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.