Roots of Theological Anti-Semitism: Semler

As my reading of Anders Gerdmar’s excellent Roots of Theological Anti-Semitism progresses, I’ll occasionally be posting some little excerpts with my thoughts. Here is the first of such, discussing some of the ideas of Johann Salomo Semler (1725-1791):

Semler dichotomises universalism and particularism, where the negative, particularism, is characteristic of the Jews. Overall, Semler takes a negative view on historical religions with their specific forms and expressions—they are particularist, provincial, local and preliminary, whereas his religious ideal is the abstract, the general and universal. Christianity, to him, is a universal religion. Judaism had an outward worship and outward promises, waiting for a national deliverer. Even the religion of Jesus was clothed in Jewish garb, and the New Testament represented an ‘incomplete’ form of Christian religion. Fortunately the Christian can separate the content from the Oriental-Jewish language and world-view. This is important to Semler, since he believes that ‘thinking people’ consider the ‘revelation’ of the Jews and Christians to be irritating (ärgerlich). Although he sees some Old Testament scriptures as having moral value, he believes that much of the Bible of the Jews contains ‘idiotism’ (Idiotismus), clothing the message in circumstances that pertain only to one people in one land at certain times. He rejects its mixing of civil society and religion, and holds that the moral benefit of the text would be much greater without the tabernacle, the feasts, the sacrifices and the laws of Moses. This outward religion is Jewish, local and pertains only to its own Jewish society, which opposes all that Semler values: the ambition of becoming “an inwardly perfected person, like God and rich in virtue.” The problem is particularism, which hampers a proper understanding:

All such individual and merely particular concepts, descriptions and stories must and may by a thoughtful reader of the books be singled out as passing and temporal clothes or vehicles, sa he seeks to apply the general concepts and truths to himself and then to assess himself morally, but he should not be and become such a Jew.

Well. So, it sounds as though Semler would fit right in at the local Unitarian brie-bake! It hardly needs mentioning that orthodox Jews and Christians find such an approach as Semler’s offensive.

Semler deals with the Old Testament in the most superficial manner. Of course, in his day, the great wealth of ancient Near Eastern documentation from the world in which the Hebrew Bible took shape was as yet unknown, the languages unreadable, most of the texts still lying buried. So, he could not recognize the very clear moral superiority demonstrated in the laws of Moses for their time. He should, however, have been able to discern at least some of that morality, from his vaunted position as a kind of one man moral arbiter. That he didn’t shows a singular lack of qualification as a moral arbiter. But he was reading too superficially, a characteristic method of reading these texts that is common to all Enlightenment-dependent scholars. They are incapable of recognizing, in a further matter, the paradigms lying within the Scriptures which were systematized, collected, and applied to further expand upon Scripture in the Rabbinic documents. It is in such paradigm-extension that the New Testament itself takes shape, not due to a childlike (mis)reading of Messianic prophecies. To focus on the most superficial aspect of a text betrays no fault in the text, but in the reader.

It is not surprising that with foundations like these laid in the German academy by Semler that we eventually come to see Marcionism alive and well again: the elimination of the Old Testament and the editing out of Jewish elements from the New Testament (which I will describe in a later post). A de-judaisation of the New Testament will result only in heresy, as has occurred previously in Christian history, and which actually did occur in Germany, as well. Severing the New Testament from its historical moorings will lead to an unhistorical view of Christian origins, of course. Severing Christ from his historical moorings, however, leads to quite a bit more: anathematized heresy. It is orthodox Christology that Christ is both fully human and fully divine, and that fully human part is Jewish, not Aryan, not German, not American, but Jewish. A removal of the Jewishness of Christ becomes a removal of the entirety of his human nature. He is not a “universal” person, a creature of every race, as though such a thing were possible. As a human, he is Jesus of Nazareth, a distant son of David, a Jew. And it is within that real, historical context that God chose to work, according to orthodox theology, with Israel, and with Christ. To strip away the actual setting of these things as “irritating” in their particularity, because they don’t jibe with what “thinking people” consider important brings to mind one thing: “For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, ‘He catches the wise in their craftiness'” (1Cor 3.19).

There is nothing more contemptible than the arrogance of the ignorant, and that is precisely what is in play here with Semler. He might be forgiven for not being familiar with the writings from the ancient world yet to be discovered and interpreted, which would put the Hebrew Bible in a better light, and the Jews in a better light amongst their contemporaries as well. However, in his pontificating, he leaves no room for such discoveries, again preferring the superficial apparency of what is solely visible contemporarily to be the totality of evidence (a fault of much of the thinking of the “Enlightenment,” of course). His own preferred universalism, a creation of the desires of “thinking people” rather than any objectively existent entity, quite guided his entire program. And so he could leave no room for the result of the overturned stone. For his precious universalism to be and remain acceptable as an intellectual option, all stones must remain unturned. I ask you, how enlightened is that?


  1. The documents we have now had not yet been uncovered, but there were Jewish commentaries extant (Mishna, etc.) in which one can discern some of the thought of the first couple of centuries AD with a little digging. And, oh my, the threads in the Orthodox Liturgy!!! I know little of Jewish liturgical practice, but ISTM that since Christianity did develop out of Judaism rather than springing fully formed into history, one would expect to find those threads somewhere- and behold, they have been there all along.

    I have always been attentive to the Jewishness in the NT and the Jewish echoes in “wider” Christianity. Seeing the congruence in Orthodoxy today with what is in the Apostolic Fathers, particularly, was the thing that “switched on” my understanding and acceptance of Orthodox Tradition as having been handed down from the days of Jesus. It was the delight of discovering a secret drawer in a desk… (NT Wright is hugely important in this for me…) An interesting and noteworthy event in my journey.

    I was chrismated Sunday at St. Seraphim’s in Santa Rosa and feel like I’ve come full circle, after 53 years, to the blessing and hope of my (RC) baptism.

    I enjoy your blog, and the LXX reading scheme has been quite helpful.


  2. Congratulations, Dana! Many years of God’s blessings to you!

    I’m happy to hear that anything on this blog of mine has been at all useful to you.

    The trick, of course, is that the Enlightenment is when these academic types first started to ignore long-standing traditions, and to approach everything positivistically: only primary and incontrovertible evidence is probative. Thus historical minimalists of all sorts today, their not-so-distant distant heirs, along with the “postmodern” interpreters and their unbridled and celebrated subjectivity. The Enlightenment is finally on the verge of succeeding: removing the role of religion completely from the public and academic sphere, and enforcing its own creed of pseudo-intellectual bourgeois tolerance.

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