Pasto, Who Owns the Jewish Past?

The basic argument of this work is straightforward: Jewish history, as represented in western Biblical scholarship, is a Christian invention. Or rather, it is what I will call a Christian sacralizing history. I will explain what I mean by the term “Christian” below. By “sacralizing history” I mean any representation of the past that serves as the foundational narrative for identity in the present. By Christian sacralizing history I mean a history that serves as the foundational narrative for Christians in the present. Thus, I argue that what is taught as Jewish history in most western university courses, is in fact a Christian past that serves the needs of a Christian present. I presume of course, and I will argue throughout this work, that Christians possess the power to represent the Jewish past as Christian sacralizing history. This Christian sacralizing history has a number of distinctive features, among which is the assertion of a rupture that separates and contrasts, respectively, an Abrahamic covenant with a Mosaic Law, Hebrews with Jews, and ancient Israel with later Judaism. The point of rupture is variously postulated as the Babylonian Exile, the Hellenistic period, or the time of Jesus, depending on the views of the particular writer. In each case, however, the rupture is the point at which the Abrahamic-Hebraic-Israel ends, and the Mosaic-Jewish-Judaism begins.

Integral to this narrative of rupture is the representation of the Mosaic, Jewish “Judaism” as a religion or society of “contradictory combinations,” the most characteristic of which are universalism versus particularism, prophecy versus law, and freedom versus constraint. Moreover, these contradictory combinations are set within a broader typology where the Abrahamic-Hebraic Israel — along with Hellenism and Christianity — stands to Judaism as the universal, prophetic, and free to the particular, legal and constraining. This in turn is placed within a scheme of progress where the contradictory elements in Judaism grow in intensity until they are resolved through, and in, Jesus and early Christianity. The now separate universal, prophetic and free elements serve as the foundational essence of Christianity, while the particularistic, legalistic constraining elements become the foundational essence of the post-Jesus Judaism. This schema, which many might recognize as characteristic only of 19th century scholarship, is alive and well in current scholarship.

James Pasto. Who Owns the Jewish Past? Judaism, Judaisms, and the Writing of Jewish History. PhD Dissertation, Cornell University, 1999. Page 1, first two paragraphs of the Introduction.

I saw this dissertation mentioned in several of the footnotes of Anders Gerdmar, Roots of Theological Anti-Semitism: German Biblical Interpretation and the Jews, from Herder and Semler to Kittel and Bultmann, and the notes were intriguing enough that I purchased it from UMI. I am not disappointed, in reading the Introduction. It dovetails perfectly with the Gerdmar work. One of the benefits of Pasto (two volumes totally almost 700 pages) is a full chapter on Wellhausen, which will undoubtedly be fascinating. In fact, Gerdmar recommends Pasto’s coverage of Wellhausen:

Other scholars could have been included, such as Julius Wellhausen and Emil Schürer, but for the sake of limiting what is already a large book, for Wellhausen I refer [the reader] to James Pasto’s substantial study from 1999, in which Wellhausen is closely related to de Wette. (p. 14)

Pasto’s chapter on Wellhausen comprises 110 pages, much more coverage than Gerdmar could’ve included, and undoubtedly in delicious detail (I refuse to cheat and take a peek, because I know that I’ll end up reading the whole chapter then and there). I look forward to reading it.

In this dissertation by Pasto, the Gerdmar Roots of Theological Anti-Semitism book, Carla Sulzbach’s 1996 dissertation David Zvi Hoffmann’s Die Wichtigsten Instanzen gegen die Graf-Wellhausensche Hypothese (“The main arguments against the Graf-Wellhausen hypothesis”) (available here), and several articles, for example those by James McNutt [“Adolf Schlatter and the Jews,” German Studies Review 26.2 (May 2003), 353-370] and Maurice Casey [“Some Anti-Semitic Assumptions in the ‘Theological Dictionary of the New Testament,” Novum Testamentum 41.3 (Jul 1999), 280-291], all combine to paint a particular picture of the generally tendentious nature of the approch of modern Biblical criticism toward the Hebrew Bible (even/especially in its Christian incarnation as the Old Testament) and the history of Israel. It’s going to be an interesting summer for me, reading-wise. I’ll be sure to keep posting on the subject.


    1. Θεοφραστος εγραψε: You are in league with the Angel of Taunting Poor Readers and Diminishing their Wallets, for certain!

      And you’re not, Mr. Buy All These Beautiful Old Bible Facsimiles Like I Did?

  1. James Pasto, “When the end is the beginning? Or when the biblical past is the political present: Some thoughts on ancient Israel, “post-exilic Judaism,” and the politics of biblical scholarship,” Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament 12.2 (1998): 157-202.

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