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 personally 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 into 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 profound research into 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 amidst the the immense personal tragedy. In 1946 he completed his book Jésus et Israel. The book 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 nonetheless always kept a high esteem of Christianity. Until his death in 1963 he worked tirelessly to bring the Christian world to develop a 'teaching of respect' towards the Jewish people. Shortly after the Second World 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 1960, 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 accordingly. 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 being 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 of Jules Isaac 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
  • 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 in English translation are alas out of print. At present only the French originals, Jésus et Israël (Jesus and Israel), L'Enseignement du Mépris (The teaching of Contempt) and l' Antisemitisme a-t-il des racines chretiennes (Has anti-semitism roots in Christianity?) and Genèse de l'antisemitisme are available at www.amazon.fr and maybe elsewhere as well.

Jewish Conscience of the Church: Jules Isaac and the Second Vatican Council, by Norman C. Tobias, Palgrave MacMillan, 2017

Until 2017 there was not very much available on Jules Isaac in the English language. But this changed for the better changed with the publication of the marvellous biography written by the Canadian scholar Norman C. Tobias. The title of this very informative study, ‘Jewish Conscience of the Church: Jules Isaac and the Second Vatican Council’ says it all. Jules Isaac managed to rouse up the conscience of the Church with historical and lasting results.
Gregory Baum writes the following in his preface: “I am grateful to Norman Tobias for this outstanding biography of the French historian Jules Isaac, the Jewish scholar who set of a theological movement in the Catholic Church and influenced the teaching of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). This valuable book is more than a biography since its major part offers a detailed study of the theological and exegetical debates stirred up among Catholic’s by Jules Isaac’s provocative intervention.”

On the backcover of the book we read the following:

‘Norman Tobias brilliantly brings to a contemporary readership the life and work of Jules Isaac who, perhaps more than anyone else, was the chief influence on the radically revised stance of the Catholic Church on Jews and Judaism in the 1960’s. This book causes us to seriously remenber a great man who would otherwise (and unjustly) be largely forgotten.” - David Novak, University of Toronto, Canada.

“No one knows more about Jules Isaac than Norman Tobias, and he brings this fascinating and crucial figure to life in a book that is indispensable and elegantly crafted.” - John Connelly, University of California at Berkeley, USA.

“Norman Tobias illumines how Isaac’s painstaking scholarship and passion contributed to the complex process by which the Church confronted it’s’teaching of contempt’ for Judaism. It is an extraordinary testimony to the impact one person can have on global and historic movements.“ - Mary Boys, Union Theological Seminary, USA.

This book presents the backstory of how the Catholic Church came to clarify and embrace the role of Israel in salvation history, at the behest of an unlikely personality: Jules Isaac. This embrace put an end to the more than 1500-year-old tradition of anti-jewish rhetoric that had served as a taproot to racial varieties of anti-Semitism. Prior to Isaac’s thought and activism this contemptuous tradition had never been denounced in so compelling a manner that the church was forced to address it. It is a story of loss and triumph, and ultimately, unlikely partnership.”

The author Norman C. Tobias holds a PhD in religious studies from the University of Toronto, Canada. He is a practicing tax lawyer and former adjunct professor of law at Queen’s University in Canada.

The book was published in 2017 by Palgrave Macmillan and is available in hardcover as well as in paperback.

Apart of Wikipedia and a few articles there is alas not much to be found on Jules Isaac 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.

The legacy of Jules Isaac – by Dr Edouard Robberechts

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Opening – introduction to the life and work of Jules Isaac

By Dr Edouard Robberechts

The legacy of Jules Isaac
I have the honour and the heavy task of opening this ICCJ symposium by evoking the memory of Jules Isaac, as we commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of his passing this year. Memory in Hebrew means of course “to remember”, but also, more than this, “to revitalize”. That's why I think to evoke today the memory of Jules Isaac in the very place he lived, means of course to remember who he was and what he did, but, more than this, to try to revitalize the will that animated him, the challenge which he felt responsible for. So I would like to dedicate the conference to the memory of Jules Isaac and the two passions that have animated the life of this great republican for whom secularity was so dear: the passion for truth, and the ethical requirement for justice.
Nothing predisposed Jules Isaac to become the man he eventually became. Indeed his life can be safely separated into two clearly distinct epochs: before 1942 and after 1942, when he was already 65 years old.
What went before? Jules Isaac was born November 18, 1877 in Rennes to a largely assimilated Lorraine Jewish family, in which patriotism had long prevailed over religious belief. At thirteen, Jules Isaac lost both his parents just a few months apart. At twenty he began a long friendship with Charles Peguy who first revealed to him the injustice of the Dreyfus trial. Isaac became a Dreyfusard, not at all out of religious solidarity, but because of what would become the main constant in his life: the passion for truth and the requirement of justice that bears, crosses and even exceeds this passion for truth. Even after the upheaval of 1942, these two virtues would remain the standard for all his fights and hopes.

Isaac was admitted as an agrege in history in 1902. In addition to his teaching career, he began in 1906 a collaboration with Hachette, which published the history books of Albert Malet. Malet died on the front line in 1915. Jules Isaac himself survived 33 months in the trenches until he was badly wound at Verdun. He would continue to write only the textbooks required for new programs. But the name of Malet remained associated with the collection, because Isaac’s name alone would have resonated as too Jewish for republican and secular textbooks! Isaac tried to draw out the consequences of World War I: he believed that the role of the historian was to write truthful books where historical criticism and the insight that accompanies it, clarifying the respective responsibilities of both sides, open the doors to an examination of conscience and a necessary reconciliation. The work around the historical truth becomes an indispensable condition for the search for a just peace. True to the tradition of the Republican Left, a member of the League of Human and Civic Rights, and of the Vigilance Committee of Antifascist Intellectuals, he committed himself simultaneously to a better understanding between Frenchmen and Germans and to reconciliation between France and Germany. In 1936, Jules Isaac was appointed Inspector General of Public Instruction. His life seemed mapped out: performing work of scientific and historic integrity with a goal of teaching the truth to the greatest number of people, while searching for peace and justice with deep Republican roots.
But everything changed with the new world war. Aged 63 in 1940, under the discriminatory measures taken against Jews by the Vichy government, Isaac lost his position due to his Jewish heritage. "It was not acceptable,” said Minister of Education and academic Abel Bonnard in the newspaper Gringoire on November 13, 1942, “for the history of France to be taught to French youth by an Isaac." This was obviously a shock and a challenge to everything he had until then lived for. In the words of his son, Jean-Claude Janet, "imagine what it was like for this great Frenchman, from a long line of Lorraine soldiers, all, like him, servants of their country from father to son and holders of the Legion of Honor since the creation of the Order… what it was like for the historian who contributed to the formation of countless generations of young French, both by teaching and by his manuals, for the General Inspector of Public Instruction with an unquestioned and feared authority, what a sudden shock it was , inconceivable, to be suddenly revoked, expelled from the University, deprived of his civil rights, reduced to a state of pariah by the same Petain, who in 1936, wrote to him to express his sympathy and admiration, and proposed him a “fair conversation” ... "1. The awakening was brutal, and it meant a complete reversal, as he himself later highlights it: "If only by grievous and ever worsening persecution, the Jewish question forced itself upon my mind and Jewish solidarity upon my heart and conscience. I was part of this hated, slandered, scorned Israel; facing the persecutors, I fully accepted being part of it. I also had to take on a new struggle, to deal with the unfair complaints they heaped upon us." ("Overview," in Cahiers du Sud, No. 376, 1964, p. 226- 227, quoted by André Kaspi, Jules Isaac, p.179).
So he took refuge in the free zone in Aix-en-Provence in 1941 and 1942, and began to resist using the writing of the Oligarchs, a pamphlet seeking to defend the trampled democracy. It was there in June 1942 that Jules Isaac would make a first dazzling discovery: he read the Gospels in Greek and discovered to his amazement that the traditional teachings of the Church had betrayed them. Yet it was this teaching, which for him was the source of Christian anti-Semitism that had prepared and led to what was happening in Europe during those dark years of Nazism. One had therefore to return to the text, and even prior to the text, to the Jewish historical truth of Jesus, to change history and repair Christianity where it had failed: by condemning Israel without appeal for nearly 2000 years. In 1942 he began to write Jesus and Israel, which would be finished in 1946 and published in 1948.
Yet, all this almost failed. When the Nazis invaded the unoccupied zone in November 1942, Jules Isaac settled first in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, then in Riom, near his daughter and his son-in law. Involved in a resistance network, they were arrested, along with his wife and his youngest son Jean-Claude, by the Gestapo in Riom on October 7, 1943, and deported by the Germans to Drancy and then to Auschwitz where they were all killed, except his son who escaped from a camp in Germany. But he would only know that after the war. Meanwhile Isaac, who had survived by chance, was distraught and did not know what to do with himself. It was a letter from his wife in Drancy that would revive and guide him for the twenty years he still had to live. In this letter, his wife had indeed the extraordinary intuition and finesse to write: "My beloved friend, we're leaving tomorrow. It is very hard, and the greatest suffering is to know nothing of you since the dreadful day of separation. My friend, guard yourself for us, have confidence and finish your work that the world expects."
Thus he committed himself to continue the work he had begun in 1942, a concern that would never leave him until his death in 1963. Immediately after the war, he moved back to Aix-en-Provence. His life can then be summarized in three points:
First, the writing of his books: Jesus and Israel in 1948, Genesis of Anti-Semitism in 1956, and finally The Teaching of Contempt in 1962. All are intended to show historically the Christian responsibility for laying the groundwork that allowed Nazi anti-Semitism to flourish in Europe in the twentieth century.
Second, the eighteen proposals he brought to the conference in Seelisberg (Switzerland, July 30- August 7, 1947), and which would form the basis of the ten points of Seelisberg, aiming to transform Christian teachings about Judaism into teachings of esteem and respect. In addition, he met Pope Pius XII in 1949 - asking him to review the Good Friday prayer pro perfidis Judaeis. In 1960 he also met Pope John XXIII, who in parting promised him "more than hope," a promise that would be implemented only after his death with the declaration Nostra Aetate of Vatican II.
Finally, Jules Isaac was one of the founders of the Judeo-Christian Friendship of France in 1948, in Paris at the national level, and Aix-en-Provence, at the regional level. It is in this concept that Jules Isaac designed the most effective remedy against old anti-Semitic hatred: what has been sown by education must be eradicated by education. The essential idea is to highlight the deep Jewish roots of early Christianity, so that Judaism and Christianity can meet again on a sound and solid base.
To conclude this brief overview, I would like to draw your attention to a fundamental characteristic of this reversal and this period in time, because it has not been sufficiently noticed or considered, but seems able to bounce into the future the truth effort undertaken by Jules Isaac. As I stressed at the beginning, his life was a struggle for truth, but not just any truth. Not a theological or religious truth, but a historical truth. History allows him to say what he says, and want to change what he wants to change. But this historical truth will necessarily have two faces for him: the basic face, essential and necessary, of historiography, which constitutes the major portion of its investment; but also another face, more discreet but not any less urgent or necessary, of history as responsibility or search for justice by and through the pursuit of truth.
Such duality is very clear from the warning he wrote in 1946 about his book Jesus and Israel. This book, he says, "is the cry of an outraged conscience, of a broken heart. It is to the conscience and the heart of man that it is addressing."
Thus this historical work is primarily an appeal to responsibility and the need for justice: it shouts for indignation, because it wants to raise awareness among the people it addresses, so that things can change in a more ethical direction. And in the same breath, he adds: "However, if it is not scientific in its essence, it is by its infrastructure, its methods of information and discussion, I think I can say by its strict probity". The purpose is clear from the outset: the search for historical truth will travel between science and conscience, between historical criticism and ethical requirement.
In this search for truth and justice, two main points will get his attention. This is primarily to bring out the truth that the Holocaust would not have been possible without the teaching of contempt distilled for almost 2000 years by the Church in the heart of and under cover of its message of love. So there is for Jules Isaac an immense responsibility for the Church in the face of this unimaginable human catastrophe unfolding in the heart of Christian Europe. Because even though Nazism was opposed to the Church, he is convinced that its virulent anti-semitism could not have been built or have met such an echo without the Christian teaching of contempt. More importantly, he wants to show that Christianity is born of Judaism and could never have been formed without it: it was a Jew fact before being a Christian fact, and the persecution of Jews by Christians proves thus to be one of the most horrific misunderstandings of history – which demands and requires repair: indeed does not anti semitism mean ultimately the self-destruction of Christianity by itself - and beyond of Western civilization?
But to do so, we must first establish this double truth, by honest and patient scientific work. Because as he says himself, "the contempt of Judaism goes with the contempt of truth" (EM 24-25). We must therefore return to history to show how Jesus was Jewish and should be seen as part of his people. And how a certain Christian bad faith used the Gospel texts to make them say what they do not: the disapproval of Israel, its condemnation, and the election in its place of the nations because of Israel's refusal.
So he revisits the New Testament to eradicate the simplistic vagaries of the theologians, and to put it back into its complex historic Jewish context, not yet split between Jews and Christians, but where the two can still encounter each other around an event - Jesus - that is beyond either of them. It’s a matter of relearning to read what is written in the Gospels not in the theological context of the late church, but based on its Jewish historical context. This reappropriation of Jesus through history can enable a new sharing that is no longer a total loss for the Jew and a total gain for the Christian. Going back to the truths of history permits for the first time the defusing of the bomb of Christian anti-Judaism, showing that being anti-Jew is to be anti-Jesus and hence anti-Christian, since anti-Judaism undermines the very foundations of Christian civilization.
And what Jules Isaac seeks to do through this basic work of historiography is to reveal the emergence of a second truth, or a second face of truth: one that demands justice and calls for individual responsibility, so as to repair history and direct it in a new sense, more humane and more worthy of the divine gaze. History as a responsibility in effect requires that a teaching of contempt - once established – ends, to be replaced by a teaching of esteem and respect, and that a new history emerges between Jews and Christians whereby their common roots may help them to rediscover their common challenges and common dreams of humanity. This is the challenge that drove Jules Isaac, and this is the memory that we would like to revitalize through this conference and those that follow, thus returning to the roots of what made the very Judeo-Christian notion of friendships emerge in history. Thank you.


1Jean-Claude Janet, « Jules Isaac à Aix-en-Provence : les raisons du legs », dans Cahiers de l’Association des Amis de Jules Isaac, n°1, 1996, p.11.

l’IECJ, Institut interuniversitaire d’Études et de Culture Juives
IECJ, Interuniversity Institute of Jewish Studies & Culture
Conférence Internationale du 30 juin au 3 juillet 2013 à Aix-en-Provence International Conference from June 30 – July 3, 2013 in Aix-en-Provence
La Laïcité: une chance ou un défi pour les religions?
En France et dans le monde
Secularity: Opportunity or Peril for Religions,
The French Experience and Global Perspectives