The Myth of a Judeo-Christian Tradition

In the United States, it’s common to hear frequent and impassioned references to the concept of ‘Judeo-Christian’ culture, ethics, or values. Any cursory review of American media will demonstrate that the concept is used on both sides of the proverbial aisle – this nebulous Judeo-Christian ideal is evoked in defense of both liberal and conservative political agendas on a routine basis. Rarely does this conflation of Judaism and Christianity seem to be questioned. More often than not it is held up as representing the belief system of America’s founders (who, in fact, were quite idiosyncratic in their religious doctrines). Despite its omnipresence in political discourse, I believe that the concept of Judeo-Christian tradition is bizarre, imprecise, and most importantly – dangerous.

To begin with the bizarre: although the term first appears in the mid 19th century, it only gained its current implication – that of a shared value system and morals – in the 1940s. President Eisenhower made the concept a household term when he connected it with the Founding Fathers in a 1952 speech:

all men are endowed by their Creator.” In other words, our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is. With us of course it is the Judeo-Christian concept, but it must be a religion with all men created equal.”  

To the astute reader of history, President Eisenhower’s statement seems incredibly bizarre in light of the balance of Jewish-Christian relationships. There is practically no precedent whatsoever for understanding Judaism and Christianity as sharing a common core of beliefs, practices, or morals. Moreover, there’s a good argument to be made that the entire foundation of Western civilization (which is more or less co-terminous with Christendom) is based on opposition to Judaism and it’s values (for instance, the work of David Nirenberg). The overwhelming history of Christian religious violence against Jews, from antiquity to today, including such highlights as blood libels, the Crusades, pogroms, expulsions, and book-burnings, all testify to the deeply ingrained rejection and revulsion of Jews by Christians. Even such prominent Church Fathers as John Chrysostom and Tertullian defined Christianity in opposition to Judaism. Chrysostom’s infamous Adversus Judaeos contains the following gem: 

“The Jewish people were driven by their drunkenness and plumpness to the ultimate evil; they kicked about, they failed to accept the yoke of Christ, nor did they pull the plow of his teaching. Another prophet hinted at this when he said: “Israel is as obstinate as a stubborn heifer.” … Although such beasts are unfit for work, they are fit for killing. And this is what happened to the Jews: while they were making themselves unfit for work, they grew fit for slaughter. This is why Christ said: “But as for these my enemies, who did not want me to be king over them, bring them here and slay them.” [Luke 19:27]”

Reading the tirades of Adversus Judaeos, it’s hard to imagine how anyone might imagine that there is a preexisting conception of a shared Jewish/Christian view of the world. In addition to the bizarre nature of such a claim, it is also shockingly imprecise. The Judeo-Christian value system that American political commentators love to reference has no precedent in history (in fact, quite the opposite), but it also has no basis in the theological and ethical systems of the two faiths. Advocates of the use of ‘Judeo-Christian’ as an acceptable adjective fail to acknowledge that the very core of their argument – that Judaism and Christianity share essential values – is simply untrue.

It’s impossible to adequately compare two extremely developed theological systems – not even in a multi-volume work, much less in a blog post. For the sake of brevity, simply consider some basic principles of each faith. Law, salvation, afterlife, sin, hierarchy, ritual, monotheism – even belief, faith, and practice – nearly every component of an authentic Christian practice and an authentic Jewish one differ in an elementary way. If we wish to be precise (which we should), it simply doesn’t make sense to consider Judaism and Christianity as sharing the same outlook on God or the world.

Most importantly, the concept of a Judeo-Christian value system is dangerous. Lest one think the days of supersessionist theology have passed, the contemporary fascination with conflating Judaism and Christianity can be read as simply a continuation of earlier supersessionist attempts. Stephen Feldman puts it well when he writes:

“For Christians, the concept of a Judeo-Christian tradition comfortably suggests that Judaism progresses into Christianity—that Judaism is somehow completed in Christianity. The concept of a Judeo-Christian tradition flows from the Christian theology of supersession, whereby the Christian covenant (or Testament) with God supersedes the Jewish one. Christianity, according to this myth, reforms and replaces Judaism. The myth therefore implies, first, that Judaism needs reformation and replacement, and second, that modern Judaism remains merely as a “relic”. Most importantly the myth of the Judeo-Christian tradition insidiously obscures the real and significant differences between Judaism and Christianity.”

Conflating Judaism and Christianity in the way that we see today in America is simply the latest polemic meant to eliminate Judaism and define the Western world as that which has conquered Judaism.

Even if we were of the opinion that it was productive and wise to talk about a shared inter-religious culture, it would definitely not be Christianity and Judaism. Were such a thing to be a useful concept, the only potentially accurate incarnation of it would be a Jewish-Muslim culture. Islam and Judaism actually do share basic concepts about law, behavior, faith, the nature of God, the obligations of people, the running of a society, etc. There’s some notable exceptions to their surprisingly similar traditions, but all in all, their morals, ethics, and values are considerably more similar than different. And they’re certainly both more similar to one another than either is to Christianity. Even Slavoj Zizek in A Glance into the Archives of Islam writes:

“We usually speak of the Jewish-Christian civilization – perhaps, the time has come, especially with regard to the Middle East conflict, to talk about the Jewish-Muslim civilization as an axis opposed to Christianity.”

Ultimately, no attempt to treat two disparate cultures as one is productive or useful – but were we to do so, there’s very little reason (aside from supersessionism and anti-Judaism) to try and conflate Christianity and Judaism. When we talk about a Judeo-Christian civilization, we demean and endanger both Judaism and Christianity, and we do neither of them any favors by continuing to reference such an idea.

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10 thoughts on “The Myth of a Judeo-Christian Tradition

  1. Considering that both Christianity and Judaism make use of the texts in the 1st Testament, it seems odd that you didn’t discuss them in this article. The use of the testament in either religion seems like a fairly concrete precedence for the concept of a “Judeo-Christian” worldview, and I’d like you to speak about why that isn’t the case.

    Overall, I think your argument has merit. I agree that Judaism ought to have more recognized autonomy from Christianity. My one concern is that your argument could serve as a precedent for alienation and exclusion instead of simple autonomy. Demolishing or disproving the “Judeo-Christian” tradition should serve to create more dialogue, communication, and cooperation, not less.

    1. Hi Observer,

      You’re correct that the Hebrew Bible might provide a common bridge of understanding and values. However, as the basis of Christian thought rests on the notion that the values and laws of the Hebrew Bible have been abrogated by Jesus, the argument that a shared text informs both breaks down quickly. The Hebrew Bible, when read through the lens of the New Testament, is very different than when read independently.

      It may be the case that rejecting such a concept as ‘Judeo-Christian’ encourages short-term ‘alienation and exclusion’ as you say. However, I’d much prefer such exclusion if it prevents the intellectual irredentism that characterizes any such superficial synthesis of religion concepts.

      I do hope that in arguing against a unified Judeo-Christian tradition we can arrive at better (and clearer) dialogue between the two.

  2. This is an excellent post. You have synthesized here, much more succinctly and eloquently, many things that I have been saying for years in the course of teaching. I often wonder how much the increasing prevalence of this conflationist language has contributed to stimulating assimilation amongst secular Jews, as well as stimulating pseudo-Jewish evangelical Christian sects, like Jews for Jesus.

  3. Adam,

    Thanks for this post. It was succinct and well-argued. I think that you are correct in your critique of the “Judeo-Christian” construct. But I think that some Christians would disagree with your statement: “When we talk about a Judeo-Christian civilization, we demean and endanger both Judaism and Christianity, and we do neither of them any favors by continuing to reference such an idea.” Some Christians would say that they have a high respect for the Judaic tradition and their attempts to conflate the two is due to an admiration/reverence/respect. (I’m not defending this position, simply acknowledging a sincere perspective).

    Yet I also think that what you referred to as supersessionist theology is a means of power appropriation. Some Christians would say that authentic Judaism progressed into authentic Christianity. This can be viewed as an attempt to appropriate/claim the Hebrew deity as their own. And this appropriation has obviously led to myriad conflicts, both religious and political.

    This is definitely a difficult topic with contemporary and historical implications. Again, I appreciate your perspective and post.


  4. Adam,
    I am impressed with your courage to voice such a controversial opinion. What you are referring to as “Judeo-Christian” tradition in America is actually the American civic (civil) culture that was developed to brand us, Americans, and unite us against the “other.” Having developed in the time frame you mentioned and having been initiated by an American president and not, say, a priest, is proof that it’s all about politics and power!
    Now, with the religious diversity spreading in America, this concept of “Judeo-Christian” tradition or civilization may not make sense in the American civic culture as earlier, and this is why insisting on such a claim is dangerous because it will divide us as a nation. However, the claim has real foundations like other readers commented and history is too long to be abbreviated. Christianity was born out of Judaism and it uses Jewish scripture as part of its Bible. I don’t see it as demeaning to Judaism though: I find it holding Judaism at a high esteem, being the foundation of faith.

  5. Good article to show that indeed Christianity is missing adhering to Torah, which is found in Messianic approach, yet hated by Jewish people because of ad-hoc jump to seeing Messiah as ….Jesus, and not as Y’shua.

    ONLY acute student will see the differences and ascribe much violence done to Y’shua, a VERY Jewish rabbi aligned to school of Hillel, and still very Shammaic in acts.

    I wonder WHEN rabbis and pastors will see that Messiah is true to Torah…..and not to Greek thought or Talmud style.

  6. I have more mixed feelings about both the history and current usage of the term “Judeo-Christian”. Although you are right to point out that the term became common only in the 1950s, its adoption at that time wasn’t to imply syncretism between Judaism and Christianity but to give Jews a “place at the table” in what had been asserted to be a “Christian country”. While the term (like Will Herberg’s formulation of Catholic-Protestant-Jew) may seem outdated and insufficiently inclusive now, it was intended to increase, rather than decrease, respect for pluralism. I wonder how future generations will view the term “Abrahmic”, which has been gaining currency now that the United States has a sizeable Muslim community. I find that term even odder since the common belief in a promise made to Abraham by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam does not really lead to a lot of theological unity or commonality.

  7. Thought-provoking article. The political origins of Judaism and Islam are indeed similar: both are based on bloodletting at smaller and larger scales. For example, Moses shed the blood of the Egyptian, the Israelites took out the native Canaanites, 1st-century Jews and Romans hung the Christ to die on a tree, early Muslim expansionism took place at the point of a sword. The origin of Christianity is found nascent in Temple ritual and commandment, and in the ability to travel and communicate by means of Roman thoroughfares. Christ proclaimed that he did not come to destroy the Law but to fulfill it. He demonstrated the ways of his God by living a life that would become the foundation for 1st-century Christianity and its development into the Universal Church. By my count, Christ retained 178 of the 613 mitzvot, the remaining 435 being either morally neutral or unjust (by Catholic standards). Among these commandments, he emphasized love of God and love of neighbor as underlying them all. He taught that it is better to render one’s life to injustice than to commit a single sin against God. He taught that the God of the Torah is the one, true God of all, and to worship this God is the first duty of every human and divine person. Catholics do not consider themselves bound by only 178 moral precepts, but develop new understandings based on Christ’s justice and contemporary circumstances as they arise over time. It is because of this adherence to the law of justice revealed to Adam, Eve, Noah, and the sacred writers of God’s revelation, that true religion is able to formulate a response to new threats to human life, threats such as nuclear war, homologous and heterologous artificial insemination, fetal stem cell research, human cloning, and so on. It is primarily on the basis of each religion’s divergent understanding of the moral code, of each religion’s varying grasp of the intrinsic nature of man as being created in the image and likeness of God, and of the different approaches to ritual worship taken by each religion, that a basis for a claim of “Judeo-Christian” seems absurd.

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