The gospels frequently mention the struggles Jesus had with the Jewish religious leaders who resisted Jesus’ teaching. They were jealous of Jesus’ success and the multitudes that flocked to him for healing, miracles, and teaching. And they sought to kill him for it.
It’s easy to perceive the New Testament as anti-Semitic, and some have interpreted it that way with dire consequences. But the New Testament does not condemn Jewish people. The harsh words are reserved for some religious leaders. In most other cases, Jewish people are respected in the New Testament. But Christians have not always understood things this way.
Anti-Semitism in Church History
The turning point happened in 380 A.D. when emperor Theodosius issued the Edict of Thessalonica, making Nicene Christianity the Roman Empire’s official religion. Most other Christian sects were deemed heretical, lost their legal status, and had their properties confiscated by the Roman state. Imagine.
This act was the consummation of work begun by Constantine in 312 when he became the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity. The church gained political power, and things did not go well for people of other faiths.
Theodosius attempted to acknowledge the civil rights of Jews, pagans, and heretics as equal to those of Christians. But the church opposed this when Bishop Ambrose made the emperor back down. Ambrose wrote in one of his epistles: “Whom do [the Jews] have to avenge the synagogue? Christ whom they have killed, whom they have denied? Or will God the Father avenge them, whom they do not acknowledge as Father since they do not acknowledge the Son?”
Imagine a church that defends its rights but does not uphold the rights of others. I’m glad that doesn’t happen anymore!
We Have Verses
All this set the scene for centuries of oppression of the Jews by Christians. Jews were called the Christ or God killers based on some verses in the New Testament: When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!”
All the people answered, “His blood is on us and on our children!”
Of course, that statement doesn’t mean that it should or would happen. However, many Christian leaders used that declaration to punish and persecute Jewish people through the centuries.
Consider Paul’s words to the church in Thessalonica: 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. I understand Paul’s frustration with a group of Jewish Christian converts who followed his ministry to the Gentiles to undermine it. But Paul’s frustration is not an excuse for anti-Semitism.
In Peter’s Pentecost sermon, he said, “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.” Peter’s words are only partly true. The Jewish leaders had no authority to crucify anyone. However, some of them did prompt the process. The Roman Empire crucified Jesus under the control of Pontius Pilate.
These and other verses have been used over the centuries to promote anti-Semitism. It became fixed in the popular mind that the Jews had crucified Jesus and that their descendants bore hereditary guilt. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has some excellent articles on this.
From Augustine in the 4th century to Martin Luther in the 16th, some Christian theologians condemned the Jews as rebels against God and murderers of the Messiah.
Luther spoke about destroying Jewish houses, schools, and synagogues and destroying their books. He wrote, “All cash and treasure of silver and gold be taken from them.” And he suggested that no protection be afforded Jewish people when they travelled. Luther’s anti-Semitic rants undoubtedly formed the foundation for Hitler’s attempted annihilation of the Jewish race.
In Luther’s essay, On the Jews and Their Lies, he describes Jews as a “base, whoring people, that is, no people of God, and their boast of lineage, circumcision, and law must be accounted as filth.” Luther wrote that the Jews are “full of the devil’s faeces…which they wallow in like swine,” the synagogue is an “incorrigible whore and an evil slut.” We look back in horror that such hatred could be uttered by a person we consider one of the great reformers of the Christian church and faith. But that is the record of history.
The church’s anti-Jewish stance has led to absurd conspiracy theories blaming the Jews for the world’s tragedies. Jews were accused of poisoning wells in 14th-century Europe, causing the Black Death. In more recent times, it’s been suggested that Jews are plotting to take over and control the world, an image that was central to the rise of Naziism.
While some positive steps to combat anti-Semitism have been taken by the Roman Catholic church, it still exists, particularly among evangelical Christians who embrace Christian nationalism, cultural Marxism, or belief in a New World Order, a conspiracy where “a cabal of powerful elite figures wielding great political and economic power is conspiring to implement a totalitarian one-world government.” Of course, Jewish banks like the Rothschilds are implicated in this plot.
Back to Scripture
In general, the New Testament does not criticise Jewish people. Jesus and Paul were scathing of anyone attempting to keep people away from God’s grace, but no race is demonised, and no people group is upheld as more important than any other. Paul’s letter to the Romans announces, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace.” All doesn’t leave anyone out!
One of the standout examples of Jewish inclusion is a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the Law who was honoured by all the people. The apostle Paul was Jewish, studied under Gamaliel, and thoroughly trained in the Law. Charles Ellicott, the distinguished English Christian theologian, described Gamaliel as one of the heroes of Rabbinic history.
Gamaliel was the grandson of Hillel, the representative of the best school of Pharisees, the tolerant and large-hearted rival of the narrow and fanatic Shammai. Interestingly, Jesus and the early church aligned closer to Hillel’s theology than its limited and extreme alternative. That’s a good lesson for 21st-century Christians.
Jesus and many of the people he appointed to carry on his message moved amongst Jewish people, loved and helped them, taught and healed them. The only words of censure in the New Testament scriptures are reserved for Jews and Gentiles who openly resisted Jesus or his appointed leaders.
Positive references to Jews are not the minority in the New Testament. But sadly, some Christians over the centuries have focused on the negatives and emphasised them unduly. This narrative has had an extremely destructive effect on how Christian communities have viewed and treated Jews historically.
As a Christian and church leader, I am deeply embarrassed by the church’s actions and inactions towards Jewish people. We need to own our history and apologise for it. We must express God’s love for ALL people, regardless of their racial or ethnic background.