BOOKS OCTOBER 11, 2013
Sometime in the middle years of the sixteenth century, after the bodies were brought up for Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell made England modern, a brilliant Oxford scholar named John Jewel discovered what we now call Late Antiquity. Oxford has always been a city of books, and Jewel—a member of two bookish colleges, Corpus Christi and Merton—came across his newfound land between the leather covers of great folios. A nine-volume edition of the works of Saint Jerome, now preserved in the library of Magdalen College, excited him to fever pitch. Jewel tore through it, underlining passages and leaving notes on every page. And he took away some powerful messages. Jerome taught Jewel that the first Christian bishops had not been silk-clad princes who lived in palaces, but ascetic servants of the Christian believers entrusted to them. When Jewel became Bishop of Salisbury under Elizabeth, he wore himself out defending the Church of England and reorganizing his diocese. Reading had consequences in the sixteenth century.
Practical issues did not claim all—or even most—of Jewel’s attention. He wanted to explore and to map the whole world of early Christian life, and thought, and liturgy. Nothing in the whole massive set of books fascinated him more than the long and pointed letters that Jerome exchanged with his younger contemporary Augustine about the Hebrew language and the Jews. Augustine fired the first shot, protesting Jerome’s effort to retranslate the Old Testament from the original Hebrew. By doing so, he insisted, Jerome would call into question the authority of the apostles, who had used the Greek version. Worse, he would make Jews the arbiters of biblical truth, even for Christians. When consulted, some of them had told Christians disturbed by Jerome’s new translation of a word in Jonah that Jerome was wrong. Jerome, in his turn, denounced Augustine. The younger man claimed that Paul had been right, as a born Jew, to continue observing Jewish rituals even after his conversion to Christianity. But Jewish rituals, Jerome insisted, had lost their meaning with the Incarnation. Paul had observed them only to make his dealings with the Jews go more easily.
Jerome also attacked another powerful idea that Augustine was putting forward, in his letters and elsewhere. Many Christians—such as Jerome himself—thought that Jews deserved only their hatred (at least once they had revealed the secrets of their sacred language). Augustine momentously rebutted them. God had chosen the Jews, he taught, and had given them His law, as preparation for the coming of the Messiah. He wanted the Jews to survive, and to continue practicing their religion, because in doing so they provided a vital form of witness to Christianity. Enemy testimony, after all, offered powerful proof that the church had fulfilled the promises that God had made and the prophecies that He had inspired. Christians should not persecute or harm Jews, but should leave them to wander the Earth as Cain had, protected by the special mark of their sinfulness, eternally stuck in an antiquity that they could not leave.
Imaginary Jews often turned out to be not good, but strangely good to think about.
Jewel sided with Augustine. “Oh Jerome,” he wrote in the margin (in Latin), appalled at the argument that Paul had pretended to follow Jewish customs in order to deceive Jewish converts. “You’re babbling,” he noted at another passage, where Jerome insisted that Jewish rituals had lost all their value with the arrival of Jesus. It seems a strange scene. At this point, Jewel had probably never seen a Jew in the flesh, since England had expelled them centuries before. Only a handful perched in precarious niches in London. Yet we can still stand beside him as he sits, pen in hand, absorbed to the point of obsession by what two ancient men had to say, very much in the abstract, about Jews. You could not easily meet a real Jew in the streets of London. But the intellectuals of the sixteenth century did much of their wandering in the margins of their Christian books, and there they met imaginary Jews of every kind. Often they turned out to be not good, but strangely good to think about.
For David Nirenberg—whose Anti-Judaism is one of the saddest stories, and one of the most learned, I have ever read—Jewel, and Jerome and Augustine are typical figures from an enormous tapestry. From antiquity to more recent times, an endless series of writers and thinkers have crafted versions and visions of Jews and Judaism that are as ugly and frightening as they are effective. Some of them—for example, the Egyptian priest Manetho—probably drew on older traditions that can no longer be reliably reconstructed. Some of them—Paul, Spinoza, Marx—were Jews by birth. Most of them knew few real Jews and had little or no direct knowledge of Jewish life or thought. Yet working in sequence, each in his fashion and each for his time and place, they have created beings at once complex, labile, and astonishingly consequential: call them, for want of a better term, imaginary Jews. These animated figures rival vampires in their ability to survive for centuries and zombies in their refusal to be defeated by rational argument. And they are of far more than antiquarian interest. Over the centuries, imaginary Jews have found their places, sometimes vital ones, in some of the loftiest intellectual edifices ever raised. Surprisingly often they have been the caryatids: the pillars on which everything else rests.
Anti-Judaism is an astonishing enterprise. It is certainly not the first effort to survey the long grim history of the charges that have been brought against the Jews by their long gray line of self-appointed prosecutors. During World War II, a learned rabbi named Joshua Trachtenberg brought out The Devil and the Jews, an erudite and wide-ranging effort to explain why Christians found it rational to associate Jews with Satan and malevolent magic, and charge them with crimes that would have been as ludicrous as the indictment of the witch in Monty Python and the Holy Grail if the punishments meted out had not been so savage. In 1955, Léon Poliakov, a Russian émigré who settled in France, published the first of four volumes in which he traced the history of anti-Semitism from antiquity to 1933. As the memory of the Holocaust spread outside the Jewish world, historians began to excavate in the archives that preserved its documents. New social and cultural explanations of the Judeocide, by professional scholars and passionate amateurs alike, now appear every year.
But Nirenberg is after different quarry: he does not trace the millennial story of the Jews and their conflicts with non-Jews, though he does describe individual and communal fights. Nor does he compile a catalogue of the vile ideas about Jews that non-Jews have entertained and publicized. He wants to know why: why have so many cultures and so many intellectuals had so much to say about the Jews? More particularly, he wants to know why so many of them generated their descriptions and explanations of Jewishness not out of personal knowledge or scholarly research, but out of thin air—and from assumptions, some inherited and others newly minted, that the Jews could be wholly known even to those who knew no Jews. Nirenberg’s answer—and to summarize it, as to summarize so much of this impassioned book, is to flatten it—is that ideas about the Jews can do, and have done, many different and important jobs. True, they are anything but stable: this is not a paper chase after some original idea of the Jew that crops up everywhere from early Christianity to early Nazism. Visions of the Jews change emphasis and content as the larger societies that entertain them change shape and texture. Ideas have multiple contexts, and Nirenberg shows dazzling skill and a daunting command of the sources as he observes the changes and draws connections between them and his authors’ larger worlds.
Jews have been characterized by non-Jews for their obstinacy—their refusal, for example, to recognize the known truth that the Messiah had come, which enabled them to become the villains of both early Christian and early Muslim narratives. They have been characterized by non-Jews for their viciousness—their desire to desecrate the sacrament and murder Christian children, which allowed them to be used both by rebels against royal authority, and by kings, in the Middle Ages, as each side could claim, when the wind blew from the right quarter, that Jews were polluting society through their materialism and greed. They have been characterized by non-Jews for their greed—their failure to understand the difference between the value of material things and that of people, which inspired Shakespeare to compose some of the most memorable lines in The Merchant of Venice, when Solanio reports how the Jew cried, “My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter!” Each account differs from the rest—Shakespeare, using the case of a Venetian Jew to think about capitalism, does not much resemble Martin Luther, using the Jews to think about the relations between God and the created world. Yet somehow, part of each imagined Jew persists in the collected body of them all. Read the radical German philosophers who created the world anew in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Kant, Hegel, and Schopenhauer, through Nirenberg’s eyes, and you see them “Judaize” their opponents—the idealists Judaizing the empiricists who did not see the power of critical reason, and Hegel, for a time, Judaizing the Kantian idealists.
Labile though they are, imaginary Jews have served—and still serve—an extraordinary range of purposes. Like the topics of ancient rhetoric or the harmony of the spheres, they have played a whole series of central roles in the drama of Western culture. They have served controversialists as weapons, provoked political thinkers, and inspired playwrights. Most remarkable—and perhaps most frightening—of all, they have sometimes been vital to the creation of Europe’s most critical and innovative ideas. What Nirenberg is offering, then, is less a history in any standard sense, or a genealogy in any trendy one, than a microscopically precise examination of a set of tools that Western thinkers have wielded for millennia, forging and re-forging and honing them as new tasks required it.
At the end of his book, Nirenberg evokes Erich Auerbach, whose Mimesis surveyed the multiple ways of representing reality practiced by Western writers, every chapter based on his own reading of the original texts—and whose article “Figura” traced the ways in which the Western Church Fathers rejected allegorical readings of the Old Testament for figural ones, which preserved the historical integrity of the ancient Hebrews.1 Like Auerbach, Nirenberg is a scholar of towering erudition as well as towering ambition: his mastery of languages and his command of secondary literature enable him to range the millennia with apparent ease, and, like Auerbach, he finds new and penetrating things to say about texts that scholars and critics have been working over for centuries. Yet this is a profoundly different enterprise from Auerbach’s: a study of the many ways in which language does not show us the world but shapes it for us. In some ways, it reminds me more of the work of E. R. Curtius, Auerbach’s great rival and antithesis, whose European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages traced the lives and afterlives of classical tropes and forms across the centuries. Like both Auerbach and Curtius, Nirenberg writes with astonishing clarity and panache. He has devised a language equal to the demands of his subject and his sources—a language that not only serves his analytical purposes but also conveys his findings in a form that stamps them on the reader’s memory and imagination: “Secular power could never quite escape Cain’s conjoined significations, as both ‘founder of the earthly city’ and ‘a figure of the Jews.’ Sovereigns therefore trod a path haunted by monsters of Judaism even more ferocious than those that beset readers of biblical texts. Augustine did not seek to slay these monsters. Instead he tried to immure them, like the furies under Aeschylus’s Athens, at the foundations of the Christian city.”
In the end, though, Nirenberg is a historian, and this gives his story qualities found neither in Auerbach nor in Curtius.2 He carefully points out, again and again, that the way thinkers use Jews and Judaism in their work often tells us nothing about their personal relations with Jews. Yet his own story begins not only in antiquity, but also in a real conflict, which he documents in detail: in the Egypt of the first millennium BCE, a culture deeply committed to believing that it had never changed—and all the more deeply as it was conquered, first by the Persians and then by Alexander the Great. Jews enjoyed a privileged status in Egypt, not for the last time, thanks to royal patronage. But they were not seen as true Egyptians, and they suffered criticism and attacks from natives who resented their presence and their peculiar ways of living and worshipping. The ancient Greek version of the Old Testament, which was made in Egypt, shows traces of an effort to scrub Judaism of its traditional, and offensive, denunciations of polytheism. But this and other soft answers failed to turn away wrath. Manetho, an Egyptian priest, composed an elaborate work in Greek in which he described the ancient Jews as lepers—a diseased and antisocial people who, far from suffering servitude in Egypt, had conquered the country and mistreated its native inhabitants until they were expelled by force. Later writers, such as the Greek-Egyptian grammarian Apion, accepted his views and developed his critique.
The Jews as the enemy of mankind: this image, like the statue of the four empires in the book of Daniel, had legs. Though Roman writers had little good to say about the Jews, they did not take a deep interest in them. In Egypt, by contrast—the Greek-speaking Egypt that steamed and grumbled under Roman rule—the diseased and antisocial Jews called into being by Greek-writing scholars proved provocative and fertile. Egyptians rehearsed the crimes that Jews committed against them. They appealed to the Roman emperor Titus, after the defeat of the Jewish revolt, to strip Alexandria’s Jews of their civil rights. Finally, over a period of civil war, they slaughtered most of the thousands of Jews who lived in Alexandria. Even more remarkably, they rejoiced. As the great historian of science Otto E. Neugebauer once remarked, Egyptians normally showed little or no interest in that spirit of heroism that so often made life in ancient Greece a hell on Earth. But in Oxyrhynchus, the city of the sharp-nosed fish, they remembered, and celebrated, the crushing of the Jews, eighty years after it happened.
More subtle—and in a way even more deadly—were the complementary versions of Jews and Judaism elaborated by the early Christians—many of whom were born into Jewish communities, and some of whom continued to practice Jewish rituals throughout their lives. Nirenberg starts with Paul, the Pharisee who became the earliest and greatest Christian writer. In those dazzling works of Jewish exegesis, his New Testament epistles, Paul interpreted the history and the future of the world in terms of a series of opposites, tabulated with breathtaking precision and assurance: death and life, letter and spirit, outward observance and inner faith. In his early letter to the Galatians and sporadically after that, Paul accepted that Jewish converts to Christianity could go on practicing the rituals of their ancestral religion. Gentile converts, however, need not do so. Christ’s sacrifice, already complete, was the one and only thing that could save them, if they could only manage to have faith in Him. And only that—not circumcision of their flesh—could make them members of the true religious community.
Paul’s argument was balanced and tolerant, but his language had a power of its own. He associated Jews with letter rather than spirit, death rather than life, ritual rather than faith—and stasis rather than salvation. As Paul’s own message evolved, as he responded to opposition in some communities, and as his letters were read by later Christians in the light of later events, Judaism came to seem, if never wholly bad, at least wholly wrongheaded, the chosen people’s disastrous march in the wrong direction on a one-way street.
Even more than Paul, the Gospel writers are central to Nirenberg’s story. They transmuted theory into narrative: the table of oppositions came into play in action and dialogue to separate Jesus and his followers, parable by parable and sermon by sermon, from the Jews. Paul’s task had been to explain why Jesus and his sacrifice completed the history of Judaism. That of the evangelists was in some ways harder: they had to explain why, though the Messiah had come, the Romans had destroyed the Temple—and why, in their time, it seemed necessary to exclude Christians who wished to continue living as Jews from the church community. In their complementary accounts, the Pharisees and other Jews misunderstand, because they read too literally, every sign and interpretation that Jesus offers them. The seeds of truth fall on stony ground, and the Jews betray, denounce, and finally kill their savior. And as they commit this collective crime, the Jew is named and defined: he is the one who does not see, who always chooses the external, the letter that kills, over the internal, the spirit that gives life.
The Pharisees, strict in their upholding of the law and proud and unbending in their daily lives, think themselves splendid but in fact resemble the tombs of the prophets, which they guard: “You are like whited sepulchers,” Jesus tells them, “which look handsome on the outside, but inside are full of the bones of the dead and every kind of corruption.” Nirenberg appreciates the terrible beauty of this and other Gospel texts. Unlike Paul, the evangelists mobilize their unforgettable images not only to distinguish but also to condemn: to identify the Jews not only with the dead letter and the flesh, but also with Satan, the ruler of this world and the enemy of Christian followers of the spirit.
In Nirenberg’s first two cases, ideas about the Jews do not float free in the air: they are connected with, and sometimes generated by, the ways in which actually existing Jews and non-Jews confront one another at community borders. In an earlier period of his career, Nirenberg wrote as a master choreographer of the past, tracing the tense and intricate interplay, and occasional violence, that Jews, Muslims, and Christians engaged in as they lived, in close quarters, in medieval France and Aragon. It is not surprising, accordingly, to see this book begin with well-documented excursions into the social history of ideas.
But with the rise of a recognizable early Church, an institution with a sacred Scripture, a liturgy, and a table of organization of its own, the music changes. One after another, the theologians appear, and disagree—from heretics such as Marcion, who rejected the entire Old Testament and its God as irreconcilable with the message and values of Christ, to system-builders such as Eusebius, who insisted that Christians must not only take over the histories and prophecies of the Jews, but also reimagine them retrospectively in Christian terms. Marcion wanted to eliminate all traces of Judaism from Christianity. Eusebius, more influentially, set out to appropriate all of them for Christianity—turning Palestine from the promised land of the Old Testament, marked by invasion, battles, and revelation, to the Holy Land of the New Testament, marked by preaching and miracles.3 The patriarchs and prophets of the Old Testament, Eusebius reassured his Christian readers, were not Jews but Hebrews—and could be embraced in retrospect even as their descendants could be ignored.
If the visions of Judaism varied, their uses did not. Again and again, Nirenberg shows, Christians saw those imaginary literalists with their marks of Cain appearing under the priestly garb of friends and rivals. Again and again, Christian thinkers denounced their critics and enemies as “Jews”—that is, Christians who read too literally, or with no inspiration. And almost every one of them was denounced in his turn for the same crime of Jewish deviationism. In this world, in which imaginary Jews haunted real cities and their imaginary crimes became the object of real sermons, Jerome could find it reasonable to insist, almost in the same breath, that the Christian scholar must master Hebrew in order to understand the first half of his own sacred scripture and that Jewish liturgy and practice had lost their entire positive value with the coming of Christ, so that his own duty, as the pupil of a Hebrew teacher, was to hate the entire Hebrew race.
Those whom Jerome denounced, Augustine defended. The Jews must live and worship as they always had, wrongly, but Christian rulers must protect them: not because Augustine had any particular fondness for Jews—the evidence suggests that he had little direct contact with them—but because they would serve, in their endless, sterile wandering of the Earth, as proof that Christianity had superseded their obsolete religion. Paula Fredriksen, a great student of Augustine, has re-created the development of Augustine’s ideas in a profound book called Augustine and the Jews. She argues that Augustine’s notions about the Jews actually saved lives—during the Crusades, for example, when popes and preachers invoked them to prevent the destruction of more Jewish communities.
Nirenberg appreciates Fredriksen’s insight but reads the evidence differently. The Fathers had far less to do with actual Jews than Paul or the evangelists—which is why Nirenberg’s enterprise really takes wing when he reaches them. In the fourth and fifth centuries, the Jews whom Jerome fiercely hated and Augustine drily pitied were largely abstract figures of thought rather than individuals of flesh and blood. Yet they were central to the two men’s visions of the past and the future—and their errors provided vital weapons with which Jerome could fight those who denied his readings of the Bible, and Augustine the Manicheans who did the same to his. Fictional Jews, as vivid as they were imaginary, began to fill the virtual world that the writers conjured into being. No wonder that Jewel watched with such fascination as the two great men shadowboxed, surrounded by Semitic phantasms.
Nirenberg’s parade of imagined and imaginary Jews—the most hideous procession since that of the flagellants in The Seventh Seal—stretches from the Arabian peninsula to London, and from the seventh century BCE to the twentieth CE. Working always from the original sources in their original languages, he observes the multiple ways in which imaginary Jews served the purposes of real writers and thinkers—everyone from Muhammad, founding a new religion, to Shakespeare, observing a new commercial society. God, here, is partly in the details: in the careful, tenderly observant way in which Nirenberg dissects everything from fierce political rhetoric to resonant Shakespearean drama. In works of the imagination, profound treatises, and acts of political radicalism, as he analyses them, imaginary Jews are wielded to powerful effect. He shows us the philosophes of the Enlightenment, those friends of humanity and enemies of tyrannical “infamy,” as they develop a viciously negative vision of Jewish sterility and error to attack Christianity at its origins or to characterize the authorities whom they defied.
Nirenberg’s lucid, searing narrative and analysis rest on extraordinarily wide reading, the contours of which are charted in his ample and informative notes. He never hesitates to take issue with authorities in many fields, and at times—as when he explains that “I intend no resonance with Jacob Taubes’s treatment of Romans”—his language has a touch of Carthago delenda est. But he conducts his arguments with a seriousness rare in our intellectual life, and vanishingly so in works of historical synthesis. Even when he piles paradox on paradox—as when he argues that Spinoza built the portrait of biblical Judaism in his Tractatus from the stockpile of materials that non-Jewish thinkers had created over the centuries—Nirenberg grounds his arguments in close reading of the texts and engages with the modern authorities whose interpretations he rejects.
An intellectual historian myself, I have no quarrel with Nirenberg’s view that ideas matter, and I have nothing but respect for the methods that he brings to their study. This does not mean that I entirely share his perspective. As a social historian of conflict and an intellectual historian of the uncanny imagination, Nirenberg is unbeatable. But Jews and non-Jews lived other histories together as well. As Josephus recalled, when the thousands of diaspora Jews settled in the cities of the Roman world, across Asia Minor and Italy as well as Egypt, many of their pagan neighbors found their ways attractive. Pagans admired the Jews’ pursuit of a coherent code for living and their worship of a single, unseen god. Some became “god-fearers,” who accepted the Jewish god but did not hold full membership in the Jewish community. Some converted. Jews, meanwhile, pursued their own visions of high culture—whether these involved learning to write Greek tragedies about the Jewish past or rebuilding one’s foreskin to make possible appearances at the gymnasium.
This story of loose borders and unexpected sympathies is hard to re-create—but scholars have teased out some of its contours from the evidence of inscriptions and papyri as well as satirical poetry and the Gospels. The intellectual story that Nirenberg tells—like the story of modern Judeocide—becomes harder to understand, demanding of more interpretation rather than less, when these conditions are brought into it. And they have been the objects of a vast, wide-ranging, and contentious scholarly literature, ever since the great Jewish and Christian scholars of the sixteenth century first realized that the Jews of antiquity had not lived closed off from the societies around them. Nirenberg himself refers to these points in his account of Egypt, but they do not figure largely in his analysis, and seem less prominent in later chapters.
There is another perspective that I wish Nirenberg had also brought to bear—one for which my great colleague Natalie Zemon Davis has always stood. Norms are norms, Davis has always acknowledged: societies have their ways of doing things, and intellectuals have their assumptions, those ideas so seductive that no mere fact can refute them. Historians can use their knowledge of these patterns to fill in gaps in the preserved documents. Yet somehow there are also, always, moments of contingency that unfold differently: moments when the cloud of assumptions clears, when eyes and minds meet across barriers that usually seem as high and deadly as the old Berlin Wall. There were real Jews in early modern Europe—more Jews than Nirenberg has room for in his account: not just the Portuguese in Amsterdam but also Sephardic merchants in other great ports, and smaller communities that survived in more hostile places. Frankfurt, for example, had a small Jewish community. And Frankfurt also housed the spring and fall book fairs, which scholars, writers, agents, and publishers from all of Europe attended, as they still do. No wonder, then, that Christian visitor after Christian visitor heard part of a synagogue service or smiled to see the Torah carried with devotion by the hard-pressed but pious and learned members of the Frankfurt congregation. Contacts would be far closer—and more intimate—in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Amsterdam, which Nirenberg comes close to dismissing as too unusual to matter much.
Nirenberg has rebuilt the walls, and shown us that, though they were abstract and immaterial, they were nonetheless real. They channeled most of the traffic—but not all of it. Sometimes men saw things they should not have seen—as when Montaigne, observing a circumcision in Rome, noted that the baby cried, like a Christian baby (“one of ours”) being baptized; or as when Joseph Scaliger would go from Leiden, where he was a professor, to Amsterdam, on Saturdays, for the sheer joy of seeing the Portuguese Jewish women sitting outside their houses, observing the Sabbath; or when Scaliger and other Christians began to read Jewish texts, and came to see that the ethics of the early rabbis and those of Jesus had far more in common than the Gospel writers suggested. The consequences of these little breaches of the wall could be disproportionately big.
Think of Paul Fagius—Reformed minister, Hebraist, often bitter critic of Jews—writing his commentary on Pirqe Avot, or The Teachings of the Fathers. Yossi ben Yo’ezer, so Fagius read, “used to say, let your house be a meeting place for the sages, cleave to the dust of their feet, and drink thirstily their words.” Yes, Fagius wrote, this was true: it was what Mary Magdalene was doing when she clung to the feet of Jesus, her teacher. This tiny insight, recorded in a technical little book in Hebrew and Latin, could be seen as the beginning of some very large changes in the way that Jews and Christians saw one another—a triumph of the scholar’s sharp eye over the beam that usually obstructed it. Fagius had some help: he worked for several years, day after day, with the great Ashkenazi Jewish scholar Elijah Levita. But from the eyes of Nirenberg’s scholars and writers, sadly, the beams are never removed, and in their lives the moments of communion across religious barriers are few.
Yet even in uttering these very small complaints, I feel like one of the critics who occupy the Temple of Dulness in Pope’s Dunciad. David Nirenberg sets out his argument with a learning, a panache, and a style—as well as a range of interests and of erudition—that put workaday scholars like me to shame. Anti-Judaism is that rare thing, a great book, as much in its ability to provoke disagreement as in its power to shape future writing on the vast territory that its author has so brilliantly mapped. I only wish that John Jewel could come back to life and read it, pen in hand. It would take a multilingual bishop who knew his Hebrew Old Testament and Greek New Testament, his Jerome and his Augustine, his Erasmus and his Luther, to confront this extraordinary and troubling book with the intensity and the erudition that it deserves.
Anthony Grafton is a contributing editor at The New Republic, the Henry Putnam University Professor at Princeton University, and the author of Worlds Made by Words: Scholarship and Community in the Modern West (Harvard).