The origins of anti-Semitism can be traced to the pages of the New Testament . From the negative depiction of the Pharisees to the charge of deicide, anti-Semitism is a Christian plague.
It is commonly recognized among scholars today that anti-Semitism existed in various forms in the ancient world long before a single page of the New Testament was written. Further, the New Testament documents primarily reflect friction between Jewish groups—differences between Messianic Jews and non-Messianic Jews (including Pharisees, Sadducees, etc.)—just like the Dead Sea Scrolls reflect legal and religious arguments between different Jewish groups. It is a mistake to read the later history of “Christian” anti-Semitism back into the New Testament.
As for passages in the New Testament that have helped fuel anti-Semitism in the church, you need to remember that passages from our own Hebrew Bible have often been used against us Jews by anti-Semites, while alleged anti-Semitic texts in the New Testament, when properly translated and understood, are really not anti-Semitic at all. In fact, Israel’s greatest support today comes from those who read the New Testament as the literal Word of God. For them, it is the source of philo-Semitism not anti-Semitism.
The first thing you need to realize is that anti-Semitism is not a Christian phenomenon. Even if you are convinced that the New Testament itself is terribly anti-Semitic, a subject we’ll come to in a moment, there is no denying the fact that anti-Semitism was known long before Jesus came into the world, and it exists today in countries that are anti-Christian. There is more to anti-Semitism than you may realize.
The earliest recorded example of anti-Semitism is found in our very own Scriptures, in the Book of Esther, where Haman’s hatred for one Jew, Mordechai, quickly grew into a hatred for an entire people. So fierce was this hatred that Haman succeeded in persuading the Persian king, Xerxes, to pass an edict calling on all peoples in the kingdom to “destroy, kill and annihilate all the Jews—young and old, women and little children—on a single day, the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, the month of Adar, and to plunder their goods” (Esther 3:13).
What was Haman’s rationale? He informed the king that “there is a certain people dispersed and scattered among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom whose customs are different from those of all other people and who do not obey the king’s laws; it is not in the king’s best interest to tolerate them” (Esther 3:8). In other words, “The Jews are different! The Jews are troublemakers! It’s in your best interest to get rid of them.” Now that is anti-Semitism!
Similar accusations against our people are recorded elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible. For example, when the Jewish exiles returned from Babylon and began to rebuild Jerusalem, their opponents sent this letter to the Persian king Artaxerxes:
The king should know that the Jews who came up to us from you have gone to Jerusalem and are rebuilding that rebellious and wicked city. They are restoring the walls and repairing the foundations. Furthermore, the king should know that if this city is built and its walls are restored, no more taxes, tribute or duty will be paid, and the royal revenues will suffer. Now since we are under obligation to the palace and it is not proper for us to see the king dishonored, we are sending this message to inform the king, so that a search may be made in the archives of your predecessors. In these records you will find that this city is a rebellious city, troublesome to kings and provinces, a place of rebellion from ancient times. That is why this city was destroyed.
Somehow, this perception that the Jews were different from other peoples persisted into the Greek and Roman culture before the time of Jesus, leading to numerous expressions of anti-Semitism. The respected historian Peter Schäfer recently devoted an entire book entitled Judeophobia to the subject of anti-Semitism in the ancient world, providing strong evidence that anti-Semitism originating in Hellenistic Egypt (300 b.c.e. was “the ‘mother’ of anti-Semitism.” 155 His research bears out the observation of Rabbi Samuel Sandmel that “hostility to Jews in the Greco-Roman world predates Christianity.” 156 In our day, anti-Semitic strains have been found in radical Islamic nations, non-Christian countries such as Japan, and thoroughly atheistic, communist regimes. Clearly, Christianity is not to blame here. 157
It is simply not accurate, therefore, to say that the New Testament is the main cause and main carrier of anti-Semitism around the world. You should also consider that anti-Semites have drawn from the pages of the Hebrew Scriptures as much as they have drawn from the pages of the New Testament. Let me give you a representative sampling. And remember, these are not the words of Adolf Hitler or some apostate, medieval church leader. They are the words of the Lord and his prophets as recorded in the Tanakh. (All citations are taken from the njpsv.)
Say to the Israelite people, “You are a stiff-necked people. If I were to go in your midst for one moment, I would destroy you.”
The Lord’s words to Moses, Exodus 33:5
Know, then, that it is not for any virtue of yours that the Lord your God is giving you this good land to possess; for you are a stiff-necked people. Remember, never forget, how you provoked the Lord your God to anger in the wilderness: from the day that you left the land of Egypt until you reached this place, you have continued defiant toward the Lord.
The words of Moses to his people Israel, Deuteronomy 9:6
Well I know how defiant and stiff-necked you are: even now, while I am still alive in your midst, you have been defiant toward the Lord; how much more, then, when I am dead! Gather to me all the elders of your tribes and your officials, that I may speak all these words to them and that I may call heaven and earth to witness against them. For I know that, when I am dead, you will act wickedly and turn away from the path that I enjoined upon you, and that in time to come misfortune will befall you for having done evil in the sight of the Lord and vexed Him by your deeds.
The words of Moses to his people Israel, shortly before his death, Deuteronomy 31:27–29
Go, write it down on a tablet
And inscribe it in a record,
That it may be with them for future days,
A witness forever.
For it is a rebellious people,
Children who refused to heed
The instruction of the Lord.
The words of the Lord to the prophet Isaiah, Isaiah 30:8–9
O mortal, I am sending you to the people of Israel, that nation of rebels, who have rebelled against Me.—They as well as their fathers have defied Me to this very day; for the sons are brazen of face and stubborn of heart… . Do not be afraid of their words and do not be dismayed by them, though they are a rebellious breed… . Mortal, go to the House of Israel and repeat My very words to them. For you are sent, not to a people of unintelligible speech and difficult language, but to the House of Israel—not to the many peoples of unintelligible speech and difficult language, whose talk you cannot understand. If I sent you to them, they would listen to you. But the House of Israel will refuse to listen to you, for they refuse to listen to Me; for the whole House of Israel are brazen of forehead and stubborn of heart.
The words of the Lord to the prophet Ezekiel, Ezekiel 2:3–4, 6; 3:4–7
How do you feel after reading such verses? God himself called our people stiff-necked, rebellious, faithless, brazen, stubborn, and disobedient, even describing these ugly traits as characteristic. Why then are verses such as these not considered to be primary theological sources of anti-Semitism? Why is it only the New Testament verses—none of which make such wide-ranging charges—that are supposedly anti-Semitic? Why not argue that God himself, along with the prophets he inspired, was anti-Semitic?
“That’s easy!” you say. “The Hebrew Bible is our Bible. It was written by Jews for Jews, whereas the New Testament was written mainly to Gentiles, even if its authors were almost all Jews. In the case of the Tanakh, we have family conflicts recorded for family hearing alone; in the case of the New Testament, our dirty laundry is being hung out for the entire world to see—and in unfair, exaggerated terms at that.”
Not quite! You see, our Hebrew Scriptures were never meant to be ours alone. Jews were called to be a light to the nations (see above, 1.2), spreading the knowledge of the one true God around the world. According to ancient Jewish tradition, it was a group of seventy-two Jewish scholars who made the first translation of the Torah (the Five Books of Moses) into the Greek language at the behest of the Greek king Ptolemy. 158 It is this same Torah that includes some negative statements about our people, as we have just seen. (The Books of Exodus and Deuteronomy, from which verses were cited above, are the second and fifth books of the Torah, respectively.)
Also, some Jewish groups (before and after the time of Jesus) openly invited Gentiles into their synagogues, 159 and thus, by our own choice, the Gentile world became exposed to our sacred Scriptures, Scriptures that refer to the Israelites as chosen and elect, loved and cherished by the Lord, as well as stiff-necked and rebellious, the special objects of his wrath. This parallels the New Testament description of the Jewish people: They are a divinely chosen people who often rejected the messengers of the Lord but who, nonetheless, would not be rejected forever by the Lord. Rather, they would be instrumental in bringing his salvation to the world.
The plain truth about the New Testament is that it is a thoroughly Jewish book. It tells the wonderful news about Jesus—the Jewish Messiah—and all of its authors, save one, were Jews. Its pages are filled with citations from the Hebrew Scriptures—there are approximately three hundred direct quotations from the Tanakh and well over one thousand allusions to the Hebrew Bible in the New Testament 160—and most of the religious conflicts it records (such as debates about healing on the Sabbath) can be understood only on the basis of Jewish law and tradition. Take the Jewishness out, and the Gospels make no sense. After all, the one most frequently addressed as Rabbi in the New Testament is Jesus. 161 In fact, this manner of address was so deeply instilled in Yeshua’s followers that when Judas betrayed him, he called him Rabbi (see Matt. 26:49; see also Mark 9:5; 10:51; 11:21; 14:45; John 1:38, 49; 3:2, 26; 4:31; 6:25; 9:2; 11:8).
The New Testament begins with Israel (its opening words are “This is the genealogy of Yeshua the Messiah, son of David, son of Avraham”) 162 and ends with Israel (its closing chapters give a description of the heavenly city called the New Jerusalem). In fact, according to the New Testament author Yohanan (John), the final destiny of all the redeemed will be a city whose twelve gates are inscribed with the names of the twelve tribes of Israel and whose twelve foundations bear the names of the twelve Jewish apostles. Even heaven is Jewish in the New Testament!
Let me give you a striking illustration of the Jewishness of the New Testament. Yechiel Lichtenstein was a nineteenth-century Hungarian rabbi who despised Christianity, believing—to cite his own words—that “Christ himself was the plague and curse of the Jews, the origin and promoter of our sorrows and persecutions.” 163 With his own eyes he witnessed so-called Christians committing murderous acts against his people, acts committed in the name of Christ. Yet he also read passionate defenses of the Jewish people by others who called themselves Christians and who utterly renounced anti-Semitism—also in the name of Christ.
This led him to pick up a copy of the New Testament that forty years earlier he had angrily hurled into the corner of his study where it lay on the ground, covered with dust. He was in for the shock of his life. He wrote:
I had thought the New Testament to be impure, a source of pride, of selfishness, of hatred, and of the worst kind of violence, but as I opened it I felt myself peculiarly and wonderfully taken possession of. A sudden glory, a light flashed through my soul. I looked for thorns and found roses; I discovered pearls instead of pebbles; instead of hatred love; instead of vengeance forgiveness; instead of bondage freedom; instead of pride humility; conciliation instead of enmity; instead of death life, salvation, resurrection, heavenly treasure. 164
And what of the Jewishness of the New Testament? Listen once more to this rabbi’s articulate description:
From every line in the New Testament, from every word, the Jewish spirit streamed forth light, life, power, endurance, faith, hope, love, charity, limitless and indestructible faith in God, kindness to prodigality, moderation to self-denial, content to the exclusion of all sense of need, consideration for others, with extreme strictness as regards self, all these things were found pervading the book. 165
It is little wonder that this noble rabbi became an outspoken follower of Yeshua the Messiah, despite persistent persecution inflicted on him by his fellow Jews. It is also no wonder that this rabbi recognized at once just how Jewish the New Testament writings were. To this day, an increasing number of Jewish scholars are involved in rediscovering the Jewish roots of Jesus and the New Testament, arguing that Yeshua and his followers can be properly understood only when placed in their first-century Jewish context. 166
You might also be surprised to know that the New Testament has many positive things to say about our people. Yeshua himself taught that “salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22), and Paul (Saul) said that the Jewish people were “loved [by God] on account of the patriarchs” (i.e., Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; Rom. 11:28). In fact, Paul claimed that from a spiritual standpoint there was much advantage “in every way” in being born Jewish (Rom. 3:1–2), and that the Gentiles owed the Jewish people a material blessing, since they had partaken of the Jews’ spiritual blessing (Rom. 15:27). Of his kinsmen according to the flesh he said, “They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever” (Rom. 9:4–5 nrsv).
This is hardly anti-Semitic rhetoric! On the contrary, it is statements such as these that are hated by anti-Semites, since the sentiments expressed here validate the idea that the Jews are chosen by God in a unique way and play a special role in his plan of redemption for humankind as a whole. Thus, the New Testament authors follow in the footsteps of the authors of the Tanakh, portraying the people of Israel as chosen by God yet rebelling against that calling, resulting in divine judgment and retribution. Let me show you some of the parallels in language and expression:
- The author of 2 Chronicles indicts our people with stinging words, explaining why Jerusalem was destroyed in 586 b.c.e.: “The Lord, the God of their fathers, sent word to them through his messengers again and again, because he had pity on his people and on his dwelling place. But they mocked God’s messengers, despised his words and scoffed at his prophets until the wrath of the Lord was aroused against his people and there was no remedy” (2 Chron. 36:15–16). More than six hundred years later, Yeshua brings a similar charge against our people, explaining why Jerusalem was about to be destroyed again in 70 c.e.: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate… . I tell you the truth, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down” (Matt. 23:37–38; 24:2). God pitied our nation and did everything he could to bring us to repentance, but we refused, making judgment inevitable. So say the Scriptures, both Old and New Testaments.
- The accusation that our people consistently rejected the law and the prophets was fairly common in the Tanakh, and it was repeated in the New Testament. According to the Lord’s words spoken through Jeremiah, “From the time your forefathers left Egypt until now, day after day, again and again I sent you my servants the prophets. But they did not listen to me or pay attention. They were stiff-necked and did more evil than their forefathers… . Therefore say to them, ‘This is the nation that has not obeyed the Lord its God or responded to correction.’ Truth has perished; it has vanished from their lips. Cut off your hair and throw it away; take up a lament on the barren heights, for the Lord has rejected and abandoned this generation that is under his wrath… . [For] the whole house of Israel is uncircumcised in heart” (Jer. 7:25–26, 28–29; 9:26). Again, more than six hundred years later, after most of our leaders rejected Yeshua, Stephen, a powerful Jewish preacher, brought a similar accusation to the Jewish ruling council: “You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him” (Acts 7:51–52).
- Both the prophets of Israel and the Jewish followers of Jesus had broken hearts because their people were lost. Listen to the words of Jeremiah, followed by the words of Paul: “Since my people are crushed, I am crushed; I mourn, and horror grips me. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then is there no healing for the wound of my people? Oh, that my head were a spring of water and my eyes a fountain of tears! I would weep day and night for the slain of my people” (Jer. 8:21–9:1 [8:21–23]). “I speak the truth in Christ—I am not lying, my conscience confirms it in the Holy Spirit—I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race, the people of Israel” (Rom. 9:1–4). I remind you again: These are not the words of an anti-Semite. This is especially significant when you remember that Paul is sometimes accused of being the father of anti-Semitism. 167
- Both the prophets of Israel and the Jewish followers of Jesus were confident that in the end our people would turn back to God and be gloriously redeemed. Although the Lord rejected us for a season, he would not reject us forever. This time we’ll compare the words of Isaiah with those of Paul: “ ‘The Lord will call you back as if you were a wife deserted and distressed in spirit—a wife who married young, only to be rejected,’ says your God. ‘For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with deep compassion I will bring you back. In a surge of anger I hid my face from you for a moment, but with everlasting kindness I will have compassion on you,’ says the Lord your Redeemer” (Isa. 54:6–8). “I ask then: Did God reject his people? By no means! … Again I ask: Did they stumble so as to fall beyond recovery? Not at all! Rather, because of their transgression, salvation has come to the Gentiles to make Israel envious. But if their transgression means riches for the world, and their loss means riches for the Gentiles, how much greater riches will their fullness bring! … Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written: ‘The deliverer will come from Zion; he will turn godlessness away from Jacob. And this is my covenant with them when I take away their sins’ ” (Rom. 11:1, 11–12, 25–27, quoting Isa. 59:21). 168
I ask you honestly and candidly, are these the sentiments and words of anti-Semites? Absolutely not!
“But,” you say, “it’s not so simple. That’s why even Christian authors have written entire books documenting that it is the New Testament itself that is the seedbed for anti-Semitism, culminating in the Holocaust.”
You’re right—at least partially. It is true that professing Christian authors have written the very books of which you speak and that the question of anti-Semitism in the New Testament is not that simple. What you may not realize, however, is that further study and reflection have caused many scholars to say emphatically that the New Testament is not anti-Semitic in any way. Allow me to explain.
The years following the horrors of the Holocaust called for deep reflection and introspection, especially among professing Christians, and that’s why in the last fifty years major studies have been written by both Jewish and Christian authors who claim that the roots of anti-Semitism are to be found in the New Testament writings themselves. 169 For this reason alone it is important for us to examine the major charges that have been brought against the New Testament, testing them carefully to see if any of them, in fact, are accurate.
But I am convinced it is extremely important that you first digest the facts I have just presented to you, since it is highly unlikely that an author will be a virulent anti-Semite in one breath and then a passionate lover of the Jewish people in the next breath. There is simply too much recognition of God’s gracious purposes for the Jewish people in the New Testament to give any credence to the sweeping claim that it is an anti-Semitic book.
It is also unfair to divorce the New Testament from its original, Jewish context and read it in the context of the Crusades and Inquisitions that occurred one thousand to fifteen hundred years later. As we saw in the previous answer, these false followers of Jesus actually persecuted and killed leaders who are revered as Christian heroes today. I would submit to you that it is only when the New Testament has been misinterpreted or misrepresented that it has been a vehicle of anti-Semitism. 170
Let us therefore consider in detail the primary charges of anti-Semitism in the New Testament and see if, in fact, these passages have either been misunderstood or misused. 171
- Matthew makes all Jews—for all generations—responsible for the death of Jesus. This charge is based on the account given in the Gospel of Matthew (Mattai), which informs us that the Roman governor Pontius Pilate told the assembled Jewish crowd that Jesus should be released since he was guilty of no crime. But the crowd kept shouting, “Crucify him!” Matthew then records, “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, ‘Let his blood be on us and on our children!’ ” (Matt. 27:24–25).
Tragically, this verse has been used by anti-Semites to justify all kinds of violent acts against our people, since, after all, we Jews asked for it! This was expressed in painful and poignant words by the rabbinic scholar C. G. Montefiore, who refers to Matthew 27:25 as a terrible verse whereby seemingly all the atrocities “wrought upon the Jews are accepted and invoked upon their own heads by the Jews themselves. This is one of those phrases which have been responsible for oceans of human blood and a ceaseless stream of misery and degradation.” 172 But is the verse itself actually anti-Semitic? Is it a historical fiction, a creation of Matthew to get back at his own people for rejecting the Messiah? Hardly! The verse itself is quite believable historically, and the language is quite Jewish.
From a historical perspective, Raymond E. Brown, a brilliant and objective Catholic scholar who by no means assumes that what is written in the New Testament is historically accurate, makes four important points with regard to the possibility that there was, in fact, Jewish opposition to Jesus: First, he notes that “one must understand that religious people could have disliked Jesus”; second, “in Jesus’ time, religious opposition often led to violence”; third, it is best to speak here of “responsibility, not guilt”; fourth, “the religious dispute with Jesus was an inner Jewish dispute.” 173
These observations help us better evaluate the accuracy of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ death as a whole, suggesting that what is recorded there may certainly be historically plausible. As to the possibility that an angry mob, stirred in part by some of their religious leaders, could have yelled out, “His blood on us and our children” (which is a literal translation of Matt. 27:25), Brown comments that, according to Matthew’s representation, “They are not bloodthirsty or callous; for they are persuaded that Jesus is a blasphemer, as the Sanhedrin judged him.” 174
From a Jewish point of view, Samuel Tobias Lachs, professor of the history of religions at Bryn Mawr College, observes that the verse “has a Hebraic ring,” referring to numerous parallel expressions in the Talmud. 175 Lachs explains that the basic Hebrew phrase is simply, “his blood will be on his own head” (cf. Josh. 2:19; b. Avodah Zarah 12b), meaning, “he alone bears the responsibility; he is guilty.” This fits the context perfectly, since Matthew is simply stating that the Jewish crowd assembled claimed full responsibility for their actions. In other words, they were saying, “We take responsibility for rejecting this troublemaker named Jesus. He deserves to die!” 176 (Note also that the literal translation of this verse reminds us that this is not an imprecation in which the Jewish people called down a curse on themselves but rather a statement of responsibility.) 177
As for the crowd involving their children in the scene—and remember, this is a crowd scene, meaning that words are being spoken in the heat of passion—Matthew is not claiming that the Jewish people called down a curse on all future generations. Rather, as the Christian scholar Scot McKnight explained, “It makes most sense for Matthew if the ‘our children’ of 27:25 literally means ‘the physical descendants of those urging Jesus’ crucifixion,’ which then were those who suffered in the destruction with a generation.” 178 In other words, the children of those who rejected the Messiah and turned him over to the Romans to be crucified suffered the consequences of their parents’ sin when Jerusalem was destroyed forty years later.
“But that’s where I have a problem!” you say. “The notion that the Jews played any role at all in the death of Jesus is utterly false. That’s one of the New Testament myths that has caused us such pain through the years.”
Really? What makes you think this is a New Testament myth? Do you deny that most of our leaders rejected Jesus as the Messiah when he was on earth? Do you deny that we have consistently rejected him since that time? Then why is it difficult to believe that we had some complicity in turning him over to the Romans to be crucified?
“Because,” you argue, “it’s one thing to reject him as Messiah. It’s another thing to have him killed.”
Then why do both the Talmud and Moses Maimonides speak freely of Jewish participation in Yeshua’s death? The latter writes explicitly of “Jesus of Nazareth who aspired to be the Messiah and was executed by the court”—meaning the Jewish court, otherwise known as the Sanhedrin. 179 As explained by Rabbi Eliyahu Touger, “The Jews did not actually carry out the execution, for crucifixion is not one of the Torah’s methods of execution. Rather, after condemning him to death, the Sanhedrin handed him over to the Roman authorities who executed him as a rebel against Roman rule.” 180
This is exactly what the New Testament teaches, and it is described three times in the Talmudic literature: “On the eve of Passover they hanged Jesus the Nazarene. And a herald went out before him for forty days, saying, ‘He is going to be stoned, because he practiced sorcery and led Israel astray. Anyone who knows anything in his favor, let him come and plead in his behalf.’ But, not having found anything in his favor, they hanged him on the eve of Passover” (b. Sanhedrin 43a; t. Sanhedrin 10:11; y. Sanhedrin 7:16, 67a). 181
In light of all this we can state four things clearly: (1) Some Rabbinic sources indicate that Jewish leadership played a role in the death of Jesus; (2) the wording of Matthew 27:25 refers only to taking responsibility for the death of Jesus, not calling down a lasting curse on the nation; (3) from a historical standpoint, the picture painted by Matthew is certainly plausible; and (4) in and of itself, there is nothing anti-Semitic about Matthew 27:25. The fact that it has been utilized by anti-Semites is a terrible tragedy but certainly no fault of the New Testament itself. It should also be emphasized that this verse did not initially cause Jewish suffering; rather, its misuse provided an alleged theological justification for that suffering. 182
- The Jews are consistently demonized in the New Testament, especially in the Gospel of John. According to this argument, John’s Gospel, which may have been the last Gospel to be written, reflects a deep separation between church and synagogue, a separation so deep that Jesus and his followers are portrayed as virtually unconnected to the Jewish people. 183 As for “the Jews” (hoi Ioudaioi in Greek, occurring seventy-one times in John’s Gospel), they are portrayed as children of the devil, hostile to the Messiah and to God. Is this charge true?
Once again, you’re in for a surprise. In fact, a book written by a Jewish Catholic author in 1991 goes so far as to claim that the Gospel of John is actually a witness against anti-Semitism in that its account of the death of Jesus “suggests the likelihood of collusion between the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate and Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest, and gives no indication of participation by the [Jewish] people [as a whole].” 184 But if this assessment is correct, why then would John refer to the Jews in such scathing terms? On the other hand, why would this Gospel contain the remarkable statement from Yeshua’s own lips that “salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22)—as opposed to other peoples and groups?
In order to answer this question, we need to turn back to the Hebrew Scriptures. There we learn that the term “the Jews” (hayehudim in Hebrew) can be used in several different ways, sometimes meaning only “the Judeans,” in other words, the inhabitants of Judea. This explains a verse in the Tanakh like Nehemiah 2:16, where Nehemiah, himself a Jew, refers to another group called “the Jews” (meaning those living in Judea), along with the priests, nobles, officials, “or any others who would be doing the work,” all of whom were Jewish as well. 185 Similarly, when John speaks of “the Jews” in the New Covenant, he is generally referring either to the Jewish inhabitants of Judea in general (who were divided in their opinion about Jesus), or, in particular, to the Jewish religious leaders who were hostile to Jesus. Thus, the negative comments in the Gospel of John against “the Jews” are not meant to apply to all Jewish people but rather to specific Jewish leaders in Judea. Therefore, the issue is primarily one of improving our translations and interpretations as opposed to one of removing anti-Semitic statements. The Jewish New Testament of David Stern goes a long way in correcting these misapprehensions, as does the recent Christian translation called the Contemporary English Version. 186
For example, most versions of John 7:1 read, “After this, Jesus went around in Galilee, purposely staying away from Judea because the Jews there were waiting to take his life,” even though it’s clear that “the Jews” here must mean the Judeans. (Remember: Jesus was among Jews in Galilee and didn’t fear for his life there.) Stern has correctly translated, “After this, Yeshua traveled around in the Galil, intentionally avoiding Y’hudah [i.e., Judea] because the Judeans were out to kill him.” Another clear example is found in John 9:22, where the Jewish parents of a Jewish blind man who had been miraculously healed were afraid of “the Jews” who controlled the synagogues, obviously meaning the Jewish religious authorities. 187 In fact, John makes this perfectly clear throughout the chapter, identifying these Jews with the religious leaders: “the Pharisees” (v. 13); “the Pharisees” (v. 15); “the Pharisees” (v. 16); “the Jews” (v. 18); “the Jews” (v. 22); “some Pharisees” (v. 40).
Concerning this last usage of hoi Ioudaioi (the Jews) in John’s Gospel, Urban C. von Wahlde notes that “even the instances with the most hostile connotations are used in a way that is intended to refer to religious authorities rather than the entire nation.” 188 As to the harshness of the polemic between these Jewish leaders and Yeshua, von Wahlde makes another important observation: Such language was typical of inter-Jewish debates in the first century of this era. In fact, he finds almost identical parallels between the rhetoric in John’s Gospel—where Jesus tells the hostile Jewish authorities that they are walking in darkness, are blind, and have the devil as their father (see especially John 8:44)—and the rhetoric of the Dead Sea Scrolls, where rival Jewish groups are characterized as “sons of darkness” and “sons of the pit” who are under the dominion of Satan and do his works. 189 In this light, he rightly reminds us that “we must learn to listen to [the polemical statements in John] with first-century ears and not with twentieth-century ones.” 190
Professor Craig Evans, after comparing the language and tone of the Dead Sea Scrolls with that of the New Testament, offers some food for thought:
The polemic found in the writings of Qumran surpasses in intensity that of the New Testament. In contrast to Qumran’s esoteric and exclusive posture, the early church proclaimed its message and invited all believers to join its fellowship. Never does the New Testament enjoin Christians to curse unbelievers or opponents. Never does the New Testament petition God to damn the enemies of the church. But Qumran did. If this group had survived and had its membership gradually become gentile over the centuries and had its distinctive writings become the group’s Bible, I suspect that most of the passages cited above would be viewed as expressions of anti-Semitism. But the group did not survive, nor did it become a gentile religion, and so its criticisms have never been thought of as anti-Semitic. There is no subsequent history of the Qumran community to muddy the waters. We interpret Qumran as we should. We interpret it in its Jewish context, for it never existed in any other context, and thus no one ever describes its polemic as anti-Semitic. 191
Evans also makes reference to the writings of the most famous Jewish historian of the first century, Flavius Josephus, noting that “Josephus’s polemic against fellow Jews outstrips anything found in the New Testament.” 192 Not only did this great historian slanderously attack Gentiles who had slandered the Jews (calling them “frivolous and utterly senseless specimens of humanity … filled with envy … folly and narrowmindedness”), he also maligned his own people. Speaking of the Zealots he writes, “In rapine and murder you vie with one another… . The Temple has become the sink of all, and native hands have polluted these divine precincts.” Of the Sicarii he states, they are “imposters and brigands … slaves, the dregs of society, and the bastard scum of the nation.” Such quotes could be easily multiplied, yet no one would ever accuse Josephus of anti-Semitism.
The verdict of the respected Jewish scholar Professor Ellis Rivkin really puts things in their proper perspective:
As a historian who has spent a lifetime seeking to understand the interaction of the religious realm with the human realm and who has been especially concerned with the how and the why of anti-Semitism, I must conclude that however much the Gospel of John lent itself to anti-Semitic uses in later times, it cannot be considered anti-Semitic within its historical frame unless we are willing to apply the same measure to other intrareligious controversies. Did Josephus deride polytheism because he was anti-Thucydides, or anti-Plato, or anti-Stoic? Or did he mock polytheism because he considered its claims to be patently false? Did Jews and Muslims or Christians and Muslims tangle with each other because the former were anti-Arab or anti-Persian or because the latter espoused what Jews and Christians believed to be false teachings about God and his revelations? It is sad indeed that intrareligious and interreligious controversies mar the history of even the most liberating religions, but there is a difference between interreligious controversy that is sincerely generated, however unseemly, and the phenonemon of anti-Semitism, which, in my book, is a deliberate manipulation of sacred texts to cause harm to the Jews so as to solve economic, social, political, and ecclesiastical problems. 193
Without hesitation, then, we can state that the (Jewish) Gospel of John is no more anti-Semitic than the (Jewish) Dead Sea Scrolls or the writings of the (Jewish) historian Josephus. Therefore, if the latter are not open to the charge of anti-Semitism (and they are not), neither is the Gospel of John.
- The Jewish religious leaders, especially the Pharisees, are depicted as snakes and vipers, hypocrites who are rotten to the core, and men worthy of damnation. As we just noted, first-century Jewish literature often contains harsh, in-house polemics between rival Jewish groups. In fact, some of the harsh rhetoric of the Dead Sea Scrolls was actually directed against Pharisees too. Even the Talmud, which continues in the traditions of the Pharisees, has a biting polemic against hypocritical Pharisees, even making reference to “the plague of the Pharisees.” 194 Therefore, strong rebukes against hypocritical leaders, such as those found in Matthew 3:7–10 (the words of John the Baptist) and Matthew 23:1–37 (the words of Yeshua), should not surprise us.
The real question is this: Are they accurate? From this vantage point, we cannot prove or disprove their accuracy, and scholars who have studied the question in depth have come to widely different conclusions. 195 What we do know is this: In the Hebrew Bible, it was the religious leadership who often opposed the prophetic word. Just ask Jeremiah and Amos. (See, e.g., Jeremiah 26 and Amos 7:10–17.) We also know that two centuries before the time of Jesus, there were Sadducean high priests who were utterly wicked. 196 Therefore, it is certainly possible that there were hypocritical Jewish leaders in Jesus’ day who considered this charismatic healer and miracle worker to be a threat to their religious establishment. 197
After all, great crowds followed him wherever he went, hanging on his every word and bringing the sick and the dying for his healing touch. This kind of scene was repeated over and over during his ministry:
When they had crossed over, they landed at Gennesaret and anchored there. As soon as they got out of the boat, people recognized Jesus. They ran throughout that whole region and carried the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he went—into villages, towns or countryside—they placed the sick in the marketplaces. They begged him to let them touch even the edge of his cloak, and all who touched him were healed.
Can you imagine how threatening this would have been to his opponents? Sometimes so many people thronged around him that he would have to teach the people from a boat pushed off from shore. There was even a time when temple guards were sent to arrest him only to return empty-handed. “No one ever spoke the way this man does,” the guards explained (see John 7:32–47). This infuriated some of the temple leadership.
Human nature is such that jealousy, envy, and competition can easily influence our actions, and all too often, if I consider you a threat to my well-being or promotion, then I view your loss as my success and your defeat as my victory. Thus, from a strictly psychological viewpoint, if Jesus was as popular as the eyewitnesses claim, it’s easy to understand why he received some hostile treatment from the other leaders and why, at times, other leaders were envious of him (see Matt. 27:18, where Pilate knew that it was “out of envy” that the leaders handed Jesus over to him; and note also Acts 5:12–17).
It’s also important to remember that many of the disputes he had with the Pharisees were over matters of Jewish law, in other words, in-house legal disputes. For example, on one occasion “some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, ‘Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!’ ” (Matt. 15:1–2). This was an in-house debate over the interpretation of legal intricacies.
On another occasion, Jesus healed a woman on the Sabbath, provoking a passionate discussion: “Indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, the synagogue ruler said to the people, ‘There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath’ ” (Luke 13:14). Like many Jewish teachers of his day, this leader believed it was appropriate to save a life on the Sabbath and to perform emergency medical procedures on that sacred day, but to heal someone who could have been healed on any day of the week was unacceptable to him and constituted work.
Jesus replied sharply to this line of reason, viewing it simply as a cloak of hypocrisy:
The Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?” When he said this, all his opponents were humiliated, but the people were delighted with all the wonderful things he was doing.
There are two things in this account that are believable, even to a skeptical reader. First, the religious leadership is guilty of majoring on the minors, ignoring the miracle of healing because it violated their tradition. This is something all too common. Just look at different factions within one particular religion and watch how they divide over the smallest, most insignificant issues, ignoring the large areas of common ground they share. Second, the people as a whole—in other words, synagogue-attending Jews—are delighted with this great prophet and healer named Jesus, while it is only a minority (specifically, the leadership) who oppose him. This, too, is all too common, since the people in general are being blessed while those who previously influenced them are feeling slighted.
Of course, the New Testament makes reference to key Jewish leaders who were sympathetic to Jesus the Messiah, recording that some even spoke out on his behalf (see John 7:40–52; 19:38–39 [in Mark 15:43, Joseph of Arimathea is described as a prominent member of the ruling council and a disciple of Jesus]; Luke 13:31; see also Luke 14:1). This reminds us that not all Pharisees (or Jewish leaders) were considered evil by the New Testament writers. In fact, some scholars (including contemporary Jewish scholars) have argued that Jesus himself was a Pharisee, differing primarily with other Pharisees over minor issues of legal interpretation, as we just noted. 198
Nonetheless, it is true that the term Pharisee has become synonymous with hypocrite in the English language, and this is definitely a direct result of the New Testament usage. Still, as we have emphasized repeatedly, the fact that later readers used the New Testament documents to fuel the fires of anti-Semitism does not prove for a moment that the documents themselves were anti-Semitic. Craig Evans is therefore absolutely correct in stating that “these writings, though at times highly critical of Jews and Gentiles who for various reasons rejected the Christian proclamation, are not anti-Semitic.” 199
What about the general description of the Pharisees in the New Testament writings? We should first remember that Paul himself was a Pharisee and continued to refer to himself as a Pharisee long after putting his faith in Jesus as Messiah (see Acts 23:6; 26:5). Thus, we have firsthand testimony from a first-century Pharisee, although it is testimony that is, to a certain extent, critical of Pharisaism. Recent books on Paul have underscored his close relationship to Jewish law and tradition of his day. 200 In addition to this, the Gospel writings give us a picture of this important Jewish movement that is in keeping with the picture of the Pharisees painted elsewhere in contemporary Jewish literature.
You see, the New Testament writings are only one of several Jewish witnesses to the nature and character of the Pharisees. The historian Josephus and the rabbinic writings also give us a description of this group. Interestingly, all these witnesses have a number of key ingredients in common. As James D. G. Dunn summarizes: “A remarkably coherent picture emerges of Pharisees as a ‘sect,’ airesis [in Greek], whose most characteristic concern was to observe the law and ancestral traditions with scrupulous care, with a deep desire to maintain Israel’s identity as the people of the law, as expressed not least in developing halakoth [laws] regarding the sabbath and particularly ritual purity.” 201
Of course, you might say, “That’s fine and good. But I’m sure that the negative description of the Pharisees in the Gospels is unparalleled in those other writings you mentioned, and therefore, it must be questioned. In fact, in my view, it’s just another proof of anti-Jewish bias in the Gospels.”
I see your point, but again, I beg to differ. First, we have shown that religious resistance to the prophetic message of Jesus would be in keeping with similar religious resistance to prophetic figures in the Tanakh. Second, we saw in the previous answers (above, 2.6–2.7) that there were repeated acts of hostility by certain religious Jews against the first (Jewish) followers of Jesus. Third, such acts continue to this day, as Messianic Jews have been threatened, kidnapped, and even beaten by ultra-Orthodox Jews—in other words, by men who would not dare eat pork but who consider it their sacred duty to intimidate and attack Messianic Jews. I myself have been spat upon by such people, while other close friends of mine have been struck in the face, abducted, or assaulted. (For more on this, see above, 2.7).)
Does this prove that religious leaders did the same thing to Jesus? Certainly not! Does this prove that all ultra-Orthodox Jews (or all first-century Pharisees) are evil? No. But it does prove that some religious Jews can act violently toward fellow Jews who believe differently than they do and that some religious Jews may well have acted violently toward Yeshua. The fact that religious Jews in the land of Israel today are seeking to pass harsh legislation against all proselytism reminds us that this same aggressive, anti-pluralistic attitude can be found whenever a leading religious or political group feels threatened by another individual, group, race, or party. Islam has been guilty of it; Christendom has been guilty of it; and Judaism has been guilty of it.
Our people’s disgraceful treatment of prophets such as Jeremiah and Ezekiel in the past, the disparaging Talmudic comments concerning Messianic Jews in the early centuries of this era, the persecution experienced by Messianic Jews at the hands of their fellow Jews in recent centuries (continuing right up to this day), and my own experiences as a Jewish follower of Jesus all cause me to take the Gospel descriptions of the Pharisees (meaning many Pharisees but by no means all Pharisees) seriously.
It’s also worth noting that Rabbi Phillip Sigal, a respected Jewish scholar who was involved in Jewish-Christian dialog, accepted the description of the Pharisees in Matthew’s Gospel at face value but claimed that these religious leaders were not the true predecessors of the later Talmudic rabbis. 202 While Sigal’s proposal has not been widely accepted, it demonstrates how a Jewish scholar could find the New Testament descriptions of a particular, often hostile Jewish sect to be thoroughly plausible while at the same time allowing him to continue to revere and respect the later Talmudic rabbis, men who Sigal felt were leaders marked by a different spirit.
- Paul told his Gentile readers that the Jews displease God, are hostile to all men, killed both the prophets and the Messiah, and are objects of God’s wrath to the uttermost. Let’s begin by reading the specific passage in context. Paul was writing to the Thessalonians, Gentiles who previously worshiped idols but had now turned to the one true God through Jesus the Messiah. As a result of their newfound faith, they had suffered severe persecution from their own countrymen. Paul alluded to this several times in his two letters to them preserved in the New Testament, seeking to comfort them in the midst of their suffering. In fact, Paul himself had been threatened by his own country-men when he first preached to the Thessalonians, since it was always his custom to begin in the synagogue, speaking to his Jewish people before taking the message of the Messiah to the Gentiles.
This is what happened when Paul began speaking in the city:
When they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a Jewish synagogue. As his custom was, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead. “This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Christ,” he said. Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and not a few prominent women. But the Jews were jealous; so they rounded up some bad characters from the marketplace, formed a mob and started a riot in the city.
It was quite a scene! As it turned out, the gospel message was hotly opposed in Thessalonica even after Paul left the city, and both Paul (in his ongoing travels) and the new Thessalonian believers continued to suffer harsh persecution. This, then, gives the background for some of what Paul wrote to them:
You became imitators of us and of the Lord; in spite of severe suffering, you welcomed the message with the joy given by the Holy Spirit. And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia… . You know, brothers, that our visit to you was not a failure. We had previously suffered and been insulted in Philippi, as you know, but with the help of our God we dared to tell you his gospel in spite of strong opposition… . We sent Timothy, who is our brother and God’s fellow worker in spreading the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith, so that no one would be unsettled by these trials. You know quite well that we were destined for them. In fact, when we were with you, we kept telling you that we would be persecuted. And it turned out that way, as you well know… . Therefore, brothers, in all our distress and persecution we were encouraged about you because of your faith.
1 Thessalonians 1:6–7; 2:1–2; 3:2–4, 7
Therefore, among God’s churches we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring. All this is evidence that God’s judgment is right, and as a result you will be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are suffering.
2 Thessalonians 1:4–5
As you can see, Paul wanted to encourage these new (Gentile) believers, telling them that the suffering they were experiencing was nothing unusual or unexpected. In fact, what they were going through was exactly what Paul was going through.
For you, brothers, became imitators of God’s churches in Judea, which are in Christ Jesus: You suffered from your own countrymen the same things those churches suffered from the Jews [or Judeans], who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out. They displease God and are hostile to all men 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.
1 Thessalonians 2:14–16
Some New Testament scholars have claimed that the language used here by Paul is not in keeping with his other letters, and they have suggested that these words were an addition written by another author. But there is little support for this proposal, and we must take Paul’s words at face value. 203 Do they indict “the Jews” in general, and are they in fact anti-Semitic? The answer is no to both questions.
Paul was not saying that all Jews were guilty of killing Jesus any more than he was saying that all Jews were guilty of killing the prophets or that all Jews were guilty of driving him out of city after city. After all, he was making reference to the sufferings that were being experienced by Jewish believers in Judea from the hands of their own countrymen. That was his whole point. You (believing) Thessalonians are suffering persecution from your own (unbelieving) countrymen just like we (believing) Jews are suffering persecution from our own (unbelieving) countrymen. Just as it would be completely wrong to conclude that Paul was saying all Thessalonians were wicked, so too it would be wrong to conclude that he was saying all Jews were wicked.
“But,” you say, “look at what he said about the Jews! He made a sweeping indictment against us as a people.”
I can’t agree with you. First, I remind you that Paul was speaking about unbelieving Jews, and he found a steady stream of such people throughout our history: those who killed the prophets, those who killed the Messiah, and those who hindered the Messiah’s work from reaching the Gentiles. 204 The prophets dealt with this same kind of chronic unbelief and rebellion, stating,
The Lord was very angry with your forefathers. Therefore tell the people: This is what the Lord Almighty says: “Return to me,” declares the Lord Almighty, “and I will return to you,” says the Lord Almighty. Do not be like your forefathers, to whom the earlier prophets proclaimed: This is what the Lord Almighty says: “Turn from your evil ways and your evil practices.” But they would not listen or pay attention to me, declares the Lord.
Like Zechariah, Paul was pointing out how consistently his people disobeyed the Lord, a fact he was struck with on several occasions when a hostile Jewish group followed him into a city, making his mission to the Gentiles difficult. 205 What he was saying is clear: Those same, unbelieving Jews who in previous generations killed the prophets and then the Messiah are now making life difficult for us Jews who do believe in Yeshua. “They displease God and are hostile to all men in their effort to keep us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved” (1 Thess. 2:15–16). This is hardly an indictment on all Jews. 206
Second, it is possible that Paul was specifically speaking of the Judeans—meaning hostile, Jerusalemite leaders—who had a history of rejecting the prophets, who were instrumental in turning the people against the Messiah, and who now spearheaded the opposition to Paul’s work. This is in keeping with Yeshua’s own words about the city he loved so much: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you” (Matt. 23:37). This was often a sinful city. It could well be, then, that Paul was addressing an even more specific group, namely, unbelieving Jewish leaders in Judea. 207
In any case, there is no possible way to think he indicted all Jews everywhere, since, as we have emphasized, in context he was contrasting believing Jews with unbelieving Jews.
As to Paul’s closing comments that “the wrath of God has come upon them at last,” this simply means that “wrath was determined against them, and would soon overtake them.” 208 He was not saying Jews were doomed for all time. As we noted earlier, Paul declared that the day would come when all Israel would believe and be saved—something he wrote about no other nation or people. In fact, this was his constant prayer: “Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved. For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge” (Rom. 10:1–2). Once more, we can say without question that these are not the words of an anti-Semite.
- The New Testament charges the Jews with deicide—killing God. No wonder Christians turned on them so violently. Where does the New Testament raise this charge?
“Well,” you reply, “it says that the Jews killed Christ, and according to the New Testament, Christ is God. Therefore, it says that the Jews killed God.”
Let’s analyze this point by point. First, the New Testament authors make several clear statements regarding the death of Yeshua. Most importantly, they teach that Jesus the Messiah died for our sins (see, e.g., 1 Cor. 15:3), that is to say, he willingly died for us, for the ungodly (see Rom. 5:6–8). Thus, Jesus could state emphatically:
I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep… . The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.
John 10:11, 17–18
Second, the New Testament authors indicate that the death of Jesus was ordained by God himself, referring to him as “the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world” (Rev. 13:8). Thus, even when dealing with his fellow Jews regarding their complicity in the Messiah’s death, Peter could say, “This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge” (Acts 2:23).
Third, it is acknowledged that both Jew and Gentile conspired against Jesus, even in the most pointed New Testament statements. Continuing the verse just cited, Peter said to his people, “and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross” (Acts 2:23). This mentality is reflected in one of the first recorded prayers of the Jewish followers of Jesus shortly after his death and resurrection: “Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen” (Acts 4:27–28; notice once again the emphasis on the foreordained nature of the Messiah’s death).
Fourth, even when he was being crucified, Jesus uttered the unforgettable words, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34), a sentiment reflected elsewhere in the New Testament writings:
Now, brothers, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did your leaders. But this is how God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, saying that his Christ would suffer. Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord, and that he may send the Christ, who has been appointed for you—even Jesus.
Even in passages where our people are held responsible for the death of Jesus, mercy is extended to them, since they acted in ignorance in handing over the Messiah to be crucified. As Paul declared while preaching in a synagogue one Sabbath, “The people of Jerusalem and their rulers did not recognize Jesus, yet in condemning him they fulfilled the words of the prophets that are read every Sabbath” (Acts 13:27). That’s why he could boldly promise, “Therefore, my brothers, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you” (Acts 13:38). This is wonderful news!
In light of all this, you can see how misleading it is to claim that the New Testament says the Jews killed Christ. As to your next statement, that according to the New Testament Christ is God, and therefore, the New Testament says the Jews killed God, once again, you have not read the evidence clearly.
The New Testament emphasizes both the human nature and the divine nature of the Messiah, speaking of him throughout the Gospels as a fully human Jewish rabbi who at the same time was the Son of God. However, his divine nature is portrayed as a mystery, a gloriously veiled truth, and he never made overt statements such as, “I am God!” Rather, when speaking of God, he referred to him as “my Father and your Father … my God and your God” (John 20:17). 209 It was only little by little that his followers fully understood who he was, and even then, it required a good deal of reflection. After all, if God is one, how can he have a Son? The doctrine of God’s tri-unity is deep and complex (see vol. 2, 3.1–3.4).
To this day, many religious Jews and Muslims (all of whom are staunch monotheists) incorrectly think Christians believe in three gods (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) rather than in one God. Thus, there is not the slightest notion that the New Testament authors felt that when their fellow Jews rejected the Messiah, they were killing God. 210
“Can you prove this?” you ask.
You bet! Here are some key New Testament verses in which a Jewish speaker is addressing his own people regarding the death of the Messiah. You will see that his divine nature is never emphasized in any of them. In fact, if anything is emphasized, it is his humanity. Thus, the charge is simply, “You handed over the Messiah! You betrayed him!” The supposedly logical next step that you suggested—i.e., “Therefore you killed God!”—is never even hinted at anywhere in the New Testament. Read every line of every book, and you will not find the charge of deicide.
Here then are some of the most prominent statements (some of which have been quoted already):
Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.
Acts 2:22–23; notice that Jesus is twice referred to as a man
Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.
Acts 2:36; notice that God appointed Jesus
to be Lord and Messiah 211
The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified his servant Jesus. You handed him over to be killed, and you disowned him before Pilate, though he had decided to let him go.
Acts 3:13; notice that Jesus is called God’s servant
If we are being called to account today for an act of kindness shown to a cripple and are asked how he was healed, then know this, you and all the people of Israel: It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed.
Acts 4:9–10; notice that the earthly origins of Jesus are emphasized and that, once again, rather than him being called God, it is stated that God raised him from the dead; see also Acts 5:30
From beginning to end, the accusation of deicide is false.
- The real problem with the New Testament is the notion that God is finished with the Jewish people, that they are now the synagogue of Satan, having been replaced by Christians who are the true Jews and the New Israel. Although it is easy to see how you came up with this idea, it is incorrect and without foundation. This doctrine, known as replacement theology or supersessionism, has been taught at times by many church leaders, but it remains an unbiblical view. 212 Again, I’ll respond point by point for clarity’s sake.
Does the New Testament say that God is finished with Israel? Absolutely not! As we saw earlier, Paul, in the fullest treatment of this question in the New Testament, emphatically rejected this notion. Rather, he explained to his Gentile readers that his people Israel had only stumbled temporarily, explaining that they were partially hardened (see Romans 9–11; for the concept of God hardening his people in the Tanakh, see Deut. 29:4; Isa. 6:9–10). The hardening was partial in at least two ways: (1) It was only temporary, and in the end, Israel as a nation would turn back in faith; and (2) it did not apply to all the people. After all, virtually all of Yeshua’s first followers—amounting to many thousands—were Jews.
In keeping with this concept of Israel’s final restoration, Jesus prophesied to his disciples that “at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man [the Messiah] sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging [or leading, ruling] the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matt. 19:28). The tribes of Israel will be part of God’s endtime kingdom. It is because Yeshua’s disciples knew this that shortly before he ascended to heaven they asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). Rather than rebuking them and calling them stupid for thinking for a moment that God would ever restore the kingdom to Israel, he said, “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority” (Acts 1:7). In other words, it’s none of your business to know when this will happen. Instead, he told them their job was to go into all the world and tell everyone that the Messiah had come (Acts 1:8). 213
It is true that Jesus taught that “many will come from the east and the west [meaning Gentiles], and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 8:11–12). But this was saying nothing more than that many Jews, who should have been the first to recognize the Messiah, will be rejected and left out because of their unbelief, while many believing Gentiles will enjoy Israel’s blessings in their stead. The entire context of Yeshua’s ministry makes this clear. 214
“But didn’t Paul teach that the church was the new Israel?” Not at all. Rather, he taught that Gentile believers in the Messiah became fellow members of the household of God along with Jewish believers, but they remained Gentiles. Read through Romans 9–11, where Paul addresses Gentile believers as Gentiles, talking to them about his people Israel: “I am talking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch as I am the apostle to the Gentiles, I make much of my ministry in the hope that I may somehow arouse my own people [Israel] to envy and save some of them” (Rom. 11:13–14).
It is true Paul applied some of the spiritual descriptions of Israel to Gentile Christians, but he never said the church was Israel or, more importantly, that the church had replaced Israel. I have documented this in detail in my book Our Hands Are Stained with Blood. 215 As I noted there,
Many people have feelings and impressions about what the Scriptures teach. But the facts are the facts: While the New Testament often describes Israel and the Church in similar terms—both are pictured as the children of God, the bride of God, the chosen people, etc.—on no definite occasion does the New Testament ever call the Church “Israel.” In fact, out of the 77 times that the words “Israel” and “Israelite” occur in the Greek New Testament, there are only two verses in which “Israel” could possibly refer to the Church as a whole: Galatians 6:16, where Paul speaks of the “Israel of God” and Revelation 7:4, where John speaks of the 144,000 sealed from the twelve tribes of Israel. This is saying something! Seventy-five “definites” and only two “maybes.” I wouldn’t want to side with the “maybes”!
As for the verses open to dispute, in Galatians 6:16 the King James Version, the New King James Version and the New American Standard Bible [important, contemporary Christian translations] all imply the same thing: “The Israel of God” does not refer to the whole Church. It refers to believing Jews. The same can be said for the description of the 144,000 sealed in Revelation 7:4. It most probably describes the final harvest of Jews worldwide. Elsewhere in the Book of Revelation “Israel” means “Israel” (Rev. 2:14) and the “twelve tribes of Israel” mean “the twelve tribes of Israel,” as distinguished from the “twelve apostles” (Rev. 21:12–14). 216
The same point can be made even more emphatically with regard to the use of the term Jew in the Greek New Testament: It occurs more than 190 times, referring in general to ethnic, national Jews, or specifically to Judean Jews or to Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. 217
“What about Romans 2:28–29, where Paul says that those who are Jews outwardly (meaning in the flesh) are not Jews, whereas a true Jew is one who is a Jew inwardly (meaning spiritually)? According to Paul himself, if I don’t believe in Jesus, even though both my parents are Jewish, I’m not a Jew, whereas a Gentile Christian is a Jew.”
Again, your interpretation is wrong. In context, Paul is addressing Jews living in Rome, and his question has to do with who is a real Jew in God’s eyes. Is it the Jew who is circumcised in body only, or the Jew who is circumcised in spirit as well? Thus the New International Version rightly translates these verses as follows: “A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man’s praise is not from men, but from God” (Rom. 2:28–29).
Do you see Paul’s point? It would be like me bringing three men before you, two from Africa and one from America. One of the Africans is a devout atheist, the other a devout Christian. The American is also a devout Christian. If I asked you, “Which of these men is the spiritual African?” you would reply, “The African Christian!” You wouldn’t think for a moment that the American Christian was the spiritual African, would you? In the same way, if I brought before you a Jewish atheist, a God-fearing Jew, and a God-fearing Gentile Christian and asked you, “Which of these is a spiritual Jew?” you would say, “The God-fearing Jew.”
That was Paul’s point. Between two Jews, one who is circumcised in his flesh but does not know and serve the Lord, and one who is circumcised in his flesh and knows and serves the Lord, who is the true Jew, the real Jew in God’s sight? Who is the spiritual Jew? You wouldn’t think for a second he was speaking of a spiritual Gentile. 218
“Okay, I’ll admit your interpretation makes sense, but what about those verses in which Jews who oppose Christians are referred to as the ‘synagogue of Satan’? If that’s not anti-Semitic, nothing is.”
Once again, I have no doubt that the verses to which you refer have been used by anti-Semites, just as verses in the Tanakh that call our people a “sinful nation, a people loaded with guilt, a brood of evildoers, children given to corruption” (Isa. 1:4) have been used against us. Still, you might be surprised with the facts behind the “synagogue of Satan” accusation.
This description is found just twice in the New Testament, Revelation 2:9, where Jesus comforts believers in Smyrna who were experiencing intense persecution and even martyrdom (“I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan”), and Revelation 3:9, where Jesus encourages suffering believers in the city of Philadelphia (in Asia Minor), assuring them, “I will make those who are of the synagogue of Satan, who claim to be Jews though they are not, but are liars—I will make them come and fall down at your feet and acknowledge that I have loved you” (Rev. 3:9).
On the one hand, there is the possibility that the people to whom Yeshua referred—and who were causing real hardship for these Christians in Smyrna and Philadelphia—were actually not Jews at all. This would be similar to a modern-day cult such as the Black Hebrews: They strongly oppose both Jews and Christians and claim to be the real Jews, the true Israel, when in fact they are not. As to being called a synagogue, it is important to remember that the Greek word used here could simply mean a meeting place, as in James (Jacob) 2:2—“Suppose a man comes into your meeting” (Greek, synagoges).
On the other hand, it could well be that Yeshua was speaking of his own kinsmen but using biting, prophetic hyperbole, just as when the Lord said through the prophet Hosea, “You are not my people, and I am not your God” (Hosea 1:9), and again, speaking of Israel as his wife, “Rebuke your mother, rebuke her, for she is not my wife, and I am not her husband” (Hosea 2:2). In both of these verses, God completely repudiates his people/wife Israel, only to immediately promise Israel’s restoration (see Hosea 1:10; 2:16). The lesson we learn is that sometimes, when our people continually disobeyed the Lord and broke his covenant, he spoke of them as if they were not his people at all. In the same way, when the Messiah’s own people actually tried to stop Gentiles from hearing about him (and this did happen; see, e.g., Acts 14:1–20), he could say of them, “You claim to be Jews but are not; you’re really a meeting place of Satan.”
“But that’s so harsh!” you say.
Yes, it does seem harsh, but no harsher than the accusation in the (Jewish) Dead Sea Scrolls that Jews who opposed their (Jewish) group were part of the “congregation of Belial.” (Belial was synonymous with Satan.) And it is certainly a lot less harsh than the Talmudic claim that Jesus is now in hell, burning in excrement (see b. Gittin 56b–57a).
In any case, this is where we get to the root of the problem. When the Dead Sea Scrolls were written, they were written primarily for their own believing community, consisting only of Jews. When the New Testament was written, it was written for a different believing community, consisting of Jews and Gentiles. Over the process of time, this community of believers (called the church) became increasingly Gentile and, hence, increasingly ignorant of its Jewish roots, the very thing Paul warned about (see Rom. 11:17–26 and the discussion above, 2.7). Ultimately, some of this church turned hostile to its Jewish roots, utilizing texts that at most provided evidence of a very selective anti-Judaism, and, more than eighteen hundred years later, were used to fuel the fires of racial anti-Semitism. 219
As a follower of Jesus, I grieve over this misuse of my sacred Scriptures, and I stand against any so-called Christian who would misuse them in this way today. I also believe there should be a greater sensitivity in modern translations of the New Testament, not altering a word that was written but translating with special clarity in light of the terrible history of misinterpretation that we have described in part.
But that is only part of the grief I experience. You see, as a Jew, I agonize over the fact that our people as a whole missed the Messiah when he came, instead turning against him. How awful it is! We broke the Sinai covenant over and over again, we rejected prophet after prophet, even killing some, and then we rejected the Messiah, delivering him up to be crucified. So both the church and the Jewish people have sinned!
There is only one way to make things right: Let everyone who claims to be a Christian demonstrate it by showing the love of the Messiah to his own Jewish people, utterly repudiating even the slightest hint of anti-Semitism, and let every Jewish person turn back to Yeshua—our one and only Messiah—in repentance and faith.
Let me close this rather lengthy answer with an observation. As I mentioned earlier, I can honestly say that in almost thirty years in the church, I have rarely, if ever, met a “Christian” anti-Semite, 220 and when I have told Christians about the horrors of anti-Semitism in church history, they were utterly shocked. Moreover, when I shared with them that many Jews actually believe the New Testament itself is anti-Semitic, they were dumbfounded. These people who carefully studied the New Testament for years never came to any anti-Semitic conclusions. The thought of such interpretations never even dawned on them.
This should give you pause for thought, and it should help explain to you why, at this critical juncture in Jewish history, Israel’s best friends are Bible-believing, New testament-reading Christians. 221 I know this is the opposite of what you have been taught, but it’s the truth. The gospel truth.
155 Peter Schäfer, Judeophobia: Attitudes toward the Jews in the Ancient World (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1997), 11.
156 See Samuel Sandmel, Anti-Semitism in the New Testament? (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978), 1. For Sandmel’s clear distinctions between “pagan anti-Semitism” and “Christian anti-Semitism,” cf. ibid., 5.
157 For the diabolical forces behind anti-Semitism, cf. Brown, Our Hands Are Stained with Blood, 155–64.
158 Cf. Sydney Jellicoe, The Septuagint and Modern Study (Oxford: Clarendon, 1968), 29–171, for discussion of the mythical and real origins of the Septuagint.
159 See McKnight, A Light among the Gentiles.
160 For detailed discussion, see Walter C. Kaiser Jr., The Uses of the Old Testament in the New (Chicago: Moody, 1985), 2–4. He notes that the United Bible Society’s Greek New Testament text “lists over 2,500 NT passages from nearly 1,800 OT passages,” while Henry M. Shirer, in his 1974 study (Finding the Old Testament in the New, Westminster), found a total of “1,604 NT citations of 1,276 different OT texts,” including 239 direct quotes “drawn from 185 different OT passages.” And this is all the more extraordinary when one realizes that the entire New Testament contains less than 8,000 verses! See further Gleason L. Archer and Gregory Chirichgno, Old Testament Quotations in the New Testament (Chicago: Moody, 1983), for a verse-by-verse analysis in Hebrew and Greek; and cf. G. K. Beale, ed., The Right Doctrine from the Wrong Texts? Essays on the Use of the Old Testament in the New (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994). Interestingly, the Book of Revelation, the last book of the New Testament, contains 404 verses, more than half of which (approximately 278 verses) are drawn from the imagery of the Hebrew Scriptures, although Revelation does not directly quote one verse from the Tanakh. More broadly, cf. Steven Thompson, The Apocalypse and Semitic Syntax, SNTSMS 52 (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1985).
161 The only other figure called Rabbi is John the Immerser (John 3:26).
162 The popular Christian author Philip Yancey recently noted that such a genealogy would be the equivalent of calling someone in America today “the son of Abraham Lincoln, the son of George Washington.” That’s about as American as you can get! In the same way, there could be nothing more Jewish than identifying someone as “son of David, son of Abraham,” a fact that struck Yancey in a fresh new way as he worked on his best-selling book, The Jesus I Never Knew (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995).
163 See Gartenhaus, Famous Hebrew Christians, 124.
165 Ibid., 125. Note also the description of Rivkin, What Crucified the Messiah?, 107, as to what someone finds upon opening the New Testament: “One is struck by the framework of Judaism that encloses all that is recorded in the Synoptic Gospels, Acts, and the Epistles of Paul. There is scarcely a page that does not have some proof-text drawn from the Old Testament: Abraham, Moses, David, and Elijah are the spiritual heroes; Jesus is a Jewish teacher who frequents the synagogue, visits the Temple, refutes the Sadducees, parries the Pharisees, evokes Scriptures, and ends his life on the cross under a titulus bearing the inscription Jesus, King of the Jews. Like Jesus, all his disciples are Jews because he seemed to be to them the Son of man, the Messiah, the scion of David, preaching the gospel of God’s kingdom to the people of God. Paul, the most gifted preacher of the risen Christ, had been as to the Law a Pharisee, as to righteousness under the Law blameless.”
166 Some of the top Israeli scholars are involved in the Jerusalem School of Synoptic Research, and their conclusions regarding the Jewishness of the Gospels are often even more positive than mine! For a major collection of essays by one of the Jerusalem School’s Jewish leaders, see David Flusser, Judaism and the Origins of Christianity (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1988); see also idem, Jesus (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbraun, 1997).
167 Cf. the statement of Moshe, cited above, n. 137; in contrast with this, the eminent historian Marcel Simon noted that, “There is no shadow of anti-Semitism in St. Paul. He was disappointed in his countrymen but incapable of hating them.” See Verus Israel, 207. Simon’s comment is especially noteworthy in light of his beliefs that “anti-Jewish feeling” can be found in John’s Gospel (ibid.).
168 For the citation from Isaiah 59 at the end of Romans 11, see vol. 3, 5.1.
169 Recent works, some of which espouse extremely controversial theories (e.g., Maccoby), include Rosemary Radford Reuther, Faith and Fratricide: The Theological Roots of Anti-Semitism (New York: Seabury, 1974); Sandmel, Anti-Semitism in the New Testament?; A. T. Davies, ed., Anti-Semitism and the Foundation of Christianity (New York: Paulist, 1979); Hyam Maccoby, Judas Iscariot and the Myth of Jewish Evil (New York: Free Press, 1992); George M. Smiga, Pain and Polemic: Anti-Judaism in the Gospels (New York: Paulist, 1992); Sidney G. Hall III, Christian Anti-Semitism and Paul’s Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993); Norman Beck, Mature Christianity: The Recognition and Repudiation of the Anti-Jewish Polemic of the New Testament, expanded and rev. ed. (New York: Crossroad; World Alliance/The American Interfaith Institute, 1994); Lillian C. Freudman, Antisemitism in the New Testament (Lanham, Md.: Univ. Press of America, 1994); John Dominic Crossan, Who Killed Jesus? Exposing the Roots of Anti-Semitism in the Gospel Story of the Death of Jesus (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995); Pagels, Origin of Satan. On the broader subject of Christianity and anti-Semitism, which has fostered an enormous amount of literature, some of the key works in English include: Jules Isaac, The Teaching of Contempt: Christian Roots of Anti-Semitism, trans. Dorothy and James Parkes (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964); idem, Jesus and Israel, trans. Sally Gran (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971); Malcolm Hay, The Roots of Christian Anti-Semitism (New York: Liberty Press, 1981), also published under the titles The Foot of Pride and Europe and the Jews; Frank E. Manuel, The Broken Staff: Judaism through Christian Eyes (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1992); William Nichols, Christian Antisemitism: A History of Hate (Northvale, N.J.: Aronson, 1993); Frederick Gladstone Bratton, The Crime of Christendom: The Theological Sources of Anti-Semitism (Santa Barbara: Fithian Press, 1994); see further Peter Richardson and David Granskou, eds., Anti-Judaism in Early Christianity, vol. 1 (Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfred Laurier Press, 1986); Stephen G. Wilson, ed., Anti-Judaism in Early Christianity, vol. 2 (Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfred Laurier Press, 1986); Clark M. Williamson and Ronald J. Allen, Interpreting Difficult Texts: Anti-Judaism and Christian Preaching (Philadelphia: Trinity, 1989); note also the previously cited works of Parkes, Conflict of the Church and synagogue; Simon, Verus Israel; Flannery, Anguish of the Jews; Falk, The Jew in Christian Theology; Rausch, Legacy of Hatred; Cohn-Sherbok, Crucified Jew; Klein, Anti-Judaism; Keith, Hated without a Cause?, On the more general subject of Christian responses to the Holocaust, see Steven L. Jacobs, ed., Contemporary Christian Religious Reponses to the Shoa, Studies in the Shoa (Lanham, Md.: Univ. Press of America, 1993); note also Jacob Jocz, The Jewish People and Jesus Christ after Auschwitz: A Study in the Controversy between Church and synagogue (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981). The bibliography in Taylor, Anti-Judaism, should also be consulted.
170 According to Graham Keith, Jules Isaac, the Jewish historian who lost most of his family in the Holocaust, “insisted that the Christian church was primarily responsible for the anti-Semitic legacy on which Nazis capitalized. But he did so without impugning the New Testament itself. Instead, he claimed the church had misunderstood its own Scriptures and its own founder.” See Keith, Hated without a Cause?, 34, with reference to Isaac’s two important works, Jesus and Israel and The Teaching of Contempt.
171 Along with the references cited in the following notes, see the listing of works in Brown, Our Hands Are Stained with Blood, 230–31. Cf. also L. H. Feldman, “Is the New Testament Anti-Semitic?” Humanities 21 (1987): 1–14.
172 Cited in R. E. Brown, The Death of the Messiah, 1:831, n. 22, with reference to Montefiore’s work, The Synoptic Gospels, 2:346.
173 Brown, The Death of the Messiah, 1:391–97; for Crossan’s arguments with this, see Who Killed Jesus?, although Brown’s work seems to treat the evidence much more evenhandedly.
174 Ibid., 838–39.
175 Cf. Lachs, Rabbinic Commentary, 428, with reference on 429, n. 13, to b. Avodah Zarah 12b; b. Yoma 21a; Sifra 24.14; b. Avodah Zarah 30a; Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer 10; y. Berakhoth 7:6, 11c ; b. Pesahim 111a; b. Megillah 17a.
176 Cf. also the words of the Jewish leadership in Acts 5:28, addressing the Jewish followers of Jesus: “Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood.” Note also the repeating of Matthew 27:24–25 in the apocryphal Acts of Pilate (IV:1, then again in IX:4, then once more in XII.1); see also Tertullian, Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 3, 580 (Five Books against Marcion, book 2, chapter 16); Hyppolytus (Sage, vol. 5, briefly); Augustine (Sage, commenting on Pss.); Cyril (Sage).
177 Cf. Brown, Death of the Messiah, 2:839.
178 See McKnight in Evans and Hagner, Anti-Semitism and Early Christianity, 76, n. 79. According to McKnight, who is terribly anguished over anti-Semitism in Christian history and who believes that anti-Semitism in any form is actually “an enemy of Christianity” (ibid., 79, quoting A. T. Davies, Anti-Semitism and the Christian Mind: The Crisis of Conscience after Auschwitz [New York: Herder, 1968], 33), Matthew “needs no apology, for he is not anti-Semitic. He is no more anti-Semitic than Amos or Jeremiah. Those who have read Matthew so, I believe, have surely misread him… . But having said this, I maintain that the only apology that needs to be made is ‘the deeper form of apology that every Christian owes to every Jew for the part which historic Christendom has played in the shaping of modern anti-semitism’ ” (ibid., 78, again quoting Davies, ibid., 18).
179 Rabbi Eliyahu Touger, trans., Maimonides Mishneh Torah: Hilchot Melachim U’Milchamoteihem (Laws of Kings and Their Wars) (New York: Maznaim, 1987), 234–35.
180 Ibid., 235–36.
181 For a dated, although still valuable discussion of this text (along with other related material from the Rabbinic texts), see R. Travis Herford, Christianity in Talmud and Midrash (London: Williams & Northgate, 1903).
182 To my knowledge, the first church leader on record to misuse this verse was Origen in the second century. This shows how early the verse was being misappropriated, also underscoring how shocking it was for Christians to think that key Jewish leaders, along with a crowd of Jewish people, handed their Messiah over to be crucified. For a clear and concise study of Matthew 27:25 by a Messianic Jew, see Michael Rydelnik, “His Blood Be Upon Us,” Mishkan 6, no. 7 (1987): 1–9, who concludes that “only on the surface does Matthew 27:25 present a problem. When properly understood as a local acceptance of guilt and viewed from the perspectives of Matthew, the crowd and the early church, it is impossible to prove a deicide charge against the Jews from this text.”
183 Some would also point to verses such as John 10:34, where Jesus speaking to “the Jews” says, “Is it not written in your Law, ‘I have said you are gods’?” as if he was saying, “This is your Law, not mine!” However, such an understanding of this text is completely untenable for the following reasons: (1) Elsewhere in John, Jesus insisted that it was the whole Bible in general, and the law of Moses in particular, that bore witness to him: “You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life… . But do not think I will accuse you before the Father. Your accuser is Moses, on whom your hopes are set. If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. But since you do not believe what he wrote, how are you going to believe what I say?” (John 5:39–40, 45–47; see also John 8:32, where continuing in God’s Word—meaning the Hebrew Bible!—is the prerequisite for being a true disciple). (2) When dialoging with Jewish leaders, Jesus alluded to Moses as part of their shared heritage; see, e.g., John 3:14–16; 7:19–23. (3) Jesus’ own disciples are credited with seeing him as the fulfillment of Moses and the prophets: “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph” (John 1:45). (4) The verse from “the law” cited by Jesus in John 10:34 is actually from Psalms (82:6), indicating that Jesus used “the law” (i.e., “Torah”) in the broader sense of the Scriptures as a whole, something that was quite common in Jewish usage. Certainly no one would argue that Jesus was rejecting the Psalms as something foreign and alien! Rather, what he was saying here would be the equivalent of one Christian minister saying to another hypocritical minister, “Look at what is written in your own New Testament. You’re not even living by your own book!”
184 Philip S. Kaufman, The Beloved Disciple (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1991), 12. For a similar observation regarding John’s narrative of the death of Jesus, cf. Urban C. von Wahlde, “The Gospel of John and the Presentation of Jews and Judaism,” in Within Context: Essays on Jews and Judaism in the New Testament, ed. David Efroymson, Eugene J. Fischer, and Leon Klenicki (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1993), 81. Note that this interfaith collection of essays is foreworded by two noted Jewish leaders, Irvin J. Borowsky, founder and chairman of the American Interfaith Institute, and Rabbi Leon Klenicki, director of the Department of Interfaith Affairs, Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith. The question of alleged anti-Semitic bias in the trial of Jesus will be discussed in vol. 3, 5.20.
185 In other contexts (such as 2 Kings 16:6), such usage is typical, as reflected in English translations that render with “men of Judah” (so the kjv and niv) or “Judeans” (so the nrsv) rather than “Jews.” For striking examples, see also Jeremiah 32:12, where Jeremiah, Baruch, and Hanamel—all “Jews”!—are distinguished from “the Judeans”; Jeremiah 38:18, where the Jewish king Zedekiah tells Jeremiah, “I am afraid of the Judeans who have deserted to the Chaldeans …” (wrongly rendered in the niv here with “the Jews”); similarly, cf. Jer. 40:11–15; 41:3; 1 Chron. 4:27.
186 See Dr. David G. Burke, “How the Contemporary English Edition Avoids Anti-Judaism,” Explorations 12, no. 2 (1998): 8. He points out that “where the Greek text reports that ‘the Jews’ plotted against Jesus, there would be no one among the original audiences who would have assumed that all Jews (whether in Jerusalem, Judea, or anywhere) were involved in some sort of monolithic conspiracy, but they would have understood this to indicate that certain leaders did oppose Jesus and the movement that formed around him” (ibid.).
187 Cf. also John 7:13, “where people who are Jewish by nationality are said not to talk openly about Jesus ‘for fear of the Jews.’ ” See von Wahlde, “The Gospel of John and the Presentation of Jews and Judaism,” 74.
188 Ibid., 81.
189 Cf. ibid., 80 (with references also to the Testament of Levi); cf. Lawrence H. Schiffman, Reclaiming the Dead Sea Scrolls (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1994), 249–52. It should also be emphasized that, according to the New Testament, all people who reject Jesus, whether Jew or Gentile, are understood to be under the dominion of Satan and in the kingdom of darkness; see, e.g., 2 Cor. 4:6; Eph. 2:1–2; Col. 1:13; 1 John 5:19.
190 Ibid., 82. Interestingly, in context, John 8:44 (“You are of your father the devil”) is not addressed to Jews in general (as is sometimes alleged), but actually to those Jews who believed (see John 8:31–32), although only to a point (see John 8:33ff.).
191 Anti-Semitism and Early Christianity, 8.
192 Ibid., with reference to Johnson, “The New Testament’s Anti-Jewish Slander and the Conventions of Ancient Polemic,” 419–41. Remember also that Josephus wrote for both Roman readers and Jewish readers, and therefore, the argument cannot be raised that he was a Jew writing only to Jews about Jewish matters. Rather, both Josephus and John wrote for both a Jewish and Gentile audience, the main difference being that John wrote first and foremost to believers in the Messiah, be they Jew or Gentile.
193 Rivkin, “Anti-Semitism in the New Testament,” in What Crucified Jesus?, 124 (see in full, 107–29), his emphasis; for the references to Josephus, see Johnson, “Anti-Jewish Slander,” 434–36. Rivkin, ibid., 108, also notes tellingly that if we disregard how the New Testament texts were used later for anti-Semitic purposes, “one would conclude that we have here a record of bitter religious controversy, exarcerbated by the fact that the individual around whom the controversies centered had been subjected to a painful death, and from which, according to his disciples, he had been resurrected. The parties to the controversy are at one another’s throats over issues that would make sense only to those who were members of a community that shared the same basic ideas, concepts, and assumptions. God, revelation, Israel, prophetic visions, Messiah, resurrection—concepts so charged with sanctity and so fraught with life and death—could mean nothing to one who had not been nurtured in Judaism or one who had not been taught its doctrines… . Now it is true that some very harsh acts are reported, some very harsh words are blurted out, and some very harsh feelings are expressed. But, the historian must ask, how could it have been otherwise?”
194 See b. Sotah 22b (with parallels in y. Berakhoth 67a); m. Sotah 3:4 (the Hebrew here literally speaks of the “smitings of the Pharisees”).
195 Cf. the literature cited above, n. 63, with the assessment in James D. G. Dunn, Jesus, Paul and the Law: Studies in Mark and Galatians (Louisville: John Knox/Westminster, 1990), 61–88, and note the ongoing and sometimes intense debate between Jacob Neusner and E. P. Sanders regarding the Pharisees and the development of Jewish law; among the myriad works of Neusner, cf. most pointedly, Judaic Law from Jesus to the Mishnah: A Systematic Reply to Professor E. P. Sanders, South Florida Studies in the History of Judaism 84 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1994); for Sanders’s most forceful statement, see Jewish Law from Jesus to the Mishnah: Five Studies (Philadelphia: Trinity, 1990), 309–31.
196 For the period in question, cf. the reference to Schürer et al., History of the Jewish People, above, n. 40.
197 I remind you of the religious Jewish persecution of Messianic Jews in our day, as discussed in 2.7, immediately above. See further Rivkin, “Anti-Semitism in the New Testament,” 117–21, for insightful remarks on why and how the Jewish religious leaders, the Jewish crowds, the Jewish disciples of the Messiah, and Pontius Pilate all did what they did. (To the extent that Rivkin accepts the Gospel narratives as factual, I find myself in fundamental agreement with his observations.) For an interesting study of the potential threat that prophetic religion presents to traditional religion (here = Pharisaical/Rabbinic authority), see Frederick E. Greenspahn, “Why Prophecy Ceased,” Journal of Biblical Literature 108 (1989): 37–49 (“By rejecting the holy spirit’s presence, the rabbis, whose own legitimacy rested on the interpretation of previous revelation, protected themselves from those claiming a more direct link to the divine while undermining the theological basis for such figures’ anti-establishment activities,” ibid., 49). According to Greenspahn, this was the only way Judaism could have survived, and he finds parallel reactions against prophetism in both Christianity and Islam.
198 For more on this, along with the general question of the Jewishness of Jesus, see vol. 2, 3.25–3.26 and vol. 3, 5.19, 5.21, 5.28; cf. also James H. Charlesworth and Loren L. Johns, eds., Hillel and Jesus: Comparative Studies of Two Major Religious Leaders (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997).
199 Ibid., 17. Most of the polemic in the epistles is against the “Judaizers”—i.e., against Jewish believers in Jesus who were requiring Gentile believers to be circumcised and keep the entire law.
200 E.g., Young, Paul the Jewish Theologian; Peter Tomson, Paul and the Jewish Law: Halakha in the Letters of the Apostle to the Gentiles (Assen/Minneapolis: Van Gorcum/Fortress, 1990). See vol. 3, 5.26, 5.29 for extensive references.
201 Dunn, Jesus, Paul and the Law, 71.
202 See Phillip Sigal, The Halakha of Jesus of Nazareth according to the Gospel of Matthew (Lanham, Md.: Univ. Press of America, 1986).
203 Cf. Hagner, “Paul’s Quarrel with Judaism,” in Evans and idem, Anti-Semitism and Early Christianity, 128–50 (specifically 130–36).
204 Note that Paul’s own people were willing to hear him out until he stated that God had called him to go to the Gentiles. This they couldn’t handle. See Acts 22:1–22.
205 See Acts 14:8–19; in Israel, anti-missionary groups such as Yad L’Achim (or now, Lev L’Achim) have sometimes followed Messianic Jews from city to city, seeking to harass them and hinder their work. Although it is unpleasant to report such things, they are, nonetheless, true. Of course, these anti-missionaries are often men who feel deeply that Messianic Jews who seek to win other Jews to their faith are worse than Hitler, “since,” they say, “he only wanted to kill our bodies, but you want to kill our souls!” With this kind of thinking, it’s easy to understand why they get so upset!
206 According to Hagner, “Paul is righteously indignant concerning Israel’s opposition to the plan and purposes of God,” and, following I. Broer, Hagner believes that “it is probable that Paul’s words quite consciously reflect a Deuteronomistic-type judgment oracle against the Jews in general” (Anti-Semitism and Early Christianity, 134).
207 If this is the case, then it is proper to speak of the “anti-Semitic comma” found here in most translations after the word “Jews” (or “Judeans”), as cited above in the niv: “You suffered from your own countrymen the same things those congregations suffered from the Jews, who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets …” (1 Thess. 2:14–15). If this comma is removed (which, of course, was not part of the original Greek), the text then makes a clear and direct reference to one specific group of people, namely, the Judeans, with a history of hostility toward God and his prophets. Cf. G. E. Okeke, “1 Thessalonians 2:13–16: The Fate of the Unbelieving Jews,” New Testament Studies 27 (1980–81): 127–36.
208 As expressed concisely by Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Bible (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1991). According to I. H. Marshall, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, New Century Bible (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), 81, possible meanings include: (1) “at long last” or “finally”; (2) “completely,” “to the uttermost”; (3) “for ever,” “to the end,” i.e., “lasting for ever”; and (4) “until the end” qualifying “wrath,” i.e., “the wrath that leads up to the End.”
209 For a comprehensive discussion of these issues, see vol. 2, 3.1–3.4.
210 Even in the parable of the vineyard taught by Jesus, in which he compared himself to the vineyard owner’s son, as opposed to simply one of his servants, he was not overtly identifying himself with God (the vineyard owner in the parable) but only with his son, worthy of better treatment than the prophets (the servants in the parable). See, e.g., Matt. 21:33–46.
211 In the preceding verses quoted (viz., Acts 2:22–23), Peter explains clearly what his people had done: with the help of wicked men (the Romans, in this case), they nailed the Messiah to the cross. Thus, he says, “you crucified him,” similar to Nathan’s rebuke of David in 2 Samuel 12. David had Uriah killed in battle, but Nathan said to him: “You struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword” (2 Sam. 12:9).
212 A useful compendium of short studies can be found in Mishkan 21 (1994): Walter C. Kaiser Jr., “An Assessment of Replacement Theology,” 9–20; Ray Pritz, “Replacing the Jews in Early Christian Theology,” 21–27; Ole Anderson, Menachem Benhayim, Tuvya Zaretsky, Albrecht Haefner, Kenichi Nakagawa, “Replacement Theology—Anti-Replacement Theology (Five Statements),” 28–39. See also Jeffrey Siker, Disinheriting the Jews (Louisville: John Knox/Westminster, 1991).
213 For further discussion, see C. K. Barrett, The Acts of the Apostles, International Critical Commentary, vol. 1 (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1994), 75–77.
214 In Matthew 21:43, when Jesus said, “Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit,” he was not saying that Gentiles would take the place of Jews in God’s kingdom. Rather, he was saying that the current Jewish leadership, marked by hypocrisy, would be replaced by faithful people (in the first place, referring to his own emissaries, and then to those who received their message). Matthew makes this perfectly plain: “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they knew he was talking about them. They looked for a way to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowd [meaning the Jewish crowd!] because the people [meaning the Jewish people!] held that he was a prophet” (Matt. 21:45–46).
215 See esp. 127–41, and cf. the references to further literature cited above, n. 211.
216 Ibid., 129–30.
217 Ibid., 131.
218 See also Shulam and Le Cornu, Jewish Roots of Romans, 101–13.
219 See the lengthy and carefully nuanced selections from Marcel Simon, below, n. 224, which can be contrasted with the more negative verdict of Jules Isaac, viz., that “Christian anti-Semitism is the powerful, millenary, and strongly rooted trunk upon which (in the Christian world) all other varieties of anti-Semitism are grafted, even those of a most anti-Christian nature” (cited in Talmage, Disputation and Dialogue, 49).
220 To the best of my memory, I encountered only one such person, but he was so unstable and his beliefs so unusual that I have serious doubts as to whether he was really a Christian. Of course, I am aware of a number of professing Christians who are presently engaged in aggressive, even vicious, anti-Semitic rhetoric, using the New Testament to support their claims (along with the Old Testament and the Talmud, of course).
In fact, I confronted them directly in Our Hands Are Stained with Blood. But if such people are, in fact, true Christians, they are the tiny (and ugly!) exception to the rule. As for alleged Christians who are so anti-Israel that they virtually cheer for terrorist groups like Hamas, they are the modern-day equivalent of the Crusaders and Inquisitors. In other words, they are apostate Christians who have no connection with true Christianity.
221 See immediately above, 2.7, and n. 126.