Commentary Magazine


Ancient Judaism and the New Testament, by Frederick C. Grant

Anti-Semitism & the New Testament
Ancient Judaism and the New Testament.
by Frederick C. Grant.
Macmillan. 155 pp. $3.50.

 

For promoting understanding between Jews and Christians Professor Grant’s little book is more effective than a thousand interfaith dinners. In learning and clarity and conviction it cannot be matched by all the tracts issued by Jewish organizations to explain Judaism to perplexed Jews or those issued by Christian organizations to promote tolerance. All the admonitions addressed to rabbis at their ordination cannot point to the true function of the rabbi more decisively and succinctly. No Jew of comparable stature could lay his finger upon the very roots of anti-Semitism so unerringly, so unequivocally, and so out-spokenly.

No Jew could, aside from the reticence imposed by courtesy, because however tenacious of his own values he may be he must unconsciously share the general outlook of his environment. Against direct attack he can hold his own if he is well informed; but when it is not the attack itself—which may have been forgotten or even consciously rejected—but its sequelae which have permeated the culture, then the Jew is no better armed than others who share it. The very vogue of the word “tolerance” is an index of an unspoken premise that what we are urged to put up with is in fact disagreeable. To understand that what is involved is right, not sufferance, it is necessary to probe into the root of the prejudice.

The root, it is important to realize, is religion, and however remote from religion the manifestations of anti-Semitism may be, it is from religion that they ultimately derive, and they cannot be understood or dealt with without reference to the root. The root of anti-Semitism, modern as well as ancient, is in the New Testament, and it is there because, as Professor Grant writes, “It seems to be a natural tendency of theologians and controversialists, in all religions or religious movements which have separated from an older faith, to attribute malice, bigotry, stupidity, even hypocrisy to the adherents of the abandoned creed.”

Actually the substratum (not merely an “element”) of the New Testament is Pharisaism. Despite the pejorative connotations of the word in the New Testament and in the usage of all European languages, Pharisaism embodies as pure and lofty a religious ideal as men have known. This is no news to good scholars, Christian as well as Jewish; George Foot Moore’s monumental Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era has provided complete demonstration. But where Moore wrote as an objective scholar, Professor Grant writes as a religious man burdened with a sense of guilt for the enormities anti-Semitism has perpetrated during its long history.

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Pharisaism, according to Professor Grant and his kind, is the natural consequence of Old Testament prophecy. According to the more widely held view, it was an aberration; the natural successor to Old Testament prophecy was apocalyptic, which gave rise to Christianity. Professor Grant’s analysis of Messianic hopes and writings is just—so just as to make a rationalist squirm; but he points out that Messianic interests (there was never a definite dogma) were vague and unsystematic and ephemeral and, what is conclusive, that they were soon decisively rejected by the main stream of Judaism. Indeed the main stream of Christianity itself was not apocalyptic but Pharisaic.

Hostility generated by rivalry when the issue was doubtful persisted after there was no longer doubt, and, what is more important for the modern world, this hostility was exacerbated, not mollified, by the Reformation. “This terrible inheritance of hatred and bigotry,” Professor Grant writes, “the early church passed on to the medieval, and the medieval to the Reformation and post-Reformation churches.” From this accumulation of prejudice and fanaticism the Reformation might have been expected to set European society free. But not so. The theological basis of the Reformation was Paulinism, chiefly as understood by Luther and Calvin, not the teaching of the Gospels, which were demonstrably Jewish in tone and outlook as well as in language and presuppositions. The result was a total identification of Judaism with “self-righteousness,” reliance for salvation on “works of the Law,” and “confidence in the flesh . . . Basically the Protestant dogmas were anti-Jewish, and Luther’s own personal influence was anti-Jewish.” From these premises Professor Grant deduces racism and the other unlovely consequences of German anti-Semitism.

It is the propagation of prejudice through preaching and teaching which most concerns Professor Grant. “It is still common among half-educated and misinformed preachers and writers to represent Judaism in the time of Christ as a decadent and moribund, sterile, mechanical, purely formal and hypocritical religion.” If it is superficial knowledge which is the source of prejudice then the only cure is deeper knowledge. Professor Grant (who has known several seminaries at first hand) is distressed at the shallowness and glibness and the vagaries of much theological training; in consequence clergymen are unable and disinclined to study their central documents in the original tongues and depend on interpreters who substitute modern irrelevancies for their true business.

Modernists may smile at the naivety of a clerical professor who would introduce social as well as religious reforms by closer application to Hebrew and Greek, but other inveterate evils have been abolished by intellectual effort, and over a long stretch the evil of anti-Semitism may be also. In any case, it has worked so well in Professor Grant’s case that he deplores missionary efforts to convert Jews to Christianity or Christians to Judaism—“though I would gladly see far more men and women converted to the imperishable heart of the Jewish faith.” If his little book does nothing else it provides a tonic for apologetic Jews, and enables them also to see what Christianity stripped of incrustations is like in the eyes of a sensitive and honest Christian scholar.

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