Vom Volk zur Stadt? Ethnos und Polis im hellenistischen Orient*

In: Journal for the Study of Judaism
Benedikt Eckhardt Exzellenzcluster “Religion und Politik”, Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster, Domplatz 20-22, 48143 Münster Germany

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It is often stated in handbooks that in 175 b.c.e., Judaea (or Jerusalem) was transformed from an ethnos to a polis. This statement is based on received opinions about Hellenistic (and especially Seleucid) administrative categories that can no longer be maintained. A re-examination of the relevant literary and epigraphic evidence shows that ethnos was not used as an antonym to polis in Hellenistic sources. The article then tries to explain the emergence of a scholarly paradigm that took ethnos to be precisely that: the designation for oriental, non-urbanized communities that were inferior in important regards to the Greek polis. The main influence is argued to have been Aristotle’s peculiar use of the two terms. The scholarly concept of an ethnos/polis-divide can be traced back to nineteenth-century scholarship and its “orientalist” conceptions. This is important for appreciating recent discussions of the nature of Jewish identity in antiquity (“people” or “religion”), and for an increased awareness in Jewish studies of the discourses that have shaped common knowledge about the Hellenistic Orient in general and Judaism in particular.

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