Book Review: Antisemitism and the Foundations of Christianity

AntiSemitism and the Foundations of Christianity, Alan T. Davies, ed.  ISBN 1-59244-459-8.  Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2004 (previously published by Paulist Press, 1979).

There is no index, nor is there a bibliography. The chapters/essays and writers are:

  1. Preface – James Parkes
  2. Introduction – Alan Davies
  3. As the Twig Was Bent: Antisemitism in Greco-Roman and Earliest Christian Times – John C. Meagher
  4. The Rejection of the Jews in the Synoptic Gospels and Acts – Douglas R A. Hare
  5. Paul and the Torah – Lloyd Gaston
  6. The Gospel of John and the Jews: The Story of a Religious Divorce – John T. Townsend
  7. The Patristic Connection – David P. Efroymson
  8. From the Jesus of Story to the Christ of Dogma – Monika K. Hellwig
  9. Catholic Dogma After Auschwitz – Gregory Baum
  10. The Historicizing of the Eschatological: The Spiritualizing of the Eschatological: Some Reflections – John T. Pawlikowski
  11. Rethinking Christ – Douglas John Hall
  12. On Religious Myths and Their Secular Translation: Some Historical Reflections – Alan Davies
  13. An Ethical Critique: Antisemitism and The Shape of Christian Repentance – Terence R. Anderson
  14. The Faith and Fratricide Discussion: Old Problems and New Dimensions – Rosemary Radford Ruether
  15. Notes on Contributors

This particular volume sounds like it will add to critical scholarship about the origins of antisemitism within religious traditions but it falls short. It is a collection of essays in honor of one of the first contemporary writers on the subject of Christian antisemitism, James Parkes.  Parkes, a Christian theologian of some note, wrote the preface to the volume, and Alan T. Davies, another Christian theologian of note, wrote the introduction and one later chapter.

Despite the book’s title, the essays are not strictly speaking essays about the relationship between antisemitism and the origins and foundations of Christianity. Some of that is in each essay, but for the most part these essays react to Rosemary Ruether’s seminal work Faith and Fratricide.

Ruether, a Catholic theologian, in essence says in Faith that what has befallen the Jews over the centuries is due to scriptural interpretation and the resulting theology from those same Scriptures.  The Christian, she says, needs to look at the Bible and theology and change the idea that ‘Jews killed Christ’ and have also been superceded by the church.  Both can be fairly read in the scriptural text.  The writers in this book address her historicity and understanding of early Christian writers to the neglect of directly addressing the evidence in history and those early Christian writers.

A large problem with this book is that it is a reaction to another work, rather than the underlying ideas presented in that work or, alternatively, Christian reactions to the problem of Christian antisemitism.  Rather than address Ruether’s pointed criticisms and how problems she notes can be remedied, the writers criticize her polemical tone, her historical inaccuracies and her mistaken understanding of both Scripture and the Patristic fathers.

One would think directly addressing the evidence adduced by Ruether would be the point of AntiSemitism and the Foundations of Christianity.  It’s well and good to criticize overbroad, sweeping commentary on someone else’s work; indeed, it’s necessary.  However, if the underlying premise is valid, those concerns similarly need to be addressed.  And where we have an opportunity to explore the role antisemitism played in the growth of the church, that should be taken up – and not while largely denigrating the efforts of someone else to shine a light in that ugly, dark little corner of world history.

Whether and to what extent foundational Christianity was antisemitic is very important to understanding the history of the Christian church.  This book missed a grand opportunity to contribute to literature in the field.  Instead we read in Hare’s essay that Mark exhibits no anti-Judaic tone save one verse, itself in passim, and that Luke is almost pro-Jewish.  He also states that in Mt 27:25 (“his blood be on us and on our children!” RSV) the evangelist undoubtedly did not intend harm to befall Jews.  Likewise we read in Meagher that the way the evangelists view Judaism was benign and, again, almost pro-Judaism.

These comments, and others like them elsewhere in AntiSemitism and the Foundations of Christianity, show the massive disconnect between the plain textual reading of the Bible and how the reader might want the text to read.  What the Christian shrugs off as a throw-away line (such as the Matthean remark), others will read as hateful and antisemitic.

Even when the the biblical text is read favorably towards Jews, the result is overreaching.  Lloyd Gaston’s thesis in “Paul and the Torah” is that Paul wasn’t writing to exclude Jews generally; rather, Paul’s belief was that the Jew did have a path to God via the Torah.  It was only the Gentile who needed Jesus, and Jesus acted as the mediator to God for the Gentile.  The Gentile approaches God via Jesus who replaces the Torah – for Gentiles only, as Torah is still in force for Jews. Paul’s relationship to the Torah was one of love and respect, not one of derision or loathing.  It is a fascinating idea and an interesting reading of Paul’s writings.  To some extent it does match up well with Paul’s comments in Rom. 11 which some have called a love letter to Jews.  It’s a fascinating thesis.

And it’s also wrong.  Reading Paul in this way overlooks the overwhelming majority of Paul’s work wherein he condemns the Law, calls it a “curse” (Gal. 3:13), states that it is superceded by Christ and the cross for everyone, whether Jew or Greek (see the Epistles to the Corinthians, Ephesians, and the Galatians).  It’s overreaching and misreading the text, in the name of correcting historical animus towards the Jews, however admirable that cause.

That is more or less the issue with this collection.  The authors either understate the underlying problems (or miss them altogether) with regard to Christian holy writ and the Jew or overstate the dilemma and possible corrections.  There is no middle ground to be tread.  The essays further read like the authors are trying to reassure other Christians and themselves that, despite the horrific history between the church and Jews, the problem is not in the Christian Scripture or its early interpretations but, rather, in the ways people have responded to both.  They are writing as though to say ‘everything is okay, and we have nothing to worry about or apologize for’ and all but ignore Ruether’s central thesis.

It’s hard to see that this book contributes much to intrafaith dialogue, let alone interfaith dialogue.  Because the contributors ignore much of what Ruether wrote, preferring instead to focus on minor points rather than larger themes, the book adds little to nothing to literature about antisemitism.

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About flatpickingjd

Just your average, liberal vegetarian redneck. Yes, I'm a liberal. Proudly so. I see nothing wrong with that and wear that label with pride. Yes, I'm a vegetarian. I used to be fat, very fat. Then I started taking care of myself, lost a bunch of weight and found it easier to keep that weight off by not eating meat. Or cheese. Or eggs. Or any good stuff. Man, I miss pizza. And, yes, I'm a redneck. I like camping and fishing, listen to bluegrass music and live (from time to time) in the south(west). So, yup, I'm just your average, liberal vegetarian redneck. Serious details about me: I make my living as a lawyer. My practice focus is business law, but I've dabbled in other areas including personal injury, family law, real estate, and water law. I also hold three master's degrees with plans to earn a doctorate. I hope you enjoy your time here, and feel free to comment!
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One Response to Book Review: Antisemitism and the Foundations of Christianity

  1. Pingback: Previous Book Reviews | fjdsbookreviews

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