Through a Glass Darkly

How We Came to Blame the Jews

The Western Tradition
David Nirenberg
W. W. Norton, $35, 579 pp.

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...

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About the Author

John Connelly, author of From Enemy to Brother: The Revolution in Catholic Teaching on the Jews (Harvard), teaches history at the University of California, Berkeley.