Roots of Theological Anti-Semitism

My copy of Anders Gerdmar’s Roots of Theological Anti-Semitism: German Biblical Interpretation and the Jews, from Herder and Semler to Kittel and Bultmann (Brill, 2009) has arrived. This is going to be a really good read.

Here is a listing of the volume’s parts and chapters:
Part I: Enlightenment Exegesis and the Jews
      The Jews in Enlightenment Exegesis from Deism to de Wette
      Johann Salomo Semler: Dejudaising Christianity
      Johann Gottfried Herder: The Volk Concept and the Jews
      F. D. E. Schleiermacher: Enlightenment Religion and Judaism
      W. M. L. de Wette: Judaism as Degenerated Hebraism
      Ferdinand Christian Baur: Judaism as an Historical Antipode of Christianity
      David Friedrich Strauss: Judaism in Continuity and Discontinuity with Christianity
      Albrecht Ritschl: Kulturprotestantismus and the Jews
      The History of Religions School and the Jews—An Historical Turn?

Part II: Salvation-Historical Exegesis and the Jews: From Tholuck to Schlatter
      Friedrich August Tholuck: “Salvation Comes from the Jews”
      Johann Tobias Beck: Organic Continuity Between Judaism and Christianity
      Franz Delitzsch: Pioneering Scholarship in Judaism
      Hermann Leberecht Strack: Missions to and Defence of Jews
      Adolf Schlatter and Judaism: Great Erudition and Fierce Opposition

Part III: The Form Critics and the Jews
      Karl Ludwig Schmidt: A Chosen People and a ‘Jewish Problem’
      Martin Dibelius: Ambivalence to Jews and Judaism
      Rudolf Bultmann: Liberal and Anti-Jewish

Part IV: Nazi Exegesis and the Jews
      Gerhard Kittel: Jewish Unheil Theologically Founded
      Walter Grundmann: Towards a Non-Jewish Jesus

Why is such a book important? It is only a scratching of the surface after all, and a painful kind of scratching at that. People of good will would certainly prefer to leave such distasteful matters to lie undisturbed, yes? No. The best will is the will toward openly facing the truth of a matter, and realistically dealing with the consequences. The antisemitic attitudes of several of the above-mentioned German critics and various other scholars who were working on Old and New Testament subjects need to be understood to have really and truly affected their work. We might, as an erudite friend suggested to me last night at dinner, rather ignore these antisemitic ideas of theirs as not having any direct effect upon their work, as is generally done in the case of Ezra Pound. But Ezra Pound was a poet, not working on Jewish subjects. If all his poems were on Jewish subjects, there would be parity. However, whilst these men were establishing a foundational approach to ancient Jewish literature, their opinions of the civilization that produced them were absolutely apalling; therefore, it must be admitted that their explanations of how this literature was produced reflect directly their low opinion of the abilities of the ancient Jews. It is an uncomfortable and ugly subject, but one that has been swept under the carpet for too long.

This will be a very interesting read.


  1. I’ll post some more from the Introduction later, just to dispell any misconceptions that the book is a hatchet job on German Protestantism. It’s certainly not that. But Gerdmar is looking at the role the religious exegetical traditions play in influencing these various exegetes. None of the German Protestant exegetical traditions is wholly corrupted by, though none is also wholly spotless of, antisemitism. It is perhaps surprising to some that within the salvation-historical exegetical tradition (i.e. “conservative Protestantism”) there are a number of exegetes who were favorably disposed toward Judaism, in contrast to the enlightenment exegetical tradition (“liberal Protestantism”), where the attitudes were roundly negative, with adherents even including Nazi party members (like Kittel), whose exegesis was happily suborned to the aims of the state. Ugh.

    I have noticed some overly simplistic statements in the Introduction, however, which conflate texts which have been misused for antisemitic purposes with antisemitic texts themselves, specifically the mention of the Apostle Paul’s Letter to the Romans. [UPDATE: This misreading of mine is due to the style of Gerdmar. He’ll present the opinions of whichever writer he’s dealing with in extensu, without quotation. It takes a little getting used to, but it’s really not a problem or fault, as I describe here!] A line must be drawn. Paul himself was a Jew, as was our Lord Jesus, and all the Twelve, all the Prophets and Patriarchs, and the vast majority of the original generation of Christians, and all would’ve been gassed by the demonic Hitlerian regime.

    Theologically speaking, just as the angels tremblingly wonder at the worship of human nature in the second Person of the Trinity, so His human nature is also a Jewish human nature, of the Jewish nation, the Jewish race, something that no other human nation will ever have happen. That is a great wonder, and a great gift, as well. At core, in a properly understood Christianity, antisemitism is not only impossible and heretical, but thoroughly evil in that it would kill God Himself.

  2. Oh, I meant to add, that we can hope that this book will eventually show up in a paperback edition. I’ll certainly be lobbying for that. It is certainly very expensive. If I hadn’t been waiting for exactly a book like this for at least the last ten years, I wouldn’t have bought it right away. On the other hand, the statement “I am able to resist the temptation of interesting new books” cannot be claimed to fall from these lips (or fingers!) with anything approaching honesty….

  3. We should certainly not give books written by Jews a pass on the “anti-Semitism” test; e.g., Norman Finkelstein.

    Without terming Paul an anti-Semite, I note that the account in Acts makes it clear that Paul was in sharp, angry conflict with Judaizing party in the nascent Church; and that various Protestant understandings of Paul certainly contributed to the virulent anti-Semitism of the 20th century.

    My favorite book on Paul continues to be the Norton Critical Edition of his work (both the 1st and 2nd editions are useful), for the wide selection of critical ancient and modern texts.

  4. Yes, Theophrastus, Paul’s opponents among the Judaizers were the target of some harsh, though entertaining rhetoric (which I always enjoy, as you’ve noticed!). [This in itself is an important point: those ancients trained in rhetoric didn’t take the words as of primary importance, but focused on the effect—the more insulting, the more appreciative they were. This is why Jerome and Chrysostom gained such enormous reputations as such excellent rhetors: what seem to us to be unhinged vituperations were instead rhetorical tours de force, and well-appreciated as such. The words themselves were almost irrelevant except for their emotive effect, which was the most prized element of fourth to fifth century rhetoric. The point of the rhetoric was simply the rhetoric, to score points against an adversary, certainly not to have them killed.]

    Paul’s rhetoric comes after the point that things had already been decided by the leaders of the Church (in the Acts 15 Council) that Gentile converts need only subscribe to the restrictions listed there (no eating food offered to idols, no eating blood, no eating strangled animals, no sexual immorality). In this, Paul was completely compliant with the Church Canons of the day, and the Judaizers were the disobedient ones, trying to force upon the Gentiles obedience to all of the Law, a requirement for only Israelite Christians (at least until the end of the Temple). But even so, Paul gave a little on this. He even had Timothy circumcised, though he was not required to be (Acts 16.3). So even Paul’s (and Timothy’s!) written rhetoric may be a mask for a more accomodating position.

    But also, as others have mentioned before, there is also the possibility that these Judaizers are not actually within the Christian camp at all, but sent by the Judean authorites and are simply trying to sabotage Paul’s work. (I think this was the idea in the Martyn Anchor Bible volume on Galatians, but I may have misremembered.) The tone of the rhetoric certainly might connote that these men were not of the same group as Paul, however construed, but were out and out opponents of some group “outside” of Paul’s own. Rejection of Jesus as Messiah was certainly the great separator for Paul. But perhaps there were opponents of Paul both inside and outside, which is not so unbelievable. Most strong and successful personalities tend to attract enemies both near and far.

    You write: “[V]arious Protestant understandings of Paul certainly contributed to the virulent anti-Semitism of the 20th century.” As Buckwheat would say, “And how, Spanky!” But a twentieth century Protestant understanding of Paul is not Paul himself. We need to keep the two always separate, particularly in light of the virulent Jew-hatred of Martin Luther lying at the roots of Protestantism itself, and how this hatred in fact tainted Luther’s treatment of Paul’s letters.

    I’ll have to look into the Norton Critical Editions, then, if they’re that good. I have yet to find anything on Paul that really seems to get him right. As Paul is a situational author with various coauthors, I’ve always been non-plussed by systematic treatments of “Paul’s Theology” and so on. I’ve got some other ideas on how to look at the letters, and those have been really quite fruitful. I’ll have to post on that soon.

    As a reciprocal book recommendation, I offer Stanley Stowers, Letter Writing in Greco-Roman Antiquity.

  5. Sounds interesting. I too have noticed a disturbing anti-Semitic undertone to many of the top bibliobloggers, and some of the moderated Yahoo groups as well. Most of them use the writings from the Minimalist leaders as their rationale, but underneath it you sense just plain old hatred.

  6. It really is an interesting book, Jordan. Another, focusing on just a subset of the time covered in Gerdmar’s Roots of Theological Anti-Semitism, is Susannah Heschel’s book The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany (Princeton, 2008). She focuses on the work of the Institute for the Study and Eradication of Jewish Influence on German Religious Life. Like modern-day Marcions, they rejected the Old Testament and edited a New Testament, removing it’s too-Jewish elements. Heschel’s book is much less expensive. It’s thoroughly disturbing, but should be required reading.

    I had just started reading Heschel when the Gerdmar arrived. I’ll return to Heschel after the Gerdmar. I figure the added coverage of the exegetes prior to the Nazi period will help, and the Heschel reading will then be that much more meaningful.

    One thing that strikes me, though, in the quotations from the various documents of various German antisemites presented in the Heschel book: insanity. They are incoherent. There is, I suppose, a twisted kind of conspiracy theorist logic involved, but it is not rational, and is nonsensical.

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