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Christianity and anti-Semitism

Theologian Andrew Wilson writes:

Ask most Jews what they honestly think about Jesus, and you will find a deep bitterness. Jesus was the starting-point for the painful history of Christian anti-Semitism. Centuries of Christian violence against Jews: mob violence, pillaging, rape, confinement to ghettos, forcible abduction of children to be baptized as Christians, expulsions from many nations and finally the Holocaust, have poisoned the minds of Jews from being able to appreciate the goodness of Jesus Christ. Christian anti-Semitism, and the resulting Jewish resentment of Christianity, remains a spiritual weight, the congealed pain of tens of millions of people who lived and died through that persecution. It is a continuing factor in hindering the Jewish-Christian relationship. [1]

In the last 2000 years anti-Semitism has been accepted and promulgated by many Christian leaders and laypersons; some, particularly in recent years, have condemned it. This article begins by describing passages in the New Testament that some feel are anti-Semitic as well as anti-Semitic statements and acts by the Church Fathers. It goes on to discuss developments in the 20th century, both promoting and opposing anti-Semitism.

During the past 1800 years, many Christians had anti-Semitic attitudes. Many historians hold that for most of its history, most of Christianity was openly anti-Semitic. The severity, type and extent of this anti-Semitism have varied much over time; the earliest form was theological anti-Semitism, but we should note that anti-Semitism existed well before Christianity and continued to be part of paganism after Christianity appeared. The pagan Romans, for example, considered the Jewish sect to be anti-social and the Jews to be religious fanatics. The Jews were nearly unique in the Roman world in insisting that their God was the only one. Romans in general were very tolerant of each region's religious practice and did not understand why first Jews, and then Christians, insisted that their religion was true and all other religions false and evil.

Table of contents
1 Anti-Semitism in the New Testament
2 The Church Fathers
3 Later Christian Writers
4 20th century Christian statements
5 The Jews' expulsion from England
6 The Jews' expulsion from Spain
7 Church teachings and Nazi Germany
8 Christian opposition to the Holocaust
9 Reasons that anti-Semitism continued
10 Anti-Semitism in modern-day nations
11 Current attempts to convert Jews to Christianity
12 The "White Power" Movement
13 Reconciliation between Judaism and Christian groups
14 External links

Anti-Semitism in the New Testament

Main article: Jews in the New Testament

Many New Testament passages criticise the Pharisees, according to some the most influential Jewish group of its day. Christians have historically read these passages as attacking Jews in general. These passages have shaped the way that Christians viewed Jews; like most Bible passages, they have been interpreted in a variety of ways:

Some have argued that anti-Jewish passages in the New Testament are not really targeting Jews as a whole, as the Pharisees were just one of several Jewish groups (with the Saducees, Samaritans, and Essenes, for example). They argue that the fact that in the time of Jesus the Pharisees were the largest and most dominant group of theologians and religious leaders does not prove that Jesus' words were aimed at every individual Jew, nor at Jews as a people. (In any case, Jesus himself was a member of the Jewish people and practised the Jewish religion.)

As the canon of the New Testament was slowly settled, the other Jewish sects disappeared, leaving only Pharisaic Judaism (later known as rabbinic Judaism). Thus, almost all Jews today are heirs of the Pharisees. (Members of the Samaritan community still extant do not refer to themselves as Jews.) As such the New Testament passages about Pharisees have been read by the Christian community as being about Jews in general.

Another way to explain some passages that criticise "Jews", is that the Greek word Ioudaioi could also be translated "Judaeans", meaning specifically the Jews from Judaea, as opposed to Jews from Gallilee or Samaria for instance. If this explanation is correct, Christian anti-Semitism has in part been a tragic error arising from the fact that the New Testament writers did not choose a less ambiguous word for "Judaean", perhaps because they did not expect their words to be read for so many years and in such different cultures.

In recent years some theologians within liberal Christian denominations have begun to teach that readers should understand the New Testament's attacks on Jews as specific charges aimed at certain Jewish leaders of that time. Others disagree, pointing out that the passages as written do not condemn individuals, but target the Jewish people as a whole.

As time passed, the split between Christians (specifically, the followers of Paul and the other Apostles, all of whom were Jews) and Jews became more significant. By the time the Gospels came into their final form, they included points of view that, if said by Gentiles to Jews, would certainly be considered anti-Semitic by the Jews. This may be where the real problem began - Christianity reached out to Gentiles, and accepted them as eligible to become Christian without their first becoming Jewish. This was a direct result of a decision by the Christian leadership (who were predominantly Jewish) in Jerusalem. Thus a large number of non-Jews came into Christianity, and they read many verses as attacking Jews in general. It is clear that this interpretation of the New Testament was more commonly used after 1000 A.D. when used as proof that God hated the Jews. Until about 1000 A.D., there was an active Jewish component of Christianity. Lutheran Pastor John Stendahl has pointed out that "Christianity begins as a kind of Judaism, and we must recognize that words spoken in a family conflict are inappropriately appropriated by those outside the family."

The Church Fathers

The following statements have been used to justify persecution of Jews. Many of the following people were recognized as saints by the Church; none of them explicitly advocated physical violence or murder, sometimes arguing, like Augustine, that the Jews should be left alive and suffering as a perpetual reminder of their murder of Christ. We also should remember that the tolerance, moderation, and respect for diversity of modern secular Western states would not have been regarded as virtues in the early Christian church.

Catholic Encyclopaedia entry on Ambrose

Augustine deems this scattering important because he believes that this is a fulfillment of certain prophecies, thus proving that Jesus was the Messiah. This is because Augustine believes that the Jews who were dispersed were the enemies of the Christian Church. He also quotes part of the same prophecy that says "Slay them not, lest they should at last forget Thy law".

Ephraim the Syrian and his polemics against Jews

Analysis of Ephraim's writings

"Shall I tell you of their plundering, their covetousness, their abandonment of the poor, their thefts, their cheating in trade? the whole day long will not be enough to give you an account of these things. But do their festivals have something solemn and great about them? They have shown that these, too, are impure." (Homily I, VII, 1)
"But before I draw up my battle line against the Jews, I will be glad to talk to those who are members of our own body, those who seem to belong to our ranks although they observe the Jewish rites and make every effort to defend them. Because they do this, as I see it, they deserve a stronger condemnation than any Jew." (HOMILY IV, II, 4)
"Are you Jews still disputing the question? Do you not see that you are condemned by the testimony of what Christ and the prophets predicted and which the facts have proved? But why should this surprise me? That is the kind of people you are. From the beginning you have been shameless and obstinate, ready to fight at all times against obvious facts." (HOMILY V, XII, 1)

Historical note -- In the introduction to the first of the eight sermons delivered at Antioch, Chrysostom explains his purpose in these words: "There are many in our ranks who say the Jews think as we do. Yet some of these are going to watch the Jewish festivals and others will join the Jews in keeping their feasts and observing their fasts. I wish to drive this perverse custom from the Church right now. My homilies against the Anomians can be put off to another time, and the postponement would cause no harm. But now that the Jewish festivals are close by and at the very door, if I should fail to cure those who are sick with the Judaizing disease." This would seem to indicate that the goal of these sermons was to discourage Christians from intermixing Jewish belief and practice with Christian belief and practice, because Jewish belief and practice were evil and un-Godly. At the time he delivered these sermons, he was a tonsured reader and had not yet been ordained a priest or bishop, but the sermons plainly did not prevent his ordainment or his elevation to a bishopric or his later canonization.

Later Christian Writers

Excerpt from the Life and Miracles of St. William of Norwich

Our primal foe, the serpent Sathanas,
Who has in Jewish heart his hornets' nest,
Swelled arrogantly: "O Jewish folk, alas!
Is it to you a good thing, and the best,
That such a boy walks here, without protest,
In your despite and doing such offense
Against the teachings that you reverence?"
From that time forth the Jewish folk conspired
Out of the world this innocent to chase;
A murderer they found, and thereto hired,
Who in an alley had a hiding-place;
And as the child went by at sober pace,
This cursed Jew did seize and hold him fast,
And cut his throat, and in a pit him cast.
I say, that in a cesspool him they threw,
Wherein these Jews did empty their entrails.
O cursed folk of Herod, born anew,
How can you think your ill intent avails?
Murder will out, 'tis sure, nor ever fails,
And chiefly when God's honour vengeance needs.[1]

Many websites have lists of supposed quotes by Christian leaders and saints. For example, one page on More Christian Jew Haters claims to list "quotes that reveal shocking hatred against the Jewish people and false accusations against the Jews by popes, 'saints' and other Christian religious functionaries". Many of these quotes turn out to be partly or completely fabricated by people seeking to discredit Christianity. Amongst the victims of these misquotations is Gregory of Nyssa.

20th century Christian statements

Reverend Jerry Falwell gave a statement (January 14, 1999) that caused concern in the Jewish community. He stated that "the Anti-Christ is probably alive today and is a male Jew. Is he alive and here today? Probably. Because when he appears during the Tribulation period he will be a full-grown counterfeit of Christ. Of course he'll be Jewish. Of course he'll pretend to be Christ. And if in fact the Lord is coming soon, and he'll be an adult at the presentation of himself, he must be alive somewhere." Falwell later expressed astonishment at the idea that Jews would find this anti-Semitic, and offered an apology for hurting anyone's feelings, but stood by his position. He was making these statements according to a view of Christian eschatology called premillennial dispensationalism, which anticipates the appearance of a false Messiah. They expect this anti-Christ to deceive the world by at first seeming more perfectly than Jesus to fulfill the scriptural promises of a coming prophet and king of the Jews. The same view of eschatology teaches that the curse of God will come against anyone who curses the Jewish people, and that of all people in the world the Jews alone will not be deceived by the anti-Christ. Nevertheless, the majority of Jews, both religious and secular, feel that such claims are hostile to them.

The Jews' expulsion from England

Edward I of England expelled all the Jews from England in 1290 (only after ransoming some 3,000 among the most wealthy of them).

The Jews' expulsion from Spain

In 1481, Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile, the rulers of Spain who financed Christopher Columbus' voyage to the New World just a few years later in 1492, declared the Spanish Inquisition. All Jews in their territory were compelled to convert to Christianity or flee the country. While some converted, many others left for Morocco and North Africa. Estimates are that between four and eight thousand secret Jews (morraños) were burnt alive, as well as many Moriscos. It is arguable whether this constitutes anti-Semitism in the racist sense, since it was directed at the religion of Judaism.

Church teachings and Nazi Germany

Christian anti-Semitism has its roots in religious intolerance. Jews that converted to Christianity were accepted. Nazi anti-Semitism on the other hand was racist and directed towards all Jews, whether religious or secular. Many historians hold that Nazi anti-semitism was based in traditional Christian anti-Semitism. The following are examples of Christian beliefs towards Jews that became Nazi policy.

Christian opposition to the Holocaust

There was little in the way of organized resistance to the Nazis' anti-Semitic policies by any Christian group during the 1930s in Europe, whether Catholic, Orthodox Christian, or Protestant. However, there were many individual Christian clergy and laypeople of all denominations who publicly and actively opposed the Nazis' anti-Semitic policies. One Lutheran pastor who did was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, though in the end his opposition cost him his life. By the 1940s, fewer Christians were willing to oppose Nazi policy publicly, but many secretly helped save the lives of Jewish people. There are many sections of Israel's Holocaust Remembrance Museum, Yad VaShem, dedicated to honoring these "Righteous Among the Nations".

Reasons that anti-Semitism continued

The isolation of Jews as a special case may be a partial cause of both beneficial and detrimental special treatment of the Jews. This special case treatment can be seen from very early times, into the present in both, politics and religion.

Christianity did not arise as a political ideology, and lacks the tools, internally, which are necessary to rule. Instead, where it rises to dominance, Christianity borrows those tools from the cultures into which it has been insinuated; and this was the case of the New Roman Empire. Old Roman principles of state were patched onto the new religious assumptions of Christianity, after the Edict of Milan. One principle which arises directly from Christian teaching, for example, is that, to know God as He is revealed in Jesus Christ is eternal life: "No other name under heaven is given among men, by which they must be saved". To the service of this exclusivist religious motive, Christian rulers adapted and applied the same tools of Empire under which Christians had formerly, occasionally suffered as a persecuted minority. The Christian rulers argued that those who take away the possibility of eternal life should be prevented by force; especially apostates from the Christian faith or those who drew converts away from the Church, since this would be worse than murder or any purely temporal evil. Therefore, at times, no public displays of any non-Christian religion were allowed, and proselytizing to convert people away from Christianity was also forbidden: sometimes purely for reason of Empire, sometimes more directly arising from the power and authority of the Church. These intolerant practices have had mixed results throughout Christian history. Many religions faded away in the regions where the Christian Empire dominated, but others simply retracted their public presence, or asserted themselves covertly within the Christian context.

However, a special case had always been reserved for the Jewish religion. Christians have believed that the Jewish practices were prefigures of the Christian ones, and that they may not be forcibly stopped (although Christians never ceased from attempting to convert Jewish people). This singling out of Jews had the negative side-effect of isolating Jews into a special class, as a group excluded from the general rule.

For example, Christian law forbade Christians to lend money and reclaim it with interest; Jewish law likewise had the same restrictions. But during the middle-ages, European Christian nobility often forced Jews to take on this role; over time, some Jews naturally played an important role in the economies of the Middle Ages. On many occasions, when their high-powered debtors decided they did not want to pay back their debts, they relied on the "Christ's murderers" tradition to expel the Jews and default on their obligations. To many, this would appear to be a case of misuse of Scripture and tradition to justify actions that would otherwise be condemned.

An almost automatic respect is often accorded to a Jewish convert to Christianity, which goes hand in hand with a special contempt for Jewish apostasy from Christianity. Especially strong fascination with Jews and Judaism, both positive and negative, has typified Christianity from the beginning. No family lineage has the significance to Christianity that belongs to every Jew, simply by being born Jewish. Special interest in their history and religion has occasionally produced among Christians a special interest in winning their conversion; the dark side of which, is that an especially virulent disdain has been reserved for ethnically Jewish converts to Christianity who practice Judaism after conversion to Christianity, or revert to Judaism. Jewish rejection of Christian claims has been felt with unique disappointment, sometimes erupting into hatred and violence toward them, for reasons that would not even remotely apply to any other ethnic group. This has been the important cause of Christian anti-semitism for centuries, and especially during the Inquisition.

As with any other religion, Christianity is transmitted through the voices of men. The shape of anti-Semitism in the Christian world has changed so much according to place and time that, on nearly anyone's account, it is unfair to say Christians per se have taught anti-Semitism. But again, on nearly anyone's account, it can certainly be said that Christian anti-Semites have often turned to Christian scripture to justify their actions.

Anti-Semitism in modern-day nations

Anti-Semitism in some Eastern European countries still remains a substantial problem. The entry on Religious freedom in Poland discusses the current state of religious tensions in predominantly Catholic Poland. Anti-Semitism exists to a lesser or greater degree in many other nations as well, including: Ukraine, Russia, Hungary, Germany, and Syria. While in a decline since the 1940s, there is still a measurable amount of anti-Semitism in the United States of America as well, although acts of violence are quite rare. The 2001 survey by the Anti-Defamation League reported 1432 acts of anti-Semitism in the United States that year. The figure included 877 acts of harassment, including verbal intimidation, threats and physical assaults ([1]).

Current attempts to convert Jews to Christianity

It has been the viewpoint of Evangelical Christians that all people must accept Jesus Christ as their Savior in order to find salvation. It follows that from their point of view all people should be given the chance to convert to Christianity, regardless of race, colour or current creed. Not to evanglize Jews would be tantamount to discrimination.

The Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant Christian denomination in the U.S., has explicitly rejected suggestions that it should back away from seeking to convert Jews, a position that critics have called anti-Semitic but that Baptists see as consistent with their view that salvation is found solely though faith in Christ. In 1996, the SBC approved a resolution calling for efforts to seek the conversion of Jews "as well as for the salvation of 'every kindred and tongue and people and nation.'"

Many other Evangelicals agree with the SBC position, and some have similarly been supporting efforts specifically seeking Jews' conversion. Among the controversial groups that has found support from some Evangelical churches is Jews for Jesus, which claims that Jews can find their Jewish faith become "complete" by accepting Jesus as the Messiah.

By contrast, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Methodist Church, the United Church of Canada and the Roman Catholic Church have ended their efforts to convert Jews. They do continue their evangelism more generally among non-Jews. Most Jews see evangelism directed specifically at Jews as anti-Semitic.

The "White Power" Movement

The Christian Identity movement, the Ku Klux Klan and other White supremacy groups claim to be very strongly Christian in nature; they are vehemently anti-Semitic, as well as racist. The Klan is also demonstrably anti-Catholic. A racial belief common among these groups, but not universal, is an alternative history doctrine, sometimes called British Israelism. In some forms this doctrine absolutely denies that modern Jews have any racial connection to Israel of the Bible. Instead, according to extreme forms of this doctrine, the true racial Israel and true humans, are the Adamic (white) race.

Reconciliation between Judaism and Christian groups

In recent years there has been much to note in the way of reconciliation between some Christians groups and the Jewish people. Most of this reconciliation has occurred between the Jewish community and the Catholic Church, and some liberal Protestant Christian organizations. See the article on Christian-Jewish reconciliation for more details

See also:

External links

Research material