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Antisemitism in the New Testament

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Although Christianity was originally a Jewish sect, a number of Christian scholars have concluded that the root of antisemitism in the Christian community is ultimately found within the New Testament. Some Christian theologians such as Rosemary Ruether and A. Roy Eckardt claim that the entire New Testament is antisemitic, whereas other Christians such as Gregory Baum claim that it is not antisemitic at all.

There are some verses in the New Testament that describe Jews in a positive way, attributing to them salvation John 4:22 or divine love (Epistle to the Romans 11:28). In the story of the crucifixion, meanwhile, Jews prompt Jesus' execution and say "His blood be on us, and on our children" Matthew 27:25. In the Book of John, Jesus calls certain Pharisees "children of the devil". John 8:44

The New Testament as the source of Christian antisemitism

A. Roy Eckardt asserted that the foundation of anti-Semitism, and the responsibility for the Holocaust, lies ultimately in the New Testament.[1] Eckardt insisted that Christian repentance must include a reexamination of basic theological attitudes toward Jews and the New Testament in order to deal effectively with anti-Semitism.[2]

The general message that scholars such as Eckardt are trying to convey is that, using the New Testament as its authoritative source, the Church has stereotyped the Jewish people as an icon of unredeemed humanity; they became an image of a blind, stubborn, carnal, and perverse people. According to this view, this dehumanization is the vehicle that formed the psychological prerequisite to the atrocities that followed.

"The New Testament is the primary source of anti-Semitism," writes Harry Kimball. Jewish historian Heinrich Graetz, meanwhile, wrote "The authors of the Gospels, by putting these words of violent hatred against the preservers of Judaism into the mouth of Jesus Himself, stamped Him thereby as a relentless foe of the members of His own race who did not believe in Him by clung to their original faith."

According to Rabbi Michael J. Cook, Professor if Intertestamental and Early Christian Literatures at the Hebrew Union College, there are ten themes in the New Testament that are the greatest sources of anxiety for Jews concerning Christian anti-Semitism:

  1. The Jews are culpable for crucifying Jesus - as such they are guilty of deicide
  2. The tribulations of the Jewish people throughout history constitute God's punishment of them for killing Jesus
  3. Jesus originally came to preach only to the Jews, but when they rejected him, he abandoned them for Gentiles instead
  4. The Children of Israel were God's original chosen people by virtue of an ancient covenant, but by rejecting Jesus they forfeited their chosenness - and now, by virtue of a new covenant (or "testament"), Christians have replaced the Jews as God's chosen people, the Church having become the "People of God."
  5. The Jewish Bible ("Old" Testament) repeatedly portrays the opaqueness and stubbornness of the Jewish people and their disloyalty to God.
  6. The Jewish Bible ("Old" Testament) contains many predictions of the coming of Jesus as the Messiah (or "Christ"), yet the Jews are blind to the meaning of their own Bible.
  7. By the time of Jesus' ministry, Judaism had ceased to be a living faith.
  8. Judaism's essence is a restrictive and burdonsome legalism.
  9. Christianity emphasizes love, which Judaism stands for justice and a God of wrath.
  10. Judaism's oppressiveness reflects the disposition of Jesus' opponents called "Pharisees" (predecessors of the "rabbis"), who in their teachings and behavior were hypocrites.

Cook believes that both contemporary Jews and contemporary Christians need to reexamine the history of early Christianity, and the transformation of Christianity from a Jewish sect consisting of followers of a Jewish Jesus, to a separate religion often dependent on the tolerance of Rome while proselytizing amond Gentiles loyal to the Roman empire, to understand how the story of Jesus came to be recast in an anti-Jewish form as the Gospels took their final form.[3]

Origins of Jewish-Christian conflict

Competition for converts and other factors led to an intensification of Jewish-Christian conflict towards the end of the first century, although there is also evidence of continued Jewish-Christian interaction, including Christian participation in Sabbath worship, in some areas well beyond that. These conflicts are thought by some scholars to have had a negative impact on the writers of certain parts of the New Testament.

Gospel of Mark

According to the New Testament, Jesus' crucifixion was authorized by Roman authorities at the insistence of leading Jews from the Sanhedrin.[4]

Paul H. Jones writes:[5]

Although Mark depicts all of the Jewish groups united in their opposition to Jesus, his passion narratives are not "overtly" anti-Jewish, since they can be interpreted as falling within the range of "acceptable" intra-Jewish disputes. To some readers, the "cleansing of the Temple" scene (11:15-19) framed by the "withered fig tree" pericopes confirms God's judgment against the Jews and their Temple. Most likely, however, the story explains for this small sect of Jesus followers that survived the Roman-Jewish War why God permitted the destruction of the Temple. It is an in-house interpretation and, therefore, not antiJewish. Likewise, the parable of the vineyard (12:1-12), by which the traditional allegorical interpretation casts the tenants as the Jews, the murdered heir as Jesus, and the owner as God, must be set within the context of an intra-Jewish dispute.

The New Testament records that Jesus' (Jewish) disciple Judas Iscariot (Mark 14:43-46), the Roman governor Pontius Pilate along with Roman forces (John 19:11; Acts 4:27) and Jewish leaders and people of Jerusalem were (to varying degrees) responsible for the death of Jesus.(Acts 13:27)

While most scholars believe that the accusation of deicide affirmed of Jesus was explicitly repudiated in 1965 by the Catholic Church when, under Pope Paul VI, the Second Vatican Council issued the decree Nostra Aetate which declared that although some Jewish authorities and those who followed them called for Jesus' death, the blame for Jesus' death cannot be laid at the door of all those Jews present at that time, nor the Jews in our time ("the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God"), other scholars note that the explicit repudiation by the Council of deicide was deleted in the last draft of the final decree adopted at the Council, at the behest of Eastern Rite Catholic bishops. The Declaration, nonetheless, clearly decries all displays of antisemitism made at any time by anyone.

Gospel of Matthew

Gospel of John

The Gospel of John is the only one that collectively describes the enemies of Jesus as "the Jews". In none of the other gospels do "the Jews" demand, en masse, the death of Jesus. In the other three gospels the plot to arrest Jesus and put him to death is always presented as coming from a small group of priests and rulers, the Sadducees.

Persecution of Christians by the Jews

Some Christian polemicists have justified and generated hostility to Jews on the basis of an alleged hostility by Jews towards early Christians. After Jesus' death, the New Testament portrays Jewish religious authorities in Jerusalem as hostile to Jesus' followers, and as occasionally using force against them . Stephen is executed by stoning (Acts 7:58). Before his conversion, Saul (who later became better known as Paul of Tarsus) puts followers of Jesus in prison; (Acts 8:3 Galatians 1:13-14 1 Timothy 1:13) after his conversion, Saul is whipped at various times by Jewish authorities, (2 Corinthians 11:24) and is accused by Jewish authorities before Roman courts. (e.g., Acts 25:6-7)

However, opposition from Gentiles is also cited repeatedly. (2 Corinthians 11:26 Acts 16:19 19:23ff) More generally, there are widespread references in the New Testament to suffering experienced by Jesus' followers at the hands of others. (Romans 8:35; 1 Corinthians 4:11ff; Galatians 3:4; 2 Thessalonians 1:5; Hebrews 10:32; 1 Peter 4:16; Revelation 20:4)

According to James Everett Seaver,

Much of Christian hatred toward the Jews was based on the popular misconception... that the Jews had been the active persecutors of Christians for many centuries. Juster, Parkes, and Williams have ably shown the fallacy of this idea concerning Jewish persecution of Christians during the first three centuries. It remains to discover whether there is any basis for the claim, often voiced in the writings of the church fathers, that the Jews were actively persecuting Christians during the crucial fourth century, thus inviting Christian hatred and retaliation.

The... examination of the sources for fourth century Jewish history will show that the universal, tenacious, and malicious Jewish hatred of Christianity referred to by the church fathers and countless others has no existence in historical fact. The generalizations of patristic writers in support of the accusation have been wrongly interpreted from the fourth century to the present day. That individual Jews hated and reviled the Christians there can be no doubt, but there is no evidence that the Jews as a class hated and persecuted the Christians as a class during the early years of the fourth century.[6]

The Prophetic Tradition

In many places in the New Testament, the Jews are condemned and assigned punishment by various prophets in terms at least as condemnatory as the words of Jesus.[7] Such statements are generally taken as a pronouncement on the practices of the Jews at that time, or often on the leaders of the Jews, and are never taken to indicate that the entire race for all time.

Christian views

  1. The classical Christian view is that the verses are condemning those Jews that have not accepted Christian beliefs about God and Jesus.
  2. One claim holds that some of these verses are a critique of "Judeans", meaning specifically the Jews from Judea, as opposed to Jews from Galilee or Samaria for instance. This is based on a translation of the Greek word Ioudaioi as Judeans rather than Jews. This view is held by the Jesus Seminar.
  3. Another view is that the verses are a critique of some Jews, or specific individuals, or some aspects of Judaism at the time of Jesus, but not of all Jews, nor of the Jewish faith in general, nor of any Jews today. This view has been officially held by the Roman Catholic Church since the Second Vatican Council.
  4. A third view is that these verses are a critique by the writers of the Bible that should not be interpreted as the Word of God, but rather understood in the context of the time and the prejudices of the writers.
  5. A fourth view is that these verses are a critique of the Pharisees as the moneyed, self-righteous establishment of the Jewish community. Some modern-day liberal ministers argue that well-to-do, churchgoing Christians, not modern Jews, are the group most comparable to the Pharisees whom Jesus criticized.

For views of Christian Biblical scholars, see below.

Views of Christian Churches

There are many Christian churches which have changed or clarified their teachings on this subject.

See also: Christianity and anti-Semitism and Christian-Jewish reconciliation.

As one example, the Catholic Church already denounced antisemitic views held by Christians in the past with a series of statements beginning in 1937 (cf. Mit Brennender Sorge of Pope Pius XI). In the decree Nostra Aetate, Pope Paul VI in Council declared that:

  • "The Church believes that by His cross Christ, Our Peace, reconciled Jews and Gentiles, making both one in Himself".
  • "God holds the Jews most dear for the sake of their Fathers; He does not repent of the gifts He makes or of the calls He issues".
  • "the death of Christ ... cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today".
  • "the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures".
  • "the Church ... decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone".

Use of critical verses

Some scholars assert that these verses have been used to incite prejudice and violence against Jewish people. Professor Lillian C. Freudmann, author of Antisemitism in the New Testament (University Press of America, 1994) has published a study of such verses and the effects that they have had in the Christian community throughout history. Similar studies have been made by both Christian and Jewish scholars, including, Professors Clark Williamsom (Christian Theological Seminary), Hyam Maccoby (The Leo Baeck Institute), Norman A. Beck (Texas Lutheran College), and Michael Berenbaum (Georgetown University).

Occasionally, these verses have also been used to encourage anti-Christian sentiment among non-Christians. Christian apologists argue that by taking isolated verses out of context, people distort the message of Christianity.

Proposal to remove verses from Christian lectionaries

Norman Beck, professor of theology and classical languages at Texas Lutheran University, has proposed that Christian lectionaries remove what he calls "… the specific texts identified as most problematic …".[8] Beck identifies what he deems to be offensive passages in the New Testament and indicates the instances in which these texts or portions thereof are included in major lectionary series.

Biblical scholarship

Most of the verses in question are attributed not to Jesus but to the authors of the New Testament. Jesus' disciples, Paul, and the first Christians were Jews, including most of the authors of the New Testament. By the time the New Testament was finished Christians had already begun to view themselves as a separate religion.

Judaism itself was also undergoing significant change following the destruction of the Second Temple and the end of sacrifices, see also Council of Jamnia. During the time the New Testament was written, a number of Christians shifted their emphasis from seeking Jewish converts to seeking Gentile converts. Many Biblical scholars observe that different books appear to be aimed at different audiences, and suggest that the intended audience may have influenced the writers. For example, see 1 Cor 9:20-23.

Some commentators say that much of the New Testament was written for a non-Jewish audience, some time after the events they describe. Scholars of textual criticism have suggested that some things that were said or done, which may have been clear in meaning to Jewish contemporaries, would not have been quite as clear to the later Gentile authors or readers. Some further suggest that these later Gospels were a selective account that interpreted Jesus' life so that it would be less threatening to the Roman authorities and more friendly to Gentiles.

New Testament authors may have displayed religious or theological prejudice against Jews who remained followers of Judaism rather than become Christians, particularly since Jews claimed to be the heirs to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob's covenant with God; heirs to the covenant of Sinai; and followers of the sacred scriptures — the very sources of Christian legitimacy. Once Christianity established itself as a new religion, Christians were no longer of particular interest to the Jewish leadership. But as long as Jews claimed to be following the same Bible that Christians believed prophesied Jesus's messianic status, they necessarily threatened Christian claims. Moreover, the fact that Jews did not recognize Jesus as the Jewish Messiah (see also Rejection of Jesus) was an implicit threat to the legitimacy of Christianity and something that Christians felt the need to explain with apologetics, as Paul did in Acts 26:2. (See also New Covenant)

See also

Further reading

  • Eckhardt, A. Roy. Elder and Younger Brothers: The Encounter of Jews and Christians, Schocken Books (1973)
  • Eckhardt, A. Roy. Your People, My People: The Meeting of Christians & Jews, Crown Publishing Group (1974); ISBN 0-81290-4125
  • Freudmann, Lillian C. Antisemitism in the New Testament, University Press of America (1994); ISBN 0819192953
  • Kee, Howard Clark and Borowsky, Irvin J., Removing the Anti-Judaism from the New Testament, American Interfaith Institute, Philadelphia, PA

Here are some references where scholars have gone through parts of the New Testament in an attempt to discern the writer's (or writers') original message on Jews and Judaism:

External links


  1. Eckardt, A. Roy. Elder and Younger Brothers. 
  2. Eckardt, A. Roy. Your People, My People. 
  3. Michael Cook 2008 Modern Jews Engage the New Testament
  4. Mark 15:1-15
  5. "FROM INTRA-JEWISH POLEMICS TO PERSECUTION: The Christian formation of the Jew as religious other" ([dead link]Scholar search). Encounter. Sprint 2006. Retrieved 2007-06-30. 
  6. Seaver, James Everett (1952). "The Persecution of the Jews in the Roman Empire (300-428)". Humanistic Studies (University of Kansas Publications) (No. 30). 
  7. For example: Amos 2.
  8. Beck, Norman. "Removing Anti-Jewish Polemic from our Christian Lectionaries: A Proposal by Prof. Norman A. Beck". Retrieved 2007-07-18. 

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