’ interchangeably. He adopts Herodotus’ “implied” definition that consists of “kinship, shared language, religion and customary practices,” (17) and adds to it “the contemporary emphases on the subjective and socially constructed character of the phenomenon.” To quote Goodblatt:

By national identity I mean a belief in a common descent and shared culture available for mass mobilization. By shared culture I mean that certain cultural factors are seen as criteria for, or indications of, membership in the national group. Which cultural factors are singled out as criteria or indicators may shift over time. Also, the kinship or the cultural factors or both may not in fact be shared. What counts is that people believe they are and are ready to act on that basis. Finally, by nationalism I mean the invocation of national identity as the basis for mass mobilization and action. (26-27)

Goodblatt’s treatment of the concept of national identity is an attempt to legitimize the use of the term ancient Jewish nationalism in order to avoid broad and thus vacuous terms such as “ethnoreligious” and “group identity.” By arguing for the applicability of nationalism to the Jews of antiquity, Goodblatt suggests, we can “benefit from the associations and comparisons evoked by the term…as well as from modern treatments of these concepts.”

Having set the stage for his discussion of features of ancient Jewish nationalism, Goodblatt turns to the role of Scripture as a cultural marker and source of Jewish national identity. The Bible and parabiblical literature, as well as the very national history they disseminate provide the bedrock for constructing corporate identity, for establishing the notion of descent from common ancestry. And while the Jews were not more literate than their neighbors, the national narrative was nevertheless reinforced through public readings, which was a common practice in the ancient eastern Mediterranean area. Furthermore, according to Goodblatt, the role of the Hebrew language also constructed and preserved Jewish national identity.

Goodblatt adduces a great deal of evidence for this assertion. Although epigraphic evidence for the predominance of Aramaic, combined with the apparent influence it had on the Hebrew of Second Temple Literature, leads most scholars to contend that Aramaic eventually replaced Hebrew during this period, the extent to which it did so is subject to debate. Goodblatt weighs the various positions on the issue and asserts that the concept of talisman, suggested by Seth Schwartz, helps to explain the ambiguous role of Hebrew as a national language. Although it was not spoken by most of the nation, it nonetheless played a powerful role, much like a talisman. As Goodblatt contends: “[T]he mere presence of the language in spoken or written form could invoke the concept of a Jewish national identity. Even if one knew no Hebrew or was illiterate, one could recognize that a group of signs was in Hebrew script. … It was the language of the Israelite ancestors, the national literature, and the national religion. As such it was inseparable from the national identity. Indeed its mere presence in visual or aural medium could invoke that identity.” (69-70)

The evocative power of language in the national narrative cannot be underestimated. Language, as one might well imagine, is inextricably woven into the very fabric of the national narrative. This aspect of ancient Jewish nationalism occupies a great deal of attention in Elements of Ancient Jewish Nationalism. The use of the names Israel, Judah and Zion are examined in great detail, as is the numismatic evidence of the Bar Kokhba Revolt and the Revolt of 66, which is studied comparatively in light of Phoenician and Nabatean coinage. The conscious choice of terminology of the Hasmoneans, or Bar Kokhba, and Josephus’ and early rabbinic literature’s deliberate attempt to suppress the use of “Zion,” are just a few examples of the many pointing to the social construction of ancient Jewish national identity that Goodblatt compellingly furnishes.

In addition to the use of language, Goodblatt considers the role of the priest as leaders of the nation in the creation and maintenance of a Jewish national consciousness. Not only did they play a central role in the public teaching and diffusion of scripture, but they also played a role in the Jewish polity, and not only during the Hasmonean era. Goodblatt engages—and it is no surprise to us that he does so with great sophistication— many issues and deals with numerous scholarly works on the role of priests in various stages of ancient Jewish history.

The title of the final chapter of the book, “Jewish Nationalism—What Rose and What Fell?” is an allusion to Doron Mendels’ The Rise and Fall of Jewish Nationalism. References to Mendels’ book are strewn throughout Goodblatt’s work, and, on most occasions, the references reflect Goodblatt’s agreement with Mendels’ suppositions. Both, for example, unabashedly use the concepts of national identity and nationalism to discuss antiquity, and both attempt to shed light on ancient Jewish history by using the concept of nationalism. In the conclusion, Goodblatt offers a nuance to Mendels’ notion of a “fall” of Jewish nationalism after 135 CE. “What fell,” avers Goodblatt, “was not Jewish nationalism but the Jewish state. More precisely, what fell were certain institutions that embodied aspects of Jewish national identity. But even some of the four institutions he mentions survived in one way or another—at least among certain segments of the Jewish population.” (204-05) So, too, we find, argues Goodblatt, another version of the “rise and fall” narrative in Seth Schwartz’s provocative work, Imperialism and Jewish Society. In this case, however, the fall is followed by a rebirth. Unlike Mendels and Goodblatt, Schwartz’s terminological use is more circumspect, and thus he uses more general concepts to depict Jewish corporate solidarity. Goodblatt’s main point here is to illustrate the applicability and usefulness of the categories of national identity and nationalism for the study of ancient Jewish history.

Throughout, Goodblatt addresses issues such as the social construction of ancient Jewish nationalism and the names used to organize or express that identity, which are issues that come up in discussions of modern nationalism. And in doing so, he persuasively demonstrates the ways in which ancient Jewish corporate solidarity, “group identity,” or ethnicity is indeed a form of nationalism.

In the preface, Goodblatt intentionally prefixed the words “Elements of” in order “to make it clear that the book has no pretensions to being a comprehensive treatment of the subject,” yet perhaps the one aspect of nationalism that is worthy of more attention is that of the invocation of national identity for the basis of mass mobilization and action. For however deep or shallow the concept runs in various strands of nationalist movements, it is nonetheless an essential aspect.

Goodblatt marshals evidence for demonstrating that, despite all indications that Jews partook in the general material culture of their surroundings, as well as spoke the language of their neighbors and adopted their customs, they nonetheless believed that they constituted a distinct nation apart from their neighbors. One must however question whether the feeling of belonging to a nation, the feeling of exclusivity, of separateness, alone makes vernacular mobilization for political purposes possible. What then is the difference between a nation and nationalism? To what extent was the 66 Revolt or the Bar Kokhba Revolt a mass uprising? After all, the paucity of sources on population figures makes it difficult to determine whether or not these revolts attest to mass mobilization. Is it possible to describe the Hasmonean or Bar Kokhba revolts as illustrations of a small, demotic community’s ability to turn its nationalist, or ethno-religious, identity to serve political activity? How was the collective consciousness raised?

Elements of Ancient Jewish Nationalism, although not explicitly, calls our attention to contemporary notions of nationalism such as Zionism. It is difficult to read the work and not to consider the implications it has for how we consider Zionism. Nowhere in the work does Goodblatt make the connection between ancient Jewish nationalism and modern Jewish nationalism, nor should he necessarily do so. After all, this is not the subject of his book. And yet for the reader, at least this reader, the connection is ever present, whatever one makes of that connection. Nationalist narratives, such as Zionism, assume the existence of the nation throughout history and thus affirm the right of that nation to self-rule and sovereignty over a designated territory. In demonstrating that Jewish nationalism existed in the ancient period, Goodblatt offers a unique dimension to modern Jewish nationalism. While Zionism qua modern phenomenon needs no historical justification for its existence, this dimension should not be ignored, especially since the debunking of nationalist movements in general and Zionism in particular is founded on its essentializing character, namely that the national historical narrative provides a false unity for a self-same, national subject through time. If Goodblatt’s contention that the unity of the self-same Jewish nation, despite the permutations and shifting cultural markers that punctuate the trajectory of ancient Jewish nationalism, is not false, then what are the stakes for understanding Jewish nationalism vis-à-vis other nationalist movements? This work boldly raises the stakes for scholars of nationalism.

In sum, Goodblatt’s monograph, formidable in its meticulous treatment of cultural artifacts and nuanced arguments, is a weighty contribution not only to the field of ancient Judaism, but also to the study of nationalism. For many who adhere to the notion that nationalism is a distinctly modern ethos, this work furnishes countervailing evidence that commands serious attention. For those of us who are first and foremost engaged in the study of ancient Jewish history, Goodblatt provides a conceptualization of that history, which will serve us well in our exploration of the Jewish past and perhaps, too, in our understanding of the present.