William Nicholls. New York: Jason Aaronson, 1993. XXVIII + 499 pages. $40.00 cloth.
Hate” is a strong word and “anti-Semitism” is an accusation with broad implications. According to William Nicholls, Christian history is full of both. He is at least partly right. Many believers who have endeavored to share the gospel of God’s love to the Jew first have experienced the bitter fruit of anti-Semitism. Has the Church ever adequately faced the self-destructive hostility toward the Jewish people that can be found in its midst? Nicholls says no, and unfortunately offers little hope that things will ever change. Nevertheless, to the discerning reader, reasons for hope can be found.
This book was written by a professor at the University of British Columbia, ten minutes from the home in which I grew up. I read it while on vacation in Coeur D’Alene, Idaho, which has become (against its wishes) a magnet for the Aryan Nation and similar groups. Since our family car’s license plate holder provocatively reads, “My Boss Is a Jewish Carpenter,” I was uneasy and concerned not to attract the wrong kind of attention. So this book could not be read dispassionately. Neither was it written dispassionately.
Nicholls is theologically distant from those Christian circles that are generally considered pro-Jewish. Yet he has written sensitively and caringly. His devotion to seeing the Church repent of treating the Jewish people unjustly puts most Christians to shame. But has he gone too far in his zeal? Unable to explain the Holocaust, he has gone to the roots of Christian faith in order to find a source of such monstrous evil.
Nicholls’ view is a familiar one: Christianity was not begun by Yeshua, nor was Yeshua a Christian. He did not claim to be the Messiah nor seek to start a new religion but was crucified for political reasons under the oppressive regime of the Roman authorities. Christianity began as a separate religion under the teaching of Paul. Paul’s views eventually won out over those of the Jewish church and Christianity became increasingly hostile to the Jews. This is a well-worn theme that is heard often from those who treat the Scriptures lightly. Thus, claims Nicholls, by the time the gospels were written, this anti-Jewish bias had become part of the Scriptures themselves. The now gentile church sought to absolve the Romans of Yeshua’s death and to blame the Jews, who were at the time problematic for the Roman Empire. This myth of sole Jewish responsibility for the death of Yeshua embedded itself in Christian theology and became the justification for persecution throughout the centuries. Such is Nicholls’ view of the early period.
As Nicholls continues, the story becomes even more fascinating. One might think that the Renaissance and the Enlightenment would have wiped away this prejudice forever. However, the Jews had by this time become entrenched in the Christian psyche as a scapegoat and a focus for irrational paranoia. Moreover, the advent of secular modernity removed the restraints of Christian faith and conscience that had previously held in check the paranoia and hatred of the masses. Modern theories of the origins of species were used to exalt Aryans and legitimize contempt for Semites. Who could then combat this hatred of the Jews that was based upon pure paranoia?
Nicholls’ solution is dramatic indeed. The Church, he says, needs to repent and to re-examine its theology and the very source of its faith. He suggests that the Church must abandon its belief in Yeshua and give the Jewish Bible back to the Jews. No longer must Christians claim that the Jewish Scriptures speak of the Messiah. What he proposes, fully aware of the implications, is that Christianity remove the historical basis of its faith.
As this brief summary shows, Nicholls’ views are incautious and show little true knowledge of the greatest Jew who ever lived. Can Nicholls really believe that by rejecting its Scriptures, the Church will in any way be capable of combating evil such as that of the Holocaust? To do so would be to remove the foundations of Christian faith. He frankly proposes that Christians commit apostasy and convert en masse to the religion of rationalism! Yet here is a flaw in his own thought: by his own admission, rationalism was one of the very factors that made the Holocaust possible.
Nicholls writes much about anti-Semitism being the result of an irrational paranoia, brought on by centuries of false teaching regarding the Jews and the crucifixion. It is in this argument that he makes most sense. Perhaps what he misses, though, is the obvious. If anti-Semitism continues to have a life of its own in a secular, “post-Christian” society, perhaps the ultimate cause is not the Church and its theology. Rather, may not the ultimate cause be the opposition of an evil power to the plan of God for Israel? If this is so—as I believe it is—the solution is not to revise Christian faith and theology at all. Certainly, corrections should be made where Church teachings conflict with the Scriptures. But we should realize the ultimate source of anti-Semitism is the same source of all evil.
But don’t rule out this book altogether! Nicholls’ examination of the theological roots of anti-Semitism as taught throughout the centuries is thorough. Particularly useful are his cautions that the Church must reassess its interpretation of Yeshua. One does not need to accept Nicholls’ methodology or conclusions, but he is right to draw our attention to Yeshua’s close ties with his surroundings and with the Jewish culture of his day. There are profound implications in this. Popular views of the New Testament that understand it to be anti-Semitic must be recognized as misrepresentations of the truth. Replacement theology must be unmasked as a contributing factor to anti-Semitism. Ultimately, though, anti-Semitism must be acknowledged as the baseless paranoia that it is.
Christian Antisemitism is a valuable examination of the history of anti-Semitism. It has many valid observations and a few correct conclusions. Unfortunately, because Nicholls is so ready to abandon faith in the Scriptures, his conclusions remain largely unacceptable.
Daniel Nessim is a Jewish believer who works as an engineer in Washington State.