“Miracle-Making Christians, Undead Muslims and Superseded Jews”
by Jesse Brenner
In her essay “Dead Neighbors Archive: Jews, Muslims and the Enemy’s Two Bodies,” Kathleen Biddick attempts to show how essentialist and reductionist medieval Christian theological portrayals of the Jew and the Muslim still haunt the field of political theology today. At the same time, she opens the discussion to some of the ways in which Jewish historians and theologians of the twentieth century have internalized and expressed these portrayals to validate their own political legitimacy within a Christian European historical narrative. Susannah Heschel’s “Jesus as Theological Transvestite” expands the field of inquiry on politically and theologically motivated essentialized notions of The Jew to encompass gendered depictions. She problematizes the tropes of “feminized” depictions of Paulian Christianity’s “mastery” over Judaism as an inferior and subservient religion. She accomplishes this by showing how nineteenth century Protestant theologians used notions of the “historical Jesus” to create a horrifying “transvestite” Jew that represented the most abohorrent qualities of both male and female while, at the same time, transferring to Christianity the higher qualities that have historically beenassociated with each gender.
The iconography of the Mystic Mill from the abbey of Cluny in Vézelay is the visual representation of the transformative moves made by Christian theologianslike Peter the Venerable during the twelfth century. Peter deployed the semiotic power of this iconography to foreclose Judaism’s claims to legitimacy, authority, and meaning. The Mystic Mill depicts the grain of Moses’s hands (i.e. Judaism) being transformed into the refined flour (i.e. true revelation) in the hands of Paul. This single image communicates the “fulfillment” of Mosaic Law in Christianity by way of the the Eucharist, which both “literally” and “figuratively” represent this process.
Indeed, the great fear of typological relationships for medieval Christianity was that the three-sided figure of the literal-figurative-truth relationship is always potentially reversible, and thus “the figura, the Christian, is always at excarnating risk of becoming Jewish (again), becoming the littera, the Jew.” The historical knowledge that Jesus (and the Disciples) were Jews – officially acknowledged by liberal Protestant theologians of the nineteenth century “historical Jesus” movement, but also implicit in the theology of Peter the Venerable – supplies the “grain” of authority that Jesus through Paul and the Church have “refined” and “fulfilled” as Christianity. Yet contained within this premise is not only the suppressed horror of the potentiality of reversion to Judaism, but the theological and historical ambiguity that always threatens “losing the boundaries that constitute [the] self-definition” of one’s Christian-ness.
For Heschel’s nineteenth century Protestants, this “horror” was magnified through a heavily gendered lens. Heschel makes use of the “idea of the transvestite” and the “sense of confusion and displacement that underlies the absence of a fixed referential to gender” that it invokes to help elucidate “the anxiety over the self-definition of the two religions” that informed both Paulian philosophy and more modern struggles for identity. For example, Christian theology ascribes a certain unique and damnable brand of evil to the “Pharisaic religion” into which Jesus was both literally and figurative born. First century Pharisaic Judaism is described using terms like “bondage,” “murder,” “abomination,” “shackles,” and “enraged frenzy.” At the same time, the Jew is portrayed as needing punishment for her/his sins. The combined effect is to “empty Jewish law of any authority, emasculating it even while describing its stereotypically masculine harshness, rigidity, and lack of mercy and sympathy.”
In doing so, anti-Judaic proponents of Christian theology have been able to assign to Judaism the negative imagery of both masculine and feminine stereotypes, while simultaneously claiming the positively perceived aspects of each typology for itself. Just as the twisted, demonic, and ungendered/multigendered creatures that inhabit horror films are meant to produce a feeling of terror, so too is the threat of Judaism as both a masculinized monstrosity “manifesting the sinfulness of the Adamic nature of fallen humanity” and the inferior, feminized relic that has given way to Christianity’s “eschatological ‘new Creation’” of a “new eternal world of the resurrection.” Continue reading