Antisemitism and the New Testament

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It has been argued that the New Testament contributed toward subsequent antisemitism in the Christian community.[1] A. Roy Eckardt has asserted that the foundation of antisemitism and responsibility for the Holocaust lies ultimately in the New Testament.[2]

The New Testament and Christian antisemitism[edit]

A. Roy Eckardt, a pioneer in the field of Jewish-Christian relations,[3] asserted that the foundation of antisemitism and responsibility for the Holocaust lies ultimately in the New Testament.[2] 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.[4]

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:

  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 (the so-called "Old Testament") repeatedly portrays the opaqueness and stubbornness of the Jewish people and their disloyalty to God.
  6. The Jewish Bible 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 burdensome legalism.
  9. Christianity emphasizes excessive love, while Judaism maintains a balance of justice, God of wrath and love of peace.[5]
  10. 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.[6]

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).

Jewish-Christian conflict in the New Testament[edit]

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.[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] referred to as the blood curse. In the Gospel of John, Jesus calls certain Pharisees "children of the devil".[John 8:44]

According to the New Testament Gospels, Jesus, on his fateful entry into Jerusalem before Passover, was received by a great crowd of people. Jesus was arrested and tried by the Sanhedrin. After the trial, Jesus was handed over to Pontius Pilate, who duly tried him again and, at the urging of the people, had him crucified.

The New Testament records that Jesus' disciple Judas Iscariot,[Mark 14:43-46] the Roman governor Pontius Pilate along with Roman forces[John 19:11][Acts 4:27] and the leaders and people of Jerusalem were (to varying degrees) responsible for the death of Jesus.[Acts 13:27-28]

Gospel of Mark[edit]

According to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus' crucifixion was authorized by Roman authorities at the insistence of leading Jews (Judeans) from the Sanhedrin.[Mark 15:1-15]

Paul H. Jones writes:[7]

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 anti-Jewish. 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.

Gospel of Matthew[edit]

Main articles: Rejection of Jesus and Blood curse

As Matthew's narrative marches toward the passion, the anti-Jewish rhetoric increases. In chapter 21, the parable of the vineyard is followed by the great "stone" text, an early Christological interpretation of Psalm 118:22-23: "The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone".[Matt 21:42] Then, in chapters 23 and 24, three successive hostile pericopes are recorded. First, a series of "woes" are pronounced against the Pharisees:

you testify against yourselves that you are descendants of those who murdered the prophets...You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell?

Then, Jesus laments over the capital: "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it...See, your house is left to you, desolate" (Matthew 23:37-38). And finally, Jesus predicts the demise of the Temple: "Truly I tell you, not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down" (24:2b).

The culmination of this rhetoric, and arguably the one verse that has caused more Jewish suffering than any other second Testament passage, is the uniquely Matthean attribution to the Jewish people: "His [Jesus's] blood be on us and on our children!" (Matthew 27:25). This so-called "blood guilt" text has been interpreted to mean that all Jews, of Jesus' time and forever afterward, accept responsibility for the death of Jesus.

Shelly Matthews writes:

In Matthew, as in many books of the New Testament, the idea that Christ followers are persecuted is pervasive. Blessings are pronounced on those who are persecuted for righteousness sake in the Sermon on the Mount; the woes against the Pharisees in Matthew 23 culminate in predictions that they will "kill and crucify, flog in synagogues, and pursue from town to town;" the parable of the banquet in Matthew 22 implies that servants of the king will be killed by those to whom they are sent.[8]

Douglas Hare noted that the Gospel of Matthew avoids sociological explanations for persecution:[9]

Only the theological cause, the obduracy of Israel is of interest to the author. Nor is the mystery of Israel's sin probed, whether in terms of dualistic categories or in terms of predestinarianism. Israel's sin is a fact of history which requires no explanation.

The term "Jews" in the Gospel of Matthew is applied to those who deny the resurrection of Jesus and believe that the disciples stole Jesus's corpse.[Matthew 28:13-15]

Gospel of John[edit]

The Gospel of John 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; instead, the plot to put him to death is always presented as coming from a small group of priests and rulers, the Sadducees. John's gospel is thus the primary source of the image of "the Jews" acting collectively as the enemy of Jesus, which later became fixed in the Christian mind.[10]

For example, in John 7:1-9 Jesus moves around in Galilee but avoids Judea, because "the Jews" were looking for a chance to kill him. In 7:12-13 some said "he is a good man" whereas others said he deceives the people, but these were all "whispers", no one would speak publicly for "fear of the Jews". Jewish rejection is also recorded in 7:45-52, 8:39-59, 10:22-42, and 12:36-43. John 12:42 says many did believe, but they kept it private, for fear the Pharisees would exclude them from the Synagogue. After the crucifixion, 20:19 has the disciples hiding behind locked doors, "for fear of the Jews".

In several places John's gospel also associates "the Jews" with darkness and with the devil. In John 8:37-39;[11] 44-47,[12] Jesus says, speaking to a group of Pharisees:

I know that you are descendants of Abraham; yet you seek to kill me, because my word finds no place in you. I speak of what I have seen with my Father, and you do what you have heard from your father. They answered him, "Abraham is our father." Jesus said to them, "If you were Abraham's children, you would do what Abraham did. ... You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father's desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But, because I tell the truth, you do not believe me. Which of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? He who is of God hears the words of God; the reason why you do not hear them is you are not of God.

John's use of the term 'Jews' is a complex and debated area of biblical scholarship. Some scholars argue that the author most likely considered himself Jewish and was probably speaking to a largely Jewish community.[13] New Testament scholar J.G. Dunn writes:

The Fourth Evangelist is still operating within a context of intra-Jewish factional dispute, although the boundaries and definitions themselves are part of that dispute. It is clear beyond doubt that once the Fourth Gospel is removed from that context, and the constraints of that context, it was all too easily read as an anti-Jewish polemic and became a tool of anti-semitism. But it is highly questionable whether the Fourth Evangelist himself can fairly be indicted for either anti-Judaism or anti-semitism.[14]

Because of this controversy some modern English translations, such as Today's New International Version, remove the term "Jews" and replace it with more specific terms to avoid anti-Semitic connotations. For example, the Jesus Seminar translates this as "Judeans", i.e. residents of Judea, in contrast to residents of Galilee. Most critics of these translations, while conceding this point, argue that the context (since it is obvious that Jesus, John himself, and the other disciples were all Jews) makes John's true meaning sufficiently clear, and that a literal translation is preferred.[citation needed]

Tovia Singer writes:

The Gospel of John has the dubious distinction of being both the most popular Gospel (widely considered the most "spiritual" of the canonical Gospels) and the most anti-Jewish. The term the "Jews" (Ioudaios) in the Book of John functions as a hostile collective stereotype and is identified with "evil" and the "devil."[15]

First Epistle to the Thessalonians[edit]

According to Pieter Willem van der Horst, there is an instance of antisemitic statements in one of the Pauline epistles;[16] Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16 as follows:

For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of God’s churches in Judea, which are in Christ Jesus: You suffered from your own people the same things those churches suffered from the Jews who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out. They displease God and are hostile to everyone in their effort to keep us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. In this way they always heap up their sins to the limit. The wrath of God has come upon them at last.

Book of Revelation[edit]

In Revelation 2:9 and 3:9 Jews appear to be called a synagogue of Satan. The idea of a Jewish Antichrist developed from these verses.[17]

Later commentary[edit]

Successive generations of Christians read in the Gospel of John the collective guilt of Jews, universally and in all generations, in the death of Christ. John's use of the collective expression "the Jews" is likely explained by the historical circumstances in which and audience for which he wrote. After the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, the Jewish priesthood, and thus the class of the Sadducees, no longer existed. As John wrote his Gospel after these events, for a gentile audience, he spoke generically of Jews, rather than specifying a group within Judaism that no longer existed and that would have been unfamiliar to his readers.[18]

Christian responses[edit]

The Catholic Church has 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".

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 …".[19] 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.

Daniel Goldhagen, former Associate Professor of Political Science at Harvard University, also suggested in his book A Moral Reckoning that the Roman Catholic Church should change its doctrine and the accepted Biblical canon to excise statements he labels as antisemitic, to indicate that "The Jews' way to God is as legitimate as the Christian way".[20]

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • 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 0-8129-0412-5
  • Freudmann, Lillian C. Antisemitism in the New Testament, University Press of America (1994); ISBN 0-8191-9295-3
  • Kee, Howard Clark and Borowsky, Irvin J., Removing the Anti-Judaism from the New Testament, American Interfaith Institute, Philadelphia, PA


  1. ^ J.G.Dunn. The Question of Anti-Semitism in the New Testament Writings of the Period. Jews and Christians: the parting of the ways, CE 70 to 135. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1999. Page 179. 'The challenge thus posed to Christian NT scholars in particular cannot therefore be ducked... The question we must face, then, is whether such attitudes are already inseparable from the scriptures on which they were based. ... in terms of the present inquiry, Does the attitude to Jews in the post-70 NT documents indicate that the final breach, the decisive parting of the ways between Christianity and (rabbinic) Judaism, has already happened?'
  2. ^ a b Eckardt, A. Roy. Elder and Younger Brothers. 
  3. ^ In Memoriam: Professor A. Roy Eckardt Holocaust and Genocide Studies 1998 12(3):519
  4. ^ Eckardt, A. Roy. Your People, My People. 
  5. ^ based on mishna avot "on three pillars the world stands.."
  6. ^ Michael Cook 2008 Modern Jews Engage the New Testament
  7. ^ "FROM INTRA-JEWISH POLEMICS TO PERSECUTION: The Christian formation of the Jew as religious other" (– Scholar search). Encounter. 2006. Retrieved 2007-06-30. [dead link]
  8. ^ Shelly Matthews. "Violence in Matthew: The Question of Text and Reality". Archived from the original on 9 June 2007. Retrieved 2007-06-06. 
  9. ^ Douglas Hare. (1967). The Theme of Jewish Persecution of Christians in the Gospel According to St. Matthew. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 145. 
  10. ^ Is John's Gospel antisemitic?
  11. ^ John 8:37-39
  12. ^ John 8:44-47
  13. ^ D. Moody Smith: Anti-Semitism and the Gospel of John
  14. ^ J.G.Dunn. The Question of Anti-Semitism in the New Testament Writings of the Period. Jews and Christians: the parting of the ways, CE 70 to 135. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1999. Page 209.
  15. ^ Singer, Tovia. "Who Killed Jesus?". Outreach Judaism. Retrieved 9 October 2015. 
  16. ^ van der Horst, Pieter Willem (May 5, 2009). "The Origins of Christian Anti-Semitism - Interview with Pieter van der Horst". Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. Retrieved February 27, 2015. 
  17. ^ Walter Laqueur (2006). The Changing Face of Anti-Semitism: From Ancient Times to the Present Day. Oxford University Press. pp. 46–47. Retrieved 20 July 2014. 
  18. ^ Shea, Mark P. (31 October 2006). "Is the Gospel of John Anti-Semitic?". CatholiCity. Retrieved 16 December 2014. 
  19. ^ Beck, Norman. "Removing Anti-Jewish Polemic from our Christian Lectionaries: A Proposal by Prof. Norman A. Beck". Retrieved 2007-07-18. 
  20. ^ Riebling, Mark (January 27, 2003). "Jesus, Jews, and the Shoah". National Review. Archived from the original on February 8, 2007. Retrieved January 5, 2008. 

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