Home > Christianity, History, Judaism, Protestantism, Study of the New Testament, Theology > Challenging Colonial Discourse: Jewish Studies and Protestant Theology in Wilhelmine Germany

Challenging Colonial Discourse: Jewish Studies and Protestant Theology in Wilhelmine Germany

  • Series: Studies in European Judaism
  • Author: Christian Wiese
  • Pub. Year: 2005
  • Language: English
  • Pages: 604
  • ISBN-10: 9004119620
  • ISBN-13: 9789004119628
  • Format: PDF

On the basis of postcolonial theory, this study shows how Jewish scholars, in the controversies about the “essence” of Judaism and Christianity at the beginning of the 20th century, challenged the intellectual hegemony of Liberal Protestantism in Germany. By carefully examining the impact of the political circumstances – the loss of relevance of political liberalism, the spreading of anti-semitism, and the crisis of Jewish identity in an age of contested emancipation and assimilation – on the theological discourse, it provides a critical analysis of anti-Jewish implications of Protestant theology in the 19th and 20th centuries and discusses the function of Jewish polemics against Protestant distortions of Jewish history, religion and culture. Furthermore, it develops important guidelines for a contemporary interdisciplinary relationship between Jewish Studies and Christian theology.

The vocation of a theologian is built on criteria unique in scholarship. The standards of scholarship and the methods of historical-critical analyses are the same, but investigating the history of religion is fraught with the dangers of personal belief and identity. Can a Christian write a history of Judaism that does not become an attempted justification for the superiority of Christianity? Can a Jewish scholar interpret the New Testament without bias?

Such questions are relatively new in human history. As a recognized field of scholarship, the historical study of religion began in earnest in the mid-nineteenth century in Germany. Protestant theologians defined their goal as the historical study of the origins of Christianity, and launched a major effort to examine the context in which Jesus, Paul, and the early Church emerged. At that time, there were no departments of Jewish Studies at German universities, and the nascent Wissenschaft des Judentums was undertaken by scholars who did not hold university appointments and all the privileges that accompany professorial status. The scholarly interactions between Christians and Jews thus could not be those of partners of equal stature, given the massive institutional disparities between them. Despite those limitations, Jewish theologians in Germany achieved a philosophical and historiographical distinction that established the equality of their research with the achievements of their Christian colleagues.

Theologians, whatever their religion, are unique among scholars: they are not only bound to the highest claims of intellectual aspiration, but their publications are also expected to reflect their personal faith and moral character. Composing theological works is a response to a higher vocation to which one devotes one’s entire life.

The goal is not simply the explication of religious thinking; it also concerns raising the reader to a higher level of awareness. Thus the work of a theologian is also evaluated in light of its consequences for society, and with an eye to the theologian’s own political views and behavior. Even the accomplishments of the most brilliant theologians – such as those of the distinguished German New Testament scholar Gerhard Kittel – were discredited when it was made public that he had conducted active, passionate Nazi propaganda.

Both Jews and Christians share an understanding of the vocation of a theologian: strengthening the faith of their communities and representing their respective religious traditions positively but also critically; viewing the historical reconstruction of the origins and development of their religion as the central task of theology; attempting to respond to the religious concerns of their communities through their scholarship.

Yet the two disciplines – Wissenschaft des Judentums and Protestant theology – differed enormously on the question of relations between their two religions. Jewish theologians, starting in the eighteenth century with Moses Mendelssohn, saw a major task of Jewish theology as building a bridge of understanding and mutual respect with Christians. For that reason, Jewish scholars intensively studied the writings of their Christian counterparts, and sought to participate in their conversations. Isaak Markus Jost, Abraham Geiger, Joseph Derenbourg, Heinrich Graetz, Joseph Eschelbacher, Ismar Elbogen, Leo Baeck, Felix Perles, among many others, believed that by presenting a scholarly history of first-century Palestinian Judaism they would be participating in the task of constructing a better understanding of the historical circumstances surrounding the rise of early Christianity, and the shaping of early Judaism. In so doing, they made important contributions to scholarship on Christian origins and the New Testament. What is so extraordinary is that these Jewish theologians were isolated as scholars – there were no programs in Jewish Studies at German universities, and many of the Christian theological journals were closed to them, as Jews – yet nonetheless produced remarkably sophisticated scholarly analyses of Jewish history and texts.

Theirs, however, was a “Schrei ins Leere,” a “cry into the void,” as Christian Wiese correctly terms it. Although Jewish theologians made significant contributions to scholarship on Christianity, their Christian colleagues did not respond. Christian theologians were wellaware of the publications of Jewish scholars, often citing their work and writing reviews of their books. They did not, however, take seriously the contributions of Jewish historians, and respond to their scholarship appropriately. Jewish historiography was often dismissedas illegitimate simply because it was written by Jews. Even when Christian theologians, such as Emil Schürer, Julius Wellhausen, Wilhelm Bousset, or Gerhard Kittel, recognized the importance of rabbinic literature for a better understanding of the milieu in which Christianity emerged, for example, they nonetheless maintained a conceptual framework of analysis in which rabbinic literature was used to “prove” the inferiority of Judaism to Christianity.

The history of the relations between Jewish and Christian theologiansin Germany described by Christian Wiese is not simply the story of an unfortunate lack of communication. Its ramifications extend far and wide, with profound consequences for Jews, Christians, and modern scholarship. The field of Christian theology reached a magnificent zenith in modern Germany. Nowhere else were classical languages studied as intensively, history probed as thoroughly, and the religious imagination stimulated as fruitfully. It would not be an exaggeration to state that all of Christian theology, Biblical studies, and the field of Religious Studies, in Europe, the United States, Asia, and Africa, has been shaped and nurtured to this day by the brilliant work accomplished by German Protestants. Thus, the rejection of Jewish theological scholarship by German Protestants is of enormous scholarly importance.

The consequences of Protestant repudiation of Jewish initiatives also affected Jewish lives. Many German Christian theologians possess an extra share of responsibility for the Holocaust by giving Hitler a Christian stamp of approval. Those who called Jesus an Aryan, not a Jew, and who threw the Old Testament out of the Christian Bible because it was a Jewish book legitimized Nazi anti-Semitism. Such religious legitimation functioned for the popular imagination in a way that surpassed the political in its power to inspire and give moral sanction.

The failures of Christian theologians during the Nazi era were rooted in much earlier developments. The importance of Christian Wiese’s book lies in his careful delineation of the many ways in which Jews took the initiative in reaching out to Christians but were rejected, misunderstood, or treated with contempt. This book makes it clear that decisive moments of opportunity for discussion with Jewish scholars were available to Christians long before 1933. Had they been taken up they would undoubtedly have effected a remarkable change in Christian attitudes toward Judaism.

While many books have been written about the history of German anti-Semitism, and about Christian theological anti-Judaism, Christian Wiese makes two very important methodological innovations in his study. First, he demonstrates that there were two sides to the story, the Christian and the Jewish. Throughout the modern era, for every anti-Jewish utterance from Christian scholars, there came a strong response from Jewish scholars. No longer can it be claimed that anti-Judaism developed because Christians were simply unaware of the implications of their statements. Second, and most important, this is a book that places the Jewish perspective at its forefront. Rather than a study from a Christian point of view, Christian Wiese captures the Jewish point of view. In so doing, he faithfully reports the actual situation of the period which he is describing, in which Jews took the initiative in approaching their Christian counterparts.

The methodological breakthrough of this study is part of a small but growing effort on the part of contemporary German theologians to engage in scholarship on Judaism and in theological exchange with Jews. Indeed, the intensity of that engagement places German theology at the forefront of Christian-Jewish dialogue today. At the same time, there remains a dominant element within contemporary German Protestantism that continues in the scholarly paths of the previous generations and that fails to appreciate the premise of Christian Wiese’s book: that Jewish as well as Christians perspectives have to be accorded equal legitimacy in historical scholarship.

Finally, this book sets an agenda for future studies. There can be no future histories of modern Christian thought that ignore the contributions of Jewish theology, or that fail to consider the attitudes toward Judaism expressed by Christian theologians. The two religious traditions are deeply intertwined, each defining itself by reference to the other. Jews depended upon Christian tolerance for their acceptance into German society, a dependence that ended in catastrophe.

Christians felt comfortable maligning, or at least ignoring, the religious significance of Judaism, and their comfort led them to moral cataclysm. As Christian Wiese concludes, his book not only demonstrates the validity of Gershom Scholem’s verdict, that the Wissenschaft des Judentums was a “Schrei ins Leere,” but also attempts to overcome Christian theology’s pervasive negative stereotypes and demonstrate the significance of Judaism, as a religion, tradition, and history, for Christianity, and for all of European culture.

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