May 9, 2012

Obfuscation about "Judaism" and its origins

Using the single term Judaism to describe the various religions of the Jewish ethnic / racial group makes as much sense as using "Italianism" to lump together the religions of the Etruscans, the Indo-European pagan religion of the Romans, Mithraism, early sects of Christianity, Catholicism, and so on.

You wouldn't notice this unless you bothered looking into the history of religions founded by Jews, which I've finally gotten around to. I'd always assumed that there was just Judaism, then Christianity building from that, followed by the non-Jewish but still Semitic development of Islam. Old Testament, then New Testament, then the Quran.

I'm ashamed to admit that I had little idea when the Talmud was written down -- circa 500 AD -- even though I dominated quiz bowl in high school and could've told you that Buddha lived before Jesus, that Mahavira founded Jainism, when the Council of Nicea was and what it was about, etc. etc. etc. Everything I'd read, not to mention all that I've heard spoken about it, kept secret the off-shoot nature of what is now called Judaism in everyday language -- that its distinguishing sacred text, as well as the beliefs and behaviors, originated in the Early Middle Ages, not around or shortly after the era of the Old Testament, like I'd assumed.

I repeat that I never encountered this level of obfuscation when it came to any other religion or sect. Every source told you when Mohammed left Mecca for Medina, when Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses on the Wittenberg Cathedral door, roughly when The Analects and the Tao Te Ching were written, that the Rig Veda came long before the Upanishads, bla bla bla. Yet none of them made it a point to say, "Talmud written down c. 500 AD, ushering in Rabbinic Judaism, the form followed by Jews today." The only date and figure attached to the post-Old Testament history of non-Christian Jewish religion is for Maimonides (and maybe Martin Buber).

Rather than perpetrate the confusion about terminology, I propose we don't use "Judaism" either alone or modified, just as we wouldn't use "Italianism." "Rabbinic Judaism" would require us to call Christianity "Jesusite Judaism" or "New Testament Judaism". For the religion founded with the Talmud, we should just call it Talmudism, Rabbi-ism, or something else that is transparent and that makes no reference to the Jewish ethnic group.

I don't know what to call the collection of sects from the Second Temple period -- Second Temple-ism! Just so long as it doesn't have "Judaism" in it, as that would only make people think that back then there were full-time specialists called rabbis who read a text called the Talmud. The age of the Hebrew prophets that gave birth to the Old Testament, we could call Yahweh-ism. For the time before strict monotheism, use Elohimism.

Why is there a unique deliberate effort to hide basic facts about when the religion followed by today's Jews was founded? This comes from both Jews and non-Jews, so it isn't just the in-group concealing things from the out-group. And it cannot be for fear of somehow derogating the religion by noting that it's more recent than you might have thought -- that would apply to any "newer" religion. Yet no one keeps mum about when Islam began, or when the Lutheran or Mormon sects within Christianity began.

Jews are obviously on board here so they can claim bragging rights -- they were here first, and Christianity and Islam are just spin-offs of their religion, whether they see them neutrally or as corruptions (like most spin-offs are). Even the minority of Jews who are friendly toward Christianity and Islam would still tend to say that you should still be grateful to our religion for providing the foundation of your own. Has anyone ever read or heard a Jew say that their religion, along with Christianity and Islam, are "just" spin-offs of Yahweh-ism, let alone admit that theirs was spun off after Christianity?

You might think that atheist Jews would be the most eager group to get the message out -- talk about the chance to debunk a seriously wrong and seriously popular view about religion, and from insiders no less! But experience tells me that their ethnic pride would over-ride their urge to demystify religion.

Why the non-Jews play along too, I don't know. The obvious first guess is something about the 20th C. effort to reach out more to other religions, inflate their egos, and to do so for Jews in particular as guilt or embarrassment over the Holocaust. But that would mean that before then, say in Victorian or Elizabethan times, non-Jews knew the score and were open about it. I don't know much about the history of non-Jewish perceptions of Talmudism to say, but that's not my impression.

Certainly they looked down on it, maybe thought it was superstitious and overly legalistic, but I don't recall reading European authors saying that Talmudism was a late-comer, after Christianity. Perhaps they just weren't interested enough to look into the history of Talmudism to know when it began?

To end on a suggestion for future research, as they say, someone could do a very simple study to put some meat on these observations, and try to answer some of the why questions. Ask people a question (perhaps mixed in with other irrelevant, distractor questions) about the timing of Yahweh-ism, Christianity, and Talmudism, just a simple ranking task. Forget the wording for now. Let's at least see if people really are so clueless about Talmudism coming last, and if so what fraction of people are off.

Get the standard demographic information, too. I'll bet that the number of years of education is inversely related to getting that question right. Less educated people will probably just guess, while those who've absorbed the message of the elite will be biased toward giving Talmudism an earlier date.

As a control, give them a similar question about Yahweh-ism, Christianity, and Islam. Or throw all four into the same question. I doubt most people, certainly most educated people, would have trouble placing Islam after the others. Again that would mean there's something unique to our (mis)understanding of Talmudism, that it's not simply about it being a religion that we're not so familiar with.

If the rest of the questions are all about religious knowledge, factor analysis will show there to be a single underlying variable, like "general religious knowledge," that makes you more likely to know facts about all religions. However, I suspect that the question on Talmudism would "load" very low on this general factor, and maybe even inversely. That is, knowing lots of factoids about religion would actually hurt your chances of getting the Talmudism question right.

If set in this broader context, someone could actually do this study without raising an eyebrow beforehand, and just comment on it in passing during the write-up. Then let the commenters make a lot of hay out of the results.


  1. You are getting closer, but it would be instructive to read not only their produced material but books such as Michael Hoffman's 1100 page tome of the subject, Judaism Discovered. You might also wish to delve into exactly who the biblical figure Esau is and what role his descendants were/are, since in the writings of the Talmudists they clearly state, "Esau is in Jewry".

    Here's a clue that should help in your journey, right out of the 1905 Encyclopedia Judaica (Google books), "It would be a mistake to assume that our roots are of the Israelites of the Torah, but, rather, our roots are in Pharisaism."

    Indeed such is the case, and that leads right back to Babylon. The Judaists are not the people of the book. Google Benjamin Freeman and Arthur Koestler, two Judaists who wrote books on the subject (Koestler's "The Thirteenth Tribe" as a case in point), as well as Dr. Shlomo Sands "How the Jewish People Were Invented."

    What is easily proven and certain to make you quite unpopular, as well as not win any little "Whose The Smartest Kid?" contests is that the popular narrative is completely false. The actual facts of the matter, including the writings of the Apostle John who referred to the Edomite/Idumeans (Jewry) as "antichrists" argue the exact opposite.

    The truth is out there.

  2. Fascinating stuff that I'd never thought about in those terms. it puts a different light on the whole thing. It's commented on and linked to here:

  3. How is Talmudism diffrent from Yahwehism or is that too large a question?

    What books have you been reading (that we should consider looking at)?

  4. Is Islam more of a Christian offshoot or a Judaic (Talmudic?) offshoot?

  5. There is no Yahwehism any more and their God still has the same name, so it would make sense for religious Jews to consider themselves to be the modern Yahwehists. There are some no-Talmud Jews (Samaritans, I think), but most Jews have never even met a Samaritan so they don't seem that salient.

    Shlomo Sand doesn't know what he's talking about, we have genetic data now rather than old stories. James Scott makes a similar sort of error in "The Art of Not Being Governed".

    Reading "Law and Revolution" really shook up my understanding of the history of the Catholic Church. I wouldn't say the institution was founded in the 11th century, but when people refer to it as the longest lived organization still in existence, I kind of waffle. "The Lost History of Christianity" has less to do with western europe, but still really shakes up the picture.

    There are some people who contrast "Pauline" Christianity with a hypothetical "Jamesian" original, but because there are no Jamesians it's kind of a moot issue.

  6. "It would be a mistake to assume that our roots are of the Israelites of the Torah, but, rather, our roots are in Pharisaism."

    Comparing them to modern Talmudists is unfair to the Pharisees. From my limited understanding, their fixation with legalism was more understandable given the apocalyptic zeitgeist of the Second Temple period.

    If the end of the world as we know it is coming soon, maybe the best thing to do in order to be spared, saved, or whatever, is to dot every i and cross every t in following the Torah's laws. It's not the time or the place to slack off with those laws.

    Don't know how much I would've bought it back then, but I haven't lived through such an intensely apocalyptic time (the '80s notwithstanding). So you can look at it sympathetically.

    Talmudist legalism, though, lacks that context. They saw that the apocalypse did not in fact arrive (i.e., the end of the world as we know it, not just some big bad event). They were trying to make a religion for just getting on in a more mundane world.

    They also tried to root out the apocalypticism and messianism to make sure another Jesus-type movement or Zealot-like movement never broke out.

    The Pharisees' legalism was more of an insurance policy during topsy-turvy times, while that of the Talmudists is more of a long-winded advice guide for how not to make waves.

  7. "Is Islam more of a Christian offshoot or a Judaic (Talmudic?) offshoot?"

    I haven't read enough about Islam to have a solid feel. At the outset, it was probably closer to Yahweh-ism, in that it was mostly a huge push for strict monotheism and quasi-iconoclasm, as against the polytheism and idol worship of Arabia. The central chant there being "There is no god but God..." No need to stress that unless people were more polytheistic.

    And they were introducing a brand-new prophet, like Yahweh-ism and the Jesus movement, and unlike the Pharisees or the Talmudists.

    I don't sense as much legalism as with the Pharisees or Talmudists either. There's no formal priestly class to be engaged in eternal quibbling, and as far as I can tell that kind of "let's nitpick everything" attitude is out of place. It's in the other direction, surrendering or submitting to god's will, not textual or logical debate.

    I guess the closest thing to compare it to would be the early Jesus movement, though again they stress surrender to god's will more than love, charity, etc. And it's less hierarchical.

    That might be why it finds more success in less hierarchical societies, and why it's had as more or less as much success as Christianity.

  8. "So it would make sense for religious Jews to consider themselves to be the modern Yahwehists"

    No way, they frown on messianism and adding to the lists of prophets with new ones. Remember that it was the age of the Hebrew prophets, plural, introducing even more than the followers of Jesus and Mohammed did.

    And with polytheism gone, today's religious Jews don't have to push for strict monotheism like the Yahweh-ists did.

    Plus religious Jews have created an entirely new sacred text to distinguish themselves from the Yahweh-ists, the Talmud.

  9. "What books have you been reading (that we should consider looking at)?"

    On YouTube, "yalecourses" has a good course on reading the New Testament historically, and another on the Early Middle Ages that discusses Christianity and Islam.

    Bart Ehrman's Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium.

    Karen Armstrong's The Great Transformation.

    Mary Boyce's Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices. (Not relevant here, but still good for comparative purposes.)

  10. Muslims aren't too keen on adding more prophets after Muhammad either! Their schools of jurisprudence based on the hadiths (collected in a book called the Sunnah) also have more of an impact on their lives than the haphazard collection of prophecy via an illiterate called the Koran.

  11. Right -- after Mohammed, who they introduced as a new prophet to distinguish themselves as a new religion. And not just as any old mouthpiece of god, but as the final seal of the prophets.

    The Pharisees and Talmudists introduced zero new prophets to distinguish themselves from other religions or sects.

  12. The dates of the Talmud are not a secret, all you have to do is look at the Wikipedia article:

    Most people just aren't interested enough to bother.

    Rabbis have an interest as promoting Judaism as the word of God given to us a long time before the religion actually began to be practiced, just as Christians promote false facts about Jesus.

    You should read my blog post from last year:

    in which I talk about the probability that Jesus never existed as a real person, and I wrote:

    "The religion which Jews practice today is based on the Talmud which didn’t exist at the time Christ was allegedly born, which demonstrates my point about Judaism splitting into two camps after the Romans kicked Jewish ass in the war from 66 AD to 70 AD."

  13. Muslims aren't too keen on adding more prophets after Muhammad either! Their schools of jurisprudence based on the hadiths (collected in a book called the Sunnah) also have more of an impact on their lives than the haphazard collection of prophecy via an illiterate called the Koran.

    I think the trouble here is in assessing importance of facets.

    Islam is certainly structurally and narratively a lot more like Judaism with the only bits it cribs from Christianity being hell and the judgement (its other point of similarity to Christianity is its proselytyzing nature). It is remarkably untouched by Christian thought.

    Islam's feuding and legalistic imams do not look that much less of a formal priesthood than the rabbis (Islam is more egalitarian, true, but there are still lineages and schools to its imams) and they do not seem to differ that much in their behaviour.

    However, whether Islam overall places the emphasis on orthopraxic and legalistic bits over the mythology and narrative that Talmudism/Rabbism does is hard to asses.

    Indeed, whether Talmudism/Rabbism really does has done this over long time scales is hard to assess. We should find it perfectly possible to invent, from the bits of Talmudism we know about, a Judaism that lacks any real orthopraxic or legalistic thrust, simply by playing around with actual functional observance, if we wanted to. And we could also do the obverse, and the Jews may have done this.

    Now, many modern Jews want to emphasise the "intellectual" and argumentative nature of their rabbinical discourse, but is this so typical of Talmudism/Rabbism as practicised by populations other than the Ashkenazi and Sephardim, who are peculiarly selected and urban mercantile minorities more than other Jewish populations?

    My impression is that Jewish religious practice in the mode agnostic is describing flowed back from the European Jewish (Ashkenazi and Sephardim) populations exclusively to the Middle Eastern ones, suggesting that the Middle Eastern populations were not productive in this type of behaviour, which would suggest to me that they weren't interested in it (although the European Jews may have simply produced more because they were smarter).

    (The thing to me that most suggests that Talmudism universally overemphasises(?) argument over narrative is that it is based on"an alternative form, organized by subject matter instead of by biblical verse, (which) became dominant about the year 200 CE" - i.e. the narrative flow is completely broken to isolate and compare where a theme is expressed in various parts of the narrative - like literary criticism compared to literature).

    agnostic, have you discussed any of your religion related ideas with razib of GNXP? I know you were formerly buddies, whether you've subsequently fallen out or not I don't know, but he has a lot of knowledge of this kind of thing.

  14. Naw, no falling out, I just dropped out of the blogosphere since I figured I'd hit diminishing marginal returns in what I was getting out of keping up with it. Now it's just this blog and leaving the occasional drive-by comment at Steve Sailer's.

    I've been reading more of the classics in cultural anthropology related to religion, myth, ritual, magic, etc. There's a lot of good stuff there, and sadly you hardly hear about it -- not just in other disciplines, like when ev psych people talk about religion, but even within the wacko mainstream of cultural anthropology of the past 20-25 years.

  15. As TGGP hints, Christianity has had some significant changes. The big one, after the semi-hypothetical "Pauline" vs "Jamesist" is the Council of Nicaea, which suppressed a significant amount of Christian diversity of opinion, and a significant number of scriptural works. It was more a pruning than an addition, but it was significant. The Catholic and Orthodox Churches have their "Sacred Tradition" which is, in theory, teachings from the time of the apostles, but in practice, which have been substantially elaborated in the centuries since then; something like the Talmud, but less formalized. So Christianity, as it is practiced today, is something of an offshoot of Nicaean Christianity. Protestantism is also a "new" religion, being an offshoot of Christianity starting in the 1500s.

  16. Your fundamental error is to locate Talmudism at 5th century CE. That is only when it was finally written down (to prevent it from being forgotten, as it was transmitted orally) but its prime characters, in both its legalistic and narrative material, date back to before the year zero onwards; and Jesus was indeed one of the characters mentioned in the Talmud (and censored out later).
    It is true that biblical religion and Talmudic religion are not identical. The Talmud bridges that gap for itself from within its own theological understanding - arguing that the principles for Talmudic study of the Bible were also given at Sinai. Obviously this is difficult to prove or disprove. But its roots do indeed go back to the second Temple times.

  17. "I've been reading more of the classics in cultural anthropology related to religion, myth, ritual, magic, etc."

    which ones would you recommend?


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