Anti-Semitism and the New Testament

One of the more ridiculous assertions in objection to the Christian message is that the New Testament is anti-semitic. I am aware that some scholars have made this claim in the past, but simply because someone -- even someone with a Ph.D. -- makes an assertion is hardly reason to believe that it is necessarily reasonable. While an exhaustive analysis of this rather heady subject is beyond the scope of a simple weblog entry, I do want to briefly raise some reasons for rejecting this claim.

First, let me make a statement about context. I am a Bible-believing Christian and argue from that context. I believe that the books attributed to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were all written by those men or written down by people who were their disciples (and, in the case of Mark, a person who was himself a disciple of Peter), and that all three of the canonical Gospels were completed by 70 A.D. with John being largely written before that date and completed sometime shortly thereafter. I have my reasons for holding these opinions, and I am not going to try to defend those reasons in a short weblog entry. For purposes of this entry, the early authorship under apostolic authority of each of these four Gospels is a given.

Having said that, let's consider the Gospels themselves. They are all written by Jews about a man who was a Jew by birth, nationality and religion -- Jesus the Christ. The idea that these authors would write a book that is designed to incite hatred against their own people is a rather difficult argument to make. Certainly, even by the time that the Gospels were completed there were persecutions of the early Christians by some within the Jewish authority structure. Paul, after all, was originally the Christian persecutor, Saul, and he was engaged in such persecutions early in the life of the church (as he attests in the book of Galatians and as detailed in the Book of Acts of the Apostles). But even though there were persecutions by some of the Jews, there were also thousands of the Jews who were converting to the Gospel.

Why would the Gospel writers spread hatred against a people of whom they considered themselves to be part and who were serving as a great source of converts? Remember, being Jewish is not simply a religious belief -- it is a culture. And even the earliest members of the Christian communities considered themselves to be Jewish -- only that they now had the completion of the covenant that God promised repeatedly in the Old Testament. Thus, I think it is accurate to say that they held a belief similar to the present day Christians who refer to themselves as "completed Jews".

But even if the early Christians were trying to set themselves apart as a different people from the Jews and were seeking to categorize the Jews as a completely different people from the growing Christian community, does that mean that they would foster hatred towards their root community? In other words, did they turn the Jews into the enemy (as the result of the persecution) in order to vilify and cause others to hate them? This doesn't make sense because the early followers of Jesus -- especially his disciples -- were well aware of the call of Christ to love your enemies.

But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloack, do not stop him from taking your tunic. ~ Luke 6:27-29a.

You have heard that it was said "Love your neighbor and hate your enemy." But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. ~ Matthew 5:43-45a

Seriously, how can I accept an argument that the men who wrote the New Testament -- the same men who heard the message of love and forgiveness preached by Jesus who went to the cross to die for all sinners -- intentionally wrote the books of the New Testament in such a way as to send a message to hate the very same people from whom the Christian movement sprang? How can I believe that they would abandon the very teachings of Jesus -- the teachings that they were trying to spread -- by inciting hatred against the Jewish people? With all due respect to those making the argument, I don't see how this is a plausible position.

Perhaps some may argue that the message was not intentionally anti-semitic. Perhaps the early Christians did not intend to have people hate the Jews, but that was the effect of their writings. Two things can be said in response: First, the argument is that the New Testament writings are intentionally directing hate to the Jews. This seems to be an untenable position with the givens that I have set.

Second, if we have to worry about the effect of telling the truth, then we may as well forget about telling the truth about anything that could cause someone to hate another person. The Gospel writers (as a given) wrote the Gospels in an effort to faithfully record the teachings of Jesus. The record of his words and actions are the truth of what happened that they witnessed from their particular points of view. It cannot be denied in their accounts that the Jewish leaders had a hand in crucifying Jesus -- that is a fact. It cannot be denied that some of the Jewish people called for Jesus' crucifixion -- that is fact faithfully recorded in all four Gospels.

Is the fact that the Jews (who were the inhabitants of the community where Jesus lived) had a hand in the death of Jesus mean that the Gospel accounts recording that involvement are anti-semitic? If that is the case, then American schools should stop teaching about slavery and the Jim Crow laws of the south because that promotes hatred by the African-American community against the white community. After all, using the same logic, text books that teach that white Americans enslaved then discriminated against the African-Americans incites hatred by African-Americans against white-Americans. Is that true or rather is it the case that historical facts are what they are? Quite simply, if people abuse those facts to press a hateful ideology that doesn't make the reporting of history hateful, does it? It certainly does not.

Let's examine a statement of the case of the alleged anti-semitism of the New Testament on Wikipedia to see how unconvincing the argument for anti-semitism truly appears. The Wikipedia article Antisemtism in the New Testament quotes Rabbi Michael J. Cook, Professor of Intertestamental and Early Christian Literatures at the Hebrew Union College, who notes "ten themes in the New Testament that are the greatest sources of anxiety for Jews concerning Christian anti-Semitism."

While I certainly understand Rabbi Cook's concerns, I don't believe that his arguments make a strong case for anti-semitism being found in the New Testament. I will give brief response to each of his arguments.

1. The Jews are culpable for crucifying Jesus - as such they are guilty of deicide.

Yes, the Jews had a hand in crucifying Jesus. But so did the Romans and we don't accuse the New Testament of being anti-Roman. But as anyone who has studies even a minimal amount of Christian theology already knows, the New Testament teaching is not that the Jews killed Jesus -- rather the New Testament teaches that Jesus died because of all of our sins. We all are guilty of deicide. By writing that the Jews had a hand in killing Jesus the New Testament authors were acknowledging, as Jews, that they were equally responsible for Jesus' death.

2. The tribulations of the Jewish people throughout history constitute God's punishment of them for killing Jesus.

With all due respect, that isn't an argument that is found in the New Testament because the tribulations couldn't start until after Jesus was crucified, and those tribulations necessarily happened after the events recorded in the New Testament. Now, perhaps some make that argument, but that isn't the argument of the New Testament itself.

3. Jesus originally came to preach only to the Jews, but when they rejected him, he abandoned them for Gentiles instead.

This isn't entirely accurate. Jesus wasn't referring to the Jewish people as a whole when he quoted the Old Testament saying, "The Stone the builders rejected has become the capstone...." (Matthew 21:42) When Jesus spoke about the kingdom of God being taken away "from you and given to a people who will produce fruit," the Bible clearly continues by noting that it was the chief priests and the Pharisees who knew he was talking about them. (Matthew 21:43) This is a reference to the Jewish leaders -- not the people who were Jews generally. But even if it did mean the Jews generally, so what? The remainder of the New Testament is about the fact that Jesus died for the sins of all and that there is no difference in God's eyes whether one is Greek or Jew, slave or free, etc. The Gospels are available to all. In fact, debate still rages within the church whether God has preserved a special place of privilege for the Jewish people in the coming Kingdom.

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."

Same argument. Even if the Jewish people lost their "choseness", this is not saying that they are somehow outside the mercy of God as offered through the atoning death of Jesus Christ.

5. The Jewish Bible ("Old" Testament) repeatedly portrays the opaqueness and stubbornness of the jewish people and their disloyalty to God.

Well, that's the Old Testament. I find it difficult to understand how a Jewish rabbi can argue that the very scriptures that are the basis for the Jewish faith somehow argue that the Christian New Testaments are anti-semitic.

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.

So what? Seriously. No one foresaw the coming of Jesus. This isn't a Jewish problem -- this is a "we mortals can't foresee the way God will move in the world" problem.

7. By the time of Jesus' ministry, Judaism had ceased to be a living faith.

I think this is a misrepresentation of the Gospels. The Gospels teach only that the Jewish leaders (the chief priests and Pharisees) had promoted form over substance and lost the truthfulness of the message God was portraying through the ancient scriptures. Certainly, there were Jewish people who are shown to grasp the truth and be seen as righteous in God's eyes, e.g., Zechariah and Elizabeth (Luke 1:5-6) and Mary, the Mother of Jesus (Luke 1:28). Thus, I reject this argument as not taking into account the entire Gospel message.

8. Judaism's essence is a restrictive and [burdensome] legalism.

Again, this is a misrepresentation of the Biblical message. The Gospels teach that before Jesus all people were under the law and were incapable of keeping the law. Paul taught the impossibility of men keeping the law and the need for God to fulfill the law on our behalf. The essence of Judaism wasn't legalism -- the essence of Judaism was the need to fulfill the law to be right with a holy and just God. Judaism was seeking a relationship with God -- a relationship which continually failed because of our humanity. (Refer to the rabbi's fifth concern which is actually a fairly good statement of the problem that the Jewish people faced throughout the Old Testament scriptures -- a problem that could only be cured by God intervening in our affairs on our behalf).

9. Christianity emphasizes love, [while] Judaism stands for justice and a God of wrath.

That is a hasty generalization that has more support from the atheists than from Christians who do not see two gods.

10. Judaism's oppressiveness reflects the disposition of Jesus' opponents called "Pharisees" (predecessors of the "rabbis"), who in their teachings and behavior were hypocrites.

This is the problem of the accounts of the Gospels: for those who don't believe, the Gospels were written to make the Pharisees and chief priests hypocrites and objects of hate. To those of us who believe that the Gospels are the efforts of the writers to accurate record what they witnessed, the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and the chief priests reflected in the accounts is largely the result of the fact that they were, in fact, hypocrites. That doesn't mean that all Jewish people are hypocrites, but the Jewish leaders of the time were hypocrites. This isn't anti-semitism -- simply fact as the Gospel authors saw and recorded it.

Obviously, if you believe that the Gospels were written hundreds of years after Jesus' life and that the accounts are made up to project hatred on the Jewish people, then noting I have said here will dissuade you. But I can assure you that for those of us who start with the given that I stated above, i.e., that the Gospels were written by the disciples or their followers within a relatively short time after the events, and from that follows that the Gospels constituted their best efforts to accurately record the facts as they saw them, the claims that the were anti-semitic are rubbish of the lowest order.

Addendum (9/30/09): In the event you read this earlier and now find it slightly different, it is. I made a couple minor adjustments this morning. I also want to clarify that I am responding to the arguments of Rabbi Cook based upon the description of them on Wikipedia. I have no confidence that the Wikipedia page accurately describes or restates the rabbi's arguments. Wikipedia is, after all, notoriously unreliable when it comes to religion. But since a lot of people use Wikipedia, and since it was a straightforward list of arguments, I used it. I expect Rabbi Cook's arguments to be a bit more in-depth then the Wikipedia article, but I have not read them personally.


Anonymous said…
Interesting post, and it's an issue I grappled with for years when I was Catholic-- particularly the claim that Christian's allegedly accuse "the Jews" of deicide.

"Who" killed Jesus is a historical question. I'm not one of those "Jesus never existed" atheists, and my own opinion is that both Jews and Romans had a hand in his death.

Let's assume my position is that Jews, and only Jews, were responsible for Jesus' death, but I don't believe in God or that Jesus is God's son. Am I an anti-semite for that belief? No, right? What possible reason would I have for hating Jews on the basis that they had a hand in crucifying a Jewish carpenter in antiquity?

That makes me wonder if there's a latent bias in the Christianity is anti-semetic charge-- namely that the real bone of contention isn't WHO committed deicide, but WHETHER deicide was committed.

The historical position one takes on who killed Jesus is only anti-semetic if one believes in Jesus' divinity. Otherwise, who cares?

I'm not at all denying that such beliefs have served as a justification for violent anti-semetism, but I do think there's an inherent theological bias in the charge. It makes Christianity anti-semetic on its face, which strikes me as wrong.
Hey LG I like your comments. I responded to your comment on my post about Orwellian atheism.
faithalchemist said…

Men down through the history of the church have utilized the Jewish role in Jesus' trial and death as justification for hatred towards the Jews, but neither the NT or Christianity in any way encourage or even introduce this idea as a valid, reasonable option. It really just boils down tithe human desire to hate. It's like asking all the darker skinned people just disappeared one day, would the neo-Nazi's and skinheads stop their culture of hatred. Most certainly not. They'd simply redefine what being a neo-Nazi/skinhead is and direct that hatred towards something new. Would there still be anti-semitism were it that Christianity never even got offthe ground floor? Of course!

As a matter of historical fact, there were both Jewish and Gentile parties responsible for Jesus' death. But the underlying theological point is that, as in the OT, the Jews represent humanity, and were the people God chose to bless all humanity with. Of course, as a Christian,I believe that blessing was fully realized through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Bit the point is that the Jews, and the Gentiles who according to Paul have enough and have always had enough to seek out God and worship Him, rejected Jesus. Once again rejecting God. Thus, Christianity is nothing like, say, Islam. Which encourages violence to Jews, without believing that the Jews killed God incidentally. Thus, there is noting ntrinsically anti-semetic in Christianity at all.

Peace friend
Jason Pratt said…
I'll probably have more to say on this topic a little later (if I can find the time and energy to do so); but I wanted to give a shout-out to LG!--good to see you again! {g}

(Until then, my most recent comments on anti-Judaism in the Gospel accounts, can be found in this Cadre article here from a couple of months ago, though very very very much more topically focused than anti-Judaism, per se, in the Gospels, or in the NT overall.)


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