The Anti-Jewish Problem

David Nirenberg has set out to investigate the way in which “‘Jewish questions’ have shaped the history of thought.” His book is not, then, a study of historical anti-Semitism, though, of course, that dark topic is its necessary backdrop. “Judaism” is, in Nirenberg’s terms, “not only the religion of specific people with specific beliefs, but also a category, a set of ideas and attitudes with which non-Jews can make sense of and criticize their world.” Thus, the anti-Judaism of his book’s title is not only, or even primarily, about actual Jews and Judaism; it is about the conceptual building blocks of the Western tradition (taken broadly to include Islam). Nirenberg frames his sweeping study as “an argument for the vital role that the history of ideas can play in making us aware of how the past uses of the concepts we think with can constrain our own thought.”

The example of Karl Marx and his famous discussion of the “Jewish Question” (Judenfrage) is, for Nirenberg, illustrative. As he argues, Marx described Judaism not as a religion, but as the pursuit of money and property, which, in turn, produced “an attitude of spiritual slavery and alienation from the world.” To the degree that Christians pursue property, they too are “Jews,” and, therefore, to truly emancipate Jews and others from their political and existential bondage, capitalism—that is to say, Judaism—must be overcome. Until then, Marx says, Christian society “will continue to produce Judaism out of its own entrails.”

But Marx was far from the first for whom “Judaism” marked a negative conceptual/religious position that could be employed for social, economic, political, and religious goals. For two thousand years or more, thinkers had continually refashioned such conceptualizations creating an enormously powerful mythic representation of Judaism—one to which Marx was both consciously and unconsciously indebted, and one that had enormous consequences for real Jews (including Marx). Nirenberg writes:

Anti-Judaism should not be understood as some archaic or irrational closet in the vast edifices of Western thought. It was rather one of the basic tools with which that edifice was constructed.

Nirenberg’s book is a history of how individuals and groups have imagined and re-imagined Judaism for their own purposes.


Nirenberg begins his narrative in ancient Egypt with Hecataeus of Abdera, who was among the first generation of Greeks to travel in Egypt after Alexander’s conquest. In 320 B.C.E., he wrote a history of the land that turned the biblical story of the Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt inside out. In this version, the Jews were a pestilential menace who had to be driven out of Egypt. Hecataeus’ version was later retold by an Egyptian priest named Manetho in the early 3rd century B.C.E. Nirenberg goes on from these polemical counter-histories to describe the much-later 1st-century C.E. assault on Jews by Apion and an Egyptian mob and the hapless Jewish appeal to Caligula. As the philosopher Philo of Alexandria later described it, the mad emperor questioned them mockingly, interrupting their answers with instructions to his decorators about where to hang the pictures. “Fortunately (from Philo’s point of view),” Nirenberg drily remarks, “Caligula was assassinated before he could decide the case,” and his successor Claudius was more forgiving.

Nirenberg concludes that criticism leveled against the Jews in Hellenistic Egypt and the violence against them in Alexandria (and elsewhere in Egypt) was an exercise in scapegoating. The Egyptians’ real grievance was against Roman domination, but Jews were a convenient target. They “assigned to the Jews a . . . largely . . . negative role in how they imagined the fate of their kingdom” and began to attribute to them “misanthropy, impiety, lawlessness, and universal enmity.” This reading of ancient Egyptian history is interesting, but it probably goes too far. There is, indeed, anti-Judaism in the Egyptian and Hellenistic authors Nirenberg discusses, but their writings do not justify his conclusions with regard to the centrality of anti-Judaism in Egyptian culture during more than five hundred years of history. It is true, as Nirenberg writes, that the introduction of the “inverse Exodus” stories into a Greek source “gave them new reach,” but to what degree did such stories, repeated in Greek and Egyptian authors from 200 B.C.E. onward, actually influence the anti-Jewish rioters in Alexandria? The causal links are largely missing.

Nor are Nirenberg’s large claims with regard to the enduring impact of Hecataeus and Manetho supported by the extant library of classical literature. Indeed, one almost never finds Hecataeus cited by Christian authors, and Manetho is never cited by them, nor by any Greek or Roman historian as far as I know. In fact, in the centuries after the riots in Alexandria in 38 C.E., this earlier form of anti-Jewish xenophobic prejudice—what the Greeks called amixia—gave way almost completely to the new, theologically saturated themes of Christian anti-Judaism. Many individuals in Hellenistic Egypt, as well as Rome, did hate Jews, but I doubt they feared their power and influence in the way that Nirenberg suggests. He appears to be reading the ancient past through the prism of modern prejudice.


Nirenberg’s thesis is more properly grounded, as he fully appreciates, in the New Testament, especially Paul’s Epistles and the writings of the Church Fathers. Paul really is an authentic pillar of the tradition of anti-Judaism with which Nirenberg is concerned. Moreover, the reading and teaching of Pauline texts has been central to the continued propagation of anti-Judaism through the centuries. As Nirenberg writes with regard to the Epistle to the Galatians, Paul held that:

The Mosaic law and the Jewish people and polity that possess it . . . are not the heirs of God’s promise to Abraham, but are condemned as “of the flesh,” sentenced to slavery and exile . . . terrestrial Jerusalem is to be cast out, replaced by the spiritual Jerusalem, set free by faith in Jesus.

This is quite right, but Nirenberg goes on to soften Paul’s position in ways that are questionable. “To the extent that Jews refused to surrender their ancestors, their lineage, and their scripture,” he understands Paul to be saying, “they could become emblematic of the particular, of stubborn adherence to the conditions of the flesh, enemies of the spirit, and of God. I say ‘could become’ because it is not clear that Paul intended to cast them as such” (my italics). In addition, he tells us that:

Paul the Pharisee, writing before the destruction of Jerusalem and before the predominance of gentiles in the church, had never aligned the Jews with Satan, nor opposed their world of Temple and covenant to God’s. He never declared the mission to them closed nor lost sight of their reacceptance, though he conditioned that acceptance on their conversion to Christ. Finally, he never rejected the practice of Jewish law and ritual by Jewish believers in Christ.

St. Paul preaching to the Jews in the synagogue at Damascus.
St. Paul preaching to the Jews in the synagogue at Damascus. Byzantine mosaic, late 12th century, Duomo, Monreale, Italy. (©Bridgeman-Giraudon / Art Resource, NY.)

Paul’s texts are notoriously difficult, but I think the traditional readings, though more troubling, are better construals of Pauline teaching in its totality. The “New Perspectives” approach (a term coined by the English New Testament scholar James D.G. Dunn), which Nirenberg follows here, may be laudable as post-Holocaust apologetics, but it remains unconvincing as textual exegesis. Nirenberg himself seems to recognize this when he refers to Paul as having thought that “misplaced attention to the word of law, letter, and flesh [i.e., Judaism] was exceedingly, even lethally, dangerous.”

The root of Paul’s fundamental critique is that by works of the law (i.e., Judaism), no one shall be justified. “If justification were through the law,” he preaches in Galatians, “the Christ died in vain . . . For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse.” (Gal. 3:10-14) This severe criticism certainly refers to Jews rather than Gentiles or, as Nirenberg at one point suggests, “gentile converts.” In Paul’s understanding, Judaism, with its regimen of commandments, does not lead to God but away from Him. To uphold the Torah is to be entombed in the flesh. And this conclusion is metaphysically inescapable for the law is of no positive import, “For no human being will be justified in his [God’s] sight by works of the law, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” (Romans 3:20) Judaism, Jewish law, Torah, Israel’s covenant with God, are all, according to Paul, “a dispensation of death, carved in letters of stone . . . a dispensation of condemnation . . . which fadeth away.” (2 Cor. 3:6-11) This is Paul’s radical, fateful indictment of Judaism. Nirenberg’s cautious rendition of Paul’s message is not the kind of local error of interpretation that is inevitable in any sweeping, synthetic history. Unlike the exaggeration of ancient Egyptian anti-Judaism, it is an error that distorts his narrative. For it is with Paul that the uncompromising alternation between a “Judaic” worldview and an “anti-Judaic” one becomes central to the Western intellectual tradition.

If Nirenberg is too generous in his interpretation of Paul, he is judicious in his account of the depiction of the Jews in the Gospels, especially Matthew. The idea that the new covenant of Christianity has definitively succeeded the old one of Judaism is, as Nirenberg makes clear, the cardinal source, along with Paul, of later Christian anti-Judaism. Having committed the heinous crime of deicide, only sincere acceptance of Christ’s passion can atone for Israel’s sin. Although this basic and irreconcilable opposition remains shocking, it should not surprise us. In the competition that took place between Judaism and nascent Christianity, only one interpretation of divine revelation could be correct. Judaism had to be wrong for Christianity to be. Anti-Judaism was the required negative core of classic Christian theology.

Among the Fathers of the “Early Church” this understanding deepened and hardened. Indeed, intra-Christian conflict, such as that between Marcion and Justin Martyr, often came down to a competition as to who could be “less Jewish” than his “Judaizing” opponent. There is one major and decisive deviation from this trend that must be mentioned, namely Augustine’s understanding of the relationship between Judaism and Christianity, and between Jews and Christians. As Nirenberg carefully explains, Augustine saw in Jewish survival the witness of unbelief. Using the biblical paradigm of Cain and Abel, with Jews identified with the former and Jesus with the latter, he quoted Psalm 59:11: “Slay them not, lest my people forget, but scatter them in Your might.” In their continued misery and dispersion, Jews testified to the truth of Christianity. This essentially became the normative position of the Catholic Church. Seven centuries after Augustine, Bernard of Clairvaux protected local Jews from marauding crusaders by admonishing them “whosoever touches a Jew to take his life is like one who harms Jesus himself . . . for it is written of them ‘Slay them not.’” In a cautious conclusion, Nirenberg writes that:

Some have seen in this anecdote proof that Augustine’s teaching “saved Jewish lives,“facilitating the survival of the Jews in Christendom. It is never easy to assign a clear valence—good or bad—to the fate of an idea, and a different choice of anecdote might lead to a less positive conclusion. 


In reviewing a book as sweeping and ambitious as Nirenberg’s, one inevitably focuses on areas of disagreement, so I should note that his account of anti-Judaism in both Islam and the Christian Middle Ages is excellent. Against apologetic claims that Islamic anti-Judaism is a late development, Nirenberg confronts the fundamental anti-Jewish polemic presented of Muslim scripture. “Jewish duplicity and enmity,” he reports, “would become a basic axiom of Qur’anic ontology.” This should not be surprising; it was necessary to diminish the claims of Judaism if the teachings of the Prophet were to have a justification. This led to the powerful Islamic tradition that Jews consciously falsified their own scripture in order to reject the prophetic claims of Muhammad.

In his account of anti-Judaism in medieval Christendom, Nirenberg emphasizes the central role of state (royal and princely) power, the practice and symbolism of moneylending and the Jewish role in the economy, and the charge of ritual murder. This is a complex topic, and Nirenberg, who is the author of an important study of violence against minorities, including but not only Jews, in the 14th century, is a sure guide. As he rightly notes, the breakdown of the relationship between monarchs and Jews is a key part of the story. The many medieval expulsions in the Jewish communities of Western lands after 1280 hewed to Augustinian theory: In exile Jews bore witness to the truth of the dominant religion. Meanwhile, as anti-Jewish themes were increasingly circulated, statesmen, politicians, churchmen, philosophers, and poets were all accused by their enemies of falling into the theological error of “Judaizing.”

If Nirenberg is too generous to Paul, he is too critical of his great intellectual descendant, Martin Luther, who famously accused the Catholic Church of “Judaizing.” His lengthy and generally insightful analysis of Luther’s hermeneutical revisionism includes a discussion of his advice on how to treat “living Jews.” In setting out Luther’s position, he cites Luther’s infamous 1543 pamphlet, On the Jews and Their Lies, in which he recommends both “sharp mercy” and “utter mercilessness” toward contemporary Jews. He quotes Luther’s intolerant advice to:

Burn their synagogues . . . force them to work, and deal with them with utter mercilessness, as Moses did in the wilderness when he struck three thousand dead.

And “if all this still failed to contain their blasphemy,” Nirenberg adds, then Luther advises, “away with them.” Given the flagrant misuse of Luther by the Third Reich, this risks falsifying his actual view. Though Nirenberg mentions this issue, and repeats that “I am not interested in contributing to arguments . . . about whether Martin Luther was an anti-Semite or an architect of the Holocaust,” his description will only make this erroneous link seem indubitable. Yes, Luther was a great hater, most visibly of Jews and Papists, but he was a late medieval hater. The most extreme form of anti-Jewish action that Luther calls for in his late work is the renewal of the policy of expulsion. At the same time, however, Luther advised his clergy that they should warn their parishioners to “guard against the Jews and avoid them so far as possible. They should not curse them or harm their persons, however.”

Even in his ugliest discourses, those of 1542 and 1543, Luther prefaces his counsel to the German princes with an Augustinian exhortation, “We must indeed with prayer and the fear of God before our eyes, exercise a sharp compassion towards them and seek to save some of them from the flames [of Hell]. Avenge ourselves we dare not.” Luther’s advice was followed. Jews were expelled from many German cities in the 16th century, but they were not massacred.


Anti-Judaism did not disappear with the advent of the Enlightenment. On the whole, Enlightenment thinkers agreed that Jews could and should be emancipated, but the price they had to pay was the forfeiture of their Judaism. Jews as individuals could be redeemed and refashioned; Judaism could not. It is with this debate that the modern “Jewish Question”—encouraged, even made necessary, by toleration and political emancipation—emerges, and, perhaps surprisingly, the tradition of “anti-Judaism” reasserts itself.

Nirenberg’s competent account of this period rests on the abundant scholarship about figures such as Kant, Voltaire, Abbé Grégoire, Fichte, Hegel, and Locke that has appeared in recent decades. I would quarrel, however, with his characterization of Immanuel Kant. Kant’s well-known utterance that “strictly speaking Judaism is not a religion at all” must be understood in terms of his main concern, which was the conflict between heteronomy and autonomy, with both traditional Judaism and Christianity defined as heteronomous systems in which moral authority commanded the subject from without. The main target of Kant’s Religion Within the Boundaries of Mere Reason is superstition and false teaching in both Judaism and Christianity. Kant was certainly anti-Judaic, as Nirenberg defines the term, but at the same time he was also antiCatholic and anti-Protestant insofar as those faiths made transcendental claims to revelation and were centered on ritual rather than ethics. Hegel’s nonsensical charge that Kant had recourse to a “Jewish principle” of reasoning (itself an interesting case of rhetorical anti-Judaism) notwithstanding, I don’t think the bulk of Kant’s important writings show any consistent concern with defining himself or his system as anti-Judaic.

Nirenberg carries his narrative through the 19th and 20th centuries (it is easy to see where Goebbels and Nazism fit with their phantasmal notions of Jews and Judaism). Anti-Judaism covers an enormous span of time and an extensive catalogue of thinkers and issues. It goes a considerable way in successfully writing a narrative history of Western thought that concentrates on the continuing evaluation of Judaism within this tradition. However, it does not always judge its subjects with complete accuracy. It is too kind to Paul and too hard on Luther, and it is insufficiently informative about all the details and subtleties of the revolutionary thinkers, who come from many directions and with varied interests, in the modern era.

Nirenberg’s basic thesis that the notions of “Jews” and “Judaism” are central building blocks of Western traditions—including Islam—is undoubtedly correct. He does not bring his narrative up to the present moment, but he is well aware that his story is not over and its implications are troubling.


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