Rudolf Rocker on Houston Stewart Chamberlain, the Aryan Jesus, and Racial Scholarship

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October 11, 2014 by James Crossley

From 1977 onward and the work of E.P. Sanders (though not without precedent–see e.g. George Foot Moore), New Testament scholarship has become increasingly aware of previous stereotyping of Judaism as cold, harsh, legalistic, and so on. From the 1990s onward (though not without precedent–see e.g. Geza Vermes), it became increasingly common in New Testament scholarship to investigate or point out its Nazi and fascist past (largely) prior to WWII.

Houston Stewart Chamberlain

As a point of contrast, we might note Rudolf Rocker (1873-1958) who, during the rise of German fascism, was a fierce critic of what was happening in the place of his birth. Rocker was not a New Testament scholar but was fiercely critical of one of the more notable advocates of an Aryan Jesus, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, and his now infamous book Foundations of the Nineteenth Century (1899). Despite being an anarchist writer who had little time for religion (he believed it underpinned state and political power), he was also critical of Chamberlain’s understanding of Judaism.

The following was published by Rocker in 1937 and is dripping in sarcasm:

[According to Chamberlain] the German is the specially chosen minister of the Protestant mission, through which Christendom is first made aware of its true content. That the Christian had thoughtlessly chosen the Jew, Jesus, for his savior was surely a bitter pill; it was too late to undo that.

Rudolf Rocker

Rudolf Rocker

But was it not written in the Gospel that Christ first saw the light in Galilee? And immediately the “instinct of the race” came to Chamberlain’s aid and informed him that in just this part of Palestine extensive crossing of races had occurred and, above all, that in Galilee Germanic stocks had settled. Must one not, then, admit that Christ had been a German? It was, in fact, unthinkable that out of “materialism drunken Jewry” a doctrine could come to whose spiritual content the Jewish mind is completely opposed.

Chamberlain revealed an utterly morbid hatred of everything Jewish. He even ventured to assure his credulous readers that a Germanic child, the keenness of whose senses had not yet been ruined or blunted by the prejudices of adults, could tell instinctively when a Jew was near him….To be sure, he based his preference for the Sephardim on the assumption that they were in reality Goths who had been converted to Judaism in large numbers–a recognition which came to the great master of unproved assertion rather tardily, as it first appears in the third edition of his book. How the Goths, those genuine branches of the noble tree of Germandom, in spite of their “mystic inclination” and their inborn sense of “religious profundity,” which according to Chamberlain are the heritage of their race, could throw themselves into the arms of “materialistic Judaism” with its “dead ritualism,” its slavish obedience,” and its “despotic God” remains an unsolved mystery. In this case the “race in their own bosoms” must have failed outright; otherwise the wonder is not explained. There is hardly another work which reveals such unexampled unreliability in the material used and such reckless juggling with bare assumptions of the most daring type.

Racialised thinking about Jews and Judaism has not gone away, even in mainstream New Testament scholarship today, and this includes an old theory (which otherwise survives as a right-wing conspiracy theory) about contemporary American and northern European Jews supposedly being genetically traceable back to their Turkic origins as Khazars and thus, so Malina argues, having no connection with those people previously identified as ‘Jews’ prior to the sixth century. It is striking that, in this instance, Malina’s argument relies more on racial theory than identity creation.

A version of this is post is found on The Jesus Blog.

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