In this monumental and brilliantly argued intellectual history David Nirenberg asks how influential figures in the Western tradition have thought about Judaism over nearly three thousand years. What “work” have the Jews done for others seeking to make sense of their place in the cosmos? As the book’s title suggests, that work has been mostly negative, even destructive.

Though Nirenberg tells of hostility toward Judaism in ancient Egypt, it was Christianity that played the central role in generating poisonous ideas about Jews, and Nirenberg emphasizes St. Paul, who associated Judaism with the “flesh” and all that it stood for: the terrestrial, the literal, the material, the enslaved. Nirenberg knows that this flesh-spirit dichotomy has roots in Hellenistic philosophy and that Paul “did not intend his letter [to the Galatians] as an attack on Judaism.” Yet generations of Gentile Christians used this dichotomy as a means of exclusion, wielding it against Jewish communities in their midst. More fundamentally, by using Judaism to justify their existence as the “True Israel”—the realization of Jewish prophecy—Christians from the start cast Jews as exemplars of hypocrisy and Jewish claims to piety as dissimulation, a denial of genuine knowledge of the truth. Like the feigned holiness of the Pharisees in the Gospels, Jewish faithfulness was an act designed to distract others from real faith. Both Christianity and Islam depicted Jews as those who resist God, and projected “Jewish attributes”—lying, envy, enmity, greed, cowardice, materialism—as the equivalent of infections, requiring “powerful diagnostics.”

Over the centuries a worldview emerged by which virtually any menacing danger could be explained through Judaism. “Jewish duplicity and enmity,” writes Nirenberg, “would become a basic axiom” of both Islamic and Christian worldviews, with “the Jews cast as confounders of truth, master hypocrites, and even agents of the devil.” Each generation found itself building on older tropes, routinely associating Jews with legalism and materialism. Jews did not even have to be present for these ideas to continue: any time tyranny, private interest, or a focus on “flesh” over “spirit” was perceived to exist, somehow Judaism was at work. These ideas were reinforced by a tendency to channel Jews into specific economic activities, such as money-lending, and to associate them with the princes who gave them protection, making Jews a kind of “hyper-subject.” In medieval times, citizens of towns like Toulouse demanded the expulsion of Jews as a form of liberation from subjection, associating Jews with the monarch’s power.

The Enlightenment, Nirenberg explains, did not overthrow Christian ideas about Jews, but merely translated them into new terms. Obsessive concern about the “Jewishness” of persons or policies accompanied Europeans into the seventeenth century and beyond. Nirenberg catalogues the manifold uses to which the French philosophes put Judaism in constructing their worldview; demonstrates that such major figures as Locke and Kant deployed Jews negatively in fashioning their arguments on tolerance and freedom; and discovers that such idealist and romantic philosophers as Hegel, Heine, and Fichte all looked upon Judaism as a problem to be overcome. Nirenberg then makes a huge leap to the early twentieth century and to debates among German philosophers who stigmatized all abstract, logical, or supposedly hyperrational thought as “Jewish.” During the 1920s this stigmatizing tendency stretched across academic disciplines, involving not only racialized biology but also mathematics and physics. Nirenberg makes clear that the long history of thinking he traces did not “cause” the Holocaust. The worldview he describes was “broadly shared,” he points out, which may explain “why the Germans found so many willing collaborators for their projects of extermination in many of the lands they occupied.” But he states, convincingly I think, that without this history of thought the Holocaust would have been inconceivable.

Nirenberg is not interested simply in hatred. The subject is vaster than that. His massive research across a wide range of sources—some of them in Arabic—makes clear that anti-Judaism was not simply bigotry, but rather a consuming concern, shaping how we think about questions deep and mundane. No one has demonstrated with such penetrating focus the extent to which ideas about Jews have filtered into every crack of thought we call Western. Yet basic contours of this plot will seem familiar to those versed in the literature; scholars such as Leon Poliakov, Abraham Sachar, and Robert Wistrich have told how theological ideas were translated into ever new forms of contempt over the ages.


WHY DID THIS CONTEMPT focus on the Jews? How could a tiny minority “come to represent for so many the evolving evils of the capitalist world order?” With inspiration from Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Nirenberg writes that “the liquidation of the Jews of Europe was not grounded in ‘reality.’ It took place in the vast gap between an explanatory framework (anti-Semitism) that made satisfying sense of the world to a significant portion of its citizens, and the complexity of the world itself.” This explanatory framework gave people “cognitive comfort.” Yet why people adopt one such framework and not another is a mystery.

The purpose of Nirenberg’s book is moral: to “encourage reflection about our ‘projective behavior,’ that is, about the ways in which our deployment of concepts into and onto the world might generate ‘pathological’ fantasies of Judaism.” But why would a person in the grip of fantasy turn to a work of scholarship? And what exactly does it mean to examine one’s “explanatory framework”? If such a thing exists, how does one get outside it to scrutinize it? This is especially challenging when such a framework is grounded in sacred texts—which for believers are divinely inspired.

Compounding these difficulties is the author’s skepticism about his own field. Despite (or perhaps because of) his decades of work as a historian, Nirenberg has little faith in the powers of historical explanation. Though he analyzes ideas expressed by intellectuals over many centuries, he cautions readers wondering how “the ideas of these thinkers influenced and were influenced by the ideologies of their age” to “remember that these questions are in some sense unanswerable even at the level of an individual, let alone a complex society of tens of millions.” To make his case Nirenberg takes us to an evident mystery: what motivated a man such as Joseph Goebbels, taught in his youth by Catholic priests*, to become Hitler’s propaganda minister, a man deeply complicit in genocide? In a provocative passage, Nirenberg asserts that the directive to burn “un-German” books in 1934—an event marking, in the words of Goebbels, the end of an “age of rampant Jewish intellectualism”—had some connection to the Gospels, which according to Nirenberg “characterize Jewish sects like the Pharisees as desiring empty wisdom and striving for reputation and titles, and indeed condemn the Jewish ‘scribbling classes’ more generally: ‘I bless you father...for hiding these things from the learned and clever and revealing them to little children’” (Matthew 11: 25).

Yet here we encounter a problem of method. It is one thing to depict how the Gospels have been read, another to make claims about what they actually say. In fact the canonical Gospels do not denigrate “Jewish scribbling classes.” True, Jesus is depicted as having heaped scorn on hypocrites, Pharisees, and scribes; but he and his followers were as Jewish as the scribes and Pharisees. Indeed the entire world in which Jesus operated was Jewish. It is therefore inaccurate to claim, as Nirenberg does, that Jesus and Paul presented their truths as “both a fulfillment and an overcoming of Judaism.” Although that is indeed how the relationship between Christianity and Judaism was understood by Christians for almost two millennia, a careful reading of the New Testament (especially in the shadow of the Holocaust) shows that neither Jesus nor Paul considered their missions in such terms. The passage from Matthew cited by Nirenberg makes no reference to Jews or Pharisees, but rather reflects on the mysterious ways in which the Father makes wisdom known to humanity. It is also inaccurate to accuse the synoptics of the “alignment of figures of Judaism with Satan.” Matthew, for instance, mentions Satan three times, and the only Jew Matthew’s Jesus associates Satan with is Peter. Are we to understand Christ’s invectives against his Jewish disciples as anti-Judaic?

Nirenberg reads the synoptics through the anti-Judaic lenses used by Gentile Christians of later generations, who assumed for example that Christ’s invectives against the Pharisees in Matthew 23 are a reproach of Israel. The unfortunate result of this method is to make Jesus anti-Judaic.

Nirenberg’s reading of Paul’s epistles raises questions along similar lines. He makes much of Galatians 2:14, a passage in which Paul reprimands his fellow Jew Cephas for the hypocrisy of having shared table with gentiles yet then (under the influence of James) requiring that gentiles follow Jewish customs. “Follow Jewish customs” is the English equivalent of the Greek verb ἰουδαΐζω (which Nirenberg translates as “Judaize”). Citing no evidence, Nirenberg writes that Paul had “coined” this word “to describe slippage from the saving to the killing side of his table of antimonies.” Whether or not Paul coined “Judaize” (Nirenberg himself shows it was used in the Septuagint) he never used it again, and in Galatians he did not use the word to negative effect. Any reader of this fragment can easily discern that Paul is criticizing hypocrisy and not Jews or Judaism. Nirenberg absolves Paul of condemning “observance of Jewish law” by Jews, yet later he associates Paul (with Jerome, Luther, and Marx) with the view that Judaism and Judaizing constitute a “danger.” However, readers of the Pauline letters will find no instance where the apostle projects Judaism in such terms.

The point here is not to dispute that Paul propagated harmful antimonies (none more so than the idea that Israel of the spirit stood against Israel of the flesh). The point is that Christian Scripture is troubling enough without being saddled with additional problems, especially in a time when general knowledge of that Scripture is reaching new lows. Encountering Nirenberg’s claim that Martin Luther in 1532 was “presumably inspired” by Matthew 18:6 when he announced, outrageously, that if asked to baptize a Jew, he would put a millstone around that Jew’s neck and push him from a bridge into the Elbe river, a reader not knowledgeable of Matthew might assume that Christ spoke of throwing Jews into water. At another point Nirenberg says that the “Gospels use Jewish enmity to narrate the life and death of Jesus.” That is true of John but not the synoptics.

Having scrutinized hundreds of years of rhetorical abuse of Jews by Christians, Nirenberg knows that Christianity has authorized many different attitudes toward Judaism. At a talk I attended in Berkeley, Nirenberg noted that all three Abrahamic traditions have the potential to produce intolerance; the crucial question is the context within which they are used—context as synonym for “explanatory framework,” “cognitive frame,” “habits of thought,” or “worldview,” things people put on or take off for reasons that are beyond the concern of intellectual historians. The example he gave of Christianity’s potential to produce intolerance was Luke 19:27, which features the following: “But as for the enemies of mine who did not want me for their king, bring them here and slaughter them in my presence.”

After the talk I rushed home and ascertained that these words were in fact not a directive of Christ to anyone. The words of the “king” appeared in a parable. Nirenberg acknowledges this in his book, but issues a caution. “Since these words appear in a parable, many modern readers prefer to separate them from Jesus,” yet “some ancient ones understood them as instructions, and applied them to the Jews.” But are not modern readers—that is, the readers or our day—in a better position to interpret Scripture than those of earlier generations? Nirenberg is skeptical. How, he asks, can we tell “whether we are being adequately reflective in our ‘projective behavior?’” He laments the “difficulty” of finding a “platform for perspective.”

Roman Catholic readers will object that they have a secure platform for perspective on Christian-Jewish relations, namely the interpretation authorized at the Second Vatican Council, where the church refuted the idea that Jews were simply “Israel of the flesh,” along with better known and arguably more destructive elements of theological anti-Judaism. Chapter 4 of Nostra aetate speaks of the Jews as “Stock of Abraham,” making clear that the historical Jewish people is the Israel that Paul speaks of in Romans 9–11, toward whom the promises of God remain in force. Again echoing St. Paul in Romans, Nostra aetate says that God holds the Jews “most dear.”

These are teachings one does not have to take on faith alone, or out of respect for the magisterium. They reflect a consensus that has grown among theologians of many backgrounds about new readings of any number of New Testament texts. Take, for example, the growing agreement that the parable of the wicked vintners in Matthew 21 does not signal a transfer of promises from the people of Israel to another nation, but rather from the leaders with whom Jesus conducted his polemic. There is no need to identify these leaders with the whole Jewish people; simple logic tells us that criticism of an elite does not imply criticism of an entire people. Recent interpretations also show that Paul, despite his argument with other Jewish Christians about circumcision and dietary habits, remained faithful to the Torah, and held it appropriate for other Jews to do so as well.

This turn from anti-Judaism emerged from something not possible before World War II—a dialogue of Christians with the other—and reflects decades of conversations between Christians and Jews in which both sides have shaped the emerging Christian view. The Catholic view is Catholic but not simply Catholic. One intellectual who rejected any imputation of anti-Judaism to Jesus was the French-Jewish historian Jules Isaac, who lost his wife and daughter in the Holocaust, and while in hiding from the Nazis wrote Jesus and Israel, a deeply engaged study showing that anti-Judaic readings of the New Testament were not necessary. Looking at the Gospels he ascertained that “with rare exceptions, wherever Jesus went the Jewish people took him to their hearts”—and Jesus, he wrote further, heaped “signs of love and compassion on them in return.” Nothing could contrast more starkly to Nirenberg’s belief that the Gospels “represent Jewish resistance to Jesus.” On Christ’s polemic with the Pharisees—which Nirenberg takes as essentially anti-Judaic—Isaac wrote as follows:

Christ is said to have pronounced a sentence of condemnation and alienation on the Jewish people. But why, in contradiction of his own Gospel of love and forgiveness, should he have condemned his own people, the only people to whom he chose to speak—his own people, among whom he found not only bitter enemies but fervent disciples and adoring followers? We have every reason to believe that the real object of his condemnation is the real subject of guilt, a certain pharisaism to be found in all times and in all peoples, in every religion and in every church.

Nirenberg is a medievalist, but his intuition that scriptural texts are read according to context is shaped inevitably by a modern reality—namely, that scholars read these texts in the shadow of the Holocaust. That is far from saying that new readings are merely a “matter of preference.” As the Yale theologian John Gager and others have argued, our current context shows that earlier readings were not only unnecessary, but that they were wrong.


WHICH BRINGS US BACK to the question of whether scholars operating in a secular context can possibly reach out to—and convince—people of belief on questions grounded in revelation. Before such an outreach begins, those attempting it should clear away one common misconception about religion: that it necessarily involves a jump from reason to blind faith. The striking thing about refutations of supposed New Testament anti-Judaism is how securely they are based in carefully reasoned argument proceeding from critical-historical analysis that was not possible in the premodern period (indeed for Catholic exegetes it was forbidden until the 1940s). Such analyses have brought us to an awareness that anti-Judaism was produced by the interests and uncritical assumptions of previous ages. One does not need to be an adherent of any faith tradition to accede to this. Regardless of their background, historians can ascertain movement in the history of theological ideas, just as they might in economic thought. And just as virtually no serious economist today would invoke ideas from the 1920s to fight recession, so no one today need treat approaches to Matthew or Paul from earlier centuries as equal to readings of our own day. Sometimes humans learn from the past—even intellectuals.

Progress in ideas is always questionable, and there can be reversals. Beyond the question of whether any particular intellectual is secular or religious lies the crucial and more interesting one of whether he or she is engaged with the moral concerns of the modern world. David Nirenberg is certainly that. Putting aside all the methodological doubts that plague the social sciences in our day, one can safely assert, as he does, that the sources of anti-Semitism originally lie in theological ideas. What theologians have taught us is that anti-Judaic readings grew out of a cognitive framework we call supersessionism, the belief that Christianity had displaced Judaism and become the New Israel. In the shadow of the Holocaust we recognize such a view not only as unnecessary—not generated by the texts—but mistaken.

Still, Nirenberg’s timely, erudite, and coolly passionate intervention cautions against complacency. The recent row over Pope Benedict’s Good Friday Prayer for the Jews reminds us that the history of Christian anti-Judaism has deep, still vital sources, and that Christian triumphalism remains a temptation: even one of our time’s leading theologians did not see the contradiction between praying that Jews “acknowledge Jesus Christ is the Savior of all men” and the teaching of Vatican II. Nineteen centuries of supersessionism were not simply a “misunderstanding” that can now be comfortably forgotten, and the newly authoritative church teaching is not a definitive, final word but rather a set of ideas to be actively contemplated and widely taught.

*Updated October 7, 2013; the sentence originally read that Goebbels was educated by Jesuits, but there is no historical evidence he received his Catholic education specifically from Jesuits. 

John Connelly teaches the history of East Central Europe at the University of California, Berkeley, and is the author of From Peoples into Nations: A History of Eastern Europe (Princeton, 2020).

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Published in the September 27, 2013 issue: View Contents
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