61. “Humanism”, Western Culture and Modern Judaism

Christopher Barder

The broad title adopted here is the product principally of the widespread and pervasive nature of Greek and Roman cultural forms and patterns of thinking. The reason primarily far the dominance of these is that they seemed to represent the very best that mankind could achieve. The finest expressions of the creativity of man, both artistic and philosophical-cerebral seemed so impressive as to be imitable but not surpassable (until the Renaissance).

Throughout the Middle Ages, from the time of the barbarian conquests of the Roman Empire, the spell of Rome and Greece remained intact. It was in these days that much of the manuscript preservation of the classical texts occurred, in the scriptoria of the sixth century AD. Already there was the clear perception in the days of Augustine of Hippo that there was a pressing need to explain the decline of the Roman Empire.

From the time of the Bar-Kochba revolt and of the Emperor Hadrian, there had been a pronounced separation between the Jewish believers in Jesus (Yeshua) as the Messiah long foretold, and the Rabbinic authorities who condemned such belief (although Dr. Pritz has shown the relative longevity of Nazarene Jewish Christianity). But there was also a severance of the Greco-Roman church from the Jewish Church (in this period changes occurred in the surrender of Passover observance and in the substitution of Sunday for Saturday, for example). As already shown (Tishrei 1,1) this separation, which included the Marcion heresy negating the necessity of the Hebrew Scriptures, had a number of far-reaching results.

Not surprisingly, the value system of the hybrid which Greco-Roman Christianity actually was, reflected those aspects of the underlying pagan philosophy which underpinned the Greco-Roman world. From Heraclitus’ “man, the measure of all things” all the way through to neo-Platonic emphasis on the translucent and obfuscating nature of matter, and Aristotle’s morphological development of things in nature, there was an absolute and profound difference between Hebraic thought and teaching and these other outlooks. The very desire for synthesis was itself a reflection of the need for an over-riding inclusive framework, which resulted in the ever-widening pantheon of deities throughout the Roman Empire, along with various philosophical bases for morality and behaviour: cynicism (made famous by Diogenes in his barrel) and stoicism (made famous by Marcus Aurelius) and the kind of hedonism associated with orgies, among many.

This kind of apparent pluralism was utterly different from the exclusive claims of the one true Biblical God who demanded that there be no other gods beside Him. But the effect of syncretism and synthesis was to emphasise similarities not differences (hence the neo-Platonic castration of Origen, for example), and to affect attitudes to creation, such as opening Christianity to Gnostic views of matter, emphasis on asceticism, and through Aristotle, ultimately this incorporation of as much of the classical past as possible led up to the Thomist synthesis of the 13th Century which allowed Thomas Aquinas to stress the way in which human intellect, through its reasoning powers, could discern divine law in creation and so pick up right from wrong.

This liberation of the mind of man from what the Sixteenth Century reformers called “total depravity” lies at the heart of aspects of contemporary humanism. So too does the Medieval love of classical models for behaviour and understanding society so that Cicero’s writings became a model for friendship, rhetoric and republical government. Virgil was used to suggest prophecy among ancient writers when his work was used to suggest his foretelling of the birth of Jesus. The purest finest and best of the classical past had to be combined with the Christian, and so the ideal in sculpture and painting and understanding was positioned as the classical Christianised. The very idea of the ideal had of itself been transformed from the example of Jesus to the strange sensual David of Donatello’s bronze and to the heroic nude of Michelangelo.

The use of images was entirely outside what was acceptable to Jewish tradition and whilst in the Byzantine empire it gave rise to iconoclasm, only in the West with the rise of Luther and Calvin did this occur. Already by then images, through Catholicism, had become normal and formed a part of devotion. So the ideals of beauty and perfection of the human form were legitimized by the growth of Mariology and the hagiographical traditions. The explanation of the need for images for the illiterate does not of itself explain their forms. Insofar as the Biblical message of unregenerate human nature, and of God’s love of the sinner, stands in direct contrast either to the veneration of the human body’s proportions (known as “Vitruvian man”) and lies opposed to the seductive beauty of the nude, then the man centred art, which may be thought to have achieved early form in the twelfth century sculptures of Gislebertus at Autun, and which is so obvious in say Ingres, are direct expressions of the classical nude. And that, like so much classical litrerature, represents the humanism, defined as “human letters” (litterae humaniores), which actually turned into man-centredness which it now has come to mean.

Perception of the Divine, through geometry and the order perceptible, actually made man’s reason part of the criterion of whether something was redolent of God. That is: man had to seek out these and use them because as Alberti and Palladio, for example, were showing, the pagan temple (particularly the Pantheon in Rome) was the purest, most perfect form. The scale module sometimes used in architectural circles was the height of a man. Thus did humanism come to permeate images and architecture.

The great nineteenth century cultural historian Jacob Burckhardt, in his great “Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy” wanted to draw particular attention to the sense of optimism and triumph of the Renaissance ambience in Italy. This involved labelling the years between the classical past and then, a middle age, and its artistic forms as “Gothic” (that is “barbarian”). The line that runs from then to the so-called “Enlightenment” is one which exalts the mind of man and his ability, unaided by God, to restore and to solve problems. There is probably no need here to draw particular attention to David and to the role of humanism in the French Revolution.

What is not necessarily clearly enough grasped is the close relationship between humanism, which emphasises all the best qualities of man, and the assault that produces on his innate sinfulness (all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, all have gone astray, there is none righteous, no not one, as the Bible makes totally plain). Furthermore, “without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5) and “Unless God build the house, they labour in vain who build it” (Psalm 127:1)1. Without the awareness that “original sin” or “total depravity” brings there is not a crucial awareness of the need for atonement, that is that shedding of blood without which there is no remission of sins (Hebrews 9:22).

It has been noticeable that there is generally a correlation between a stress on man’s capacity for free will choice of the good, resultant value placed on good works to please God, and humanist value structures and morality (leading often to inter-faith interaction and to brotherhood of man doctrines which today lead up to New World Order aspirations and will lead to the reign of the Antichrist).

At this point a clear theological difference between contemporary Judaism, with its traditions, and Biblical Christianity, emerges powerfully. The historical division was of course ultimately the interpretation placed on who Jesus was and therefore what His death and (supposed to those not believing in its authenticity) resurrection signified. (Any such comments need accompanying by pointing out that thousands and thousands of Jews believed Yeshua/Jesus to be the Messiah at the time of the Apostles). Added to this was what kind of Judaism there would be without the sacrificial and Temple systems being operational.

John Fieldsend in a brief survey2 has characterized modern Judaism’s teaching on sin (and all scholars are wary of too glib generalizations) as, “the evil inclination need not be, in New Testament terms, ‘put to death’, ‘put off’, ‘crucified’; indeed it must not be. Rather it needs to be channelled and directed in the service of God”. He adds earlier “For the Rabbis the problem is not so big that only God can solve it; man has within himself all that is needful”. That is, in fact, humanism. “It is telling”, continues Mr. Fieldsend, “that this concept of ‘self-regeneration’ recurs frequently in Jewish spirituality”. That is one of the primary New Age teachings, when stressed along with “paradigm shift” and “the divine spark within everyone” (not that many New Agers would accept much of Judaism necessarily). It is precisely such teaching which leaves so much of contemporary Judaism open to humanistic values. Warnings about the dangers of being open to foreign cultural forms are a constant motif in both Hebrew and Greek Scriptures. Since there would not have been a Jewish image of Jesus, He has continually been portrayed as a classical Greco-Roman or Renaissance figure in the history of Western art. The portrayals represent man’s idea of what He looked like. Thus He is cast in the artistic form of the day. Thus is true veracity sacrificed and thus is all cast in the image of man’s choosing. There is scarcely a better definition of humanism.


1. These verses simply represent some among many.

2. See Chapter 16 of “Messianic Jews” subtitled “Challenging Church and Synagogue”, Monarch Publications, 1993.

(Reprinted from Tishrei Vol 4 No 1, Humanism, Winter 1995/96)



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