Hermann Cohen and the Jewish Jesus

Publication Date

January 2014


Modern Judaism: A Journal of Jewish Ideas and Experience is published by Oxford Journals, http://www.oxfordjournals.org/en/.


There is a distinguished German Protestant tradition that understands Jesus, that is, his thoughts and consciousness, as essentially Greek rather than Jewish. Included in this tradition are such luminaries as Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Schleiermacher, and Adolf von Harnack. Hermann Cohen is not the first Jewish thinker to oppose this notion and insist upon Jesus’s Jewishness.1 However, his account of the Jewish Jesus, particularly as it is developed in his two major treatises on philosophy of religion, Der Begriff der Religion im System der Philosophie [The Concept of Religion in the System of Philosophy] and Religion of Reason Out of the Sources of Judaism, is not only highly original and subversive in its own right, but it has yet to be studied systematically despite its centrality to his philosophy. In this article, I argue that a central element of Cohen’s philosophy of Judaism is the usurpation of Christianity’s theological foundations. That is, by turning Jesus into a Jew, Cohen thereby transforms Christianity into the mythical and irrational foil against which he illuminates and elaborates his philosophy of Judaism. With his philosophical account of Jesus, Cohen does not merely attempt to bring about transformations within Protestantism—to guide it toward rationality, to make it more Jewish, as it were—but he also increasingly displaces Greece as the arbiter of rationality and universality, at least in regard to religion. In Cohen’s engagement with the Jewish Jesus, we find a Jewish thinker doing nothing less than challenging the Christian foundations of Western culture.


Jewish Studies | Religion