Commentary Magazine


The Gospel Jesus

To the Editor:

Arthur A. Cohen’s review of Jesus and Israel by Jules Isaac [Books in Review, September] unwittingly reveals that like Isaac he, too, appears to have (and here I quote from Mr. Cohen), “discovered Judaism on the way back from Western Christian civilization: to have made the acquaintance of the Old Testament through the filter of the New.” The remarkable thing about such Jews is that, having read and studied the Gospels, they can still think, to quote Mr. Cohen again, “that anti-Semitism, more precisely anti-Judaism, was a doctrine of contempt founded upon and elaborated from false and mendacious readings of the Gospels by historical Christian thought.” To any objective reader of the Gospels. our only available record of the sayings and doings of Jesus, somewhat garbled to be sure but nevertheless still considered sacrosanct by the Churches, it takes no “false and mendacious reading” to find in them that “‘teaching of contempt,’ as Isaac came to call the Christian-inspired anti-Semitism” Indeed, further on in his review Mr. Cohen tells us that Isaac interpreted “the eccentric St. John, the most anti-Jewish of the Gospel witnesses,” thus admitting that anti-Semitism is inherent in the Gospels themselves, and is not merely the result of “false and mendacious readings”. . .

Mr. Cohen quotes with apparent approval Isaac’s first proposition: “The Christian religion is the daughter of the Jewish religion. If only for this reason Judaism is deserving of respect.” I consider this statement an insult to Judaism. . .

Mr. Cohen also quotes with approval Isaac’s second proposition: “Jesus, the Jesus of the Gospels, in his human lifetime was a Jew, a humble Jewish artisan.” One can understand why Christians idealize the Gospel Jesus, even though to the objective reader he is often arrogant, vain, vindictive—anything but humble. But why should Jews ignore the evidence and misrepresent the tragic, self-deluded, obsessed, and sometimes quite irrational character of the Gospel Jesus? . . .

Irving Fineman
Shaftsbury, Vermont

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Arthur A. Cohen writes:

Irving Fineman has me dead to rights.

Unlike him, however, I do not take offense at the implicit anti-Judaism of the Gospel account of the life and activity of Jesus. To tilt with that particular historical windmill is a hopeless undertaking Not that I am afraid of Christian anger. How can one be any longer at this juncture of history? The issue is larger. As I have argued in The Myth of the Judeo-Christian Tradition, there is an implacable theological enmity between Judaism and Christianity that derives from disagreement about essential first principles. Jesus conceived as the Christ is a Christian first principle from which I demur as passionately as does Mr. Fineman. Nonetheless, the anti-Judaism of the Gospels and the anti-Christianity of Jews should not therefore lead (as it has immemorially) to Christian massacre of Jews or to the neurasthenic paranoia of Jews toward Christians (the latter not unjustified in the context of the former).

Isaac was attempting however to discriminate between the theologizing of the Gospel account and its actual intent. Not for one moment does Isaac deny (it you would read him) that the Synoptics are very hostile to Jews and Judaism, but he does indicate that much of the propaganda of the Gospels against the Jews is probably later than the original narrative, written back into the text to underscore an anti-Jewish polemic well under way by the beginning of the 3rd century. Moreover (and this is the power of Isaac’s argument), the insistence of the Church upon absolutizing the miscreancy of the Jew transformed the living history of enmity into theological categories that, like all habitual thinking, lead ultimately to misconstruction and brutalization.

In short, I acknowledge the force of Mr. Fineman’s criticism but I continue to hold to the difference between history and theology, anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism (the legitimacy of the former and the execrableness of the latter), and, more importantly, continue to believe that if Jews and Christians begin to admit their real, substantive enmity, they can begin more useful discourse than that which is characterized by the frozen hostility of too many Christians and too many Jews like Irving Fineman.

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