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Religion: Christianity

Christianity is a general term denoting the historic community deriving from the original followers of Jesus of Nazareth and the institutions, social and cultural patterns, and the beliefs and doctrines evolved by this community. In the widest sense, Christianity also refers to the forms of civilization which it created or influenced, thus many elements in modern, secular, Western civilization are still, in one way or another, called Christian or attributed to Christianity.

The Term

The vague character of the term provides this wide range of meaning. In Christian tradition itself, however, a variety of more precise words are used to denote specific aspects of the religion; e.g., the body of all believers, conceived as a religious entity living in unity with Christ as head, is called the "Church." The Church itself can be looked at as a spiritual or "mystical body," in which case it is usually referred to in the singular; it can denote particular – nationally or denominationally organized – groups or organizations, in which case one speaks of the "Churches" (e.g., Roman Catholic, Baptist, Lutheran, etc.) in the plural. Very often one differentiates between the major historical forms and traditions of the church(es), and hence distinguishes between Roman Catholic, Protestant and Eastern (orthodox as well as non-Chalcedonian) Christianity. Christianity can be viewed as a religious institution (whether as a universal church or as distinct churches), as a body of beliefs and doctrines (Christian dogma and theology), or as a social, cultural, or even political reality shaped by certain religious traditions and mental attitudes. When the reference is to the human societies shaped by these traditions and attitudes, the noun "Christendom" rather than Christianity is sometimes used. The term derives from the Greek word christos (Eng. "Christ") which is the translation, occurring already in the Septuagint , of the Hebrew mashi'aḥ (which in English became Messiah ), "the anointed." While the precise nature of Jesus' beliefs about himself and the nature of the "messianic" task which he attributed to himself are still a matter of scholarly controversy, there is little doubt that at an early date his followers saw in him the promised mashi'aḥ, the son of David. This view is evident in the gospel accounts which attempt to trace the ancestry of Jesus back to David, evidently for the purpose of legitimizing his messianic status. Jesus himself seems to have rejected the term in favor of other eschatological titles (e.g., the "Son of Man"), but the early community of his followers (see Apostles ), believing in his resurrection after the crucifixion, evidently held this term to be the most expressive of the role which they ascribed to their master and "Lord" (Gr. kyrios). In due course the title ("Jesus, the Christ") became synonymous with the personal name, and the word Christ was used by the believers as the name of the risen Jesus (cf. Gal. 1:6; Heb. 9:11). The early followers of Jesus referred to themselves as "brethren" (Acts 1:16), "disciples" (Acts 11:26), and "believers" (Acts 2:44), and the Jews at first called them "Nazarenes" (Acts 24:5) – i.e., probably the followers of Jesus the Nazarene (cf. Matt. 2:23). The term "Christians" seems to have been applied to them at first by outsiders (Acts 11:26), but was soon adopted by them as a convenient term of identification. In 64 C.E., during the Neronian persecution, the term seems to have already become current in Rome (Tacitus, Annals 15:44). In its subsequent usage in modern European languages, the adjective "Christian" has come to mean everything decent, moral, and praiseworthy (e.g., "a real Christian" is a term of praise, and "unchristian behavior" is an expression of opprobrium). In Jewish usage the term acquired a certain pejorative tone, referring mainly to the contrast between the profession of high ideals (religion of love, turning the other cheek) unmatched by actual performance (pogroms, discrimination, antisemitism).

The Background

Strictly speaking, the career and ministry of Jesus, and his relations with his disciples, do not come under the heading "Christianity." They are rather part of the history of Jewish sectarian movements toward the end of the Second Temple period. As a matter of fact, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to reconstruct with any degree of certainty the career and teachings of Jesus, and many scholars have given up the quest for the "historical Jesus" as hopeless. The extant sources (see New Testament ) reflect not the actual events of his life and his authentic preaching, but the emerging consciousness of the developing Christian community and the perspective from which they saw, that is to say, reshaped in retrospect, their traditions and beliefs concerning Jesus. As a result of "telescoping back" the consciousness and beliefs of the early church to the life and ministry of the founder, the use of the New Testament as a historical source requires much philological care and critical prudence. About one development, however, there cannot be much doubt: whatever the nature of the relationship of Jesus to the various Jewish groups of his time ( Pharisees , Sadducees , and others – including the Essenes and Qumran Covenanters), the New Testament reflects a stage of development when relations between Jews and Christians had already begun to deteriorate. Hence, the New Testament describes Jesus as engaged in violent polemics against the "Scribes and Pharisees," and especially against the interpretation of Torah and Judaism which they represented. This embattled portrayal, as well as the tendency to ascribe to "the Jews" the responsibility for the passion and death of Jesus – articulated and exhibited in varying degrees in the different books of the New Testament – have made the New Testament, with its scriptural authority, the fountainhead of later Christian misrepresentation of Judaism and theological antisemitism.

Severance from Judaism

A major difficulty in tracing the growth of Christianity from its beginnings as a Jewish messianic sect, and its relations to the various other normative-Jewish, sectarian-Jewish, and Christian-Jewish groups is presented by the fact that what ultimately became normative Christianity was originally but one among various contending Christian trends. Once the "gentile Christian" trend won out, and the teaching of Paul became accepted as expressing the doctrine of the Church, the Jewish Christian groups were pushed to the margin and ultimately excluded as heretical. Being rejected both by normative Judaism and the Church, they ultimately disappeared. Nevertheless, several Jewish Christian sects (such as the Nazarenes, Ebionites, Elchasaites, and others) existed for some time, and a few of them seem to have endured for several centuries. Some sects saw in Jesus mainly a prophet and not the "Christ," others seem to have believed in him as the Messiah, but did not draw the christological and other conclusions that subsequently became fundamental in the teaching of the Church (the divinity of the Christ, trinitarian conception of the Godhead, abrogation of the Law). After the disappearance of the early Jewish Christian sects and the triumph of gentile Christianity, to become a Christian meant, for a Jew, to apostatize and to leave the Jewish community. It is only in modern times that in some missionary and other circles, the claim is again made that it should be possible to embrace faith in Jesus as the Christ (i.e., become a Christian) while remaining a Jew. The controversy found dramatic expression in the case of Daniel Rufeisen (see Apostasy) – a Jewish convert to Christianity and Catholic priest – who demanded recognition of his status as a Jew and to have the provisions of the Israel Law of Return applied to him. The majority of the court held – on grounds of secular rather than theological or halakhic reasoning – that in the historicosocial consciousness and in the linguistic usage of the ordinary man (and hence, by implication, of the Israel legislator) the term Jew could not be construed to include a Jew who had formally embraced Christianity, this act being tantamount, in the general feeling of most people, to opting out of the historical Jewish community.

The reasons for the extraordinary and tragic tension between Christianity and Judaism are not to be sought merely in the differences in religious beliefs and dogmas, which exist also in relation to all other religions. Neither are they, moreover, due exclusively to the long history of Christian persecution of the Jews (see Antisemitism ), since this was the result rather than the first cause of the tension between Christianity and Judaism. The tension is due essentially to the ambivalent position in which the Church found itself vis-à-vis Israel. By explicitly claiming not to be a new religion, and by conceiving itself the fulfillment of the promises in the Bible (the "Old Testament") as expressed in the covenant with the patriarchs and in the message of the prophets, the Church placed itself squarely on a Jewish foundation: it was the consummation of the biblical promise. Jesus was not just a divinely chosen savior, but the promised Son of David, the Lord's Anointed (Mashi'aḥ ben David), and hence the Christian community, i.e., the Church, was the "true Israel" of God. It was the messianic universalization of that salvific destiny which God had in mind when He chose Abraham in whose seed all nations should be blessed, but which for reasons connected with God's own ways of allowing history to fulfill itself, was limited to one physical people ("Israel according to the flesh") for a certain preparatory period, i.e., until the coming of Jesus the Messiah. The doctrine that the "Law" – which had been an adequate and divinely willed institution during this preparatory period – had now lost its validity; that in Christ it had been "fulfilled," i.e., terminated, surpassed, and to all practical purposes abrogated; and that the order of Grace had now come in place of that of the Law – all these combined with the Gospel accounts of Jesus' harsh attacks on the Pharisees as hypocrites or as representatives of a mechanical religion of outward devotion, to create a climate of hostility and a negative Christian image of Judaism. The image implied that theologically Judaism was an inferior religion, historically the Jewish people had played out its positive role, and morally the Jews were examples of stubborn blindness and obduracy. Even at its best, i.e., in its biblical phase, Israel had been rebellious and had persecuted its prophets, and its Law – albeit divine – was but a preparatory discipline. Some early Christian writers had an even more negative view of the ancient Law or of Israel's understanding of it. Pharisaic Judaism was judged negatively altogether. The Church being God's "true Israel" according to the spirit, the Jewish people no longer had any vocation or reason to exist except as a witness to the misery and degradation that would befall a people originally chosen by God, but unfaithful to its election by rejecting the Messiah and bringing about his death. While the views sketched in the preceding lines do not describe all facets of Christian teaching on the subject – certainly not that of Paul who, in his Epistle to the Romans (ch. 9–11), grappled with what was to him one of the supreme and most agonizing mysteries of the divine economy of history – they certainly express what has been the dominant attitude of Christianity toward Judaism and the Jews. Had the Jews disappeared from the stage of history, it would have been possible to relate to them more positively as a preparatory phase in the coming of God's kingdom. Had the Church severed its ties to its Israelite antecedents and completely rejected the "Old Testament" and the "Jewish God" (as demanded by Marcion, whom the Church condemned as a heretic), then Christianity would have been a hostile but essentially separate religion. The Church, however, insistently maintained that it was the direct continuation of that divine action in history of which the election of Israel was a major part. Yet the Jews continued to exist, claiming the Bible as their own, their understanding of it as the only legitimate one and labeling Christian interpretations as heresy, falsehood, and idolatry. This mutual opposition created a climate of hostility and negation which made the Christian-Jewish relationship more ambivalent and complex, and hence, also, more pregnant with tragedy than any comparable relationship in history.

Jesus and His First Disciples

As has been indicated before, the teaching and activity of Jesus cannot be properly described under the heading "Christianity" but should rather be seen in the context of the religious, social, and political ferment in Palestine at the end of the Second Temple period, and in relation to the various sectarian movements at the time. Knowledge of the period and of the sectarian doctrines then extant has been revolutionized by the Qumran Scrolls (i.e., the writings of the so-called Dead Sea sect, probably identical with the Essenes), whose significance in a reappraisal of the origins of Christianity is still being evaluated by scholars. Although it may be difficult to penetrate the layers of tradition and legend in order to arrive at any certainty about the details of the life and ministry of Jesus, there is no valid reason for doubting his historical reality or assuming him to be a purely mythical figure. It is generally accepted that in most of his beliefs and practices, Jesus was closer to the Pharisees than to other contemporary groups, but that, at the same time, he shared the particularly intense eschatological expectations that were rife in certain circles (see Eschatology ; Apocalypse ). His meeting with John the Baptist is described in the New Testament as having constituted a major turning point in Jesus' career and in his consciousness regarding his vocation. Jesus' subsequent preaching centered on the imminent apocalyptic events and the coming of the Kingdom of God, but much of it – probably deliberately – was obscure. After a relatively short period of activity as a wandering preacher, mainly in Galilee where he was revered by the multitude not so much for his teaching but for his reputed miraculous power in healing the sick and casting out demons, he went to Jerusalem. There his preaching led to his arrest, arraignment before the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate , and subsequent execution – probably at the instigation of groups connected with the Temple priesthood and the Sadducean establishment. The precise background and details of his arrest, trial, passion, and death are almost impossible to reconstruct, since the only extant accounts are relatively late, tendentious, and inspired by the attitudes of the evangelists who were writing at a time when the rift between Jews and Christians had considerably widened, and Christianity was beginning to spread in the Roman Empire (hence the tendency to exonerate the Roman procurator and to ascribe the death of Jesus exclusively to the machinations of the Jews). After the death of Jesus on the cross, many of his followers undoubtedly lost their faith, but others soon came to share the belief that he had risen from the dead and ascended to heaven whence he would return before long in power and glory (the "Second Coming"). The elaboration of the twin themes of suffering and triumph, passion (i.e., death on the cross) and resurrection, subsequently became the warp and woof of Christian theology. The "risen Lord" came to be seen as more than a human figure, while the suffering savior was seen as the fulfillment of the obscure prophecies of the Deutero-Isaiah concerning God's Suffering Servant. The notion of the Davidic messiah, as well as that of a heavenly "Son of Man" merging with the specific Christian experiences, ultimately yielded the concept of the messiah, savior, and redeemer as essentially divine. Being committed to traditional biblical monotheism, as well as to a paradoxical belief in the identity of the human Jesus with the divine savior, Christianity developed a trinitarian conception of the godhead in which the ministry of the divine and pre-existent messiah was explained in terms of an incarnation. This doctrine was formulated by making use of the philosophic notion of a divine logos as developed also by Philo . In the Christology of the Church, however, the logos was identified with the second person of the Trinity which, in its human incarnation as Jesus of Nazareth, was the messiah and savior of the world. Jesus was always present – through the Holy Spirit – in the spiritual community which he had founded and of which he remained the Lord. Life in and with God meant, in the Christian view of things, life in Christ and in the Church. In their development of the idea of the Church, the Church Fathers subsequently drew heavily on the rabbinic interpretation of the Song of Songs as an allegorical representation of the relationship between God and Israel. The concepts of Trinity (God as Father, Son, and Holy Ghost), of the Son as the incarnate "Word" and Messiah (logos and christos), and of the Church (i.e., the community of God's spiritual people) became the basis of all later Christian theology. Although many of the specifically Christian ideas are apparently incompatible with Judaism, they – or some of their constituent elements – are, to a large extent, transformations of originally Jewish ideas, e.g., the idea of election, of the Holy Ghost (see Ru'aḥ ha-Kodesh ), of a messiah, and of atonement which the death of martyrs brings to the community. Early Christianity tried to buttress its claims by adducing proof texts from the "Old Testament," and hence polemics between Jews and Christians were, for some time, essentially exegetical in character, i.e., concerned with the proper interpretation of scriptural passages, prophecies, and predictions. Thus the so-called servant chapters in Isaiah (cf. Isaiah 53) were interpreted by Christians as referring to the vicarious suffering and atoning death of Jesus. In addition, there arose a kind of Christian Midrash (allegorical or tropological exegesis) which enabled Christians to find allusions to their faith and doctrines almost everywhere in the Bible (see Apologetics , Disputations , and Polemical Literature ). For the Jews, the Christian interpretation perverted the obvious sense of Scripture; for the Christians, the Jews were spiritually blind and unable to perceive the true meaning of the "Old Testament" (II Cor. 3:14f.).

Jewish Origins and Influence on Ritual and Liturgy

Christian liturgy and forms of worship bear the mark of Jewish origins and influence. The very concept of church ritual (i.e., assembly of the believers for prayer, reading of Scripture and preaching) is indebted to the example of the synagogue. The reading of passages from the "Old" and the "New" Testaments is a Christian version of the synagogue reading from the Torah and the Prophets. The Psalms, in particular, play an immense role in both Catholic and Protestant liturgy. Some early Christian prayers (cf. Apostolic Constitutions 7:35–38; Didache chs. 9–10) are quotations or adaptations from Jewish originals. The Jewish origin is also evident in many prayer formulas (e.g., Amen , Hallelujah ), the Lord's Prayer ("Our Father which art in Heaven"), and in many ritual institutions (e.g. Baptism) – whatever their specifically Christian transformations. The central rite of Christianity, the Eucharist, Mass, or Lord's Supper, is based on a tradition concerning Jesus' last meal with his disciples (represented in some New Testament accounts as a Passover meal), and contains such traditional Jewish elements as the breaking of the bread and the use of the cup (kos shel berakhah). Christians subsequently interpreted this "Last Supper" as the ultimate fulfillment of the Passover in which Jesus, the "lamb of God," acted as the true sacrifice. While it is correct to say that Christianity, after its separation from Judaism and its spread through the Roman world, increasingly absorbed non-Jewish, pagan elements and patterns of thought (the so-called "Hellenization of the Gospel"), it should be remembered that much that has formerly been held to be purely Hellenistic may, in fact, have been taken from certain contemporaneous forms of Judaism. The Qumran texts, as well as the apocryphal and pseudepigraphic literature, suggest that there was far greater variety in Jewish beliefs than has previously been allowed for, and that elements in early Christian teaching which patently deviate from the norms of Pharisaic and rabbinic Judaism may be indebted to forms of sectarian Judaism and not necessarily, or always directly, to Hellenism.

Needless to say, the very existence of similarities merely exacerbated the conflict. For the Christians, the similarities were further proof that they were the fulfillment of everything that was valid in the "Old Covenant," and that the Jews preserved nothing but an empty shell, a degenerate and corrupt form of a misunderstood reality. For the Jews it became impossible to see the Christians as merely a strange and completely alien religion, since they appeared as claimants to the Israelite heritage, bent on dispossessing the Jewish people of the validity and authenticity of its religious existence. In due course the Jewish Christians were included in the category of those sectarians (see min ) whom the Jewish community rejected and anathematized. The malediction of the minim contained in the daily Amidah was introduced, viz., reformulated, in order to render impossible Jewish Christian participation in the service of the synagogue, and to consummate their separation. The development of gentile Christianity that took place under the influence of Paul's activity (and as distinct from the Jewish Christians in their conflict within the Jewish community) made the estrangement between the two even more evident. The universalization of the ethnic and religious concept of Israel (the "church" taking the place of the Jewish people) and the abrogation of the commandments (faith in the fulfillment of the biblical promises in the person of Jesus the Messiah taking the place of the duty to observe the mitzvot) spelled the parting of the ways. It should not, however, be overlooked that the first gentile Christians were not pagans totally unacquainted with Judaism; they were people who had been attracted to Jewish teaching and ethics and who, as it were, lived on the periphery of the synagogues in the Diaspora but were not ready to accept totally the "yoke of the commandments" (especially circumcision). For some time Jewish influence and example must have been strong or persuasive enough to constitute – in the eyes of Christian pastors – a definite danger to their flock. Accordingly, the polemics against the "Judaizers" in the epistles of the New Testament, and the violent, and even obscene, vilification of Judaism in the sermons of such Christian leaders as, e.g., John Chrysostom (see Church Fathers ). With its spread among the gentiles, the pagan characteristics of Christianity gained in influence, and after Constantine the Great and the adoption of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire, the traditional Hellenistic-pagan forms of civic, social, and cultural antisemitism (see Apion ) merged with the specifically Christian theological motifs to form an amalgam that has left a tragic legacy to history.

Missions to Jews

While attempts at forced conversion (see Baptism, Forced ) were by no means rare, the early Church Fathers and the medieval Church did not cultivate genuine missionary activity toward the Jews. A missionary theology assumes that the gospel, i.e., the "glad tidings," have to be brought to those who do not know it. The Jews, however, were a priori in a different category, being the original recipients of God's promise and glad tidings but who, having rejected them, were living testimonies to obduracy, wicked blindness, and the wrath of God. Additional research is still required to determine the degree of validity to allegations, made by ancient Christian writers, as well as by some modern historians, that Jews instigated the anti-Christian persecutions by Roman emperors, such as Nero. The extent to which Christianity relentlessly persecuted and humiliated the Jews is detailed in the various articles dealing with the history of the Jews in Christian lands. Jewish history in the Christian world was marked by alternations of more or less violent oppression, relative toleration, expulsions, and occasional massacres, and at all times, restrictive legislation. All of these measures have varied according to time, place, and economic or other circumstances, e.g., legislative restrictions were periodically ignored by various rulers or mitigated by special privileges (see Church ; Church Councils ).

Attitudes Toward Jews

Various factors were operative, creating different combinations at different times. There were the more specifically theological theories regarding the Jews, their status in the divine scheme of things, and their destiny; there was legislation concerning the Jews in different forms: Roman law (see Justinian ), canon law (see especially the Fourth Lateran Council ), and various decrees and discriminatory regulations (and occasionally exemptions from the latter by special privileges) issued by rulers, feudal princes, or cities; and there were the attitudes cultivated by popular religion (e.g., Passion plays), reinforced by its understanding or misunderstanding of theological doctrines. The sacramental dimension of Christian religiosity led to the conclusion that the Jews stood outside the sacramental order of society, in fact, they belonged to a parallel, anti-sacramental order: the synagogue of Satan. According to the Law Code of Justinian, the Jews are "detestable people" that "live in darkness and whose souls do not perceive the true mysteries" (Novella 45). Even so, Roman Law provided for a minimum of respect for the Jew's life and person, but was often eviscerated by religious fanaticism and alternative forms of legislation. Thus, Thomas Aquinas , basing himself on the traditional practice of the Church, as well as on natural law (i.e., the natural rights of parents to their children), opposed taking children away from their parents for baptism, although other canonists defended the practice. Even *Bernard of Clairvaux , who energetically opposed the massacres of Jews during the Second Crusade , thereby saving many Jewish communities from a repetition of the fate they suffered during the First Crusade, used as his strongest argument the theory that Jews were not meant by Providence to be killed but rather to live in ignominy and misery until the last Day of Judgment as witnesses to their rejection of Christ. Accusations of desecration of the Host and ritual murder ( blood libel ) increased during the late Middle Ages. In spite of the interest in Hebrew studies, including the Kabbalah , exhibited by some humanists (see Kabbalah ; Reuchlin ; Pico della Mirandola ), the Reformation (see Luther ) did not in any way affect the general attitude toward Jews and Judaism. It was only in the 17th century that among Puritans and certain Calvinist and Pietist circles a new attitude toward the Jews began to emerge. This new attitude also gave a new impetus to missionary activity, since the Jews – especially if viewed positively – could not but appear as the "noble nation" of the Old Covenant, which, in the fullness of time, would enter into the perfection of the New Covenant.

The basic Christian pattern of contempt for and negation of Judaism persisted also throughout such later, though not specifically Christian, developments as the Enlightenment (cf. also Voltaire ), modern nationalism, and other secular movements (e.g., Socialism). Even the writings of anti-Christian or anti-clerical authors echoed the traditional Christian stereotypes regarding Jews and Judaism. The realization that the Christian heritage had decisively shaped the forms of national consciousness of European nations, and not only the general character of Western civilization, provided a basis for a new national antisemitism which was Christian in a socio-cultural, though not in a strictly theological, sense (cf. the Action Française , or the role of Catholicism in France during and after the Dreyfus Affair, and, for a Protestant example, the movement launched in Germany by the court preacher A. Stoecker ). It was only when these developments had run their full course and assumed their final and most diabolic form in 20th century antisemitism, that certain circles in the Christian world began to reexamine their positions. There was a groping toward the realization that antisemitism was in some fundamental sense also anti-Christian and admitting the Christian share in the responsibility for even anti-Christian antisemitism. Therefore, many modern Christian thinkers struggled for an understanding of their Christianity as a genuine fulfillment of the promise of biblical Israel in a manner that would not undercut the legitimacy and authenticity of Jewish existence. By striving to formulate an understanding of Judaism that would detract neither from the dignity of the latter nor from the dogmatic witness of Christianity, a number of Christian scholars and theologians are trying to correct the traditional caricature of post-biblical Judaism as a dead, petrified, or fossilized religion without spiritual vitality and dynamism. It is too early to say whether this effort is a pious wish doomed to failure, or whether it holds the promise for a new type of relationship between two groups committed to what is held by members of both to be a common loyalty to the same (biblical) God, and a common hope in this God's promise to humanity and creation. Many of the Christians rethinking their attitude toward Judaism do so on a narrowly religious basis (i.e., Judaism as a denomination), and consequently are bewildered by the fact that the Jewish people have recovered a sense of their national-ethnic existence with its social and political dimensions. Thus, many Christians who are ready to enter into a "dialogue" with Judaism as a religious (by which they mean denominational, theological, or semi-ecclesiastical) entity are at a loss how to face what is to them the "secular" phenomenon of Zionism and the modern State of Israel.

Orthodox Church

Within Christianity the various major and minor traditions (especially the three main divisions, Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox) exhibit characteristic differences of style, modes of thought, ethos, theological emphasis, forms of piety, and liturgical orientation. Much of what has been said above regarding a shift in Christian attitudes toward Judaism is true of the "Western" (Roman Catholic and Protestant) rather than the "Eastern" churches where traditionalism is stronger and the anti-Jewish heritage in liturgy and theology has been little affected by recent events. In fact, some Oriental (Uniate) churches in the Near East actively opposed the Vatican II declaration on the Jews not merely for political reasons but because of basic theological attitudes. Leading Russian Orthodox intellectuals have often expressed anti-Jewish ideologies (cf. Dostoevski, Gogol), and even thinkers who sought a theological reappraisal (e.g. Leon Shestov, Nikolai Berdyaev) have never attempted to understand the living reality of Judaism but merely discussed a philosophical construct of their own minds.

Jewish Attitudes Toward Christianity

The Jewish attitude toward Christianity has been determined by the religious and social factors referred to above. Christianity, especially after it had ceased to be a Jewish heretical sect, became a dominant religion, and assumed its medieval Catholic forms (including the cultic use of images), considered by Jews to be idolatrous. The fact that for many centuries Jewish philosophy was influenced mainly by Muslim thought only strengthened this view, since Islam shared with Judaism a conception of God which could be described as more monotheistic than that of Christianity. Rabbinic authorities debated whether the laws and injunctions concerning commerce and contacts with idolators also applied to Christians. To the Jews the Christian world appeared as the incarnation of Rome, symbolized by Edom or Esau, and as the evil power of this world bent on destroying Jacob, which – but for God's promise and mercy – would have succeeded. Occasionally Jewish thinkers would suggest that Christianity, recognizing the divine character of the Bible and being less polytheistic than classical and primitive paganism, might be a providential instrument used by God to bring the gentiles gradually nearer to true religion (see Apologetics ; Judah Halevi ; Maimonides ). Yet, in spite of the traditional attitude of hostility and distrust, reinforced by Christian coercion of Jews to participate in disputations and to listen to conversionary sermons, there always was – as is inevitable where cultures coexist – a certain amount of mutual interest. Jewish thinkers (e.g. Maimonides; Ibn Gabirol ; in modern times especially Martin Buber ) have influenced Christian theologians and biblical exegetes (e.g., Nicholas de Lyra ). Christian presence is noticeable not only in the direct and obvious influences on Jewish thinkers (see Hillel of Verona), but also in the more subtle and indirect ways resulting from what might be called cultural osmosis. Thus Y. Baer has attempted to demonstrate specific Christian influences on certain aspects of the thought and devotional practice in the Zohar and in German Ḥasidism. The rabbinic theological evaluation of Christianity also had repercussions in the sphere of halakhah, and the exigencies of the latter in turn influenced theoretical attitudes (see J. Katz , Exclusiveness and Tolerance). While modern Jewish biblical scholarship has been influenced by Christian "Old Testament" studies (see Bible Research and Criticism), the latter still has exhibited enough of traditional anti-Jewish prejudice to provoke Solomon Schechter's remark "Higher criticism – higher antisemitism," and Y. Kaufmann's polemics. The liturgical reforms of Reform Judaism have been clearly indebted to the example of contemporary Protestantism.


A comparison between Christianity and Judaism as religious systems, and an analysis of their points of contact and divergence are difficult to undertake, since much depends on the definitions and points of view with which one approaches the task. There are Jewish stereotypes of Christianity and vice versa, and different elements of the religions have been given varying degrees of prominence at different periods. Often similar ideas can be found in both religions (e.g., original sin, or vicarious suffering), but the roles they have played in the total context of the life and history of faith of the respective communities vary considerably. Christian "other-worldliness" has often been contrasted with Jewish "this-worldliness" (sometimes in laudatory and sometimes in derogatory terms), as have Christian asceticism with the Jewish affirmation of this life and its values, the Christian doctrine of mediation with the Jewish belief in immediate communion with and forgiveness from God, the Christian religion of "love" with the Jewish religion of the "Law," Christian "universalism" with Jewish "particularism," the hierarchical sacerdotalism, i.e., dominance of the clergy in many forms of Christianity, with the forms of religious authority in rabbinic Judaism. In addition, comparisons have been made between the respective conceptions of sin and atonement, and dualism in soul/body, i.e., spirit/flesh. Although some distinctions are valid (e.g., Jews do not believe in the Trinity or in the atoning sacrifice of the Messiah, the Son of God, on the cross; Christians do not accept rabbinic tradition as the authentic interpretation of a still valid divine law), many others are inadequate, or have to be qualified, because both Jews and Christians have, in various historical periods, articulated different views about the details of their respective beliefs and the nature of their communities. There is, moreover, considerable variety within the two communities and apologetic interests, as well as the personal commitment and ideology of every writer on the subject, are apt to color his assessment of the issues. The problem is well illustrated by 19th-century idealistic philosophy which took it for granted that Christianity was the superior and Judaism an inferior form of religion. Accordingly, whatever variety in definitions of "Christianity," philosophers (e.g., Hegel , Fichte ) described that which they considered superior as "Christian" and that which they considered inferior as "Jewish." Some Jewish thinkers, too, would accept the "Christian" norms and merely try to show that they were also taught by Judaism, while others emphasized the contrasts and rejected what was claimed to be the Christian norms. Modern secularism has posed for both religions – as, indeed, all religions in general, and theistic religions in particular – some apparently similar problems, though here, too, the similarities can be misleading since "secularization" has had different implications in a Jewish and a Christian context respectively. What is beyond doubt is the fact that Christianity, in spite of its Jewish beginnings and continuing Jewish associations through the Bible, has become a thoroughly distinct form of religious life with its distinct conceptions of salvation, forms of devotion and piety, emotional and intellectual attitudes, and historical consciousness. The ambivalence created by this sense of both relatedness and difference is still far from being resolved in the Christian world.


A. von Harnack, What is Christianity (1901); R.T. Herford, Christianity in Talmud and Midrash (1903); F. Gavin, Jewish Antecedents of the Christian Sacraments (1928); F. Jackson and K. Lake, Beginning of Christianity, 5 vols. (1920–33); S.J. Case, Evolution of Early Christianity (1932); N. Levison, The Jewish Background of Christianity (1932); C.W. Dughore, Influence of the Synagogue on the Divine Office (1944); J. Parkes, Judaism and Christianity (1948); idem, Conflict of the Church and the Synagogue (19612); W. Maurer, Kirche und Synagogue (1953); A.H. Silver, Where Judaism Differed (1956); J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines (1958); J. Brown, Christian Teaching and Anti-Semitism (1957); J. Katz, Exclusiveness and Tolerance (1961); B. Blumenkranz, Les auteurs chrétiens latins du moyenâge… (1963); idem, Juifs et chrétiens dans le monde occidental (1960); J. Isaac, The Teaching of Contempt (1964); S. Sandmel, We Jews and Jesus (1965); M. Simon et al., Aspects du Judéo-christianisme: Colloque de Strasbourg (1965); L. Baeck, Judaism and Christianity (1966); C.Y. Glock and R. Stark, Christian Beliefs and Anti-Semitism (1966); B.Z. Bokser, Judaism and the Christian Predicament (1967); W.O. Oesterley and E. Rosenthal, Judaism and Christianity, 3 vols. (1969); D. Flusser, Jesus (Eng., 1969); A.T. Davies, Anti-Semitism and the Christian Mind (1969), Pelican History of the Christian Church.

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.