Is Christianity Anti-Semitic?
What is Christian anti-Semitism?
Anti-Semitism is both illogical and irrational. Its bitter fruit stems from psychological, political, and religious roots. Whatever the causes, this scourge has plagued humanity for centuries. Although the term anti-Semitism was only recently coined in 1879 by the German agitator, Wilhelm Marr, it was soon applied to all forms of hostility toward Jews throughout history.1 Its genesis and genealogy go back hundreds of years before the common era. So-called Christian anti-Semitism is antedated by hatred of Jews among ancients.
One authoritative Jewish source accurately reflects these anti-Semitic beginnings, Anti-Jewish prejudice appeared in antiquity mainly in countries which later became part of the Roman Empire. Refusal by the Jews to accept the imperially sanctioned cult in any form was regarded by Rome as a refusal to recognize the authority of the state, and the rejection of rules then universally held sacred.”2 The Jewish people could only allow themselves to worship the one, true, invisible God. And the Romans refused to recognize their fidelity to their God. Caesar was lord—no other was tolerated, especially an unseen One. The first recorded outbreaks of anti-Semitism as a national policy date back to around 1550 B.C. Interestingly, the Bible records the historical incident. The first chapter of the Book of Exodus credits the Egyptians with the infamous distinction of beginning national anti-Semitism. Their irrational fear that our people would outgrow and eventually outnumber them led them to the conclusion that the Hebrews would take over their mighty empire. This ancient episode has a very modern ring to it!
Jewish deicide and “Christ killer”
Although anti-Semitism goes back to ancient history, its greatest impetus came as a result of the accusation that the Jews committed deicide, the killing of God by the crucifixion of Christ. It was vehemently asserted that the sole guilt for the death of Jesus Christ must lie with the Jews. Maintaining the guilt of the Jews, the church, primarily composed of Gentiles by this time, sought to “repay” the guilty party, a “repayment” enacted in the name of Christ and for the glory of God. But is it really true that our people bear the sole guilt for the death of Jesus? Have the stinging cries of “Christ-killer” been justified down through the centuries? The New Testament portion of the Bible is our major source of information for the events surrounding the death of Jesus. Where does the New Testament actually place the burden of guilt? Who is really responsible for the death of Jesus Christ…?
The following followers of Jesus recorded the names of those parties who God holds responsible for the death of the Messiah:
For truly in this city there were gathered together against Thy holy Servant Jesus, whom Thou didst anoint, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever Thy hand and Thy purpose predestined to occur.
It is obvious that the Jews alone were not responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus. The Roman government, through the decisions of her governing authorities, Herod and Pontius Pilate, bears a portion of the guilt. It is worthy to note that the Roman historian, Tacitus, writing in his Roman Annals (written between A.D. 115 and 117), mentions that Christ “was executed by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius” (Annals, XV. 44). He does not mention Jewish responsibility for the death of Christ. The historical account in Acts also states that the Gentiles share in the guilt of Jesus’ death. And “the peoples of Israel” as well. The first century Jewish historian, Josephus, also records a more balanced responsibility between Pilate and the Jews of the first century (Antiquities of the Jews, XVIII.3). Peter, one of the early Jewish believers, says that the first century Jews crucified Jesus “in ignorance” (Acts 3:17).
Messiah must die
But without removing human responsibility, it is obvious that God Himself determined that the Messiah must die. Whatever the Romans, the Gentiles, or the peoples of Israel did in the first century, they fulfilled whatever the hand and purpose of God predestined (Acts 4:28). It was divine imperative, the Messiah of Israel must die in order to become the Savior of the world. Isaiah, the prince of our Jewish prophets, predicted such a voluntary death some 700 years before the coming of Jesus the Messiah (Isa.52:13-53:12). It was the Lord who “caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him” (Isa. 53:6). It pleased the Lord “to crush Him, putting Him to grief” (Isa. 53:10). Isaiah prophesied that the Messiah would go to His death willingly, “like a lamb that is led to slaughter, and like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, so he did not open His mouth” (Isa. 53:7).
Forgiveness not revenge!
Jesus Himself made this quite clear when He said, “I lay down my life that I may take it again. No one has taken it away from Me, but l lay it down on My own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again” (John 10:17-18). The death of Jesus was not the helpless, morbid charade of a demented first-century Jewish carpenter. It was God’s greatest display of mercy and grace for a guilty human race. Jesus died voluntarily for humanity and it is all humanity that must bear the collective guilt for that death. But this guilt is removed from anyone, Jew or Gentile, when he receives the Messiah and His free gift of forgiveness and eternal life.
While admitting that some of those who professed Christ were responsible for the wholesale persecution of the Jewish people, it does not necessarily follow that they were consistent with biblical teaching on this point. In fact, they demonstrated utter inconsistency with that which they supposedly professed. This can be seen in at least three major areas.
Jesus’ attitude toward Jews
First, anti-Semitism is totally inconsistent with the stated attitude of Jesus toward the Jews. To believe that Jesus is the Messiah or Christ and then not reflect His attitude toward the Jewish people is the height of hypocrisy, let alone a fallacious inconsistency. Jesus was born a Jew, He lived as a Jew, and He died a Jew, by His choice. Even His resurrection was molded after Jewish expectation. He lived in the midst of His Jewish people and He loved them with a love unparalleled in the annals of Jewish history. Even when it became apparent that a large number of His people had rejected His Messianic claims, Jesus wept over a city that not only missed His arrival, but also a city that would come under the Roman destruction in the very near future. Jerusalem, the golden, would become Jerusalem the ruin (Luke 19:37-44).
Even in His hour of death, He prayed, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). His dying heart desired forgiveness, not revenge! Is it any wonder that Jesus told His disciples that love would be the one undeniable evidence that they had been with Him (John 13:34-35)? He commanded them, “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44). One can argue against a doctrine and fight against a cause, but when love is felt, the message is heard! The early Jewish believers were known for many things, but none more forcibly than their undying love for their Messiah and their Jewish kinsmen. It is utterly inconsistent to despise those who are so dearly loved by Jesus Himself. Prejudice must fade in the dawn of His love.
Early Jewish leadership of the Church
Second, anti-Semitism is absolutely inconsistent with the attitude and teaching of the Apostles, the early Jewish leaders of the Christian Church. They were not only loyal Jews who had come to believe that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, but they also wrote the documents of the New Testament. They knew Jesus personally and willingly died as martyrs rather than renounce Him. The Apostle Paul, more than any other, carried the good news of the Jewish Messiah to the farthest corners of the earth. And yet, wherever he traveled, he never bypassed the Jews; he always went to them first. God’s program begins with the Jews (Romans 1:16). Paul’s greatest sorrow was that many of his kinsmen had rejected their Messiah. This great Apostle’s love for his Jewish people was so intense that he was willing, if it were possible, to surrender his own salvation and suffer the eternal judgment of God, if they would only come back to Jesus as the Jewish Messiah. “I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from the Messiah for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh” (Romans 9:2-3). His prayers were constantly rising before the throne of God on their behalf: “My heart’s desire and my prayer to God for them is their salvation” (Romans 10:1).
Paul realized that Israel’s future was anchored in her great heritage. The Jewish people “are beloved for the sake of the fathers” (Romans 11:28). God’s covenant promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are not broken and irretrievably cast aside. The promises stand firm and secure. Like Jesus before him, Paul foresaw a day in the distant future when Israel would experience all of the Messianic blessings, that glorious day when the nation would turn to Jesus as the Messiah of Israel and the Savior of the world (Romans 11:25-29). The Apostles would have been appalled at the centuries of anti-Semitic hatred. It is absolutely inconsistent with not only their love and concern for the Jews, but also with their hope for Israel and her future.
Anti-Semitism and the Bible
Third, anti-Semitism is utterly inconsistent with the Old Testament portion of the Bible, the only authoritative book of the earliest church. The Jewish Scriptures formed the basis for the early Christian community. Deny these Scriptures, and the foundation of their Christian faith disintegrates. Even when the New Testament documents were completed, the believers still embraced the Jewish Scriptures alongside of them, totally equal in authority and teachings.
A Clause Against Anti-Semitism
One of the most significant passages in the Jewish Scriptures, a passage to which the early church undoubtedly adhered (see Galatians 3:8), is Genesis 12:1-3. God called Abraham to follow Him to a place that He would show him. He gave to Abraham certain personal, national, and universal promises. One of these promises contained a clause against anti-Semitism. God said to Abraham, “And I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse” (Genesis 12:3). God committed Himself without reservation to preserving Abraham and his posterity. And His intention to preserve and bless them is expressed in this phrase. The way an individual or a nation treated Abraham and his people would determine the way God would treat them. Blessing the Jews brought God’s blessing and cursing them brought God’s condemnation.
This stipulation against anti-Semitism has proved out through both biblical and secular history to this very day. All the great powers, individual or corporate, who attempted to exterminate the Jews, fell sooner or later by the same divine stroke of justice, whether it was Assyria or Babylon of the ancient world or Spain or Germany of the modern world. The divine promise stood secure and inviolate, for God Himself had declared it.
And this same principle still stands secure and inviolate today, as it always will. The promise reflects the character and nature of the promise-giver, who is truthful and unchanging. To believe in Christ is to believe in Christ’s Bible. And to believe in His Bible is to believe in God’s covenant with Abraham, the father of the Hebrew people. Any attack on God’s covenant people is an attack on the God of the covenant, which is antithetical to belief in Christ. For He said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:34-40). Those guilty of such an attack show by their fruits that they don’t follow Christ at all.
Prejudice, not belief
Believing in Christ does not produce anti-Semitism. It may have been the convenient scapegoat for some, perhaps for many. For prejudice runs deep in the core of men’s experience. But belief in Christ is not the cause of anti-Semitism. In fact, one Jewish source claims that modern anti-Semitism is not religiously motivated at all, “Modern anti-Semitism is thus built on racial, not religious foundations and the adoption of the prevailing faith no longer provides an escape route for persecuted Jews.”3
For a professing Christian to side with the anti-Semite is to side not only against the Jewish Apostles who penned the Christian New Testament, and against the Jewish Messiah who inspired the Christian New Testament, but it also invites the sternest judgment from the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. To court God’s judgment doesn’t seem very rational or logical. But then foolishly blaming all of our troubles on the bicycle riders doesn’t either!
- Geoffrey Wigoder, ed., “Anti-Semitism,” Encyclopedic Dictionary of Judaica (New York: Leon Amiel Publishers, 1974), p. 33.
- Ibid., pp. 33-34.
- R.J. Werblosky, and Geoffrey Wigoder, eds., “Anti-Semitism,” The Encyclopedia of the Jewish Religion (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1965), p. 34.
This content was adapted from an earlier Jews for Jesus article.