I am very pleased to announce that the book of my former student, Jason Staples, The Idea of Israel in Second-Temple Judaism, has just appeared from Cambridge University Press.  Jason did his PhD here at UNC and this is part of his dissertation.  I say “part” because the dissertation was large, and he has divided it into two separate monographs; the second will be dealing with how the term “Israel” is used in the writings of Paul — in particular, what Paul might mean when he says “All Israel will be saved” (Rom. 11:26) — an unusually thorny statement that has generated a huge amount of research and opinion over the years (all the usual and fairly commonsense explanations are problematic, for one compelling reason or another).  Jason thinks he has found the solution.  That will be volume 2!

Here he presents for us one of the issues he address in vol. 1, related to the overall topic of the book.  Short question: what is the difference in the ancient world between talking about “Israel” and “Jews.”  (Have an opinion?  Keep reading!)


If you read nearly any book or article of biblical scholarship from the past century, you’ll notice that when scholars talk about the time after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 587/86 BCE, they tend to use the term “Israel” interchangeably with “the Jews,” often even alternating between the two terms for stylistic purposes. You’ll also tend to hear about the return of “Israel” to the land after the fall of Babylon to the Persians and about Jesus’ ministry in “Israel.” And on the face of it, all this seems natural enough: isn’t it obvious that “Israel” is synonymous with the people also called Jews? After all, the modern Jewish state is named “Israel” for a reason!

As it turns out, things weren’t quite so simple in the Second Temple period—the time roughly between the seventh century BCE and the second century CE and the period that produced both Judaism and Christianity. For one thing, although generations of scholars have taken for granted that “Israelite” is effectively synonymous with “Jew,” it has long been recognized that these two terms are not treated as entirely interchangeable in ancient literature and instead tend to appear in different contexts. But an explanation for the differences in how these apparently synonymous terms are used in that literature has been difficult to come by. At present, most scholars presume that “Israel” was an “insider” term used and preferred by Jews themselves while “Jew” was an “outsider” label typically used in contexts involving non-Jews (that is, gentiles).

That explanation derives from the entry on these terms in the popular Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. That entry was written by Karl G. Kuhn in 1938 and argues that unlike the insider term “Israel,” the term “Jew” sometimes carried a “derogatory or contemptuous sense,” with Jews/Israelites preferring the more respectful “Israel” but accommodating to the sometimes-disrespectful outsider usage when in contexts involving outsiders. But it’s telling that Kuhn provides no evidence for the claim that “Jew” ever carried a derogatory nuance in pre-Christian antiquity, nor has such evidence has been found in the decades since Kuhn published his article. This kind of derogatory or contemptuous nuance of “Jew” was, however, a notable feature of the context in which Kuhn proposed his theory: prewar Nazi Germany.

Kuhn himself was an early (1932) member of the Nazi party and was one of fifteen appointed members of the Nazi-established “Research Department for the Jewish Problem.” Stunningly, he regularly gave lectures on Rabbinic Judaism while wearing a Nazi paramilitary SA (Sturmabteilung) uniform complete with “honor dagger” (Ehrendolch). He also gave a number of lectures on the so-called “Jewish Problem” (Judenfrage), advocating the boycott of Jewish businesses in a 1933 speech and giving an address on the “Jewish Problem” less than a month after the tragic “Kristallnacht” (night of broken glass) pogrom against the Jews in 1938, the same year his dictionary article on these terms was first published. In this light, it should hardly be surprising that Kuhn’s proposed solution for how these terms are related matches perfectly with the way the modern versions of these terms were used in his own time. That is, Kuhn’s explanation superimposes the idiom of prewar Nazi Germany on the ancient data. Unfortunately, Kuhn’s model has continued to be repeated and assumed—often without citation—throughout recent scholarship as a way to explain why otherwise seemingly synonymous terms are used differently within ancient literature. And that despite the fact that the data do not support his claims.

It’s not as though problems with Kuhn’s paradigm have gone unnoticed. For example, back in 1999, Maurice Casey cited the widespread acceptance of Kuhn’s problematic theory as a prime example of “the widespread and unfortunate habit of repeating the words of dead professors, regardless of truth or falsehood.” More recently, in 2014 Nathan Thiel observed that “the exceptions to an insider/outsider model are too numerous to maintain it without modification.” But recognizing the flaws of a dominant model is not enough. The difficult thing is to provide an alternative that better explains the data.

This is what I have aimed to do in my book, The Idea of Israel in Second Temple Judaism: A New Theory of People, Exile, and Israelite Identity. In this book, I propose a new model for how these terms were used in their ancient contexts, explaining how the various debates, discussions, and assumptions about the concept of Israel and Israelite identity in early Jewish sources attest to a surprising fact: “Israelite” and “Jew” were not in fact synonymous in the Second Temple period. Instead, Jews were understood—and consistently understood themselves—as a subset of Israel rather than as comprising the whole of Israel.

Perhaps the most significant piece of evidence for this fact is the continued presence of the people best known as Samaritans throughout the Second Temple period and beyond. Although they have often been treated in modern scholarship as a subset of Jews—a byproduct of the assumption that Israelites and Jews are synonymous—the Samaritans were decidedly not Jews, as a famous passage in the Gospel of John explains, “Jews do not have common dealings with Samaritans” (John 4:9). This statement would obviously be incoherent if Samaritans were Jews by virtue of being Israelites, and further evidence from the period confirms that the Samaritans claimed to be Israelites but not Jews, while Jews also did not regard Samaritans as Jews while also acknowledging (and often contesting) Samaritan claims of Israelite status and heritage. Even more surprisingly, the term “Israel” was not used to designate Judaea in the Persian or Graeco-Roman periods; instead, where that term is applied in Graeco-Roman sources, for example, it refers to those associated with worship at Mt. Gerizim—that is, the Samaritans.

Remarkably, even when Samaritans are not involved, similar distinctions between “Israelite” and “Jew” persist throughout early Jewish literature. On a closer examination of the evidence, it becomes evident that the paradigm of Israel established in the biblical narratives of pre-exilic Israel persists in Jewish literature throughout the Second Temple period. In that paradigm, the kingdoms of (northern) Israel and (southern) Judah together comprise the twelve-tribe totality of Israel. In this context, the term “Jew” refers specifically to those from the southern kingdom of Judah (that is, “Judahites”), while “Israelite” could refer to the whole people including both Jews and northern Israelites or, sometimes, to non-Jews (that is, non-Judahites) like Samaritans or other descendants of the northern kingdom of Israel.

Once this distinction is recognized, another thing quickly becomes evident: many Jews surprisingly continued to hope for and expect not only the liberation and independence of “the Jews” (that is, Judahites) but also continued to expect the miraculous return and restoration of northern (non-Jewish) Israelites from among the nations where they were scattered during and after the Assyrian invasions of the eighth century BCE. This expectation turns out to be central to a variety of ancient Jewish efforts to bring about “Israel’s” restoration—including the earliest Jesus movement.

My book examines these early debates and traces the development of the discourse concerning the concept of Israel throughout the Second Temple period. The book demonstrates that once we recognize the distinctions ancient authors make between “Israel” and “the Jews,” our eyes are opened to a broader diversity of claimants to the heritage of Israel. At that point, we can begin to understand many of the debates among various ancient groups competing to claim that Israelite heritage, including groups like the Dead Sea Scroll community, the earliest Christians, and the predecessors of rabbinic Judaism.