Judeo-Christian has two main meanings. The first is a historical one, referring to the early Christian church made up of converted Jews, primarily in Jerusalem, in contrast to the Pauline churches made up of Gentiles that were scattered across the eastern Mediterranean. The second, and today more common, meaning refers to the common ethical and cultural values of Judaism and Christianity. This second meaning originally grew out of desire for inclusivity, but the term Judeo-Christian is now increasingly used to exclude other religions.

The etymology is simple. It’s a straightforward compounding of the standard combining form Judeo-, referring to Judaism, and the adjective Christian. The first meaning, referring to the early Christian church, is in use as early as 1821. The use of this sense has mainly been restricted to discourse on religious history.

The second meaning came about as part of the effort to reduce or eliminate anti-Semitism, particularly in response to the rise of Nazism in the 1930s. The earliest use of this sense that I have found is from a June 1934 New York Times article:

We protest with all our might against the oppression of any individual on these grounds as contrary to the great Judaeo-Christian heritage of our civilization.

As in this early citation, the term was at first used to combat the idea that the United States was a “Christian nation,” by including the largest religious minority in descriptions of the morals and culture of the country.

But today, the term is more likely to be used to differentiate and exclude other religious faiths from participation in the American polity. For example, there is this from a November 2015 op-ed in the New York Times:

Mr. Huckabee has called Islam “a religion that promotes the most murderous mayhem on the planet,” and Mr. Kasich has proposed a federal agency to spread “Judeo-Christian Western values.”

The term Abrahamic has been proposed as one that would include Islam in the same cultural tradition, but like Judeo-Christian, it fails to include Buddhism, Hinduism, or other religions.

The denotation, the dictionary definition, of this second sense hasn’t changed, but its connotation has.


“Good-Will Barred to Nazis by Rabbis.” New York Times, 16 June 1934, 16.

Hasan, Mehdi. “Why I Miss George W. Bush.” New York Times, 30 November 2015, A23.

Oxford English Dictionary, third edition, December 2013, s. v. Judaeo-Christian | Judeo-Christian, adj. and n.

[Discuss this post]

Powered by ExpressionEngine
Copyright 1997-2020, by David Wilton