Religion and Ethnicity in Antiquity, The Mandalorian, and Today

By David Armstrong

The emerging consensus in studies of the historical Jesus, Paul, his letters, the Gospel, and the New Testament more generally is that these figures and texts belong squarely within first-century Judaism, and that our notion of “Judaism” in antiquity cannot be reduced to the modern concept of “religion.” For all ancient peoples, as Paula Fredriksen has argued at length in her superlative work on the historical Jesus, Paul, and the earliest Christian generations (From Jesus to ChristJesus of Nazareth: King of the JewsPaul: The Pagans’ Apostle, and When Christians Were Jews), what we consider “religion”—relationship to gods, brokered by cult, fulfilled with what the ancients would have called eusebeia or pietas, obligatory dutifulness, together with the rituals, myths, and mystical or philosophical traditions attached to those gods and their cults—was a matter of ethnic heritage. One inherited one’s relationship to one’s gods, who were typically one’s distant or recent ancestors, or among whom one could count partly divine or divinized human ancestors; honoring the gods was part and parcel of the same system by which, for example, Roman households venerated the genius of the paterfamilias, or the same world of discourse by which some Greeks considered themselves superior on the basis of descent from famous heroes like Herakles. Judaism was no different, simply constituting the specific cultic attachment to the Israelite god, YHWH, as inherited by the remnants of the Israelite tribes that returned and constituted the Persian state of Yehud and the later Greco-Roman province of Ioudaia/Iudea, whose particular cultic, ritual, and moral demands were inscribed in Israel’s legal tradition (which by the period scholars call “Early” or “Second Temple” Judaism were codified in the Torah or Pentateuch in more or less the form we have them now), and whose mythic saga in the history of Israel, the nations, and the universe could be found in the Jewish Scriptures and the various commentary, pseudepigraphic, and apocalyptic texts expanding the Scriptures which proliferated in this period. Jews throughout the Roman oikoumene were those people indigenous to Judea who worshiped their God exclusively according to their own ancestral traditions and generally resisted the syncretism of the interpretatio Graeca which sought to correlate and conflate divinities (with occasional concessions to pagan recognition that the Israelite God was the metaphysically supreme deity, the God of the cosmos), whose cultic protocol involved the sacrificial worship of the deity more or less exclusively at the Jerusalem Temple (there were exceptions, like the Jewish Temple at Elephantine, Egypt), who observed certain legislative distinctives (circumcision, kashrut, Sabbath) which they learned by rote at their weekly assemblies in the synagogues. What is “religion” about Judaism naturally followed from what was “ethnic” about Judaism, and vice versa.

Likewise, the first-century Jesus Movement and the late first-century or early second-century phenomenon of “Christianity” should not be understood in the abstract from the ethnoreligious norms of antiquity. Jesus and his original followers were Jews with very ethnically specific, even nationalistic hopes for God’s redemption of Israel and the world in accordance with the textualized hopes of the Hebrew Prophets as expanded upon in Early Jewish literature. The deal brokered by the apostolic leaders of the nascent movement—denoted publicly in Judea as the “sect of the Nazarenes” (Acts 24:5) and in the Diaspora as the Christianoi, partisans of Jesus the christos (Acts 11:26), but internally, apparently, calling themselves “the Way” (e.g. Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22)—to allow gentile members without requiring ethnic conversion to Judaism by circumcision (and possibly thinking such conversion impossible, as Matthew Thiessen and others have argued) does not relativize this essentially ethnic character of the euangelion. The proclamation of Jesus as crucified and resurrected Lord and Christ meant, for Jews, the redemption of the nation and therefore, not separately, the possibility of redemption for gentiles through allegiance to Jesus as the glorified Jewish messiah, in fulfillment of the prophetic hopes for a messianic kingdom which would encompass all of the nations and the entire world in the redemptive scope of God’s Kingdom (and to some extent against those tendencies in Early Judaism to resolve the “gentile problem” through a simple appeal to the destruction or assimilation of the other nations, though these perspectives are not wholly absent from the New Testament). When the common geographic and liturgical center of unity for Early Judaism was lost in the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Romans in 70 CE, the renegotiation of the boundaries of normative Judaism as an ethnoreligion which ensued endangered the remaining Jewish Jesus-followers (whether any of the original community in Jerusalem remained is impossible to know; that there were some in the Diaspora seems clear), likely on the grounds that their movement’s insistence on gentiles engaging in cultically exclusive worship of Israel’s God and Jesus threatened the now fragile social order in which Judaism existed in the Roman Empire. Simultaneously, the loss of a Jewish core to anchor the geographically dispersed communities and a new social and political motivation to detach from Jewish identity which had previously garnered some respect in wider Greco-Roman culture likely led to the gentile Christianoi, in the late first and early second centuries, reconceptualizing their identity as an alternative, third ethnic way of life in between Hellenism and Judaism: Christianismos, “Christianity.” The rest—Christianity’s growing rhetorical and actual distance from Judaism in the diverse and complex “parting of the ways” as the rabbinic sages began to establish what would become the normative halakhic and aggadic traditions of Judaism, its competition with and absorption of Hellenic philosophy, its toleration and then standardization as the normative cult of the Roman imperium (but not as the state religion of the Sasanian Empire, where Christianity was also experiencing a golden age as a much more dialogical faith), and so forth—is history.

 I thought of this dynamic often while watching the most recent season of The Mandalorian. Mando (as the main character is typically called within and without the show) continues his quest to return the Child to “his people” or “his kind,” that is, the Jedi. What should have been jarring about the scope of that quest for viewers, I thought, is that the Jedi have been presented throughout the series as a religious group in the contemporary understanding of the term rather than as an ethnic group. Objectively, the Jedi of the Prequel and Original Trilogies are constituted from the Force sentient children and adults of hundreds if not thousands of races from all around the Galaxy, bringing with them all the cultural distinctives appropriate to their peoples of origin, and in some cases, as expanded material both before and after Disney’s purchase of Lucasfilm has shown, the problems associated with those people as well (Cue Ki Adi Mundi having to seek dispensation from Jedi celibacy in order to perpetuate his species). The Jedi of the Original and Sequel Trilogies are, moreover, the remnants of a religious tradition in the process of death and resurrection, and it is specifically doctrines, practices, and rival missionary movements that make up the fabric of their tragedy and vindication in the Skywalker Saga. In just what sense the Jedi are an ethnicity, a “race” or a “people” or a “kind,” is sufficiently murky, too, not least because the public perception of who is a Jedi is often at odds with the internal narratives of Jedi belonging. Ahsoka Tano has not considered herself a Jedi since she chose to leave the Order during Star Wars: The Clone Wars, but that stops neither the town whose dictator she opposes to think of her as a Jedi nor the showrunners from labelling the episode in which she appears “The Jedi,” because as far as outsiders are concerned, laser swords and Force powers a Jedi make. The Jedi may not think of themselves as an ethnicity, but their religious bonds certainly perform the same function in the minds of outsiders as ethnicity does on a regular basis for non-Force sensitives.

If the ambiguity between religion and ethnicity is subtle with the Jedi, it is explicit with the Mandalorians, as evidenced especially by Mando and the returning Boba Fett. Mando has learned Mandalorian culture as a creed expressed in certain non-negotiable practices (most significantly, the non-removal of one’s helmet) and preserved in small, scattered, and poorly connected communities across the Galaxy. For him, the planet Mandalore is “cursed,” and consigned to the mythic or legendary past of his creedal group. The dissonance that arises from his experience of Mandalorians who demonstrate ordinary Mandalorian martial valor, remove their helms, and speak of retaking Mandalore—Bo Katan and her allies—agonizes Mando for much of the season, as he comes to terms with the idea that Mandalorian culture is bigger than his cult, and comes to see the strength of sharing in the wider way of life imaged to him by the Mandalorians. But if religion is ethnicity, ethnicity is still religion: and so later in the season, when Boba Fett makes a triumphant (and frankly jaw-dropping) return to the Star Wars franchise, his Mandalorian purity is questioned both by Mando and by Bo Katan, the former on the grounds of his failure to explicitly self-identify as such, and the latter on the grounds of his being a clone (the primary clone, but still) of Jango Fett. In Mando’s eyes, Fett does not have the minimal amount of personal investment in Mandalorian culture necessary to merit his reclamation of his father’s armor; in Bo Katan’s, he has no father, only a “donor,” and it is therefore his impurity, mixed with the complex significance the clones carry in the Star Wars galaxy (not least for the Mandalorians whom they genetically mimic), which leads to her exclusion of Fett from insider status.

Religion in the 21stcentury is, much like the Star Wars universe, a complex negotiation between ethnicity and cult that is often more implicit than explicit, and rooted in the varying observational powers of insiders and outsiders. South Asians indigenous to the Indian subcontinent are deeply aware of a variety of ethnic and cultic ties that connect and separate them as individuals and communities to other people and to certain places; outsiders habitually reduce this complexity to something called “Hinduism.” Westerners are often confused by the fact that Chinese and Japanese people are culturally predisposed to multiple religious belonging in traditions as diverse and contradictory as Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, and even Western faiths like Christianity, ignorant of the ethnic dynamics that people of these cultures use to decide what is and is not appropriate for them. To non-Jews, anyone of Jewish heritage, onomastics, and minor cultural practice is a Jew; to Jews, there are many decisive factors in whether or not specific groups of Jews recognize other Jewish individuals or groups as sufficiently Jewish. Most Christian schisms originated from factors that were largely geographic and ethnic, especially language, culture, and politics; and so it is that the Catholic West is Roman, while the Chalcedonian Orthodox Churches are (officially) Greek, and the Church of the East is Assyrian, and the Non-Chalcedonian patriarchate of Alexandria is Coptic, while their daughter Church to the South is Ethiopian, etc. Western Christians largely perceive as “Christian,” moreover, those groups and communities who most closely resemble not only their own cult and creeds, but who are most open to their own cultural norms, and so it is that Catholic and Orthodox (Chalcedonian and non alike) are frequently ignored, marginalized, or even oppressed by Western missionary influences. Science fiction and fantasy like the Star Wars franchise invite us to consider the complicated way ethnicity and religion function as identity markers in an imagined context, one hopes, that we might be able to do so with more critical sympathy and fluid receptivity in our own.

David Armstrong is a Byzantine Catholic who writes from the greater St. Louis area.

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