Handel's Messiah and Anti-Semitism
A colleague of mine owns at least eight complete recordings of Handel’s Messiah. His collection includes “historically accurate” performances and more modern ones.
His collection reflects the many little changes that Handel made to the score over the years. For instance, the latest addition is the 1751 London version, which uses an all-male choir instead of mixed one.
Obviously, my colleague loves this music and has experienced many emotions while listening. But one emotion he hasn’t experienced is anti-Semitism, which is what he should have felt, at least according to a recent New York Times article written by Michael Marissen.
That article describes what the Times calls “the unsettling history” of Handel’s sacred oratorio. According to Marissen, Messiah’s libretto, written by Charles Jennen, was a thinly disguised anti-Semitic tract.
As “evidence” of his nefarious motives, Marissen relies on Jennen’s ownership of a 1690 anti-Deist book written by Richard Kidder, an Anglican bishop—a book some considered anti-Semitic. Kidder’s goal, of course, was to prove that Jesus was the Messiah, something Deists denied.
Central to his case was the use of Old Testament texts that anticipate Christ: what’s sometimes called “typology.” According to Marissen, Kidder’s use of typology “reads like a blueprint for Messiah.”
Given what Marissen says was the typical attitude of British Christians toward Jews in Handel’s time, beloved arias and choruses take on a sinister quality.
Thus, the “Hallelujah” chorus isn’t a celebration of Jesus’ triumph over sin and death. Instead, it’s a celebration of “the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple in A.D. 70.” They would have seen Jennen’s use of Revelation 11 as referring to God’s punishing the Jewish people for rejecting Christ.
This is, as one Handel expert wrote in a letter to the Times, “a preposterous leap.” But it gets worse when you consider that Jennen is never quoted in the Times article. His and Handel’s opus is tarred as “anti-Semitic” on the basis of when Jennen lived and his having owned a particular book.
Now, it’s true that the book expresses what could be reasonably called anti-Semitic (and ridiculous) ideas, like calling Deists the “workmen” of Jews. And it would be wrong to deny that Christians have treated Jews shamefully at times. They have. But there’s no evidence that Jennen shared these ideas, much less that they were the inspiration for Messiah.
But even without such evidence, Jennen and his contemporaries, according to the Times, are suspect because, like today’s Christians, they believed that Christianity is the fulfillment of Judaism.
This claim, with its scandalous particularity suggesting the unique relationship of Christianity and the Jews, is especially offensive to modern sensibilities—when truth claims are considered dangerously intolerant.
Marissen acknowledges that modern people don’t hear Messiah the way he does. Their reaction, if anything, is closer to that of Franz Josef Haydn’s. Upon hearing the “Hallelujah” chorus for the first time, Haydn, who, inconveniently for Marissen, lived in the eighteenth century, wept and declared, “He is the master of us all!”
In other words, the kind of thing you’re supposed to feel when listening to Handel’s masterpiece.
Chuck Colson is the Founder and Chairman of Prison Fellowship and the host of the radio program 'BreakPoint with Chuck Colson.' BreakPoint is a program of The Wilberforce Forum, a division of Prison Fellowship. It's mission is to develop and communicate Christian worldview messages that offer a critique of contemporary culture and encourage and equip the church to think and live Christianly.
© 2007 Prison Fellowship. Used with permission.