How, When, and Why Did Jews Become Semites and Blacks Hamites?

Sunday, January 7, 2018: 9:00 AM
Marriott Ballroom, Salon 1 (Marriott Wardman Park)
Benjamin Braude, Boston College
This paper traces the strange career of two Noahides. In ancient and medieval Judeo-Christian-Muslim traditions, although Ham was the favorite in the Other of the Month Club, context determined his varying identity.

Accordingly, the most-widely diffused picture Bibles of medieval and early modern Christendom identified Ham with the Jews who tormented Christ. Since Christian exegesis favored the allegorical over the literal, a typological reading of the Bible made sense. Accordingly, Noah was Christ and Ham the Jew. However during the late medieval early modern Bible revolution that anticipated the rise of Protestantism, a quasi-literal understanding emerged.

During the sixteenth century the rise of racial slave trading in the Atlantic world stimulated the search for a religious justification for restricting that peculiar institution -- traditionally an equal opportunity employer -- to a particular population. Slowly Ham became Black, but in Christian art he was not so depicted until the nineteenth century, testimony to the enduring Jewish Ham. Gradually the Jews lost their Hamite identity. By the eighteenth century that transformation was emerging, but not yet set.

During the eighteenth century emerging philology identified a group of languages that shared distinctive linguistic characteristics, principally Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic, but also Geez and Amharic. In search of a name sanctified by ancient authority for what was spoken by disparate peoples, the scholars called all their tongues, Semitic, after Sem/Shem. The next leap of bad faith assumed that you are what you speak. Ignoring the complexities of identity and contradictions endemic to biblical genealogies, they named most of them Semites, alien Orientals. During the nineteenth century German Protestant Bible scholars set as their proof-text for racial categorization the genealogies of Genesis Ten, the so-called Table of Nations.

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