Contending with a Polemical Tradition:

The Rhetorical Art of Christian Self-Definition

Christopher M. Leighton

The Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies


When I first ventured outside my ecclesiastical surroundings and encountered the vibrant world of Jews and Judaism, I discovered that it was exceedingly difficult to find my way home. After the long march through the history of Christian-Jewish relations, the same old routes became agonizing to travel. Obstacles accumulated as I stepped into the shadow lands of my tradition. I tumbled into an awareness that the Christian legacy of contempt for the Jewish people is far more deeply embedded in the life of the church than I ever dreamed possible. I was disoriented by the discovery that the gospel of love is so malleable. With minimal effort, "the good news" could be twisted into an ideology of hate. I could not return to my denominational niche and settle down without first coming to grips with those dynamics of the Christian tradition that sanction ignorance, indifference, or disdain. Slowly the magnitude of this endeavor took the shape of a question: Can Christians disarm the habits of hostility without reconfiguring the theological wiring of the entire Church? Can Christians dismantle the ideology of anti-Judaism without destroying the Church itself?

As the director of the organization that hosted the Catholic-Jewish Colloquium, I was privileged to participate in a remarkable series of gatherings. Yet, my position not only afforded me a view from the inside. As the sole Protestant in this venture, I was also situated at a distance which enabled me to hear the self-criticism of others in ways that emboldened me to reexamine my own tradition.

The task of reforming a tradition is a daunting and risky enterprise. In witnessing Roman Catholics struggle with a legacy of contempt that has penetrated not only Roman Catholicism, but almost every corner of the Christian Church, I came to recognize that the magisterium has exercised its teaching authority with a theological daring that is radically redefining the character of Catholic-Jewish relations. In terms of reforming attitudes toward the Jews, Protestants have much to learn from our Catholic counterparts. It is we who have, by and large, been far too timid in our liturgical, homiletical, and educational reforms.

Furthermore, the Colloquium provided numerous occasions for me to ponder Protestant patterns of reformation and to contemplate my tradition's susceptibility to various excesses. In the Protestant pursuit of a model church, there is a tendency to pick up our marbles and start a new game whenever the match is not unfolding according to plan. Our sectarian impulses are deeply ingrained, and they can play themselves out in ways that polarize and fragment the church. In the face of contention, how then does a tradition build theological consensus? How does a community achieve unity without imposing uniformity? How can we welcome dissenting viewpoints without collapsing under the weight of contradictory visions?

The Colloquium convinced me that Protestants and Roman Catholics have something to learn from one another, and that both of us have much to learn from Jews about both the threat and the promise that derive from dissent. Christians and Jews contend with change and continuity, resistance and accommodation, unity and diversity, each in a distinctive way; and, in this process of configuring and reconfiguring our particular identities we do well to pay attention to one another. But where might a Protestant begin the task of reformation? Where is the starting point for an inquiry that, by its very nature, ripples through the entire tradition, calling into question the most basic assumptions about God, creation, and the mission of the church?

To redefine my tradition's understanding of and relation to the Jewish people, the most natural starting point is the generative narratives within the New Testament. Christians cannot imagine new possibilities in the future without first retrieving this past and reinterpreting the church's formation. The promise of this pursuit emerges as Christians leap into the ancient world of Palestinian Judaism, encounter the Jewish Jesus, and contemplate wherein his novelty resides. This move soon brings Christians to a series of junctures where their ancestors and the Jewish people parted company. By imaginatively situating themselves at the crossroads where rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity diverge, Christians are apt to discover that their biblical and theological foundations require extensive reexamination. This reconsideration of our origins in turn provides a fresh perspective that enables Christians to reconceptualize their relationship with Jews today.

To encourage students to ponder and, in the case of the Christians, to assume responsibility for the development of a Christian tradition that need not glorify itself by denigrating Judaism, we must attend to the painful dynamics of separation that marked our beginnings. I want to suggest one point of entry into this process by lavishing some attention on the dynamics of religious polemics.


The term polemics generally denotes the art of controversy and disputation. Polemical discourse is more often than not speech animated by anger and fear. It deploys explosive language that compels the listener to take a stand. Religious polemics are frequently used to combat opposing interpretations of the truth. Polemics serve to demarcate and fortify the boundaries between "insiders" and "outsiders," offering protection from contact with the carriers of "sin and unbelief." This indelicate art of theological self-defense may be an indispensable rhetorical strategy in threatening circumstances, but this verbal habit is loaded with toxic possibilities that can be released over a long period of time. Therefore, Christians need to attend to the polemical practices that were certainly instrumental in the shaping of Christian identity, for these linguistic habits continue to exert a powerful influence.

In the wake of (1) the assassination of Yitzak Rabin, the late Prime Minister of Israel, (2) the rhetorical debates that erupted with the announcement of the Million Man March, and (3) the 1996 presidential campaigns in the United States, the importance of deciphering the uses and abuses of religious polemics needs little justification. Students who learn to identify polemical discourse and decipher its function will not only gain critical insights into the formative dynamics of Christian self-definition; they will also acquire the tools to analyze much of the political and religious discourse that swirls around them. In what follows, I will direct the reader's attention to three examples of religious polemic as a way of entering into the larger task of reconceptualizing Christianity's understanding of Judaism.

The Art of Vilification: The Best Defense is a Virulent Offense

The first function of religious polemic is to vilify "the other." Two examples, among many, are worth highlighting. Matthew 23:1-39 preserves a vitriolic attack on the scribes and Pharisees. The evangelist presents Jesus unleashing a damning series of indictments against his Jewish co-religionists. They are assailed as hypocrites (23:13,15,23, 25, 27, 29), blind guides and fools (23:16, 24), white-washed tombs (23:27), snakes (23:33), and murderers of the prophets (23:31, 34, 37). Their piety as well as their ethical conduct are subjected to a scathing attack.

In John 8:44-47, Jesus is described in an embittered dispute with "the Jews." In a climactic moment, "the Jews" are informed that "their father is the devil," "a murderer from the beginning," "a liar and the father of lies," and that they "carry out their father's desires." The examples of this kind of scurrilous language can be multiplied to demonstrate that the virtue of temperance was often in short supply. How are we to understand these rhetorical excesses without excusing or explaining them away?

First, we do well to remember that religious communities are initially forged in the heat of conflict. Groups develop a sense of their own particularity by drawing lines in the sand and by highlighting distinctions between "them" and "us." Without the capacity to establish and maintain well-defined boundaries, the dominant culture will smother dissident voices and swallow alien bodies. Polemics are frequently deployed as a verbal act of self-defense. They are unleashed not simply to discharge unruly passions, but to differentiate "insiders" and "outsiders," all the while protecting "the faithful" from the seductions of the dominant culture. This rhetoric is loaded with teeth to bite "heretics" within the church and to chase away the multiple threats posed by the encroachment of foreign powers. While the ferocity of the diatribes is often indicative of the degree to which the community perceives its survival to be at stake, the harsh language of polemic permeated public discourse throughout the Hellenistic world. Vitriolic invectives contaminated the air that everyone breathed.

Robert Wilken and Luke Timothy Johnson have studied the rhetorical practices of the Hellenistic world and discovered that students were steeped in the art of verbal mud-wrestling. There is an entire genre of discourse, the invective (psogos), that is no less startling for being remarkably formulaic (Wilken 1983; Johnson 1989). Educated orators memorized outstanding displays of verbal combat and would readily adopt them whenever they wanted to discredit their opponents. So, when "Apion charges that the Jews are seditious, that they worshipped the head of an ass, that their circumcision was silly, their sabbath ridiculous, and that Moses was a charlatan," Josephus answered that "Apion has the mind of an ass and impudence of a dog, which his countrymen are want to worship. His character is mendacious, his mind blinded. . . In fact, everything he charges the Jews with, he and his countrymen do themselves" (Johnson 1989, 434-435).

There is an enormous corpus of literature that demonstrates that the Christian art of vilification owes a great deal to its surrounding culture. To defang this language, we need to attend to the linguistic conventions of the time and recognize the function that these polemics performed. But is it enough to historicize this genre of discourse? Does the fact that these polemics are embedded in our sacred scriptures pose special problems? Should they be read in the context of worship? Do Christians have an obligation to repudiate those texts that vilify the Jews, sanctify ignorance, and foment hostility? When does the language of self-defense become the rhetoric of hate? When does the language of polemic become performative and invite acts of violence? The texts cited from the Gospels of Matthew and John present students with an opportunity to explore the power of this kind of discourse in the ancient world and, by extension, in the modern age.

The Art of Self-Defense: The Polemics of Hope

In Mark 5:1-13 (parallels in Matt. 8:28-32 and Luke 8:26-33), the story is told of an exorcism performed by Jesus upon the demoniac of Gerasa. This man who could not be fettered with chains dwelt among the tombs where he howled and bruised himself with stones. When Jesus demanded his name, the man replied, "My name is legion, for there are many of us." Jesus then exorcised the demons, relocating them in a herd of swine who then proceeded to charge down a cliff into the lake and drown.

There are various interpretations of this passage that are worthy of consideration, but the exegetical move that I would like to profile emerged from the study of anti-Roman cryptograms by Norman Beck (1989). In first-century Palestine, the Roman political-economic-religious system was far too powerful to challenge directly without endangering those who had already been marginalized. Criticisms thus had to be coded so that they appeared harmless to the oppressors, while transmitting revolutionary expectations to those "who have ears to hear and eyes to see." Beneath the literal meaning of this miracle story resides a hidden meaning which serves both to critique the reigning socio-political order and to offer the promise of a new age. These subversive messages are compressed in verbal images that Beck refers to as "cryptograms."

The key cryptograms in this particular miracle story are "legion" and "pigs." People who cooperate with the Roman occupiers would have been viewed as out of their right minds, indeed, as dead to the community. Such a person would appear as one "possessed" by a Roman "legion," a word which refers to a division of between two and six-thousand soldiers. The exorcism at Gerasa couples these oppressors with the beasts whose behavior the Romans imitate. These "pigs" are wild, vulgar, and ritually unclean. They defile the land, and so Jesus offers a sign that they will be sent back to the sea from which they came. The story is thus told to resist the occupying powers and to convey hope in the face of oppression. Here we have a religious polemic that is pivotal for the survival of the besieged.

There are, of course, numerous examples of this kind of polemic in the apocryphal writings. Students can also uncover contemporary instances of this genre by turning to the writings of dissident religious groups in Central America and the former Soviet Union. Closer to home, Negro spirituals are replete with cryptograms (Cone 1971; Dixon 1976). While the master assumed that the spirituals served to pacify the enslaved masses with the promise of otherworldly rewards, the slaves heard another message. The "sweet chariot, swinging low to carry them home," signaled preparations for the underground railroad.

Religious polemics can thus inspire the oppressed to confront structural violence and resist injustice, but once again we do well to equip students to assess the uses and abuses of this rhetorical defense. After all, what becomes of a polemic that is bound to political and cultural circumstances that no longer obtain? How are twentieth-century Christians to situate themselves in these polemical encounters? To what degree do our political, social, and economic conditions determine where we stand in the text, and how the text lives in us? Can the polemical posture reflected in this text inspire Christians to stand in opposition to the dominant secular culture, a culture that measures success in terms of the accumulation of power and wealth and self-satisfaction?

The Art of Self-Criticism: Reframing Polemical Discourse

Luke 4:16-30 provides our third example of polemical discourse. In the evangelist's account, Jesus enters the synagogue at Nazareth, reads from the prophetic writings of Isaiah, and announces that these messianic yearnings have been fulfilled in the congregation's hearing. The crowd responds enthusiastically to Jesus' message of hope. At this juncture, the tone of the encounter changes dramatically. Jesus asserts that a prophet is not welcome in his own country. He then cites instances when Elijah and Elisha turned their attention to non-Jews and performed the miraculous. This shift provokes the congregation. They turn murderous. They attempt to take him to the brow of the hill and hurl him to his death. Jesus passes unharmed through their midst and departs.

A common interpretation of this complex encounter rests on the assumption that the Lukan account is written for a community in crisis, a community that is faced with persecution from without and divisive struggles from within. The polemical exchange that pits Jesus against this Jewish congregation mirrors tensions that threatened the integrity of the evangelist's community. The text can thus be read as an answer to a question that must have scandalized the early Church. Why is it that Jesus was not accepted by his own people? How are we to account for the fact that the Church is increasingly comprised of gentiles?

According to this interpretation, the answer delivered by the evangelist becomes programmatic for the entire Luke-Acts narrative. Jesus comes unto his own, and his own receive him not. Because the Jews reject the prophetic challenge posed by Jesus, God rejects the Jewish people and embraces a new people, namely, the followers of Jesus who, by the time of Luke's writing, are increasingly gentile. Luke 4 can thus be read as a polemic that justifies the shift in God's favor from the synagogue to the church, "for it sums up and presents in a dramatic way Luke's theology of rejection of the gospel by the Jews and of the divine intent to send it to the Gentiles" (Sanders 1987, 165).

To be sure, this passage is frequently used as a platform for a replacement theology. From the proclamations of the Church Fathers to the preaching of many contemporary Christians, this episode in Luke frequently provides a warrant for supersessionism (that is, the belief that Christianity fulfills or supersedes Judaism). So understood, Christians strain to achieve theological stature by standing on the backs of the Jewish people.

There is, however, another way of reading this account that yields a radically different meaning. Instead of seeing the driving polemic as fueled by an antagonism between Christians and Jews, scholars such as David Tiede and Marilyn Salmon invite the reader to reconsider the audience that Luke is addressing (Tyson 1988). Luke's community may have been comprised of two factions, Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. Jewish Christians insisted that one could not be an authentic follower of the Jew, Jesus, without also being Torah-observant. In contrast to this tradition of discipleship, Gentile Christians maintained a position supported by Paul. They claimed that membership in the body of Christ rested on fidelity to a christocentric pattern of life and did not necessitate compliance with the Law. The rift between these two contingents threatened to erode the integrity of the entire community. How can faith be shared if one group of Jesus' followers will not even sit down and dine with another group?

If the evangelist is confronting this destructive division within the church, then the polemic is not intended to dismantle the covenantal affirmations of the Jews, but is prophetically aimed at dysfunctional practices within the church itself. The polemic supports the argument that just as Elijah accepted food from a non-Jew, so Jewish Christians should share table fellowship with gentile Christians. Just as Elisha had dealings not only with a non-Jew, but with a leper, so Jewish Christians must welcome those they consider ritually impure into their midst. The thrust of the polemic is not to justify the exclusion of Jews from God's covenantal embrace, but to exhort the church to deal more creatively with its diversity. The function of this religious polemic is to challenge the community to move in the direction of greater inclusivity.



In the reading and interpretation of our sacred scriptures, we Christians discover who we are and what we are called to do. We stand under the judgment of a text that calls into question both the ethos of the surrounding culture and our attachments to it. At the same time, Christians are also responsible for a scriptural tradition that is wrapped in polemical discourse. This rhetoric can fix theological boundaries that distinguish "insiders" from "outsiders," and differentiate "heretics" from "the faithful." Yet, our religious polemics leave us an ambiguous inheritance which, if uncritically absorbed, leads to the demonization of the other. If we Christians, Protestants and Roman Catholics alike, are to neutralize the persistent legacy of ancient hostilities, we must learn how to identify polemical language and how to assess its uses and abuses in the formation of our respective identities.

While the confrontation with the rhetorical practices within the life of the church may prove disruptive, the only thing worse than having a double-edged polemical tradition is possessing this language and not knowing that we labor under its spell. Historical criticism will prove an indispensable role in this task, but the problem extends beyond the reach of "objective" analysis. The challenge of taming dangerous speech demands a carefully nuanced relationship with our scriptures and the traditions that not only join us to our sacred narratives, but also bind us, however tenuously, to the Jewish people. This web of relations will manifest itself in what we sing and pray, and in what we preach and teach. By returning to our origins, we confront the enduring legacy of our religious polemics which, in turn, not only compels us to rethink our relationship to our scriptures, but to reexamine our entire history of biblical interpretation, its influence on the educational and liturgical life of the church, and its enduring impact on the Jewish people.

In the process of weaving new connections between the past and the future, Christians may discover that we cannot reform the church without also reconfiguring our relationship with the Jews.

Dr. Christopher M. Leighton is the Executive Director of the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies and an Adjunct Professor at St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore, Maryland. As director of the ICJS, he took an active role in all six sessions of the Colloquium.


List of Works Consulted

Beck, Norman. 1989. Anti-Roman cryptograms in the New Testament messages of hope and liberation. Unpublished manuscript.

Cone, James. 1971. The spirituals and the blues. New York: Seabury.

Dixon, Christa K. 1976. Negro spirituals: from Bible to folksong. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1976.

Girard, René. 1986. The scapegoat. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.

Johnson, Luke Timothy. 1989. The New Testament’s anti-Jewish slander and the conventions of ancient polemic. Journal of biblical literature 108/3. 419-441.

Saldarini, Anthony J. 1992. Deligitimation of leaders in Matthew 23. The Catholic biblical quarterly 54/4. 659-680.

Sanders, Jack T. 1987. The Jews in Luke-Acts. Philadelphia: Fortress.

Tyson, Joseph B., ed. 1988. Luke-Acts and the Jewish people: Eight perspectives. Minneapolis: Augsburg.

______________. 1992. Images of Judaism in Luke-Acts. Columbia: University of South Carolina.

Wilken, Robert W. John Chrysostom and the Jews: rhetoric and reality in the late fourth century. Berkeley: University of California Press.