Biblical Scholarship, Jews and Israel: On Bruce Malina, Conspiracy Theories and Ideological Contradictions

By Robert J. Myles
University of Auckland

By James G. Crossley
University of Sheffield
December 2012

In a recent collection of essays, New Testament scholar Bruce Malina curiously lumps all Israelis together as “non-Semitic, central European people of Turkic origin,”1 an unusual view which might lead to questions about, for instance, Arab Israelis, Israelis of North African background, and, of course, conventional understandings of Jewish Israelis. As it would turn out, this appears to be the tip of the iceberg of Malina’s unusual explanations of terms such as ‘Jew,’ ‘Israeli’ and ‘Semite.’ The examples collated below provide some further depth to what we already know of Malina’s personal political views on Jews, Judaism, and the Israel/Palestine conflict, and potentially reveal a deeper (contradictory) ideological framework that undergirds his influential scholarship.

In a previous discussion of Malina’s views and their impact on his scholarship, it was noted that Malina and his wife, Diane Jacobs-Malina, have “a strong concern for the well-being of Palestinians, are hostile to things perceived to be Zionist…and have more sympathy for Germany in the first half of the twentieth century than is conventional.”2 Such views occasionally come across explicitly within his scholarship. For instance, while commenting on Galatians 3:15-16 (a text concerning who is heir to God’s promises to Abraham), Malina and his co-author write: “Incidentally, one might note here that Christian Zionists who support the Israeli state because they consider it the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham and his seed publicly and officiously deny what Paul says here. One wonders how they understand the basis for their Christian allegiances.”3 Similarly, in a section discussing ‘heteroloquy,’ that is, a way of speaking that upsets an institutionalized way of speaking, Malina provides the following example:

Consider the language used in the United States relative to contemporary Israel. Israeli squatters are called ‘settlers’; Israel’s army of occupation is called a ‘defense force’; Israel’s theft of Palestinian property is called a ‘return’; Israel’s racist anti-Gentilism is called ‘Zionism’; and any and all criticism of Israel’s chosen people’s behavior is labeled ‘anti-Semitism’!… Dissidence, as my statements indicate, is in essence a semiotic phenomenon employing meaningful signs that result in cognitive disorientation of true believers. Israelis and Christian fundamentalists in the United States find my statements quite disorienting; as a matter of fact, they are sufficient to label me ‘an enemy of Israel,’ or, more derogatorily, ‘an anti-Semite.’4

There are, of course, dominant ideological positions in the West which favour the Israeli state and which continue to have a devastating impact on Palestinians, even if Malina generalizes the reactions in the US, which are obviously not as monolithic as he implies. The issue of settlers and the occupation is not savoury in the least, but this paragraph reads more as propaganda than scholarship, especially when read in light of his other statements included below. As we will observe, Malina is predisposed to using the modern state of Israel in many of his cross-cultural comparisons, even when it adds nothing of value to his argument.

For example, classic caricatures of Jews and Israel might be present when Malina writes that:

It is important to reflect on a fact of social psychology that, in ingroup contexts, any Israelite ‘going to the other peoples’ would be presumed to be going to Israelites resident among those other peoples. To take a modern example, when Israelis speak of ‘going to Americans’ to sell U.S. tax-exempt Israeli bonds, they are presumed to be going to Jews resident in the U.S., not to non-Jewish Americans. Most American non-Jews are totally unaware of Israeli bonds.5

On one level, this analogy may well demonstrate the social psychology of ingroups, but it is nonetheless a peculiar example, especially given the superfluous detail that these bonds are ‘tax-exempt.’ Such caricatures are common within his work (and not only his ideologically convenient stereotypes about ‘the Mediterranean’ and or ‘the Arab,’ as is occasionally charged). While discussing the social concept of gratitude, for instance, Malina writes:

Further, since they rarely say ‘Thank you’ in their interactions, it is equally untrue to think that ancient Judeans (or modern Mediterraneans) are simply an ungrateful people, or that they presume the world owes them a living anyway. While this attitude may be true of contemporary Israelis, it is not true of first century Judeans.6

And again, when describing the concept of shame:

By contrast, to ‘have shame’ meant to have proper concern about one’s honor. This was positive shame. It can be understood as sensitivity for one’s own reputation (honor) or the reputation of one’s family…To lack this positive shame was to be ‘shameless’ (compare the modern Hebrew term ‘chutzpah,’ the Israeli core value and national virtue; the word is often translated ‘arrogance,’ but means ‘shamelessness,’ that is, without positive shame or concern for honor).7

The phrases highlighted in bold text are irrelevant to his arguments. What insight do they add, besides reinforcing negative stereotypes that (attempt to) sustain his personal political views through an apparently subtle campaign of defamation?

Malina’s expertise on Jewish identity is not limited to these off-the-cuff insertions, however. At the end of a section entitled “What’s Going on in Galatia?” we find a lengthy excursus that fleshes out in detail some of Malina’s views about contemporary Jews and Jewish identity that takes us far from scholarly opinion and into the realms of conspiracy theory:

It is a common mistake in scholarship to consider first-century Israelites around the Mediterranean basin as the type of single-voiced entity one finds in the forms of modern Ashkenazi Jewishness in the United States and northern Europe. The Khazars were a Turkic people who converted to rabbinic Judaism in the ninth century C.E., to eventually settle in largely Slavic lands. Eight-four percent of all Jews before World War II lived in Poland, and they were Khazar Jews (see the website Most Christians derive their image of ancient Semitic Judeans from images of contemporary non-Semitic Khazar Jews. The point is there was no lineal development from early Israel to contemporary Khazar Jewishness… As Diane Jacobs-Malina (manuscript in progress) has written:

‘Cutting through layers of Jewish image-management to get at the facts of Jews-in-relation-to-Everyone Else is a daunting procedure. The propensity to substitute flattering stories for the unvarnished historical kernels has emerged as the unifying element from the creation of Israel-in-the-Bible, through the Hellenistic revisions which produced instant antiquity, to writers like Josephus. This tendency manifested itself in the creation of the Oral Torah and its many interpretations culminating in the Bavli [the Babylonian Talmud]. A greater challenge presented itself with the descendants of Central Asians living in Khazaria (southern Russia) who converted to Rabbinic Judaism in the ninth century. These Khazars had to be recast not only as a Semitic people, but as the biological heirs of the Old Testament’s literary characters. This mythical transformation has been accepted as a fait accompli by many Zionist Jews and Christians. From Israel-in-the-Bible to Hollywood, from marketing to the contemporary media; story-telling and image-management are the core values of Jewish group identity which characterize their relations to Everyone Else.’

The point is, for readers of Paul interested in understanding Israelites in the first century C.E., the accretions of the past two thousand years have to be removed. Ancient Israelites have little in common with the Jews of today aside from Israel’s scriptures, which Christians share as well.8

Frankly, using such a website is not the best way to support an outdated polemic concerning Jewish origins. The Khazar theory which Malina refers to has been discredited by genetic studies which have demonstrated a remarkable similarity in distinctive genomic signatures between multiple Jewish populations, including European Jews.9 Furthermore, noting that

“any significant segment of contemporary Jewry is of Khazar descent” holds little weight among scholars today, Michael Barkun instead shows how the reception of the Khazar hypothesis has manifest itself in the emergence of far-right millenarian thinking in America, including writers who:

insist that all of the tribes migrated northwestward into Europe; that there is no link, biological or otherwise, between Jews and Israelites; and, further, that virtually all non-Slavic European peoples are Israelites, each nation having descended from a different tribal ancestor. Identity literature then explains the existence of Jews through two different but reinforcing theories. On the one hand, Jews, far from being Israelites, are in reality ‘Khazars,’ descendants of the Khazar people on the Black Sea, whose leadership stratum converted to Judaism in the eighth century. The Khazar hypothesis neatly interlocks with the older anti-Semitic dictum that Jews, as ‘Asiatics,’ were unassimilable by Western societies…10

Malina’s theory on the Khazars is to be located in conspiracy theory circles and he has shown nothing of significance to suggest that his resurrection of this old polemic contributes anything to scholarship. While Malina’s scholarship on social scientific criticism is highly regarded within the field of New Testament studies, some of these arguments and ‘helpful examples’ do seem to indicate that more is going on here than meets the eye. Certainly, there is also something about Malina’s generalizing use of ‘the Mediterranean’ which is a problem for anyone interested in Jewish (or, for Malina, ‘Judean’ or ‘Israelite’) identity. It could be argued that such an approach inevitably overlooks any localized identities in favour of, for instance, ‘the Mediterranean.’ Markus Bockmuehl, for example, noted the following in his criticisms of Malina’s book, The New Testament World:

And it is Jews, after all, whose role in the ‘New Testament world’ arguably matters more than most. Both in their own eyes and in those of their pagan critics, they were culturally unique. Little of that distinctness, however, comes into the fore in this book. Malina refers to ancient Jews and their literature in curiously arm-waving and unspecific terms (‘Semites,’ ‘Semitic subculture,’ ‘Ben Zakaiists,’ ‘late Israelites’), citing the Mishnah only twice and the Dead Sea Scrolls not at all, and virtually ignoring the first-century role of the Pharisees, who (rather than the priests) were in Josephus’s view the real ‘bearers of the Great Tradition.’11

One area where Malina’s work has been particularly influential, however, is the scholarly discussion around replacing the translation ‘Jew’ (Ioudaios) with ‘Judean’ and/or ‘Israelite.’ This is slightly ironic because he actually ends up buying into a Zionist discourse he so dislikes. In his co-authored commentary on John, for instance, Malina and his co-author give his conspiracy-laden reading of Jewish history:

…modern readers will think John makes reference to those persons whom readers today know from their experience to be Jews. The fact is, from a religious point of view, all modern Jews belong to traditions developed largely after the time of Jesus and compiled in the Babylonian Talmud (sixth century C.E.). As for ethnic origin, Central European Jews (called Ashkenazi Jews) largely trace their origin to Turkic and Iranian ancestors who comprised the Khazar empire and converted to Judaism in the eighth century C.E. (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th ed. Micropaedia, 5:788; on the Internet: Thus, given the sixth-century C.E. origin of all forms of contemporary Jewish religion, and given the U.S. experience of Jews based largely on Central European Jews, themselves originating from eighth-century C.E. converts, it would be quite anachronistic to identify any modern Jews with the ‘Judeans’ mentioned in John’s Gospel or the rest of the New Testament…in all of the sixty-nine other instances in John where the term Judeans (Greek Ioudaioi) appears, there is nothing of the modern connotations of ‘Jew’ or ‘Jewishness’…12

Here we get the shift from modern Jews, at least from a ‘religious’ perspective, belonging to traditions developed “largely after the time of Jesus” to the “sixth-century C.E. origin of all forms of contemporary Jewish religion” and “there is nothing of the modern connotations of ‘Jew’ or ‘Jewishness.’” In the hands of Malina and Rohrbaugh, Judaism prior to the rabbis at the time of Jesus gets more-or-less removed, as we saw in an example above. However, what follows is an intriguing inconsistency:

Rather, Judean meant a person belonging to a group called Judeans, situated geographically and forming a territory taking its name from its inhabitants, Judea. Judea is precisely a group of people, Judeans, organically related to and rooted in a place, with its distinctive environs, air, and water. Judean thus designates a person from one segment of a larger related group, Israel (John 1:47, 49), who comes from the place after which the segment is named, Judea (Ioudaia). The correlatives of Judean in John are ‘Galilean’ and ‘Perean,’ and together they make up Israel.13

This is classic racializing language that we might associate with discourses from the nineteenth and early twentieth century (‘organically related to and rooted in a place’). And this is where Malina’s work is especially contradictory: for all Malina’s explicit personal concerns for the problems in Palestine and Israel, he manages to (co-)write this up in effectively Zionist language. Most scholars would not touch his views on Jewish history, whether for reasons of academic credibility or cultural sensitivity. But it is striking that on the issues surrounding the translation ‘Judean’ and the use of ‘Israelite,’ Malina has been most influential and it is precisely where his argument resonates with a dominant ideological position in the West which Malina so dislikes.

Malina’s scholarship may be deeply misguided on such issues, if not downright contradictory. But so are his politics. The emphasis on race and ethnicity in Malina’s work betrays a distinctly nineteenth century influence on New Testament scholarship which masks the geopolitical issues involved in Israel and Palestine. The Palestinian cause is not helped by his obsession with race and ethnicity. It seems that Malina is working with the assumption that a bit of racial mythbusting will somehow rescue the land from Israelis for Palestinians: if Jews were not only not there 2500 years ago but didn’t even exist until 1500 years ago then…what? We all know that identity is messy and in constant flux but to work with the assumption that there were no significant continuities (as well as discontinuities) between those people we call Jews in the sixth century C.E. and those people we call Jews (or Judeans or Israelites) in the first century simply does not work. Indeed, Malina’s position represents a view of identity which is so essentialized that its logic ends up being something like this: there were a group of people in the first century who in their ranks had interests such as Passover, Sabbath, food laws, ‘Israel’s scriptures’ and so on but despite the same interests being preserved through the sixth century until the present something dramatic must have happened. And so, for Malina’s logic, this has to include the racial argument: Jews are really from Khazars, Turks, Iranians, or just non-Semitic. This racialized critique simply reinscribes racialized thinking: the whole issue hinges on when Jews became racially Jews.

Malina is an extreme version of the ‘softer’ views of superiority over Jews in New Testament scholarship where Judaism is regularly presented positively but simultaneously as a convenient backdrop to make the New Testament better. However, extremes can often make the assumptions of the liberal centre more explicit and it is undeniable that Malina remains an extremely influential scholar who is perpetuating racialized discourses which only mask the geopolitical issues involved in Israel and Palestine. Anyone interested in justice for Palestinians, challenging the perpetuation of anti-Jewish views, or even just historical reconstruction of the ancient world would be wise to approach his misguided, and at times disturbing, scholarly, racial and political views with great care.


1 Bruce J. Malina, "Social Scientific Approaches and the Gospel of Matthew," in Methods for Matthew, ed. Mark Allan Powell (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2009), 158.

2 James G. Crossley, Jesus in an Age of Neoliberalism: Quests, Scholarship and Ideology (Sheffield: Equinox, 2012), 177.

3 Bruce J. Malina and John J. Pilch, Social-Science Commentary on the Letters of Paul (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2006), 206.

4 Bruce J. Malina, The Social Gospel of Jesus: The Kingdom of God in Mediterranean Perspective (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001), 61-62; See also: Bruce J. Malina, The Social World of Jesus and the Gospels (New York: Routledge, 1996), 29-30.

5 Malina and Pilch, Social-Science Commentary on the Letters of Paul: 7.

6 Bruce J. Malina, Windows on the World of Jesus: Time Travel to Ancient Judea (Louisville: WJK, 1993), 13.

7 Malina and Pilch, Social-Science Commentary on the Letters of Paul: 370.

8 Ibid., 179-80.

9 Gil Atzmon, Li Hao, Itsik Pe’er, et al., “Abraham’s Children in the Genome Era: Major Jewish Diaspora Populations Comprise Distinct Genetic Clusters with Shared Middle Eastern Ancestry,” American Journal of Human Genetics 86, no. 6 (2010): 850-859.

10 Michael Barkun, ‘Racist Apocalypse: Millennialism on the Far Right’ American Studies 31 (1990), 121-140 (123, 138 n. 9).

11 M. Bockmuehl, ‘Review of Malina, New Testament World, third edition,’ BMCR (19 April, 2002), available at

12 Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998), 44.

13 Ibid., 44.

Comments (6)

I don't see that the views attributed to Malina are logically contradictory. The statements that 'the Palestinians have been outrageously wronged' and that 'it is possible for a group of people to live for a reasonably long time in an area and to develop a way of life that fits in very well with the seasons and climate of that place' don't begin to conflict. We might think that it is wrong to force people away from the place, property and mores which have been theirs for some time. At this rate the second proposition supports, rather than contradicts, the first, since just this form of wrong has, in the view of some, been inflicted on the Palestinians. The second proposition does not necessarily encourage Zionism, since it might be argued that the current Israelis live a European way of life. To my mind the remarks attributed to Malina can't be disposed of by saying that they are self-contradictory, though they may not be true.

#1 - Martin - 12/14/2012 - 16:49

Instead of this approach take a look at the DNA evidence which suggests otherwise as to the origins of the Jewish people. This evidence however must be taken into consideration with historical evidence. Case in point are the Jews from Yemen which are indistinguishable from the non-Jewish population the result of non-Jews converting to Judaism centuries ago. The Jewish gene pool which went back centuries earlier became diluted within a generation or two. We've known this since the 30's-40's based on ABO blood types.

#2 - Joe Zias - 12/14/2012 - 17:22

The Malinas’ citation of my site shows they can’t understand their own sources since some pages on contain evidence of most modern Jews’ descent from the ancient Israelites. This includes genetic evidence showing that Ashkenazi Jews, Yemenite Jews, Sephardic Jews, Persian Jews, Karaites, and Samaritans share ancient roots in the Middle East from the days of Israel.

Joe Zias is only partly right: Yemenite Jews descend both from locals and from foreigners. In many diaspora Jewish communities, Jewish men married non-Jewish women, creating the "diluted" Jewish gene pool he speaks of. But the Israelite component remained persistent and large.

See how the evidence stacks up with the Malinas’ false claims “Ancient Israelites have little in common with the Jews of today” and “contemporary non-Semitic Khazar Jews”. Thanks to these so-called “scholars” for citing my work, but too bad they read it selectively.

#3 - Kevin Brook - 12/15/2012 - 06:39

One of the more convincing things regarding a local origin here in the region is work I carried out on the possible reasons why Jews in the Diaspora as well in Israel have such a low incidence of TB. I first noticed this as an a forensic archaeologist,anthropologist studying human disease in ancient populations, where it was seldom observed. In New York city where one has excellent data in the early part of the 20th century, 25% of the non-Jewish population died from TB, whereas when one looks at the first generation Jewish population living there, overcrowded, poor, overworked, living in miserable conditions, their death rate was but 7%. This is something known on a world wide scale for more than 100 years, whether it be Tunisia, EU or other parts of the world. The question is why, I came up with a list of possible reasons related to cultural behavior to explain this until a colleague asked whats the incidence with Palestinians, living side by side with their fellow Jews and much to my surprise, the Jews and the local Palestinians share the same low incidence. When I crossed cease fire lines, as Israel, aside with Egypt only has cease fire lines as borders, one sees a startling different picture. Arabs living in neighboring countries all have very high incidences of TB within the native population, in particular among the Sinai Bedouin. On the basis of this highly communicable disease, one sees that both the Jews here as well as those in the Diaspora share along with the Palestinians a high resistance to the disease. The reasons why, have nothing to do with religious/cultural practices, but we share a common genetic background. Whether we like it or not.

#4 - Joe Zias - 12/16/2012 - 12:37

I don't believe in race, except perhaps in respects that are morally trivial. The important thing about Jewish and Palestinian people is not their common resistance to TB but their common humanity and the fact that individual diversity is prevalent among them, as among us all, there being only one human species.

#5 - Martin - 12/16/2012 - 21:01

Martin race has nothing to do with color, politics, religion, it is a biological/genetic concept, with variation, but certain groups cluster, share certain genetic markers. Jews and Palestinians being one such group.

#6 - Joe Zias - 12/17/2012 - 15:44

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