PSCO Presentation: 21 October, 2010

“How Many Judaisms Were There? A Critique of Mason and Boyarin on Categorization”

Seth Schwartz (Columbia University)


This paper is a critique of the idea of Judaismlessness, which shares with its predecessor — the idea that there were “Judaisms” in antiquity — the fact that it is rhetorically extreme shorthand for a set of ideas which, whether or not they prove to be valid, certainly merit careful analysis. On one level, the correct response to Judaismlessness is straightforwardly empirical: Steve Mason may be battled effectively on his own positivistic turf. But Mason’s argument, and Boyarin’s appropriation of it, also raise fundamental issues about the entire project of writing about ancient Judaism (for lack of a better formulation), chief among which is in my analysis the following: given that, strictly speaking, we can never eliminate anachronism and ethnocentrism (which amount to much the same thing) from the way we think about an “other”, what then are we entitled to say about it? This may seem a rather abstract and general concern to derive from a small body of scholarship about a small group (if that is what they were) of people who ostensibly lived long ago, but for various reasons, some of them a result of the character of the ancient sources and others of modern interests, the Jews provide an opportunity to address these issues in an especially focused way. One of the core critiques of “Judaism” is that the word apparently denotes a religion, a category whose applicability to antiquity, indeed perhaps to any period before the Enlightenment, is questionable, or at least debatable. I will argue for a pragmatic but highly cautious approach to the issue, while acknowledging the validity of the critique.


Seth Schwartz is Lucius N. Littauer Professor of Classical Jewish Civilization at Columbia University. Prof. Schwartz is a political, social and cultural historian of the Jews who specializes in the period between Alexander the Great and the rise of Islam, and has become especially interested in the anthropological and social theoretical aspects of his field. Before returning to Columbia in 2009 he taught for fourteen years at the Jewish Theological Seminary after having been a junior fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows and a senior research fellow at King’s College, Cambridge. In 1999/2000 he was a Guggenheim Fellow and in 2006/7 a member of the School of Historical Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton. He is co-author, with Roger Bagnall, Alan Cameron and Klaas Worp of Consuls of the Later Roman Empire (Atlanta, 1987), and author of Josephus and Judaean Politics (Leiden, 1990), Imperialism and Jewish Society, 200 BCE to 640 CE (Princeton, 2001), and Were the Jews a Mediterranean Society? Reciprocity and Solidarity in Ancient Judaism (Princeton, 2009).

Meeting and Dining

All are welcome! Those wishing to dine together before the seminar will meet at 6:00 pm in the Cohen Hall Second-Floor Lounge to go next door to the food court in Houston Hall.

Suggested Reading

Steve Mason, “Jews, Judaeans, Judaizing, Judaism: Problems of Categorization in Ancient History,” Journal for the Study of Judaism 38 (2007): 457-512

Daniel Boyarin, “Rethinking Jewish Christianity: An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category (to which is Appended a Correction of my Border Lines)”, JQR 99 (2009): 7-36.

M. Satlow, “Defining Judaism: Accounting for ‘Religions’ in the Study of Religion”, JAAR 74 (2006): 837-60.

T. Asad, Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), 27-54.

C. Brumann, “Writing for Culture: Why a Successful Concept Should Not Be Discarded”, Current Anthropology 40, Supplement, (1999) 1-13, with responses following, especially of Lila Abu-Lughod and Ulf Hannerz.

Brent Nongbri, “Dislodging ‘Embedded’ Religion: A Brief Note on a Scholarly Trope,” Numen 55 (2008) 440–460.

S. Cohen, The Beginnings of Jewishness: Boundaries, Varieties, Uncertainties (Berkeley-Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1999), 109–39.

PDF copies of these articles are available on request.