Ben Shapiro and the Myth of the Judeo-Christian West

As the cathedral of Notre Dame burned in Holy Week, Ben Shapiro took time out to tell his vast social media audience that: “If we wish to uphold the beauty and profundity of the Notre Dame cathedral, that means re-familiarizing ourselves with the philosophy and religious principles that built it.” Shapiro went on to clarify that the cathedral was a “central monument to Western civilization, which was built on the Judeo-Christian heritage.”1 The term ‘Judeo-Christian’ is a favourite of Mr. Shapiro’s and appears with wearying frequency throughout his latest bestselling book The Right Side of History: How Reason and Moral Purpose Made the West Great

It took an Israeli paper, Ha’aretz to point out the obvious yet unmentionable: 

“There certainly seems to be a degree of wilful blindness, if not crass manipulation, in Shapiro setting up 12th-14th century France, when Notre Dame was being built, as embodying “Judeo-Christian religious principles,” when during that period France’s Jews were expelled (twice), their holy texts subject to public book burnings and their property confiscated by the crown (several times). Look at the actual tangible built evidence of the cathedral itself, whose west front is adorned with twin statues: proud Ecclesia (the Church) and Synagoga (with head bowed, blindfolded with a snake, her crown at her feet and the tablets of the law falling from her hands), representing Christianity’s triumph over Judaism.”2  

The Times of Israel paper recorded elsewhere that a prominent and influential rabbi, Shlomo Aviner, considered one of the leaders of the religious Zionist movement, had suggested that the burning of Notre Dame could be divine retribution on Catholics. The piece reported: 

““The first great Talmud burning happened in Paris, right there at the Notre Dame Cathedral square,” Aviner wrote. “It was the result of the Paris trial in which Jewish sages were forced to debate Christian sages, and the result was the burning of the Talmud. Volumes of Talmud were brought in 20 carts and burned there, 1,200 Talmud volumes. So [the fire demonstrates] ‘there is justice and there is a Judge,’” he wrote, the quote a reference in Jewish religious literature to divine justice.”3

Mass-burnings of the Talmud took place close to the cathedral in 1242 following the debates Rabbi Aviner mentions. The French-born rabbi further elaborated that Christianity

“is our number one enemy throughout history. [They] tried to convert us by arguments and by force, carried out an inquisition against us, burned the Talmud, expulsions, pogroms. Western anti-Semitism draws from Christianity’s hatred of the ‘murderers of God.’ It also had a role in the Holocaust.”

The disputations had arisen after another French Jew, Nicholas Donin, had converted to Catholicism and gone to see Pope Gregory XI in 1238 to warn him of the blasphemies contained in the Talmud and the danger the text posed to a Catholic culture. Among the charges Donin levelled against the Talmud was that it crudely blasphemed Christ and denigrated His mother (Notre Dame) and that it was the basis of a new anti-Christian rabbinic religion which was not the Judaism of the Old Testament, but rather a way of wrenching away the message of those books from their true fulfilment in the New. In so doing, the Talmud deliberately kept Jews from the light of Christ. 


This content of the Talmud was a revelation to most people in Christian Europe at the time. Subsequent scholarship, most recently by Professor Peter Schaefer of Princeton University4 has largely substantiated what Donin had to say about the animus and blasphemies contained in the Talmud (primarily but not exclusively the Babylonian Talmud), with the Gospel of St John a particular target of ire. Schaefer and others highlight the extent to which these authoritative texts deliberately slander the holiest elements of the Christian sacred narrative. 

More generally, Israel Yuval of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem has done much to establish the conclusion that “The polemic with Christianity that gradually came to dominate the Land of Israel was not conducted openly, but in a convoluted and allusive manner. The Talmuds and midrashim do not explicitly state the name of the rival with whom they are struggling, but the shadow of Christianity nevertheless looms in these rabbinic texts.”5 Long before these debates, St. Jerome was well aware of earlier Jewish interpretations of the Old Testament, which he set out to refute with Christian interpretations, producing an authoritative Latin version of the Bible for the purpose of confuting anti-Christian Jewish accounts.

None of this is even alluded to by Mr Shapiro, who goes on to quote the Talmud approvingly and who in the acknowledgements thanks (alongside John Podhoretz  and David French, the man Bill Kristol endorsed for President),  his “Talmudic study partner Rabbi Moshe Samuels” (Director of Israel Engagement at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in New York who “recently served as the Director of Tikkun Olam in Tel Aviv-Jaffa a service-learning Masa program, spearheading the field of Jewish peoplehood and leadership training”).

It’s worth spending some time on this issue, because anyone who talks about ‘Judeo-Christian’ values, let alone makes the term central to his thesis about the decline of the West, needs to be asked some questions. This is not to deny that the term is sometimes used benignly to signify a willingness to work together with those of another Abrahamic faith on genuinely positive social goals. However, use of the term is suggestive of a political agenda which is in some areas far removed from what a well-informed defender of Christendom will see as worthy of support. As Mr Shapiro is continually hailed as an important ‘conservative thinker’, it is worth asking what his version of conservatism omits and what lies behind the terminology he promotes.


The term Judeo-Christian has an interesting and varied history. A very early user of the term was Ferdinand Christian Baur (1792-1860) who in his lectures on New Testament theology was concerned to understand how Christianity emerged from the religion of the Old Testament and retained certain features of that ‘particularist’ religion of the ‘chosen people’.6

For this Protestant German idealist and advocate of higher biblical criticism, the term Judeo-Christianity was a theological term used to distinguish between competing schools of thought following Christ’s founding of the Church. Baur accepted supercessionism, though his further aim was to relegate Catholicism, tainted in his view by Judaism, in favour of a ‘Pauline Christianity’, which he saw as Protestant and uncontaminated by the ‘Judeo-Christianity’ of Catholicism. 

This Hegelian approach to religious questions was to have an influence on major political questions through Baur’s students at the Tubingen school. In Baur’s hands, the term had a negative meaning and, while it took seriously the Jewish/Hebraic roots of Christianity (especially in terms of a firm monotheism among faithful Hebrews), it in no way endorsed the idea that Judaism had not been superseded by Christianity. Baur’s view sounds odd today, for while Catholicism recognises its continuity with the religion of the Old Testament and the sacrifices of the Temple which would ultimately be fulfilled in Christ’s sacrifice and the Mass which re-presents that event, it has also historically regarded the post-Christ and post-Temple religion of Judaism, as formulated through the Talmud and rabbinic schools, as an enemy of Christianity and a locus of attraction for heretical ‘protesting’ sects.

Baur’s concerns were primarily theological, but at about the same time in France, the term Judeo-Christian took on a political meaning. Joel Sebban has emphasised the way in which the term arose following the French Revolution and Jewish emancipation in 1791. As part of this tradition, the term was taken up much later by Jacques Maritain who sought to build up a liberal Catholic understanding of Judeo-Christianity; this went together with some decidedly heterodox and indeed incoherent ideas of the relationship between Church and State,7 as well as assigning Judaism a role in salvation history impossible to square with a traditional Catholic understanding.8 It was no coincidence that Maritain ecstatically praised the U.S. Constitution when it came to Church and State relations. His political project was aptly summed up by Aurel Kolnai, a Jewish convert to Catholicism, who wrote of him, 

“[Maritain] aims at a compromise, not between the Christian religious position and this or that extra-religious, worldly though naturally justifiable point of view, [but] between the Christian religious position proper, which he espouses whole-heartedly and is eager to make valid, and another position “religious” in nature: that of “temporal” Christendom, Christianity made into the quasi-religion of progressive democracy, Christianity inverted and secularized into the humanistic self-worship of the “person” and of the body politic...What he really has in mind is not an agreement, adjusted to what is attainable according to time and place, between Christ and Caesar, but a synthesis suffused with all the religious afflatus of the soul, between Christ and the idol of modernity: between Christ and His modern caricature; between the true Christ of faith and the substitute Christ of humanism; between Christ and Anti-Christ.”9 

The seeds of this political trajectory lay, however, much earlier, in the Reformation’s critical interest in the Hebrew Bible and its political implications, which continued through to the Enlightenment. As one scholar puts it, 

“In the 16th century, primarily in Protestant milieu, the academic interest in other religions, both Christian and non-Christian, is facilitated by the political campaigns for tolerance and separation between Church and State as well as the search for a prisca theologica (an ur-religion). Evidence of this lineage are two students of John Selden (1584–1654), who wrote many renowned writings on the Hebrew Republic, James Harrington and Thomas Hobbes, both of whom also sought to draw political lessons from the Hebrew scriptures.” 10

As Sebban demonstrates, the concept of Judeo-Christianity certainly goes beyond the boundaries of theology: a fact which all of the authors who locate its origins in the period between the 17th and 18th century appreciate. 


This is just an excerpt from Culture Wars Magazine, not the full article. To continue reading, purchase the July/August, 2019 edition of Culture Wars Magazine.

Other articles in this edition:

Culture of Death Watch

Global Internet Censorship: Lockdown Begins in Canada

  • by Wolfish

Food Wizardry: Bayer Buys Monsanto

  • by Mischa Popoff


Jewish Privilege

  • By E. Michael Jones


Ben Shapiro: and the Myth of the Judeo-Christian West

  • by Vernon Thorpe