Much of what the European New Right deems to be inherently detestable about Western civilization — racial egalitarianism, obsession with economic growth, linear view of history, ethnosuicide, globalism — they blame on Christianity. What is more, in maintaining that Christianity has shaped the fundamental course of the West’s history, they cannot but view the history of this civilization in a negative light. Moreover, since the immense achievements of the West are difficult to deny, in calling Christianity an “Oriental” or “Judaic” religion, and identifying almost the entire experience of the West as “Judeo-Christian,” they have encouraged, or indirectly played into, the view that Western civilization owes its main historical identity and greatness to the Judaic ideas and values transmitted to Christianity. This has been an idea initiated and successfully promoted by Neoconservatives, with the obvious difference that they view this (falsified) history in a positive light.
Below I argue briefly that
- the term “Judeo-Christian” is a recent invention of post-World War II American politics
- Judaism on its own cannot be seen as a Western religion; the “Judaism” that came to the West through Christianity was a Hellenized version; the Judaism that remained outside the West in separation from Christianity developed in a totally different Talmudic direction.
Most of Krebs’s Fighting for the Essence is about the “monster of Judaeo-Christianity,” not a serious historical or philosophical analysis, but a sequence of rhetorical statements aimed to motivate readers against Christianity through symbolic allusions and hyperbole. One passage cited from his short book will suffice to convey his “Judaeo-Christian” argument:
[T]he catastrophic development of the egalitarian global ideology will not alter the facts: the role that Judaeo-Christianity has played without stop for twenty centuries, both in the intellectual development and in the historical, political and social progress of universalism, is much too central to allow one to see in Western civilization anything but the most striking and most consequential incarnation of this most alien of religions in Europe, in which Nietzsche glimpsed the most catastrophic even in history: “Christianity which has sprung from Jewish roots and can only be understood as a plant that has come from this soil, represents the counter-movement to every morality of breeding, race, or privilege: — it is anti-Aryan religion par excellence” (p. 41).
I don’t care to defend Christianity as a believer who hopes that a revival of this religion will reignite certainty against the cultural relativism Neocons solemnly condemn, as if to instill religious commitment to integration, the military, and the NFL. I am concerned with the historical role of Christianity in the making of the West.
Possibly the first justification for the study of history one hears about is that we can’t know the present unless we know the history leading to it. But in this truthful statement there is the inherent problem of teleological reasoning, which consists in assuming that, since the present was created by the past, the past already contained the seeds of the present state of affairs. This teleological way of reasoning propels one to go back in time in search of the ultimate roots. One is thus tempted to account for every historical period in terms of the same ultimate roots. This way of reasoning was common before the onset of historical “professionalism,” but as historians became ever more specialized and each specialist became preoccupied with understanding smaller issues within shorter time frames, teleological reasoning was looked down upon. This led to a growing emphasis on accidents, the role of personalities, the complexity and unpredictability of history, against “determinism” and “simplistic” accounts of history.
Yet, believing that it is all about accidents and short time periods disconnected from preceding and subsequent periods, and multifarious personalities with unpredictable dispositions, encourages the view that the past does not contain any meaningful long term patterns that could illuminate the present. I think it is possible to offer good explanations of long term patterns, and that teleological reasoning, in this respect, is an important and inescapable aspect of historical understanding. But there are always a number of forces in history pushing in varying directions, intermixed and intermixing with each other, leading to newly emergent properties within these forces, and thus to novel dynamics, resulting in unforeseen historical developments that cannot be understood in terms of the past.
The account of Christianity Krebs is offering is teleological in a linear way starting with his conjunction of Judaism and Christianity under the term “Judaeo-Christianity.” But it is more accurate to see this term as a novel ideological development that only came into common usage after World War II in light of new political configurations in the Western world. Wikipedia offers a reasonably good account of when and how this term came to be used regularly for ideological reasons during and after WWII:
The present meaning of “Judeo-Christian” regarding ethics first appeared in print on July 27, 1939, with the phrase “the Judaeo-Christian scheme of morals” in the New English Weekly. The term gained much currency in the 1940s, promoted by groups which evolved into the National Conference of Christians and Jews, to fight antisemitism by expressing a more inclusive idea of American values rather than just Christian or Protestant.
Wiki further observes how the use of this term “surged in the 1990s” with the “culture wars” between conservatives and progressive liberals about how to define America. Should this nation be defined as Christian, family-oriented, and classically liberal, or as multicultural, committed to feminism, and gay rights? But what was not well known at the time (and Wiki does not get into this) is that there was another cultural war going on within the conservative movement in America: between Paleo-conservatives and Neoconservatives. Without getting into this debate, those in the Neocon camp began to employ regularly the term “Judeo-Christian” as a way of demarcating themselves from the progressives, whereas those in the Paleo side remained comfortable with such older terms as Christian, WASP, or Catholic America.
There were some Hebrew scholars who objected from the start to the term “Judeo-Christian.” Two “notable” books are mentioned in Wiki: Leo Baeck’s Judaism and Christianity (1958), and Arthur Cohen, The Myth of the Judeo-Christian Tradition (1971). According to the editorial summary of Cohen’s book:
The present uneasy state of accommodation assumes a Judeo-Christian tradition that never really existed. The author contends that the historical fact is one of theological enmity. For serious Christians and Jews, the true common ground should be not a doctrinal “historical myth” but a natural fraternity that would develop out of “de facto social and political co-existence.”
In other words, if we are going to talk about common traits, and possibly employ this term, it can only be for politically expedient reasons. This skepticism among Hebrew scholars against this term continued in subsequent years, and still continuous today, though in a far more restricted way. Wiki cites Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits (1975) words:
Judaism is Judaism because it rejects Christianity, and Christianity is Christianity because it rejects Judaism.
It mentions Abba Hillel Silver’s, Where Judaism Differs (1989), which celebrates the “distinctiveness” of Judaism; its moderation, anti-fanaticism, and rejection of Original Sin; and books by Jacob Neusner, Jews and Christians: The Myth of a Common Tradition (2003), and by Stephen Feldman, Please Don’t Wish Me a Merry Christmas (1998). The literature is quite extensive.
When 9/11 came there was another shift in the usage of the term, with the term “used more than ever” as a way of defining America in relation to the “Islamic threat.” What Wiki neglects or does not interpret properly was the growing popularity of the term among Jewish conservatives. Dennis Prager is one of the most prominent examples. It would take a long paper to convey to readers the networking, media campaigns, magazines, videos, lectures, conferences, and lucrative merchandising Prager has developed in the last few years promoting the phrase “Judeo-Christian values.” This mega media effort was fundamentally geared to the promotion of the idea that America was from the beginning a nation founded on Hebraic values for the purpose of creating a world based on these values.
Prager says that the very “uniqueness of America” consists in being the “only country in the history to have defined itself as Judeo-Christian.” He even separates America from its European heritage and places it squarely within a Hebrew heritage tied directly to the Jewish people:
American has differed from Christian countries in Europe in at least two important ways. One is that the Christians who founded America saw themselves as heirs to the Hebrew Bible, as much as to theirs. And even more importantly, they strongly identified with the Jews.
The history of Americans is evoked in terms of Jewish Biblical experiences: “Just as the Hebrews left Egypt and its values, Americans left Europe and its values.” From the beginning, according to Prager, America identified with the “chosenness of the Jews.”
This belief in American chosenness…accounts for the mission that Americans have uniquely felt called to — to spread liberty in the world.
Prager is not just a popular media mogul. He is part of a widespread media power structure which includes National Review Online, Commentary, Jewish World Review, Town Hall and many other interlocked institutes, academic programs, radio and TV stations.
In the meantime, as Christians and the American nation are conceptualized in Hebraic terms, and Christians are encouraged to stand together with Jews in support of Israel, Jews on First! make sure Christians don’t act too Christian and forget their Hebraic obligations by proselytizing their Christian values in classrooms, forgetting the separation of the American state from Christianity, calling for the continuation of Christmas, or suggesting that Judeo-Christianity has any relationship to European Hellenism.
In short, it makes no sense for Krebs to write about “the role that Judaeo-Christianity has played without stop for twenty centuries, both in the intellectual development and in the historical, political and social progress of universalism.” The term “Judaeo-Christian” has a short lineage based on recent political orientations in the United States. This history has to be understood on its own terms in light of newly emerging historical tendencies; it should not be teleologically projected back to the very origins of Christianity.
Insomuch as Kreb’s reasoning supports in principle the growing notion that Europe since ancient times was founded on Judaic principles, it gives credence to the claim that:
Judaism has had a profound influence on Western civilization. Much of this influence comes from Jewish ideas and values that were transmitted to Christianity, which developed from Jewish roots.
David Gelernter, professor of computer science at Yale, chief scientist at Mirror Worlds Technologies, and contributing editor at the Weekly Standard, insists, “beyond doubt, that Judaism is the most important intellectual development in western history.” It is said that he “thinks big, smarter and faster” than everyone else; take a listen here.
Adam M. Garfinkle, the editor of The American Interest, pushes further the “Judeo-Christianity” origins of Western civilization in The Madness of Jewcentricity (2006), by presenting Jews and Israel as the origin and center of Europe itself. He writes:
the enormous influence of Christianity over everything that Europe is and will be…owes much at its roots to the Hebrew Bible and to the experience of Israel in the world. As Jews were for centuries at the epicenter of Christian theology in Europe, so today, in a largely post-Christian Europe, Israel is at the epicenter of the European political worldview.
This is wishful thinking. Hebrew ideas about God as eternal and immutable, conscious and rational, came to fruition under the heavy influence of Greek philosophy. On its own Hebrew culture and religion, prior to the “profound impact” of Greek thought, was Semitic and outside the Hellenistic world. The Hebrew Bible entered the West through the lenses of the New Testament only after it had been Hellenized starting in the third century BC, whereas the purely Judaic culture remained outside, evolving in a totally different direction.
There is an extensive literature on this, neatly summed up by Rodney Stark in his recent book, How the West Won (2014). I will pull together some key passages into one quote:
As the twentieth century historian Morton Smith put it, “The Hellenization extended even to the basic structure of Rabbinic thought.” It was this Hellenized Judaism that influenced early Christian theologians; they had virtually no contact with Talmudic rabbis, nor any interest in their teachings […] The majority of Jews living in the Hellenized western cities were quite assimilated. Intermarriage with Gentiles was widespread. Moreover, the Diasporan Jews read, wrote, spoke, thought, and worshiped in Greek…[So] few Diasporan Jews could read Hebrew that it was necessary to translate the Torah into Greek — the Septuagint…By early in the second century BC, Jerusalem was so transformed into a Greek city that it was known as Antioch-at-Jerusalem (pp. 33-35).
Perhaps the foremost scholar on this topic is the German Martin Hengel, starting with his landmark two volume work, Judaism and Hellenism: Studies in their Encounter in Palestine during the Early Hellenistic Period, 2 vols. (1974). His other works include Jews, Greeks, and Barbarians: Aspects of the Hellenization of Judaism in the Pre-Christian Period (1980), and The ‘Hellenization’ of Judea in the First Century after Christ (1989). His basic finding is that Judaism shows deep Greek influence much earlier than had been argued, at least by the third century BC. The Greek language strongly penetrated Palestine from the third century BC; Greek words penetrated the bible itself; the book of Daniel included themes mediated by Hellenistic sources, and much more.
This does not mean we should underestimate the religious differences between Judaism and Hellenized Judaism and Hellenized Christianity. I have no interest either in putting down Judaism or denying the obvious role Old Testament writings played in Christian thinking through the centuries. I should qualify here that Alain de Benoist paints a similar picture of Western civilization as Krebs but prefers to use the term “Christian West” rather than “Judeo-Christian” on the grounds that Judaism was a very different religion which should not be held accountable for the maladies of this civilization. Jewish scholar themselves have rejected the term on theological grounds, and for good reasons. The term is strictly a political term intended to redefine the character of Western civilization to meet the objectives of Neoconservatives.
Norman Solomon, one of the foremost experts on Judaism, in answer to the question “when did Judaism began?” reminds us that Judaism did not “spring fully mature” from the Bible, but that both Christianity (as I will show in future essay) and Judaism underwent development in the centuries after the Bible was written. In the first centuries AD, “rabbis tended to act as if Christianity did not exist” (Judaism: A Very Short Introduction, p. 29). In fact, he writes,
the Talmud really is the heart of Judaism. After the Bible, it is the book most studied by Jews, and the Bible itself is read in its light (p. 35).
The Talmud of Jerusalem was completed about 450 AD, and the Babylonian Talmud about 550 AD, and it was only in subsequent centuries that Judaism saw a sequence of major commentators and poets and philosophers. This development of the Talmud took place outside Western civilization. Therefore it is wrong to claim that Western civilization is heavily imbued with a Judaic or a “Judeo-Christian” ethos.