A student asked me that question today in my 100-level “intro to American religious” course. The question caught me off-guard (partly because it came out of the blue; it wasn’t obviously relevant to the topic of discussion for today), so I was brusquer than I should have been in answering it. “No. Judaism is a religion that predates Christianity.” Someone in the back of the room snickered at the question, which I should have intervened in, another regret.
I’ve blogged before about a student–in this same course, in a previous semester–who asked me what a Protestant is. I resisted then, and I’ll resist now, the instinct to wring my hands about religious illiteracy. But what does it mean that at this moment in American history, I have a student (African American, as it happens; is that relevant?) who is unsure about whether or not Judaism is a branch of Christianity?
Does the student’s question arise from exposure to the concept of “Judeo-Christianity,” a concept which has left him with an impression of fundamental unity between Judaism and Christianity? Is the student coming out of a “post-Christian” environment in which Christianity and Judaism are equally unfamiliar to him? Is the student coming from a religious community where at some point he heard Judaism discussed as a kind of heresy, which he’s now trying to translate into less normative terms, i.e., seeing Judaism as a variety of Christianity not approved by his community? He is not, evidently, coming from a background where he was taught to understand the relationship between Judaism and Christianity in supercessionist terms (or if so, he didn’t understand what that meant). Nor, evidently, has he been exposed to “Jews as Christ-killers” rhetoric–or even, it would appear, to rhetoric about Jews as people who “reject Christ.” Or if he was exposed to such rhetoric, it would appear he’s observed something about Jews that has made him question that rhetoric.
Is it a good sign, then, in a way, that contemporary American society can produce an individual who wonders if Jews are a kind of Christian?