Baroque composer primus inter pares J.S. Bach was a man of the deep and profound Christian faith. He believed the chief aim of music is to glorify God. Bach would write on his musical manuscripts: SDG, Soli Deo Gloria – To God Alone the Glory, and JJ, Jesu Juva – Jesus Help. The topic of Bach and theology is of great interest to me as a Reformed Protestant.
Some new books on Bach, such as “Rethinking Bach“, edited by Bettina Varwig, are discussing the relationship between his music and theology. And sadly predictably, the spurious charge that Bach and his music are anti-Semitic or anti-Judaic have cropped up in articles and internet discussion forums. No matter how thorough a rejoinder is given, no matter how exact one is in documenting Bach’s beliefs and no matter how sincere a defense of Bach is made, every few years these same tired accusations come up. I think it’s rather tedious and find it ridiculous to say Bach’s music is anti-Judaism, this is like saying the moon is anti-sun. Christianity grew out of Judaism, Christ is a Jew, the 12 Apostles and later the Apostle Paul were all Jews, but Christian faith represents a clear inflection point away from a strictly Judaic paradigm to something which is still Jewish yet altogether different. If Jesus really is the prophesied Messiah then the Apostles were the most fully realized Jews! And to discuss the Gospels, which form the libretto of Bach’s music, as being anti-Judaic or even worse anti-Semitic represents in my view a flawed analysis and a shallow understanding of the Gospels and their authors. Paul clearly says he would even renounce his own personal salvation if it could save his fellow Jews whom he so loved. That doesn’t sound like a man who is anti-Judaism. Functionally any serious departure from Second Temple Judaism would be, according to such critics as Michael Marissen, anti-Judaic. Which is itself an absurd position to take. In mathematics, we build on a foundation of knowledge to advance into greater knowledge. We don’t say algebra is inferior to calculus. We don’t say calculus is anti-algebra!
Some people are looking for some intent or dark motives of discrimination in the Biblical texts which just doesn’t exist. Yes, one’s Judaism would change substantially if they, as a Jew, became a Christian, but part of your fundamental identity is still rooted in Jewishness and the Judaism of your fathers. This reminds me of when Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ came out and some Jewish groups claimed it was explicitly anti-semitic since it portrayed Jews as being hateful towards Jesus and harsh in their judgment of him. I have seen this film several times, and have talked to some Jewish friends who saw it and they didn’t see this “obvious” anti-semitism. The real point of the film and of Bach’s St. John Passion is that every one of us put Jesus on the Cross because of our sin. We are all guilty! One group is not more or less guilty than another. If we become so sensitive in our discourse we cannot portray events in a historical and accurate way without seeing prejudice because of the cold hard facts, then we fall into a very dangerous place such as censorship and modern Cancel Culture. Where it’s not sufficient to be opposed to racism, one must subscribe to anti-racism as codified by Critical Race Theorists.
Would these groups who see anti-Semitism in Bach be satisfied if Bach had butchered the Biblical text the way Thomas Jefferson did with his Bible? Would they be finally satisfied? I think not. Then we’d hear complaints of how Jews are not being given enough of a prominent role. It never ends. Such “critics” cannot be satisfied. Being Jewish was from the beginning about Abraham’s covenant obedience before God, his faith in God’s Word. By that frame of reference, every Christian is a spiritual Jew. In fact, we Gentiles are grafted into the tree. We don’t have specific cultural practices or religious rituals. But I see Jews and Christians as being able to call upon the same God. To become truly one People in Christ whether born Jewish or Christian. Back to Bach’s music. I think we must be sensitive to the feelings of various groups who have an interest at stake. We should welcome their respectful criticism and use it as a means of establishing greater mutual understanding and respect. This doesn’t mean we label Bach personally or artistically as an anti-semite or even an anti-Judaite without very strong proof. Bach is not here to defend himself. I know that Bach loved a Jew above all others. I have not seen in Bach’s Calov Bible even the faintest or remote hint of anti-Semitism or anti-Judaism. Nor in his extant letters. Bach’s music speaks for yourself. If you are listening to this beautiful transcendent music of the St. John Passion and your strongest impression is “This is anti-Semitic!” then I posit that reveals far more problems with the listener than it does with Bach or his music.
Agnostic Marissen seems to have made it his mission to get everyone to believe Bach was a hateful bigot. In his latest book, “Bach and God“, he again goes on the offensive against Bach! I find him to be a sad and misguided man. I maintain my thesis that to appreciate Bach’s sacred music to the fullest degree one must be a Christian. Agnostics, atheists, Jews, Muslims can appreciate Bach’s music and even find beauty in the sacred music. Yet experiencing Bach’s music is so much more profound and deep an experience. It is a truly spiritual experience that defies scientific materialism and transcends the normal human faculties. It’s akin to the difference between a 2-dimensional comic book sketch of a real-life scene, versus a 3-dimensional motion picture film captured in High Definition audio and video! Bach was a Christian who wrote his music for Christians. This is an undeniable fact. Unless one is born from above (the second birth) via faith in Christ, their understanding of both Bach the man, and his music will be forever incomplete! Let’s relegate Marissen and his ilk with their myopic and hackneyed view of Bach’s faith and music in the dustbin of history. It’s where their highly speculative and accusatory musicology belongs!
So in summation, if you want to use such extremely damning (culturally, intellectually, religiously) accusations against a person whether it is Bach or a contemporary you better have a very sound case based on irrefutable proof! In my considered view, Bach was no anti-Semite or anti-Judaic (which is a very badly developed category error) in his personal beliefs, nor expressed in his music.
Here is a good paper I came across, Anti-Semitism in Bach’s St. John Passion by Caroline Glover. You may download the PDF here.