A short introduction to Jules Isaac

Jules Isaac (1877-1963) is most well known for his tireless work after the Second World War in the field of Jewish-Christian relations, culminating in his decisive key role in the origin of the groundbreaking declaration Nostra Aetate during the Second Vatican Council. Jules Isaac also coined the highly influential term 'teaching of contempt'. The term 'supersessionism' was used for the first time in theological discourse in the English translation of Isaac's major work Jésus et Israel from 1948, published in 1971 under the title 'Jesus and Israel'. Matthew A. Tapie referred to this first use of the term supersessionism in his recent study on Thomas of Aquino, Aquinas on Israel and the Church.

Jules Isaac was already a well known and highly respected historian in France with an impressive career in the world of education when World War II broke out. By then he was already for years responsible for a seven volume series on French and world history published by Hachette in France. The series was used by practically all secondary schools and universities in France for decades, well after World War II even. Since 1936 he was general inspector for secondary and university level education for the whole of France. It was the highest position one could hold in the French department of education and science in those days. In the fall of 1940 he lost his position due to the anti-Jewish measures of the Nazi's who had occupied a large part of France. No Jew was allowed to work for the government from then on.
Until 1940 Isaac had almost never experienced any antisemitism in France. However, that changed dramatically. In 1941 he had to go into hiding with his wife, and the rest of his family as well. The extreme anti-Jewish measures and unrelenting Jew hunting of the Nazi's made Isaac wonder what the roots were of this new and bewildering phenomenon. At the age of 64 it brought him as a historian on completely new territory: the field of theology. It did not take him long to discover the age-old anti-Judaistic trend in Christian theology. With the help of befriended pastors and priests who provided him with the necessary books he started a deep research of the Gospels and the classic theological Christian tradition on the Jews. Being an expert in Greek gave Isaac the possibility to study the Gospels in depth in the original Greek. It would take him three years of study and writing to complete the 600 pages Jésus et Israel, in the meantime fleeing from one hiding place to the next. During this period in 1943 his wife, daughter and son in law were arrested by the Gestapo and subsequently killed by gassing in Auschwitz. Isaac escaped the arrest while he happened to be out for a walk during the raid. The blow was enormous. He managed to continue his research thanks to a small note his wife managed to write to him after her arrest and which reached him. She wrote: “My friend, take care of yourself, have confidence and finish your work, the world is waiting for it”. Clearly she meant his study of the anti-Jewish bias in Christian theology and the writing of his book. This small note of his wife became very dear for Isaac and kept him going after the immense personal tragedy. In 1946 he completed his book. It brought a great stir in France and Italy following the publication in 1948 and has been very influential since. Especially in the run-up towards Nostra Aetate, the groundbreaking declaration on the relationship of the Church and the Jewish people which was promulgated during the final days of the Second Vatican Council, on October 28, 1965.

In 1971 Jésus et Israel appeared in English translation under the title Jesus and Israel. In it Jules Isaac shows beyond doubt that the classic Christian theological tradition on the Jews is fundamentally out of tune with the Gospels themselves. He coined this anti-Judaistic tradition 'the teaching of contempt'.
Jules Isaac himself kept a high esteem of Christianity. Until his death he worked almost non-stop to bring the Christian world to develop a 'teaching of respect' on the Jewish people. After the war he became very active in promoting Jewish-Christian reconciliation and Jewish-Christian dialogue. He was one of the key players in the historical Seelisberg Conference in Switzerland in 1947. Twice he had a private audience with the Pope. The second time, in June 1959, he convinced Pope John XXIII to put the question of anti-Judaism in the Christian tradition high on the agenda of the upcoming second Vatican Council. The Pope was very positive and did so. The declaration of Nostra Aetate was the final result. With Nostra Aetate the Catholic Church took leave from an almost 2000 year old anti-Jewish tradition, a profound break with the age-old teaching of contempt.

To give a firsthand impression of some of Jules Isaac's writing, we include some remarkable citations from his last book L'Enseignement de Mépris (1962). The English translation The Teaching of Contempt was published in 1964.

From the Foreword to Teaching of Contempt, pp. 17-18:

“We are all familiar with the words of Jesus from the Fourth Gospel, “In my Father's house are many mansions” (John 14:2). I fear that in Satan's house there are even more - if only to accommodate the thousand varieties of anti-Semitism whose most virulent form in our day would seem to be Hitler's racial anti-Semitism. Need I apologize, then, for carrying on my struggle to expose - and, if possible, to extirpate - the Christian roots of anti-Semitism?
No, for in my opinion they are the deepest of all. I am told that I would do better to devote myself to some constructive task: rather than denounce the teaching of contempt, why not initiate the teaching of respect?
But the two ends are inseparable. It is impossible to combat the teaching of contempt and its modern survivals, without thereby laying the foundations for the teaching of respect; and, conversely, it is impossible to establish the teaching of respect, without first destroying the remnants of the teaching of contempt. Truth cannot be built upon error.
A work of purification is never a negative activity. For us, such an effort is an essential preliminary, which we shall never cease to recommend to every Christian conscience.”

From Preliminary Considerations in Teaching of Contempt, pp. 21-24:

“All authorities are agreed that a true Christian cannot be an anti-Semite.
Let us begin by recalling that the term anti-Semitism is used nowadays to refer to anti-Jewish prejudice, to feelings of suspicion, contempt, hostility and hatred toward Jews, both those who follow the religion of Israel and those who are merely of Jewish parentage.
Given this, here is my first statement of principle: All authorities are agreed that anti-Semitism is by definition unchristian, even anti-Christian. A true Christian cannot be an anti-Semite; he simply has no right to be one (...).
My second contention is diametrically opposed to the preceding one, but it is nevertheless a statement of fact: There is a Christian anti-Semitism. Whether conscious or subconscious, it is perennial and virulent, of great scope and intensity. It may be affirmed with complete confidence that the majority of Christians - or those recognized as such - are anti-Semites. For even in the best Christians, even in those who fought most courageously against Nazi anti-Semitism, it is easy to distinguish traces of a kind of subconscious anti-Semitism.”

It is true, things have changed for the better since Jules Isaac wrote this around 1960. When he wrote these strong words Nostra Aetate was still future. Since then, in the wake of Nostra Aetate in 1965, many official church declarations by all kinds of denominations have been published in which anti-Semitism was denounced, the eternal covenant of God with the Jewish people affirmed, the charge of deicide denounced, etc. Much has changed for the better in the world of theology as well. For example, Christians have discovered:

  • that Jesus is a Jew and that this has profound significance,
  • that the Church originally started as an intra-Jewish movement,
  • that its roots are Jewish still,
  • that Paul and the other apostles were all Torah practicing Jews.

This is to mention only a few important developments since Jules Isaac died in 1963. Things have changed for the better indeed. And new books on these issues are published every year.
A process has been set in motion that cannot be stopped anymore. The old anti-Judaistic bias in Christian theology is in retreat, but still fighting for its life. For that reason alone we think that these very strong words are still relevant and important to hear and to ponder. Because we Christians are still in the process of recovering of an almost 2000 year tradition of teaching of contempt for the Jews. Seventy years is just not enough for a hundred percent recovery. We still need the Jewish voice to wake us up and keep us alert.

List of books by Jules Isaac on this subject

  • Jesus and Israel, Jules Isaac, Holt, Rhinehart and Winston, New York Chicago San Francisco, 1971
  • Genèse de l'antisemitisme, Jules Isaac, Calmann Lévy, Paris, 1956
  • Has Anti-Semitism Roots in Christianity ?, Jules Isaac, National Conference of Christians and Jews, New York, 1961
  • The Teaching of Contempt, Jules Isaac, Holt, Rhinehart and Winston, New York Chicago San Francisco, 1964

All these books are out of print. At present only the French originals, Jésus et Israël (Jesus and Israel) and L'Enseignement du Mépris (The teaching of Contempt) are available at www.amazon.fr and probably elsewhere as well.

Postscript

Alas there is not much available on Jules Isaac in the English language. Apart of Wikipedia and a few articles there is not much to be found on the Internet. The very meager availability of articles, not to mention books on Jules Isaac in English, is in sharp contrast with the attention he receives in scholarly works. There he is often mentioned as a very important pioneer in the revision of classic Christian theology on the Jews after World War II. The French historian André Kaspi wrote a very good biography in French which alas has never been translated in English. The biography 'Jules Isaac; historien, acteur du rapprochement judéo-chrétien', published by Plon in France in 2002 is even out of print. For years André Kaspi has been chairman of L'Association des amis de Jules Isaac'. The association is located in Aix en Provence, France. The present chairman is Mrs. Dominique Mazel. The complete archives of Jules Isaac, which have been under the care of the association for years now, are in the process of gradually being classified and moved to the National Library of France in Paris.

We deplore the very meager availability of information on Jules Isaac in the English language. We intend to do our part to fill this gap in some measure. More articles on Jules Isaac can be expected on this website in the months ahead.