What is Christian anti-Judaism?

Brandon points out in a comment to this post that I haven’t really defined what Williamson means by “anti-Judaism.” So here goes. First, it’s distinguishable from, though obviously related to, anti-Semitism. Anti-Judaism refers more broadly to the notion that Christianity is superior to, completes, and/or replaces Judaism as an ongoing religious enterprise. Williamson’s argument is that Christian doctrine and practice have been shaped, in pretty fundamental ways, by this binary view of Christianity: good/Judaism: bad.

Here are some quotes to fill out the details:

As Rosemary Ruether analyzes the anti-Jewish ideology of the church, it turns upon two major themes: rejection/election and inferiority/superiority. According to the first, in rejecting Jesus Christ the Jews are rejected by God, and in accepting Jesus Christ the Gentiles are elected. The price of the election of the Gentiles is the rejection of the Jews. Gentile believers displace them in the economy of salvation and in God’s favor. This motif pays a lot of attention to the “two peoples” allegory, the elder/younger brother stories in the Bible, and the claim that Jewish history is a “trail of crimes” culminating in deicide. According to the second theme, everything about Jewish faith and life is inferior to Christian faith and life, which is, in all respects, better. Christian ethics, worship, and biblical interpretation improve upon Jewish “law,” worship, and exegesis. The Christian way of doing things “fulfills” biblical promises, which Jews, being blind to the meaning of their own scriptures, misunderstand. Only Christians can rightly interpret the Hebrew Bible, which they make over into an “Old Testament.” Jews fail to recognize that their covenant has been superseded and continue to presume patently invalid modes of commitment to it. (Guest in the House of Israel, pp. 4-5)

He continues:

David P. Efroymson’s somewhat different analysis looks upon anti-Judaism as a double-edged model, a model of and a model for. First, it is a model of Judaism, on which Judaism is a system and Jews a people “rejected by God, unfaithful to God, opposed to Christianity, and caught up in the crimes appropriate to their carnality, hardness, blindness, and vetustas [obdurate commitment to what is past and gone, oldness].” Jews are a people of oldness, Judaism a religion of oldness. On the same model, Christians, by contrast, are “a people and a system of newness, of fidelity, of spirituality, of moral vigor, and of universality.” At the same time, anti Judaism is a model for how Christians are to be Christians. It is [quoting Elfroymson]

a model for action, for acting “ethically,” for praying or worshiping “spiritually,” for reading the Bible accurately–all in specific and clearly focused distinction from the Jewish way of acting, praying, and of reading the Bible.

If we ask what Christianity is, the anti-Jewish answer is: everything new, good, spiritual, and universal that the old, bad, carnal, and ethnocentric Jews can never be. (p. 5)

This isn’t just being critical of Judaism, it’s defining essential features of Christianity in terms of its opposition to Judaism. As Williamson says:

Every Christian doctrine can be and was interpreted through the lens of this anti-Jewish hermeneutic. God is the God who displaces Jews and replaces them with Christians. Christ is the mediator on behalf of Christians who cuts a displacement deal with God. The church is the replacement people who displace Jews in the covenant. The covenant is a new covenant, replacing the old. The scriptures and their interpretation warrant these understandings. (p. 5)

Obviously, Williamson doesn’t think that Christianity is irredeemably anti-Jewish (he’s a Christian theologian, after all). What he’s contending is that anti-Judaism has been a pervasive influence on Christian teaching and practice for the better part of its history. And the result has been, directly, a distorted view of what Judaism is (Williamson points out that Judaism is just as capable of talking about God’s grace as Christianity is, for instance), and, indirectly, centuries of Christian persecution of Jews.

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7 thoughts on “What is Christian anti-Judaism?

  1. It’s a little hard to tell from excerpts this short, but if Williamson’s main motivation here is something like, “Christians’ treatment of Jews has mostly been bad, therefore we need to root out the reasons Christians don’t like Judaism,” then this seems to be evading the real question, which is how Christians generally treat people who reject their religion. In particular, if he targets supersessionism as the villain — which this sounds like — then he might be inadvertently building up Christian anti-Islam sentiment, since Islam is supposed to supersede both Judaism and Christianity. If you take it as a given that such disagreements lead to violence, we’ve actually got a much bigger problem than just Christian-Jewish relations.

  2. Wow, I’m gobsmacked at that comment! No Christian in the West that I can think of would ever make the “Islam supercedes Christianity” connection; it hasn’t ever been a point of contention as it always has been in Christian-Jewish relations. Islam came 7 centuries after Christianity and its original followers were not Christian, so there’s no parallel history of any sort.

    Anyway, cause and effect are backwards. The point is, clearly, that “Christians have treated Jews poorly” – and if “supercessionism” is the reason, then when you extrapolate to Islam, the question would have to be “how Muslims treat those who reject their religion.”

  3. Well, maybe it hasn’t been a big part of Western thinking about Islam, but I think that’s just because Westerners haven’t had a lot of contact with Islam until relatively recently. No, the first Muslims were not Christian, but they adopted Jesus and much of Jewish scripture and asserted they were correcting previous erroneous interpretations through the revelations of a new prophet. So in that sense they were basically parallel to gentile Christians, who, as we know, were a large factor in Christianity almost from the start. Also, it’s worth nothing that much of the middle east and north Africa were Christian when Muslims conquered them, so from early on a lot of Muslims were in fact former Christians.

    As to the second point, yes this is a question of how Muslims treat those who reject their religion, but that itself relates to how Christians regard them. Certainly in all the online debate about the building in New York, some people have come out saying that Islam’s beliefs inevitably lead them to want to destroy us, and so the religion itself is our enemy. The idea that supersessionism leads to violence actually supports that view, which is the point I was trying to make. If, however, that isn’t invariably true of Islam, then it shouldn’t be invariably true of Christianity either.

  4. Williamson isn’t critiquing religious exclusivism in general (though one might extend his thought in that direction). His argument is that Christianity has a very specific relationship to Jews and Judaism–one that is characterized in part by its own self-definition over against Judaism and which has also involved considerable distortion of the nature of Judaism.

    More particularly, he is critiquing the long-standing and common Christian assumption that Judaism should properly have ceased to exist as an ongoing religious movement in the first century but didn’t because “the Jews rejected Jesus.” He is calling for a re-thinking of Christian theology in light of the fact that the Israel of God has continued to exist as a living religious community related to the God of Israel independently of the mediation of the Christian church.

    To the extent that Islam claims to supersede (in the sense of replace or put out of business) all other religious traditions, I think he would be critical of Islam. (I personally don’t know if that’s the “normative” Islamic view, or if we’re even able to talk in those terms.) But that’s no different from what any Christian theologian would say, presumably.

  5. Well, maybe it hasn’t been a big part of Western thinking about Islam, but I think that’s just because Westerners haven’t had a lot of contact with Islam until relatively recently.

    But this is my point exactly. Both Christians and Westerners (and those today who are both) have had continual contact with Jews for two thousand years – including from the very start, when Christianity was a subset of Judaism at least in some locations – and during that time many in the Church have written and spoken about this relationship. The question, specifically, is: how have Christian attitudes towards Jews been or become anti-Judiac (and then perhaps anti-Semitic)? Why has this happened, and is it something that can be changed for the better?

    I can’t quite figure out why Muslims are now part of the conversation, because there seems to me to be no connection.

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  7. fantastic post, very informative. I’m wondering why the other experts of this sector don’t notice this. You should continue your writing. I am sure, you have a huge readers’ base already!

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