Michael Marissen, in a very interesting article titled “Unsettling History of That Joyous ‘Hallelujah’” published in The New York Times on April 8, 2007, reviews Hendel’s Messiah and concludes that the oratorio is a veiled attack on the Jews and Judaism.
Marissen’s understanding of the Messiah is completely contrary to the traditional interpretation that it has received in the past. According to him, the Messiah was not written for Christmas but to celebrate the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in A.D. 70.
In addition, he proposes that the Messiah is an anti-Jewish polemic and that it was written to demonstrate that the Jews were the enemies of Christians. Below are a few excerpts from the article:
So "Messiah" lovers may be surprised to learn that the work was meant not for Christmas but for Lent, and that the "Hallelujah" chorus was designed not to honor the birth or resurrection of Jesus but to celebrate the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple in A.D. 70. For most Christians in Handel's day, this horrible event was construed as divine retribution on Judaism for its failure to accept Jesus as God's promised Messiah.
"Messiah" does exactly this, culminating in the "Hallelujah" chorus. 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 set as the triumphant "Hallelujah" chorus: type and antitype, prophecy and fulfillment.
The bass aria that opens Scene 6 asks, "Why do the nations so furiously rage together, and why do the people imagine a vain thing?" But in the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, the passage, Psalm 2:1, reads not "nations" but "heathen." Why the difference, and where does it come from?
Jennens took his reading from Henry Hammond, the great 17th-century Anglican biblical scholar, whose extended and fiercely erudite commentary on Psalm 2 suggests the advantage of "nations" over "heathen": "Nations" 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 Judaism. Even children would have known this, from the famous hymn writer Isaac Watts's wildly popular "Divine Songs for the Use of Children," which includes the verse "Lord, I ascribe it to thy Grace, /And not to Chance, as others do, /That I was born of Christian race, /And not a Heathen or a Jew."
Later in 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 5 through 8 makes the violent language in "Thou shalt break them" refer to the Jesus-rejecting Jews, because without the intervening verses, "them" refers to "the nations" (including the Jews) and "the people" (the Jews) of the bass aria, rather than the gentiles referred to in the missing Verse 8.
I have to confess that this is the first time I have read that the Messiah is an anti-Jewish polemic. It is possible that this deconstructionist reading of the Messiah may reflect a bias on the part of the reviewer. These days everyone finds fault with the past.
What Marissen has done is to challenge me to study the issue more carefully and evaluate the evidence for or against his views. Until then, I will listen to the Messiah with the same amazement I had the first time I heard it.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
Tags: Antisemitism, Hendel, Messiah, Psalm 2