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.