The “Jew” as Symbol of Inferior Religion: Rudolf Bultmann, Ernst Käsemann, and Robert G. Hamerton-Kelly
The “Secret Jew”
The key text for the neo-Lutheran theological appropriations of Paul by Rudolf Bultmann and his student Ernst Käsemann is Romans 2. In this chapter, Paul addresses a singular, anonymous Jewish interlocutor as “O Jew.” This formal usage has lent itself very conveniently to those who wish to see here EveryJew, and indeed to allegorize EveryJew as a contemnable part of Everyman. Bultmann and Käsemann have revived in all its glory the Lutheran tradition whereby Paul stood against everything Jewish as the very essence of that which God hated and which he had sent Christ (and Paul) to strike down.
Having seen one possible reading of the first part of Romans 2 (above in Chapter 4), let us see what happens to it in the hands of Ernst Käsemann, who, it will be remembered, is one of Bultmann's leading neo-Lutheran heirs. As shown there, this chapter is eminently readable as a critique of Jews who believe that merely being Jewish will afford one a place in the economy of salvation; indeed it is an attack on a notion that by grace alone, one may be saved. Paul argues strenuously, indeed, that it is only by good works that anyone is justified. He redefines, however, at the end of the chapter, of what it is that good works consists. These are not, as the Jew would think, those practices that mark them off from the Nations, such as circumcision, but rather those spiritually understood universal allegorical meanings of the practices, such as faith and love. Käsemann, in accordance with his religious ideology inherited from his teacher and ultimately from the whole Lutheran tradition, reads the Jew who is being addressed in this chapter as “religious man.” Accordingly, verse 4 becomes for him not a charge against “real” Jews that they forget that God's special regard for the Jews is a demand that they repent—“Or do you think lightly of the wealth of his goodness and of his forbearance and patience, disregarding the fact that the kindness of God is to lead you to repentance?”—but something else entirely:
The danger of the pious person is that of isolating God's gifts from the claim which is given with them, and of forgetting to relate forbearance and patience to the Judge of the last day. Humans always crave security. They seek to obtain it through moralism, worshipping the gods, or trusting the divine goodness. (Käsemann 1980, 55)
Paul's “Jew” is no longer as in my interpretation—based on Dunn's—a real Jew at all but a symbol or allegory for the “pious person”—a pejorative in Existential Theology. Käsemann goes on to say that, “The person represented typically by the Jew is determined by σκληρότης [hardness] and, in explication, by the καρδία ἀμετανόητος [impenitent heart]” (56). On the one hand, Käsemann, superficially similarly to Dunn, recognizes as well that these terms are drawn from biblical preaching of repentance itself, but on the other hand, for him the repentance that Paul calls for is not repentance from failure to keep the Law but from success in keeping the Law. This move is brought out clearly in such a statement as the following: “ θησαυρίζειν is not used ironically (contra Michel). It derives from the good Jewish view that a person accumulates capital in heaven with his works when he is alive.…Paul, however, changes the Jewish expectation into its opposite” (57). Hidden in this statement is a truly sinister interpretation of Paul—although one which the entire Lutheran tradition prepares—that Paul is not claiming that Jews who do not keep the Law, claiming instead privilege by its mere possession, are storing up wrath for the day of wrath, but that Jews who do keep the Law and believe that thus they are storing up merits are, in fact, only accumulating wrath. As Käsemann puts it explicitly in another place, “works of the law…[by which Käsemann means all good works and ethical striving] are for Paul a higher form of godlessness than transgression of the law and are thus incompatible with faith” (103)—to which I as a Jew would instinctively reply that such “godlessness” is surely preferable to God than a faith that does not issue in ethics. Now Käsemann clearly recognizes that the next verses (6–8) are extraordinarily difficult for traditional Protestant interpretations of Paul, his among them:
“who will render to each according to his works.” To those who seek for glory and honor and immortality by perseverance in doing good—eternal life. But to those who out of selfish ambition also disobey the truth, being persuaded to unrighteousness—wrath and anger.
These verses are extremely difficult ones for Protestant Paulinism, whereby works not only are insufficient for salvation but actually constitute sinfulness. Indeed well might have “Roman Catholics seized on it, not without malicious joy for their dogmatics,” for these verses clearly say that at the last judgment one will be judged by one's works (57). In fact, the problems which this chapter presents are much deeper and more fatal for a Lutheran Paul than Käsemann is willing to admit. The Jew who is addressed by Paul here is not a Jew who has confidence in her achievement in keeping the Law and thereby denies God's grace, but exactly the opposite. The Jew whom Paul is addressing and attacking here is a Jew who does not successfully keep the Law, and relies on God's grace to the Jews to save her at the last judgment. Paul's adversary is covenantal grace, not good works. Romans 2, I submit, renders the Lutheran reading of Paul, and with it Käsemann's, simply nonsensical. In the brilliant and biting formulation of Francis Watson: “The Jews teach a doctrine of sola gratia, and this leads them to live by the maxim pecca fortiter ” (Watson 1986, 112). The biblical theologoumenon, established in the Torah and repeated in the Prophets—which Paul knows and even asserts in Romans 9–11—that in the end salvation is guaranteed to the Jews, could easily lead to the (mis)understanding that Jews do not even need to keep the commandments in order to be saved, and Paul's argument here is thus one that any Pharisee would agree with. The doctrine of God's grace is indeed a dangerous one. What is new in Paul is his deduction from the truism that Jews must keep the Law to be saved that therefore they are in no advantageous position at all vis-à-vis gentiles when it comes to justification. This chapter, then, strongly supports the tradition of interpretation going back to F. C. Baur, within which Dunn and I stand, for on our view Paul is not critiquing homo religiosus but homo non religiosus, the Jew who does not keep the Law but thinks it is enough merely to be Jewish and possess or hear the Law to be saved. Käsemann's attempt to get out of the implication of these verses is simply incomprehensible to me, and I will not even attempt to paraphrase it.
Käsemann's fullest exposition is found, however, not in his commentary on Romans but in his essay “Paul and Israel,” in which he reveals both a hopelessly confused and confusing understanding of Judaism and thus of Paul (Käsemann 1969). He achieves this confusion by mixing two entirely separate categories: On the one hand, an assumption by Jews of some kind of privilege with God borne of possession of the Torah or the past of the patriarchs; on the other, “religious achievement” (185), blithely assuming that all will assent that reliance on ethnic status without works is equivalent to reliance on commitment to the fulfillment of God's will. Only the latter is considered “religious achievement” by Jews; the former is the source of the obligations that Jews have and feel to perform works. These are both considered by Käsemann equally as examples of a “distinction that he may have previously conferred upon us,” that is, both ethnic Jewishness and attempting to do his will in the present. This is simply sleight of hand to cover up the fact that Paul's open expression here is in direct and obvious contradiction to Lutheran theology.
However, let all that be as it may, and let indeed even the improbability and incoherence of Käsemann's interpretation of Paul rest for a moment—it has been adequately disposed of by contemporary critics (Watson 1986, 109–22)—the issue that concerns me here is the moral responsibility which a postwar German must take for allowing himself to utter the following statement, “In and with Israel he strikes at the hidden Jew in all of us, at the man who validates rights and demands over against God on the basis of God's past dealings with him and to this extent is serving not God but an illusion” (1969, 186 [emphasis added]). First of all, there is the sheer arrogance of the claim to understand Israel's religion on the part of a man who only knows that religion from secondary sources—Strack-Billerbeck and the TDNT!—and indeed those produced by the same hostility to Jews that he shares. On what basis dare he, a German writing after World War II, characterize Judaism as the religion of men [sic] who “validate rights and demands over against God”?—particularly as by then it had been amply demonstrated by Jewish and Christian scholars that such a description of Judaism is a libel. And even more condemnable is the mode of expression, making “Jew” the name and allegory for something shameful about human nature. The notion that there is Jewishness (a Jewish spirit) that is hidden in everyone and must be driven out or overcome was, as Peter Heller has written, “paradigmatic of the most virulent variety of anti-Semitism in the twentieth century,” because “the true, fanatical anti-Semite of the Hitlerian type furiously fights what he conceives to be a threatening possibility within himself” (Heller 1981, 102). It is impossible to imagine that Käsemann was innocent of the implications of his use of “the Jew Within” as a trope for human evil, since it was a veritable topos of German anti-Semitism (Aschheim, 1985). If this tradition was abominable before the Nazi genocide, it has only become more so now that its effects have become historically real in such deadly fashion.
Undoubtedly Käsemann himself—known as an opponent of Nazism—imagined that he was striking a blow against anti-Semitism by indicating that “Jewishness” is not the special province of Jews, but in fact he did the reverse. When I say, as I often do, that there is a Nazi hidden in each of us, I am implying the proposition that to be a Nazi is something essentially evil. There is no such thing as good Nazis and bad Nazis. For Käsemann to write such a sentence of a “Jew,” and thereby imply such a proposition of Jews, shows that he has learned nothing at all from the events of the Nazi genocide. Postmodern hermeneutics has often been claimed as an escape from moral responsibility. I would claim the exact opposite. Interpretation can no longer serve as a cover for moral and political irresponsibility, since we know that hermeneutical choices are always being made by interpreters. There may be interpretations that the text excludes; it almost never demands only one reading. Thus if Käsemann reads Paul anti-Semitically, then he, Käsemann, must be held responsible for his anti-Semitism. Dunn's example—among others—amply reveals the alternatives. I thus find the following statement almost shocking in its lack of care for Jewish sensibility:
The approach to Paul taken by the representatives of dialectical theology (one thinks of scholars such as Bornkamm, Fuchs, Conzelmann, Klein and Hübner, as well as Bultmann and Käsemann) should not be lightly dismissed by those who cannot accept it. It represents much the most impressive modern attempt to reach to the heart of Paul's theology, and its theological seriousness compels respect, the more so as it has been engendered in part by the bitter experiences of modern German history. (Watson 1986, 9)
Although I am not familiar with the other theologians that Watson cites, from where I sit and write, the works of Bultmann and Käsemann seem more engendered by the ideology that caused the “bitter experiences of German [!] history” than by those experiences. And I learn from reading Campbell (1992, 193 n. 65) that Markus Barth sought, unsuccessfully, a retraction from Käsemann. To the very great extent that the work of Bultmann and Käsemann is generated by anti-Judaism—which is, by now, in the late twentieth century no longer distinguishable from anti-Semitism—it should not be dismissed lightly but rejected vigorously by all who desire and need to be Christian, for their unconscionable notions could not possibly, I submit, represent the will of God.
Robert G. Hamerton-Kelly: Judaism as the “Paradigm of Sacred Violence”
Neo-Lutherans are not the only source for anti-Semitic appropriations of Paul. Robert G. Hamerton-Kelly's Sacred Violence: Paul's Hermeneutic of the Cross, a “Girardian” reading of Paul, endorses the interpretation of Paul as traducer of Judaism with a vengeance (Hamerton-Kelly 1992). Although this by itself does not constitute an argument against its validity, it should nevertheless be emphasized that if accepted it would set back any possibility for a common language between Jews and Christians by centuries. It does, moreover, endorse this interpretation critically but in full collaboration with such a project. A sequel in pseudo (post)modern terms of the most violent aspects of Christian discourse about Judaism, Hamerton-Kelly's book reads like a medieval Tractatus adversus judaeos, not only in content but in form as well. His explicit intent is to delegitimize Jewish culture—or any culture but Christian—as independent cultural alterities in favor of a Christian exceptionalism by which Paul represents the end to religion and the end to “cultural embeddedness.” The term is his and used by him as a pejorative—see below.
Hamerton-Kelly ostensibly interprets Paul in such a way that his discourse does not constitute a delegitimation of Jews or Judaism:
For Paul the church is not another sect, but the community of the new creation. It is ontologically beyond the world of opposites, and so is not a rival religion to Judaism, but a new and inclusive community. It is possible to construe this claim as just another ploy in the game of sectarian rivalry. Unfortunately, Christians down through the ages have certainly read it as such and used it to justify themselves and delegitimize the Jews. Paul left himself open to such an interpretation, but he did not intend it. He would have been appalled to see the community of the end of time becoming another sect in time, subject to the delusions of sacred violence. (146)
Paul's discourse is on this account a discourse of inclusion, an attempt to break down the hierarchical barriers that exist between people. In the passage discussed above in Chapter 3 in which Paul says “our fathers were all under the cloud,” precisely the import is all of our fathers, that is, the fathers of us both gentile and Jewish. To the extent, however, that the new and inclusive community demands conformity to certain practices that contradict the practices of the historical Jews, even if those practices be only the confession of certain beliefs, then it is inevitably a rival religion and a delegitimization of the Jews, and indeed all non-Christians. Hamerton-Kelly is, however, wholly oblivious to the fundamental contradictions built into the notion of such a community, namely, its presumption that anyone who does not wish to join the new community of faith is under a cloud of quite a different sort. The very claim to be “ontologically beyond” itself constitutes rivalry!
Paul did not only leave himself open to misinterpretation here; the “misinterpretation” is almost a necessary consequence of such an idea. The obvious fact is that this coercive “new and inclusive community” still excludes (and often violently) those who do not have faith in Christ. Hamerton-Kelly, moreover, reads Paul according to the best possible construal of the “intentions” of his discourse and not even its virtually ineluctable effects (How precisely Hamerton-Kelly claims to know the intention of Paul better than, say, Justin Martyr did is itself fascinating!), while Judaism is read by him according to its alleged “actual” practice of killing dissenters. Thus, Judaism is simply “the impulse to fulfill the Mosaic Law [that] made him [Paul] a persecutor and had killed Christ” (141).
Hamerton-Kelly is willing to grant that Paul's putative experience does “not take the whole range of the religion into account” but not willing, apparently, to consider that the doctrines of Jews that other Jews referred to as “Zealots” or “Knifers” were marginal and vigorously opposed subcultures of Greco-Roman Judaism. For Hamerton-Kelly, despite occasional pro-forma disclaimers, these groups represent the true essence of Judaism. For as he says, “I have endorsed Paul's attack on Judaism ” (183 [emphasis added]). To this should be contrasted Hays's sober and balanced judgments:
Only a narrowly ethnocentric form of Judaism, Paul insists, would claim that God is the God of the Jews only or that Abraham is the progenitor of God's people “according to the flesh,” that is by virtue of natural physical descent. For the purposes of his argument, Paul associates these (evidently false) notions with the (disputed) claim that Gentile Christians must come under the Law. Paul, speaking from within the Jewish tradition, contends that the Torah itself provides the warrant for a more inclusive theology that affirms that the one God is God of Gentiles as well as Jews and that Abraham is the forefather of more than those who happen to be his physical descendants. (1989, 55)
Paul is on this view indeed a Jewish cultural critic, calling Jews to ally themselves with the progressive understandings contained within their own tradition and to reject the practices of certain ethnocentric zealots. In fact, the notion that gentiles are saved without conversion to Judaism is a doctrine held by many within ancient Judaism; indeed, what is new in Paul is rather the idea that all—Jews and gentiles—must be justified in the same way, through faith in Jesus Christ. Paul dreamed of a day in which all human distinctions that led to hierarchy would be erased and not merely one in which there was a place in God's saving plan for all. These are the grounds of his critique of—not “attack on”—Judaism.
Hamerton-Kelly's account of Judaism, as well as his account of Paul, like all interpretation, teaches us a great deal about him and his ideology. For the certainty of faith, we find here substituted a certainty borne of “the preunderstanding we [Hamerton-Kelly] bring to the text,” which is “well founded on the evidence not only of the texts it interprets but also on other evidence from the human sciences” (61). For Hamerton-Kelly it is simply a fact that the Jews killed Christ, that their religion was a religion of Sacred Violence, and that God/ Paul rejected the Jews because of the essential evil of their “way of life”: “The Law had created a way of life founded on sacred violence and the crucifixion of Christ is the logical outcome of such a way of life” (66 and 71)! Hamerton-Kelly does not even present this characterization as Paul's and criticize it but rather produces a discourse supported by “the evidence from the human sciences” [i.e., Girard!] which asserts its authority as a description of Judaism. He interprets Philippians 3:8, in which Paul refers to his former achievement as σκύβαλα (dung), as Paul's characterization of “the Jewish way of life.” Hamerton-Kelly somewhat softens the translation to “refuse” and then asserts that this is “what the Law really is” (68). He thus relies ultimately on both the authority of Paul and that of Girard (science) in support of his own political/theological agenda. When we read the Pauline passage in question, however, we find that Hamerton-Kelly's interpretation of it is far from ineluctable. The passage reads:
Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ.
ἀλλὰ μενοῦνγε καὶ ἡγοῦμαι πάντα ζημίαν εἶναι διὰ τὸ ὑπερέχον τῆς γνώσεως Χριστοῦ Ἰησοῦ τοῦ κυρίου μου δι' ὅν τὰ πάντα ἐζημιώθην, καὶ ἡγοῦμαι σκύβαλα, ἵνα Χριστὸν κερδήσω.
I think that a reading of this verse much more likely than Hamerton-Kelly's is that Paul is precisely not referring to what his former life “really is,” but rather emphasizing that even though it was of value, he counts it now as dung in comparison to the excellency of the knowledge of Christ and in order that he may win such knowledge (Sanders 1983, 44–45; Barclay 1991, 243). In fact, the figure works precisely only if that of which he is speaking is not “really dung.” It is not Paul here who is anti-Judaic, unless any disagreement or cultural critique is to be defined as anti-Judaic.
In fact I give Hamerton-Kelly much more credit than he does himself. He claims to have endorsed Paul's attack on Judaism; I think he has created it. For example, Hamerton-Kelly writes:
The agent of my action in this situation is the sin “that dwells in me”; namely “in my flesh” (τοῦτ' ἔστιν ἐν τῇ σαρκί μου) (Rom. 7:18). In the light of my argument this might be paraphrased, “no good thing dwells in me, that is, in my culturally embedded (Jewish) self.” (147)
Even granting the undecidability of texts, the multivariate nature of hermeneutics, and my own personal investments that lead me to read one way and not another, I find it hard to imagine that anyone who is not already inclined toward Hamerton-Kelly's hatred of Judaism will find his paraphrase in Paul's language, and I think it unnecessary even to produce an alternative reading in this case. Hamerton-Kelly's affirmation of this proposition, whether or not it is Paul's, reveals that he still somehow manages to imagine that there is a self that is not culturally embedded. Paul says nothing so nefarious but certainly does hold out the positive hope of a humanity that will not be differentiated by cultural specificities. Paul can be forgiven his na;auiveté. Hamerton-Kelly is, however, intellectually and morally unforgivable for his ignorance of the critique of universalism mounted in recent criticism. (His appropriation of “theory” seems limited to Girard, and Girard alone.) In the wake of the horrors that have been perpetrated in the name of such visions of a humanity “not culturally embedded,” Hamerton-Kelly's remark is simply inexcusable. I want to underscore this point: If for Hamerton-Kelly, “cultural embeddedness” is the sin that dwells in our flesh, then his politics will be a politics of the eradication of cultural embeddedness, which we know, by now, means the assimilation of all, willy-nilly, to the culture that is defined as not specific—that of white Christian European males.
The obvious charge that suggests itself is that Hamerton-Kelly is engaging in sacred violence and scapegoating of his own. He is certainly aware, although contemptuously dismissive, of this accusation. Indeed, he devotes an entire section of his book to “refuting” it:
If the solution to sacred violence is the renunciation of rivalry, and if faith can take different forms, each of them valid as long as they can be classified under the heading of agape, why have I endorsed Paul's attack on Judaism? Have I not been engaged in precisely the rivalrous behavior that I have been criticizing, rivalrously condemning rivalry? (183)
Hamerton-Kelly's answer is that, “Clearly, a religious system that kills innocent people ‘righteously’ has less rational and moral justification than one that cherishes all in love” (183). It follows, therefore, as the night follows the day, that “the sophistic taunt that Paul scapegoats Judaism is, therefore, unworthy of serious consideration” (184). Indeed, such a “taunt” would be inappropriately directed at Paul, because Paul does not mount his critique of Judaism on such false grounds; it can well be directed, however, at Hamerton-Kelly, and it is more than a “sophistic taunt,” a formal contradiction. It is a damning charge which discredits entirely any pretense he has to a hermeneutic which claims to “escape mimetic violence into a new community of agapaic cooperation” (184).
The burden of Hamerton-Kelly's book is that the Jews really are Christ-killers. Now we do not know if “historically” there were any Jews involved in the killing of Christ, nor is there any reason to suppose that even if there were, they represented the whole People or its religion. What we do know, however, is that millions of Jews have been killed in Europe (and in the “Europe” imposed on the rest of the world by Europeans), owing at least partly to this scapegoating slander.