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Invented Tradition

Invented traditions are cultural practices that are presented or perceived as traditional, arising from the people starting in the distant past, but which in fact are relatively recent and often even consciously invented by identifiable historical actors.

It has every appearance of being an actual tradition, in that it repeats images and symbols drawn from the past (real or imagined), but is in fact both of a relatively recent origin and artificially created.

I have often wondered about the term “Judeo-Christian” and the idea of a Judeo-Christian tradition.  It is a concept that has (or had) significant purchase in the United States, used for reasons ranging as widely as a description of an ethical system to unqualified support for the state of Israel to advocacy for the Republican political party to a fundamental American value.

But where did this term come from?  How did it originate?  How has it been used in the past?

The term “Judæo Christian” first appears in a letter from Alexander McCaul which is dated October 17, 1821.

The term was used to describe Jewish converts to Christianity, which, of course, began in the first century of Christianity, when most of the earliest converts were, in fact, Jews.  Today, we describe such conversions under the label Messianic Judaism.

Joseph Wolff also used the term in 1829, describing a type of church that would observe some Jewish traditions in order to convert Jews.  Wolff is an interesting character.  He was a Jewish-Christian (an actual “Judeo-Christian”) missionary from Germany, who was known as “the missionary to the world.”  He embarked, for example, on a journey to discover the lost tribes of Israel.  Further, from 1827 – 1834, he visited

…. Anatolia, Armenia, Turkestan Afghanistan, Kashmir, Simla, Calcutta, Madras, Pondicherry, Tinnevelly, Goa and Bombay, returning via Egypt and Malta.

He predicted that Christ would return in 1847.  He wrote a book entitled Missionary Journal and Memoir, and he writes of one Gregor Peshtimaljaan (“an Armenian gentleman”):

I never met with an Armenian who possessed so much of critical knowledge as Scripture as that man did.

He said that in converting the Jews one should not compel them to change their ancient customs, as circumcision, and keeping the seventh day, for the Abysinians circumcise, and keep the seventh day; in short, one ought to establish a Judeo-Christian church.

So…still no sign of a “tradition” or support for the state of Israel or the Republican party.  Yet the way the term is used today suggests that one follows the other – that “Christian” followed Judaism.  Isn’t that tradition?  Doesn’t one follow the other?

Not quite:

It is worth emphasising that Judaism and Christianity are, more or less, the same age and share a common religious heritage.

Wait!  What?

Both arose in the first century CE out of the Hebrew Scriptures ― known to Jews as the Tanakh, and comprised of the Teaching (Torah), the Prophets and the Writings.

What about Jacob?  What about Moses?

What Christians would call “the Old Testament” arose out of these Hebrew texts;

Hebrews?  Well, come to think of it, the New Testament book addressed to the chosen people wasn’t entitled “Jews,” it was entitled “Hebrews.”

Both Judaism and Christianity became religions based predominantly on these texts, and not on the dominant temple religion of the Jews in Jerusalem as it was at the time of Jesus.

Judaism and Christianity are both children of the Hebrew Scriptures.  Do we not, instead, have a Hebraic-Christian tradition (if one needs to invent labels)?

Moreover, the adjective “Judeo-Christian” itself obscures the fact that ab initio Christianity believed that it had superseded the religion of the Jews.

One could just as easily call Judaism “Hebraic-Judaism.”  Both Christianity and Judaism, it seems, superseded the religion of Second Temple Jews.

But…where do we find the “Judeo-Christian” of an ethical system, of the Republican party, of supporters of the state of Israel?  For this, we turn to Mark Silk:

It was not until the middle decades of the 20th century that “Judeo-Christian” become a political term.

Not even 100 years ago.

In the 1930s, when anti-Semitism was on the rise on both sides of the Atlantic, Judeo-Christian language began to be used by interfaith organizations such as the National Conference of Christians and Jews [NCCJ] to indicate a common religious cause.

This organization was founded in 1927, in response to anti-Catholic sentiment being expressed during Al Smith’s run for the Democratic nomination.  It has since expanded its scope:

Several years later NCCJ expanded its work to include all issues of social justice including race, class, gender equity, sexual orientation and the rights of people with different abilities.

Hence, the need for a name change:

In the 1990’s, the name was changed to the National Conference for Community and Justice to better reflect the breadth and depth of its mission, the growing diversity of our country and our need to be more inclusive.

Would this reflect a Judeo-Christian tradition?  One of the organizations that popularized the term apparently seems to think so.

Returning to Silk:

After the war [World War II], “Judeo-Christian” gained widespread popularity, as pastors, politicians, and pundits seized on the term to mobilize the spiritual forces of America against “godless” communism — its second civilizational clash.

In 1952, president-elect Eisenhower would offer:

“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.”

Well, that’s a messy statement.  Has anything approaching the liberty found in the United States (waning as it was in the 1950s) been founded on any religion other than Christianity?

Anyway, Eisenhower continued:

“With us of course it is the Judeo-Christian concept but it must be a religion that all men are created equal.”

Well, it seems he does care what the religion is – at least it must contain this one concept of “all men are created equal.”  A phrase that clearly is complicated and problematic.

I don’t know that Scripture says anything like this, but I checked.  What I found is a listing of about seventy verses – sure, speaking of all being made in God’s image, that God does not show partiality, that there is neither Jew nor Greek, etc.  But I don’t see anything about all men being created equal – not in any sense that this phrase is used today.

Returning…how do Jews feel about this term Judeo-Christian?  Silk offers:

Notwithstanding the inclusionary impulses behind it, and (as it were) the imprimatur of JTS, Judeo-Christian terminology provoked significant Jewish ambivalence. As early as 1943, a well-known publicist named Trude Weiss-Rosmarin called it “a totalitarian aberration” to tie Jewish-Christian goodwill to a shared religious identity.

And there is this:

Reacting against the blurring of theological distinctions, Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits wrote that “Judaism is Judaism because it rejects Christianity, and Christianity is Christianity because it rejects Judaism.”

Sure.  Because each is the child of the previous Hebraic tradition.  A very different child, given the monumental and world-changing role of Jesus Christ.

Theologian and author Arthur A. Cohen, in The Myth of the Judeo-Christian Tradition, questioned the theological validity of the Judeo-Christian concept and suggested that it was essentially an invention of American politics…

As we have seen, this is the case – and very modern American politics to boot.

…while Jacob Neusner, in Jews and Christians: The Myth of a Common Tradition, writes, “The two faiths stand for different people talking about different things to different people.”

Except for those Christians who believe something along the lines of that which was taught by Cyrus Scofield.  It is really something to watch many modern Evangelical Christians, who want to treat modern Jews as brothers, all the while modern Jews want to distance themselves (except for the Zionists, who desire the political and financial support).

Conclusion

So, what to make of all this?

Matthew 5: 17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.

From this point, the former Hebraic tradition split in two with Judaism forming one branch and Christianity the other – those who did not believe that Jesus fulfilled the law and those who did believe it.

From here, there was Judaism or Christianity.  But, as to Judeo-Christian?  There really is no such thing.

Reprinted with permission from Bionic Mosquito.