Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Aryan Jesus

I am in the midst of reading Susannah Heschel’s book The Aryan Jesus. It is a study of “The Institute for the Study and Eradication of Jewish Influence on German Religious Life.” Founded in 1939 the institute sponsored conferences, produced books and pamphlets, and worked with university students and pastors in an effort to purge German Christianity of Judaism. Many important German biblical scholars and theologians were prominent members of the institute and participants in its activities. After the war they understandably ignored, suppressed, or minimized their participation in such anti-Semitic activities. Nevertheless, Heschel makes it clear that the impact of the institute and its scholarship survived the war in the scholars and their students. Their research into the nature of first century Judaism and its conflicts with early Christianity shaped European New Testament studies especially, given the prominence of German biblical scholarship. This was seen, for example, in the effort to differentiate Galilee from Jerusalem: to make the former more “Gentile” and the latter more “Jewish”. Recent archeological evidence makes it clear that in the first century even the cities of Galilee were overwhelmingly Jewish. But especially during the pre-war period this was a way to distance Jesus from Judaism and even make him “Aryan.” Heschel makes it clear that this scholarly activity had its roots deep in 19th century anti-Semitic fantasies about race. The “white” Europeans surely had to find different theological and cultural ancestors than the despised Jews. So they constructed a Jesus in their own image—a Jesus who as not only not Jewish, but anti-Semitic—a white Jesus.

Recent generations of New Testament scholarship have rejected the non-Jewish Jesus. But anti-Semitism still hangs over biblical studies and Christianity like a pall. Although I have questions at points about her methods and conclusions, I commend to you Amy-Jill Levine’s The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus. Dr. Levine is quite right to point out that our off handed comments about Judaism in comparison to Christianity are often not only offensive, but wrong. There are certainly differences to discuss! There are certainly areas of serious disagreement between Jews and Christians. But these differences can be engaged respectfully, carefully and thoughtfully only when Christians do not caricature and distort Judaism and Jews. These days anti-Semitism is alive and well. It even flies under the flag of liberalism in the blanket critiques of the state of Israel. Israel at times deserves criticism—as done the United States or any nation state. Not all who critique Israel are anti-Semitic. But the popular abhorrence of Israel that characterizes liberal critics in Europe and the US provides cover for anti-Semites to be respectable.


  1. An old friend of mine, a German NT scholar whom I haven't seen in 20 years and whose name now is hidden in some gray fold in my brain, complained about the continuing role of anti-semitism also in music. He told me that Mendelssohn for almost the entire post-war period (and of course the pre-war period!) has been denigrated as a decent composer, but not important. His place in Church Music suffered even more according to Gyorgi (I remembered his name! Dieter Gyorgi). I must add that when I studied music at NP, that denigration was a feature of my music education. I doubt that my teachers were anti-semitic, it's just that critical scholarship is often as ideology-ridden as popular culture. I think I've noticed a shift in the last decade or so as Mendelssohn's brilliance seems to be newly appreciated.

    When I was a beginning NT student I felt that much of the stuff I was reading and hearing was tainted by anti-semitism. I knew how to read, and I saw a Jewish Jesus and Paul everywhere in the NT, but it wasn't until I read W.D. Davies that I saw any explicit corroboration of that recognition. Until then, Jesus seemed to stride across history and culture untouched by anything but heavenly heroism. Of course, that was partly because biblical scholarship--esp. NT scholarship-- was methodologically docetic. Rich Harley and I were commenting last night how our texts from those days were almost wholly ignorant of Roman history, geography, ethnology, sociology, etc. BTW, it was Cal Katter who told me I should be doing Roman history.

    The end of your post, in my judgment, weakens your main point by spanking people in an ideological way. The use of "liberal" and "liberalism" is unhelpful; most people I know in the church would consider you a liberal, regardless of how you may characterize yourself. We've gone over this ground before, but I believe that your last sentence comes close to calumny, and I don't believe that it reflects your usually careful arguments.

    btw, do you know Harley's Contexticon? and the New Testament Language Project? Fascinating work. I'd be interested in your judgment.
    grace and peace,
    Gordon Schultz

  2. Thanks for the comments Gordon. I did not say liberal critics of Israel were anti-Semitic, I said their critiques give cover to some who are anti-semitic. Sometimes liberal and conservative folk alike are "politiclaly correct" in their causes and loath to stray beyond the lines. It would be surprising for any "liberal" critic to support Israel as it would be for a "conservative" one to support the cause of the Palestinians. This is troubling to me.