Responses to Darwinism in the Gilded Age

Just as the Copernican Revolution several centuries earlier had displaced the earth and its inhabitants from the center of the universe, so the Darwinism of the nineteenth century unseated man from the throne he had claimed for himself. With the earth removed from the center of the universe by Copernicus and man removed from the zenith of the created order by Darwin, the old understanding of human beings and their place in the cosmos was overthrown. The task taken up by thinkers of the generation after Darwin was to understand the implications of Darwin’s theory for humanity and to formulate a cohesive philosophy capable of imbuing human life with meaning while taking the new scientific discoveries into account. In the words of historian Ruth C. Crocker, as in European thought, “American intellectual life in the Gilded Age is often viewed primarily in terms of a response to Darwinism.”1

Perhaps the most ubiquitous element of this response was a newfound impetus for the idea of progress. Westerners, particularly Americans, had made the idea of progress a central aspect of their self-understanding since the Enlightenment. In fact, Darwin himself was one of the inheritors of this idea and his theories in large part presuppose and depend upon it. In short, “the idea of evolution gets some of its moral, social, and even cosmic significance from its implication that the general motion in the world of living things, perhaps in the universe, is a progress from lower to higher forms.”2 All of the various Gilded Age responses to Darwin’s ideas, no matter how much they may differ from each other on their particulars, share in this belief in and focus upon progress. In their beliefs about what constituted progress and precisely what man and the cosmos were progressing toward, however, the various responses differed radically from one another.

European responses to Darwinism were often attempts at a synthesis with Hegelianism, another philosophy, very popular and influential throughout Europe, which placed a strong emphasis on the idea of progress. According to historian Richard Tarnas, “metaphysically inclined scientists such as Henri Bergson, Alfred North Whitehead, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin sought to conjoin the scientific picture of evolution with philosophies similar to Hegel.”3 These philosophies tended to see the process of evolution as oriented toward a divinely-directed goal and a point of unity between God, the cosmos, and man in the future. American responses, however, as well as later European responses, tended in the opposite direction of denying the possibility of formulating any “metaphysical system claiming the existence of a universal order accessible to human awareness” and emphasizing the disunity, and even enmity, between human beings and between all creatures.

The philosophy of pragmatism, the product of the thought of American philosophers and psychologists William James and John Dewey, which “question[ed] whether there was such a thing as universal truth,” is one example of the former type of response to Darwinism.4 According to James, Dewey, and the other pragmatists, ideas and beliefs were similar to the biological components of a species. There were none that were true in an absolute sense, or at least discernible as such as by biological beings such as humans, but some were “true” in a contingent sense in that they had demonstrated value for the current state of the species. This idea cast all ideas, as well as the very concept of and search for truth, into question.

Social Darwinism is perhaps the greatest example of the latter type of American response to Darwinism in its emphasis on the competition between individual men as well as between races and social classes. One of the most extreme proponents of a philosophy of pure Social Darwinism was the sociologist William Graham Sumner. Sumner spent a large portion of his career defending the thesis that social policy should adhere to the concept of survival of the fittest. To this end, Sumner attacked any program which attempted to aid the poor through charity or to redistribute wealth as contrary to nature and detrimental to the future of humanity. He believed that “feeding the hungry and unemployed” impeded the progress of human evolution and that “unfit people” should be allowed “to die, or at least not reproduce.”5 Although Sumner was one of the most outspoken and extreme advocates of Social Darwinism, the philosophy itself was popular throughout the American elite and was used by such figures as John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie to justify their tenacious pursuit of financial success to the detriment of others.

The various reactions to and extensions of Darwinism during the Gilded Age, including in the European attempts at a synthesis between Darwin and Hegel, as well as in American pragmatism and Social Darwinism, all demonstrate the disorienting effect Darwinism had on Western thought at the close of the 19th century. For some, as with the pragmatists, this displacement in ideas was impetus to abandon the very search for truth. For many, such as the Social Darwinists, this displacement prompted a kind of conservative synthesis, in which older ideas were combined with Darwinism in order to present a firmer ideological basis for the status quo. For all, Darwinism forever changed the nature of Western thought.

Notes

1 Ruth C. Rocker, “Cultural and Intellectual Life in the Gilded Age,” in Charles W. Calhoun, The Gilded Age: Perspectives on the Origins of Modern America (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2007), 219.


2 Robert Maynard Hutchins, ed., The Great Books of the Western World, Volume 3: The Great Ideas: II (Chicago: William Benton, 1952), 437.

3Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our World View (New York: Ballantine Books, 1993), 383. 

4 Rebecca Edwards, New Spirits: Americans in the “Gilded Age,” 1865-1905 (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 144.

5 Edwards, 144.

 

Bibliography


Calhoun, Charles W. The Gilded Age: Perspectives on the Origins of Modern America. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2007.

Edwards, Rebecca. New Spirits: Americans in the “Gilded Age,” 1865-1905. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Hutchins, Robert Maynard. Editor. The Great Books of the Western World, Volume 3: The Great Ideas: II. Chicago: William Benton, 1952.

Tarnas, Richard. The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our World View. New York: Ballantine Books, 1993.

The Scopes “Monkey” Trial: A Landmark Moment in American Religion

One of the defining features of the United States both historically and today is its unique religious landscape. Particularly prominent in this landscape is the Christian Fundamentalist movement, a movement that has largely taken shape in the United States in the 20th century and has had a major effect on the United States in its political, cultural, educational, and social life during that time. One aspect of the influence that Christian Fundamentalism has had on the United States is in the debate over science education, human origins, and evolution. The so-called “Scopes ‘Monkey Trial’” is a landmark in this debate and an important case study in the ongoing struggles of communities of faith and doubt to define themselves and shape America according to their respective ideals.

While there are certain earlier antecedents in Christian thought that point towards the development of Christian Fundamentalism, its roots are most readily located in the 19th century. The 19th century was a period of rapid and profound change in both Europe and the United States. The rise of the Industrial Revolution brought about a great deal of new technology, which changed the way people lived their daily lives both at work and at home. Simultaneously, new ideas, which had simmered under the surface and had been largely the purview only of certain educated minorities until that point, began to gain popular currency. As A.N. Wilson succinctly states it in his history of doubt in Victorian England, God’s Funeral, “the ideas which undermined nineteenth-century religion took shape in the eighteenth century.”1

Among these ideas were the scathing attacks of Edward Gibbon upon the history of the Christian Church. His Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, especially in its fifteenth and sixteenth chapters, which discussed the rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire, became infamous for its attacks upon some of the most revered figures and sacred ideals of Christianity.2 In addition to these attacks upon the mythology that had developed around Christian history as a whole, more specific attacks were launched against the sacred center point and beginning of Christian history as it was recorded in the New Testament. David Friedrich Strauss’s Life of Jesus, originally published in German in 1835-6 and translated shortly thereafter into English, became a surprisingly popular read in England and the United States.3 Through the book, Strauss was able to popularize the ideas that had been circulating among academic circles in Germany which treated the Gospels and other sacred writings of Christianity the same as any other ancient work and led to the claim that much of the life of Christ as it was recorded in the Gospels was myth, including the miracles and the very central claim of Christianity: the resurrection. Perhaps the biggest shock of all to 19th century Christians was a new scientific theory introduced to the public in 1859 with the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species. Darwin’s theory of evolution, which posited that all species, including human beings, held common descent and had evolved through the process of natural selection, called into question the account of creation found in Genesis, the idea of a provident creator-god, and the very concept of human uniqueness. Viewed by many in the 19th century and since as “modern science’s culminating triumph over traditional religion, Darwin’s theory of evolution” was the culminating and deepest blow to 19th century Christian faith.4

The responses by Christians to these new challenges were various. The Roman Catholic Church, in an attempt to evade another affair like the 17th century trial of Galileo, a permanent source of criticism and mockery, assumed an officially moderate stance in which it affirmed both the traditional and central claims of Christianity while allowing that modern scientific theory and biblical criticism may be correct within their sphere of concern as well. The Orthodox Church, largely cut off from the currents of Western thought by a combination of geography and historical circumstance, remained largely unaffected by these new ideas and assumed no official stance, though reaction among individual thinkers within the Orthodox Church was largely consonant with the Catholic stance. It was among Protestants that these new ideas made the greatest ripples. Reactions among Protestants generally took one of two forms, either accommodation and adaptation or retrenchment and counterattack.

Those who adopted the former course of action came to be labeled “liberals” or “modernists.” This group accepted the new theories, often in their totality, and altered their central message to fit accordingly. In so doing, according to historian Harold Carl, they “believed they were rescuing religion from doctrinal bondage and obscurity” and making “Christianity palatable to modern people.”5 Many of them abandoned the belief in miracles, even in the resurrection of Christ, and the traditional Christian dogmas of sin, redemption, and salvation, in favor of a version of Christianity in line with modern science and higher criticism of the Bible. They focused instead on the social implications of the message of the Bible, such as egalitarianism and care for the poor and oppressed, often ignoring the dogmatic and doctrinal altogether. In his 1938 book The Kingdom of God in America, Protestant Neo-Orthodox theologian H. Richard Niebuhr satirically summarized the Gospel of the liberals as the belief that “a God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”6

Those who assumed the latter course of retrenchment and counterattack saw the liberals as traitors to the Christian faith. “It is this group,” says Carl, “—the vocal and the intransigent—who began to publicly attack liberalism in the early 1900s and who eventually took on the name ‘fundamentalists.’”7 Originally emerging from the ranks of clergy of the Presbyterian Church but later encompassing a variety of denominations, this group “would not budge on any point.”8 Even Christians who were not liberals had been willing to concede certain points of modern science and higher criticism as acceptable, but the Fundamentalists would have none of it.

A series of books published in 1910-5 by the Bible Institute of Los Angeles entitled The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth provided the name for this movement.9 The books in the series consist of essays written by a large group of theologians, professors, and clergymen aligning themselves with this new conservative movement in Christianity. The included essays addressed such topics as “the Mosaic Authorship of the Pentateuch,” “Internal Evidence of the Fourth Gospel,” “the Recent Testimony of Archeology to the Scriptures,” and “the Decadence of Darwinism.”10 Nearly any perceived threat, from Darwinism to liberalism to Roman Catholicism, was attacked and the unwavering position of the authors in clinging to Protestant orthodoxy was clearly affirmed; Christian Fundamentalism was born.

The 1920s were a decade largely marked by conservatism in American politics and culture. Following the brutality and upheaval of World War I and the Progressive politics of the previous two decades, Americans longed for a simpler time. According to historian John Milton Cooper, Jr., President Warren G. Harding was elected on a platform that promised a return to the “normalcy,” a word he coined, of “pre-war quiescence and detachment in foreign policy, and of calmer times at home.”11 Manipulating the same distant memories of a better past, the Ku Klux Klan gained enormous popularity. As many as 40,000 members demonstrated in front of the White House in 1925. Christian Fundamentalism found a natural home in the minds of many American Christians of this era, including many in positions of power and influence.

Through the combination of popular conservatism and those adherents to Fundamentalism who were in positions of power, Fundamentalism was able to begin making a major effect on American culture and politics from a very early date in its history. On 13 March 1925, the state legislature of Tennessee passed a law, the Butler Act, ordering

that it shall be unlawful for any teacher in any of the Universities, Normals and all other public schools of the State which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State, to teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.12

John Washington Butler, a Christian Fundamentalist and Tennessee legislator who had introduced the law and for whom the law was named, knew very little about the science behind evolutionary theory but was influenced to oppose it by the work of William Jennings Bryan, an influential politician who had been a presidential candidate as well as a secretary of state. Bryan, a conservative Presbyterian who aligned himself with the Fundamentalist movement, had supported a number of conservative Christian causes throughout his career in politics, including prohibitionism and pacifism; he had now turned his sights on Darwinism.

Following the passage of the law, the American Civil Liberties Union set out to challenge it. In May 1925, John T. Scopes, a high school sports coach who sometimes acted as a substitute teacher for a biology class, agreed to be charged with violating the law in order to bring it to court. Scopes, however, quickly took a backseat in his own trial. Two other very imposing figures took center stage. William Jennings Bryan agreed to participate in the trial on behalf of the prosecution and Clarence Darrow, a famous trial lawyer and self-identified agnostic, agreed to enter on behalf of the defense. Media across the country began following the trial and reporting on it if it were an epic battle between faith and disbelief; poised on one side was Bryan, the man of faith and an emerging spokesman for the Fundamentalist movement, and on the other was Darrow, the rationalistic freethinker and opponent of biblical faith.

In spite of all else that occurred during the course of the eight days of the trial, “it was a heated, two-hour exchange” between Darrow and Bryan “that, in the end, did not affect the case as much as it did the nation” that has been remembered.13 The 1955 play, made into a film in 1960, Inherit the Wind, a fictionalized dramatization of the trial, particularly worked to crystallize this exchange as the defining moment in the trial, as it portrayed the confrontation between the two as the climax of the trial. The popular record has also remembered Darrow as outsmarting Bryan during their exchange and Bryan as being narrow-minded and ignorant. This is the version of events that is presented in Inherit the Wind and it is certainly the image that Darrow sought to create in the debate.

The actual exchange, however, indicates a more nuanced and complex picture. In fact, Darrow often appears to be the narrow-minded bigot whereas Bryan appears more ready for compromise and dialogue. Darrow returns, for example, several times over to the question of the age of the earth in spite of Bryan’s willingness to concede that he does not know the age of the earth and that it may in fact be “six million years or … six hundred million years” old.14 Similarly, Darrow seems at several points in their exchange to insist that the Bible be interpreted even more literally than Bryan interprets it. For example, he questions Bryan concerning the length of the days of creation found in the opening chapter of Genesis in the Bible several times, seeming to insist that Bryan interpret them as literal days and ignoring Bryan’s clear statements that he does not believe them to be literal days. One example of this recurrent line of questioning is in this bizarre exchange:

MR. DARROW–Do you think those were literal days?
MR. BRYAN–My impression is they were periods, but I would not attempt to argue as against anybody who wanted to believe in literal days.
MR. DARROW–Have you any idea of the length of the periods?
MR. BRYAN–NO, I don’t.
MR. DARROW–Do you think the sun was made on the fourth day?
MR. BRYAN–Yes.
MR. DARROW–And they had evening and morning without the sun?
MR. BRYAN–I am simply saying it is a period.
MR. DARROW–They had evening and morning for four periods without the sun, do you think?15

The perception of the cross-examination of Bryan by Darrow as one in which the unbeliever outsmarted the believer, as oversimplified as this is shown to be when compared to the actual content of the trial transcript, is one that has colored subsequent understandings of the trial as well as subsequent debates between believers and unbelievers. In many ways, this misunderstanding of the exchange between Bryan and Darrow has come to characterize the entire debate between Fundamentalists and other conservative believers on the one hand and unbelievers and liberal Christians on the other hand. It has also colored subsequent debates over religion’s place in American society, politics, and especially education. The view of Bryan as simpleminded and backwards has become a caricature applied to Christian Fundamentalists in general.

A recent example of this recurring caricature and the continuation of some the themes present in Darrow’s cross-examination of Bryan, even outside of the United States, is in the recent debate between Richard Dawkins, a scientist and prominent atheist, and Archbishop Rowan Williams, the current Archbishop of Canterbury and head of the Anglican Church. The article published on the website of The Independent, a popular London newspaper, about the event is indicative of this caricature. The very title of the article, “God vs Science: Richard Dawkins takes on Archbishop of Canterbury,” implies that the Christian participant stands opposed to scientific ideas.16 During the course of the debate itself, Dawkins seemed surprised that Williams, who is neither a Fundamentalist nor a modernist, was willing to state that he did not believe in a literal Adam and Eve and that humans had non-human ancestors. Dawkins admitted that he was “baffled by the way sophisticated theologians who know Adam and Eve never existed still keep talking about it,” to which statement the Archbishop countered that the Genesis narrative is not about scientific theories but about deeper truths about God and man.17 Such an exchange is highly reminiscent of Darrow’s adoption of and insistence upon a more literal understanding of Genesis than that of Bryan and his subsequent bafflement at Bryan’s refusal to adopt that narrow, literalistic understanding.

The stereotyping of each side by the other in debates over faith and doubt continues to fall into the narrow categories represented by Darrow and Bryan in the popular remembrance of the Scopes Trial and presented by each in their accusations hurled at the other. Bryan’s claim that skeptics “have no other purpose than ridiculing every person who believes in the Bible” remains a refrain of many on the side of faith and especially in the Fundamentalist camp today, whereas Darrow’s characterization of Bryan and his party as “bigots and ignoramuses” remains the common view of many unbelievers of all believers generally but especially of Fundamentalists.18 Just as in the Scopes Trial, however, the reality is never so simple. On the contrary, as was exhibited by the remarkably cordial and thoughtful nature of the exchange between Dawkins and Williams, which nearly every media outlet that reported on the debate expressed surprise at, there are clearly intelligent and well-meaning people on both sides of the issues. As this debate which began in the Enlightenment and has run through Western popular thought and culture for nearly two centuries continues and as each side in it attempts to reshape culture according to its own view, overcoming the legacy of the Scopes “Monkey” Trial and remembering that the other side does not consist of “bigots and ignoramuses” but others who have simply reached different conclusions may be the most important thing any participant can do.

Notes

1 A.N. Wilson, God’s Funeral(New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1999), 19.

2 Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Volume 1(Chicago: William Benton, 1952), 179-234.

3 Jaroslav Pelikan, Jesus Through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture(New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), 187.

4 Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas that Have Shaped Our World View(New York: Ballantine Books, 1993), 284.

5 Harold Carl, “User-Friendly Faith,” Christian History, “Issue 55: The Monkey Trial & the Rise of Fundamentalism,” accessed 17 October 2012, http://www.christianhistorymagazine.org/wp-content/wS8wVsy62N/chm55-bTjfN.pdf.

6 H. Richard Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1988), 193.

7 Carl, “User-Friendly Faith.”

8 Ibid.

9 George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 118.

10 A.C. Dixon, R.A. Torrey and Shaun Aisbitt, “The Fundamentals of the Christian Faith” (1 January 2003) accessed 17 October 2012, http://web.archive.org/web/20030101082327/http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Parthenon/6528/fundcont.htm.

11 John Milton Cooper, Jr. Pivotal Decades: The United States, 1900-1920 (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1990), 366. 

12 University of Missouri – Kansas City School of Law, “Tennessee Anti-evolution Statute,” accessed 17 October 2012, http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/scopes/tennstat.htm.

13 David Goetz, “The Monkey Trial,” Christian History, “Issue 55: The Monkey Trial & the Rise of Fundamentalism,” accessed 17 October 2012, http://www.christianhistorymagazine.org/wp-content/wS8wVsy62N/chm55-bTjfN.pdf.

14 Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, “Between the Wars: The Monkey Trial,” accessed 17 October 2012, http://chnm.gmu.edu/courses/hist409/scopes.html.

15 Ibid.

16 Tim Walker, “Science vs God: Richard Dawkins takes on Archbishop of Canterbury,” The Independent(24 February 2012), accessed 17 October 2012, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/science-vs-god-richard-dawkins-takes-on-archbishop-of-canterbury-7440051.html.

17 Ibid.

18 Roy Rosenzweig Center, “Between the Wars.”

A History of a Hatred: Anti-Hebraism, Anti-Judaism, and Antisemitism

The hatred of the Jews as a people and of their religion, culture, and, later, even their blood, has been a nearly ubiquitous force throughout the history of Western Civilization. This paper will trace the evolution of this hatred from its beginning in the first contacts between the Greeks and the Jews in the fourth century BCE through to the modern day, attempting to both follow its developments and discover its roots. Although this hatred of the Jews is often described as “Antisemitism” regardless of which historical period is being referred to, this paper will attempt to use more precise terminology. The application of a term like “Antisemitism,” which refers to the hatred of those who fall in the Semitic racial category, to earlier cultures which carried no such notions is at best a misleading anachronism. In the interest of avoiding such inaccuracies, this paper will instead refer to three separate but related phenomena: anti-Hebraism, anti-Judaism, and, following these, Antisemitism.

6th Century BCE through 1st Century CE: Anti-Hebraism

Similarly to the misapplication of the word “Antisemitism” to earlier periods than those in which such a term is meaningful, it is tempting to see the beginning of Anti-Hebraism at a much earlier date than its actual first appearance. The Babylonians and other ancient peoples who warred with or, as the Babylonians did, conquered the people of Israel are often presented as case studies in the early hatred of the Jews. This approach, however, is one that does a disservice to the historical record. While the Babylonians of the sixth century BCE and the other ancient peoples with whom the Israelites fought may have had some “hatred” of their Hebrew or Jewish enemies, the important point here is that this hatred was not a special and unique dislike for a certain people. Neither the Babylonians nor any other ancient enemy of the Jews seems to have regarded the Jews as an exceptional people; they regarded and treated, and this of course means that they hated, the Jews just as they did any other nation against whom they battled.

The view which the Jews held of themselves from a very early date as “a special treasure above all the peoples on the face of the earth” who had been “chosen” by God “to be a people for Himself” must be distinguished from the indifference with which their early enemies treated this claim.1 Because they viewed themselves as a chosen people, the Jews tended to see everything that happened to or around them in these terms and as a result of this special place, and this Jewish view of themselves has colored the way that some historians view the actions of other ancient peoples.

The Book of Daniel is one outstanding example in this regard. The stories in Daniel take place during the Babylonian Captivity in the sixth century BCE, but the book itself was probably written in the second century BCE, as many as 400 years later. As a result, Daniel, the Jewish hero of the story, is treated as an exceptional figure by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar and Jewish religious practices and taboos are treated as having a special significance even by non-Jews. These stories, however, record far less about the actual Babylonian view of the Jews than they do about the Jewish view of themselves in relation to the nations who became their captors. The Book of Daniel is also reflective of and an important historical account of Jewish feelings during the time period in which it was written, namely, the reign of the Greek Seleucid Empire over the Jews.

The real beginning of Anti-Hebraism is probably best placed in the fourth century BCE. It is at this time, with the conquest of Judea by Alexander the Great and the imposition of Greek rule on the Jews, that the Jews can be definitively said to have been viewed as an exceptional people by their non-Jewish rulers and neighbors. The Jews, with their unique ritual and social practices such as circumcision and their insistence upon religious exclusiveness, were viewed with a great measure of suspicion and skepticism by their Greek conquerors and overlords in the fourth through second centuries BCE. While most were willing to tolerate and even protect the Jews as an exceptional people, some rulers, such as Antiochus IV Epiphanes, attempted, however unsuccessfully, to force the Jews to Hellenize and renounce their unique religious practices and beliefs.2

The Greek distrust and dislike of the Jews was continued among the Romans, who conquered both the Greeks and the Jews in the second and first centuries BCE. While the Romans were willing to accept and make exceptions for unique Jewish beliefs and practices and large numbers of Jews emigrated throughout the Roman Empire, Jews were consistently mocked and looked down upon by Romans, who saw practices like circumcision as barbaric and the exclusive Jewish monotheism as potentially seditious.3 According to Peter Garnsey and Richard Saller, “from the Roman point of view, the Jews proved themselves congenitally incapable of either cooperating with the Roman provincial authorities … or coexisting peaceably with the Greeks.”4 The defining feature of this period, which can be most accurately referred to as Anti-Hebraic, was an opposition to and a dislike of the numerous unique aspects of Jewish culture. This negative view of Judaism continued, and was even strengthened in many ways, when the Roman Empire gradually became Christianized beginning in the fourth century CE.


1st Century CE through 18th Century CE – Anti-Judaism

Christianity emerged from a particularly unpleasant split with Judaism in the first century CE. Christians were viewed by the Jews as treacherous and heretical and, as a result, often suffered persecution and expulsion from the synagogues. This hostility on the part of mainstream Jews toward the Christians in their midst precipitated a final split between Judaism and Christianity. It also led to a great deal of vociferously hostile words making their way into the mainstreams of both Jewish and Christian literature and thought about the other. As Calvin J. Roetzel points out, for example, “Matthew’s Gospel … interprets the destruction of the temple in 70 C.E. as punishment for the rejection of Jesus by some Jews.”5

When Christians began to assume power in the Roman Empire several centuries later, these ideas about the Jews combined with the popular Roman prejudices to strengthen Roman anti-Hebraic attitudes into what would most appropriately be called Anti-Judaism.6 These anti-Jewish attitudes, a combination of the Greco-Roman prejudices and Christian theological and historical disagreements, became the predominant view of Judaism throughout Europe for many centuries.

Medieval Christians came to see the Jews as “graceless, blaspheming rebels who had long ago closed their eyes to the light of the Gospel, deicides and ‘Christ-killers’ … whose very survival testified either to the Wandering Jew’s well-deserved homelessness or to the Christian charity of those who tolerated them in their midst.”7 Because of their rejection of Jesus as the Messiah, a point which seemed patently obvious to Christian interpreters of the Old Testament who juxtaposed its prophecies with the life of Christ, the Jews were seen as being blind to apparent truth and possibly even in active rebellion against it. Just as in earlier times under the pagan Greeks and Romans, the Jews, due to their rejection of what others saw as the obvious as well as the insular nature of their communities, were often viewed as dangerous and as potential sources of insurrection.

Early apparitions of this way of viewing the Jews by Christians seem rather more like commonsense than the bigotry they are often portrayed as by some modern historians. As Angelos Chaniotis points out, for example, “if the early Christian fathers, like John Chrysostom and Ephraim the Syrian, never tired of warning their Christian flock not to attend the synagogue, it is because many Christians did.”8 Although the split between the Church and the synagogue had been a messy one with hard feelings on both sides, many Christians, especially the very large group who converted from Judaism, maintained close contacts with Judaism and Jews. At the time, about 400 CE, when John Chrysostom delivered his vociferous sermons against the Judaizers, a group of people who tried to practice both Judaism and Christianity, one could find a small but not insignificant group who attended both the Paschal Feast in the local Christian church and the Passover at the local synagogue. The warnings of such early Christian leaders as John Chrysostom and Ephraim the Syrian were warnings against a very real threat to the Christian Church.

Later manifestations of Christian Anti-Judaism, however, often crossed the line into the absurd and bizarre. In 1144, in France, for instance, the accusation was leveled that Jews kidnapped Christian infants and used their blood in the matzoh they consumed as part of the celebration of Passover.9 This strange rumor continued to circulate throughout the Middle Ages and continues to have currency in some places in the Muslim world to this day. Interestingly, this accusation made by Christians against Jews in the High Middle Ages is nearly the same rumor which had spread among pagan Romans regarding early Christians in the first through third centuries. In their writings, Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Origen, and many other early Christian authors of that period address the charge made against them by Romans that they kidnapped Roman babies and used their flesh and blood as the “flesh” and “blood” consumed in the Eucharist.

It is notable in all of this that none of these prejudices or disagreements revolve around Judaism or Jews as a race or ethnicity, but as a specific religious group which one can join and leave by changing belief and custom. This began to change, however, in the early modern period. One element of the Reconquista in Spain was the forced conversion or expulsion of the Jewish population.10 When given the option of converting to Christianity or leaving, many Spanish Jews chose to convert. These conversos, as they were called, came to be viewed with a great deal of envy and suspicion by their Christian neighbors. Many suspected that, because they had converted under duress, their conversion had only been affected for appearances and that they secretly continued to practice Judaism. In addition, many whose families had been Christians for centuries viewed with envy the children and grandchildren of conversos who were able to attain important places in both secular government and in the the Church, including places as governors, mayors, and bishops. As a result, the name of converso came to be applied, however improperly, even to those whose grandparents had converted to Christianity and the stigma of sedition attributed to the Jews continued to be attached to these conversos even after generations as Christians. What had been a difference in religion was coming to be viewed as a difference in race.

18th Century CE through Today – Antisemitism

With the era of the Enlightenment in the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries, Europeans came to focus more attention and importance on science than on religion. Whereas the emphasis of the Middle Ages had been a primarily religious emphasis, which the denizens of the Enlightenment saw as superstitious, the emphasis of the Enlightenment was one of science and rationality. Rather than actually shucking superstition, however, many instead simply adopted a new set of superstitions or rephrased old superstitions in the new, more acceptable terminology. This can be seen especially in the rise of Antisemitism from Anti-Judaism, as constructed by people like Wilhelm Marr. According to Karl A. Schleunes, Marr was among the first of those who “assigned to Jews the attributes of a race” and was the first, in 1873, to use the term “anti-Semitism” to describe this position.11 While an intellectual living in the wake of the Enlightenment could not take religious differences seriously, or, at least, as seriously as they had been taken previously, he could take supposedly scientific ideas like race seriously; Judaism, then, became no longer a religion, but a race, and all of the same superstitions and conspiracies which had formerly surrounded the Jewish religion were transferred to the new Jewish race. This view became extremely popular in spite of the obvious historical difficulty: many Jews were the descendents of people who converted to Judaism in the ancient and Medieval world and many non-Jews were the descendents of Jews who had converted to Christianity or Islam.

The culmination and most extreme outburst of modern Antisemitism was the Holocaust under the Nazi Party in Germany in 1933-1945. One of the greatest ironies of the Nazi obsession with race is that they, while taking up this “scientific” view on Judaism as a race, re-translated it into religious terms. For the Nazis, race became a religious concept. As one Nazi ideologist, Arthur Rosenberg, wrote in his The Myth of the 20th Century: “A new faith is awakening today: The faith that blood will defend the divine essence of man; the faith, supported by pure science, that Nordic blood embodies the new mystery which will supplant the outworn sacrament.”12 The Greek incredulity at what they saw as the bizarre customs of the Jews, the Roman suspicions toward Jewish exclusivity, and the Christian theological and historical differences with Judaism, all of which had been matters of cultural and religious opposition, became, for the Nazis, attributed to an insidiousness inherent in Jewish blood. This was contrasted with the inherent superiority and goodness of pure Aryan blood, as difficult as such a thing might be to find. The Nazis took up a heritage of Anti-Judaism and a pseudoscience of race to create their own unique racial religiosity which lay at the heart of their entire philosophy and practice.

Conclusion

As different as the phenomena discussed in this paper have been, there has been, throughout the history of the hatred of the Jews, whether in its Anti-Hebraic, Anti-Judaic, or Antisemitic forms, a single thread that binds this “ghoulishly fascinating” story together.13 Thomas Cahill accurately and succinctly summarizes this common thread that runs throughout the history of the hatred of the Jews:

The people being excoriated are presumed to exhibit the unyielding qualities of God himself—the same God whom Christians claimed to worship and whose sacred scriptures they revered. … The hatred of Christians for Jews may have its ultimate source in the hatred of God, a hatred that the hater must carefully keep himself from knowing about.14

Although Cahill is here referring specifically to Christian Anti-Judaism, his words apply equally as well to the pre-Christian Anti-Hebraic Greeks and Romans as well as the later Antisemitic Christians, atheists, and others. What seems to be at the center of all manifestations of hatred toward the Jews is really a hatred of their God – the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – and of his imposing ethical demands on human beings.

Cahill’s moving description of the commandments of this God as given in the Torah presents us with a powerful summary of these ethical demands; according to Cahill, “the constant bias is in favor not of the powerful and their possessions but of the powerless and their poverty; and there is even a frequent enjoinder to sympathy. … This bias toward the underdog is unique not only in ancient law but in the whole history of law.”15 In stark contrast to this description of the demands of the Jewish God stand the words of Adolph Hitler, which might accurately summarize the position, whether implicit or explicit, of all those who have hated and persecuted the Jews simply for being Jews: “Close your hearts to pity! Act brutally! … The stronger man is right. … Be harsh and remorseless! Be steeled against all signs of compassion! … Whoever has pondered over this world order knows that its meaning lies in the success of the best by means of force.”16

In his closing address before the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, Germany, on 26 July 1946, Justice Robert H. Jackson, prosecuting attorney for the Americans, eloquently encapsulated the psychological and philosophical motivation for and effects of the Nazi’s rabid Antisemitism when he said that they had tried to “renounce the Hebraic heritage in the civilization of which Germany was once a part” and in so doing, they had “repudiated the Hellenic influence as well.”17 In their fanatical hatred of all things Jewish, a hatred of the Jewish God and of his demands which led them to a hatred of his people, they had attempted to strip Christianity of all of its Jewish heritage, they had decimated the Christian churches, and they had murdered as many as 13 million people, including six million Jews. In so doing, the Germans had renounced not only the Hebrew legacy of faith and the idea of God which makes up such a great part of Western Civilization but the Greek legacy of reason which consists of the other half. As Donald Kagan has eloquently put it, “if both religion and reason are removed, all that remains is will and power, where the only law is the law of tooth and claw.”18 In the end, their Antisemitism had led them to renounce and attempt to destroy Western Civilization entirely.

Notes 

1 Deuteronomy 7:8, New King James Version.

2 Martin Goodman, Rome and Jerusalem: The Clash of Ancient Civilization (New York: Vintage Books, 2007), 49.

3 Ibid., 278-9.

4 Peter Garnsey and Richard Saller, The Roman Empire: Economy, Society and Culture(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), 170.

5 Calvin J. Roetzel, The World That Shaped the New Testament: Revised Edition(Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 36.

6 Goodman, 551.

7 Gabriel Sivan, The Bible and Civilization (New York: Quadrangle/The New York Times Book Co., 1973), 46.

8 Angelos Chaniotis, “Godfearers in the City of Love,” Biblical Archeology Review, Vol. 36, No. 3 (May/June 2010): 32-44.

9 S. Zeitlin, “The Blood Accusation,” Vigiliae Christianae, Vol. 50, No. 2 (1996): 117-124.

10 David M. Gitlitz, Conversos and the Spanish Inquisition, ed. David Rabinovitch, PBS.org, accessed 19 May 2012, http://www.pbs.org/inquisition/pdf/ConversosandtheSpanishInquisition.pdf.

11 Karl A. Schleunes, The Twisted Road to Auschwitz: Nazi Policy Toward German Jews, 1933-1939 (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1990), 24-5. 

12 Arthur Rosenberg, Der Mythos des 20. Jahrhunderts (Munich, 1931), 114. Quoted in Schleuenes, 52.

13 Thomas Cahill, The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels (New York: Anchor Books, 1999), 152.

14 Ibid., 152-3.

15 Ibid., 154-5.

16 Adolph Hitler, speech to Nazi leadership in 1939. Quoted in William L. Shirer, Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany(New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990), 532.

17 Robert H. Jackson, Closing Statement at the International Military Tribunal in Case No. 1, The United States of America, the French Republic, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics v. Hermann Wilhelm Göring, et al. 

18 Donald Kagan, “Introduction to Ancient Greek History: Lecture 1 Transcript,” Open Yale Courses. (6 September 2007) http://oyc.yale.edu/classics/introduction-to-ancient-greek-history/content/transcripts/transcript1-introduction (Accessed 20 May 2012).
 



Bibliography 

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