The Anti-Semitism of the New Testament

The history of anti-Semitism in the Christian church is a long, sad story. Ironically, this faith which began as a sect within Judaism has been responsible for many more atrocities against the Jewish people than any of their other enemies.

For centuries, Christian Europe reviled Jewish believers as Christ-killers, and Jews were accused of ludicrous crimes like “host nailing” (stealing consecrated communion wafers and driving nails through them, to crucify Jesus anew) or draining the blood of Christian children to bake in matzoh. Throughout the Middle Ages, thousands of Jews were tried and executed, or simply murdered by mobs, after wild accusations such as these incited Christian communities to frenzy. One of the most notable Christian anti-Semites was Martin Luther, who wrote a book titled On the Jews and Their Lies which argued that Judaism should be outlawed, synagogues should be burned down and Jews should be enslaved for forced labor.

At the root of all this anti-Semitic hatred and bloodshed lies a matter of first-century politics. At the time of Christianity’s origin, there was a necessity to blame someone for Jesus’ death. But blaming the Romans would not have been wise – Christians existed at Rome’s sufferance in any case, and depicting their founder as a criminal executed by the Romans for treason would have been inviting far worse persecution. The natural alternative was to cast blame on the Jews, whom the gospels depict as conspiring to murder Jesus with, at worst, the reluctant cooperation of the Roman authorities.

As Christianity cast off its Jewish origins, this story was found useful to serve other purposes. Finding few converts among the Jews, Christianity’s evangelists began targeting Gentiles for conversion. The depiction of the Jews as a stubborn, hardhearted people, cursed by God with blindness and unbelief as punishment for their sins, was readily integrated with the Gospel story and used to explain why these people had so widely rejected the faith that was born among them.

Consider some specific examples of biblical anti-Semitism. While all the gospels record Jesus as engaging in debate with the scribes and Pharisees, only the Gospel of John elevates these disputes to an accusation of corporate guilt against “the Jews” in general: “And therefore did the Jews persecute Jesus, and sought to slay him” (5:16). The fourth gospel also says of Jesus: “He would not walk in Jewry, because the Jews sought to kill him” (7:1) and adds darkly that “no man spake openly of him for fear of the Jews” (7:13). In the crowning accusation, John depicts Jesus as accusing “the Jews” as follows:

“Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it.”

—John 8:44

When Jesus is tried before Pilate, John writes: “The Jews answered him, We have a law, and by our law he ought to die” (19:7), and adds: “Pilate sought to release him: but the Jews cried out, saying, If thou let this man go, thou art not Caesar’s friend” (19:12).

Ironically, the single most anti-Semitic verse of the gospels comes in the book that otherwise shows the most understanding and sympathy for the Jewish viewpoint, the Gospel of Matthew. In this bloodcurdling verse, the Jewish spectators demand that responsibility for Jesus’ death be placed on themselves and on all their descendants:

“When Pilate saw that he could prevail nothing, but that rather a tumult was made, he took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see ye to it. Then answered all the people, and said, His blood be on us, and on our children.

—Matthew 27:24-25

The anti-Semitism continues in the Book of Acts, where the apostle Stephen is made to say what would become a common Christian refrain against the Jews – that they had always been a sinful and stubborn people with a history of killing prophets, culminating in the supreme atrocity of their killing God’s only son:

“Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do ye. Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted? and they have slain them which shewed before of the coming of the Just One; of whom ye have been now the betrayers and murderers.”

—Acts 7:51-52

The epistle of Titus adds another pervasive element of anti-Semitic lore, the Jews’ supposed obsession with money, and adds threateningly that “[their] mouths must be stopped”.

“For there are many unruly and vain talkers and deceivers, specially they of the circumcision: whose mouths must be stopped, who subvert whole houses, teaching things which they ought not, for filthy lucre’s sake.”

—Titus 1:10-11

The first epistle of Thessalonians, in what may be a later interpolation, alludes to the Roman destruction of Jerusalem as a deserved punishment from God:

“For ye, brethren, became followers of the churches of God which in Judaea are in Christ Jesus: for ye also have suffered like things of your own countrymen, even as they have of the Jews: who both killed the Lord Jesus, and their own prophets, and have persecuted us; and they please not God, and are contrary to all men: forbidding us to speak to the Gentiles that they might be saved, to fill up their sins alway: for the wrath is come upon them to the uttermost.”

—1 Thessalonians 2:14-16

And the Book of Revelation repeats John’s accusation that the Jews were secret demon-worshippers:

“Behold, I will make them of the synagogue of Satan, which say they are Jews, and are not, but do lie; behold, I will make them to come and worship before thy feet, and to know that I have loved thee.”

—Revelation 3:9

Rivers of innocent Jewish blood have been spilled through the ages because of verses like these. Today, to their credit, the mainstream Protestant churches have gone a long way toward banishing anti-Semitism to the shadows – but it is far from dead. It still has some prominent backers, such as John Hagee (as well as Mr. “The Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world” himself), and the Catholic church is intently moving backward.

However, Christian anti-Semitism has taken on a more subtle form: the so-called “Christian Zionist” movement, which encourages militant Jewish settlers to further expand their settlements in the occupied territory of the West Bank. What few of these people mention explicitly is that they encourage the settlers because they believe it will more swiftly bring on the End Times, in which one-third of Jews will be converted to Christianity and the rest will be slaughtered and then eternally condemned to Hell. This veiled wish for a new Holocaust, one condoned and directed by God, must be the most virulent manifestation of anti-Semitism to be found in all the dark history of Christianity.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.