Anti-Judaism and Early Christianity

Paula Fredriksen on David Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition

anti-judaism - the western tradition
David Nirenberg, Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition, W.W. Norton & Company, 2013, 624 pp., $35.00

There were recurring moments, during those nightmarish first hours of 9/11, when a strangely familiar sense of horror would pulse through me. Transfixed before the television, I repeatedly watched as, over and over again, the second plane flew into the second tower. Over and over again, I irrationally fantasized putting my hand through the screen, catching the plane in my palm, sparing all those people. And over and over again, I felt the sickening burden of certain knowledge: I knew the sky’s death-blow was coming, while the tower’s people, innocent of the future, went about what were the final moments of their lives.

Passages of Christian scripture have long affected me in similar ways. I still cannot read the crucifixion scene in the Gospel of Matthew 27:25 — “His blood be upon us and upon our children!” — without that same sickening feeling of knowing more than I wish I knew. As a historian of ancient Christianity, I understand that the evangelist himself wrote that verse in innocence of the future. His narrative characters were in fact “predicting” the past. “Matthew,” a Greek-speaking Jew of the late first century CE, set his story about Jesus some six decades earlier, about forty years before Rome’s war with Jerusalem. The fires of the Temple’s destruction illumine his tale of Christ’s passion. “All the people” of Jerusalem, in his narrative year 30, curse their own generation and the next: “our children” would grow to be the adults cut down in the Roman siege of 70 CE. Matthew, looking backwards from his vantage c. 90, links these events causally: Jerusalem’s rejection of Jesus c. 30 “caused” the fires of 70. The narrative characters of 30 in effect cursed themselves.

Knowing the historical context of the gospel’s composition, in other words, helps us as historians to understand Matthew’s intentions as an author. He could not know the violence that these words would eventually unleash as they reverberated in the long echo chamber of Christian anti-Judaism, reinterpreted as a standing curse across generations. He did not know; he could not know; yet there his words are, shrieked in Lanzmann’s Shoah by the Polish Catholics who suddenly revile a lone survivor of their World War II killing field. If only I could put out my hand; if only I could stop it all — the verse; the damage; the murders; the Shoah … .

Western anti-Judaism does not depend upon Matthew 27:25, of course. That great and rolling river is fed by countless tributaries, of many various kinds — social, political, religious, economic. David Nirenberg set himself the daunting task of tracing its course through some 3,000 years of Western history. He offers an acute examination of the ways Western culture has constructed itself by thinking with its ideas about Jews and Judaism. “Anti-Judaism should not be understood as some archaic or irrational closet in the vast edifices of Western thought,” Nirenberg observes in his introduction. “It was rather one of the basic tools with which that edifice was constructed.” And as he ominously concludes, hundreds of pages later, “We live in an age in which millions of people are exposed daily to some variant of the argument that the challenges of the world they live in are best explained in terms of ‘Israel’.”  The World Wide Web, and modern anti-Zionism, now feed this river, too.

Countless tributaries. But what source? In his first three chapters, Nirenberg, a medievalist by training, goes back to antiquity. He examines the Egyptian prequel, from the Elephantine papyri to the hostile ethnographies and political clashes of the early Roman period; looks to “Early Christianity,” especially the literary legacy of the new movement’s first generations: the gospels and the letters of Paul; and pulls the story through the second through fifth centuries, where the writings of church fathers and the law codes of Christian emperors hold pride of place. Chronology encodes causality. The sources of Western anti-Judaism lie here.

Nirenberg synopsizes a tremendous amount of recent and current scholarship in these chapters. And while his focus remains resolutely on ideas about Jews (thus, intellectual history), not on the actual interactions of ancient Jews with ancient others (thus, social history), the latter cannot help but inform the former. Multiple political resentments nourished Egyptian anti-Judaism, grudges that seethed first under Persian, then Macedonian, then finally Roman hegemony, with Jews cast each time as middlemen of the oppressor. (The anti-“Egyptianism” of Jewish scriptural tradition, with Pharaoh as the Book of Exodus’s fall guy, probably also went into the mix.) Nirenberg rightly names Hellenistic culture after Alexander the Great as the particular incubator of Egyptian anti-Jewish ideas; and he gives the reader a terrific bird’s-eye-view of the political tangles that snarled relations between Rome, Alexandria, and Jerusalem. Still, these social causes interest him less than does their ideological aftermath, the hostile Hellenistic Egyptian characterizations of Jews, which bequeath a long legacy.

Early Christianity presented Nirenberg with a special set of challenges, because current scholarship on Christian origins and the New Testament is so energetically divided on so many issues pertinent to his project. Rather than referee the fighting specialists, Nirenberg captures the resulting historiographical uncertainty with subtle artistry by involving the reader, through his narrative, in the process of historical thinking. We begin with the Risen Christ on the road to Emmaus. But Luke tells this story sometime around the year 100, decades after Jesus’s death. And we know it so well only because Luke’s late-first-century gospel ends up surviving a late-second-century textual triage: the bishop Irenaeus (c. 180 CE) decided, for good second-century reasons, to include Luke in his version of the New Testament canon. What then can Luke’s Christ tell us about the historical Jesus of Nazareth (c. 6 BCE – 30 CE)?

Paul appears in a similar flash-forward/flash-back: We meet him on the road to Damascus — an image and a story derived from the early-second-century Book of Acts. Unlike Jesus, however, Paul left us writings, specifically letters, of which we have seven. Primary evidence! We can compare the historical Paul with the Paul of later tradition! Now we can get somewhere — except, as Nirenberg narrates, scholarship on Paul enjoys no consensus. Scholars cannot agree on how Paul thought about the Torah, about gentile participation in the new movement, about Israel “according to the flesh.” How then are we to understand Paul’s contributions to anti-Judaism?

Deftly weaving between what these texts say, what they might have originally meant, and how they came to be read, Nirenberg closes his chapter with a nod to historical contingency. “Things did not need to turn out as they did.” Christian anti-Judaism, for example, can be and has been supported by Paul’s letters: yet, read in context, Paul’s letters may support nothing of the sort. But Nirenberg dismisses whatever comfort this thought might hold. It is “ethically important,” he insists, “to remember that the power of these historical truths [e.g., that Paul himself was not against Judaism] pales next to the power of the [negative] figures of Judaism we have seen emerging in this chapter.” No matter how innocent they were ab origine, Christianity’s anti-Judaism renders these first-century texts retrospectively responsible.

Leaving the New Testament, we move from shadows to light. In the second century, Christianity emerges as a family of warring sects, comprised almost exclusively of ex-pagan gentiles. It was in this period that “thinking with Jews” became hard-wired into Christian theology, and thus Christian identity. The intra-Christian exchange of anti-Jewish insults became the drive wheel of patristic theology. That none of the participants in this theological slugfest were Jews mattered not at all. But it did matter that many of these participants had good pagan educations, which meant that they were trained in forensic rhetoric, the art of framing a persuasive case against an opponent by caricaturing that opponent’s position. The more vicious the caricature, the more persuasive the speaker’s case became.

The war was against heresy; the target was other gentile Christians. But the ammunition of choice was anti-Judaism. Drawing on negative stereotypes of Jews and Judaism available in New Testament writings and (even more so, though Nirenberg does not treat this) in the Jewish scriptures themselves, these churchmen directed their most vicious anti-Jewish rhetoric not against Jews, but against fellow gentile Christians of different doctrinal bent. The Bible authorized their views, back-lit their arguments, and framed their fights. In brief, and curiously, it was Christian diversity that occasioned the hyper-development of Christianity’s “Jews.” By the end of Chapter 3, we see the emerging lineaments of the later Middle Ages: this toxic rhetoric, Nirenberg urges, was already beginning to effect social and political reality. Real Jews came to be stalked by imperial Christianity’s juif imaginaire.

From 700 BCE to 430 CE, all in his first 134 pages: Nirenberg’s is no small achievement. And he has the broad lines of his ancient story right, his footnotes documenting the mass of patient reading that stands behind his recount of these centuries. These three chapters, further, effectively set up the ten that follow, wherein Nirenberg treats the vagaries of his theme both through his own period and well beyond it. (“Drowning Intellectuals,” his epilogue, concludes with a rich meditation on Arendt, Adorno, and Auerbach.)

In his introduction, the manifesto of his book, Nirenberg unapologetically declares that he writes of the past with its future(s) in view. “Each chapter … attempts to treat its material both in the context of its own time and with an awareness of … how that material will be put to work … in later periods and other places.” And, as he states in his second chapter, reading texts in context produces both “a history that is not anachronistic” and laudable lessons about historical contingency. Yet Nirenberg’s allegiances are clear, and he construes them as an ethical mandate: the dark star of horrific, homicidal, irrational, modern anti-Judaism exerts terrific gravitational pull over his story. To what degree does this pull frustrate his efforts to present material “in the context of its own time?”

At the conclusion of Chapter 1, for example, Nirenberg closes with the coda of (Hellenistic and early Roman) Egyptian anti-Jewish description: “misanthropy, impiety, lawlessness, and universal enmity.” What many of his readers may not know is that these particular accusations characterize most classical ethnographies in general. In a huge work of impeccable research and stunning moral clarity, The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity, Benjamin Isaac has documented how ancient inter-ethnic empire led Greeks and then Romans to produce descriptions of ethnic others that sounded like the lyrics of an old Tom Lehrer tune. Persians, Scythians, Celts, Egyptians, Germans, Jews: all were cast in the same mold. Evidently an important qualification for writing ancient ethnographies was not liking other ethnē very much. The reason so much of the anti-Jewish calumnies survive, as Isaac explains, is because of the later church. As such, Nirenberg’s insistent foreshadowing effectively effaces this tradition’s original context.

Nirenberg does a heroic job walking the reader through the quagmire of New Testament texts and scholarship, but some slips — or parti pris readings — nonetheless seem to shape his discussion. He privileges Galatians, Paul’s most polarized and polarizing letter. (Paul argues intemperately there against opponents who, to an outsider, would look like clones of himself: Jews who were apostles of Christ to pagans.) When he finally turns to Romans, Nirenberg accordingly neglects to cite Paul’s statement in 11:26: “All Israel will be saved,” perhaps because it does not oblige his own polarized reading. He garbles modern schools of interpretation, misidentifying “New Perspective” scholars (who hold Paul to have repudiated Judaism) with “two-paths” scholars (who hold that Paul repudiated Torah only for gentiles but held it as a valid pathway to salvation for Jews). Nirenberg’s translation of Romans 9:4 completely masks Paul’s positive and lauding references to God’s presence in Jerusalem’s temple (“the glory”/Greek doxa/Hebrew kavod) and to its cult of animal sacrifice (“the worship”/Greek latreia/ Hebrew avodah), thereby increasing the notional distance between Paul and his late Second Temple context. And Nirenberg’s puzzlement about these texts’ protean interpretability might have been eased by more consideration of their apocalyptic origins.

The chapter bringing us into Late Antiquity, lucid and impassioned, is also littered with odd mistakes. For example, Nirenberg attributes to an early-second-century text a Christology that was not framed or even frame-able until the fourth or fifth century: Jesus was not “both fully man and fully God” in the second century. (English translations of Greek texts cannot convey this: calling someone theos is not the same as calling him ho theos.) “Dualist,” used passim, carries more freight than it can bear: in the sense of thinking with the polarities spirit/matter or soul/body, everyone but the most classically Stoic was “dualist”; consequently, it’s an unhelpful word. Origen’s Hexapla, a “six fold” critical edition of the Greek Old Testament, transmutes from six columns of Hebrew and Greek to “a massive multilingual edition of scripture … [in] six languages.” (It is not.) Augustine did not “debate” Faustus in the contra Faustum. He incorporated the text of (the probably deceased) Faustus’s Capitula into a dialogue format. But the rhetorical presentation of a virtual debate is not the same thing as a transcript of an actual debate. Finally, Augustine never called Jews “desks,” a mistake from the old Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers translation: scriniaria means “[female] librarian.” Augustine’s “Jews” were very animate bibliothècaires, not pieces of furniture.

It is the past described in this third chapter on Late Antiquity, however, that is most shadowed by the future, thus dogged by anachronism. And this occurs most prevalently and prominently within one of Nirenberg’s signature considerations: the ways that thinking with “Jews” affects majoritarian political thought. The eleventh-century meeting at Canossa hangs heavily over his discussion of Ambrose’s face-off with Theodosius. Here the later reception history of Ambrose’s Letters 40 and 41 bleeds backwards into Nirenberg’s putative description of actual fourth-century politics, when the emperor, not the bishop, was the man on top.  Neil McLynn’s Ambrose of Milan: Church and Court in a Christian Capital offers a shrewd analysis of the churchman’s self-aggrandizing esprit de l’escalier. Chrysostom’s verbal fusillade indeed sprayed “rhetorical Jews” all over fourth-century gentile Christian heretics; but by disregarding the epigraphical record, other patristic complaints, and the canons of church councils, Nirenberg misses the degree to which actual and continuing friendly association (both Christian and pagan) with Jews also spurred this anti-Jewish rhetoric. And while all of these imperial Christian authors indeed jeer at Jewish “misery” and “exile,” those are scriptural tropes borrowed from Old Testament prophets, not descriptions of — or prescriptions for — Jewish contemporaries (see the epilogue to the Yale University Press edition of my Augustine and the Jews). Nirenberg’s announced foci — both contemporary context and later consequences — blurs too often, in this chapter, into after-lives alone.

Do any of these infelicities matter? Yes and no. Yes, they matter if you want a historical description of these ancient texts and their authors in context. No, they don’t if you want to know the particular ingredients of the West’s tradition of anti-Judaism. That latter project is the heart of this haunting book. Read it. You will find yourself, again and again, wishing that you could reach your hand back in time, catch these toxic themes at their launch, and prevent all the deaths that you know will surely follow.

[Featured image: Rembrandt, The lapidation of Saint Stephen. Via Wikimedia Commons.]

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