IS THE NEW TESTAMENT THE SOURCE OF ANTI-SEMITISM?

Howard Taylor.

Introduction.

This paper is not a defence of Christendom's record of anti-Semitism. It has been appalling. It only seeks to defend the New Testament itself.

It is based on material that I prepared for a talk I gave to the Edinburgh branch of the CCJ (Council of Christians and Jews). It is in response to a booklet by Gareth Lloyd Jones entitled: Hard Sayings - Difficult Texts for Jewish-Christian Dialogue, published by CCJ in 1993. (ISBN 0 900311 23 1). I quote here a fierce attack on the New Testament from Eliezer Berkovitz which is cited by Lloyd Jones on page 3 of the booklet. (Not that Lloyd Jones necessarily agrees with it.) 

  Christianity's New Testament has been the most dangerous antisemitic tract in history. Its hatred-charged diatribes against the Pharisees and the Jews have poisoned the hearts and minds of millions and millions of Christians for almost two millennia. No matter what the deeper theological meaning of the hate passages against the Jews might be, in the history of the Jewish people the New Testament lent its support to oppression, persecution and mass murder of an intensity and duration that were unparalleled in the entire history of man' degradation. Without Christianity's New Testament, Hitler's Mein Kampf could never been written. (`Facing the Truth', Judaism 27, 1978, p 325)

  It is my firm belief that a fair reading of the New Testament, together with a commitment to Jesus as Messiah, Saviour and Lord, far from leading to anti-Semitism, will lead to a love and respect for the Jewish people whether or not they believe in Christ. 

It is my contention that much of the Church's frightful record of anti-Semitism comes from a very superficial reading of the New Testament. The best weapon against anti-Semitism is not the downgrading of the New Testament but a profound understanding of the heart of its message about the purpose and meaning of the death of Jesus.

Although the New Testament has indeed been greatly misused by the enemies of the Jews it cannot, in principle, be the only source of anti-Semitism. The reasons are as follows:

The subject of the book of Esther (written along time before the New Testament era) is the attempted murder of all Jews because their "customs are different from all other people". (Esther 3:8). 

Pagan anti-Semitism has also been documented.See for example: Sevenster J.N., 1975, The Roots of Pagan Anti-Semitism in the Ancient World. Published by Brill 

Pagan anti-Semitism cannot be blamed on the New Testament.

There are also fundamentalist followers of another religion who indulge in anti-Semite rhetoric. This cannot be blamed on the New Testament.

Anti-Semitism as man's proud rebellion against God's election of Israel to be the means of the salvation of the world, is spoken of in the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament) hundreds of years before the New Testament was written. 

If we had stopped worshipping our God and prayed to a foreign god, you would surely have discovered it, because you know our secret thoughts. But it is for Your sake that we are being killed all the time, that we are treated like sheep to be slaughtered. (Psalm 44: 20-22 GNB)

I will deal with the challenge to the New Testament in a series of questions.

1. Does the New Testament place the blame for the death of Jesus supremely upon the Jews?

This question is at the root of the matter. In a superficial sense it is indeed the Jewish people who reject Jesus and demand that he be crucified. Yet the New Testament does not see the death of Jesus as a martyrdom. Although the Jewish people are the main human instrument in the rejection of Jesus, behind it all is the hand of God! Ultimately it is God who did it! All four of the gospel writers, together with Paul and Peter in their epistles, make it clear that Jesus came to this world with the express purpose of allowing humanity to do its worst to Him so that He might bear our sin and forgive the world. The New Testament writers do not thereby excuse those who rejected Christ - for indeed it was a heinous sin - but they do see the sins of the Jews as representing all human sin. The gospel exposes the whole world as sinful!This is the theme of the first three chapters of Romans

In other words, only if we ignore the very heart of the meaning of the cross of Jesus - as expounded throughout the New Testament - as making atonement for the sins of the world, can we possibly be self-righteous about Jewish rejection of Jesus. This is made clear in so many of our greatest hymns such as the well known words of Charles Wesley: "Died He for me who caused His pain, for me who Him to death pursued." 

If we blame the Jews for the death of Jesus, how can we say that Christ carried our sins? To use the death of Jesus as an excuse for anti-Semitism is actually to deny the New Testament gospel and reject the Christ offered to us in the New Testament. 

However if our religion is merely devotion to a martyr - and this is what some popular Christian religion can be - then we might possibly turn to anti-Semitism. 

We also might possibly turn to anti-Semitism if we fasten on the word spoken by the crowd and reported in Matthew's gospel: "His blood be on us and our children". Lloyd Jones discusses in detail why Matthew gave us those words. He rightly notes that earlier parts of his gospel show that Matthew can hardly be accused of anti-Jewishness. My own view is that Matthew reports those words to us simply because they were actually spoken by the crowd. He is being a faithful reporter of what he had discovered actually to have been the case.+ These words could only be an excuse for anti-Semitism if we believe that God and Jesus agreed with them. Luke (probably a Gentile) reports that Jesus prayed: "Father forgive them..."!

The New Testament, drawing on the Hebrew Scriptures, sees the election of Israel in two ways. Positively they are elected to bearers of God's revelation and redemption to the world - to be a light to the Gentiles. Negatively they are chosen to be the ones who - in rejecting the Messiah - would unconsciously bring atonement and forgiveness to the world. Jesus and Paul drawing on passages in the Hebrew Scriptures - such as Deuteronomy 29:2-4, Isaiah 6:9-10, and Isaiah 42:18-20 - see the very spiritual blindness and deafness of God's elect people as the way God chooses to bring sight to the world. This unwitting, but foreordained, fulfilment of God's intention is also the theme of John 11:49-53, where Caiaphas the High Priest makes a decision to sacrifice Jesus for the sake of the people.

These positive and negative aspects of election, both of which are used by God for His purposes of mercy for all peoples, are the main subject of Romans chapters 2,3,9,10 and 11. This is the greatest reason of all that Paul insists that God's ancient promises to Israel will never be set aside.

2. Does not the New Testament attack the Jewish religion as cold-hearted legalism - especially with reference to the Pharisees and Scribes?

It certainly does attack the religion of the Pharisees as practised at the time of Jesus. I return to that shortly. However the heart of the Jewish Faith which are their own Scriptures, bearing witness to the true God, are revered as holy by all the New Testament writers. When the New Testament speaks of the inspiration of the Scriptures it is of course referring to the Jewish Scriptures. The apostles all counted themselves as Jews and continued to honour the Jewish customs. Jesus Himself tells His hearers to obey the teaching of the Pharisees because they sit in Moses' seat. (Matt 23:2,3) He goes on to tell them not to do what the Pharisees do because they do not practice what they preach. In other words he is simply saying that the Religious leaders of the day are failing badly to live up to their own religion. This is hardly an attack on the religion but only on the way it is being practised. Paul himself, well after his own conversion to Christ, still refers to himself not only as Jew but a Pharisee. (Acts 23:6).

So yes indeed Jesus does see the Pharisees as betraying the heart of Jewish faith. But in attacking them he is only doing what much of what the Hebrew Scriptures themselves do, namely to strongly condemn the religious and political leadership as unfaithful to God. If one wants to read strong condemnation of Jewish leadership and the nation of Israel one can't beat the writings of Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, Hosea and many others. It is no good claiming that this was `in family' criticism. It was criticism from God Himself through His prophets. The New Testament claims only to be continuing the same tradition from in the family - Jesus and His disciples all being Jewish.

Now to a wider point. It is a danger for all religious professionals that they become self-righteous and legalistic. This is true not only of Jewish leaders but also Christian leaders of all theological persuasions. The reason the whole Bible speaks about the self-righteousness of the Jewish religious establishment is the obvious one that it was written by Jews in a Jewish context. Similarly the New Testament contains much that is deeply critical of current Christian leadership in such Churches as Corinth, Galatia, Thesalonica and many others. The Apostle Paul warns that the same conceit and self-righteousness that afflicted Jewish religious leadership will also affect Christian leadership.(Romans 11:17-25). Church history has shown us that Paul's warning was well justified. The very sins that led the Jewish establishment to reject Jesus have deeply affected the Christian Church throughout its history. It may acknowledge Jesus with its lips but its heart can still be far from Him. (See Isaiah 29:13 and Matt 15:8) It is part of our human sinfulness to misuse our God-given religious doctrines and practices to try to justify ourselves before God rather than acknowledge that we live only by His grace and mercy. 

The New Testament, then, does not teach that the Jewish religion will be permanently legalistic and the Christian religion will always be marked by grace. Its denunciation of religious legalism is directed at Jewish and Christian leadership.

3. Does not John's Gospel seem to attack Jews as Jews?

Here I acknowledge there is a problem. The problem is, though, not one of John's gospel itself but of its English translations. The passages that are often quoted are:

  John 5:16-18 16 So, because Jesus was doing these things on the Sabbath, the Jews persecuted him. 17 Jesus said to them, "My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working." 18 For this reason the Jews tried all the harder to kill him; not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God. (NIV) 

Here and in many other passages the villains are identified as the Jews. Speaking to the same group of people Jesus says in John 8:44: 

 You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father's desire. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies. (NIV) 

The Greek word translated `Jew' is the word `Ioudaios'. This is of course a legitimate translation except in the context of John's gospel where in these polemical passages it must have either meant the Jewish leadership in Judea or the Jewish inhabitants of Judea (and not the Jewish inhabitants of Galilee.) In the context of John's gospel it could not have meant the Jewish people as a whole. The reason for this is that John identifies Jesus Himself as a Jew (John 4:9) and later in the same chapter Jesus says to the Samaritan woman (vs22):

 You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is of the Jews. (NIV) 

John 7:1 makes the distinction between the hostility to Jesus from the Judean Jews and the relatively friendly reception He received from the Galilean Jews. These reasons alone show conclusively that Jesus' words of condemnation against the Jews cannot have been meant to refer to the Jewish people as a whole.

This leads me to a wider question that goes beyond John's gospel.

4. Is not the New Testament claim that (a) Jesus is the Messiah and (b) the Jews are wrong to reject that belief, a form of anti-Semitism?

It is a form of anti-Semitism only if anti-Semitism means a failure to agree with Judaism! But that is to trivialise the meaning of the word. Of course a statement such as: "Jesus is the Messiah, the only Lord and Saviour of the world", contradicts Judaism. It also contradicts Islam, Hinduism and Atheism! 

The Jewish claim that Jesus is not the Messiah is equally an anti-Christian statement. Its assertion that the Torah is the Word of God is an anti-Islamic declaration because Islam teaches that the Torah was written as the result of the Jews distorting the true Word of God which had been given to them. 

We simply have to acknowledge that religions do contradict one another in fundamental areas of belief. This should not be a cause for hatred but dialogue in a spirit of humility and love. 

This leads to our next question.

5. Does not the New Testament command the Christian to evangelise the Jews, and is this not a threat to the Jewish people?

Yes it does command us to evangelise the Jews, but not only the Jews - also the whole world. Similarly the Hebrew Scriptures (Eg: Isaiah 42:6-8, 60 (whole chapter), Micah 4:1-7 promise the Jews that the light given to Israel will convert other nations so that Pagan idol worshippers may acknowledge the God of Israel as the true God. Incidentally Moses, and the Hebrew Prophets together with the Psalms of David are now known and loved throughout much of originally pagan Europe, the Americas, China, and black Africa - through the missionary work of the Christian Church.

They too are called, by their Scriptures, to be evangelists! 

It is the New Testament belief that when a Pagan turns to Christ he is no longer a Pagan. However the New Testament does show us clearly that when Jews became believers in Jesus they did not have to give up their Jewishness. Paul, who was so insistent that Pagan converts to Christ must not become Jews in order to become Christians, did himself, as a Jew, continue to observe all the Jewish customs. 

Christian evangelization of Jews is only a threat to Jewish people if a fundamental definition of being a Jew is someone who does not believe in Jesus. Why this should be a fundamental definition is unclear since Jews who become Buddhists - such as Ben Gurion - are still regarded as Jews.

Even if it be granted (and I don't grant it) that Jewishness is contradicted by belief in Jesus, then we have to remind ourselves that the Jewish demand that Christians do not evangelise is a demand that Christians disobey Christ - and thus a demand that they give up Christianity!I agree with many Christian thinkers that Christians can only speak to Jews about Jesus in a spirit of repentance for all the evil done to the Jews in the name of Jesus. It is the Church's appalling record in regard to the Jews which is the biggest single factor in hiding the true Jesus from the Jewish people.

I also believe it to be reasonable and right for such organisations as: `The Council of Christians and Jews', to forbid its Christian members from using it as a vehicle for evangelism. This would be to defeat its right and good purpose as an organisation for learning about one another's traditions in a relaxed environment.
 
 

6. Does not Jesus prophecy the destruction of Jerusalem and the Jewish state?

I quote such passages as the following:

 Luke 21:5-6 5 Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God. But Jesus said, 6 "As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down." 

Luke 21:20-24a 20 "When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near. 21 Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, let those in the city get out, and let those in the country not enter the city. 22 For this is the time of punishment in fulfilment of all that has been written. 23 How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! There will be great distress in the land and wrath against this people. 24 They will fall by the sword and will be taken as prisoners to all the nations.(NIV)

This is a reiteration of many of the themes of the Hebrew Prophets who were drawing on the teaching of Moses, such as:

 Deut 28:64-67 64 Then the LORD will scatter you among all nations, from one end of the earth to the other. There you will worship other gods-- gods of wood and stone, which neither you nor your fathers have known. 65 Among those nations you will find no repose, no resting place for the sole of your foot. There the LORD will give you an anxious mind, eyes weary with longing, and a despairing heart. 66 You will live in constant suspense, filled with dread both night and day, never sure of your life. 67 In the morning you will say, "If only it were evening!" and in the evening, "If only it were morning!"-- because of the terror that will fill your hearts and the sights that your eyes will see. (NIV) 

Moses and the prophets always give a final hope for Israel and promise that exile will not be forever. For example:

 Deut 30:3-5 3 then the LORD your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you and gather you again from all the nations where he scattered you. 4 Even if you have been banished to the most distant land under the heavens, from there the LORD your God will gather you and bring you back. 5 He will bring you to the land that belonged to your fathers, and you will take possession of it. He will make you more prosperous and numerous than your fathers. (NIV) 

The question before us is whether or not Jesus in these passages in which he speaks of the scattering of Israel teaches that the scattering is forever.

 Luke 21:24 They will fall by the sword and will be taken as prisoners to all the nations. Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled. (NIV) 

Clearly, whatever the phrase: `the times of the Gentiles' refers to, part of the meaning of the sentence is that the scattering of Israel is not forever. Paul, too, in Romans 11 speaks of the falling of Israel as only temporary. (For my view of the current peace process in the Middle East click here.)

7. Does not the New Testament teach that the Church has replaced Israel in God's purposes?

Those who believe it does might rightly note that through the preaching of the Apostles in the power of the Holy Spirit Gentiles were brought to Christ and so became spiritual descendants of Abraham.(Galatians 3:6-9). Even though they were not physically circumcised, they became what Paul calls the 'circumcision'(Phil.3:2,3; Romans 2:25-29;Col.2:11 etc.). By this Paul meant that the gospel had cut sin from the heart. This is the true 'circumcision of the heart' that matters in God's eyes. Even the Hebrew Scriptures give the same teaching. (Deut 30.6; Jer.9.26; Ezek.44.7ff). The Gentiles were grafted into Israel so that the Church began to inherit the many spiritual blessings that God had promised Israel of old.(Romans 11:17-19). The Apostle Peter uses the ancient titles given to Israel and applies them to the Church:

You are a Chosen People, a Royal Priesthood, a Holy Nation, a People belonging to God....- 1Peter 2.9 (Compare these titles with: Isaiah 43.10,20; 44.1-2; 61.6; Deut 4:20; 7.6; 14.2 and many others) 

The New Testament, especially the Apostle Paul, makes it quite clear that the way of salvation is by 'faith' and not the works of the Jewish law. He tells us that this is also the teaching of the Hebrew Scriptures and is not a new teaching that begins with the New Testament. (Romans 2,3,4 and the whole of the letter to the Galatians.)

It is true that the New Testament does teach that the Church, being grafted into Israel, does inherit much that was purposed for Israel but that does not mean that Israel is now cast aside. Why not? To answer this I must refer to what was said in answer to question 1 above.

It is precisely because the Gentile Church owes its salvation to the Jewish rejection of Jesus, (and this was God's foreordained purpose), that God has not forgotten His promise to them. This is the overwhelming reason why Paul in Romans 3 and 11 gives a resounding 'NO' to his question 'Has God cast them off?'. The whole New Testament teaches that Israel's rejection of Jesus was not an accident. As was said above, one of the reasons God chose them was that their sin would represent all sin, so that God might bear the sins of the whole world in the Person of Jesus. 

Lastly in this section I quote the words of the writer to the Hebrews:

By calling this covenant `new' (The New Testament) he (God) has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and ageing will soon disappear.(Heb 8:13).

In the context of the argument of the Letter to the Hebrews the author is referring to the system of animal sacrifices in the Temple which has indeed been superseded by the sacrifice of Christ. However numerous passages in the Old Testament itself tell us that animal sacrifice - though given by God - was not the essence of the religion of Israel but was meant to point to something greater.The sacrificial system of the Temple is seen as transitory and is even deprecated in such passages in the Hebrew Scriptures as: 1 Sam 15:22, Psalm 50:9-15, 51:16-17, 69:30-31, Isaiah 1:11-15, Jeremiah 6:20, Hosea 6:6, Amos 5:21-23, and Micah 6:6-7

Judaism has survived for nearly two thousand years without any Temple or animal sacrifices.

8. What is the New Testament's view of the final destiny of Israel?

"I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away." (Luke 21:32-33 32 NIV) 

What does Jesus mean by `this generation will not pass away'? The Greek word translated `generation' is `genea'. I believe he is paraphrasing the words of Jeremiah who speaks of God's determination to preserve the family or descendants of Israel until the foundations of the heavens and earth pass away. The Greek Old Testament (called the Septuagint or LXX) which was used by Jesus has the same word `genea' translated `descendants' in the following passage.

Jeremiah 31:35-37 35 This is what the LORD says, he who appoints the sun to shine by day, who decrees the moon and stars to shine by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar-- the LORD Almighty is his name: 36 "Only if these decrees vanish from my sight," declares the LORD, "will the descendants of Israel ever cease to be a nation before me." 37 This is what the LORD says: "Only if the heavens above can be measured and the foundations of the earth below be searched out will I reject all the descendants of Israel because of all they have done," declares the LORD. (NIV) 

Finally in this section I refer to Acts 1:6-8 where we read:

6 So when the disciples met together, they asked Jesus, "Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?" 7 He said to them: "It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. (NIV) 

The disciples are asking Jesus if the promises of the Hebrew Scriptures about the final destiny of Israel are about to be fulfilled. Popular Christian teaching has been that Jesus tells the disciples that they are wrong to ask such a question because the destiny of Israel has been superseded by the Church. But that is not what Jesus says. He is simply saying that it will not be accomplished in their life time - only God knows when He will bring it to pass. Their task is to preach the gospel to Jews and Gentiles in all nations.

Conclusion.

The New Testament attitude to God's ancient people the Jews who do not believe in Jesus is summarised in the following words of the apostle Paul in Romans 11:28-32: 

28 As far as the gospel is concerned, they are enemies on your account; but as far as election is concerned, they are loved on account of the patriarchs, 29 for God's gifts and his call are irrevocable. 30 Just as you who were at one time disobedient to God have now received mercy as a result of their disobedience, 31 so they too have now become disobedient in order that they too may now receive mercy as a result of God's mercy to you. 32 For God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all. (NIV) 

The best way to counter anti-Semitism in the Christian Church is to take the New Testament at its face value and take to heart the core of its message about the point of the death of Jesus in the purposes of God for the salvation of the world.

Lastly the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament both make clear that God's special election of Israel was never meant to be favouritism. God loves all peoples equally. The Jews have never had a better or worse chance than anyone else of going to heaven. God chose them for a purpose and will preserve them to the end - not as His favourites - but as a sign to the world that His Word is true. All peoples live only by His grace, and all nations, churches and individuals, one day, must give an account of themselves to Him. 

 If this has assisted you in your thinking, study or preparation please fill in a Feedback form (see link below) stating to which article/sermon note etc you are referring. 
Howard Taylor welcomes questions and comments (critical or not).
'Faith and the Modern World' Home Page.
Articles : Articles in Summary: Sermon Outlines: Comment on Society Today : Book Reviews: Feedback : Biography: Moral and Social Philosophy:Other Links