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Tuesday, 1 December 2015


Reaching the end of the chapter about how to identify a Jew in antiquity, Shaye Cohen draws some conclusions:

Rabbinic evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, the diaspora Jews of antiquity were not easily recognisable - if, indeed, they were recognisable at all. Jews looked like everyone else, dressed like everyone else, had names and occupations like those of everyone else, and, in general, closely resembled their gentile neighbours.

Circumcision was not definitive as long as they kept their trousers on. They kept their Jewish identity without becoming conspicuous.

How, then, did you know a Jew in antiquity when you saw one? The answer is that you did not. But you could make reasonably plausible inferences from what you saw. First, if you saw someone associating with Jews, living in a Jewish part of town, married to a Jew and, in general, integrated socially with other Jews, you might reasonably conclude that someone was a Jew.

Social and community structure, of course, played a much bigger role in identifying groups of people, but Cohen is concentrating on the individual in this text.

Second, if you saw someone performing Jewish rituals and practices, you might reasonably conclude that someone was a Jew. Each of these conclusions would have been reasonable, but neither would have been certain, because gentiles often mingled with Jews and some Jews even observed Jewish ritual and practices.

Cohen therefore points out that some gentiles will have been labelled as Jews; called Jews and mistaken as Jews. This seems inescapable.

Posted By Jonathan, 9:00am Comment Comments: