The ethnic identity of ancient Israelites was constructed in opposition to Gentile, or alien, “others” and was expressed in terms of purity and impurity. Different constructions of Jewish identity entailed different characterizations of aliens and different views on the degree to which Gentiles might acquire Israelite identity. Previous scholarship, which assumes that all ancient Jews viewed Gentiles as ritually impure and thus off‐limits, is reviewed and critiqued. There are, in fact, several distinct modes of impurity (ritual impurity, moral impurity, genealogical impurity) employed by various groups of ancient Jews, and the boundary between pure Israelite and impure alien was more or less permeable depending on the mode of impurity attributed to the alien. These different assessments of the permeability of the boundary between Jews and Gentiles are connected with widely different attitudes to the postexilic phenomena of conversion and intermarriage, and contributed to the sectarianism that characterized Second Temple Judaism as well as the eventual separation of Christianity from rabbinic Judaism.
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