Jesus has long been misrepresented to his people. Even many Gentile believers don’t know him in his original Jewish context. Most other Jewish people are either hostile or indifferent to his message because, as they’ve been taught, Jesus simply isn’t for them.
At Jews for Jesus, our goal is to present Yeshua (Jesus) to his people as he is: a devout, Torah-following, Jewish man from Israel, and the long-awaited Messiah. However, Christians may wonder why some Jewish people are so hostile to Yeshua and the gospel. There are both biblical and historical factors that contribute to this.
Throughout history, the church had a reputation for impacting its surrounding culture. In the Roman world, they were responsible for influencing the halt of infanticide as a legal practice.1 Even as late as the nineteenth century, it was individuals within the church who led the charge to abolish slavery.2
However, the church is also responsible for forcing the Jewish people to face contempt, persecution, forced conversion, and genocide – all at the hands of those who called themselves Christians. While we understand that the majority of the people responsible for such atrocities were not living in accordance with what Jesus taught, the association itself caused a lot of damage to the label “Christian” in the eyes of the Jewish community – and understandably so. The attitudes and actions taken against the Jewish people in the name of Jesus greatly grieved the heart of God and His Messiah.
Let’s take a walk through history to understand this in context.
Early Religious Leaders
Early Christians thought leaders in the Roman Empire expressed anti-Semitic viewpoints in very explicit ways.
Justin Martyr (AD 100–165):
The custom of circumcising the flesh, handed down from Abraham, was given to you as a distinguishing mark, to set you off from other nations and from us Christians. The purpose of this was that you and only you might suffer the afflictions that are now justly yours; that only your land be desolated, and your cities ruined by fire, that the fruits of your land be eaten by strangers before your very eyes; that not one of you be permitted to enter your city of Jerusalem. Your circumcision of the flesh is the only mark by which you can certainly be distinguished from other men.
We too, would observe your circumcision of the flesh, your Sabbath days, and in a word, all your festivals, if we were not aware of the reason why they were imposed upon you, namely, because of your sins and the hardness of heart.”3
As I stated before it was by reason of your sins and the sins of your fathers that, among other precepts, God imposed upon you the observance of the sabbath as a mark.4
Origen of Alexandria (AD 184–253):
We may thus assert in utter confidence that the Jews will not return to their earlier situation, for they have committed the most abominable of crimes, in forming this conspiracy against the Savior of the human race… hence the city where Jesus suffered was necessarily destroyed, the Jewish nation was driven from its country, and another people was called by God to the blessed election.5
Council of Nicea (AD 325)
As is clear from the previous quotations, Christian anti-Semitism certainly existed before the Council of Nicea took place, but it was there that it was codified. There were no Jewish bishops included at the council.6 A decision was made to replace Passover with Easter, and to replace the Saturday Sabbath with a Sunday Sabbath.7 In talking about the council, Emperor Constantine is quoted as saying, “Let us then have nothing in common with the detestable Jewish crowd; for we have received from our Saviour a different way.”8 After this decision was made, early church fathers increased in their criticism and distaste for the Jewish people.
John Chrysostom (AD 349–407):
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. For I am persuaded to call the fasting of the Jews a table of demons because they slew God.”9
The synagogue is worse than a brothel… it is the den of scoundrels and the repair of wild beasts… the temple of demons devoted to idolatrous cults… the refuge of brigands and dabauchees, and the cavern of devils… a criminal assembly of Jews… a place of meeting for the assassins of Christ… a house worse than a drinking shop… a den of thieves, a house of ill fame, a dwelling of iniquity, the refuge of devils, a gulf and an abyss of perdition…. I would say the same things about their souls…. As for me, I hate the synagogue…. I hate the Jews for the same reason.10
Augustine (AD 354–430):
How hateful to me are the enemies of your Scripture! How I wish that you would slay them [the Jews] with your two-edged sword, so that there should be none to oppose your word! Gladly would I have them die to themselves and live to you!”11
Christian Laws Against the Jewish People
The first form of Christian anti-Semitism was theological, but after the Council of Nicea, these ideologies had the backing to turn into actions. From the very beginning of the Roman Church, Jewish people were made to suffer under Christian legal codes. The Jewish people were forbidden from accepting converts to Judaism or circumcising their slaves. As time progressed, performing a circumcision became illegal, the violation of which would result in the death penalty. Eventually, Jewish people were barred from holding a public office or serving as an officer in the military.12 Later, restrictions were put on where the Jewish people could live, with whom they could do business, and where they could travel.13 Jewish people faced many expulsions from different countries over the span of the centuries.14
The Crusades were launched for the specific reason of reclaiming the Holy Land from those deemed unworthy (i.e., Muslims and Jews). There are even reports about how the Crusaders lit the Great Synagogue of Jerusalem on fire with its congregants inside, and as it burned, marched around it singing “Christ, We Adore Thee.”15 Many church leaders during the Crusades supported these sentiments.
Peter the Venerable (AD 1092–1156):
Yes, you Jews. I say, do I address you; you, who till this very day, deny the Son of God. How long, poor wretches, will ye not believe the truth? Truly I doubt whether a Jew can be really human…. I lead out from its den a monstrous animal, and show it as a laughing stock in the amphitheater of the world, in the sight of all the people. I bring thee forward, thou Jew, thou brute beast, in the sight of all men.16
The Spanish Inquisition
The Inquisition was instigated for the purpose of cleansing the church of what it considered to be heresy. The Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions especially focused on Jewish Christians who continued practicing Shabbat, Jewish holidays, and other rituals. As a result, the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions targeted Messianic Jews, whether they were sincere in their faith or not. Those found “guilty” were usually burned at the stake. Some communities even formed riots against the Jewish and Muslim communities, resulting in mass murder (e.g., Massacre of Lisbon.)17
Unfortunately, the Jewish people did not fare much better treatment with the reformation of the church. In fact, some argue that Luther’s anti-Semitic attitude set the stage for the general German opinion of the Jewish people prior to the rise of the Third Reich.
Martin Luther (AD 1483–1546):
First, their synagogues should be set on fire, and whatever does not burn up should be covered or spread over with dirt so that no one may ever be able to see a cinder or stone of it. And this ought to be done for the honor of God and of Christianity in order that God may see that we are Christians, and that we have not wittingly tolerated or approved of such public lying, cursing, and blaspheming of His Son and His Christians.
Secondly, their homes should likewise be broken down and destroyed. For they perpetrate the same things there that they do in their synagogues. For this reason they ought to be put under one roof or in a stable, like gypsies, in order that they may realize that they are not masters in our land, as they boast, but miserable captives, as they complain of incessantly before God with bitter wailing.
Thirdly, they should be deprived of their prayer-books and Talmuds in which such idolatry, lies, cursing, and blasphemy are taught.
Fourthly, their rabbis must be forbidden under threat of death to teach any more.
Fifthly, passport and traveling privileges should be absolutely forbidden to the Jews. For they have no business in the rural districts since they are not nobles, nor officials, nor merchants, nor the like. Let them stay at home.... If your princes and nobles do not close the road legally to such exploiters, then some troop ought to ride against them, for they will learn from this pamphlet what the Jews are and how to handle them and that they ought not to be protected. You ought not, you cannot protect them, unless in the eyes of God you want to share all their abomination.
To sum up, dear princes and nobles who have Jews in your domains, if this advice of mine does not suit you, then find a better one so that you and we may all be free of this insufferable devilish burden – the Jews.
Let the government deal with them in this respect, as I have suggested.18
John Calvin (AD 1509–1564):
Their [the Jews] rotten and unbending stiffneckedness deserves that they be oppressed unendingly and without measure or end and that they die in their misery without the pity of anyone.19
A pogrom is a state-sponsored riot against an ethnic group. The most infamous pogroms occurred against Jewish populations in Eastern Europe at the turn of the last century. In reality, these pogroms had been going on since at least the time of the Crusades. They grew worse as we neared the twentieth century, forced a mass Jewish migration to the United States, Canada, South America, and Israel, and set the stage for Holocaust-era Europe.
During the Holocaust, even though Naziism was opposed to the true tenets of Christian faith, the Confessing Church was the only official Christian sect that took a public stand against the Nazis. The rest of the church did very little to combat or decry this evil at the time (arguably due to Luther’s influence on German ideology). Most of the Nazis were self-proclaimed Christians, and while we know that the horrendous acts they committed were not at all aligned with the teachings of the New Testament, understandably, that was not clear to the Jewish community. To this day, many Jewish people consider much of the responsibility for the Holocaust to fall on the Christian church, even though many individual Christians risked and even sacrificed their lives to hide Jewish families and smuggle countless Jewish children out of Nazi-occupied areas.
Hatred for the Jewish people still exists in many forms. In 2019, anti-Semitic incidents increased by 74%,20 and by 2020 had risen an additional 27%.21 Europe and the U.S. have seen more and more startling, violent acts against the Jewish people. Last year, in New York alone, there were at least seven anti-Semitic attacks during the week of Hanukkah.22
In some extreme cases, replacement theology can be a cause for this type of violence.23 24 This makes it particularly difficult for some Jewish people to differentiate between Christians who believe in replacement theology and what it is that Jews for Jesus is asking them to consider about Jesus.
Due to the history between the church and the synagogue, Jewish people view Christianity as being completely incompatible with being Jewish. When a Jewish person is invited to consider Jesus, they assume they are being invited to strip themselves of any association with Jewishness. Sadly, in cases even today, that is what some churches expect Jewish people to do when they come to follow Jesus. However, that is not in keeping with Scripture.
The New Testament tells the story of Jewish people with names like Judah, Miriam, Jacob, and Shoshanah who, even after coming to follow Jesus as the Messiah, still attended the temple to pray and sacrifice,25 kept Shabbat,26 and celebrated the Jewish feasts and customs.27 The problem is, most Jewish people today don’t know that this book is about them or that the Messiah mentioned in its pages is for them. The remnant of our people will never know the truth unless we demonstrate it with our own lives. Those who bear the title of “Christian” must recognize that their Messiah is Jewish and that they have no right to be arrogant towards his people. After all, “it is not [they] who support the root, but the root that supports [them].”28
A Love that Transcends
Drawing attention to the troubled history between the Christian church and the Jewish community is not an attempt to throw stones, but an effort to illuminate these severed connections in a way that will bring restoration. Above all, anti-Semitism is a spiritual issue, and we believe that a key way to combat it is by including our Christian friends in our traditions and educating them about the Jewish context of their faith.
Jesus taught love, humility, and the dignity of all people. When you find hatred and prejudice “in the name of Jesus,” you find a failure to follow the one whose name is being used. The facts and statistics will always live on paper, but the Bible calls believers to a love that can transcend that. It is our prayer that believers can be united in this cause, and demonstrate in actions, not just words, that Yeshua is for all people, especially the people of Israel.
1. Kirk, Walden, “How Early Christians Resisted Infanticide by Loving Their Neighbors,” The Christian Post, March 12, 2019, www.christianpost.com/voices/how-early-christians-resisted-infanticide-by-loving-their-neighbors.html.
3. Justin and Thomas B. Falls, Saint Justin Martyr (Catholic University of America Press, 2008), 172–177.
4. Lustinus and Michael Slusser, Dialogue with Trypho (Catholic University of America Press, 2008), 33.
5. Poliakov Léon, “Anti-Semitism and Early Christianity,” The History of Anti-Semitism (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003), 23.
6. Bagatti Bellarmino, The Church from the Circumcision: History and Archaeology of the Judeo-Christians (Jerusalem: Franciscan Printing Press, 1971), 93.
7. Dr. Louis Goldberg, God, Torah, Messiah (San Francisco: Purple Pomegranate Productions, 2009), 128.
9. Kim Paffenroth, “Judas the Villain,” Judas: Images of the Lost Disciple (Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 38.
10. Muriel Seltman, “St. John Chrysostom and the First Thousand Years,” The Changing Faces of Antisemitism (Matador, 2015).
11. Stuart Cunliffe, “Two Thousand Years of Christian Anti-Semitism,” Everlasting: God's Faithfulness to Israel (Wipf & Stock, 2020), 7.
13. G. Sujin, “The Protestant Reformers and the Jews: Excavating Contexts, Unearthing Logic,” ed. Christopher Metress, MDPI, Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute, April 20, 2017, www.mdpi.com/2077-1444/8/4/72/html.
15. H. A. R. Gibb, The Damascus Chronicle of the Crusades: Extracted and Translated from the Chronicle of Ibn Al Qalanisi (Dover Publications, 2003) (ISBN 0486425193).
16. Mark Whitehead and Bert Spann, “Introduction,” Having Our Head, Heart, Hands, and Feet ALL IN for Jesus Christ, 1st ed., Mark Whitehead and Bert Spann (2018), 30.
19. John Calvin, excerpt from “Ad Quaelstiones et Objecta Juaei Cuiusdam Responsio,” The Jew in Christian Theology (North Carolina and London: Gerhard Falk, McFarland and Company, Inc., 1931).