Review of D. Goodblatt, Elements of Ancient Jewish Nationalism

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 9 (2009) - Review

David Goodblatt, Elements of Ancient Jewish Nationalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006). Pp. xvi + 260. Cloth, US$75.00. ISBN 0-521-86202-7.

In this carefully researched and well-written book, David Goodblatt argues that Second Temple Jews exhibited the characteristics of nationalism. His first chapter discusses the term “nationalism,” aware of the arguments that nationalism is a modern phenomenon. Against those who favor the term “ethnicity,” Goodblatt argues that “ethnicity” is functionally equivalent to “nationality.” Goodblatt defines (pp. 26-27) “national identity” as “belief in a common descent and shared culture.” “Shared culture” is the set of cultural factors which are “criteria for, or indicators of, membership in the national group.” Although national identity is socially constructed, people believe in it “and are ready to act on that basis.” Finally, “nationalism” is the “invocation of national identity” to prompt “mass mobilization and action.” Having offered his definitions of these challenging terms, Goodblatt examines how ancient Jews created a national identity.

Goodblatt argues that the Bible was crucial to creating a national identity. It offered a national history, with a common ancestor, and a shared culture, including dietary restrictions, circumcision, Sabbath observance, endogamy, as well as a sacred language, Hebrew.

Nationalism is generally regarded as requiring widespread literacy or mass communication, which is why it is seen as a modern phenomenon. How was the Bible communicated to the illiterate majority? Goodblatt believes it was read publicly. The best evidence for this comes from the large number of biblical manuscripts from Qumran. If we possess 1/5,000 of the manuscripts from antiquity, then the 30 copies of Deuteronomy from Qumran suggest the existence of 150,000 copies in antiquity, with other biblical scrolls following a similar pattern. These numbers seem too large for Judah's ancient population, so the survival ratio “must be off kilter” (45), but even with a smaller ratio, there would still be many biblical manuscripts. Since biblical manuscripts are common among the older Qumran documents, Goodblatt concludes they were “performance texts,” used as early as the third century BCE.

For Herodotus, the Greek language was an important part of being “Greek.” Hebrew functioned similarly, although it was replaced by Aramaic during the Second Temple period. But Hebrew continued to be used in the Temple and was preserved as a “national” marker. Books continued to be written in Hebrew. Hebrew became a symbol of the Temple and Torah and enjoyed a “talismanic” function, recognizable to Jews as their language, even if they could not understand it.

Goodblatt argues that the priests were important in forming Jewish national identity. They preserved and taught the national literature. They led Judah for most of the Second Temple period, even if they were vassals of imperialistic powers. Goodblatt sees the revolt against Rome as an expression of Jewish nationalism encouraged by two ideas arising from priestly ideology. The first of these, that Judeans cannot recognize any lord but God, was developed by the priests to legitimate theocracy or, in practice, their hierocracy. The second idea emphasized “zeal” for God, modeled by the priest Phinehas (Num 25, 31) and Levi (Gen 34). Josephus criticizes the followers of both ideas (the fourth philosophy and the Zealots) and does not attribute them to the priests, but Goodblatt notes that Josephus consistently distances the priestly establishment from revolutionary ideas, so his silence is to be expected.

Finally, Goodblatt reviews three different labels that could be used for the nation: Israel, Judah, and Zion. “Israel” is the broadest term. Although the post-exilic community was centered in Judah, “Israel” was the more common term in Jewish literature. Interestingly, both the Hasmoneans and Herod referred to their states with terms derived from “Judah,” while the rebels in the two revolts used “Israel.” Goodblatt speculates that this may reflect a desire on the part of rebels to distance themselves from Hasmonean models. He also suggests that the rebel's terminology encouraged the use of “Israel” in early rabbinic literature.

Variations of “Judah” were used by the Persians, Greeks, and Romans. It was also used by the Hasmoneans on their coins and documents (preserved in 1 Maccabees). Goodblatt “cannot explain the Hasmoneans' preference for ‘Judah’ over ‘Israel’” (159), although he considers several theories. Ironically, even though Herod and the tetrarchs ruled the territory of ancient Israel, they followed the Hasmonean model.

Finally, Goodblatt examines the much less common term “Zion.” This term appears on coins from the first revolt. He examines Meshorer's explanation that “freedom of Zion” or “for the redemption of Zion” were slogans with nationalistic connotations. Goodblatt notes that Josephus never used the term “Zion,” which suggests to Goodblatt that he deliberately avoided it. Similarly, early rabbinic literature exhibits a strong preference for “Temple Mount” rather than “Zion,” perhaps to avoid an emotive term. Since both Josephus and the rabbis avoid “Zion,” Goodblatt concludes that it is “possible that the Judean rebels… created the first Zionist movement. That is, they used the name ‘Zion’ to express and invoke Jewish nationalism” (202-03).

In his conclusion, Goodblatt compares his work with those of Mendels and Schwartz (Doron Mendels, The Rise and Fall of Jewish Nationalism [New York: Doubleday, 1992]; Seth Schwartz, Imperialism and Jewish Society [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001]). He agrees in places with each, but disagrees with Mendels' argument that Jewish nationalism fell after the Bar-Kochba revolt and with Schwartz's model of the “creation, demise, and reappearance of ‘Judaism’” (208). Rather, Goodblatt suggests that rather than discussing the “rise and fall” or “collapse and rejudaization,” it is more accurate to discuss the “modification and change in the contents of Jewish national identity” (210).

Goodblatt has produced an interesting and well-argued book. Given the sporadic nature of the sources, some of his arguments are based on silence and will not persuade some readers. But he acknowledges these problems and justifies his positions well. Overall, for scholars interested in questions of ethnicity, identity, and nationalism in the ancient world, this book is highly recommended.

Adam L. Porter, Illinois College