Anti-Semitism is a historical enigma. Its origin in pagan antiquity, its evolution through the medieval period, and its demonic denouement in the Holocaust have been explained in many ways. Yet the question still remains: Why the Jews?
By refusing to assimilate, by cleaving to Yahweh even after being conquered and exiled to foreign lands, Jews presented ancient paganism with a radical oddity: a transcendent, stateless, and formless God with an altar separate from the throne. Maybe most odd were His universal claims and sharp enmity against all other gods. “The gods of the pagans were in no sense jealous gods,” Jean-Jacques Rousseau pointed out. “They divided the empire of the world between them.”1 But Yahweh would have none of it. “I am the first and I am the last; apart from me there is no God” (Isaiah 44:6).* See also Psalms 115:4-8; 135:15-18; Isaiah 47:6, 7.
This sharp polemic against pagan gods or idolatry saturated the message of the Hebrew prophets. Summed up in the Shema, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4), it became, after the Babylonian captivity, the defining element in Jewish spirituality and identity. Henceforth, what the prophets were to Israel the Jews now were to the nations of the world. They were now Yahweh’s potent arsenal in His war against pagan gods. It was not by force of arms, however, that the Jews were to fight this war. “Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,” says the Lord Almighty (Zechariah 4:6). The war was to be spiritual and ideological, because Yahweh’s hostility was directed not at pagans but at their gods and pagan vices. Thus to the Gentiles: “Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other” (Isaiah 45:22). But about the gods: “Tell them this: ‘These gods, who did not make the heavens and the earth, will perish from the earth and from under the heavens’” (Jeremiah 10:11).
Pagans took notice and anti-Semitism was born. In antiquity, Jews gained notoriety as “a race remarkable for their contempt for the divine powers.”2 Not only so, they did not eat with pagans, intermarry with them, or join their civic events. They hated all humanity, pagans charged. They had very weird religious practices: Sabbath observance, circumcision, and abstention from pork. To enter their Temple was to risk death. Indeed, the Maccabean revolt was inspired by Antiochus Epiphanes’ desecration of the Temple. Pagans could not understand such religious zeal. Thus they alleged it was a cover-up for ritual murder, incestuous orgies, cannibalism, and donkey worship in the Temple. The Roman historian Tacitus summed up the pagans’ view of the Jews: “All that we hold sacred is profane to them; all that is licit to them is impure to us.”3
This absolute negation of paganism was supposed to generate rejection. Yet ironically by the first century B.C. Jews were gaining so many converts and sympathizers that pagan elites were alarmed. “The customs of this detestable race,” wrote Seneca, “have become so prevalent that they have been adopted in almost all the world. The vanquished have imposed their laws on the conquerors.”4 This alarm explains why Romans prohibited Jews from proselytizing. It also explains their violent response to aggressive Christian missionary activity. So much for paganism’s religious tolerance lauded by many modern scholars. The truth is pagan Rome tolerated only those cults that did not undermine pax deorum (peace of the gods) and the emperor cult, the two ideological pillars of Roman imperialism.
A group of Jews from Hungary after the arrival at Auschwitz in the summer of 1944.
The conflict between pagan Rome and early Christianity might not seem to feature in the history of anti-Semitism. Yet, not only did pagan Rome persecute early Christians; it also leveled against them exactly the same charges directed at the Jews, such as slander of the gods, donkey worship, misanthropy, ritual murder, cannibalism, and incestuous orgies.5 These parallels should alert us to how ancient anti-Semitism was a superficial sign of a much broader and deeper conflict—a conflict of religio-cosmic dimensions. At the heart of this conflict was the question of God’s sovereignty over history and human society. And it is a question that the Roman Empire brazenly answered contra Yahweh.
In their drive to maintain a world empire, the Romans put their gods and those of conquered people in a single pantheon. Hence, “paganism became one and the same religion throughout the known world.”6 But to politically fuse different nations into one world order under the ecumenism of the pagan gods was a brazen attempt to usurp Yahweh’s claim to sovereignty over the universe.
Interestingly, ancient pagans, as Elaine Pagels observed, did agree with their Christian antagonists that pagan gods embodied real elemental forces in the universe. But if pagans revered them as divine patrons, early Christians denounced them as demons.7 Indeed, the martyrs’ uncompromising fidelity was rooted in their conviction that the Roman Empire was “a home for demons and a haunt for every evil spirit, a haunt for every unclean and detestable bird” (Revelation 18:2).
Based on the spiritual worldview held by ancient pagans and early Christians, a union of the church and the empire meant a compromise between Christ and the powers of darkness. And it is the very bargain—coregency with the devil—that the Gospel account tells us Jesus refused in the desert. Whenever the church has accepted this Faustian bargain, it has been only by detaching Jesus from the intensely jealous God of Israel, whom He claimed as His Father. But if we respect His self-definition as Yahweh’s “exact representation” (Hebrews 1:3), then Jesus’ response to the union of church and empire and the church’s subsequent embrace of pagan beliefs, practices, and philosophy will be identical to Yahweh’s intense hostility to idolatry and religious syncretism in ancient Israel.
To be sure, contrary to some conventional academic wisdom, pagan gods did not die with the “victory of Christianity.” Some were renamed and integrated into the celestial hierarchy as saints. For example, “Cupid became the Angel of the Annunciation, and Minerva the Virgin Mary,"8 while others survived in medieval mythological lore, art, and literature. Significantly, the survival of the gods was facilitated by the neutering of the apocalyptic worldview, first, by Origen, and then through the “imperial theology” that grew out of the conversion of Constantine. But most influential was Augustine, who interpreted the book of Revelation as a spiritual allegory and shifted from the biblical dualism of good/evil, light/darkness, to the Platonic dualism of body/soul, matter/spirit.
By denaturing and depersonalizing evil, Augustine domesticated the great adversary of the apocalypse. This helped the devil emerge in medieval theology and folklore as a comical figure, at once humorous and monstrous. But as the devil transformed himself into a relatively harmless figure, all his evil attributes came to be fixed on the Jews. Thus they were blamed for all sorts of natural and social disasters that befell medieval society. Depicted in art, Passion plays, and sermons as Christ-killers, sorcerers, witches, and allies of the devil (complete with tails, horns, and other gross features), Jews became in popular imagination identical with the devil himself. This demonic image was fused with that of the antichrist, transforming them into “a gigantic embodiment of anarchic, destructive power.”9 No wonder then, that in a grotesque parody of God’s end-time destruction of the wicked, thousands of Jews were massacred during the Crusades.
Some have claimed the warrant for this genocidal anti-Semitism is in the New Testament. Yet texts that deny this warrant have been blithely overlooked. For example, in Matthew 13:30 Jesus explicitly warned against annihilating the wicked. “Let both grow together until the harvest” He said. Not only are humans incapable of distinguishing between the good and the evil, the scope of evil is spiritual and cosmic. Only God can eradicate it. That is why Revelation 20:7-15 is very clear that the destruction of the devil and the wicked will be at the same time, at the end-time and by God. In the eschatological parables of the Weeds and of the Net, Jesus is also very specific: His angels will destroy the wicked (Matthew 13:37-43, 47-50). “‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Romans 12:19; cf. Hebrews 10:30). Interestingly, knowing the human inclination to usurp prerogatives that belong to God alone, Jesus predicted that “a time is coming when anyone who kills you will think he is offering a service to God” (John 16:2).
Killing the “wicked” in God’s service is a diabolical paradox, a grotesque distortion of the gospel of love and peace. Yet it is on this distortion that the gospel has been judged and condemned for all the atrocities perpetrated in its name. Never mind that the gospel itself is premised on persecution from the world.10 Never mind that Paul said, “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against . . . the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12). Never mind that he stressed that “though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world” (2 Corinthians 10:3, 4). He was specific that the saints’ weapon is “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6:17). The apocalyptic context of the gospel must be taken seriously. Indeed, in Revelation 12:11 the saints overcome “by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony.”
Both heretics and Jews were demonized by the medieval church and persecuted together. This raises the question of whether the origins of anti-Semitism can simply be ascribed to the conflict between church and synagogue, Christianity and Judaism. The point is, the origins of anti-Semitism “can never be divorced from the wider debate on the nature and modes of authority, by which a universal Christian church insensibly came to replace a universal empire.”11 There was, it is worth noting, a stream of Christianity that, reading the Scriptures differently, never accepted Constantine’s sword—or the union of church and state. Indeed, since the acceptance of this sword was based on rather self-serving allegorical and symbolic readings of Scripture, the medieval church was very hostile to alternative readings and thus the autonomous textural communities of the Waldensians and Rabbinic Judaism.
To be sure, it is literal reading of Scripture that led the Waldensians to reject the doctrine of purgatory, the intercession of the saints, Mass, the sacerdotal powers of the priests—in short, the whole sacramental universe. As long as the church had monopoly over literacy and the interpretation of Scripture, this sacramental universe endured. Sure enough, once Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press and Martin Luther’s rallying cry—sola scriptura—shattered this monopoly, Christendom disintegrated and the modern world was born. But by a curious astigmatism militant secularists overlook the Bible’s central role in this birth. This oversight is disingenuously ahistorical, however. Liberalism, especially in England, developed from efforts to build a new basis for political unity and social cohesion after the Protestant Reformation and the subsequent wars of religion.
To challenge religious intolerance and violence John Locke quoted the Bible verbatim. All his arguments for religious toleration and separation of church and state in A Letter Concerning Toleration are biblical and theological. Even the eighteenth- century philosophes, for all their anti-Christian polemics, “were nearer the Middle Ages, less emancipated from the preconceptions of medieval Christian thought, than they quite realized or we have commonly supposed.”12 For instance, they turned grace into virtue, the love of God into the love of humanity, replaced the Bible with the book of nature, God with a deified reason, the last judgment with the judgment of posterity. As Carl L. Becker succinctly put it, they “demolished the Heavenly City of St. Augustine only to rebuild it with more up-to-date materials.”13
Faced with an entrenched alliance of church and crown, French philosophes attacked both. But their solution, eradicating Christianity and joining the “two heads of the eagle,”14 as Rousseau put it, created a monster, a materialistic version of the medieval enchanted universe. This materialization of the sacred or religious explains the illiberalism and ruthless delirium of the French Revolution. As Alexis de Tocqueville rightly pointed out, the revolution, “though ostensibly political in origin, functioned on the lines, and assumed many of the aspects, of a religious revolution.”15 Indeed, in its universal appeal, in its ambition to make a clean break with the past, create completely new political and religious institutions, remake humanity “and bring about the rebirth of a worldwide brotherhood,”16 not to mention its belief in a vast antirevolution conspiracy, the French Revolution echoed in a vulgar form all the themes of the book of Revelation.
If French philosophes and revolutionary figures appropriated biblical and apocalyptic themes unconsciously or incidentally, Romantics and Völkisch ideologists appropriated them deliberately and copiously. They reworked biblical motifs, mixed them with pagan and modern ideas, to create what Friedrich Schlegel called a “new mythology,” formed “out of the uttermost depth of the spirit.”17 The various and mottled streams that flowed into German Romanticism make it an incredibly ornate and contradictory movement. It defies easy definitions, but this can be said: It decried Newton’s mechanical universe and scientific rationalism and exalted emotions and human uniqueness. Nevertheless it yearned deeply for a primeval unity.
Accentuated by Germany’s belated political unification and the atomization, loneliness, and divisions engendered by modernization, this deep yearning was defined in mystical terms. In Romantic literature all nature is divine. The goal, therefore, was to be one with it. “So long as I myself am identical with nature,” said Schelling, “I understand what a living nature is as well as I understand my own life . . . . As soon, however, as I separate myself . . . [I am] a dead object.”18 Romantics criticized scientific rationalism for dividing reality analytically into distinct parts. As summarized by Novalis, “All evil and wickedness is isolating (it is the principle of separation)”19 Thus the Romantic aim was ‘reconciliation,’ or synthesis, of whatever is divided, opposed, and conflicting.”20 But this totalitarian ambition viewed from a biblical perspective is a total undoing of Creation. It is a reverse creation of the primeval chaos.
Creation was a process of separation and distinction. A God, totally independent from the primeval chaos, separated light from darkness, night from day, waters above from waters below, the sea from the land, formed Eve from Adam, created flora and fauna of infinite diversity, and to cap it all, separated the seventh day from the other days and hallowed it (Genesis 1:1–2:3, 18-23). Important, in hallowing the seventh day, He sanctified “the principle of distinction by making distinction the principle of holiness: qadesh, the root of the verb ‘to hallow,’ means something separated, set off, apart.”21 The sanctification of time, or of the Sabbath, radically desacralized all created reality. In line with this desacralization, or the principle of distinction, the Bible speaks of heaven and earth, the sea, the rivers, and the mountains, and never of nature or cosmos in the sense of a single, all-embracing system.
The fact is since God is transcendent, outside this world, any all-encompassing cosmic system excludes Him. It usurps His authority. And this is exactly what the Romantics did. They dissolved God in nature and installed themselves as gods. Through Bildung, or “self-cultivation,” any human, they wrote, could become God. In particular, artists, by virtue of their creative genius, were, like Jesus, the new mediators for humanity. They were “Gods in human form!” as Lavater intoned, or “dramatic God,” as Herder put it.22 Therefore, their authority was absolute and their freedom unlimited. The Hebrew prophets’ name for this inordinate pride and unbridled self-aggrandizement is idolatry, the ultimate expression of rebellion against God. Once this self-idolatry was transformed into idolatry of the nation, German nationalism, with all its totalitarian impulses and genocidal anti-Semitism, was born.
Thomas Mann was the first to highlight the link between Romanticism and Nazism, when in 1930 he warned his fellow Germans against the “spiritual sources of support” that Nazism could tap into.23 Hitler himself declared that “violence which does not spring from a firm, spiritual base will be wavering and uncertain.”24 He was sure that he had a divine mandate. “I am fighting for the work of the Lord,” he wrote in Mein Kampf.25 Terms such as Providence, Goddess of Destiny, the will of the Almighty, and Fate permeate his book and many of his public speeches. All these were stock terms in the netherworld of Völkisch-nationalist, theosophical, and occult groups that flourished in Germany and Austria in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Historians have drawn distinctions between these groups and Romanticism. Yet in their pantheism, organic view of society, idealization of violence, the irrational, and in their hostility to modernity, to name just a few similarities, they were identical to Romanticism. Indeed, the same Romantic ambition for synthesis, or more precisely syncretism, is what enabled them to incorporate German folkways, legends, pseudoscientific
racial theories, modern scientific concepts, social Darwinism, and even biblical apocalyptic themes into their mystical worldview. Out of this explosive mélange the Nazis forged their genocidal ideology. The crux, however, is that in its deepest essence, the whole trajectory of German ideology from Romanticism to Nazism was a rebellion, an idolatrous declaration of war against Yahweh, the God of Israel, of which anti-Semitism was its concrete expression.
LEFT: As part of its heightened wartime attack on Jews, the Germany Ministry of Propaganda turned to motion pictures as a medium for antisemitic messages. The poster for Der ewige Jude, 1940.
RIGHT: Nazi propagandists frequently depicted "the Jew" as a conspirator plotting world domination by acting behind the scenes in nations at war with Germany. Hanisch, artist; ca. 1942.
Just as the Romantic pantheistic universe excluded God, German mystical nationalism excluded the Jews. Indeed, in this paganized universe the gospel was detached from its Jewish roots and reformulated to forge a Germanic religion that would “unite a Christian heaven and a German earth in one impenetrable mystery.”26
The basis for this Germanic religion was prepared by the decline of Protestantism in the nineteenth century under the assault of higher criticism and liberal theology. Significantly, it is a decline that coincided with the revival of occultism
and interest in oriental religions. Given this atavism, it is no wonder that the Hitler Youth in the 1930s openly chanted, “We want to be pagans once again.”27
This brazen atavism is tersely captured in Herder’s censure of his German ancestors for adopting Christianity: “Was not Arminius good enough to be a God for you?”28 It may be asked why German Christians did not challenge this idolatrous atavism. Apparently, in their fervor for the new deities of fatherland and national honor, they were ready to dispense with the God of Israel. Jewish historian Rufus Learsi got it right: “The basic historic fact is still the struggle in the human heart and in human society between the holy and righteous God . . . and the idols of paganism.”29 Indeed, if Jews had allowed God to be dissolved in the polytheistic cauldron of pagan antiquity or in the syncretic bowl of medieval Europe, there never would have been the “Jewish problem” in modern Europe. But since Yahweh is indissoluble, the final solution was to dissolve the Jews themselves in the gas chambers.
Auschwitz is the emblem of “radical evil,” an “eruption of demonism into history,” as Emil Fackenheim vividly described it.30 Yet surprisingly, as Ron Rosenbaum notes in his very provocative book, Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil, there is a great reluctance among many Hitler scholars to call him evil. Rosenbaum attributes this reluctance to “the imprecision of our thinking on the subject of evil.”31 But I would like to suggest that this imprecision is rooted in our distorted knowledge of the biblical apocalyptic, which captures more than any other theory or philosophy the demonic or evil forces in history. And the first point to note is that far from being a call to arms, the biblical apocalyptic was written primarily to reassure the persecuted saints that contrary to all appearances, God was still in control of history. Instead of being meaningless, their suffering, like that of Jesus, exposed the conspiracy of evil forces seeking to dominate the world.
In other words, the popular myth of a Jewish world conspiracy is a fiendish inversion. To be sure, Nazis projected on Jews the very world domination they were seeking. And their discourse was straight out of the apocalypse: “Two worlds face one another,” declared Hitler, “the men of God and men of Satan! The Jew is the anti-man, the creature of another god.”32 This cannibalization of apocalyptic themes is, as John Gray reminds us, a chapter in the history of modern politics.33 Unless we are on guard, the last chapter is yet to be written. Perhaps that is why the book of Revelation ends with stark warning against anyone adding to or taking away from its prophecies (Revelation 22:18, 19).
* Bible texts in this article are from the Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.
- Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract, Maurice Cranston, trans. (London: Penguin Books, 1968), p. 177.
- Pliny the Elder, as quoted in Louis H. Feldman, Jew and Gentile in the Ancient World (Princeton University Press, 1993), p.152.
- Cited in Saint Augustine, City of God, John O’Meara, trans. (Penguin Books, 1972), p. 252.
- Norman Cohn, Europe’s Inner Demons: The Demonization of Christians in Medieval Christendom (The University of Chicago Press, 1973).
- Rousseau, p. 178.
- Elaine Pagels, “Christian Apologists and ‘The Fall of the Angels’: An Attack on Roman Imperial Power?” Harvard Theological Review, 78 (1985): 302-304.
- Jean Seznec, The Survival of the Pagan Gods: The Mythological Tradition and Its Place in Renaissance Humanism and Art (Princeton University Press, 1981), p. 105.
- Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970), p. 34.
- See 2 Timothy 3:12; Matthew 24:9; Daniel 7:21, 25; 8:23, 24; Revelation 6:9-11; 12:13-17; 13:7.
- Peter Brown, Authority and the Sacred: Aspects of the Christianisation of the Roman World (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 53.
- Carl L. Becker, The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1932), p. 29.
- Ibid., p. 31.
- Rousseau, p.180.
- Alexis de Tocqueville, The Old Regime and the French Revolution, by Stuart Gilbert, trans. (New York: Anchor Books, 1955), p. 11.
- Cited in Marvin Perry, An Intellectual History of Modern Europe (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1993), p. 156.
- M. H. Abrams, Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1971), p. 67.
- Ibid., p. 181.
- Ibid., p. 182.
- Leon R. Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis (Free Press, 2003), p. 52.
- Liah Greenfield, Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992), p. 336.
- Fritz Stern, The Politics of Cultural Despair: A Study in the Rise of the Germanic Ideology (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974), p. 50.
- Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, Ralph Manheim, trans. (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1971), p. 65.
- Ibid., p. 171.
- Stern, p. 50.
- Cited in Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin, Why the Jews? The Reason for Antisemitism (Simon & Schuster, 1993), p. 160.
- Greenfeld, p. 328.
- Rufus Learsi, Israel: A History of the Jewish People (World Publishing Company, 1949), p. 679.
- Ron Rosenbaum, Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil (New York: Harper Perennial, 1998), p. xvi.
- Ibid., p. xxi.
- Cited in Lucy S. Dawidowicz, The War Against the Jews: 1933-1945 (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1975), p. 21.
- John Gray, Black Mass: How Religion Led the World Into Crisis (Anchor Canada, 2008).
Author: Elijah Mvundura
Elijah Mvundura writes from Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He has graduate degrees in economic history, European history, and education.