Commentary Magazine


The Myth of the Judeo-Christian Tradition

How can it be that Christianity, regarding itself the successor and completion of Judaism, should have elected to take into itself the body and substance of that Jewish teaching which it believed to be defective, which it regarded itself as having in measure rejected, in measure transformed, in measure repaired and fulfilled? How can it be that Judaism, the precedent in principle and progenitor in history of Christianity, should have remained not only independent of but unassimilated by the doctrinal vision and historical pressure of Christianity?

This is a conundrum, but it is not without solution. Orders of existence can remain contiguous without coalescing, parallel without overlapping. But to speak in this way of Judaism and Christianity is not quite accurate, for terms like contiguity and coalescence properly describe the disposition of objects in space, whereas the essential character of the Jewish and Christian connection is that of a relation in time, and not in time alone but in filled time, time in which events are numbered. History is the medium in which Judaism and Christianity are sustained. There is, therefore, in addition to space and time, the nexus of events, priority and succession, formation and influence, human passion and persuasion.

Jewish and Christian time is impassioned time, time in which destinies are elaborated and consummated. Such time is thertime of salvation. Jews and Christians in the first century, Jewish Jews and Jewish Christians, Jewish Jews and Gentile Christians, related less to one another as persons than to one another as bearers of the Word, as legatees and transmitters of saving truth. They could not but regard their simple flesh and their uncomplicated spirits as vessels of the Holy Spirit, the instrumentalities through whom God worked out extraordinary designs and expectations. Theirs was a personalism, but it bore less resemblance to the existential personalism with which we are today familiar than it did to the historical realism of the Bible, in which persons were immanent expressions of the divine-human tension. Biblical anthropology discloses more about God than it does about man. Biblical man, confronting himself, addressed God. He worked by a devious deduction, believing himself to be an extrusion and exemplification of the divine intention, and hence valuing his own action both inordinately and inadequately, for in his behavior he was both the bearer of the ultimate intention of creation and a hopelessly frail, limited, inconsequential thing: thus, the numerous psalms in which man is ranked little lower than the angels and in the same breath derided and derogated. Man was person and paradox—person because God had made each man unique and irreplaceable, and paradox because every man was in himself the crossroads and meeting ground of the failure and distortion of creation.

I say all this to suggest that the Jewish and Christian relation was in ancient times much too serious an engagement to become, as it has become in our time, an assumed tradition. The ancient world expected a redeemer. The Jews expected a redeemer to come out of Zion; Christianity affirmed that a redeemer had come out of Zion, but that he had come not for Israel alone but for all mankind. Judaism denied that claim, rejected the person of that redeemer, called his claim presumption and super-arrogation, denied his mission to them. (Indeed, as the Synoptic Gospels make abundantly clear, Jesus of Nazareth regarded his mission as being first and foremost, if not exclusively, to the Children of Israel, though as theologians have come to teach us, Jesus did not understand either his own or God’s will as well as St. Paul understood both.) That same redeemer, unheard by most of Israel, rejected by its Jerusalemite establishment, was tried as an insurrectionist and brutally slain.

It matters therefore not at all in my view that much of Jewish and Christian doctrine is confluent, for in what does that confluence consist? That Jews and Christians affirm an unconditional, universal, and unique God, single and undifferentiated; that that God is believed to have created man, set him in the midst of an ordered nature, appointed him to a destiny of service and trust, brought near a single people—selected arbitrarily, but nevertheless unambiguously—to be His own and to bring His teaching to all the earth. These affirmations respecting the creation, the covenant of God with His elected people-servant, the revelation of His teaching, and the promise of redemption—these truths, schematic, loose, general, archetypal, connect the vision of Judaism and Christianity. But this connection is a philosophic formulation of what in the order of faith pulsates with irrationality, passion, intensity, sharp disagreement, fissure, and the abyss of historical enmity. I suggest in part therefore that the Judeo-Christian tradition is a construct, an artificial gloss of reason over the swarm of fideist passion. But this too is not enough. What is omitted is the sinew and bone of actuality, for where Jews and Christians divide, divide irreparably, is that for Jews the Messiah is yet to come and for Christians he has already come. That is irreparable.

It is true that Jews have made concession to the faith of Christians, acknowledging alternately—with charity or animus—that Christians and Moslems are closer to the purity of the Godhead than are pagans and idol-worshipers, but this is only to reaffirm that ultimately Israel, employing the artifacts of Christianity and Islam, will bring all of mankind to the divine teaching of Sinai. It is equally true that intertestamental theology and the early Church Fathers recognized the force of Israel’s refusal of Jesus as the Christ by developing the doctrine of the Second Coming, recognizing as they did that the end of days had not come to pass as promised, that the transformation of time and history anticipated in the immediate aftermath of the Crucifixion had transpired only in the eyes of faith, and that for the public, unconverted eye there could only be the promise and persuasion of the time yet to come when Jesus would return in glory, to consummate Israel, and to reintegrate Israel and the Church.

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But in the meantime, between the times, between the promise of the Synagogue and the promise of the Church, what of those times? For those times (two thousand years of them have nearly passed), what ensued was mainly the pavanne of death, where faith throttled faith, believer tormented believer, and the impotence of man before the magnitude of his believing overwhelmed mercy and love. We can learn much from the history of Jewish-Christian relations, but the one thing we cannot make of it is a discourse of community, fellowship, and understanding. How then do we make of it a tradition?

It is curious to observe that in historical periods in which it may well have been proper to speak of tradition, men did not speak of tradition. They recognized an order of receipt and transmission, a body of sacred and secular learning which defined the substance of divine revelation and humane instruction, but they did not regard the tradition as something outside of them, as an external datum, ordered, preserved, objectified. Tradition was interior and hence did not require sanctification and obeisance; it was active, traditio, the carrying over and forward of something which was supported and sustained. Only when traditio was used in the sense of receptus or redactio, as something defined, ordered, or enacted, was it understood in the sense in which we now use the term. The datum received or redacted, the Word of God, finished, closed, sealed into Scripture and hence terminated as a document, describes not the end of tradition, but the beginning of tradition. Before the redaction of the Hebrew Bible, there was a biblical tradition which kept alive the hot coal of God’s word, passing it carefully, circumspectly, but intently and with seriousness from generation to generation, reviving and reawakening it, quickening and intensifying its power. And when that tradition ran the risk of splintering, it was set down, redacted, and sealed, and the tradition ended—only to begin again as rabbinic tradition, which in turn was accumulated, transmitted, developed, argued, lived, until it too became so vast, so sprawling, so subtle that it demanded redaction. The requirement of man to remember his achievements, to behold his works so that they might congratulate him is the impulse to redact the living, spoken, transmission of the word into its written, dogmatic, authoritative form.

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Tradition is living when there is genuine tradition, the spoken word and the heard word surpassing the written word. It is the need to supply the spoken word with an adulterate preservative that compels us to conserve by writing. The most pristine traditions are bardic, epic, poetic, and never written. This is really only to say, as the Rabbis recognized, that in the Prophets and Writings God spoke, no longer directly but through the medium of His saints and prophets, and in the post-biblical literature God no longer spoke, but what was heard was an echo of his speech. This insight reverberates in the tale told by a Hasidic master who described the generational difference between himself and his teachers by explaining that when the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, had a difficult task to perform, he would go to a certain place in the forest, light a fire, and meditate in prayer; his successor knew the place in the forest and although he no longer lit the fire, he still remembered the Baal Shem’s prayer; and his successor no longer knew the prayer but knew the place in the woods; and he, in his generation, all that he could do was to tell the story. In our time many of us no longer even have the enthusiasm to tell the story, believing perhaps that the story itself has become meaningless.

It is, indeed, this sense of intrinsic meaninglessness which is quite possibly a significant aspect of what has come to be regarded as the Judeo-Christian tradition. Despite the intensity and seriousness with which Jews and Christians engaged in murderous polemics from the first century until the late 19th century (and even today the thesis has been argued by the French historian, Jules Isaac, that Nazi anti-Semitism was a secular radicalization of the anti-Jewish impulses of historic Christianity), the debate was always qualified by the commonly held conviction that the manner in which a man composed his relationship to God was central and primary to his existence; that this relationship was constitutive, and therefore ontological, in character; and finally that it was a relationship which could only be regarded with absolute, albeit often dreary, seriousness. It was also believed that society and culture, being expressions of the relationship between man and God, could only endure and express their fidelity to God if they were religiously homogeneous, unmarked by dissent, disagreement, divisiveness; hence it followed that any community within the larger society which denied the prevailing and enforced homogeneity of doctrine, upon which the society’s very life was believed to depend, should be either forcibly converted, driven out, or slain. But in addition to all this, there existed between Jews and Christians an order of ignorance which, even with the modest exceptions of German and Italian humanists, remained complete and impenetrable until the age of the Enlightenment. Jews regarded Christians as at best second-best, and at worst as execrable idolaters; Christians regarded Jews as at best worthy of conversion and at worst as deicides and antichrists.

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Theological fratricide, however, cannot simply be deplored, although it is presently the easiest thing in the world of religion to deplore. The endless parade of Jewish thinkers addressing Christian audiences and rehearsing with calm and fluency the corruption of Christendom, alongside the equally sincere and passionate late-flowering recognition by Christian thinkers of the enormities which Christianity has inflicted upon the Jews, makes for a kind of rhapsodic, communal suffering which is finally purgative, but not really illuminating. At the same time that I would recommend that we be done with the enumeration of massacres and the exhibition of Jewish scars, I would also suggest that we can learn something by reflecting on the order of seriousness, unanimity, and ignorance upon which this historical fratricide depended. And one thing we can learn is how the idea of the “Judeo-Christian tradition” began and why it has become in our day a myth which buries under the fine silt of rhetoric the authentic, meaningful, and irrevocable distinction which exists between Jewish belief and Christian belief.

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I have indicated that the notion of a Judeo-Christian tradition did not come into existence during that period which enclosed the seventeen-hundred years of the origin, expansion, consolidation, and withering of Christian power. As long as Christianity could keep the enemy without the gate it was able to maintain a species of homogeneity and community which was for all intents and purposes unassailable. In that period Christianity engaged Judaism in debate, less as a testimony to the openness of communication than as a theatrical exhibition of its power. There was no discourse, for none was felt to be needed. The argument had long since been decided by God and confirmed by the witness of the Church Triumphant.

The break in this pattern of no-communication and anti-dialogue and the transition from a closed and homogeneous society to an open and fragmented society may be traced to the extraordinary revulsion through which European society passed during the century-long wars of religion. The wars killed in the millions, but killed, it was recognized, not for the sake of the Kingdom of God, but in order that principalities and potentates might retain inherited power and continue to exercise it. It was an insane time—a time, not a little like our own, in which millenarianism, the sense of doom and apocalypse, and eschatological expectation flourished. But out of that massive occlusion of wasted life, out of mountains of corpses, there came a revulsion on behalf of man which survives to our time. If the community of the religious, as an analogue of society, could yield such desperate and hopeless folly, then religion was the enemy of man, and the notion of God and his faithful was an enormous delusion and reservoir of unreason. The effort of the philosophes was both to debunk the irrationality of religion and to construct a civil society grounded upon the neutralization of religion in the public domain.

The critique of religion undertaken by the Enlightenment was profoundly anti-mythological. Aware of the luxury and opulence of ancient myth, and delighting in the aesthetic vitality and energy of its vision, the philosophers of the Enlightenment nonetheless had no doubt that ancient myth was against reason, and against common sense. But most particularly the Enlightenment was persuaded that the myths of religion produced fanatical narrowness, political repression, and social discord. In the view of the Enlightenment, sectarian religion was the enemy and Christianity was the primary example of sectarianism. It could not be helped that in the attack on Christianity Judaism should suffer, for Christianity depended upon Judaism for the internal logic of its history. Early Christianity had sought to polarize itself to Judaism; the Fathers of the Eastern Church (and to a lesser extent the Latin Fathers) set the ministry of Jesus Christ in opposition to the teaching of the Hebrew Bible, expunging the Gospels of their Jewish roots, cutting off the Church from its involvement in the fortunes of the Synagogue, turning Christianity away from the Jews and toward the pagan world. The philosophes now recalled Christianity to its dependence upon the Hebrew Bible. The obscurantism of Christianity—however much it may have been enhanced and reticulated by the original doctrine of the myth of Jesus Christ—depended upon the Hebrew tradition. It could not be otherwise, then, but that a “Christo-Jewish tradition” should come to be defined and characterized as one of irrationality and fanaticism.

But if the Judeo-Christian tradition is initially a construct of the Enlightenment, it was not at that time a myth, for what the Enlightenment set out to destroy was, in fact, accurately perceived. Religious fanaticism—growing upon the soil of exclusivities, narrow sectarianism, doctrines of the elect and the damned—contributed to repression, nationalism, and war. In the assaults leveled by that Jewish precursor of the Enlightenment, Spinoza, in his Tractatus, and later by Voltaire, Diderot, D’Alembert, the Hebrew biblical writ was perceived as a unit which, despite eccentric theological divisions and disagreements, produced in Christianity a religion to be opposed. The Christian religion depended for its essential theological groundwork upon the religious vision of the Jews and, for that reason, the Christo-Jewish legacy was both affirmed and opposed.

The 19th-century revolution in biblical studies begun by the German school of scientific higher criticism inaugurated the second phase of the history of the myth of the Judeo-Christian tradition. In response, it would seem, to the position of the Enlightenment, it became the concern of Protestant biblical scholars to disentagle Christianity from its Jewish roots, to split off the Christian experience from that of Judaism and at the same time to naturalize the humanity of Jesus. It became commonplace in this movement of thought to demonstrate that what appeared to the light of Reformation theology to be most generous, and humane, and charitable in classic Judaism was really a contribution from outside, whereas indigenous biblical Judaism was violent, self-righteous, obsessionally paranoid. The Hebrew biblical tradition was acknowledged, but its nobility and excellence had been taken over by the Church, and what was left over to post-biblical, rabbinic Judaism (the Judaism of the Jews) was legalistic, ethnocentric, spiritually defective. From this movement of 19th-century thought emerged a species of hypostasis which envisaged the benighted Jew of the Old Testament, struggling along with a half-truth, in bondage to a hopeless legalism. On the one hand the genius of the Hebrew Bible was commended; on the other hand Christianity was set in superior condescension to the traditions of Judaism which survived, like ruins, the advent of Jesus Christ. The Judeo-Christian tradition was acknowledged, this time, by Christianity, but by a Christianity anxious to demonstrate that what had been correctly denigrated by the Enlightenment was, in fact, the teaching of the ancient Jews whose additions to and alterations of the pure Hebrew vision corrupted the source of Christianity.

The higher criticism of the Hebrew Bible became, as Solomon Schechter called it, “the higher anti-Semitism,” designed to meet the critique of the philosophes and of German idealist philosophy by demeaning the Judaic element in Christianity. Whatever truth there is in the scientific criticism of the Hebrew Bible—and there is considerable truth—the ideological impulse was corrupt. The Judaism which survives the onslaught of Protestant higher criticism is buried under a mountain of historicist formulations, while a pure, virtuous Kantian Christianity—freed from Jewish accretion—is defined.

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The social consequence of the de-Judaizing of Christian theology could not be more evident than in the pitiful inability of the Protestant (and to a slightly—but only slightly—lesser extent, Catholic) churches to oppose German National Socialism. It is precarious to make considerations of ethics irrelevant to concerns of theology, to split off the task of living in the world from the pursuit of grace, to make, as many 20th-century Protestant theologians have made, questions of ethics irrelevant to faith. Among the leaders of the confessional churches, only Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Germany and Karl Barth at its borders inveighed against the capitulation of Church to State. The theologians of the 19th century had, indeed, succeeded: the ethics of the Hebrew Bible were winnowed by the Gospels and the ethics restored to Christian conscience were ethics for the “between-time,” when history awaited the return of Christ. The purge of Christianity of its Jewish elements was disastrous. If that was Judeo-Christian tradition—in the spirit of Wellhausen, Kittel (and even most recently Bultmann’s Primitive Christianity)—the world could not abide it again.

The renewal of the doctrine of the Judeo-Christian tradition, this time liberated from the ressentiment of Protestant defensiveness and Catholic hauteur, is a postwar phenomenon. Christianity has had a bad conscience and Jews seem justifiably content to pique it. Unfortunately, the penance which some Christians seem willing, to perform and which some Jews seem anxious to exact, whatever its personal value, does not legitimate the creation of a “Judeo-Christian tradition.” Clearly it is not denied that both religions share compatible truths. There is a common sacred history; the ethical values to which appeal is made are similar; the eschatological vision overlaps; the normative institutions of both faiths are analagous. Christianity is, as Christians describe it, the younger brother to Judaism and, as Judaism describes it, the daughter religion. The felt need, however, to spin from such compatibilities a “tradition,” suggests the presence of something else.

It is an apparent truism that the concept of the Judeo-Christian tradition has particular currency and significance in the United States. It is not a commonplace in Europe as it is here; rather, Europeans since the war have become habituated to speak of Jewish-Christian amity, to define the foundations and frontiers of community, to describe and, in describing, to put to rest, historic canards and libels. In Europe they are not addicted as we are here to proclaiming a tradition in which distinctions are fudged, diversities reconciled, differences overwhelmed by sloppy and sentimental approaches to falling in love after centuries of misunderstanding and estrangement. I need not speak at length here of the religion of American secularism, that uncritical Jacobinism which is neither fish nor fowl, and certainly neither Christian nor Jewish. Suffice it to say that such secular religiosity is correctly perceived by both communities to be dangerous; it is the common quicksand of Jews and Christians. And it is here that we can identify the myth. Jews and Christians have conspired together to promote a tradition of common experience and common belief, whereas in fact they have joined together to reinforce themselves in the face of a common disaster. Inundated institutions have made common cause before a world that regards them as hopelessly irrelevant, and meaningless. The myth, then, is a projection of the will to endure of both Jews and Christians, an identification of common enemies, an abandonment of millennial antagonisms in the face of threats which do not discriminate between Judaism and Christianity; and these threats, the whole of the Triple Revolution—automation, the population explosion, nuclear warfare—these are the threats which evoke the formation of the myth.

The threats are real and desperate, but patching-over will not, in the long run, help. Patching-over can only deteriorate further what it seeks to protect. The Judeo-Christian tradition is an eschatological myth for the Christian who no longer can deal with actual history and a historical myth for Jews who can no longer deal with the radical negations of eschatology. The Christian must learn to depend upon the Jew who says salvation has not yet come, to interpret for him what happens when power collapses, how men shall behave when the relative and conditional institutions of society crumble, for the Jew is an expert in unfulfilled time, whereas the Christian is an adept believer for redeemed times only. The Christian may come to depend upon the Jew for an explanation of unredeemedness. The Jew, on the other hand, must look to Christianity to ransom for him his faith in the Messiah, to renew for him his expectation of the nameless Christ. This is the center of a true Jewish-Christian nexus, what might be called a Jewish-Christian humanism; but the possible lineaments of that humanism are scarcely to be glimpsed in our times.

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