January 4, 2006


Standing Where Moses Stood (VIRGINIA HEFFERNAN, 1/04/06, NY Times)

Traveling with an Israeli archaeologist named Avner Goren, whose Indiana Jones affect and virtuosity in the desert might lead you to wonder why this isn't his show, [Bruce] Feiler visits Mesopotamia and marvels at the possibility that the Garden of Eden wasn't filled with English roses, as he imagined it. He then becomes enchanted by a charlatan on Mount Ararat who says he has a piece of Noah's ark but won't show anyone. He also strolls around the ruins of Harran, where, according to the Bible, God instructed Abraham to go forth to the Promised Land.

The earnestness of this endeavor is so unqualified as to be almost abrasive. Mr. Feiler, despite his insight into postmodern news cycles, has a shucksy manner. Early in the program, he tells the viewer that he grew up reading the Bible - for his bar mitzvah, he learned the story of Abraham leaving his father's house - but it never dawned on him that its stories were situated in actual places. When a friend filled him in on the Dome of the Rock, Mr. Feiler says, he was awestruck: "Those stories are real? They happened in real places I can visit and feel?"

To watch such a sweetheart of a guy experience elementary revelations in the serious and fraught Holy Land is somewhat odd. But the landscape is beautiful, the stories are venerable, and, as Mr. Feiler, who deploys his gee-whizzes with great care, must know, even the sophomore's pose is not without its uses.

If you've read any of his books, the earnestness with which he seeks to reconcile the three Abrahamic religions to one another and to history is indeed his chief attraction, but his willingness to buff off or ignore hard edges in the process is indubitably his chief defect.

A Blessing unto the Nations: A review of Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western History by David Klinghoffer (Joel Schwartz, December 21, 2005, Claremont Review of Books)

American religious tolerance is now so extensive that "the practical effects of the birth of Christianity…at least in the U.S. context, [have] become both politically and culturally defunct." The differences between Jews and Christians simply don't matter very much to Americans anymore.

Nevertheless, theologically, the differences between Judaism and Christianity continue to be immense. David Klinghoffer's valuable book is intended to emphasize this simple but all-important point: Jews denied and deny that Jesus was the messiah. Why the Jews Rejected Jesus explains that denial. [...]

It is not so much the rejection of Jesus, writes Klinghoffer, as "the rejection of Paul, or rather of Paul's conception of Jesus Christ, [that] was the very turning point of Western history." Paul argued that non-Jews who accepted Jesus as their savior were freed from observing the burdensome commandments imposed on Jews, e.g., circumcision, not working on the Sabbath, dietary restrictions, and so on. In this way, belief in Jesus became incompatible with observing Jewish law, insofar as salvation now could not be obtained through keeping the commandments but only through faith in Jesus. As Paul stated in Galatians (2:21), "If righteousness could come through the law, Christ died in vain." To accept Jesus was to concede that Jewish law was obsolete, that it had been countermanded by a new covenant with God. Believing Jews, who thought that theirs was an eternal law, were unwilling to do this.

It is precisely the abandonment of Jewish law, however, that made possible Christianity's amazing success in converting pagans. In the words of Edward Gibbon, "Christianity offered itself to the world, armed with the strength of the Mosaic law, and delivered from the weight of its fetters." Christianity (like Judaism) offered "an exclusive zeal for the truth of religion, and the unity of God," but unlike Judaism, Christianity did not demand that its adherents take upon themselves a "variety of trivial though burdensome observances" that were "so many objects of disgust and aversion for…other nations."

In this context Klinghoffer argues for the world-historical significance of the Jewish rejection of Jesus and Paul. For had the Jews accepted Jesus, the Jesus movement would have remained a small Jewish sect, because belief in Jesus would have been added onto continued observance of the Jewish law, instead of justifying the abrogation of that law.

Because the commandments can be conceived as burdens, Judaism was "never designed to be a mass religion." A "Jewish" Christianity, a Christianity mandating continued observance of the commandments, "would have stood as much chance of taking hold of huge numbers of people as a church nowadays that asks all members to earn a master's degree in theology."

Had the Jews embraced Jesus, Klinghoffer plausibly argues, pagans would not have done so. Thus the creation of a Christianized Europe paradoxically depended on the Jewish rejection of Jesus. Klinghoffer declares: "If you value the great achievements of Western civilization and of American society [an outgrowth of Christianized Europe], thank the Jews for their decision to cleave to their ancestral religion instead of embracing the rival teachings of Jesus and his followers." And, one might add, thank Jesus and Paul for promulgating a monotheistic religion that civilized the West. Klinghoffer evidently rejects the Jewish sage's view that Jesus "accomplished nothing which can actually be seen."

This conclusion reminds one of Hegel's discussion of the "cunning of reason," its ability to use unlikely means to achieve world-historical ends—and perhaps also of Groucho Marx's insistence that he would join no club that was willing to admit him as a member.

Because American Judaism and Christianity are now so extraordinarily tolerant of one another, Americans tend to think in terms of a Judeo-Christian tradition that has historically united these two great monotheistic religions. But Klinghoffer's book reminds us that such a notion is radically ahistorical.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 4, 2006 12:00 AM

As far as it goes, Klinghoeffer's book is good. But it is not all that clear that the Jews did reject Jesus. There were far more Jews in the Diaspora in the first century than in Palestine, and Rodney Stark, among others, makes a convincing case that the vast majority of them would have converted to Christianity. i am not sure where he got his figures, but I recall Richard John Neuhaus stating that between the first and fourth centuries, as I recall, there was a reduction in the JEwish population of the Mediterranean area from 5 million to 1 million.

Demographic figures from this era are notoriously speculative. However, I have long lamented that there do not seem to be accessible sources on Judaism in the Diaspora in this period, the impact of the destruction of the temple, etc. We seem to jump from Second Temple Judaism to Rabinnic Judaism with a gap in between htat has attracted little attention.

Posted by: Dan at January 4, 2006 11:15 AM

I've not read Schwartz's full review, but much of his argument would be perfectly sensible for a discussion of Protestant vs. Catholic. Obviously Christianity was able to set up its own set of laws (just not the exact same ones as Judaism), or else it would not have endured for so long.

He's perfectly right, of course, that only in America does "Judeo-Christian" make any sense...

Posted by: b at January 4, 2006 11:41 AM

A substantial fraction of Christians in the Middle East joined heretical movements that seemed to emphasize God's unity and eventually submitted to Islam quite readily. It looks like they accepted Jesus but were dubious about the concept of God the Son.

Posted by: Joseph Hertzlinger at January 4, 2006 4:36 PM