The period before elections for government offices in the United States of America is a fruitful time for public expressions of religiosity by the candidates. The most common form of this is utterance of the word God, which usually seems intended not to arouse religious feelings but to serve as evidence that the candidate is a theist, because being perceived as a theist is a necessary condition for election to public office in this country. The next most common expression of religiosity probably is a statement that “Judeo-Christian” values, or principles, or traditions are foundational for American society and government. This often is followed by the candidate’s affirmation that he or she will strive to restore those values, which he or she may suggest have been diminished by those whose political opinions differ from his/hers.
Unfortunately, no one has the idea or the courage to ask candidates what they mean by “Judeo-Christian values.” The present essay is an attempt to determine what this phrase might mean. The words imply a set of ideas common to the two religions, and can be analyzed by comparing their ideas about scriptures, the deity, and ethical principles.
Do Judaism and Christianity Have Scriptural Beliefs in Common?
Both Judaism and Christianity perceive as sacred the Jewish scriptures, which the Jews call Tanakh. Christians call them the Old Testament and regard them as having been supplemented, reinterpreted, and in some ways supplanted, by specifically Christian scriptures, the New Testament. Some Christians in addition regard a set of apocryphal books as inspired.
So Jews and Christians share only a limited set of views about scripture. Moreover, there are profound disagreements between the scriptures of the two religions that the phrase Judeo-Christian values ignores. Only a few of the beliefs that Jews and Christians base on their respective scriptures, and that differ, need be mentioned. Jews follow to a greater or lesser extent the numerous regulations about diet, dress, and other matters laid down in the Pentateuch; Christians believe that they are absolved from most or all of these. The Jewish Sabbath is the 7th day of the week; the Christian is the 1st. Members of the two religions do not observe one another’s religious festivals. Many Jews believe that with the future coming of The Messiah their religion will become dominant in the world; many Christians hold the same belief but about a different Messiah.
In addition, Jewish and Christian interpretations of most of Tanakh differ. An outstanding example is Christian insistence that numerous passages refer in anticipation to Jesus, a notion that is refuted by Jews (Asher, 2012). And within each religion there is a spectrum of opinions ranging from diverse sets of beliefs in the literal correctness of the Jewish scriptures, to acknowledgement that in many respects they are not factual and must be understood in some nonliteral manner, of which there are many.
Now, it is undeniably true that these texts have been important in Western culture. Nowadays, that importance is a much-diminished relic of the time when Christian clergy were able to impose otherworldliness as a major concern of society, were the principal possessors of wealth and therefore the principal patrons of culture, and were able to prohibit intellectual activity and cultural manifestations that displeased them. During this period there was persistent oppression and persecution of Jews. The Christian culture that was said to be based on the Bible was, and is, quite different from the Jewish culture based on Tanakh. What the two religions have in common scripturally does not result in common cultural values, principles, or traditions, although they overlap.
Do Judaism and Christianity Have Theological Beliefs in Common?
Statements of the form “Jews, Christians and Muslims worship the same God” are common, and they are as untrue as they are frequent. The Jewish god, whose name is represented by its consonants Yhwh (for Yahweh) but which Jews by long-standing tradition are forbidden to speak, has no parts, and has a unique and permanent relation with the Jewish people. Jesus worshiped Yahweh; he did not worship himself. The Christian god, whose most common specific name is “The Trinity,” has three parts, and has a unique and permanent relation with Christians, who deny that he now has such a relation with Jews. He incorporates the Christian Messiah, whereas the Jewish Messiah is a future being. The Muslim god Allah has no parts. He has a unique and permanent relation with Muslims; his relation with Jews and Christians is not stated in a constant manner in the Qur’an but became increasingly unfavorable during the writing of that book. He sent Jesus as a prophet, not as a Messiah, and later sent Muhammad as a prophet who overrode Jesus.
Thus the identities of these three deities are as distinct as their names and as the religions composed of their worshipers. Worshiping any one of the three incontestably excludes a person from the other two religions. Saying “There is only one God, but you and you have wrong conceptions of him” does not make one god out of three; it is merely a banal assertion of the superiority of one’s own religion. The three deities are, however, closely related: The Trinity was constructed on the foundation of Yahweh, and Allah on the foundation of the two older deities. But they are no more a single entity than St. Peter’s basilica in Rome is identical with the 4th-century Church over whose foundations it was built.
By their translations of Tanakh Christians demonstrate that they do not acknowledge the Jewish god. There the deity declared that Yhwh “is my name forever” (Exodus 3:15), and that name is used over 6800 times to designate and to address him (e.g., Deuteronomy 12:5; Isaiah chap. 12; Jeremiah 10:6, 23, 24; Ezekiel 39:7) (Institute for Scripture Research, 2012, pp. xv-xvii). But Christian translations never use it, replacing it with the phrase “the LORD.” Writing lord in small capitals is a device intended to make the phrase specific for the unique god, instead of a generic title that could be used for any deity, or an aristocratic human being. Similarly, one could write “the KING” and allege that this orthographic contrivance makes that phrase specific for, say, Henry V of England. Even as a convention the device is not a valid substitute for using the proper name. Christians do not recognize Yahweh as God; in translating the Jewish scriptures they replace him with an anonymous unique deity whom they retrospectively identify with their tripartite god.
Are Judeo-Christian Ethical Rules the Basis of Western Morals?
The context in which candidates for public office use phrases such as “Judeo-Christian values” often suggests that they are thinking of shared ethical ideas rather than scriptural and theological beliefs.
The Ten Commandments in Tanakh often are regarded as the core expression of Jewish and Christian religious law. Christians, especially retrogressive (“conservative”) Christians, frequently allege that the Commandments are the basis of law for Western civilization (or at least for the USA). They want them to be displayed in public places such as courtrooms and state capitols. Candidates for public office sometimes assert that their behavior is guided by the Ten Commandments, and express an intention to try to make them once again the rules that govern society.
These ideas about the Ten Commandments are specific expressions of the false notion that religion (or one’s own religion) is the source of ethical ideas. Morals, conscience, and religion itself are products of the biological and cultural evolution of human beings (Churchland, 2012; de Waal et al., 2014). Principles about not harming other members of one’s community are ubiquitous in human societies (and this behavior also is present in many animal societies). These principles have obvious utility in promoting the survival of individuals as members of a community. They do not require any spiritualistic notions for their genesis or continuation. By contrast, religion is arguably a set of ideas that is a byproduct of evolution, not a set of behaviors contributing to survival (Boyer, 2012; Guthrie, 1993).
Priesthoods, however, commonly expand their power by assuming the role of the exponents, guardians and arbiters of morals, declaring that moral rules are commandments of the gods or god. The scriptural histories of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1; Deuteronomy 5:4-5) explicitly allege a direct divine source. Superimposing the notion of divine mandates upon the innate phenomenon of conscience enables the priests to misuse conscience to support religious behaviors, facilitates making ethical rules formal, and also makes possible a spiritualistic pseudo-explanation of the existence of moral ideas and conscience.
Let us analyze the commands one by one, comparing Jewish and Christian observances of them, and their meaning in Tanakh, with present-day legal ideas and ethics. The version in Deuteronomy (5:6-18 [or -21, depending on how the text is divided into verses]), which is regarded as the more humane, will be used for this purpose.
1. The 1st Commandment is prefaced by a statement that the Israelites were slaves in Egypt; there is insufficient evidence to accept this history as factual (Bishop Moore and Kelle, 2011, pp. 81-88).
This is a command to worship only Yahweh and no other deity. As a basis for law this Commandment would abolish freedom of religion by making illegal polytheism, and all other forms of monotheism (including Christianity and Islam; see the section titled “Do Judaism and Christianity Have Theological Beliefs in Common?” above).
2. The 2nd Commandment has two parts: it forbids making “any likeness” of what is in the heavens, the earth, or “the waters under the earth,” and then prohibits bowing down to or “serving” such an image.
As a basis for law this Commandment also would abolish freedom of religion; some practices of Hinduism, for example, would be illegal.
The rational interpretation of the Commandment is that it forbids idolatry. But there is no Judeo-Christian consensus on what constitutes idolatry, in particular, whether representations of Biblical characters and saints in front of which people worship are or are not idols. From the beginning of Christianity its adherents have quarreled, sometimes violently, over that issue. A modern anti-idolatry law might reignite these quarrels.
Interpreted literally, the Commandment forbids all representations of objects, which include not only fine art but also motion pictures, television, theatrical sets, commercial illustrations, children’s drawings, etc. This idea of a comprehensive prohibition depends upon the interpretation of the word likeness (or similitude, form) (temunah), but it also can be based on the separation between the prohibition, on one hand, of making a likeness, and that of worshiping images, on the other.
This Commandment also expresses the principle that Yahweh punishes people for the disapproved behavior of their grandparents and great-grandparents, which is contrary to civilized law.
3. The 3rd Commandment states that one must not use Yahweh’s name as if it were “empty” (worthless). Its probable intent was to prevent abuse of the divine name in other than respectful religious contexts. If it were adopted as a law nowadays, substituting God for Yahweh, few people would not be lawbreakers. Because only God can damn, any use of the word damn in other than a religious context would be illegal, as would substitute curses such as “God blast it!” Even nonimprecatory expressions such as “Oh, my God!” “Only God knows!” and “Good Lord!” would be suspect. Such a law would be unenforceable.
This Commandment is not, as sometimes stated, an express prohibition of perjury. If it is used for this purpose it refers strictly only to perjury committed while invoking Yahweh, and has no force for persons who do not believe in this deity, which includes Christians. Modern law relies on secular penalties for perjury that apply to all persons.
One should also note that some Christian theologians have regarded oaths made to non-Christians and “heretics” as not binding, thereby making perjury, and “empty” use of God, a component of their Christian doctrine.
4. The 4th Commandment also refers to the purported slavery of the Israelites in Egypt.
It expressly designates the 7th day of the week as the Sabbath, so it has been violated by Christians ever since they adopted the first day of the week as their Sabbath. Observation of the Jewish Sabbath by Jews has been an important source of Christian prejudice and oppression. Jews, who rested on their own holy day, were forbidden to work also on the Christian Lord’s day; this is an instance of Christians’ abusing this Commandment by imposing their Sabbath on non-Christians.
The prohibition of any work whatsoever by all persons every seven days was perhaps practical in a simple agricultural and pastoral society, but it is not in a complex society. Taken literally (which the Jews never did) it is preposterous; for example, it would prohibit aid to persons in distress or danger, and response to emergencies (as Jesus is reported to have observed in Matthew 12:10-12).
Enforcement of this Commandment has resulted in excessive and cruel punishments, first recorded in Numbers 15:32-36.
The 4th Commandment obviously is now largely not observed by commercial entities, and even less by individuals, without any evident decrease in public well-being.
5. Honoring one’s parents, enjoined by the 5th Commandment, is generally good. But should the children of tyrants, mass murderers, sadists, pederasts, etc. honor them? Or, in the present context, should a child honor a parent who disobeys the Ten Commandments? The concept of honorableness should be based upon the behavior of an individual, not upon family relations.
6. The application of the 6th Commandment’s prohibition of committing homicide (ratsach) has been greatly restricted by Christians, acting as Christians. Killing noncombatants during warfare, and the massacre and execution of non-Christians including Jews and “heretics” other Christians, were exempted. (Similarly, the Jews who wrote Deuteronomy did not perceive the massacre of people defeated in warfare [e.g., Deuteronomy 3:3-7] as a violation of the Commandment.) Not only soldiers and judicial agents were exempted, but private individuals also were permitted to murder persons who did not adhere to the version of Christianity approved by the state. The functional interpretation of this command therefore is “You shall not kill your co-sectarians.” Modern morality has a much higher standard.
7. The prohibition of adultery by the 7th Commandment was an expression of patriarchal ideas about ensuring the paternity of one’s heirs, and about wives being subordinate to their husbands (Genesis 3:16). It did not prohibit Israelite men from having intercourse with women who were not wives of or betrothed to another Israelite; but women were enjoined from intercourse with anyone other than their husbands. In cases of adultery the woman was punished more severely than the man (e.g., John 8:3-5). Hence in its intent and execution the Commandment was sexist and contrary to modern ethics.
Nowadays some couples knowingly engage in adultery (“swinging”), and there is no proof that such mutually approved extramarital sexual behavior is necessarily harmful (Smith and Smith, 1974). Surreptitious adultery is an appropriate ground for divorce, but it is not a cause of material damage to the injured party and therefore not a criminal act (unlike law regarding business contracts).
Laws attempting to restrict people’s sexual behavior on the basis of religious notions have been an important cause of discord, dishonesty, injustice, prejudice, and abuse and waste of legal resources. They are not consonant with present-day ethics, which does not regard sexual behavior itself as a moral issue, but only the imposition of sexual behavior.
8. The 8th Commandment’s prohibition of theft has often not been observed by Christian churches and their institutions (in particular, the Inquisition), which extensively used confiscation of the property of non-Christians and heretics, and extortion, to increase their wealth. In this matter, present-day secular law supports the Commandment better than did Christian governments.
9. The 9th Commandment, a prohibition of “empty” (false) testimony, applies only to Jews in relation to other Jews: the word usually translated as “neighbor” is derived from rea, which means “neighbor, friend, companion” that is, a fellow citizen, another Jew. Modern secular law includes a universal prohibition against false testimony and is superior.
10. The verbs denoting what is forbidden in the 10th Commandment mean “to desire” and not explicitly “to covet” (to desire enviously and inordinately). The import may be not that it is bad, from the standpoint of human relations, to be envious of the possessions of one’s neighbor (specifically, his land, house, wife, livestock and slaves), but that one should not wish for that which Yahweh has not decreed that he should possess.
Covetousness is a bad attitude, but it is not susceptible to legal prohibition. This injunction is the prototype for Christian admonitions of the type “don’t think bad thoughts” (such as sexual ideas, and doubts about Christianity). Acting on desires in such a way as to harm others which is what laws can enjoin is forbidden in part by Commandments 6 through 9.
From this analysis it is evident that:
- to extend the Commandments to persons other than Jews it is necessary to rewrite them, replacing neighbor with a less restrictive term, and replacing Yhwh (which occurs 10 times) with God, denoting “any of the various unique deities worshiped by different groups among the citizenry”;
- present-day moral or legal principles are better (more just) than those of the 1st, 2nd, 4th, 6th, 7th, 8th and 9th Commandments (and the remaining three concern matters that are not properly subjects of the law),
- enforced observance of the 1st, 2nd, 4th and 5th Commandments would or could be morally wrong (harmful),
- literal observance of the 2nd, 3rd and 4th Commandments would be absurd,
- nonobservance of the 4th and 7th Commandments can be morally neutral,
- the 10th Commandment addresses a behavior that cannot be prevented by laws, and
- Christians interpret the Commandments in such a way as to serve personal, financial, political and sectarian purposes; they are not absolute ethical principles.
To declare that the Ten Commandments are, or should become, the basis of contemporary law is absurd.
Are Judeo-Christian Ethics Suitable for Present-Day Society?
Judeo-Christian values, as stated in the scriptures of those religions, require or authorize:
- the subjection of unmarried girls and women to their fathers and of wives to their husbands,
- polygamy (but not polyandry),
- the acceptance of pain during childbirth as necessary,
- assigning to Blacks a base and servile position in society (according to a common interpretation),
- total submission to one’s government regardless of its character,
- warfare for ideological purposes,
- the massacre of prisoners of war and conquered populations,
- the death penalty for many acts that nowadays are not regarded as crimes,
- torturous means of execution, and
- regarding insanity as a manifestation of evil.
All these behaviors and institutions approved by the Bible have in fact been practiced by Christians, who could justify them as expressions of Judeo-Christian values.
Advocacy of a Biblical system of ethics as the standard for humankind, or for Americans, fails to acknowledge that these rules were written for a tribal, patriarchal Iron Age people. A return to Biblical ethics would be a moral retrogression (this is evident, for example, from reading Rushdoony’s book).
The otherworldliness of Christianity also makes its ethics inadequate. Because it views life as “just the doormat to eternity,” Christianity inhibits efforts to better the human condition. Also, Jesus’ ethics and Christianity’s ethics appeal to selfishness; they regard virtue as good and vice as bad principally because they determine postmortem reward and punishment, not because of their effects on the individual during life, on other persons, and on society.
Theistic deliberations about ethics are distorted by religious doctrines. Beginning with Kant, the principal philosophical statements about morality have been secular in character.
From these considerations it is evident that modern Western ethics is not based on Judeo-Christian values, but on what might be called secular-Enlightenment values. Biblical ethics often is irrelevant to, inadequate for, or contrary to the morality of the Modern Era.
Christians’ allegations that their religion has promoted morality, by the Ten Commandments or otherwise, do not withstand historical scrutiny (for demonstrations in various contexts see Bonner; McCabe; Pascal; Wheless; Wood). The Commandments, of course, have not been obeyed by many probably most Christians since their religion began. Irreverent speech, murder, adultery, theft, false testimony and covetousness seem to have been at least as rife among Christians as among adherents of other religions. Christians’ assertion that their, or some, religion is necessary for a society to be moral also is untrue (Zuckerman, 2008). In fact, the morality of Western society has improved in proportion as Christianity has lost influence there (Pinker, 2011).
What are the Components of Judeo-Christian Values?
Finally, let us attempt a statement of the ideas on which Jews and Christians (partially) agree, which must be the components of any set of Judeo-Christian values or principles:
- There is a sole, masculine god who made the universe. We do not agree about his nature, purposes or behavior.
- This god caused a few men to write books imparting to humankind knowledge of himself, his acts, his intentions, and his desires. We do not agree about which books are divinely inspired, and we do not agree at all about the interpretation of those on whose scriptural nature we concur.
- Most of us believe that God sometimes intervenes personally in the events of nature and in human actions. We disagree about the character and frequency of these interventions and about numerous assertions that particular events were such interventions.
- Most of us believe that one of God’s intentions is sending a specially appointed human being to bring about certain of his purposes. We do not agree on whether this Messiah has already come or has yet to come, what is his relation to God, nor on the purposes he is to fulfill.
- We believe that God created lesser spirits to act as his agents, and that some of them disobeyed God. We disagree about the nature, capabilities and acts of these spirits, and especially on whether there is a supreme evil spirit who is able to exert great influence on human beings.
- We believe that there is an indwelling spirit, or soul, within each human being, that survives the death of that person. We do not agree about the nature of this soul or what becomes of it after death.
- Many of us believe that the soul after death will be provided with a body. We do not agree on the nature of that body or when this restoration of corporality will take place.
- Most of us believe that God has caused people to create institutions that further his purposes for humankind. We do not agree about what those institutions are or what their purposes should be.
- For the present, God enables only a portion of humankind to be adherents of the religion he has ordained. We do not agree about which religion(s) or sect(s) he has ordained, nor about the manner in which we ought to worship.
- We believe that ethical principles have been devised and imparted by God. We have substantial disagreements about what are the components of the divine system of ethics, and about the interpretation of some ethical principles as they are commonly expressed.
The disagreements noted here exist both between and within the religions.
So, Judeo-Christian principles that can be said to be common to all adherents of both religions consist of a few very general beliefs about the existence of a solitary creator deity, the existence of some other spirits, the revelation of information about them in some set of ancient books, and the deity as the source of moral ideas. This core of beliefs in common is by itself inadequate to determine principles for governing one’s behavior.
Observe that except for some influence of the last, these beliefs are simply irrelevant to the governance of civil society (Zuckerman, 2008). A person who holds none of them can execute a public office just as well as a person who holds all of them. (Candidates who attach great importance to their personal religious beliefs will of course assert the contrary.)
Candidates for political office obviously mean something more than these general notions when they speak of “Judeo-Christian principles.” The phrase by itself does not allow one to determine what they mean by it. An individual candidate’s “Judeo-Christian principles” must include a set created by choosing among the competing notions about the topics in the list above. This obviously is a personal or at most sectarian set of concepts, and not one shared by all or perhaps even many Jews and Christians. Hence a candidate who touts “Judeo-Christian values” as the basis for his/her personal behavior, and advocates them as the basis for governing our entire society, may in fact be stating that he or she wants the citizenry to adopt his/her personal or sectarian ideas about religion, society, politics and ethics. Using the phrase “Judeo-Christian values” then is just a means of concealing the parochial character of his/her ideas.
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Bishop Moore, Megan, and Brad E. Kelle. (2011). Biblical History and Israel’s Past: The Changing Study of the Bible and History. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing.
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Wood, Forrest G. (1990). The Arrogance of Faith: Christianity and Race in America from the Colonial Era to the Twentieth Century. Boston, MA: Northeastern University Press.
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 “Judeo-Christian values” could mean “Jewish values plus Christian values,” but politicians never present the idea in this way. To do so would be to recognize that these are two different things, and many Christians would be offended by acknowledgement that there are distinct Jewish “values.”
 Other monotheistic religions such as Unitarian churches, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormonism), the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), Christian theosophy, and the Bahá’í religion also have their own distinct sole gods. Capitalizing the first letter of god does not stop it from being a generic name.
 There is not a unique set of core ethical principles stated in the Pentateuch, but two sets (Exodus 20:2-14 and Deuteronomy 5:6-18 [or -21]), which do not agree entirely. (The division of the Hebrew text into separate commands varies with sect; see, for example, the table on p. 376 of The Jewish Study Bible [Jewish Publication Society].)
 The ancient Jews necessarily regarded inhabitants of the neighboring nations and empires as enemies, and do so throughout Tanakh. The idea of a common humanity that transcends tribe or nation was made prominent by Greek and Roman Stoic philosophers living in inclusive, cosmopolitan empires centuries after the creation of the Ten Commandments (see Zeller 224-25 [§64], 272 [§79]). It is exemplified by Terence’s line in about 163 BCE: “I am a man [homo, a male human] and nothing human is foreign to me.” For remarks on Christianity’s history with respect to “the brotherhood of man” see Bonner 106-11.
 The great exceptions to this progress have been instances in which dictators had the means to impose by force an authoritarian, usually sociopolitical, ideology: Marxism as modified by Lenin and Stalin, Fascism, and Naziism. Christianity also is an authoritarian ideology that, when its proponents had power, was responsible for innumerable atrocities.