- Counter-History and Jewish Polemics Against Christianity: The Sefer toldot yeshu and the Sefer zerubavel
Amos Funkenstein devoted a significant amount of his scholarly attention to polemics between Jews and Christians. 1 He was particularly interested in how each religion borrowed motifs from the other and inverted the other’s narrative, a procedure that he labeled “counter-history.” 2 He defined this genre of historical writing as follows:
“[Counter-history’s] function is polemical. [Its] method consists of the systematic exploitation of the adversary’s most trusted sources against their grain—”die Geschichte gegen den Strich kämmen.” [Its] aim is the distortion of the adversary’s self-image, of his identity, through the deconstruction of his memory. 3
Funkenstein was interested in counter-history as a particular type of historical narrative, which he called an “inauthentic narrative.” He wished to examine the line between history and narrative by identifying a category of historical writing that lacked grounding in reality. In most counter-histories, he claimed, historical truth does not “shine through.” Counter-historians, instead of using historical sources, take the sources of their adversaries and turn them on their heads. Historical truth therefore cannot shine through in such narratives because “everything in them is a reflective mirror.” The goal of the counter-historian is to deny the adversary his identity, yet since the polemicist has lost touch with reality, he subverts his own identity as well. This is because those who [End Page 130] construct polemical counter-histories must of necessity base their own identities on the denial of the Other.
Funkenstein concludes the section of Perceptions of Jewish History in which he deals with counter-histories by arguing that Holocaust revisionism is just such an attempt to rob the Other (in this case the Jew) of his memory and, therefore, his identity. He also attacks those Zionists who would deny an identity to the Palestinians. Here, he himself is engaged in a polemic since he uses the term “counter-history” as a weapon to uncover the ethical issues that underlie such forms of historiography. It is not entirely clear in this account whether these kind of counter-histories are to be rejected on ethical or on historical grounds. Are they unhistorical because of their questionable ethical motivation or are they unethical because “reality does not shine through”?
To complicate the matter more, Funkenstein allows parenthetically that certain counter-histories, such as those of Augustine of Hippo (whose history of the Church is a counter-history of Rome), Gottfried Arnold (who held that the true Christianity was the history of its heretics), and Karl Marx (who inverted the history of capitalism into an account of the rise of the proletariat), might be excluded from his negative description of the category. On what basis might they be excluded? Does something of reality “shine through” them or is it rather that their motivation is not the unethical desire to rob the Other of his or her identity?
It is this suggestion—that not all counter-histories necessarily fall under the definition given above—that I wish to pursue in this article. Two years before Funkenstein first used the term “counter-history” in print, I published my Gershom Scholem: Kabbalah and Counter-History, a book based on a dissertation that I wrote under Funkenstein’s supervision. My own use of the term came out of intensive discussions with him, but my definition departed significantly from the one that he proposed. I distinguished counter-history from revisionism by claiming that a counter-history finds the truth in a subterranean tradition that must be brought to light, much as the apocalyptic thinker decodes an ancient prophecy. Counter-history is a type of revisionist historiography, but where the revisionist proposes a new theory or finds new facts, the counter-historian transvalues old ones. He or she recognizes the “mainstream” or “official” history but holds that the vital force behind that history lies in a secret tradition. History consists of the dialectic between the normative and the subterranean. It is in this latter sense that we might understand not only the work of Scholem but also the work of Augustine, Arnold, and Marx...