June 17, 2007
Is the New Testament Anti-Semitic?By James Arlandson
The Christian friends of Israel regard the entire Bible as inspired and inerrant. But the New Testament is supposedly anti-Semitic. So why would they support Israel and the Jewish community?
Are these Christians intellectually inferior? Do they see anti-Semitism in the New Testament, but keep it hushed up? Do they secretly work for Israel's destruction because their Scriptures say so? Actually, Christians look high and low through the New Testament and can find no anti-Semitism.
This brief article is designed to explain how Christians who regard the Bible as inerrant and who carefully study it reject anti-Semitism - and reject it on the basis of the New Testament itself.
If readers would like to look up a passage, they may go to Bible Gateway and type in the reference.
The ministry of Jesus
In the four Gospels, about four decades before the destruction of the temple by the Romans in AD 70, Jesus crisscrossed his homeland Israel, preaching and living the kingdom of God. Sometimes ordinary fellow Jews did not accept his teaching (John 6:60-66). But most in fact liked what they heard and saw, particularly his healing ministry.
The opposition to Jesus came from the leaders of his own nation. He opposed their power structures that governed the temple in Jerusalem. That is one reason he made a whip and cleared part of the temple (Mark 11:12-19). The Gospel of John uses the word "Jews" over seventy times, sometimes positively (e.g. 4:22) and sometimes neutrally (e.g. 2:6). But John mostly uses it of the Jewish leaders who were hostile to Jesus. This matches up with the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In almost all cases when the sparks fly in the Gospels, the clash happens between him and religious leaders. In fact, a careful keyword search in an exhaustive concordance of the Bible confirms this class difference. He did not condemn ordinary people; rather, he told them that his way led to an easing of heavy religious burdens (Matt. 11:28-30). But he challenged the leaders who put these burdens on the people. See his lengthy "Seven Woes" pronounced on them (Matt. 23:1-36).
By analogy, Josephus, a first-century Jewish historian, says that many Pharisees who interacted with the people also opposed the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem. They and the Sadducees - the very ones who made up most of the Jerusalem establishment - clashed often. Were these Pharisees anti-Semitic? Of course not.
Likewise, Jesus was a Jew who lived in a Jewish environment. Whom else would he challenge? Who else would oppose him? Hindus? Buddhists? Simple historical facts teach us that he had no political power, so he could not wield the weapons of anti-Semitism. All the verses in the four Gospels must be read in that historical context.
The early church
The earliest Christians were not initially called "Christians," but followers of the Way, until a strong Christian community was established in Antioch (Acts 11:26). None of them had any political power, so they could not persecute anyone. Rather, they were the persecuted. While in Jerusalem, they underwent opposition from the same establishment that opposed Jesus (Acts 4:1-22; 5:17-40; 6:8-8:3; 12:1-18). That last passage describes Herod Agrippa I beheading James, one of the twelve Apostles, and imprisoning Peter, who escaped by miraculous intervention.
As the followers of the Way moved out into the Roman provinces, their opposition was made up of their fellow Jews and the Gentile authorities. For example, in the opposition from pagans against Paul, they accurately saw that his preaching would curtail their idol-making business and dry up pilgrimages to the huge temple of the goddess Artemis (Diana), so a riot ensued (Acts 19:23-31). Likewise, the passages in Acts about Jewish opposition to the message of Paul and other missionaries are merely reports (by Luke who wrote Acts) of what really happened (e.g. Acts 13:49-52; 14:4-7, 19-20; 21:27-23:35). Paul and other missionaries traveled in Jewish circles and also among pagans in Greco-Roman cities. It stands to reason that if anyone opposed these missionaries, the opponents would come from Roman authorities and the Jews. How could this be otherwise?
Thus, whenever I read the Book of Acts, I simply conclude that it fits the historical facts. (It certainly does not say that the Chinese or Japanese opposed the first-century Christians.) To repeat, the early Christians had no political power, so their hands were empty of the weapons of persecution. The verses in Acts must be read in that historical context.
It is true that the New Testament at times reflects tension between Judaism and the fledgling church, which was feeling its way doctrinally and practically (though, of course, devout Christians affirm that God was leading). After all, Christianity flows out of Judaism, not out of Taoism or Confucianism, so where else would there be tension? Christians and Jews were gradually going their own direction. During this drifting apart, the leaders of the church - all Jews early on - had to decide whether recent converts should be required to keep large portions of the Law of Moses. Some of the stricter Jews who had become followers of the Way said that the converts had to be circumcised and to keep the kosher food laws. Paul foresaw that this would limit the number of converts, particularly men, so he opposed such requirements. He also went in this new direction because of his interpretation of Jesus' sacrifice on the cross and because of the doctrine of grace. Eventually, Paul's view won out (Galatians 3:1-25; read the entire short epistle). Also, after a divine vision, Peter came to the same conclusion as Paul's, namely, that God wanted to reach out to Gentiles (Acts 10:1-11:18). But even Peter and Paul clashed over purity rituals, like eating with Gentiles (Galatians 2:11-21). In the final analysis Peter and other leaders - to repeat, they were all Jews - decided not to impose on the new Gentile converts heavy laws. See Acts 15:1-29 for the Council in Jerusalem that decided on such matters.
So it is in the area of practical requirements (on which even the early Christians disagreed at first) that tension between Judaism and earliest Christianity is found in the New Testament. It is precisely ritual purity and circumcision that concerned early followers of Jesus. And they eventually shifted away from a strict interpretation of these laws. But where are the weapons of persecution? The early church was politically powerless.
On the other side, Jews kept their own doctrines and practices, in the drifting apart of themselves and the Christians. But does this mean that the Jews exercised some sort of "anti-Christianism"? Of course not. They are allowed to keep their religion without such charges. And so are the Christians. In fact, all religions on the face of the planet are certainly permitted to keep their distinctive doctrines without being accused of "Anti-Other-Religionism." Let's hope that no religion will impose its doctrines on others by force.
Tough Q & A
1. Didn't the Jews kill Jesus? Anyone who reads the four Gospels understands that it teaches that God ordained his death. No human did. God did. Jesus himself said that he willingly laid down his life (John 10:15-18). He predicted his death (and resurrection) on at least five occasions before he got to Jerusalem (Matt. 12:39-41 // Luke 11:29:30; Matt. 16:21-28 // Mark 8:31 and Luke 9:22-27; Matt. 20:17-19 // Mark 10:32-34; Luke 18:31-33; Luke 9:44; John 12:20-26). During the arrest of Jesus, Peter took out his sword to resist. But Jesus told him to put it away. He said that he could call on twelve legions of angels to halt everything (Matt. 26:52-54). That means he was willingly submitting to the plan of God. It is true that the Jewish and Roman authorities were the human agents of his death, but how could this be otherwise? They were, after all, in charge of Jerusalem. But to leap from there to anti-Semitism goes too far because it ignores the historical context.
2. Doesn't Jesus call certain of his fellow Jews children of the devil? In the larger context, he perceived that some "distant" followers, so to speak, were plotting to kill him. "You are ready to kill me . . . As it is, you are determined to kill me" . . . (John 8:37 and 40; cf. 7:19-20). The atmosphere was tense. They were in Jerusalem. But his time to go was not yet. As noted in the first Q & A, it is impossible to overstate how deeply Jesus felt his mission to die (and to be resurrected). Anyone who tried to alter his destiny to die at the right time and right place was subject to tough language. It was also used against his own lead disciple Peter. As Jesus and the Twelve were approaching Jerusalem, he predicted his death (and resurrection). But Peter, hearing only death in the prediction, pulled him aside and actually rebuked him. "Never, Lord!" he said. "This will never happen to you!" At that, Jesus perceived a satanic motive to forestall his divinely ordained death. So he wheeled on Peter, looked past him, and said, "Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men" (Matt. 16:21-23). But note well: this tough talk in the Gospels is entirely among Jews. Incidentally, the distant followers in John 8:31-59 finally revealed their motives, calling Jesus a Samaritan (= despised half-breed) and demon-possessed (v. 48 and 52).
3. Didn't Jews call down a curse on themselves during the trial of Jesus? Matthew 27:25 has been used for anti-Semitic purposes, but there is simply no shred of evidence in the rest of the New Testament that God actually and factually honored their request. The verse seems merely to reflect a topos or common rhetorical device or a cultural custom, expressing how strongly the crowd felt.
4. Doesn't the Parable of Tenants imply that God will destroy or replace Israel (Matt. 21:33-46 // Mark 12:1-12; Luke 20:9-19)? Not in the slightest! Jesus spoke this parable in Jerusalem. The end of the parable says that the chief priests and Pharisees - in Jerusalem - understood that he directed the parable at them specifically (vv. 45-46). (Remember, he challenged the Jerusalem religious establishment.) The vineyard (= Israel; cf. Isaiah 5:1-7) is still left intact in the parable. But it will be handed over to better tenants (= leaders). Plus, Jesus refers to the kingdom of God (v. 43). And his kingdom is to expand far beyond his homeland Israel (Acts 1:6-8). He implies in the entire parable that leadership in the larger kingdom of God will be handed over to a new regime, so to speak, as the kingdom goes around the globe. Worldwide outreach is the jurisdiction of the church, just as he commanded (Matt. 28:18-20). That is the clearest and fullest interpretation of all the elements in the parable. The parable says nothing about the destruction or replacement of Israel as a nation. Instead, Israel goes along its own track, while the kingdom that Jesus ushered in spills out over its borders.
5. Does Jesus' prediction of the destruction of Jerusalem by armies mean that he endorses its destruction (Luke 21:20-24; // Matt. 24:15-21 and Mark 13:14-19)? Not at all. He grieved over Jerusalem, as he approached it from a distance, just before he entered it for the last time (Luke 19:41-44; Matt. 23:37-39).
6. Doesn't the Book of Revelation say that God will destroy Israel? Just the opposite. Bible prophecy teachers put passages like Ezekiel 38 and 39 together with such passages as Revelation 16:16. (Revelation is in fact steeped in Old Testament apocalyptic imagery and themes.) From those Scriptures and others, the teachers reach the conclusion that a Satan-inspired coalition of armies will surround Israel, but God will rescue his chosen people. It is hard to see how a rescue like that is even remotely anti-Semitic. (The rescue seems to have echoes of God's deliverance of his chosen people during their enslavement in Egypt.) These same teachers also believe that the church will be raptured or "snatched" away into heaven before all of these troubles happen. So they are in no way gleeful about the Final Battle. In fact, Jews who care about Israel cannot find better friends than these teachers and ordinary Christians. They want Israel strong precisely because of such international armies - but the coalition has nothing to do with the church that will go missing, so to speak. For such teachers and Christians, the entire sweep of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, says that God has ordained the Jewish people to live in their historic homeland. These teachers and Christians therefore consider the rebirth of Israel in 1948 to be a miracle.
Into the second century and beyond
Though this article is about the New Testament, let's briefly look at Christianity for a few centuries after the New Testament era. Christians still did not have any political power. They could not persecute; they were the persecuted. The Roman authorities attacked them, throwing them to lions or burning them alive, sometimes torturing them before their death. Tradition says that all of the Apostles except John died at the hands of persecutors. Polycarp, (lived c. AD 70-155/60), not one of the Twelve, was the bishop of the church in the city of Smyrna, in Asia Minor. He was a disciple of John the Apostle, who lived a long life, but even he was persecuted. In any case, for not burning incense before a statue of Caesar and calling him Lord, Polycarp was put to the flames when he was eighty-six years old. Tension between the Christians and Jews by this time was strong, so the account of his martyrdom says that the Jews were not unhappy at his death - putting it mildly (13:1). Read about Polycarp's martyrdom here.
Incidentally, why were the Jews not required to burn incense before statues of Caesar? For a long time they had negotiated special exemptions from Rome. Not so the Christians, who were just getting started with their religion.
Persecution of them was particularly severe under the Roman Emperor Diocletian (reigned AD 284-305). In 303 he ordered all Christian books and churches to be burned. In 304 he ordered all Christians to burn incense to the pagan gods or face arrest. The outcome for the churches and books and the Christians themselves was devastating. It is no surprise that they turned to Constantine (r. 306-337) for relief. Before a battle in which he defeated a rival, he claimed that he had seen a cross of light superimposed on the sun. A year later, in 313, he issued the Edict of Milan, which granted religious freedom. The persecution of Christians was fiery, just a decade earlier, so who can blame them for seeking an official reprieve?
However, after this imperial favor was granted, and after the church gradually accumulated power and its subsequent corruption, how far into the future could these Christians see, blinded as they were by the fires of recent persecution? Apparently, not far enough, for as the church became more politicized, it used its power to persecute pagans and Jews. But for three full centuries the Christians were occupied with survival in the face of their enemies, while, paradoxically, it grew rapidly. In the fourth century, however, political power was switching over to the Christian side. Cue the music of the film Jaws.
The key to understanding the (supposed) anti-Semitism in the New Testament is, as usual, to take the sacred text in its historical context. Who were the power-brokers? Where in the hierarchy were the persecutors located? Did Jesus confront the powerful or the weak? What were the religious origins of everyone involved?
The authors of the New Testament were Jews, except Luke. (He got his sources from eyewitnesses to the ministry of Jesus, who were all Jews.) It is therefore difficult to lay at these Jews' doorstep the charge of anti-Semitism.
At the time the New Testament authors wrote, they and their fellow believers were politically powerless. They persecuted no one. If Christians in later centuries after Constantine used verses in the New Testament to persecute Jews or pagans, then these Christians misread the sacred text. They should have learned that any persecution against Christians in the first century was wrong, and it was wrong against Jews and pagans in their time, too.
The New Testament authors cannot be blamed for such later (fatal) foolishness. They were reporting in the first century on the opposition to their faith in order to explain how Jesus and his movement-turned-church persevered and grew rapidly, by God's grace. How could their reports not mention persecution? Their opponents, when they emerged, were Jews and Romans throughout the Empire. How could the reports exclude them specifically, historically speaking?
Paul the Apostle, in his complex chapters (9, 10, 11) in his theological treatise called the Epistle to the Romans, is baffled why national Israel rejected his Lord, whom he saw in a vision on the Damascus Road (Acts 9:1-19). But in spite of all the severe persecution he suffered at the hands of his fellow Jews, and regardless of his bafflement, he still concludes that God has not rejected his chosen people. Paul writes in Romans 11:1-2:
1 I ask then: Did God reject his people? By no means! I am an Israelite myself, a descendant of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin. 2 God did not reject his people, whom he foreknew.
He goes on to say that God has reserved for himself a remnant, just as in the days of Elijah. He says that at the end of times, all issues will be sorted out, but only by God's doing, not humanity's.
How can I improve on Paul's inspired writing?