Friday, December 23, 2005

Anti-Semitism in the New Testament

January 15, 1999

The history of Christian treatment of Jews has hardly been laudable, and Christians are repeatedly embarrassed by it. While there are several causes for this treatment, much of Christian Anti-Judaism is a result of scripture that appears to condone it. Is the New Testament itself anti-Semitic, or is this merely a result of faulty interpretation?

The accusation of anti-Semitism in the New Testament at first seems absurd. Of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament, only two are written by a Gentile writer, according to Church tradition (Luke and Acts are attributed to Luke, a Gentile companion of Paul). This means that all the other books are written by Jews, including the Letters of Paul and the Gospel of John. Both of these works have been particularly attacked for anti-Semitism, but unless Paul and John both had an abnormal case of self-hatred, a Jewish anti-Semite is probably as rare as a Calvin student who cheers for Hope’s basketball team.

However, if we grant that many of the books of the Bible were not written by their traditional authors, but rather later ascribed to these authors in order to give the books more authority (and there is good evidence for this), then things become a lot more interesting. We may consider, as many scholars do, that 2 Thessalonians, Ephesians, and 1 and 2 Timothy were not written by Paul, but by followers in his name (Rousmaniere 12). Similarly, the Gospel of John was not written by the Jewish apostle, but by later Christians as if John had written it. If we consider this possibility, the charges of anti-Semitism have more validity. As Michael Cook argues, “The further we recede into earliest Christianity-approaching the time frame of the historical Jesus-the more evident it becomes that intense expressions of anti-Judaism in the gospels are a function, not of Jesus’ ministry, but rather of the later church” (Cook 37).

So what does the modern Christian do with passages like John 8:44? “You [the Jews] are of you father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning.” Or Thessalonians 2:14-16? “You suffered from your own countrymen 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 all men in their efforts to keep us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. In this way they always heap on their sins to the limit. The wrath of God has come upon them at last.”

John Rousmaniere describes the dilemma eloquently. “If Christians today accept its [scripture’s] apparent reasoning, they, like many before them…can only conclude that Jews are enemies. But if they reject it out of hand, they may be compromising our scriptural heritage” (Rousmaniere 5). Perhaps another solution would be to examine the apparent anti-Semitic Biblical passages and decide if they are genuinely anti-Semitic, or simply just taken out of context. This can be done by looking at the Gospel of John, the death of Jesus, the attacks made on the Pharisses, and the reaffirmation of Jews contained in the New Testament.

More than any other Gospel, John is accused of being anti-Semitic. “The main source of the idea that the Jews killed Jesus is John’s gospel, which is also the most influential passion account. It is the one usually read and sung on Good Friday, the day when Christians are most sensitive to the narrative” (Rousmaniere 21). Whereas the other gospels distinguish between which groups sought the death of Jesus (the Pharisees, the Sanhedrin, et cetera), John makes no distinction, referring to Jesus’ enemies as simply “The Jews”. John’s wording is unfortunate; however a Christian should read John in light of the other Gospels. Doing so, a careful reader will notice that John is not offering a blanket condemnation of all Jews, but rather particular groups, which are mentioned by name in the other Gospels.

Secondly, much of what is found in John (and for that matter the Pauline Epistles) that appears to attack Jews are not directed against the Jews as a people, but rather against unbelievers. The Jews are the example at hand, but the anger of Jesus is not against them because they are Jews, but because of the stubbornness exhibited against him.

The Jews are also blamed for the death of Jesus. In all four Gospel accounts, the Roman governor Pilate is seen as someone who wants to help Jesus, and the Jews as pushing for his death. In Mark, the encounter between Jesus and Pilate is very brief, while in John, Pilate argues against the crowd for Jesus’ life, and engages in philosophical conversations with Jesus: “‘Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.’ ‘What is truth?’ Pilate asked” (Jn 18: 37-38). In Matthew, the famous blood curse is found. “He [Pilate] 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, ‘Let his blood be on us and on our children!’” (Mt 27: 24-25).

Much of the perceptions of anti-Semitism hinge on the accuracy of this account. If the Gospel writer’s were actively changing the truth to give the Jews a more sinister appearance, then this would be anti-Semitism. However if they were merely faithfully recording events as they actually happened (as Christians believe) then it is more difficult to make the accusation.

It is, however, the responsibility of the reader to realize that in either case the Gospels are only talking about a select group of Jews, not all Jews. As Rousmaniere puts it, “while a few Jews had some responsibility for the death of Jesus, not all Jews had all responsibility. To hold all Jews-then and since-responsible would be the equivalent of holding all men named Peter responsible for the apostle’s denial of Jesus in the courtyard” (Rousmaniere 22). Furthermore, the Gospels also record many Jews sympathetic to Jesus. His disciples are one example, and Luke presents a Pharisee who tries to warn Jesus about the plot against his life.

Pharisees are continually presented as opponents of Jesus throughout the Bible. “The scriptures often portray the Pharisees and scribes as foils for Jesus’ teaching” (Rousmaniere 10). Some of Jesus’ harshest denunciations are directed against the Pharisees. “Woe to you teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to Hell?” (Mt 23:29, 33). This has later been interpreted by many Christians as a condemnation of Judaism, but Jesus himself identified the closest with the Pharisees out of all the other sects of Judiasm at the time. Therefore, what was in reality a family argument has been misinterpreted by later Christians.

Finally, there are many statements in the New Testament which affirm the Jews and the Law of Moses. “At no point in the Church, not even in Paul who coined the phrase, ‘Christ is the end of the Law’, is there a radical rejection of the traditional law of Judaism but rather the recognition of its fulfillment in the ‘law of love’ and in the words of Jesus” (Davies as quoted by Rousmaniere 14). Jesus and Paul both stressed that the Law of Moses was not dead but completed.

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have come to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5: 17-19).

Paul writes that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). This is far from an invitation to anti-Semitism, but imploring Christians to treat Jews as equals.

Although the New Testament may at first appear to be anti-Semitic, it does not need to be interpreted this way. It is tragic that Christians in the past have used scripture as a justification for hatred rather than “love thy neighbor”, however this does not mean that scripture itself is at fault. The New Testament is far from an example of anti-Semitism.

In-Class Discussion

Religion 103


Rousmaniere, John. A Bridge to Dialogue. Paulist Press. New York. 1971.

Fisher, Eugene. Interwoven Destinies. Paulist Press. New York. 1993.

Grade: A-

Professor’s Comments: Very good paper with a clear and convincing argument.
Your first paragraph still sounds a bit “wooden”, and not as fluent as the rest. Probably, because of the many prepositional phrases used here. Otherwise, style is fluent and eloquent.
You could also have pointed out that for Paul “Jew” and “Gentile” often means “Judeo-Christian” and “Christian from gentile background”, thus leaving Judaism almost entirely out of the picture…
Very good paper.

No comments: