A few weeks ago, at the commencement of Hanukkah, my Word on Fire team published on our social media platforms a graphic of a Menorah accompanied by a text from St. John Paul II celebrating the spiritual bond that connects Catholics and Jews. Harmless enough, right? Wrong apparently. For this simple image and quote were met with a firestorm of angry protests from, it appears, even some Catholics who gave vent to frankly shocking expressions of anti-Semitism. Mind you, I’ve been on social media for over twenty years, and I’m well acquainted with how vile that space can be, but this outpouring of rage staggered even this grizzled veteran. Let me give you just a sample: “Did they fill your pockets with shekels to say this?” “Judaism is the anti-Christ religion.” “Semites literally steal everything . . . literally worthless thieves.” “Sin-o-gogue of Satan anyone?” “Well, there is the deicide thing.” “If by brother you mean Cain.”
Look, I know there are lots of crazy people on the Internet, but, once again, the sheer volume and intensity of these responses—and I’m giving you only a hint of the hundreds of similar remarks—signals that we have a serious problem on our hands. For Christianity collapses in on itself without constant reference to its Jewish antecedents. As St. Paul put it, Christ is “the yes to all the promises made to Israel.” And as Pope Pius XI declared, “We are all spiritually Semites.” Hence, if you don’t get the Jews, you won’t get Jesus. It’s as simple and important as that.
One of the very earliest doctrinal disputes within Christianity was the battle against Marcion and his disciples in the second century. A clever and articulate theologian, Marcion argued that the Old Testament presented a crude and morally compromised god who had nothing to do with the true God revealed by Jesus. Accordingly, he recommended that the entire Old Testament be struck from the collection of sacred texts and even large swaths of the New Testament that he considered insufficiently clean of contagion.
Though it was fiercely opposed from the beginning, most notably by the great St. Irenaeus, Marcionism has proved to be a very enduring heresy. In the early nineteenth century, it reasserted itself in the writings of Friedrich Schleiermacher, the founder of modern liberal Protestantism, who openly extolled Marcion and presented an understanding of Jesus that was entirely non-Jewish. Schleiermacher’s banner was picked up in the early twentieth century by the deeply influential theologian Adolf von Harnack, who not only wrote a biography of Marcion but also, in imitation of his intellectual hero, recommended that the entire Old Testament be struck from the canon! Harnack had numerous disciples among the most prominent theologians and biblical scholars in the twentieth century, many of whom presented Jesus in radically de-Judaized form, as either a Hellenistic sage or a teacher of timeless spiritual truths. One can hear echoes of Marcionism, by the way, whenever someone says, “You know, I love the gentle and compassionate God of the New Testament, not the violent and blustering God of the Old Testament.”
And such a Jesus, truth be told, is as dull as dishwater and completely uncompelling evangelically. It is of crucial significance that, in the story of the Road to Emmaus, when Jesus speaks in earnest to the two disciples, he doesn’t trade in Gnostic nostrums; rather, “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.” In a word, he presents himself as the fulfillment of salvation history, the culminating point of the story of the Jews, the full expression of Torah, temple, and prophecy. And it was in the course of that speech that the hearts of the disciples commenced to burn within them. It was that deeply Jewish speech that led them to conversion.
Now happily, in recent decades, a new generation of biblical scholars have emerged who have endeavored to recover the Jewishness of Jesus. One thinks of, among many others, E.P. Sanders, Richard Bauckham, James D.G. Dunn, N.T. Wright, Joseph Ratzinger, Brant Pitre, and Richard Hays. Their instincts are in line with the Vatican II document Nostra Aetate, which insisted upon the positive relationship between Judaism and Catholicism and with the consistent teaching of St. John Paul II, the first pope to visit the Roman synagogue.
When William F. Buckley was endeavoring to launch his journal National Review in the 1950s, he was eager to recruit the best and brightest among the conservative thinkers in the Anglosphere. But he was scrupulous in eliminating from consideration any who exhibited anti-Semitic attitudes, for he knew that they would undermine his project, both morally and intellectually. If the comments on my social media regarding a simple statement of amity between Catholics and Jews is any indicator, we have come, in the Church, to a similar crisis. In the great work of evangelization, I want all the help I can get. I want the most convicted and intelligent Catholics. Period. But I cannot have anti-Semites, because they are, by definition, enemies of Christ.
And as Christmas approaches, may we rejoice in the God who deigned to become a little Jewish baby.