‘Christianity didn't come out of the blue’

31 May 2024

For Lieve Teugels, her new full-time Judaica chair is a recognition. Of the importance of the study of Judaism within theology, but also of herself, as the first non-Protestant professor at the Protestant Theological University. She looks forward to making Judaism explicitly visible in teaching. ‘After all, early Judaism is emphatically part of Christian identity,’ she says.

Header image: Rob Nelisse

Greater visibility for Judaism

The new Judaica Chair is an initiative of the PThU. There was a Judaica special chair before, but it was funded by an external foundation. ‘With this new chair, I expect Judaism to become more visible in the study, both to the outside world and to students.’ In the current curriculum, there is no single course that revolves solely around Judaism. ‘There is an Introduction to Judaism and Islam in the premaster, and there are elective courses in this area, but they are often cancelled due to lack of interest.’ Currently, students are mainly taught about Judaism through Biblical Hebrew classes, led by Teugels. ‘That is a way for me to impart something on the premaster students,’ she says. In her new role, she plans to push for a separate Judaism course at undergraduate and graduate level.

Judaism at the source of Christianity

Teugels is convinced that knowledge of Judaism is essential within the study of Theology. ‘My specialisation is Judaism in the first centuries of our era. I am also working a lot on early Christian texts. And I see how similar the thinking in early Judaism and Christianity is, despite the differences. Often the differences are emphasised, both from the Christian and Jewish sides. These differences are magnified by theology and by history. But the similarities are much greater. I want to pass this on to students too: Christianity did not come out of the blue.’ For both theology students and Christians, it is important to know where their religion comes from, Teugels believes. Not to show that their faith is unoriginal, she adds emphatically. ‘But you can only understand it properly when you see where it originated and how it grew. And how Christianity has changed from how it started.’

Not just dialogue

Teugels is active in several Jewish-Christian dialogue groups. Yet it is certainly not Teugels' plan to study Judaism only in relation to Christianity. There should be room, even at a theological university, to study Jewish sources in their own right, she says. ‘Also, it isn't up to me to conduct Jewish-Christian dialogue from the Christian side: I can't do that as a Jew. I do think I can play a mediating role, because I know both sides.’ She also doesn't see a role for herself as a ‘mouthpiece for explaining contemporary developments’. ‘What is happening in Israel at the moment is very much on my mind, and I find it very sad and disturbing, including the repercussions it has in the Netherlands. I am in frequent contact with Israeli colleagues and am absolutely against an academic boycott, because often universities are home to the most critical thinkers; and because access to Israeli research is indispensable for the study of, for example, the Hebrew Bible. But I am not a historian of modernity; that is not the profile of this chair. For interpreting contemporary developments, we have better people in the Netherlands, such as Bart Wallet at the University of Amsterdam and Jessica Roitman at Vrije Universiteit.’

Research on Judensau

During her professorship, Teugels also hopes to undertake a research project building on the topic she is currently studying in Salzburg as a Marko Feingold Fellow. ‘I am now working on the iconographic motif of the Judensau, a very anti-Jewish Christian image that was - and sometimes still is - often seen on churches and public buildings in German-speaking areas in the Middle Ages. The image itself has been much discussed, but there are still many open questions about its origins and the ideas behind it: why exactly the association between Jews and pigs? I examine Biblical, Jewish and Christian texts from antiquity that have to do with this, highlighting in particular the identity politics behind the image. It is quite shocking what I come across in this research. If I were not so optimistically inclined, I would believe that history keeps repeating itself.’

Countering anti-Jewish tendencies

In her research, Teugels plans to delve further into Christian anti-Jewish expressions throughout history, from the New Testament to today. ‘As I wrote recently in my blog on Jews as devil's children: some New Testament texts were written down in heated debate, but the context of that debate has been completely lost sight of over the centuries.’ Lack of knowledge about the context means texts are then interpreted very differently - and sometimes very damagingly. ‘For students of theology and for pastors, the study of Judaism from that time can help in this. And in the Protestant tradition, it has always been important to look back to the sources.’