Ten commandments movie film drive-in
© J. R. Eyerman/Life Magazine/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
Charlton Heston as Moses in The Ten Commandments, in 1958.
The notion of a "Judeo-Christian tradition" conceals the Western history of anti-Judaism, even when seeming to extol the virtue of Jewish identity.

These days, the term "the Judeo-Christian tradition" is most often meant to evoke "those religious, ethical, or cultural values or beliefs regarded as being common to both Judaism and Christianity." Obvious enough, perhaps. But then, when asked to specify what these religious, ethical, or cultural values or beliefs really are, we quickly find ourselves struggling.

So before asking what the term "Judeo-Christian tradition" means or what its particular "values or beliefs" are, we first need to ask what work the term "Judeo-Christian" is doing in the modern West?

It may come as a surprise to many that it has a very short history. In its current dominant meaning, it is virtually unknown before the Second World War, only really coming into vogue in the mid-1940s. If we look at the peaks and troughs of the usage of "Judeo-Christian" on Google Ngram ― which is useful here simply as a heuristic device ― we can see that from 1800 to 1935 the term is virtually non-existent. Then, we note two surges in its usage, from 1935 to 1951 and then again from 1962 to 2000, with peaks in 1942 and 1992. From 2000, its usage begins to climb again.

These two surges reflect two different, albeit compatible, prevailing uses of the term at those times. The first of these was an "inclusive" use. It originated in the United States as a way of combatting the growth of anti-Semitism there, but its usage was sharpened in the aftermath of the Jewish Holocaust. This reflected the desire of Protestant America to bring Jews more securely inside the Western tent. As such, it was a gesture of reconciliation provoked by shame and guilt at the role played by Christianity in the historical persecutions of the Jews.

In this way, "Judeo-Christian" became a term that transcended both Judaism and Christianity, thereby uniting them. And so President-elect Dwight Eisenhower could say in 1952: "[Our form of government] has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don't care what it is. With us of course it is the Judeo-Christian concept but it must be a religion that all men are created equal."

This same sense of "Judeo-Christian" as a set of values that holds Western culture together is reflected in its dominant use in Australia. So, in 2007, then Prime Minister of Australia John Howard declared: "Of all of the influences on Australian society, none has been more profound than that of the Judeo-Christian ethic."

The second use of "Judeo-Christian" derives, in many respects, from the first. For just as the term can be used as a way of including and binding people together, it can just as easily be used to exclude those who are deemed not to subscribe to Western values. In the later part of the twentieth century, this was applied particularly to Muslims ― despite the fact that Judaism, Christianity and Islam all share a common religious heritage and that all three religions have Middle Eastern origins. But more recently, this exclusionary use has also been arrayed against those associated with multiculturalism, "political correctness" and cosmopolitanism. Hence Donald Trump's invocation of the term in a speech on 13 October 2017: "We are stopping cold the attacks on Judeo-Christian values ... We're saying 'merry Christmas' again."

Christian anti-Judaism

It is worth emphasising that Judaism and Christianity are, more or less, the same age and share a common religious heritage. Both arose in the first century CE out of the Hebrew Scriptures ― known to Jews as the Tanakh, and comprised of the Teaching (Torah), the Prophets and the Writings. What Christians would call "the Old Testament" arose out of these Hebrew texts; to them, the Christians eventually added a collection of books from the first century or so of the Common Era called "the New Testament."

Both Judaism and Christianity became religions based predominantly on these texts, and not on the dominant temple religion of the Jews in Jerusalem as it was at the time of Jesus. In the case of Christianity, this was because it determined its future to be, not in Israel, but in the wider Greco-Roman world. In the case of Judaism, it was because its future was determined for it in the Greco-Roman world by the destruction of the temple at Jerusalem by the Romans and the subsequent expulsion of the Jews from Israel in 70 CE.

So although Judaism and Christianity have a common ancestry, they both became "religions of the books" ― albeit quite different sets of books and, most importantly, interpreted in radically different ways. From the outset, then, the notion of a "Judeo-Christian tradition" looks a little historically shaky.

Moreover, the adjective "Judeo-Christian" itself obscures the fact that ab initio Christianity believed that it had superseded the religion of the Jews. Simply put, Christianity held that, for God, there was only room for one "chosen people" ― namely, those who belonged to Christianity ― and that the Jews had forfeited their role as the chosen of God. Their religion no longer held any validity. Anti-Judaism was, in a way, central to Christian self-understanding.

Add to this the myth that the Jews were "God killers." This was implicit in the New Testament accounts of the death of Jesus in the Gospels. "His blood be on us and our children" (Matthew 27:25), the Jewish crowd shouted after Pontius Pilate washed his hands of responsibility for the death of Jesus. Thus the Christian theologian John Chrysostom assigned the charge of deicide (God-murder) to the Jewish nation in the fourth century.

And then there's the Antichrist. In the Catholic tradition, he was a Jew of the tribe of Dan who would reign in Jerusalem immediately before the end of the world, rebuild the temple, abolish Christianity and deny Christ. He would be accepted by the Jews as the Christ. The Antichrist would pretend to be God until he was finally destroyed by a returning Christ and sent into hell for eternity.

This was a negative view of Judaism upon which the eighteenth-century Enlightenment and its supposed endorsement of the value of religious tolerance had little impact. Anti-Judaism remained a central feature of the European Enlightenment. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, this Enlightenment anti-Judaism changed register into secular racial anti-Semitism.

Christian philo-Semitism

Yet, there is another much more positive Christian tradition about the Jews. It comes, perhaps surprisingly, from the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century. Here Catholics and Muslims, rather than Jews, were seen as true Christianity's major enemies ― a pretty reasonable global-political judgement at the time.

Its most notable exponent was an English theologian, Thomas Brightman (1562-1607). According to him, there was no place for the Jewish religion to continue beyond the return of Christ. Rather, before the end, the Jews would convert to Christianity. They would nevertheless retain their identity as the Jewish nation and be restored to Israel. So Brightman was, ironically, anti-Judaic in that the religion of Judaism would disappear, but philo-Semitic in that the Jewish nation would be gathered together and restored to Israel.

Brightman believed that their conversion would occur "naturally." The virtual absence of the Jews from the England of his time ― having been thrown out in 1290 CE ― rendered the issue of how they would be converted rather theoretical. But there were others who thought that the Jews' conversion would be hastened by ceasing their persecution Their re-admission to a tolerant England would foster their conversion and hasten the return of Christ.

Brightman's philo-Semitism has, in different forms, persisted to the present day ― at least among those who still look to the Bible for understandings of the present and the future. It was transmitted to the modern world through the outburst of speculations about the world's end and the restoration of the Jews to Jerusalem that greeted the French Revolution in the late eighteenth century.

More importantly, Brightman's views became deeply embedded, in the nineteenth century and through into the twentieth century, in American Protestantism. This was particularly the consequence of the embrace by parts of American Evangelical Protestantism of the teachings about the end of history by the Anglo-Irish theologian John Nelson Darby (1800-1882). Darby expected that, in the near future, the Jews would re-establish themselves in Israel, would control Jerusalem and rebuild the temple there. After being persecuted by the Antichrist, a remnant that remained would embrace Christianity and await the return of their now-recognised Messiah, Jesus Christ.

The city of Jerusalem is central to philo-Semitism. Hence the appeal to American Evangelical Protestants of President Trump's announcement on 6 December 2017 that the U.S. would recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. It was a reminder to his Evangelical Protestant supporters that he was doing the Lord's work in the Last Days. It is reasonable to suppose that Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison's determination to do the same flowed from his own Pentecostal Protestant beliefs (although one wonders how well this was received by many Jewish Australians).

Leaving "Judeo-Christianity" behind

The Jews, Israel and Jerusalem have thus become central to modern American and Australian conservative Protestant thinking about the end of the world and the return of Christ. This kind of Christian philo-Semitism is made theoretically possible by the distinction between the religion of the Jews, on the one hand, and their racial and national identity, on the other. It is a distinction which enables the eventual conversion of the Jews to Christianity while retaining their separate identity as Jews. It makes possible the continuation of the idea of the Jews as a people eternally set apart, a nation whose destiny was fore-shadowed in the pages of biblical prophecy.

This comes at a cost, however. That cost is the assumption that the religion of Judaism is merely a stepping stone for Jews on their pathway to embracing Christ, and that the Jews, in rejecting Christ as their Messiah two thousand years ago, quite simply got it wrong. Christian philo-Semitism, in short, remains deeply anti-Judaic.

At the end of the day ― or the end of the world, for that matter ― the term "Judeo-Christian" is one we might well do to abandon. It conceals the Western history of anti-Judaism. Even when, in philo-Semitic mode, it appears to extol the virtue of Jewish identity, it is deeply anti-Judaic.

Simply put, then, there is no such thing as the "Judeo-Christian tradition." It is a modern invention. There always has been a Jewish tradition and a Christian tradition ― or, more accurately, varieties of Jewish and Christian traditions. The term "Judeo-Christian tradition" continues the suppression of Jewishness by hiding the essential differences between Judaism and Christianity, one of which is that each denies the validity of the other. As Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits puts it, "Judaism is Judaism because it rejects Christianity, and Christianity is Christianity because it rejects Judaism."
Philip C. Almond is Emeritus Professor and Professorial Research Fellow in the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Queensland. He is the author of Afterlife: A History of Life After Death, The Devil: A New Biography and God: A New Biography.