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Judaism and Christianity

by Leo Baek

Bibliographic information

TitleJudaism and Christianity
AuthorLeo Baek
PublisherVarda Books
Publication Date2002
SubjectJewish Religious Thought


It is entirely fitting that these essays on Judaism and Christianity should be published as Leo Baek’s last major work. For his first major work was his book on The Essence of Judaism, his reply to Harnack’s classic on The Essence of Christianity. In English, this point, which no German reader could miss, has been lost because Harnack’s book was translated under the title What is Christianity? Baeck’s thought was polemical from the beginning, and the central theme from beginning to end is his polemic against Christianity.

It might be fashionable to slur over this truth and to misrepresent the facts ever so slightly by saying that he wanted to reopen a dialogue between Judaism and Christianity, as if he had wanted to restore Judaism to the role of an equal partner. With his staggering politeness, he might even have put the matter that way himself. It is told that in his homiletics class he would often begin his comments on a trial sermon: “It was wonderful.” But after some generous compliments he would proceed, “If I may say just one thing”—and rip the sermon to shreds.

Baeck’s point was not that Judaism was not inferior to Christianity but rather that Judaism was distinctly superior. It is one of the oddities of our time that this view is scarcely ever discussed in public. Yet it would be very strange if it were not shared by most Jews; and Christian theologians must surely take for granted that this is at the very least the position of practically all rabbis. Most Christians are convinced of the immeasurable superiority of Christianity over all other religions, and quite especially over Judaism; but it is polite to grant that the Jew, of course, considers his religion the equal of Christianity; and it is the acme of liberalism to grant that, theoretically at least, he might be right. The view, however, that Christianity is inferior to Judaism is simply ignored.

The Essence of Judaism could still be read as primarily a work of apologetics. The essays in the present volume are thoroughly militant in spirit, though so polite that those who merely browse in them might miss that fact. It would be a pity if they did. For whether one agrees with Baeck on particular points or not, what he here tries to do needs doing so badly.

Serious Christians should care to know in what respects one of the outstanding Jewish thinkers of our time considered their religion to be open to objections: not just Catholicism or Luther, or some few beliefs or excesses, but the very core of Christianity. Religion tends to become repulsive when it is not under attack, and it is often at its best when it is persecuted. German Judaism was a case in point; so, specifically, are Baeck’s essays. As Kierkegaard well knew, though his contemporary admirers seem to have forgotten it, Christianity needs less apologetics and more criticism. Serious Christians should therefore welcome Baeck’s Judaism and Christianity.

Readers who consider themselves neither Jews nor Christians may find these essays fascinating in two ways. First, they may view them as unusually interesting contributions to the history of ideas. Secondly, adopting the perspective suggested here, they may concentrate on the manner in which so proud and wise a man responded to a hostile world, and particularly to the challenge of Christianity: Baeck’s response differs not only from Heine’s and Kafka’s but also from Rosenzweig’s and Buber’s.

And Jewish readers? There is no danger that any of Baeck’s writings will make them complacent: like the prophets, Baeck stresses the central importance of the challenge in Judaism rather more than his contemporaries. And he himself lived true to this challenge and exemplified what he taught, unlike some of the most outstanding German philosophers and theologians who before 1933 had talked, and after 1945 went right on talking, with a cracked existential pathos—cracked by the rift between life and thought or, as Baeck might have said, between “mystery and commandment,” or, in one word, by their “romanticism.” Baeck was a great man, and he may yet lead Jewish readers to reflect on dimensions of their own religion of which they had never been aware.

In sum, this is a signally important work for anyone seriously concerned with Judaism or Christianity. It may prove to be a seminal work. No doubt, it has faults—in the original, too—but a lack of nobility is not one of them.

About the Author 

Leo Baek ---

Leo Baek (1873-1956) was a German religious leader, scholar, author, and a prominent rabbi in Berlin. During the persecution of the Jews in Hitler’s Germany, Baeck became known for his nonviolent resistance to the Nazis. Rejecting an offer of asylum in the United States, he chose to remain in Germany and use his influence as head of the German-Jewish community to aid in lessening or delaying the atrocities being perpetrated by the Nazis against the Jews. Imprisoned in 1943 at the Theresienstadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia, he was one of only seven hundred survivors out of nearly fifty thousand persons sent there. Baeck was alternately criticized for not advocating physical resistance to the Nazis during the Holocaust and praised for the guidance and comfort he provided the Theresienstadt death camp inmates.

After the war Baeck resumed his position of leadership in the international Jewish community, serving as president of the Council for the Protection of the Rights and Interests of Jews from Germany, an organization dedicated to directing the activities of former German Jews who had immigrated to England, the United States, Israel, and other countries, and as president of the World Union of Progressive Judaism. A highly regarded scholar and author, Baeck served as visiting professor at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, until a few years before his death and wrote The Essence of Judaism (1905), a work considered a classic on Judaism. Another of his books, The Pharisees and Other Essays (1947), includes writings suppressed by the Nazis, and his last work, This People Israel: The Meaning of Jewish Existence (1955), chronicles Jewish life in the twentieth century. Baeck was also the subject of a book by Leonard Baker, Days of Sorrow and Pain: Leo Baeck and the Berlin Jews (1978), which won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1979.


LEO BAECK: A Biographical Introduction by Walter Kaufmann







There are few great historical personalities who give us an insight into their characters in the same degree as Paul. It is the salient feature, indeed, a distinctive mark of Paul’s letters—those which are beyond doubt genuine—that they are substantially confessions. In them Paul discloses himself, and he does so with great frankness and a remarkable capacity for self-diagnosis. He could not preach his faith without searching and revealing his heart. He could not be detached; his “I” was always fully engaged; his speech was often excited, even passionate. What he sends out to a community is not an “epistle,” but a “letter.” In Deissmann’s phrase: “an ‘I’ is writing to a ‘thou.’”

It is of some significance that his appearance is described to us. To see a man sometimes facilitates our opinion of him. In the “Acts of Paul and Thecla” Paul is described as: “a short man, bandy-legged, with a bald head, a prominent nose, and the eyebrows grown to- gether—of dignified bearing and full of kindliness.” The “Acts of Paul and Thecla” were composed more than a hundred years after Paul’s death, but it appears that his picture was handed down by faithful tradition. The more so since it is scarcely intended to flatter. The motif in this portrait of Paul is clearly the atopia (oddness), that atopia which was once emphasized in regard to Socrates. Some features in Paul’s portrait are due perhaps to this motif.

But the main source of our knowledge of Paul is his genuine letters. Four letters must at any rate be recognized as authentic: the letter to the Romans, the two letters to the Corinthians (with the exception of the passage in the second letter, 6.14-7.1, which is most probably an interpolation), and the letter to the Galatians. They show the same style and rhythm, a distinctive style and rhythm, the first traces of which we can perceive in the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah and then more clearly in the Book of Daniel. These three biblical books seem to have exerted some influence on Jewish style, vocabulary, manner of arguing, and doctrine. Attention should also be paid to the fact that the word ekklesia, refers in Paul’s genuine letters to individual congregations, and not, as in other letters attributed to Paul, to the mystical body of the faithful. All these four letters together give us a clear picture of the nature of Paul’s faith.

A source that is in every regard secondary is the Acts of the Apostles (the Apostles being here Peter and Paul), composed in the second generation after Paul, obviously by the same author as the third Gospel. Apart from other evidence that might be produced for this assertion, the identity of the character of the writer of the two works is strikingly manifest. The author takes pains to show that he is an educated man; he aims at displaying a good acquaintance with historical, local, and personal detail. He commands a certain literary skill and adroitness, and is well versed both in the language of the Septuagint and in the common religious tongue of the Greek. He has also an artistic, even a poetic talent, and he delights in this and is seduced by it. He is prompt to color and embellish, and enjoys arranging situations; and takes pleasure in speeches and prayers. Moreover, he is in love with the miraculous, the extraordinary, and the superlative, as he sees them in events and as he describes them in his narrative. The stories he tells abound in wonders and portents and in coincidences too, and his tale, therefore, is rather a series of single stories than a continuous and interconnected narration. There is no doubt that he invents particulars. Eduard Norden produced the evidence for it in his classic treatise Agnostos Theos. On the whole, it must be said that the third Gospel and the Acts present us with historical fiction rather than history. Behind them lies a charming personality, an attractive writer, but not an authority to rely upon. The Acts are of some help, but only when their information is confirmed by the letters.

These are our sources. What do they offer that may allow us an insight into the nature of Paul’s faith? The first thing we see is that there is a center round which everything turns. The point on which everything depends, round which everything revolved in Paul’s life, and the point at which his faith became his life was the vision which overpowered him when one day he saw the messiah and heard his voice. This vision immediately became, and remained, the central fact of Paul’s life. Such an experience cannot be argued about. One must start from it in order to understand Paul, his personality, and his confession.

It was a vision that had seized him, and to the Jew as he was and as he never ceased to be, to the Jew whose spiritual, intellectual, and moral world was the Bible, his vision must have meant the call: the call to the new way; no longer was he allowed to follow the old course. A Greek who had experienced such a vision would have reflected, talked, and mused, or spoken and written about it; he would not have heard the Jewish command: “Go”—“Thou shalt go.” The Greek had no God who laid a claim on him and sent him out to be His messenger. Only the Jew would be always aware that the revelation entailed the mission, that a prompt readiness to follow the way was the first sign and testimony to the faith. Paul knew now that to him had fallen the apostolate in the name of the messiah. The last Jew in the young Church was its last apostle. With the Greek succession a new chapter in the history of the Church opened.

It is customary to speak of Paul’s conversion. But such a term is inadequate. What happened in Paul’s life was not just a conversion in the usual meaning of the word but rather a revolution, a transformation. What Paul tells us of his inward change indicates clearly the suddenness of it. It was an instantaneous crisis. Nobody had approached or taught him, nobody was a helper or agent. The vision and Paul himself were the sole constituents of the event. Therefore he alone could and must act on it here on earth. Thus, his first step was in the direction not of man but of the desert, unto that place of lonely decision to which men of the Jewish people had often withdrawn so that they might meditate upon the way that lay before them. “Immediately I conferred not with flesh and blood, neither went I up to Jerusalem to them which were apostles before me, but I went into the desert (Arabia)” (Gal. 1.16f.).

Paul’s transformation was not that subita conversio ad docilitatem which Calvin experienced and of which he spoke in the Preface to his Commentary to the Psalms—that “sudden conversion to a readiness for learning.” Paul had nothing further to learn: the vision had made him aware of everything. He had rather to forget many things. A new principle had been established, a new point of view was taken. The world from which it came was not a sphere into which one could be initiated by a preparedness for learning. It could only be accepted by him, or refused, at once and for ever. Perhaps a word of Kierkegaard’s, although bizarre in its expression, might serve here as an illustration: “The apostolate is a paradoxical fact which in the first and last moments of his (the apostle’s) existence is outside his personal identity with himself.” A parallel that may help us to understand such a “paradoxical fact” is the “crisis” in Mohammed’s life.

When Paul speaks of his new life he emphasizes both things together: the “revelation” and the “mission”; at bottom they meant to him the same thing. He was not authorized or invested by man. But he is conscious of having received the mark from above. Not an ordination, but a “manifestation” made him an apostle. All four letters begin in a similar manner: “Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated unto the gospel of God” (Rom. 1.1); “Paul, called to be an apostle of Jesus Christ through the will of God” (I Cor. 1.1); “Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God” (II Cor. 1.1); “Paul, an apostle, not of men, neither by man, but by Jesus Christ, and God the Father, who raised him from the dead” (Gal. 1.1). He stresses this point over and over again: “The gospel which was preached of me is not after man, for I neither received it of man, neither was I taught, but by the revelation of Jesus Christ” (Gal. 1.11 and 12). These words are not mere introductory phrases, they lie at the root of his faith.

It is remarkable with what chastity, if one may say so, Paul relates the event of the manifestation. He writes to the Galatians: “When it pleased God, who separated me from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, to reveal his son in me, that I might preach him among the heathen...” (Gal. 1.15f.). And with still more reserve he writes to the Corinthians: “Have I not seen Jesus Christ my Lord?” (I Cor. 9.1 and 15.8). He says no more and no less. It is left to the author of the Acts to tell us more in a story full of circumstance and a poetry which is rightly among mankind’s greatest possessions (22.6ff.). Paul himself mentions no such occurrences when speaking of the vision. If anything like this had happened he would have spoken it. It seems that his very simplicity of expression represents the truth here, and shows that it is the whole truth.

This vision, as we have said, became the permanent center of Paul’s faith and life. There was, of course, also a background: Jewish messianic thought and sentiment, which had a firm hold on the bulk of the Jewish people, particularly in Palestine. There is no doubt that Paul at first very actively opposed those who believed that the messiah had come in their own day, that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ. They had seen and heard him healing and preaching and comforting, until the Romans crucified him for having been hailed King of the Jews. They were convinced that, soon afterwards, on the third day, he was raised, in accordance with the word of the prophet, and that on the appointed day which they were expecting he would reappear in the fullness of his glory. Paul relates how strongly he contended against the congregation of the faithful: “Beyond measure I persecuted the Church of God, and wasted it” (Gal. 1.15 and 23), or, to translate the Greek text more accurately: “Beyond measure I harried the Church of God and pressed hard upon it.”

But all this was only a preliminary stage in the process of Paul’s inner life, which had its beginning in the “vision.” Here we meet the most essential factor, from which everything else derives. In his vision Paul saw the Christ; his faith henceforth was Christ-centered. It was not God who had awakened him and spoken to him and called him, but the Christ. When Paul remembers the great hour he says: “Have I not seen Jesus Christ our Lord” (I Cor. 9.1). One sees at once the distinctive character and the implication of the vision when one compares it with Isaiah’s: “Mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts” (6.5), or when one realizes that the old prophets were all called to be messengers of God, while Paul was “called to be a messenger of Jesus Christ” (I Cor. 1.1).

The prophets’ task was theocentric, Paul’s task was Christ-centered. This is the emphasis in the letter to the Romans: “...Jesus Christ our Lord by whom we have received grace and apostleship” (1.4f.).

A turning point in the history of religion, of monotheism, is seen here. The old theocentric faith of Judaism is superseded by the new Christ-centered faith. The belief in God, the One, has receded before the belief in

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