Judaism and the Invention of Religion

Judaism and the Invention of Religion - October 30, 2008...

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October 30, 2008 RELG 315 Judaism and the Invention of “Religion” I am lucky enough to be in possession of a rare source that definitively answers the question of when Judaism can be called a religion. Swem doesn’t stack this book on its shelves, and a sentence on the back underscores the text’s selective distribution: “This edition is only available for distribution through the school market.” The book is so unique, in fact, that my roommate and I don’t even keep it with our other books. We keep it in our bathroom. The book is Bite Size History by Hugh Westrup (author of such scholarly zeniths as Bite Size Science , Mammals , and Maurice Strong ) and it is a collection of little-known historical facts —or, if I’m being honest, largely historical one-liners. It says, “Judaism is the world’s oldest major religion. It was founded about 4,000 years ago by Abraham” (Westrup 1999, 3). Surely, a whole lot of scholars must be feeling pretty silly right about now. This hardly seems like a debate worthy of an entire 80-minute class, much less an entire book! Hopefully, my facetiousness is detectable. I do not honestly suggest that a 59-page book on 5,000 years of world history written for an audience that still counts down to recess could pinpoint a date at which “Judaism” can satisfactorily fill all of our requirements for what a religion is. But reading page 3 of Bite Size History does spark two interrelated questions: Why is this debate so complicated and what can we call a religion? Perhaps the first question is even answered by the second. Do we require that Judaism look exactly like it does today? What aspect of Judaism must be present for it to be a religion? Cohen’s linguistic argument sees a conceptual shift based on semantics around the time of writing of 2 Maccabees, or around 100 BC (Cohen 1999, 90). He claims that the use of Ioudaios , up until this point in history used to refer to “Judeans” begins to refer to “Jews” at this point (Cohen 1999, 90-91). He bases this stance on the fact that people were no longer allowed to call themselves Ioudaios because of a decree by Antiochus, and why, he reasons, would identifying oneself as a member of an ethno-geographic nation arouse the ire of a king? (Cohen 1999, 91). Certainly, this use of the word must be referring to someone who wants to follow the ancestral laws and, moreover, believes in God having handed down those tenets and traditions so integral to Jewish culture and life (Cohen 1999, 91-92).
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Belief is an impossibly difficult thing to measure in history, or even in the present day. Simply because someone says something or writes something doesn’t mean they believe it.
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This note was uploaded on 11/22/2008 for the course RELG 315 taught by Professor Polaski during the Fall '08 term at William & Mary.

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Judaism and the Invention of Religion - October 30, 2008...

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