Following on from the post on the term ‘revolutionary’, I want to look at another term that is commonly used in historical Jesus research but which may also raise problems: ‘nationalism’. It is common enough to read phrases such as ‘nationalistic movement, ‘Jewish nationalism’, ‘nationalistic associations’, ‘nationalistic tendencies’ etc. Of course, as with any definition, people may be using it in ways that are based on ancient understandings but terms relating to ‘nationalism’ are not always defined and carry problematic connotations when studying the ancient world.
Probably the biggest problem is that assumptions surrounding ‘nationalism’ as associated with, for instance, the nation state, are part of a relatively modern phenomenon. In this respect it is also worth noting that the rhetoric and assumptions of modern ‘nationalism’ and nation states are embedded in the history of historical Jesus studies which emerged as a strong European nationalism was emerging. Might this not have had a profound historic impact on the assumptions of the field of historical Jesus studies?
There are criticisms and qualifications of this sort of thinking about the development of nationalism and the nation state and other possibilities can be raised, such as whether we can talk about ‘proto-nationalism’. We can at least argue that ‘nationalism’ is a phenomenon or construct that has undergone significant historical and semantic changes over the centuries and to such an extent that it can be difficult to reapply its use from one context to another. Nevertheless, what do scholars actually mean when talking about ‘Jewish nationalism’, particularly when undefined? If we could say that one possibility is something like having a king or divine king ruling over territory, what kind of territory might this be? We might imagine some thinking about territory from Dan to Beersheba or seemingly ‘natural’ boundaries such as something that stretched as far north as the Taurus Mountains (1QapGen 17.10). But what more? What sorts of borders were envisaged in ‘Jewish nationalism’? Presumably not the strict borders sometimes confidently presented in a ‘biblical atlas’. Were borders even envisaged? What sort of political infrastructure is envisaged? Towns dependent on Jerusalem? Armies? Garrisons? Unification across territory or communities over issues like Sabbath observance and taxation?
So, should the word ‘nationalism’ even be used when talking about the ancient world?
Or am I worrying too much about definitions?