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Religion Library: Judaism

Historical Perspectives

Written by: Marc A. Krell

The historical study of Judaism grew out of the 19th-century German school of thought, Wissenschaft des Judentums, the "science" or academic study of Judaism. This group of Jewish scholars was attempting to legitimize the study of Judaism in the western Christian canon, or essentially put Judaism on the map. By portraying Jewish thought with their own methodologies and rubrics, they were mounting a multicultural challenge to Christian hegemony. Indeed as the historian Susannah Heschel has argued, the scholars of the Wissenschaft des Judentums were constructing a "counterhistory" of Christian thought and culture. They argued that Jesus was not the semi-divine figure who established Christianity in opposition to a legalistic 1st-century Judaism, but rather an ordinary Pharisee who promoted the democratization and liberalization of Judaism. Title: Abraham Geiger (1810-1874) Source:, the 19th-century German scholar Abraham Geiger claimed that the Christian beliefs in Jesus' virgin birth, incarnation, and resurrection were later theological inventions influenced by pagan philosophy. Instead of Christianity being responsible for the birth of ethical monotheism, Geiger argued that Judaism bequeathed this universal idea to the West.

One could argue that as a result of this counter-offensive against Christianity, the Jewish scholars of the Wissenschaft des Judentums essentially invented the term "Judaism" as an academic discipline to be studied. Ironically, while the Jewish retelling of Christian origins from a Jewish perspective was self-empowering for the Wissenschaft des Judentums, at the same time it rendered modern Jewish identity dependent to some extent upon Christian theology. In many ways, these German scholars had essentialized Judaism by reducing Jewish culture to a universal idea of ethical monotheism serving apologetic ends. In order to defend themselves against a Christian hegemonic culture, the members of the Wissenschaft des Judentums needed to define Judaism as a concrete set of religious ideas that could be understood rationally by historical and philological methods. This was in sharp contrast to Christianity, which, they argued, was a pagan offshoot of Judaism based on superstitious beliefs in a virgin birth, incarnation, and resurrection.

Yet in the process of rationalizing Judaism and defending its contribution to history, these scholars swept its mystical elements under the rug by purposely ignoring Kabbalah or Jewish mysticism, while negating Jewish nationalism for the sake of acceptance in the non-Jewish world. As a result of this apologetic enterprise, Judaism gained access into the western Christian canon on its own terms, yet in the process, may have lost its soul. These German scholars appeared to transform Jewish culture from a living religious community into a theoretical object of historical analysis.


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