Strangers in the Looking Glass: The Contested Jesus in Jewish-Christian Scholarship in Nineteenth-Century Germany

This is a slightly revised version of the term paper I wrote for a seminar on the history of Christian, Jewish and Muslim relations in Europe. Here I attempt an ecumenical approach to a perennial controversy between Jewish scholars and Church historians, specifically how the figure of Jesus was transfigured by a dialectic of scholarly exchange and religious polemic into the politically charged symbol of Judaism’s and Christianity’s initiation into a higher stage of religious consciousness distinguished by universalist and nondogamatic principles. Such a mission, however, belied, and was effectively undermined by, the numerous expressions of particular confessional and political agendas latent in nineteenth-century liberal theology.

Nineteenth-century German scholarship was the prime site for advances in the historical-critical approach to biblical criticism—a paradigm shift from “sacred history” to the “history of religion” as such.1  As the impetus to historical investigation drove parallel developments in both liberal Protestant theology and the nascent discipline of Wissenschaft des Judentums, or Jewish Studies, one might have expected a mutually constructive dialogue to emerge between interlocutors of both faiths. The historical approaches employed by the Wissenschaft des Judentums in its interpretation of Jewish history and tradition by early Jewish Studies emerged from a productive and critical debate with Protestant Biblical criticism. However, as an examination of the discussions about the life of Jesus and, by extension, the origins of Christianity itself testifies, the noetic structure of academic theology conspicuously retained the major contours of religious apologetics even as it attempted to bring the former in line with historical method.

Recent scholarship offers an array of interpretive frameworks through which to assess the nature of a “German-Jewish dialogue,” the assumed existence of which Gershom Scholem violently dismissed after the Second World War.2  The present paper, however, aims at neither the reconstruction of a composite image of the Jew as projected through the German Protestant mentalité3  nor a comprehensive account of the continuities between religious anti-Judaism and racial anti-Semitism, for which Uriel Tal’s work is still instructive.4  Instead, I limit the analysis to the field of scholarship. This discourse—in which Jews were active, not merely reactive, voices—operated by its own laws and could develop an internal dynamic which referred beyond the concrete conditions of interconfessional relations in the wider society without also canceling them. At the same time, however, although formally emancipated, and increasingly successful in the spheres of culture and industry, the de facto unequal status of the Jews qua a religious minority was not merely articulated, but rather was ontologically prior to scholarly discourse. As the scholarly controversy over Jesus’ relationship to Judaism demonstrates, traditional theological claims to exclusive truths, albeit updated in their methodologies, continued to supply the overriding criteria by which academic theology was produced and received.

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Current historiography rightly attributes an inherent apologetic impulse to the academic study of Judaism—in the broad sense that practitioners consistently framed their inquiries within the exigent priorities of emancipation. The question as to “what continued to be religiously obligatory, as opposed to what had derived from their legal and social position in German society” and thus was amenable to modification as a result of a greater degree of integration, acquired existential import—in this context the Wissenschaft des Judentums mediated its reform program by documenting the process of emendation and adaptation that had allowed Jews to preserve their religious tradition in different contexts.5  Jewish motivations were multivalent, but the contributions to the field of Leben-Jesu-Forschung clearly displayed both polemical and apologetic thrusts, simultaneously staking their claims to independence and originality while also reaffirming their desire for reconciliation and integration. Walter Homolka surveys the history of modern German-Jewish critical engagement with Jesus’ Jewish background in terms of its dual functions: the need to reconcile civic equality with the retention of Jewish identity, which gained in importance with the opportunities entailed in the Enlightenment and the consequent obsolescence of the Christian state.6  At the same time, it would be categorically misapprehending the political agenda of the Wissenschaft des Judentums to reduce its research to a mere epiphenomenon of assimilation or cultural mimesis (i.e., “christianization”). The revisionist trend represented by Heschel and Wiese has made impressive strides in documenting the ways in which Jewish scholars proposed an agenda according to ideological desiderata which did not automatically defer to the dictates of assimilation. Whereas German Christians expected Jewish emancipation to pari passu dissolve those “barriers that had hitherto prevented Jews from completely assimilating to their environment,” Jews took emancipation to be “an incentive to continue to cultivate Jewish uniqueness.”7 

By interpreting Judaism as primarily a historical phenomenon open to scholarly analysis, the Wissenschaft des Judentums shifted the locus of religion in two vital ways. Firstly, practitioners substituted the criteria of “scientific” inquiry for rabbinic, namely Talmudic, teachings; a putatively objective method of textual criticism detached from normative theological claims, logically entailed not only that the Talmud and other canonical texts be revisited as historical sources without reference to fixed dogmatic interpretations, but in addition that all extant sources, including non-Hebrew and gentile, be opened up to critical investigation.8  Secondly, as Harvey Hill notes, by overriding rabbinic monopoly on textual exegesis, historical scholars gave their educated lay audiences sanction to reinterpret scripture according to their present needs.9  For Abraham Geiger (1810-1874), the biblical text was not so much a monolithic, hermetic repository of vital truths as a record of their ongoing reinterpretation and reformulation by successive generations of Jews.10  Geiger’s greatest contribution, according to Ken Koltun-Fromm, was to stress the perpetual character of this process of reinterpretation, one in which modem Jews could themselves participate as individuals “through creatively rereading texts and their translations.”11

In some ways Jewish Studies continued to argue, albeit in a modern register, in the mode established by traditional Jewish polemics, a genre that had established themes and motifs since antiquity. As long as the Jewish community was still an autonomous and segregated body, such discussions transpired internally, with only very intermittent exchange with Christian interlocutors. But as “Jews and Christians increasingly wrote in the shared vernacular, read each other’s theological writings, and made the figure of Jesus into the signifier through which they gave voice to their views of each other’s religion,”12  Geiger’s work constituted a significant departure from previous interpretations in several respects. Among the Jewish theologians who, stimulated by a concurrent resurgence of interest in Second Temple Judaism, revived research into the historical and religious background, Abraham Geiger’s work constituted the most forceful intervention into the question of a “Jewish Jesus,” that is, a thinker endogenous to the prevailing Jewish traditions of his day. Geiger’s engagement with the figure of Jesus represented the culmination of a revisionist agenda which he had developed throughout his career. Published while still enrolled in university, Geiger’s revised doctoral dissertation, Was hat Mohammed aus dem Judenthume augenommen? (1833), established his reputation in the field of Oriental studies. Applying his knowledge of rabbinic literature to the Qur’an, he traced the modifications of biblical stories not to heretical Christian transmission but to Midrashic and Talmudic texts, thereby rendering the holy book of Islam a repository of fundamentally Jewish teachings.13  Significantly, the academic faction with which Geiger was most closely aligned was the Tübingen School which formed around David Friedrich Strauss and Ferdinand Christian Baur. Prescinding from a priori speculative theology and supernatural explanations, these scholars inaugurated the historical-critical method in Protestant theology, deconstructing in the process the fixed, synthetic status of the New Testament canon. Even as he disputed the validity of their specific findings, their methods largely informed the rubrics of Geiger’s exegesis.14

Abraham_Geiger_by_Lesser_Ury Abraham Geiger (1810-1874)

Needless to add at this point, while Geiger’s historical intervention was gladly welcomed by Reform Jews for making more tenable the argument for Jewish-Christian propinquity in civil society,15  his hopes of initiating a constructive dialogue with Christian scholars came to little avail. Although Geiger received frequent acknowledgements in their notes, they otherwise incorporated his findings only selectively; neither his apologia for Pharisaism nor his updated portrayal of Jesus’ Judaism made many inroads in scholarly Protestant circles in his lifetime. In hindsight, theologians typically reverted to a traditional abject construct of Judaism, resuming the pattern of Jewish antiquity as a permanently unsuccessful movement.The context for Geiger’s account of Jesus and Christian origins was established in his major work on the original text and transmission of the Bible, Urschrift und Übersetzungen der Bibel (1857), along with supporting articles, Geiger reconfigured the contours of Second Temple Judaism. The exact steps taken in this exegesis are delineated in detail elsewhere and need not detain us here. However, for the purposes which interest us, suffice it to recapitulate briefly and schematically those conclusions which he directly utilized towards his research on Jesus. In the Urschrift he identified the two prevailing religious parties within Second Temple Judaism; the Sadducees represented the interests of aristocratic priestly elite then aligned with the dominant political families in the Kingdoms of Judea and Samaria; the Pharisees, conversely, were the populists and liberal reformers of their day, prototypes of the very Reform Jews for whom Geiger endeavored to accrue historical support for their religious legitimacy. With this object in mind, Geiger further developed his argument in his three volumes on Das Judentum und seine Geschichte (1865-71). Here he recast Jesus as an observant Jew embedded in the nexus of disputes between the aforementioned factions. Relocating Jesus within the economy of Judaism itself, identifying him as eminently a rabbi who owed the entirety of his intellectual debt to Hillel, the preeminent representative of progressive Pharisaism, was quite subversive because it presented an alternative to the majority religion’s ontological mythology and soteriology. The Pharisees had long served as a formal semiotic expression of “Late Judaism” [Spätjudentum], a term which encapsulated the view that Judaism following the period of the prophets that ended with Ezra had entered a state of inexorable decline; in conformity with the cosmology of Christian supersessionism, Jesus arrived on the scene and qualitatively transcended the superannuated religion that had made his arrival a necessity. In resituating early Christianity as an internal development—that is, endogenous to conflicts within Judaism and among the apostles—by extension he criticized the transfiguration of a deeply Jewish Jesus into a messianic, divine entity as corruptions of pure Jewish teachings.

Prosaic facts such as institutional barriers and the automatic rejection of rabbinic sources as biased and unhistorical (which produced a persistent lacuna in the requisite knowledge for an independently informed critique of Jewish scholarship) are illuminating of the circumstances under which the Wissenschaft des Judentums labored, but it seems that the impasse goes beyond these factors and was manifested in several other decisive aspects of these two theological configurations. Liberal Protestantism assigned itself dual imperatives which stood at some tension with each other: despite having jettisoned most supernatural or dogmatic aspects of Christian doctrine, a consistently empirical application of the historical method was preempted by an overriding commitment to suspend Jesus’ personality from his historical context. Jesus, the central figure of their religion, defined the outer limit of their historical inquiries. Heschel has critically assessed the contemporary reception with reference to the theological stakes implied in the historicization of Jesus, even as the unique essence of Jesus’ divine personality, radically detached from his Jewish context, remained the ultima ratio of their concerns. Liberal theology in nineteenth-century Germany advanced two hermeneutic goals that, in actuality, tended to pull against each other: a directive to recover the historicity of Jesus’ life on one hand, and a renewed insistence on the essentially ahistorical, sui generis spirituality of Jesus’ character, a priority which preemptively negated the relevance of the former.16  The reason for this omission is not that the evidence had been assessed and the case dismissed, but that the textual basis for a stable representation of Jesus had been fragmented in ways that have precluded the enquiry.

David-Friedrich-StraussDavid Friedrich Strauss (1808-1874)

To return to Strauss, his Das Leben Jesu initiated a contentious debate—ultimately to the detriment of his professional career—over the mythic structures which shaped much of the New Testament narrative, in the process largely eclipsing earlier rationalist and supernaturalist explanations. In place of the historical validity of the Gospel accounts, which he concluded was untenable, Strauss substituted a typology of myth according to which the idea of Jesus emerged as the projection of Old Testament messianic hopes onto a contemporary figure. The process of oral transmission and the progression of ideas resulted in the development of myths and legends which find their final form in the gospels; individual authorship was thus sublated into a Hegelian concept of progressive unfolding of an ideal in stages of representation. Faced with the uncertainty of the traditional narrative, Strauss opted for the transposition of theology to a philosophical formula whereby the concrete person of Jesus was replaced by a Christological ideal inherent in the totality of humanity.17  While Strauss had effectively committed heresy in the view of many clergymen, his arguments also invited more nuanced responses. To Strauss’s ironic, negative reading of myth—which amounted to a falsification of obscure historical events—thinkers like Christian Hermann Weisse opposed a positive hermeneutics of mythology. The latter proposed in his two-volume Evangelische Geschichte (1838) that the subjective experience the details of Jesus’ ineffable personhood were not liable to philosophical abstraction or historical criticism.18  Such an appraisal of Jesus drew crucially on early Romantic idealist aesthetics as well as late Romantic theories of intellectual property that had been gaining in currency by way of the cult of aesthetic genius, according to which Jesus’ ideas superseded contingent historical developments—whether broad religious tendencies within Second Temple Judaism or the conflicts which transpired in the apostolic period.19  This reversal of predicates from an exclusive divine object to a phenomenology of spirit active in a distinct but subjective sense of personhood constituted the normative core of religion, obviating the “final dilemma” adumbrated in Strauss’ treatment, the bifurcation “of the Christian revelation into esoteric meaning and exoteric representation.”20 

In this apotheosis an ahistorical symbolic universe explicitly entered liberal Protestant Christology and imbued their subject with a sui generis spirituality which seemed to escape the conventional distinctions between faith and history. It was this latter approach which resonated more strongly with succeeding generations of Protestant theologians. The implicit problem inadvertently raised by Strauss and his interlocutors, the implications of which were extended by others to its logical conclusion, was the possibility, by abstracting a mythography of Christ from his historical background, for Protestant theologians to elide Judaism’s essential role in the Christian soteriology, indeed in the entire salvation history of the West.21  This, however, remained a latent tendency rather than a fully or consistently articulated position during the period under examination. Although the repudiation of any organic relationship between the Old and New Testaments goes back at least as far as Friedrich Schleiermacher, his hermeneutic carried little purchase at the time, and the most recent survey of evangelical Protestant theology during the period under examination draws the conclusion that most adherents, not least among them Strauss and Harnack, continued to maintain some theological continuity between the Jewish and Christian biblical narratives (even when their individual political stances regarding the “Jewish question” diverged).22  The seemingly irresolvable caesura between the limited conception of the Christ myth as a reification of the Jewish Volksgeist and the countervailing idea of Christ’s immanence constituted the conceptual point of departure.

What this digression serves to illustrate is that while the challenges emanating from Jewish academic studies provided additional impetus to actively deny Jesus’ Jewish character against the historical record, it was far from being the original or a priori reason for the continued appeal of this construct; the desideratum of Jesus’ singularity had preceded modern Jewry’s entry into this arena. The necessity of such a recourse only further intensified around the turn of the century, the same time that Adolf von Harnack began delivering his lectures. The developing trends in higher criticism, comparative philology and related fields elegantly summarized by Jan T. Romein subjected the Bible to the same critical scrutiny applied to other ancient texts, in the course of which the entire Judeo-Christian narrative was exposed as derivative. The contributions of a new school of Oriental studies [Orientalistik], heedless of the constraints of theology and classical humanism, did much to dissolve the centrality of both Greco-Roman antiquity and Judeo-Christianity as absolute terms of comparison for civilization. In an ironic twist of biography, Protestant Hebraist scholar Franz Delitzsch’s son Friedrich, a leading Assyriologist who was, as it turned out, motivated in large part by anti-Semitic prejudice, effectively overturned the edifice of canonical truth and revelation upon which his father’s legacy rested.23  The accumulated body of knowledge

assembled by the various sciences…had shaken theology to the core, so much so that the resulting crisis could only be resolved by the emergence of a radically new approach, one more in keeping with the holistic tendency of the age.24 

P_1Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930)

Harnack’s lectures on “Das Wesen des Christentums” (1900) provided a partial answer to Geiger’s arguments, but it was also part of a continuing dialogue with the problems introduced by Strauss.25  In the course of negotiating a via media between the pitfalls of biblical literalism and speculative philosophy, Harnack accepted much of the historical criticisms of the gospels, but he nevertheless maintained the particularity of Jesus’ person, shifting the object of his theological method as directed toward the appropriation of Jesus’ message to humanity in faith. Whether Harnack’s epistemology implied the necessary obsolescence of Judaism in modern society is still a point of contention. Wiese argues in the affirmative,26  whereas Wolfram Kinzig finds no evidence in Harnack’s ouevre for the claim that, because Harnack and his students understood the purpose of Jewry as providing “witness for the correctness of the Christian faith” through their suffering, they necessarily believed that after emancipation and the acquisition of full civil rights Jews had lost their “right to existence” [Existenzberechtigung].27 Against the backdrop of this gradual epistemic crisis, the literal and self-sufficient biblical narrative of humanity’s creation, fall and ultimate redemption through Christ had been eclipsed. While the vague delineation of the Jewish background for Jesus’ ministry and teachings remained de rigeur, the relativization of the historical Jesus tended to render this connection increasingly abstract.

Jewish scholars, at any rate, proved unwilling to elide the evident contradictions between Christian dogma and historical criticism. Harnack’s lectures elicited an extended response from, among others, Leo Baeck, who castigated Harnack for neglecting Jewish contributions to the field of Leben-Jesu-Forschung. More importantly, Baeck continually reaffirmed the existence of intrinsically spiritual and universalist, ethical and faith-based precepts endemic to the history of progressive Judaism. As a rhetorical counterpoint, he turned the accusations of legalism and superstition against post-apostolic Christianity.28 

As the preceding discussion suggests, the inherent tension which, in retrospect, the preoccupation with Jesus served to highlight yet obscure at the same time—stemmed from the underlying structural affinity in theological premises between liberal Judaism and liberal Protestantism. Liberal Judaism adopted from its counterpart the operative distinction between a universal prophetic and ethical religion on the one hand and a religion based on a set of revealed practices and commandments on the other, investing the former with the essence of true religion. It is suggestive, as Homolka observes, that Jewish scholars attacked Pauline Christianity’s tendency towards dogma in effectively the same terms employed by liberal Protestants to reassert freedom from such: for all their express differences, “here Jewish critiques…and liberal Protestant theology were joint in opposition to the established, authoritative interpretation of Christianity in Catholicism and conservative Protestantism.”29 

Not altogether surprisingly, this was a fact which conservative opponents within Judaism more readily apprehended. Rabbi Joseph Wohlgemuth, head of the Orthodox Rabbinical Seminary in Berlin, had already apprised the correspondences between liberal Judaism and liberal Protestantism, much to the prejudice of the former. In promoting the Reformed position that the civil and ceremonial laws stipulated in Mosaic law were no longer binding, liberal Judaism had adopted Protestant valuations prejudicial to Judaism’s theonomist tradition and had even consecrated the very same principles of faith which indirectly made Talmudic Judaism the abject of true religion, parallel to the negative stereotypes of Liberal Protestantism.30 

Heschel recognizes that the colonial subject in this scenario could manipulate the discursive categories operative in Christian scholarship which reproduced a colonial relationship to Germany’s own religious minority, in order to construct an affirmative “counterhistory” of Judaism. Yet to her credit, she does not apply subaltern theory casually or uncritically but rather acknowledge that such projects in “reversing the theological gaze” were imbricated with inherent epistemological difficulties. To the extent that revisionists retained certain premises rather than denying their prescriptive value altogether—Jewish academic scholarship reinscribed the mutually constitutive dependence of the Jewish subject on Christian theology in the new narrative, making the former’s claim to legitimacy contingent upon the success of the latter.31  Precisely because they were entering a field of discourse that had already been determined and monopolized by the initial challenge to Jewish self-understanding, Jewish scholars were “forced to operate within the Liberal Protestant categories, e.g., to defend Judaism against the charges of ‘legalism’ and ‘particularism,’ instead of naturally formulating their own standard to evaluate Jewish history and tradition,” thereby obviating a strictly scholarly contribution to rabbinic Judaism.32  Effectively stripped of its critical core, the critique of anti-Jewish stereotypes in Christian scholarship, in terms of its wider impact, become apologetic after all, its authors’ intentions notwithstanding.

Even Geiger could not completely resolve this ambivalence in his own work. If, despite failing to overturn deep-set prejudices, Geiger, in the course of his revisionist exercise, counterposed an alternative rendition of Jewish religion, in the process “demonstrating the false bases of [German Christians theologians’] accounts of Judaism,”33  he did so in large measure by incorporating at least some of their theological postulates and critiques. When Geiger set out in Das Judentum und seine Geschichte and Allgemeine Einleitung in die Wissenschaft des Judentums to extract the essence of Judaism, he started with an ideal definition of true religion, derived from prevalent nineteenth-century romantic terms: “revelation,” as he defined it, referred to a form of religious genius realized in the spirit eternal striving for communion with the Ideal as manifested in the universal brotherhood of mankind.34  In this construction, Judaism, in its pure, progressive form, was paradigmatic of this sublime religious consciousness and, needless to add, was quite suggestive of contemporary liberal Protestant self-understanding.

And Geiger, for his part, was not reticent about drawing explicit parallels to those aspects of Protestantism which he found admirable and a fortiori, living testament to those essentially dynamic and adaptable elements of Judaism which had been retained in the transmission of Jesus’ teachings. For example, he held the question of priestly prerogative which exercised the Sadducees and Pharisees as anticipatory of the conflict between Puritans and Episcopalians in England.35  In a similarly vein, in his 1863 essay, “Sadducäer und Pharisäer,” he extrapolated Pharisaism from a particular group within Jewish antiquity to a universal tendency operative in world history. In reasserting the primacy of “revelation” mediated only through open interpretation of Scripture—over and above the claims of priestly authority and tradition as instituted in the Roman Catholic Church—the Protestant Reformation represented, in Geiger’s teleology, the recapitulation of Pharisaim’s victory over the superannuated Sadducees of their day.36 

Judaism was, for Geiger, at bottom “a set of moral universal truths that continually reappear in Jewish history.”37  The principle of progressive Judaism which reemerged from the albatross of Christian oppression was the foreordained consequence of Pharisaism’s survival through the centuries, and the task of the historian was to trace the lineaments of this nascent ideal as it manifested itself across the ages. At the same time, the studied omission of terms constitutive of pre-modern Jewish religious—torah, covenant, law and commandments—served the larger purpose of extricating Judaism from the limiting “Christian supersessionist framework” and restoring its status “as a world-historic phenomenon.”38  It followed that, in order to sustain the teleology of progressive Judaism, Geiger was compelled to discount, with minor exceptions, the prodigious cultural achievements of Judaism from the post-Talmudic era up to the present era.39 

This is not simply to restate in different terms the older thesis of conscious, unreflected imitation, but rather to posit a model of parallel convergence, each side animated by respective intramural concerns to maintain the relevance and vitality of their faith in the context of a post-confessional age. Such tensions between assimilationist and dissimilatory imperatives critically shaped the early agenda of the Wissenschaft des Judentums.

The desire to win Judaism the dignity and recognition it needed for emancipation was in tension with the methodological assumptions of “science.” The ideology’s predication of rights upon regeneration had been based on Aufklärung assumptions…that Judaism, as a fundamentally moral religion, promoted the cause of humanity and this qualified the Jews for emancipation….The new ideal of Wissenschaft brought with it the idealist and romantic notion that each people’s (Volk) culture was both inviolable and developed according to an innate logic and dynamic….The founders of the Wissenschaft des Judentums thus faced a crucial problem. Could they reconcile this romantic assumption with the Aufklärung idea of regeneration to meet the needs of emancipation. Could they assimilate these new methods to the needs of the ideology’s quid pro quo? The urgency of the problem cannot be underestimated, for it reiterated…the ideology’s fundamental paradox of the relationship between universalism and particularism, between separation and integration.40 

LiebermannMax Liebermann, Der zwölfjährige Jesus im Tempel (1879)

The strategy formulated by Geiger and like-minded colleagues, as we have seen, was radical in its apparent simplicity: they engaged in a form of “reverse supersessionism” which assimilated Christianity into the Jewish narrative. Protestant theologians of this period can be faulted for not checking the biases that underlay their scholarship, but it is difficult to imagine an alternative scenario in which Geiger’s intervention would not have put them on the defensive. The sum of his arguments bore profound implications for the mutual dependency of Jewish and Christian self-conceptions. It followed that, if Jesus’ teachings were neither original nor revelatory in a divinely-inspired sense but rather emanated from within a rabbinic Judaism, while the religious innovations of post-apostolic Christianity were only so many dubious accretions of Hellenic, pagan syncretism, then the former retained its universal significance and progressive mission while the latter was consigned to the status of a superfluous and conservative deviation. Before emancipation, when both religious communities could attend to their own intramural affairs within a segregated confessional framework, Jews and Christians could find refuge in independent salvation histories. But, while granting that Jewish scholarship worked under additional strictures, in the common arena of secular, civil society, the insistence on universality was not conducive to the sort of civil entente implied in secular pluralism—a provision which liberal German Protestants in the Imperial era struggled to accommodate to the normative claims of progressive Christianity.41 

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Describing the relationship between the Wissenschaft des Judentums and liberal Protestant scholarship as one of elective affinity points up one of the key difficulties in defining Jewish apologetics by fixing its anterior boundary with its counterpart. The historical irony is that the relationship between liberal Jewish and liberal Protestant scholarship often grew more tense the more the former approximated the latter’s theological claims. The spiritual similitude that obtained in this polemical debate was overdetermined by complex apologetic interests, such that each party felt compelled to stress the differences between them with increasing clarity. With that said, Wiese follows Jürgen Habermas’s normative definition of “discourse” as the formation of consensus predicated on a preexisting mutual, symmetrical relation between equal partners without prior claims to exclusivity; by these criteria, then, it would seem that Judaism’s subordinate position vis-à-vis the majority Protestant culture precluded a sustained dialogue between the Wissenschaft des Judentums and Protestant scholarship.42 

However, at the risk of courting a mildly “postmodernist” conclusion, even accepting that, to the extent that it existed at all, an acceptance [Wahrnehmung] of Jewish contributions to theological research proceeded fitfully and belatedly—it does not follow that this fact can be made to bear the burden of explanatory power that is sometimes assigned to it. Heschel, in particular, probably overdraws the motivational continuity between contemporary Protestant reception of Jewish Studies and subsequent efforts to purge Jesus of any Jewish derivation by resort to racial distinctions—a project which reached its consummation in the active collaboration of the Deutsche Christen with the Nazi regime.43  Kinzig, distrustful of “teleological theories of anti-Semitism that posit the ‘Final Solution’ [Endelösung] as the direct culmination” of recent anti-Semitism or historical traditions of anti-Judaism, avers that there is still the acute risk of always reading later interpellations of German anti-Semitism back into an earlier and different discourse, “of overestimating its significance within its own time.”44  Kinzig, after reviewing the historiography on Christian-Jewish relations, has outlined an alternative hermeneutical framework which avoids a rigid schema of anti-Judaism/anti-Semitism versus philosemitism in favor of a shifting continuum of relative proximity or distance to Jews.45  While further study than is possible within the parameters of this paper is necessary to test this hypothesis, my preliminary conclusion is that the dialectic between proximity and distance more accurately describes the patent disinterest in contemporary Jewry evinced by most Protestant theologians. Such an approach also offers the key to a more differentiated range of motives behind the superficial engagement with the Wissenschaft des Judentums.

1. George S. Williamson, The Longing for Myth in Germany: Religion and Aesthetic Culture from Romanticism to Nietzsche (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago, 2004), 25-35.
2. Gershom Scholem, “Against the Myth of the German-Jewish Dialogue,” in On Jews and Judaism in Crisis: Selected Essays, ed. Werner J. Dannhauser (New York: Schocken , 1976), 61-64.
3. Wolfgang Heinrichs, “Das Judenbild vom Juden in der protestantischen Judenmission des Deutschen Kaiserreichs,” Zeitschrift für Religions- und Geistesgeschichte 44.3 (September 1992), 196-198. See also the full-length study, Wolfgang Heinrichs, Das Judenbild im Protestantismus des Deutschen Kaiserreichs. Ein Beitrag zur Mentalitätsgeschichte des deutschen Bürgertums in der Krise der Moderne. Gießen: Brunnen, 2004.
4. Uriel Tal, Christians and Jews in Germany: Religion, Politics and Ideology in the Second Reich, 1870-1914 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1975), 110-112, 177.
5. Harvey Hill, “The Science of Reform: Abraham Geiger and the Wissenschaft des Judentum,” Modern Judaism 27.3 (October 2007), 329-330.
6. Walter Homolka, “Jesus der Jude: Die jüdische Leben-Jesu-Forschung von Abraham Geiger bis Ernst Ludwig Ehrlich,” Zeitschrift für Religions- und Geistesgeschichte 60.1 (March 2008), 64.<a title=”Jump back to footnote 6 in the text.”
7. Tal, Christians and Jews in Germany, 304-305.
8. David Sorkin, The Transformation of German Jewry, 1780-1840 (Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1999), 136.
9. Hill, “Science of Reform,” 334.<a title=”Jump back to footnote 9 in the text.”
10. Ken Koltun-Fromm, Abraham Geiger’s Liberal Judaism: Personal Meaning and Religious Authority (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2006), 41-47.
11. Koltun-Fromm, Abraham Geiger’s Liberal Judaism, 62.
12. Susannah Heschel, “Abraham Geiger and the 19th-Century Failure of Jewish-Christian Relations.” Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte 16.1 (2003), 22.
13. Susannah Heschel, Abraham Geiger and the Jewish Jesus (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 51-62.
14. Heschel, Abraham Geiger and the Jewish Jesus, 106-126.
15. Homolka, “Jesus der Jude,” 65.
16. Heschel, Abraham Geiger and the Jewish Jesus, 128-129, 137-146.
17. Robert L. Knetsch, “Tracing the Path of the Bifurcation between the Jesus of History and the Christ of Faith,” 5-15; Williamson, Longing for Myth in Germany, 160-165.
18. Williamson, Longing for Myth in Germany, 167-177.
19. Heschel, Abraham Geiger and the Jewish Jesus, 129.
20. Williamson, Longing for Myth in Germany, 176.
21. Williamson, Longing for Myth in Germany, 178.
22. Klaus Beckmann, Die fremde Wurzel: Altes Testament und Judentum in der 19. Jahrhunderts. Forschungen zur Kirchen und Dogmengeschichte 85. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2002.
23. Jan T. Romein, The Watershed of Two Eras: Europe in 1900 (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1978), 484-485; Suzanne Marchand, “German Orientalism and the Decline of the West,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 145.4 (December 2001), 468-469.
24. Romein, Watershed of Two Eras, 483.
25. Knetsch, “Tracing the Path,” 15-24.
26. Christian Wiese, Challenging Colonial Discourse: Jewish Studies and Protestant Theology in Wilhelmine Germany. Trans. Barbara Harshav. Studies in European Judaism 10 (Leiden: Koninklijke Brill AV), 26-27, 159-169.
27. Wolfram Kinzig, Harnack, Marcion und das Judentum: Nebst einer kommentierten Edition des Briefwechsels Adolf von Harnacks mit Houston Stewart Chamberlain. Arbeiten zur Kirchen- und Theologiegeschichte 13 (Leipzig: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 2004), 34.
28. Homolka, “Jesus der Jude,” 66-67.
29. Homolka, “Jesus der Jude,” 68.
30. Wiese, Challenging Colonial Discourse, 198-202.
31. Heschel, “Abraham Geiger and the 19th-Century Failure of Jewish-Christian Relations.” Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte 16.1 (2003): 66-67.
32. Wiese, Challenging Colonial Discourse, 26-27, 440.
33. Heschel, Abraham Geiger and the Jewish Jesus, 14-15.
34. Hill, “Science of Reform,” 332-333.
35. Heschel, Abraham Geiger and the Jewish Jesus, 95.
36. Heschel, Abraham Geiger and the Jewish Jesus, 103-105.
37. Koltun-Fromm, Abraham Geiger’s Liberal Judaism, 25.
38. Judith Frishman, “The Pitfalls of Counterhistory: Abraham Geiger and Samuel Hirsch on Rabbinic Judaism,” in Jüdische Existenz in der Moderne: Abraham Geiger und die Wissenschaft des Judentums, eds. Christian Wiese, Walter Homolka and Thomas Brechenmacher. Studia Judaica 57 (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2013), 343.
39. Frishman, “The Pitfalls of Counterhistory,” 344-347.
40. Sorkin, Transformation of German Jewry, 134-135.
41. Tal, Christians and Jews in Germany, 31-32.
42. Wiese, Challenging Colonial Discourse, 26-27, 439-440.
43. Heschel, “Failure of Jewish-Christian Relations,” 30-33. The Aryanization of Jesus is the subject of her other book: Susannah Heschel The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006).
44. Kinzig, Harnack, Marcion und das Judentum, 204-205.
45. Kinzig, “Closeness and Distance: Towards a New Description of Jewish-Christian Relations,” Jewish Studies Quarterly 10 (2003), 287-289.


One thought on “Strangers in the Looking Glass: The Contested Jesus in Jewish-Christian Scholarship in Nineteenth-Century Germany

  1. Thank you very much for a thoughtful essay. I just wondered, what role did the notions of the “pagan” play in the representations of the other in the progressive Protestantism and Judaism of the studied period? Did they surface there at all?


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