Judaism or Judaisms?

Should we speak about ancient “Judaism” in the singular or of ancient “Judaisms” in the plural?

Given the huge diversities among Jews in antiquity, in their beliefs and practices, from the philosopher and exegete Philo of Alexandria, to the sectarian and puritanical Teacher of Righteousness at Qumran, to the apostle Paul himself, is “Judaism” so broad as to be meaningless? And that is without even exploring whether “Judaism” is a religious, ethnic, social, or geographical marker. Was ancient Judaism so diverse that we cannot really use a singular noun to describe the religious practices of ancient Jews/Judeans?

J. Andrew Overman (Church and Community in Crisis: The Gospel according to Matthew [Valley Forge, PA.: TPI, 1996], 9) thinks so:

“So varied was Jewish society in the land of Israel in this period, and so varied were the Jewish groups, that scholars no longer speak of Judaism in the singular when discussing this formative and fertile period in Jewish history. Instead, we speak about Judaisms. In this time and place, there existed a number of competing, even rival Judaisms.”

James C. Vanderkam (“Judaism in the Land of Israel,” in Early Judaism: A Comprehensive Overview, ed. J. J. Collins and D. C. Harlow [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012], 91) understands the attraction of using the term “Judaisms,” but he does not think it is helpful:

“The surviving evidence exhibits a richness and diversity in the Judaism of the Second Temple era, a diversity so great that some have resorted to the neologism ‘Judaisms’ to express it. Yet, despite the undoubted diversity present in the texts, there are fundamental beliefs and practices that would have been accepted by virtually all Jews during those centuries and that justify retaining the singular noun Judaism.”

Similar is Joshua Ezra Burns (The Christian Schism in Jewish History and Jewish Memory [Cambridge: CUP, 2016, 67), who claims that Jewish identity had indeed a “versatility of meaning” within the “common life of the Jews that conditioned their collective self.” In any case, he argues:

“I propose to define ancient Judaism as a dynamic objective connoting different characteristics in different contexts. Nevertheless I maintain that the idea of Jewish identity guiding that objective was predicated on certain fixed assumptions as to its subject’s cultic, ethical, and intellectual orientation. In other words, while ancient Jews were not subject to a monolithic standard of cultural identification, they generally perceived their collective as one bound by a set of practices and beliefs unique to their nation, if not always to the exclusion of practices or beliefs learned from other nations.”

In sum, while we might need an asterisk or a flexible definition, I think it is perfectly fine to use the term “Judaism” in the singular.


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