Quote of the Day: John Collins

John J. Collins, in his second edition of Between Athens and Jerusalem, has this to say about Jewish identity in the introduction:

Identity, whether of a people or of an individual, is a matter of knowinf who one is, where one is coming from, and where one is going. Such knowledge is a practical necessity if one is to proceed to any purposeful action in life.[1] But such knowledge is inevitably shaped by social context. It is “a social-scientific platitude to say that it is impossible to become or to be human, in any empirically reognizable form that goes beyond biological observation, except in society.”[2] Peter Berger has gone so far as to say the “the individual becomes that which he is addressed as by others.”[3] This is undoubtedly an oversimplification, in only because any individual is likely to be addressed in conflicting ways, but Berger’s valid point is that the identity of any individual is built up in interaction with others and must be confirmed by others if it is not to be merely idiosyncratic or solipsistic.

This is why Israel does not really materlialize as an ethnicity until it functions as a viable and self-contained society. The Hebrew scriptures are unconcerned with Jacob’s family as an institution until it is extracted from Egypt and gathered around a socio-religious focal point, namely the Law. At this point the individuals agree upon a defining cultural superstructure and become Israelites.

Any society must provide the framework within which individuals can share a common view of reality and confirm each other’s conviction as to where they are coming from and where they are going. Society “provides a world for man to inhabit”[4] by propagating common assumptions about the nature and purpose of life, and institutions which regulate common modes of action.[5] These assumptions and institutions are frequently religious in character, both in the sense that they are concerned with ultimate reality and in the more obvious sense that they involve the worship of divine beings.[6] In the ancient world in general, and in Israel in particular, the dominant beliefs and institutions were explicitly religious and were embodied in traditions passed on from generation to generation.

This relationship between the individual and the cutlural structure that lends a social identity to the individual functions, in my opinion, symbiotically. These social institutions cannot function independently of the individuals, who bring new sets of experiences and assumptions to the institutions, perpetually changing the institution, which perpetually restructures the institutions vis-a-vis the individual. A static relationship is impossible.

Dr. Collins is engaging Hellenistic Judaism and its identity, so I will ask how this applies. Jewish identity during this time period was inevitably predicated to some degree upon certain socio-economic and religious institutions imposed upon it by the nations who quarrelled over administrative hegemony of Syria-Palestine. The weight of these social restrictions fractured, in many ways, the Jewish identity. Incentives for, and consequences to, different responses to this outside rule were divided across social and ideological boundaries. Most sought a redefinition of their relationship to a God who promised autonomy to the faithful. Had God’s contract changed, or had Israel failed it? Others were concerned only secondarily with ideology and were more economic pragmatists who sought to position themselves to benefit from the arrangement. Some were more liberal with their religious responsibilities as others. In every decision, the social structure shifts, providing a new paradigm for future generations, guaranteeing change.

The power of such traditions to shape the identity of people derives from the fact that they are commonly taken as objective reality, within a given society.[7] If they are to function at all, they must as least be plausible enough to the members of the society to retain their belief. Now plausibility depends to a great extent on social and cultural support. Few people question what everyone else takes for granted. By contrast, any group that holds unusual views is inevitably under pressure to establish its plausibility, not only to win the respect of outsiders, but primarily to maintain the allegiance of its own members.

This is where scripture comes to the forefront. The battleground for establishing the plausibility of these social institutions seems to have been confined in significant part to the composition, redaction, and interpretation of sacred writ. The Second Temple Period, specifically, experienced a flurry of publications wrangling for proliferation and standardization. No doubt those texts accepted by the largest portions of the community exercised the most influence upon the Jewish socio-religious identity, but the multifarious ideological perspectives found in the several texts of this time period attest to a widely disunified society. I interpret the proliferation of religious texts to be a sign there was less social support for these institutions, or fewer things being “taken for granted.” Thus there was little popular opinion to act as a binding force against outside influence. Things previously taken for granted were forced to return to the literary battlegrounds to maintain the allegiance of the members. I see this as one of the largest internal catalysts for the prolific changes and schisms of the time period.

What are your thoughts?

1 – See J. Bowker, The Religious Imagination and the Sense of God (Oxford: Clarendon, 1978), 17.
2 – P. Berger, The Sacred Canopy, Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (Garden City: Doubleday, 1969), 16.
3 – Berger, The Sacred Canopy, 16.
4 – Berger, The Sacred Canopy, 13.
5 – That these assumptions are not just objective data but are constructed or invented has been stressed by U. Østergård, “What Is National and Ethnic Identity?” in P. Bilde et al., eds., Ethnicity in Hellenistic Egypt (Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 1992), 16–38, following B. Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1983).
6 – Berger, The Sacred Canopy, 27: “Viewed historically, most of man’s worlds have been sacred worlds.”
7 – Clifford Geertz, in his well-known definition of religion, speaks of “an aura of factuality” which makes its moods and motivations “seem uniquely realistic” (“Religion as a Cultural System,” in idem, The Interpretation of Cultures [New York: Basic Books, 1973], 88–125).


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