Antisemitism in early Christianity
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Part of Jewish history
Antisemitism in Early Christianity is a description of anti-Jewish sentiment in the first three centuries of Christianity; Christianity in the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd centuries. "Early Christianity" is generally considered as Christianity before 325 when the First Council of Nicaea was convoked by Constantine the Great.
The relationship between Christianity and antisemitism has a long history. Anti-Judaism and Anti-Jewish sentiments have been expressed by many Christians over the last 2,000 years, but many other Christians, increasingly in recent years, have condemned these sentiments.
The subject follows on from the origins of Christianity, the Cleansing of the Temple, the Sanhedrin trial of Jesus, the split of early Christianity and Judaism, the circumcision controversy in early Christianity, the Incident at Antioch and conflict with "Judaizers", the persecution of Christians in the New Testament, the relation of Paul the Apostle and Judaism and antisemitism and the New Testament. The subject also relates to the origins of Rabbinic Judaism and Council of Jamnia, Judaism's view of Jesus and Jewish responses to Christianity such as the Curse on Heretics.
Early origins 
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There have been philosophical differences between Christianity and Pharisaic/Rabbinic Judaism since the outset, as detailed in the article: Split of early Christianity and Judaism. Debates between the Early Christians - who at first understood themselves as a movement within Judaism, not as a separate religion - and other Jews initially revolved around the question whether Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah or not, see Rejection of Jesus, which extended to the issue of the Divinity of Jesus. Once gentiles were converted to Christianity, the question arose whether and how far these Gentile Christians were obliged to follow Jewish law as part of following Jesus, such as Paul's Letter to the Galatians, an issue referred to as the "Judaizer" controversy. It was decided, at the Council of Jerusalem, that gentiles did not have to follow all of Jewish law, only the Apostolic Decree (Acts 15:19-29), which many scholars ancient and modern see as paralleling the Noahide Laws of Judaism. But some further claim that Paul also questioned the validity of Jewish Christian's adherence to the Jewish law in relation to faith in Christ, see Law and Gospel, Pauline Christianity, Biblical law in Christianity, and Paul of Tarsus and Judaism.
The increase of the numbers of Gentile Christians in comparison to Jewish Christians eventually resulted in a rift between early Christianity and Judaism, which was further increased by the Jewish-Roman wars (66–73 and 132–135) that drove Jews into the diaspora and further diminished Jewish Christians and the Christians of Jerusalem.
Also, the two religions differed in their legal status in the Roman Empire: Judaism, restricted to the Jewish people and Jewish Proselytes, was exempt from obligation to the Roman state religion and since the reign of Julius Caesar enjoyed the status of a "licit religion", as long as they paid the Fiscus Judaicus instituted by Nero. Christianity however was not restricted to one people (however, neither was Judaism, see Proselyte and Conversion to Judaism) and as Jewish Christians were excluded from the synagogue, according to one theory of the Council of Jamnia, and as they refused to pay the Fiscus Judaicus, they also lost the protection of the status of Judaism. Since the reign of Nero Christianity was considered to be illegal and Christians were frequently subjected to persecution, differing regionally. In the 3rd century systematic persecution of Christians began and lasted until Constantine's conversion to Christianity. In 390 Theodosius I made Christianity the new state religion, see State church of the Roman Empire. While pagan cults, Manichaeism, and Christian heresy were suppressed, Judaism retained its legal status as a licit religion, though anti-Jewish violence still occurred. In the 5th century, some legal measures worsened the status of the Jews in the Roman Empire.
The assimilation of Jews into majority non-Jewish culture is perhaps the single issue where Christians and Jews differ most sharply. The conversion of a Jewish born person to Christianity may be seen by Jews as a scourge ("silent Holocaust") and by some Christians as a "blessing from God" for the salvation of a non-Christian for their conversion to Christianity.
Anti-Judaism is a manifestation of a religious hostility toward Judaism, based in Christian religious doctrine. Scholars of Jewish-Christian relations distinguish anti-Judaism from antisemitism, regarding the latter as opposition based solely on racial and ethnic considerations.
Although some Christians have considered anti-Judaism contrary to Christian teaching, it has historically been expressed by Christian leaders and laypersons, see Supersessionism. In many cases, the practical tolerance towards the Jewish religion and Jews prevailed. Some Christian groups, particularly in recent years, have condemned verbal Anti-Judaism.
During the past 1800 years, many Christians have had anti-Jewish attitudes. Some historians and many Jews hold that for most of its history, most of Christianity was openly antisemitic and that the severity, type and extent of this antisemitism have varied much over time; the earliest form was theological anti-Judaism.
Some apparently anti-Jewish ideas present among Christians are not a result of specific anti-Jewish Biblical ideals, but instead a manifestation of Christian rejection of other religions as alternative ways to God. In this sense, Christianity owes a debt of gratitude for the past, yet asserts that the time of Judaism is past, therefore invalidating Judaism as a viable means of salvation.
William Nicholls wrote in his book Christian Antisemitism: A History of Hate:
...the very presence of the Jewish people in the world, continuing to believe in the faithfulness of God to the original covenant ... puts a great question against Christian belief in a new covenant made through Christ. The presence of this question, often buried deep in the Christian mind, could not fail to cause profound and gnawing anxiety. Anxiety usually leads to hostility.—
New Testament 
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A. Roy Eckardt, a pioneer in the field of Jewish-Christian relations, asserted that the foundation of antisemitism, and the responsibility for the Holocaust, lies ultimately in the New Testament. 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 antisemitism. There is only one recorded act of violence in the New Testament against a Jewish synagogue leader, Sosthenes, when Greeks in Corinth rose up and beat him on their own initiative. When the Jews had brought charges against Paul to a Roman court, Gallio, the deputy of Greece, was angered at the Jews for what he perceived as judging matters of Jewish law.
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;[need quotation to verify] they became an image of a blind, stubborn, carnal, and perverse people. According to this view, thisdehumanization is the vehicle that formed the psychological prerequisite to the atrocities that followed.[need quotation to verify]
According to Rabbi Michael J. Cook, Professor of Intertestamental and Early Christian Literature at the Hebrew Union College, there are ten themes in the New Testament that are the greatest sources of anxiety for Jews concerning Christian antisemitism:
- The Jews are culpable for crucifying Jesus – as such they are guilty of deicide
- The tribulations of the Jewish people throughout history constitute God's punishment of them for killing Jesus
- Jesus originally came to preach only to the Jews, but when they rejected him, he abandoned them for Gentiles instead
- 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". According to the author of I John 2:22-23, anyone, including the Jews, who denies that Jesus is the Son of God does not have the favor of God the Father, and that the Jews have become spiritually illegitimate because of their refusal to believe that Jesus is the Messiah whose coming according to Christians was prophesied in several passages from the Old Testament.
- The Jewish Bible ("Old" Testament) repeatedly portrays the opaqueness and stubbornness of the Jewish people and their disloyalty to God.
- 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.
- By the time of Jesus' ministry, Judaism had ceased to be a living faith.
- Judaism's essence is a restrictive and burdensome legalism.
- Christianity emphasizes excessive love, while Judaism maintains a balance of justice, God of wrath and love of peace.
- Judaism's oppressiveness reflects the disposition of Jesus' opponents called "Pharisees" (predecessors of the "rabbis"), who in their teachings and behavior were hypocrites (see Woes of the Pharisees).
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 among 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.
Some scholars assert that critical verses in the New Testament 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.[need quotation to verify] Similar studies have been made by both Christian and Jewish scholars, including, Professors Clark Williamsom[need quotation to verify] (Christian Theological Seminary), Hyam Maccoby[need quotation to verify] (The Leo Baeck Institute), Norman A. Beck (Texas Lutheran College),[need quotation to verify] and Michael Berenbaum[need quotation to verify](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.[need quotation to verify] Some Jews consider certain passages of the New Testament, especially those blaming Jews for Jesus' execution and those suggesting that Christianity supersedes Judaism, as antisemitic. A number of elements of the New Testament may be considered antisemitic given a certain interpretive approach. Among them are:
- the explication of the Jewish role in the Passion of Jesus. This is exemplified by I Thessalonians 2:14-15:
- For you, brethren, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus which are in Judea; for you suffered the same things from your own countrymen as they did from the Jews, who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out, and displease God and oppose all men.
- the assertion that the Jewish covenant with God has been superseded by a New Covenant.
- criticisms of the Pharisees.
- criticisms of Jewish parochialism or particularism.
These elements of the New Testament have their origins in 1st-century history. Christianity began as a revision of Judaism. Many of Jesus's followers during his life were Jews, and it was even a matter of confusion, many years after his death, as to whether non-Jews could even be considered Christians at all, according to the way some interpret the Council of Jerusalem.
Although the Gospels offer accounts of confrontations and debates between Jesus and other Jews, such conflicts were common among Jews at the time. Scholars disagree on the historicity of the Gospels, and have offered different interpretations of the complex relationship between Jewish authorities and Christians before and following Jesus's death. These debates hinge on the meaning of the word "messiah," and the claims of Early Christians.
Rejection of Jesus as the Messiah 
The Gospels make several claims about Jesus: that he was a preacher, faith healer, messiah. The first two claims describe roles popular in 1st-century Judea; were Jesus principally a preacher and healer, there is no reason to think he would have come into conflict with Jewish authorities. The claim that he was the messiah, however, is more controversial. The Hebrew word mashiyakh (משיח) typically signified "king"—a man, chosen by God or descended from a man chosen by God, to serve as a civil and military authority. The real Hebrew word for "king" is melech, Mem lamed chaf. If Jesus made this claim during his life, it is not surprising[according to whom?] that many Jews, weary of Roman occupation (see Iudaea Province), would have supported him as a liberator. It is also likely that Jewish authorities would have been cautious, out of fear of Roman reprisal.
Jesus was considered by Christians to be the Messiah, while for most Jews the death of Jesus and claims of a Second Coming would have been sufficient proof that he was yet another false Jewish Messiah claimant. If early Christians preached that Jesus was about to return, it is virtually certain that Jewish authorities would have opposed them out of fear of Roman reprisal.
Such fears would have been well grounded: Jews revolted against the Romans in 66 CE, which culminated with the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. They revolted again under the leadership of the professed messiah Simon Bar Kokhba in 132 CE, which culminated in the expulsion of the Jews from the Land of Israel, which Hadrian renamed into Palestine to wipe out memory of Jews there.
At the time, Christianity was still considered a sect of Judaism, but the messianic claims alienated many Christians (including Jewish converts, see Rejection of Jesus#Many disciples leave) and sharply deepened the schism.
Observance of Jewish law 
Another source of tension between early Christians and Jews was the question of observance of Jewish law. Early Christians were divided over this issue: Some Jewish Christians, among which were converts from the party of the Pharisees, believed that Christians had to be Jews and observe Jewish law, while Paul argued that Christians did not have to observe all of Jewish law, and did not have to be circumcised, which was a requirement for male Jews. The issue was settled in the Council of Jerusalem, in which Paul and Barnabas participated as representatives of the church at Antioch. The Council decided that they would not subject Gentile converts to the complete Law of Moses nor circumcision, but ordered them to stay away from eating meat with blood still on it, eating the meat of strangled animals, eating food offered to idols, and sexual immorality. See also Noahide Law and Proselyte.
Some scholars (influenced by Martin Luther) have interpreted Paul's writings as rejecting the validity of Jewish law, see Antinomianism. A small number of historians suggest that Paul accepted the authority of the law, but understood that it excluded non-Jews. This is not a generally accepted view. See Proselyte and New Perspective on Paul.
Conversion of Gentiles to Judaism 
A common misunderstanding[according to whom?] of Judaism and the Bible is the claim that although Gentiles could convert to Judaism and thus be included, they could enter this covenant with God only by being Jewish. This is simply incorrect, see Proselyte, Noahide Law, Council of Jerusalem, and Christianity and Judaism. Some[who?] say that by replacing the written law (the Torah) with Christ as the sign of the covenant, Paul sought to transform Judaism into a universal religion. It is evident that Paul saw himself as a Jew, but other Jews rejected this universalism; after Paul's death, Christianity emerged as a separate religion, and Pauline Christianity emerged as the dominant form of Christianity, especially after Paul, James and the other apostles agreed on a compromise set of requirements (Acts 15). Some Christians continued to adhere to Jewish law, but they were few in number and often considered heretics by the Church. One example is the Ebionites, which, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, were "infected with Judaistic errors" ; for instance, they denied the virgin birth of Jesus, the physical Resurrection of Jesus, and most of the books that were later canonized as the New Testament, see also Judaizers. For example, the Ethiopian Orthodox are often accused of being Judaizers because they still observe Old Testament teachings such as the Biblical Sabbath, and conversely they accuse their opponents of residual Marcionism. See also Cafeteria Christianity.
Criticism of the Pharisees 
Many New Testament passages criticise the Pharisees; it has been argued that these passages have shaped the way that Christians have viewed Jews. Like most Bible passages, however, they can be and have been interpreted in a variety of ways.
During Jesus's life and at the time of his execution, the Pharisees were only one of several Jewish groups such as the Sadducees, Zealots, and Essenes; indeed, some[who?] have suggested that Jesus was himself a Pharisee. Arguments by Jesus and his disciples against the Pharisees and what he saw as their hypocrisy were most likely examples of disputes among Jews and internal to Judaism that were common at the time (see for example Hillel and Shammai). (Lutheran Pastor John Stendahl has pointed out that "Christianity begins as a kind of Judaism, and we must recognize that words spoken in a family conflict are inappropriately appropriated by those outside the family.")
After the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, however, the Pharisees emerged as the principal form of Judaism (also called "Rabbinic Judaism"). All major modern Jewish movements consider themselves descendants of Pharasaic Judaism; as such, Jews are especially sensitive to criticisms of "Pharisees" as a group.
At the same time that the Pharisees came to represent Judaism as a whole, Christianity came to seek, and attract, more non-Jewish converts than Jewish converts. Within a hundred years or so the majority of Christians were non-Jews without any significant knowledge of Judaism (although until about 1000 CE, there was an active Jewish component of Christianity). Many of these Christians often read these passages not as internal debates among Jews but as the basis for a Christian rejection of Judaism.
Moreover, it was only during the Rabbinic era that Christianity would compete exclusively with Pharisees for converts and over how to interpret the Hebrew Bible (during Jesus's lifetime, the Sadducees were the dominant Jewish faction). Some scholars have argued that some passages of the Gospels were written (or re-written) at this time to emphasize conflict with the Pharisees. These scholars observe that the portrait of the Pharisees in the Gospels is strikingly different from that provided in Rabbinic sources, and suggest that New Testament Pharisees are a caricature and literary foil for Christianity. At a time when Christians were only seeking converts, and had no political power in the Roman Empire and were in fact persecuted extensively, such a caricature may not have been in any meaningful sense "anti-Judaist". But once Christianity was established as the state religion of the Empire, and Christians enjoyed political domination over Europe, this caricature could be used to incite or justify oppression of Jews.
Some have also suggested that the Greek word Ioudaioi could also be translated "Judaeans", meaning in some cases specifically the Jews from Judaea, as opposed to people from Galilee or Samaria for instance.
Recent trends 
In recent years,[when?] teachers in a few Christian denominations have begun to teach that readers should understand the New Testament's seeming attacks on Jews as specific charges aimed at certain Jewish leaders of that time, and upon attitudes displayed by many, inside and outside Judaism.
However, Professor Lillian C. Freudmann, author of Antisemitism in the New Testament (University Press of America, 1994) has published a detailed study of the treatment of Jews in the New Testament, and the historical effects that such passages have had in the Christian community throughout history. Similar studies of such verses 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). Most rabbis feel that these verses are antisemitic, and many liberal Christian scholars (including clergy), in America and Europe, have reached the same conclusion.
In the 2nd century, theologians and church fathers became more concerned with "making the break" with anything Jewish, beginning to take an uncompromising posture of theological and political opposition. Blanket policies condemning Jews began to color New Testament interpretation.
See also 
- Good Friday Prayer
- History of antisemitism
- Jews in the New Testament
- Judas Iscariot
- Passion of the Christ
- Persecution of Christians
- Religious pluralism
- Criticisms of Christianity
- Historians debate whether or not the Roman government distinguished between Christians and Jews prior to Nerva's modification of the Fiscus Judaicus in 96. From then on, practising Jews paid the tax, Christians did not. Wylen, Stephen M., The Jews in the Time of Jesus: An Introduction, Paulist Press (1995), ISBN 0-8091-3610-4, Pp 190-192.; Dunn, James D.G., Jews and Christians: The Parting of the Ways, AD 70 to 135, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing (1999), ISBN 0-8028-4498-7, Pp 33-34.; Boatwright, Mary Taliaferro & Gargola, Daniel J & Talbert, Richard John Alexander, The Romans: From Village to Empire, Oxford University Press (2004), ISBN 0-19-511875-8, p. 426.;
- William Nicholls: Christian Antisemitism: A History of Hate (Jason Aronson, 1993) ISBN 1-56821-519-3. p.90
- In Memoriam: Professor A. Roy Eckardt Holocaust and Genocide Studies 1998 12(3):519
- Eckardt, A. Roy. Elder and Younger Brothers.
- Eckardt, A. Roy. Your People, My People.
- based on mishna avot "on three pillars the world stands.."
- Michael Cook 2008 Modern Jews Engage the New Testament
- The Complete Gospels, Robert J. Miller editor, pages 193–194, cameo essay on "The Judeans", for example the translation of John 1:7: "After this, Jesus moved around in Galilee, he decided not to go into Judea, because the Judeans were looking for a chance to kill him."
- Dabru Emet
- Relations between Christians and Jews
- Christian anti-Semitism
- Catholic Encyclopedia: Judaism
- Catholic Encyclopedia: History of the Jews
- Jews and Christians in Search of a Common Religious Basis for Contributing Towards a Better World
- Southern Baptist views on Judaism and other faiths
- "Judaism and Christianity" by Dr. Warren Carroll
- Attempts to convert Jews to Christianity, and responses
- Antisemitism and Eastern Orthodoxy
- "Historian's Accusations Against Wartime Holy See Are Refuted" 21 November 2002
- Yad VaShem's "Righteous Among the Nations"
- Catholic Timeline on Antisemitism
- Mainline churches launch a policy to punish Israel by Eugene Kontorovich, in the Wall Street Journal, July 22, 2005.
- The beginnings of Christian Anti-Semitism Judeophobia (Jew Hate) in Early Christian thought. Judeophobia - History and analysis of Antisemitism, Jew-Hate and anti-"Zionism". By Gustavo Perednik (zionism-Israel.com)
Further reading 
- "Christian Antisemitism: A History of Hate" by William Nicholls, 1993. Published by Jason Aronson Inc., 1995.
- "Mature Christianity: The Recognition and Repudiation of the Anti-Jewish Polemic in the New Testament" Norman A. Beck, Susquehanna Univ. Press, 1985
- "The Satanizing of the Jews: Origin and development of mystical anti-Semitism" Joel Carmichael, Fromm, 1993
- "The Origins of Anti-Semitism: Attitudes Toward Judaism in Pagan and Christian Antiquity" John G. Gager, Oxford Univ. Press, 1983
- "What Did They Think of the Jews?" Edited by Allan Gould, Jason Aronson Inc., 1991
- "The New Testament's Anti-Jewish Slander and Conventions of Ancient Polemic", Luke Johnson, Journal of Biblical Literature, Volume 3, 1989
- "Three Popes and the Jews" Pinchas E. Lapide, Hawthorne Books, 1967
- "National Socialism and the Roman Catholic Church" Nathaniel Micklem, Oxford Univ. Press, 1939
- Theological Anti-Semitism in the New Testament", Rosemary Radford Ruether, Christian Century, Feb. 1968, Vol. 85
- "John Chrysostom and the Jews" Robert L. Wilken, Univ. of California Press, Berkeley, 1983
- "Anti-Semitism in the Church?" by Julio Dam