Susannah Heschel’s superb book Abraham Geiger and the Jewish Jesus analyzes Abraham Geiger (1810-1874), one of the most important figures in the development of the Reform Judaism in the 19th century, in terms of his historical work on ancient Judaism and Christianity. Geiger’s work is described in post-colonial terms as a ‘counter-history’ to the dominant Christian narratives regarding Judaism, Jesus, Christianity, and modernity. This book is challenging in its clear portrayal of the theological role played by anti-Judaism within theological/historical accounts of Christian origins in the 19th century and beyond. One of Geiger’s principle goals in his scholarly work was to combat this entrenched anti-Judaism by placing Jesus firmly within Judaism rather than in opposition to it. Geiger argued that anti-Judaism played a constitutive role in most Christian accounts of the origins of Christianity and the life of Jesus. For example, he noted that Palestinian Judaism and the Pharisaic movement are almost universally disparaged. This disparagement creates for the Christian author a dark background in front of which Christianity can shine in lucid brilliance. Judaism was depicted by conservatives, liberals, and rationalists alike as legalistic, nationalistic, primitive, and depraved; “jewishness” represented dangerous tendencies of false religiosity, immorality, hypocrisy, physicality, and dishonesty. Anti-Judaism was one theological tenet on which all could agree.
The demand to place Jesus within his Jewish context and to provide an accurate depiction of the Judaisms of his time is common today. Nevertheless, it is important to understand and engage the parts of Christian history which have led us to this conclusion (and the ongoing temptation to construct typologies of Judaism in service of Christian theological aims). Heschel’s book provides a highly nuanced account of the diverse deformations of Christian theology through its accounts of Judaism. Particularly helpful for demonstrating the depth of anti-Judaism within Christianity is its place among various liberal Protestants. From Heschel’s concluding chapter:
The tenacity of the negative construction of Judaism in Christian theology was something Geiger could never accept; in a letter to a friend he wrote, ‘Ah, if only Christianity really were the religious force that it pretends to be’…the persistent hostility toward Judaism that marks liberal Protestantism has been explained by a variety of factors…but the underlying problem was the noetic structure of liberal Protestantism…Even with the sophisticated debates over dating the gospel sources and the skepticism in judging the sayings as authentic, Jesus’ inner spiritual life was retained as a legitimate category and made the basis of claims for his uniqueness. The threat perceived by liberal Protestantism was not only from conservatives, who claimed that historical method would undermine Christianity, but from a figure such as Geiger, who demanded that historical method be thoroughly applied, without the hindrances of theological commitment. Liberal Protestants were not willing to take that step…For them, the rhetoric of anti-Judaism served the crucial function of bridging the limited application of historical method and the retention of the theological category of Jesus’ uniqueness. In painting a negative picture of the religion of the Pharisees, Jesus could stand out in sharp contrast, his extraordinary nature preserved intact.
The emergence of new methods in Protestant theology during the early twentieth century only sharpened the anti-Judaism. Ritschl’s arguments in the field of church history, taken up by his disciple Adolf Harnack, left no positive role for Judaism within early Christianity; it was simply an influence to be erased…Jesus’ unique religious consciousness remained a central category throughout Protestant theology, invariably contrasted to an inferior Jewish religious mentality. Even when the study of rabbinic Judaism was taken up by some Christian academics, the results were troubling. For instance, the Strack-Billerbeck compilation of rabbinic parallels to the New Testament became a notorious example of anti-Semitism corrupting scholarship. It is striking that most of the few Christian scholars who participated in the study of rabbinic Judaism during the Weimar period became involved in producing anti-Semitic propaganda during the Third Reich (225-227).
Heschel’s account of Geiger omits most of his intra-Jewish work (the majority of his work) but it is still an excellent introduction to the basics of his thought, and it provides an outstanding account of both Geiger’s 19th century theological (and German) context and the Christian depictions of Jesus and Judaism of his time.