|HANDEL, MESSIAH AND THE JEWS
lovers accustomed to gathering for December sing-alongs may be
surprised to learn that George Frideric Handel’s Messiah was
meant not for Christmas but for Lent, and that the
“Hallelujah” chorus was designed not to honor the
Jesus but to celebrate the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second
Temple in 70 CE. For most Christians, this violent event was construed
as divine retribution on Judaism for its failure to accept Jesus as
many Handel scholars claim that significant numbers of Jews attended
the original performances of Handel’s oratorios
(1732–1751), they can offer no compelling evidence. Most Jews
18th-century England were too poor to attend such concerts, and
observant Jews would have balked at the public utterance of the sacred
name of God in the oratorios, even though “Jehovah”
Christian misunderstanding of the Lord’s prohibited name.
Scholars often assert, too, that because Handel wrote oratorios on
ancient Israelite subjects (such as Israel in Egypt) he was pro-Jewish.
Handel and his contemporaries did have a high opinion of the characters
populating the Hebrew Bible, not as “Jews” but
proto-Christian believers in God’s expected Messiah, Jesus.
the subject of living Jews and Judaism after the advent of Jesus,
contemporary English sources have virtually nothing positive to say and
very little that is even neutral.
To create the libretto for Handel’s Messiah, Charles Jennens
(1701–1773), a formi-dable scholar and a friend of the
brought together a series of scriptural passages adapted from the Book
of Common Prayer and the King James Bible.
As a traditionalist Christian, Jennens was troubled by the spread of
deism—the notion that God had simply created the cosmos and
it run its course without divine intervention. Christianity rested on
the (biblical) belief that God broke into history by taking human form
in Jesus. For Jennens and his ilk, deism represented a serious menace.
Deists argued that Jesus was neither the son of God nor the messiah.
Since Christian writers had habitually considered Jews the most
grievous enemies of their religion, they came to suppose that deists
obtained anti-Christian ammunition from rabbinical scholars. Anglican
Bishop Richard Kidder (1633–1703), for example, claimed in
huge 1690s treatise on Jesus as messiah that “the [d]eists
us, who would run down our revealed religion, are but underworkmen to
title bespeaks it all: “A Demonstration of the Messias, in
the Truth of the Christian Religion Is Proved, Against All the Enemies
Thereof; but Especially Against the Jews.” Jennens owned an
edition from 1726, and he appears to have studied it carefully.
Kidder’s traditional Christianity is a mode of interpretation
called “typology,” which means that events in the
Bible (Old Testament) point to events in Christian history not only
through explicit prophecy and fulfillment but also through the more
mysterious implied spiritual anticipation of Christian
“antitypes” in Old Testament
Romans 5:14, for example, the Apostle Paul describes Adam as a type of
“the one to come” (Jesus, the antitype).
thinking was the driving force behind Kidder’s book and
Jennens’s choice and juxtaposition of texts for his libretto.
Messiah, Old and New Testament selections stand fundamentally in a
that he could not thwart his adversaries simply by producing reading
matter insisting that biblical texts be understood both typologically
and as Christ-centered. What better means to comfort disquieted
Christians against the faith-busting wiles of deists and Jews than to
draw on the feelings and emotions of musical art—over and
the reasons and revelations of verbal argument?
does exactly this, culminating in the “Hallelujah”
At Scene 6 in Part 2, the oratorio features passages from Psalm 2 of
the Old Testament set as a series of antagonistic movements that
precede excerpts from the New Testament’s Book of Revelation
as the triumphant “Hallelujah” chorus: type and
prophecy and fulfillment.
aria that opens Scene 6 asks, “Why do the nations so
rage together, and why do the people imagine a vain thing?”
in the standard biblical sources, the passage (Psalm 2:1) reads not
“nations” but “heathen.”
took his reading from Henry Hammond (1605–1660), the great
17th-century Anglican biblical scholar, whose extended and fiercely
erudite commentary on Psalm 2 suggests the advantage of
“nations” over “heathen”:
can readily include the Jews. In the 18th century, no one would have
uncritically used the King James Bible and the Book of Common
Prayer’s word “heathen” for Jews or
Psalm 2:1 as an aria drawing on the stile concitato (agitated style),
with repeated 16th notes as a convention for violent affects to
underline the raging of the nations, pointedly including the Jews.
“The people,” when they “imagine a vain
are further associated with a conspicuous violin line of oscillating
melodic idea depicts the Jews in the earlier recitative “All
that see him laugh him to scorn; they shoot out their lips, and shake
their heads.” The recitative sets Psalm 22:7—a text
can be understood (typologically) to foreshadow a New Testament
passage, Matthew 27:39-40, which refers to Jewish pilgrims attending
Passover and to Jesus on the cross: “They that passed by,
him, wagging their heads.” The oscillating pattern and its
scornful tone capture the Jews’ rejection of Jesus as messiah.
Scene 6, at the tenor aria, Jennens skips to Psalm 2:9, “Thou
shalt break them with a rod of iron.” His excision of verses
makes the violent language in “Thou shalt break
to the Jesus-rejecting Jews, because without the intervening verses,
“them” refers to “the nations”
Jews) and “the people” (the Jews) of the bass aria,
than the gentiles referred to in the missing verse 8.
understood to make up “them,” who does
refer to? Contemporary commentators widely agree it was the resurrected
Jesus, who unleashed his anger on the Jews by having the Roman armies
lay waste Jerusalem and its temple in 70 CE.
Christians were all but unanimous in believing that the violence of
Psalm 2:9 represented the prophesying type for a later event: the
destruction of Jerusalem and its temple, the fulfilling antitype.
Now having brought in Psalm 2 and its understood prophecy of the
destruction of the temple—widely believed to signal
rejection of Judaism—what is Jennens’s response?
“Hallelujah! for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth; the
this world is become the kingdom of our Lord and of his
(Revelation 19:6, 19:16, and 11:5).
Jennens undoubtedly got the idea of juxtaposing these passages directly
from Hammond, who wrote: “Now at Revelation 11 is fulfilled
prophecy of Psalm 2. The Jewish nation have behaved themselves most
stubbornly against Christ, and cruelly against Christians, and
God’s judgments are come upon them.”
Handel’s music makes its own contribution to the theological
message here. The mood of the “Hallelujah” chorus
over-the-top triumph. For the first time in Messiah, trumpets and drums
are used together, although they would have been appropriate or welcome
at several earlier places. In Baroque music, trumpets with drums were
emblems of great power and of victory. In Messiah, the combination is
saved for celebrating the destruction of Christ’s
crucifixion-provoking “enemies” prefigured in Psalm
With Old Israel supposedly rejected by God and its obsolescence long
before ensured, why did 18th-century writers and composers rejoice
against Judaism at all, whether explicitly or, as here, implicitly?
There must have been some festering Christian anxiety about the
prolonged survival of Judaism: how could a “false”
last? Might Judaism somehow actually be “true”?
These issues were a matter of life and death, says Jennens’s
guide, Kidder: “If we be wrong in dispute with the Jews, we
fundamentally and must never hope for salvation. So that either we or
the Jews must be in a state of damnation. Of such great importance are
those matters in dispute between us and them.”
This would represent ample motivation for the text and musical setting
of Messiah to engage these issues and would perhaps help explain any
lapse from decent Christian gratitude into unseemly rejoicing in the
While still a timely, living masterpiece that may continue to bring
spiritual and aesthetic sustenance to many music lovers, Christian or
otherwise, Messiah also appears to be very much a work of its own era.
Messiah and the Jews"
Michael Marissen, Swathmore College Bulletin. 2007.
swarthmore.edu. Sep. 2007