Reviews of

Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition

In Anti-Judaism, David NIRENBERG, Rebekah Devine, W.W. Norton on February 25, 2015 at 5:55 pm


2015.02.06 | David Nirenberg. Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition. New York: W. W. Norton & Company: 2014. pp. 610. ISBN: 9780393347913.

Reviewed by Rebekah M. Devine, Wheaton College.

Many thanks to W.W. Norton for providing a review copy.

David Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition is self-avowedly a history of thought (p. 7), a history that seeks to demonstrate how the idea of the ‘Jew’ has been used as a derogatory shorthand for anyone who is ‘other.’ To use the example from the epigraph to the book, why is it that the 17th century English poet George Herbert can write that anyone who loves “this world’s delights before true Christian joy” has made a “Jewish choice”? How is it that Jews, Jewishness, and Judaism have become, in the history of Western Tradition, shorthand for all manner of “sins” like small-mindedness and greed?

As Nirenberg concedes in the introduction, the three thousand year scope of his investigation will be problematic for some historians. He begins with a study of how ancient Egypt spoke about Jews and Judaism and moves through Early Christianity, Islam, Medieval Europe, the Spanish Inquisition, the Protestant Reformation, and concludes with several chapters on specific places and events from the Reformation up to modernity. Anti-Judaism does not purport to be a history of origins nor does it claim that the way people spoke about Jews reflects real interactions between Jews and non-Jews throughout history. This study is a quest for ideology.

To use the language of theater, how were the terms ‘Jews’ and ‘Judaism’ used to denote specific types of characters in the Western imagination? This question becomes quite literal in chapter eight, where Nirenberg explores “acting Jewish” in Shakespeare’s England. Contrary to a school of Shakespeare criticism associated with Sidney Lee, Lucien Wolf, and James Shapiro, Nirenberg argues that the quest to excavate “real Jews” as the context for The Merchant of Venice is misguided because Christian anxieties about Judaism in Elizabethan England did not depend on the existence of or interaction with actual Jews (p. 271-272).

Anti-Judaism does not offer an exhaustive chronological view of the development of ‘anti-Judaism,’ but a series of snapshots that hint at and beg for a wider context yet to be unearthed. Some of these snapshots will not surprise specialists in New Testament and Early Christianity. Proponents of the New Perspective, for example, will hardly be surprised by the claim in the chapter on the Reformation that Luther reinvented first century Judaism in the image of the contemporary Catholic Church, pitting Jewish law against Christian gospel. NT scholars will also not be astonished by Nirenberg’s assessment of Paul and the Gospel writers, though some might take issue with the line he draws between Pauline Christianity and the Christianity of the Gospel writers. He argues that, although Paul did not imagine that Jesus-followers could or should sever their ties with Judaism, Paul’s explanation of why some Jews were “cut off” from the community of God created a language of contraries and opposites that would be used by later writers to stigmatize Judaism as the antithesis of Christianity (pp. 60-66). The Synoptics, he argues, begin to do just that, setting up the Sadducees and Pharisees as “professors” of the old school of Judaism opposed to Jesus’ new school (p. 83).

The chapter on the Early Church addresses how the Church made sense of the world in Jewish terms. It opens with a brief discussion of extracanonical texts like the Didache to show that Early Christianity was rife with disagreement, and the canonical gospels and many early Christians considered those who taught unorthodox doctrine to be ‘anti-Christs’ and the like (p. 91). The relative ‘Jewishness’ of a teaching came to represent its truth or falsehood. From Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho, a Jew, which accuses Jews of being the Christian’s worst enemies (p. 92), to Ambrose’s accusations against Emperor Maximus of “becoming a Jew” (p. 118), Nirenberg gives examples of anti-Jewish polemics and argues that these are not based in conflicts with real Jews or Judaizing Christians (p. 100). He cites Augustine as a noteworthy exception to this trend. Because of Augustine’s insistence on the literal truth of scripture, he embraced beliefs that the allegorists found problematic, namely, the Jewishness of Paul and the validity of Jewish observances (p. 126-127).

For scholars whose primary area of study is the fifth century C.E. or earlier, the section on Jewish enmity in Islam both intrigues and raises questions. Nirenberg’s approach parallels that of previous chapters, but here looks at how ‘Jews’ and ‘Judaism’ were used in the Quran and Islamic tradition. He begins with the story of Bahira, the sixth century Christian monk of Syrian Busra whom Islamic tradition espouses as the one who foretold to young Muhammad his future as a prophet. When Bahira reveals his visions of Muhammad’s future, he warns the boy’s uncle to guard him from the Jews, lest they do him evil (p. 135-137). Nirenberg does not suggest that this story depicts the point at which Christianity’s anti-Jewish language sowed its seeds in Islam, but uses this anecdote as a springboard for discussing the ways in which anti-Jewish polemic was constructed in the traditions of Islam.

In the chapter on Medieval Europe, Nirenberg cites a story called “The Revenge of the Savior” as an illustration of medieval ideals about the proper behavior of rulers toward Jews. The story, told in various forms, goes that God afflicted Emperor Vespasian with illness and sent Saint Veronica to cure him in the name of Christ. This miracle convinced Vespasian to conquer Jerusalem in 70 C.E. as punishment for the Jews’ crucifixion of Jesus (p. 187). In the medieval versions, Vespasian sells many conquered Jews, but keeps some captive for himself, and they are banished to wander throughout Europe, albeit under Vespasian’s protection. Vespasian’s behavior, Nirenberg argues, presents two disparate ideals. On the one hand, the emperor is God’s delegated exterminator of the Jews, but on the other hand, he is the protector of the Jews, as God guarded Cain in exile (p. 187).

The succeeding chapter also deals with Medieval Europe, but focuses attention on Spain and the massacres of Jews on the Iberian Peninsula in 1391. Following this and the chapters on the Reformation and Elizabethan England, respectively, Nirenberg examines how the “wars of religion” unleashed by the Reformation and Counter-Reformation deployed Judaism, and then turns to how the vocabulary of Judaism was used during the English Civil Wars. He discusses Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan as an example of how ‘Israel’ could be foundational to modern political thought. That last few chapters are devoted to the Enlightenment (with particular attention to the writings of Spinoza), the French Revolution, and the struggle with ‘Judaism’ in the works of philosophers like Kant, Hegel, and Heine.

Like any history of thought, particularly one that covers such an expansive time-frame , Anti-Judaism runs the risk of false continuities. At the same time, it is part of the historian’s job to propose continuities, to tease out the patterns she sees in history and have those patterns challenged, nuanced, and revised by others. Nirenberg has provided an eloquent framework based in close readings of a broad, but limited, range of texts. What remains is for specialists in each area examined by Anti-Judaism to revisit Nirenberg’s ideas and see if similar patterns emerge under closer scrutiny.

Rebekah M. Devine
Wheaton College
[ at ]


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