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The Council of Christians and Jews - Study Series
Hard Sayings – Difficult New Testament Texts
for Jewish-Christian Dialogue
by Gareth Lloyd Jones
I am greatly honoured by the CCJ’s invitation to contribute to this series with
an essay on biblical texts which are problematic in Jewish-Christian dialogue.
There are severe limits in dealing with such texts in a brief pamphlet, but I
hope to have succeeded in outlining the basic issues involved. The debt
which I have incurred in preparing the work will be obvious from the appended
notes. But I wish to record my thanks to the Revd Marcus Braybrooke for
useful bibliographical material, to Dr Margaret E Thrall for reading the
completed manuscript and making valuable suggestions, to Sister Margaret
Shepherd for the editorial work involved and to Mrs Beti Llewellyn for the
Gareth Lloyd Jones
Head of the School of Theology and Religious Studies
University of Wales, Bangor, Gwynnedd LL57 2DG
1. The Question: Anti-Judaism in the New Testament?
Since the pioneering study of the Church’s attitude towards Jews by James
Parkes,1 published in 1934, many surveys have been made of anti-Jewish
polemic in Christian literature. With very few exceptions, they begin with the
major theologians of the second century CE. In each case, the opening
chapter invariably contains a detailed account of the so-called Adversus
Judaeos writings of such prominent ecclesiastics as Justin Martyr, Ignatius of
Antioch, Melito of Sardis, Origen and Tertullian.2 Spurred into action by the
claim that there is a direct link between the Nazi Holocaust and the Church’s
negation of Judaism, scholars have subjected the views and
recommendations of the early Fathers about the Jews to close scrutiny and
recognised in their anti-Judaism the seeds of modern anti-Semitism. Their
painstaking research has shown that virulent hatred of the Jewish people is
never far from the surface in the works of many leading theologians from the
second century onwards.
But although many Christians are ready to scour patristic texts for the slightest
hint of what Jules Isaac called ‘the teaching of contempt’, they are reluctant to
subject the foundation documents of the Faith to the same critique. While the
works of the Fathers may justly be regarded as the source of much of the
persecution endured by the Jews at Gentile hands over the centuries, such a
charge cannot, in their view, be levelled at the New Testament. Many biblical
scholars are adamant that there is not connection between the markedly
prejudicial statements against Judaism found in the New Testament and the
barbaric anti-Semitism of Hitler. They insist that, for instance, the hard sayings
about the Pharisees attributed to Jesus, and the pointed remarks by St Paul
about the inferiority of Judaism should in no way be regarded as having
augmented the sufferings of the Jews over the past two thousand years. They
refuse to believe that the so-called ‘theological anti-Semitism’ of the Christian
era has any basis in Scripture.
The view expressed by Gregory Baum in 1961 is typical of a number of
Christian apologists who have examined this particular issue. Though he is
ready to grant that later Christian authors ’contributed to the contempt and
debasement of the Jewish people’, Baum states unequivocally that ‘there is
no foundation for the accusation that a seed of contempt and hatred for the
Jews can be found in the New Testament’.3 In his view, any anti-Jewish
feelings expressed by Christian authors during the early centuries were the
product of the post-biblical period; they did not stem from Scripture itself.
Baum’s uncompromising standpoint, a feature of his earlier New Testament
studies, has been espoused by others. Even at a meeting of Jewish and
Christian theologians, J.B. Sheerin could claim that ‘the sacred books do not
condemn the Jewish people’.4 Bruce Vawter is equally emphatic. In an article
entitled ‘Are the Gospels Anti-Semitic?’, he writes,
To suggest, as some seem prepared to do, that no Jew had anything to do
with the crucifixion, and that there is a straight ideological line linking the
Gospels with the furnaces of Auschwitz, is another extreme that is obvious
nonsense. Gruesome as are the annals of anti-Semitism, Christian and other,
it is doubtful that the Gospels have had very much of a real part to play in any
of them.5
While he recognises the existence of hostility towards Jews in the New
Testament, it is, in his view, later generations of Christians who are to blame
for using it in support of anti-Jewish actions. The seeds of persecution were
not sown by the original writers.
Increasingly, scholars have taken issue with statements such as these.
Jewish theologians, in particular, have been vocal in their disagreement.
Elizabeth Berkovitz, who has written extensively on the Holocaust, claims that
Christianity’s New Testament has been the most dangerous anti-Semitic 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 passage 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’s degradation. Without Christianity’s New Testament, Hitler’s Mein
Kampf could never have been written.6
Strong words, and without doubt unacceptable to many Christians. But
Berkovitz, an Orthodox Jew, is supported by Samuel Sandmel, late of Hebrew
Union College, Cincinnati, the centre of Reform Jewry in the United States.
Sandmel was a meticulous scholar who devoted much of his career to
promoting dialogue and understanding between Christians and Jews. In the
last book that he wrote, Anti-Semitism in the New Testament?, he concludes
that the Christian canon of Scripture does contain anti-Semitic elements. After
examining the evidence book by book he feels bound to say, ‘It is simply not
correct to exempt the New Testament from anti-Semitism and to allocate it to
later periods of history. It must be said that innumerable Christians have
indeed purged themselves of anti-Semitism, but its expression is to be found
in Christian Scripture for all to read.’ While applauding Christians for rising
above anti-Semitism, he states unreservedly that ‘the presence of antiSemitism in the New Testament is what presents the occasion for rising
above it.’7
Jewish scholars, however, are not the only ones to come to this conclusion;
they have been joined by influential Christians who share their standpoint,
even though they express their views rather differently. In her controversial
study of the theological roots of anti-Semitism, Faith and Fratricide, the
Roman Catholic theologian Rosemary Ruether argues that parts of the New
Testament were intended by their authors to turn Christians against Jews. In
her opinion, anti-Judaism is ‘the left hand of Christology’, in the sense that
proclaiming Jesus as the Christ automatically implies the rejection of the Jews
whose destiny must be one of suffering because they do not accept him as
the Messiah. The Church becomes the ‘New Israel’, thus rendering Judaism
obsolete. Ruether asks the pointed question, ‘Is it possible to say “Jesus is
the Messiah” without, implicitly or explicitly, saying at the same time “and the
Jews be damned”?’8
James Parkes, the Anglican clergyman who ranks as a doyen in the field of
Christian-Jewish relations, writing fifty years after he commenced his study of
the subject, states categorically,
It is dishonest henceforth to refuse to face the fact that the basic root of
modern anti-Semitism lies squarely in the Gospels and the rest of the New
The most extensive investigation to date is that by N.A. Beck, a professor at
Texas Lutheran College. Beck classifies the polemic into three interrelated
types: christological, supersessionistic and defamatory. The last two, which
are particularly damaging to Jews, follow from the first: because they refused
to accept Jesus as the Christ, the Jews have been superseded by Christians
and condemned by the New Testament itself to a life of perpetual suffering. 10
Any consideration of the vexed question concerning the biblical roots of antiSemitism must, therefore, take account of two diametrically opposed views.
Both are espoused by distinguished scholars who are acutely conscious of
the persecution suffered by the Jewish people and are determined to
eradicate the possibility of another Holocaust. However, the lack of agreement
between the two sides in the debate suggests that the issue will remain on the
theological agenda for the foreseeable future and continue to be vigorously
contested. Both views are based on differing concepts of the nature and
purpose of the Holy Scripture.
The first view, that which denies any connection between the New Testament
and later pogroms, is governed primarily by dogmatic considerations. Its
protagonists engage in an ideological defence of the New Testament in order
to ward off the criticism that parts of it are contaminated by anti-Jewish
prejudice. In their opinion, to claim that Christian Scripture is ‘sacred’ is
tantamount to saying that it is morally unassailable, free from every blemish
and immune to human fallibility. In the words of J.B. Sheerin, ‘the Gospels are
the vehicles that convey the pure doctrine.’11 Scripture is the inspired and
inerrant ‘Word of God’ whose absolute authority is upheld by the oft-quoted
formula ‘the Bible says’. While the Fathers must by justly condemned for their
rabid anti-Judaism because their writings are not considered to be inspired,
the same criticism cannot be levelled at the New Testament. A double
standard comes into operation simply because, in dealing with the Bible, the
inquirer stands on holy ground.
Proponents of the second view, Jewish scholars and the more liberal-minded
Christian commentators, who see a connection between Auschwitz and the
Gospels, are not as reluctant to submit the Bible to searching criticism.
Although Scripture is sacred, it is linked to time and place, it reflects historical
circumstances. And inasmuch as it was written and preserved by fallible
people, it can never be free from a human element. The New Testament
reflects the difficulties and tensions felt by the nascent Church during the first
Christian century. The circumstances surrounding its origin should be
considered by all those who take it upon themselves to interpret its message
in the contemporary world. Whatever the intention of the biblical authors,
there are New Testament texts which are exceedingly unflattering towards
Jews, to say the least, and which could be used to provide anti-Semitism,
both theological and secular, with some degree of legitimation. The
‘antisemitic potential’ of these passages must be recongised, and somehow
neutralised. 12
Allied to such recognition is the need for Christian selfcriticism. Many feel that there is a place for what Paul Ricoeur calls ‘a
hermeneutic of suspicion’, suspicion of possible errors, distortions and
ambiguities latent in a 2000 year-old tradition. 13
The debate between these two standpoints is essentially concerned with
authority. 14 The central question is this: Have we the right to criticise our own
religious traditions? May we legitimately stand in judgement on Scripture?
Are we justified in repudiating certain New Testament passages because they
are damaging to Jews? Those who use such terms as inerrant’ and ‘infallible’
in relation to Scripture, will deny the existence of such a right. In the past,
however, Christians have had no difficulty in answering the above questions
in the affirmative. The early Church happily pressed selected portions of the
Hebrew Bible into service, but neglected the rest. Appropriate passages were
used as a quarry for messianic prophecies, while the laws governing diet and
circumcision were either ignored or allegorised. The only way Christian
exegetes could handle non-messianic parts of the Hewish Scriptures was to
treat them as allegory whereby the literal sense of a text was discarded in
favour of the spiritual.
But such selectivity and reinterpretation was not confined to the Hebrew Bible,
it was applied to the New Testament as well. The stipulations of Jesus and
Paul about alms-giving (Mt. 5:42), celibacy (1 Cor 7), self-denial (Mt 16:24),
non-retaliation (Mt 5:39), and the role of women in the Church (1 Tim 2:12)
have been either ignored in practice or spiritualised by most Christians. In the
sixteenth century Martin Luther felt justified in repudiating the Letter of James
and calling into question its place in the canon of Scripture. He referred to is
as ‘an epistle of straw’ because James, by insisting that faith without works
was dead, contradicted the Pauline concept of salvation by unmerited divine
grace, which Luther regarded as the essence of the Christian gospel. If some
aspects of New Testament teaching can justifiably be repudiated, in the sense
of their not being regarded valid or binding for contemporary Christians,
cannot the same principle b applied to passages which have proved injurious
for almost two millennia to persons outside the Christian community?
Bearing in mind the difference of opinion expressed by scholars about the
existence of anti-Jewish polemic in Christianity’s foundation documents, and
recognising that the issue is, for both sides, far from settled, we shall now
consider specific New Testament texts. Such a list of ‘hard sayings’ is
inevitably subjective, but as post-biblical Christian authors demonstrate, each
one has been used freely over the centuries to legitimate the persecution of
Jews. They are texts which have been regarded as sanctions for hatred and
intolerance, and as such possess an unmistakable ‘antisemitic potential’. The
quotations are taken from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible.
2. The evidence: A Selection of New Testament Texts
The temptation to perpetuate the negative stereotypes about Jews founded in
Hole Scripture is very real for Christian teachers and preachers. This is for
two reasons. First, it is much easier to interpret New Testament texts literally
than to enquire into the socio-historical conditions and the theological
presuppositions which produced them. Second, the claims made by New
Testament writers are regarded as authoritative and factually true by the vast
majority of readers because they are biblical. However, since the prima facie
evidence seems to be to the contrary, those Christians who deny any
connection between the New Testament and the Holocaust cannot escape
the duty of reading the earliest Christian sources more carefully if they wish to
engage in dialogue with Jews.
The chosen texts are examined under four headings which reflect the main
thrust of Christian anti-Jewish polemic for almost two millennia. In each case
an attempt will be made to demonstrate the possible link between post-biblical
anti-Judaism, if not Nazi anti-Semitism, and the negative portrayal of Jews
found in Christian scripture. Many texts must be reconsidered in the light of
the results of critical study before they can be appealed to in justification of
any anti-Judaic position. The traditional interpretations of New Testament
statements on Judaism is not the only one possible.
2.1 The Diabolization of the Jews
In 1936 the Nazis published a picture-book for children which contained an
artist’s impression of a Jew. The caption read, ‘The father of the Jews is the
devil’. 15 Though such a notion played a prominent part in Hitler’s antisemitic
propaganda, it was not original to twentieth century Germany. It had been
voiced four hundred years previously by Martin Luther who concluded that
since the Jews were no longer God’s people they must be ‘the devil’s people’.
He advised his readers thus: ‘Whenever you see a genuine Jew, you may
with a good conscience cross yourself and bluntly say, “There goes a devil
incarnate”’. He was convinced that ‘next to the devil, a Christian has no more
bitter and galling foe than a Jew. There is no other… from whom we suffer as
much as we do from these base children of the devil’. 16 But Luther is not to
be credited with originality either. In his anti-Hewish tirades he was simply
stepping into the past and regurgitating the slanders and false accusations of
preceding centuries.
Om the high Middle Ages interest in the devil as a malevolent being who
could assume human form swept through Europe, and it was not long before
the Jew was regarded as an instrument of Satan. Jews were identifiable by
the ‘satanic smell’ which could be eradicated only by the water of baptism.
They featured prominently in woodcuts and paintings with goatees and
bulging eyes – characteristics of the devil. 17 But the mediaeval polemicists
were guilty of no more than expressing what was implied in the teachings of
the early Christian theologians. In a series of sermons preached in Antioch in
386, John Chrysostom, later to become Bishop of Constantinople, sought to
dissuade members of his congregation from fraternising with Jews by
describing them as allies of Satan. ‘It is time for me to show that demons
dwell in the synagogue not only in the place itself, but also in the souls of the
Jews… If the Jews are acting against God, must they not be serving the
demons?’ 18 The diabolization of the Jews is a prominent theme in the most
respected Church Fathers, but it is rooted in two New Testament texts.
2.1.1. The Synagogue of Satan
I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of
those who say that they are Jews and area not, but are a synagogue of
Satan. Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to
throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you
will have tribulation. (Revelation 2:9-10; cf:3:9)
During the final decades of the first century CE, the cult of emperor worship
was compulsory throughout the Roman world. Christians had to choose
between worshipping Domitian, referred to as a ‘second Nero’ on account of
his cruelty, and suffering persecution. John, the author if Revelation, was
exiled to Patmos, an island off the Turkish coast, because he refused to
compromise his belief in Christ. From his prison he wrote letters to seven
churches on the mainland imploring them to keep the faith despite severe
persecution. The Christian congregation at Smyrna, to whom the above
passage is addressed, was one of these churches.
The identity of those who claim to be Jews but are not has occasioned much
debate. Some scholars take literally the statement that they were not Jews.
In their opinion they were Judaizing Christians, that is, baptised Gentiles who
advocated Jewish practices such as circumcision and Sabbath observance,
but claimed Jewish identity in order to avoid persecution. 19 This theory is
supported by the fact that there is no sustained polemic in Revelation against
Jews and Judaism, only against Rome. The prevailing view, however, is that
John is referring to the local Jewish community in Smyrna which had
increased considerably in size and influence after the fall of Jerusalem in
70CE. 20 By slandering those who believed in Jesus, and even colluding with
the Roman authorities to imprison Christians, the Jews of Smyrna had lost the
right to their name. In John’s eyes, true Jews were those who accepted
Jesus as Messiah. Jews who antagonised true believers by denouncing their
way of life or denying the lordship of Christ, were agents of Satan bent on
their destruction. Such open conflict between the Jewish and Christian
communities is attested to by the participation of Jews in the execution of
Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, some sixty years later.
The friction between these two groups, in Smyrna as elsewhere, was primarily
concerned with status, resources and values. Jews were a threat to
Christians because they enjoyed the privileges linked to superior status within
the Empire. Missionary endeavours by both sides led to an inevitable clash
over adherents; each would accuse the other of poaching. The interpretation
and significance of Scripture, especially the messianic passages was a
perennial source of discord. In the ancient world, conflicts of this kind, in
which opponents inevitably sought to neutralise or injure their rivals, were
often expressed by the rhetorical device of vituperatio. 21 The curriculum in the
schools of rhetoric included instruction in oral and written techniques of
vilification; the students were taught how to be abusive. John uses this
technique to great effect against three groups: the emperor (13:1-18), rival
Christian teachers (2:20-23) and the Jews of Smyrna and Philadelphia (2:9;
3:9). The vilification of the Jews has a social function in that it defines who
the Christians are. In Smyrna, ‘they [the Christians] are the genuine Jews, the
heirs of the promises to Israel… Vilification reinforces a consciousness of a
difference in values. It serves to demarcate and define a new group.
Vituperation also serves to neutralise the opponent by casting doubt on the
legitimacy of the rival group. It challenges that legitimacy, when opportunity
arises, before the authorities. It discourages potential adherents from
choosing the opposing group and seeks to prevent the defection of members
in order to join or return to that group’. 22
The charge of being a synagogue of Satan must be placed in its historical and
social context. The function of such abusive language in Revelation was to
strengthen and encourage Christians struggling to survive and seeking to
establish a legitimate identity in competition with a powerful Jewish
community. By the end of the fourth century, the age of Chrysostom and
Augustine, when Christianity had become the imperial religion and was
supported by Rome, there was hardly the same need to vilify Jews. But taken
out of context, as inevitably happened in mediaeval Christian exegesis, the
phrase provided a perfect pretext for those who wished to incite mindless
mobs to plunder Jewish neighbourhoods.
2.1.2 The Children of the Devil
Jesus then said to the Jews who had believed in him… ‘You are of your father
the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from
the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth
in him’: (John 8:31, 44)
One obvious difference between John’s Gospel and the Synoptics (Mt, Mk
and Lk) is the way in which the author refers to the enemies of Jesus. While
the Synoptics identify those who take issue with Jesus’ teaching as
Pharisees, Sadducees, Scribes, Herodians, or simply ‘the crowd’, John
disregards all differences and replaces the restricted wording of his sources
with the umbrella term ‘the Jews’. He obliterates the historical distinctions of
the earlier records by altering the specific designation of Jesus’ opponents
and using an unqualified word. Whereas the Synoptics refer to ‘the Jews’
fifteen times between them, John uses the term seventy times in twenty-one
chapters. In almost half of the Johannine instances the reference is
derogatory, indicating deep-seated animosity between Jesus and his
contemporaries. The Jews persecute him ((5:16), speak disapprovingly of
him (6:14) and finally seek to kill him (7:1). They do this because they are
blind to his teachings (7:35) and sinful in their unbelief (8:24), but above all,
because they are the spawn of the devil (8:44). In each of these cases the
hostile use of the term ‘the Jews’ is very obvious, not only because of the
verbs or phrases attached to it, but because of its larger context.
This negative portrayal of Jews is one reason why many commentators
consider the Fourth Gospel to be the least suitable text for Jewish-Christian
dialogue. Despite its lasting and universal popularity, E. J. Epp regards it as a
‘baleful’ gospel, more responsible than any other segment of the New
Testament for abetting ‘anti-Semitic actions at various later times’. 23 Rabbi
Kaufmann Kohler describes it as the ‘gospel of Christian love and Jewish
hatred’. 24 But equally, there are those who claim that John is not as hostile to
the Jewish people as is commonly supposed, and have sought to exculpate
him from the charge of anti-Semitism. 25 These commentators maintain that
the term ‘the Jews’ should not be taken literally and have suggested several
possible meanings for it. It could refer simply to the people of Judea (&:1) or
to the religious authorities in Jerusalem (7:13). It could be used to distinguish
one group of the inhabitants of Palestine from another (4:9), to describe
customs unfamiliar to gentiles (7:2), or as a cipher for all, Jews and Gentiles,
who did not believe in Jesus (8:22-25). Such explanations, if accepted, put
the negative references into perspective and defuse the situation appreciably.
But in the interests of negating the anti-Semitic potential of the text, another
approach should be considered, namely that which seeks to place the gospel
in its correct historical and sociological context. 26
A reconstruction of John’s milieu, between 80 and 90 CE, has led many
scholars to posit the existence of two distinct communities: Jews and
Christians. The Jewish community was trying to preserve its identity in the
face of Christian evangelism and experiencing a growing number of converts
who accepted Jesus as the Messiah but wanted to remain within Judaism.
Jewish Christians were rapidly developing a high Christology, that is to say,
they firmly believed in the divinity of Jesus – an article of faith which their
opponents could never accept. Eventually these secret believers were
expelled from the synagogue and suffered at the hands of the Romans to
whom they had been denounced by the local Jewish leaders. (See 9:22;
[email protected]; 16:2-3) Such violence left ‘deep scars’ in the Johannine psyche’, and
the evangelist reacted by launching a vicious attack on the local Jewish
community. 27 His anti-Jewish polemic seems linked to his insistence that
Jesus was divine, what Ruether calls, as we have already noted, the left hand
of his Christology. However, despite such hostility, it must be recognised that
John was criticising those form among how own people who had rejected
Jesus. The quarrel is essentially an intra-Jewish one.
The importance of the historical context for our understanding of John’s
portrayal of the Jews is threefold. First, it mitigates, to a certain extent, his
harshness towards them. When we appreciate that his attitude is influenced
by the dire circumstances of his own day, by the crisis experienced by both
groups, we are less ready to judge; his harshly. As we have noted, vilifying
the other seems to be part of defining the self in New Testament times.28 We
may not agree with his methods, but at least we can understand his point of
view. Second, it reminds us that John expresses time-bound prejudices
against the Jews of his own age and locality, not global anti0-Judaism. Since
he was reacting to a specific situation his words must not be taken out of
context and applied to Jews generally. Third, it demonstrates that the views
of Judaism put forward here are not representative of Jesus and do not reflect
his attitude to the Jews of his day. It helps the reader to appreciate that the
gospel does not necessarily contain the exact words of Jesus but the
meditations of devoted disciple on the Jesus tradition, and the application of
that tradition to his own community. If Christian exegetes over the past two
millennia had been able to take such considerations into account with
reference to 8:44, the fate of the Jews might have been very different.
2.2 The Charge of Deicide
In 1942 a Slovak rabbi asked the local Roman Catholic archbishop to
intervene to stop the deportations to the concentration camps. Since the
rabbi knew nothing of gas chambers, he stressed the danger of hunger and
disease for women, the children and the elderly. The archbishop replied, ‘It is
not just a matter of deportation. You will not die there of hunger and disease.
They will slaughter all of you, old and young alike, women and children at
once. It is the punishment you deserve for the death of our Lord and
Redeemer. 29 It seems that the appropriate punishment for deicide was
genocide. The Jews of the twentieth century were to be regarded as cursed
and rejected by God because a small group of their ancestors aided and
abetted the crucifixion, and in so doing killed God, whether intentionally or in
The archbishop’s reaction demonstrates that the deicide charge has persisted
well into our own era. Even in 1965, during Vatican Council II, the view that
the Jews should still bear the collective guilt for killing God was very much
alive. The Council Fathers responsible for the declaration on non-Christian
religions encountered considerable opposition when they advocated that the
crucifixion should not ‘be charge against all Jews, without distinction, then
alive, nor against the Jews of today’ 30
The link between the death of Christ and the plight of Jews not yet born at the
time of the crucifixion is made quite explicitly by the Church Fathers.
Addressing the Jews of his own day, early in the fifth century, Augustine
writes, ‘You, in the person of your parents, have killed Christ’.31 His
contemporary, Jerome, commenting on Psalm 108, claims that the Jews
‘have become vagabonds because they crucified God and our Lord’. 32 These
are the words of two of the most authoritative theologians of the Western
Church, men whose works were widely disseminated. In the East, Melito of
Sardis, a second century bishop, has the doubtful distinction of being ‘the first
poet of deicide’ because of an elegant Easter homily in which he ascribes the
crucifixion directly and exclusively to Jews.33 In each case, the argument is
grounded in the teaching of Holy Scripture, albeit indirectly.
2.2.1 The Voice of the People
So when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was
beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, ‘I
am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves’. And all the people
answered, ‘His blood be on us and on our children’. (Matthew 27:24-26)
Although there is no New Testament text which charges the Jews with deicide
in so many words, Mt 27:24f, is invariably quoted in connection with the
imputed crime of murdering God. This passage has haunted Jewish-Christian
relations for almost sixteen hundred years. It has probably done more to fan
the flames of anti-Judaism than any other biblical text because of the
frequency with which it has been used and because it has been regarded as
proof, not only that the Jews of the first Christian century had Jesus crucified,
but also that their descendants deserve punishment in perpetuity for the sins
of their fathers. With reference to 27:25, Origen wrote in the second century,
‘The blood of Jesus was not only on those who were present at the time, but
also on every succeeding generation of Jews until the end of the World’. 34 If
we adopt this interpretation, then clearly Matthew has a lot to answer for in
terms of Christian persecution. But the essential question is: to what extent
is the evangelist, rather than his interpreters, responsible for a theological
anti-Judaism which was later translated into social anti-Semitism? Is there
another way of interpreting Matthew which will make this text less of an
embarrassment for Christians engaged in inter-faith dialogue with Jews? In
answer to this question, the following considerations may be applicable. 35
2.2.1a Historicity
When Paul Winter, quoting Bultmann, describes Mr 27:24-25 as ‘legendary
accretions’, he represents a point of view espoused by many commentators.36
There are several reason why these two verses strain historical probability.
First, they are unique to Matthew. They constitute an addition to the Passion
Narrative in which the author intensifies the anti-Judaism of his sources by
stressing Jewish responsibility for the death of Jesus. While this fact alone
does not make them unhistorical, placed within the context of Matthew’s
pronounced anti-Judaism, it is possible to see why they have been regarded
as later editorial embellishments. Second, while Pilate may have washed his
hands to symbolise his non-complicity in the crucifixion, it is hardly likely that
he would have done so in public. To abandon responsibility for the case and
hand the prisoner over to the mob would have been tantamount to declaring
the Roman Empire impotent in the face of insurrection. Third, it is difficult to
believe that the crowd would have taken the responsibility for Jesus’ death
upon itself by pronouncing an ancient curse, and, further more, implicating all
future generations of Jews in its crime. These are cogent arguments for
believing that what we have here is not a record of events but a literary
composition inserted for a specific purpose.
2.2.1b Vocabulary
Two words in v 25 warrant special attention namely people’ and ‘children’. In
v 2 Pilate washed his hands in full view of ‘the crowd’ (Gk ochlos), whereas in
the following verse, ‘the people (laos) normally means ‘people’ in the generic
sense of a group of individuals or a crowd (Ld 1:10 9, 13), but in Matthew it
frequently, though not invariably (see eg 4:23; 27:64), has an ethnic
connotation, as in the phrase ‘the elders of the people’ (21: 23; 26:3) where it
refers to the Jewish nation (cf 1:21). This is the sense in which it is used in
the Septuagint, the Greek Version of the Hebrew Bible. ‘All the people’ has
therefore been taken by later Christian theologians to indicate that ‘the whole
Jewish nation’ caused Jesus to be crucified. But this is not the only possible
interpretation. The phrase could be understood as ‘all the people standing
before Pilate’. (See Mt 4:23 and 9:35 for laos in the generic sense.) If the
words are interpreted in this limiting way, then they cannot be used to charge
‘the Jews’ with deicide, for the crowd did not represent the Jewish nation as a
whole and could not speak in its name. The NEB, though it obscures the
difference between ochlos and laos in these verses, offers a less ambiguous
translation: ‘and with one voice the people cried.’ The phrase need not have
the comprehensive meaning it is assumed to have.
According to Matthew, the fateful choice made by the people will affect their
children (tekna) as well. Here we find echoes of a principle found in the
Hebrew Bible where punishment for murder is decreed for an individual and
his descendants ‘for ever’ (1 Kg 2:33). But how all-inclusive is tekna meant to
be in this context? Does the word indicate children in the sense of one
generation, as in the reference to taking ‘the children’s bread’ and throwing it
to the dogs (Mt 15:26), or does it signify ‘descendants’, in the sense of
physical or spiritual progeny, as in the claim that God can make ‘children for
Abraham’ out of stones (Mt 3:9)? Christian tradition, witness Origen, has
taken the latter to be the correct interpretation and has regarded the word as
referring to every succeeding generation. But equally it could refer to the
generation between the crucifixion and the fall of Jerusalem. In other words, it
is possible to understand the blood curse as extending only until 70 CE. It is
perhaps noteworthy that Matthew does not insert the words ‘for ever’ in this
context. Assuming that the gospel was finally edited during the penultimate
decade of the first century, then the author could ‘predict’ with confidence that
the children would indeed suffer for the sins of the fathers. The destruction of
the city was regarded by many Christian writers as punishment for the death
of Christ. It is not unlikely that Matthew is here prophesying after the event
and confining the guilt to two generations of the inhabitants of Jerusalem. This
is easier to believe than that a group of first century Jews deliberately
transmitted guilt to future generations of their own nation.
2.2.1c Theology
If the above interpretation of ‘all the people’ is unconvincing, as it has been to
many, an attempt must be made to explain why the evangelist deliberately
substituted ‘the people’ for ‘the crowd’. Furthermore, why did he include the
word ‘all’? Was it his intention to indicate that it was not simply the mob but
the Jewish people as a whole (in contrast to the Christians) which was
responsible for the crucifixion? Commenting on Matthew’s engagement with
Judaism, W.D. Davies maintains that the central question ‘is whether this
engagement took place intra muros, that is, a dialogue however crucial, within
Judaism, or extra muros, an appeal or apologetic to the Synagogue from a
church that was already outside it’.37 In other words, Matthean anti-Judaism is
regarded by some as symptomatic of an internal Jewish quarrel in which
Jewish-Christians dispute with Jews, but by others as evidence of dissension
between Gentile-Christians and the Jewish authorities. It is a topic which has
a bearing on Matthew’s intention but on which there is no consensus among
For centuries the dominant view has been that the final editor and his readers
were Jewish-Christians still closely linked to Judaism. G. Bornkamm
expresses this conviction by claiming that ‘Matthew’s Gospel confirms
throughout that the congregation which he represented had not yet separated
from Judaism. … The struggle with Judaism is still a struggle within its own
walls’.38 If so, the author’s scathing attack on Judaism may be explained as an
attempt to show Jewish-Christians why the Gentiles are to inherit the kingdom
of God (see 21:43).39 In wrestling with Israel’s rejection by God in favour of the
nations, Matthew does not theorise, as Paul does. He uses traditional
material, in the shape of sayings of Jesus and stories about him, to show how
he was refused by his own people. The climax of this history of rejection come
when ‘all the people’ (laos in the ethnic sense) rather than ‘the crowd’, call
down on themselves an ancient curse.
The evangelist’s theological purpose becomes clearer when we look more
closely at the verses in question. Pilate’s words and actions allude to the ritual
of handwashing mentioned in Dt 21:1-9. According to Hebrew law, the
shedding of innocent blood defiles the land and its inhabitants. The blood guilt
remains as long as the murderer goes unpunished. If the perpetrator is never
found, the elders of the village nearest the spot where the corpse was
discovered must kill a heifer in the murderer’s place, wash their hands over it
and say, ‘Our hands did not shed this blood, neither did our eyes see it shed.’
In this way the guilt was forgiven. The ritual in the praetorium is meant to
express Pilate’s religious innocence; in God’s eyes he is not culpable. The cry
of ‘all the people’ then provides the antithesis to the governor’s protestations.
Those present call down the blood of an innocent victim, of which Pilate has
washed his hands, on themselves and their children. These words also are
reminiscent of the Hebrew Scriptures. ‘To let blood come over someone’s
head’ was an ancient expression of guilt (2 Sam 1:16), which, in its developed
form had collective implications (Ker 26:15) – all suffered for the sins of the
few. The origin of this guilt formula has been traced to Israelite worship; a fact
which suggests the God himself is being addressed in it.40 This makes the
parallel with Pilate all the more significant: while the Gentile proclaims his
innocence before God by practising an ancient ritual well-known to Jews, the
holy people proclaim their guilt before the same God by using an equally
familiar cultic formula. By replacing ‘the crowd’ with ‘the people’ Matthew
therefore makes a dogmatic statement about a crucial event within the history
of salvation. His concern is theological rather than historical.
The theory that what we have here is an internal dispute has a bearing on the
polemical nature of the language, for as sociological studies have
demonstrated, ‘the closer the relationship, the more intense the conflict’. 41The
fighting is fiercest in a civil war. But intense conflict, couched in violent
polemic, must not be taken to imply a hatred which leads to persecution and
eternal damnation.
2.2.1d Persecution
During the past fifty years the view that Matthew’s gospel was produced by
and for a minority group within Judaism has been challenged, initially in a brief
study by K.W. Clark, but later detailed studies by W. Trilling and G. Strecker.42
While recognising the Jewishness of Matthew, as evidenced in his genealogy
of Jesus, his five blocks of teaching material analogous to the Five Books of
Moses, his frequent quotations from the Hebrew Bible and his stress on
Jewish particularism, these scholars claim that the final redaction of the
gospel was made by a Gentile author for Gentile Christians. Clark considers
the Gentile bias, observed in verses such as 8:12; 12:21 and 21:43, to be the
primary theme in Matthew. If this is its setting, the gospel’s anti-Judaism must
be seen as a symptom of the dispute between Gentile and Jew and not of
internal Jewish tensions. The polemic may be regarded as the young Gentile
Church’s reaction to the theological and physical threat posed to her
existence by the synagogue across the street.43 The derogatory language
may be explained as the reaction of a beleaguered group persecuted by the
Jewish authorities. Polemic is often the response of a minority community at
odds with a dominant neighbour.44
It is clear that many issues must be taken into account when considering this
crucial text. But whatever view one takes of Matthew’s origins and intention,
these verses cannot be used to argue that the entire Jewish nation was
responsible for the crucifixion and that every succeeding generation of Jews
should pay the penalty.
2.2.2 Christ Crucified
Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by
God with mighty works and wonders and signs which God did through him in
your midst, as you yourselves know – this Jesus, delivered up according to
the plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of
lawless men. …Let all the house of Israel therefore know assuredly that God
has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified. (Acts
2:22-23, 36)
According to the prevailing opinion, the Acts of the Apostles is the second
volume of Luke’s work. Though separated in our Bible by the Gospel of John,
these two books should be read as a single whole. Acts continues the story of
the development of Christianity by telling how the first missionaries took the
Faith from Jerusalem to Rome. The book is presented, not as a factual
account of what transpired during the first century CE, but as a ‘theological
and political literary drama’. This definition does not deny a historical basis for
the work, but it does suggest that the events recorded are seen through the
eyes of faith; in other words, the author’s comments on and interpretations of
the events are included in the finished product.
One of the main features of the book is the missionary preaching of the early
Christians with its constant refrain that the Jews as a whole were directly
responsible for the crucifixion. Peter’s Pentecost sermon, quoted above,
opens with the words ‘Men of Judea, and all who dwell in Jerusalem’ (2:14).
This form of address implies the complicity of all Jews, even those normally
resident outside Palestine, in the death of Jesus, for as Luke records, at that
time ‘there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation
under heaven’ (2:5). Even the pious Diaspora Jews are tarred with the same
brush as the indigenous population of Jerusalem and Judea and specifically
charged with guilt. Like the author of the Fourth Gospel, Luke makes constant
use of the all-inclusive term ‘the Jews’ with no apparent regard for the
impression it might convey to the reader. The Jews are accused of
condemning, betraying, killing, murdering, crucifying and hanging Jesus. (See
e.g. 3:13-18; 4:10, 27-28; 5:30; 7:52; 10:39-40 and 13:27-30) The real culprits
were the Jews; the Gentiles, the ‘lawless men’ of the quotation, were merely
instruments. The essential message is couched in ‘finger pointing theology’ of
the most direct kind: ‘God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus
whom you crucified.’(The original Greek is emphatic.)
Given the prominence of such negative polemic, it is hardly surprising that the
traditional interpretation of Acts has emphasised its portrayal of the radical
discontinuity between Judaism and Christianity.45 For their heinous crime the
Jewish people have been rejected by God and replaced by the Christian
Church. As Paul says in his final sermon to the Jews of Rome, ‘this salvation
of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen’ (28:28). (In the original
Greek both subject and verse are emphasised.) The Jewish people are
determined at all costs to oppose the Christian message; the attempt to
convert them was a failure. Although there was a successful mission to Jews
during the early days, by the author’s time those who were pro-Christian were
Gentiles and those who were anti-Christian were Jews. And while Luke gives
prominence to the Jewish roots of Christianity, in the last analysis he refuses
to recognise the Jews as God’s people. In the words of Haenchen, ‘Luke has
written the Jews off.’ Those who regard this negative polemic as the primary
message of the book consider Acts to be the main seed-bed of later anti-
Judaism. N.A. Beck concludes that it is ‘the most devastating and the most
destructive of Judaism’ among all the New Testament documents because it
portrays the Jews’ final rejection of and by God.46
While this view of Acts commends itself to many commentators, the
Scandinavian scholar Jacob Jervell proposes a radically different
interpretation.47 He finds evidence not for the rejection of Israel but for its
continued existence, a thesis which he supports with three main arguments.
First, he claims that the preaching of the Gospel has divided Israel into two
groups: repentant and unrepentant, (i.e. Jews who accept Christ and those
who reject him). He sees repentant Israel in the frequent successes reported
by the Christian missionaries (e.g. 2:41; 4:4; 5:14; 6:1) and unrepentant Israel
in the condemnatory references to ‘the Jews’. Secondly, this repentant Israel
remains for Luke the Jewish people, which is why the earliest Christians live
as pious Jews. It is because of its link with this repentant Israel that the
Church can claim to be the people of God. Luke is not aware of a break in
salvation history. Finally, the Gentiles share in the promises made to Israel;
they are saved only through their relationship with her. Salvation therefore
proceeds from a restored Israel to the Gentiles.
The sharp disagreement between these two standpoints underlines the
complexity of this particular issue. Jervell’s theory has appealed to many, and
for our purposes it is important because it affects our understanding of Luke’s
evaluation of the Jews in two ways. First, it presents Acts as one of the most
pro-Jewish parts of the New Testament, for salvation comes to the Gentiles
only through repentant Jews. Second, it restricts the polemic to unrepentant
Israel. The texts which condemn the Jews for the crucifixion were never
intended to be understood in an all-inclusive sense. However, the argument
seems to have a basic flaw in it. The restored Israel, which is crucial to the
thesis, is an Israel which non-Christian Jews would fail to recognise, for it is
an Israel which is defined by its faith in Jesus. It has broken away from the
parent body, a body for which there is no hope, and become a Christian
We may well be persuaded that the traditional view of Acts is the correct one
– that despite its Jewish roots and thousands of Jewish converts, the Church
turned its back on Judaism and preached Jewish culpability. Even so, two
mitigating factors within the book which lighten Israel’s responsibility should
be borne in mind.48 The one is the conviction that the death of Jesus was part
of God’s predetermined plan, as foretold by the prophets, for the salvation of
mankind (2:22; 3:18; 4:28; 7:52). This stress on divine determinism is just as
conspicuous as that on Jewish guilt. The other is that the Jews demanded the
death of Jesus in their ignorance (3:17; 13:27). They, like the disciples in
Mark’s gospel, had consistently failed to comprehend God’s purpose. In this
context it may be significant that Jesus’ words from the cross, ‘Father, forgive
them, for they know not what they do’ are recorded only in Luke’s gospel
2.3 A Theology of Rejection
When the Balfour Declaration stated in 1917 that the British government
‘viewed with favour’ the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine,
the Jesuit newspaper La Civiltá Cattolica rejected the notion out of hand. It
responded by condemning the prospective settlers for having forgotten that
‘more than 1800 years have passed since their fathers, smitten by the divine
malediction, were expelled and dispersed over the whole earth’.49
Contemporary Jews were God’s rejected people, the inheritors of an ancient
curse, the objects of divine wrath.
As the newspaper states, such a view has a long history in the Christian
Church. Luther declared that though he had once helped Jews, he no longer
wanted anything more to do with them, for as St. Paul says, ‘They are
consigned to wrath’.50 During the Second Crusade of 1144, Peter of Cluny
urged the king to plunder the property of Jews before marching against the
Muslims. ‘Of what use is it’, he asked, ‘to go forth to seek the enemies of
Christendom in distant lands if the blasphemous Jews … are permitted in our
very midst to scoff with impunity at Christ and the Sacrament!… Yet I do not
require you to put to death these accursed beings, because it is written, “Do
not slay them.” God does not wish to annihilate them, but like Cain the
fratricide, they must be made to suffer fearful torments. … You ought not to
kill them, but afflict them in a manner befitting their subjection.’51
This concept of the Jew who was tolerated and kept in a state of perpetual
torment, but not killed, can be traced by way of Pope Gregory I (c. 600) to St.
Augustine. While Augustine branded all Jews as Christ-killers, and therefore
rejected by God, he insisted that they should not be harmed. They were to be
preserved because, in his view, their suffering had a purpose within the divine
economy: it reminded Christians of the fate of those who displeased God. It
was crucial to the Church’s theology of rejection that, officially at least, there
should be no ‘final solution’ to the Jewish question. Jews were to be living
witnesses, in perpetuity, to the ‘divine malediction’, a concept to which
Scripture bore eloquent testimony.
2.3.1 The Wrath of God
For you, brethren, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus
which are in Judea; for you suffered the same things from your own
countrymen as they did from the Jews, who killed both the Lord Jesus and the
prophets, and drove us out and displease God and oppose all men by
hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles that they may be saved – so as
always to fill up the measure of their sins. But God’s wrath has come upon
them at last (mg. or completely, or for ever). (1 Thessalonians 2:14-16)
In what is believed to be his earliest letter, Paul encourages the Christians in
Thessalonica by commending their loyalty. He praises them for imitating the
faithful endurance of their fellow believers in Judea who had remained
steadfast in the face of Jewish hostility. He contrasts the welcome he received
from the Thessalonian church with the opposition of the local Jewish
community (see Acts 17:1-9). Because the Jews had murdered the prophets,
crucified Jesus and deliberately obstructed the preaching of the Gospel to
Gentiles, they were regarded as an apostate nation, rejected by God and
cursed. Whatever translation of the ambiguous Greek phrase eis telos in v. 16
we adopt, the message seems to be that the Jews richly deserve their
misfortune and that there is no hope for them; they are to expect nothing but
the naked wrath of God.
Because this passage contains one of the most belligerent references to Jews
in all Christian Scripture and is unique in Paul’s letters for its vindictiveness,
many commentators have been unwilling to attribute it to Paul himself. The
great nineteenth century scholar, F.C. Baur, for instance, states that it bears
‘a thoroughly un-Pauline stamp’, a view which continues to be widely held. 52
The case against Pauline authorship rests on both stylistic and theological
considerations. Form critics, those who argue on the basis of style, claim that
the section does not fit into the flow of the letter and that it contains features
which are uncharacteristic of the rest of the epistle, whereas proponents of
the theological argument maintain that the view of Judaism presented here is
totally at variance with that found elsewhere in Paul’s correspondence. In
Rom 9-11, for instance, where we find a full discussion of the place of
Judaism within the purpose of God, Paul writes, ‘Has God rejected his
people? By no means’ (11:1). And further, ‘I could wish that I myself were
accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen by
race’ (9:3). These and other passages seem directly contradictory to the
verses under consideration. Moreover, neither in Romans nor anywhere else,
does Paul accuse the Jews of crucifying Jesus. On the basis of this
comparison, even a conservative scholar like F.F. Bruce concludes, ‘Unless
he (Paul) changed his mind radically on this subject in the interval of seven
years between the writing of I Thessalonians and of Romans, it is difficult to
make him responsible for the viewpoint expressed here.’ For Bruce, ‘the
question of the authenticity of vv.15 and 16 … remains sub judice’, because
the sentiments expressed here ‘are incongruous on the lips of Paul’. 53 If these
verses were inserted by a later editor, we may assume that they were written
during the post 70 CE period when relationships between Jews and Christians
had become very strained and polemic was the order of the day. In which
case, the final clause of v.16, ‘But God’s wrath has come upon them at last!’,
refers to a past event, which many take to be the fall of Jerusalem, though this
is not necessarily the case.54
Those who reject the interpolation theory and insist that 1 Thess 2:14-16 are
Pauline, also quote Rom 9-11 in support of their argument. While comparison
with selected verses from these chapters may well blunt the sharpness of the
polemic in Thessalonians, Paul’s positive attitude towards Judaism is not
maintained throughout Rom 9-11, as a different selection of texts
demonstrates. Chapter 11, for instance, contains unmistakable references to
the failure and rejection of the Jews. For example, ‘Israel failed to obtain what
it sought’ because ‘God gave them a spirit of stupor’ (vv. 7 and 8); ‘Through
their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles’ (v.11); ‘Their rejection
means the reconciliation of the world’ (v.15); ‘God did not spare the natural
branches’, i.e. of the trees onto which the Christian Church was grafted (v.21).
Rom 9-11 cannot therefore be used without qualification to demonstrate that
Paul was pro-Jewish. By stressing the negativity of Romans, the text from
Thessalonians can be brought into line with Paul’s views in his major
treatment of the subject.
But even if the positive references to Judaism in Romans are allowed to
predominate, the case for Pauline authorship of our considered text is not
disproved. It may be argued that Paul’s concept of God’s plan for the Jews
changes between the writing of 1 Thessalonians and Romans because of
altered circumstances. When he wrote to the Thessalonians, Paul believed in
the imminent return of Christ to earth and the consequent end of the world.
This would be a time of judgement and vengeance for non-Christians, but the
vigilant remnant of righteous believers would be saved (1.5:1-11). However,
one of the signs of the end would be suffering inflicted upon the righteous by
wicked people (1.3:3-4). Of this the unbelieving Jews were guilty, and
therefore deserving of punishment – they would experience the wrath of God.
This first response of the apostle to Jewish opposition is coloured by his
apocalyptic worldview and ‘was unsophisticated, perhaps the unreflecting
(and impetuous?) reaction of an early Paul’.55 One indeed wishes that he had
expressed himself less viciously at this point. But by the time he wrote
Romans, his belief in the imminent end of the world was not so strong.
Although he does not revoke the statements made in 1 Thessalonians, he
adds another dimension to his argument when he claims that in the final
judgement God will reveal his mercy to the Jews in a radically new way. He
grew in his understanding of the wideness of God’s mercy.
There is one further point to be taken into account, namely the identity of ‘the
Jews’ in this passage. Is it a reference to the Jewish nation as a whole or to a
specific group of Jews? Is this hateful diatribe a sweeping condemnation by
Paul of his own people, or is it directed at Jewish communities of which he
and his fellow-Christians had first hand experience? The answer given to this
question is coloured by the existence of the so-called ‘antisemitic comma’
between w.14 and 15. (… the Jews, who killed … and drove … and displease
… and oppose.) Since a comma usually indicates that the clause following it
is non-restrictive, the most obvious meaning of ‘the Jews’ in this context is ‘the
whole Jewish people.’ With the comma the condemnation is unqualified;
without it Paul is denouncing a specific community. The vast majority of
commentators adopt the former, non-restrictive interpretation and suppose
that Paul was speaking against all Jews, who are then condemned
unsparingly. However, it was only in the sixth century that punctuation was
included with any regularity in Greek manuscripts; the earliest texts contained
hardly any reading aids, so that this fateful comma cannot be regarded as an
intrinsic part of sacred Scripture. Furthermore, in Greek a comma may
express no more than a pause in a long sentence. If these verses are read as
a single sentence without a break, then Paul’s invective can be regarded ‘as
an emotional outburst, not against the Jews, but against those Jews whom he
specified’.56 These were Jews who had ‘killed the prophets’, had played a part
in the crucifixion and had opposed the preaching of the Gospel. ‘The
prophets’ in this context have been identified by some as John the Baptist and
Stephen, the first martyr. But generally they are regarded as the ancient
Hebrew prophets, who, according to Israelite tradition, were mocked and
rejected by their own people (2 Chron 36:15f.). The charge of killing the
prophets is part of early Christian apologetic in general (see Mt. 23:31, 35, 37;
Lk 13:34; Acts 7:52) and is an accusation which Paul may well have thrown in
for good measure when condemning those Jews who thwarted his purposes.
Even if this is the correct understanding, the reference can still be read in a
restrictive sense, i.e. those Jewish authorities in the distant past who
persecuted God’s messengers. Given this interpretation, v.16 should be read
with the appropriate emphasis: ‘the wrath of God has come upon them’, that
is, one or all of these restricted groups, not the Jews in general.
These verses, then, may be taken in two ways. They may be regarded as an
addition to the epistle after Paul’s death, indicating how an early Christian felt
about some Jews who thwarted the progress of the Gospel. Alternatively, they
may be taken as an authentic piece of Pauline writing reflecting the apostle’s
view of his opponents within the context of his early thinking about the end of
the world. If so, they show him ‘holding an unacceptable anti-Semitic
position’.57 But whatever explanation we adopt, we should bear two points in
mind. First, the passage does not refer to the Jewish people as a whole, but
to Jews in specific locations who were persecuting Christians and hindering
missionaries. Second, it was not Paul’s last word on Judaism.
2.3.2 The Wandering Jew
But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its
desolation has come near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the
mountains, and let those who are inside the city depart, and let not those who
are out in the country enter it; for these are days of vengeance, to fulfil all that
is written … For great distress shall be upon the earth and wrath upon this
people; they will fall by the edge of the sword, and be led captive among all
nations; and Jerusalem will be trodden down by the Gentiles, until the times of
the Gentiles are fulfilled. (Luke 21:20-24)
In his seminal study, The Making of Luke-Acts, Henry Cadbury notes Luke’s
keen interest in urban life. According to the statistics, Jerusalem features far
more prominently in this gospel than it does in the other three. But though the
Holy City is the most important geographical location for much of Jesus’
ministry, its impending destruction is foretold on three separate occasions
(19:41ff; 21:20ff; 23:28ff). The above passage, which delineates the city’s
plight at the hands of its enemies, is in essence a modified version of verses
from Mark 13. But despite similarities with this earlier source, there are some
significant details which are without parallel in Mark and Matthew. Only in
Luke does Jesus predict that Jerusalem will be encircled by armies. Only here
does he prophesy that Jews in general, ‘this people’, will die or be carried into
captivity and the city overrun by foreigners for an indefinite period. All of which
is to be regarded as the fulfilment of Scripture and an expression of God’s
terrible judgement on the Jewish people.
Luke’s version of Jesus’ prophecy not only betrays a knowledge of the
destruction of Jerusalem by Rome in 70 CE (thus creating a ‘prophecy after
the event’), but also makes the outcome far more harrowing for the Jews as a
whole. It is hardly surprising that these verses, especially v.24, became a key
text in the anti-Jewish polemic of the early Church. In order to demonstrate
that the Jews were rejected by God and living in permanent exile, the Fathers
noted that their three attempts to rebuild the temple (under the emperors
Hadrian, Constantine and Julian) had been thwarted. But this repeated failure
to regain past status was only to be expected, for had not Christ himself
decreed that Jerusalem would be trampled by Gentiles ‘until the times of the
Gentiles are fulfilled’, a phrase which John Chrysostom freely renders as ‘until
the consummation of the world’.58 The desolation of the Jews was, according
to Christian tradition, meant to last for ever; it was a view which had dominical
support. Luke, it seems, had no notion of a future restoration of the Jews. He
did not envisage a time when they would repent and return home, for as we
have seen in Acts, their place in God’s plan had been taken by Christians.
The view that Luke was deliberately anti-Jewish in his presentation of the
Gospel is not confined to the early Fathers; it has many modern proponents,
of whom two examples must suffice. Sandmel claims that ‘there is to be found
in Luke a frequent, subtle, genteel anti-Semitism’,59 while J.T. Sanders
concludes that Luke believes the Jews to be ‘inherently unable to understand
their own scriptures and routinely hostile to the purposes of God’.60 Both see
the author as thoroughly anti-Judaic in outlook and as rejecting Israel entirely.
They find this negative attitude clearly expressed in the parables (e.g. 10:2937; 14:1-24; 15:11-32) and in the Passion Narrative where the blame for the
crucifixion is laid squarely on the Jews, while Pilate is exonerated.
If this was Luke’s attitude, how do we account for it? What was his motive for
portraying the Jews as he does? Various suggestions have been made. First,
it is claimed that his attitude reflects an apologetic interest; his intention was
to defend the Church. Luke blames the Jews for the death of Jesus in order to
curry favour with the Romans and demonstrate that Christianity, could not be
charged with sedition. Second, that he is retaliating for the Jewish persecution
of Christians, such as that in which Paul was engaged before his conversion.
Thirdly, that he is reacting to Jewish opposition to Christianity, an opposition
which did not lead to persecution, but nevertheless was keenly felt by the
nascent Church. Each of these theories has its supporters. While none of
them is able to obliterate or excuse the anti-Jewish tone of Luke’s work, it
does explain his attitude by placing his negativity within a historical context.
But there is another interpretation of Luke’s polemic against Jerusalem which
deserves notice. This is linked to Jacob Jervell’s study Luke and the People of
God in which the author resists the notion that Luke penalises the Jews for
rejecting Christianity and that he conceives of the Church as the new Israel
replacing the old. Though it cannot be denied that Luke see a movement from
Jerusalem to Rome, from Judaism to Christianity, in Jervell’s view, this need
not imply that the Jews have been finally abandoned by God. On the contrary,
Luke is greatly concerned about the restoration and redemption of Israel. He
shows how the earliest preachers went first to the Jews; the mission to the
Gentiles was undertaken only when the mission to the Jews was successfully
completed. Jervell bases his theory on the speech of James in Acts 15:14ff
and regards the first Jewish Christians (e.g. Silas, Barnabas, Timothy) as the
restored Israel.
While acknowledging Jervell’s insight, A.W. Wainwright feels that the claim
that Israel was already restored in those Jewish Christians who formed the
nucleus of the Church cannot be sustained. He believes that Luke’s expected
restoration of Israel includes the restoration of Jerusalem. Referring to the
crucial reference to the destruction of the city in 21:24 he writes, ‘In spite of its
brevity this saying, which is found only in Luke’s gospel, provides an important
clue to Luke’s theological presuppositions. Jerusalem is not to be trodden
down indefinitely, but only until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled. “The
times of the Gentiles” probably refers to the period when the Gospel is being
preached to the Gentiles. It was a widely accepted belief that until this activity
had been completed the End would not come. Alternatively the phrase “the
times of the Gentiles” may refer to the period when the Gentiles rule over the
actual territory of Israel. Whichever of these two interpretations of the phrase
is accepted, the words of Lk 21:24 leave the way open for a restoration of
Jerusalem in the future.61
Clearly, our chosen text is capable of two quite distinct interpretations, both
with a substantial following among biblical scholars. On the one hand it may
be taken as a positive sign of the future redemption of Israel – that in time
Jerusalem will be restored. On the other hand it may be regarded as a ‘divine
malediction’, to quote La Civiltá Cattolica, illustrative of Luke’s anti-Jewish
attitude. If so, it must be put in context. What was applicable to the first
Christian century has not necessarily been applicable since. We cannot
escape history, but we are not determined by it.
2.4 A Theology of Replacement
In a book on Israelite history which has been translated into many languages
and recommended for countless theology courses since its publication in
1950, the eminent German scholar Martin Noth includes a section entitled
‘The Rejection of Christ’. His conclusion reads thus: ‘Jesus himself with his
words and his work, no longer formed part of the history of Israel. In him the
history of Israel had come, rather, to its real end. … It had rejected him as the
promised Messiah. Only a few had joined him, and from them something new
proceeded. … Hereafter the history of Israel moved quickly to its end’. 62 In
other words, Judaism was superseded or displaced by Christianity. With the
advent of the new covenant, the old covenant became obsolete and the
Church replaced the Synagogue. The Jewish faith was robbed of its raison
d’être and became an anachronism.
This displacement theory runs like a coloured thread through twenty centuries
of Christian history and theology. Martin Luther, commenting on the death of
Rachel at the birth of Benjamin (Gen 35:16ff), writes, ‘Once the gospel given
through Christ and the apostles begin, Rachel lays herself down and dies: that
is the Synagogue or Judaism. The child comes forth, but the mother must
die.’63 In the Middle Ages this principle was frequently expressed in the visual
arts for the benefit of the illiterate faithful. It was a popular topic for sermons in
glass, wood and stone. A fifteenth century Bible illustration depicts the funeral
of the Synagogue. She is lying in a coffin with the tables of the Law in her
hands; at her feet stands Jesus Christ and at her head a crowned Church. 64 In
Bourges Cathedral a window presents the Church and the Synagogue as
female figures standing on either side of a crucified Jesus. On his right is the
triumphant Church, crowned and erect, holding a chalice into which his
redeeming blood flows. On his left is the blindfolded Synagogue, her crown
slipping from her brow and her sceptre broken in two, indications that she had
been deprived of her former position as the chosen of God and her glory
given to another.65
This ‘abrogating polemic’, which casts Judaism aside by claiming the God has
ordained a ‘new’ Israel to replace the ‘old’, is prominent in the New
Testament. A passage frequently quoted as a foundation text for this theory is
the parable of the fig tree (Mt 21:18-22). In a story designed to demonstrate
his power over the world of nature, Jesus curses the tree with the words ‘May
no fruit come from you again’, whereupon the tree withers. By means of
allegory, the fig tree was interpreted as representing Judaism which later
became spiritually bankrupt and was replaced by Christianity. But contrary to
the expectations of the exegetes, Judaism has not withered away and
disappeared. It is a way of faith which remains valid and continues to develop
dynamically alongside Christianity. One wonders whether it was this vitality
which, at least in part, prompted Pope John Paul II to describe the old
covenant, that of Sinai, as one which had ‘never been revoked’ in his address
to Jewish leaders in Mainz in 1980. His much publicised statement reads as
The first aspect of this dialogue, namely the meeting between the people of
God of the old covenant, which has never been revoked by God (cf: Rom
11:29) and the people of God of the new covenant, is at the same time a
dialogue within our church between the first and second part of its Bible.66
The Pope links the covenant made with Moses to Paul’s contention in
Romans that ‘the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.’ In the light of this
statement, let us consider two texts taken from books which appear to be
supersessory in intention.
2.4.1 A New Covenant
But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry which is as much more excellent
than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on
better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have
been on occasion for a second. … In speaking of a new covenant he (God or
Jeremiah in Jer 31:31) treats the first as obsolete. And what is becoming
obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away. (Hebrews 8:6-7, 13)
The letter to the Hebrews has been described as an ‘extended persuasive
speech’, the most elaborate and eloquent of its kind within Scripture. 67 The
author’s aim was to persuade his readers to remain true to the Christian faith
(2:1), and by virtue of the book’s inclusion in the Bible one may suppose that
he was at least partially successful. But although the objective is clear, almost
everything else about the book is shrouded in mystery. From the contents
there is no way of identifying the author, the date, the place of origin or the
intended readership. A common assumption is that the unknown author was
addressing the Jewish-Christian community in Alexandria c.65 CE which was
in danger of slipping back into Judaism. He is therefore at pains to clarify the
difference between the Jewish and the Christian faiths. Our concern here is
with the nature of the distinction drawn between Christianity and Judaism and
with the way in which it is expressed in what has been regarded as a prime
example of supersessory literature.
The Letter to the Hebrews abounds in comparatives which inevitably imply a
judgmental attitude to the Jewish faith. The author makes frequent use of
‘better’ and ‘greater’, in the sense of ‘superior’, when comparing Christianity
with Judaism. With reference to the covenant, the use of the term ‘old and
new’ rather than the more neutral ‘first and second’, firmly establishes the
imperfection of the Sinai covenant. This is in line with the author’s attempt to
persuade his readers that returning to Judaism makes no sense; it would be
exchanging reality for shadow. Something decisive took place in Jesus which
must not be overlooked. In one respect, Hebrews presents us with the most
sustained argument in the whole of the New Testament against the continuing
validity of the old covenant. But before dismissing the book as a systematic
presentation of early polemic, the following points are worthy of note.
The first is that its anti-Judaism has influenced Christian thinking to a far
lesser extent than that found in the Gospels and Acts. This is because the
polemic is much more restrained. Sandmel writes, ‘Judaism is not vilified in
Hebrews, nor are Jews aspersed. … Hebrews seems concerned not with a
relationship to the Judaism or the Jews of the age when it was written (as are
the Gospels), but with the ancient Judaism of Scripture.’68 The fact that it was
supersessory without being defamatory made it far less useful for Christian
theologians as a quarry for proof texts.
The second point is linked to Sandmel’s observation that the religion criticised
here is ‘the ancient Judaism of Scripture’. Within the context of the covenant,
the author’s primary target is the sacrificial system of the Jerusalem Temple.
The blood of bulls and goats offered annually by the High Priest in the Holy of
Holies as atonement for sin is no longer efficacious. Through his death Christ
superseded the cult by offering ‘for all time a single sacrifice for sins’ (10:12).
His unique priesthood has made that of the Temple redundant; through him all
believers have access to God without the mediation of a human priest. While
supporters of the Temple and its worship must have felt deeply affronted by
such a concept, there were many first century Jews who would have found
nothing offensive in it. Referring to Jews who might have read the letter,
William Klassen asks if they would have been insulted. His answer is, ‘Surely
not if they had read Philo. Surely not if they had had contact with the Essenes.
Surely not if they had lived in Northern Galilee. For out indications are that the
Temple ritual was not as important to people living in that area as it was to
people living in Judea and in Jerusalem. … There were many people who
criticised the Temple and its administration and many people who looked for
ways in which the presence of God could be more fully assured.’69 Jews who
found Temple-based Judaism lacking would have included those who were
influenced by the Jewish biblical commentator and philosopher Philo of
Alexandria, those who had contact with the Essene movement whose antiritual views are represented in the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the inhabitants of
Galilee. One might also add the Samaritans and the Pharisees. It could
therefore be argued that in Hebrews Christ supersedes only one strand of
The final point is linked to the covenant. Despite drawing a sharp distinction
between the old covenant of Sinai, by which Israel became God’s people, and
the covenant of Calvary, the author does see a continuity between the ancient
Israelites of the wilderness period and his contemporaries. He sees God at
work in the old covenant and for that reason recognises it as a ‘shadow’ or
‘example’. There is a positive correspondence between the image and the
reality. For instance, the same race of faith is being run by the ‘saints’ of the
old dispensation as those of the new (11:1-12:2).
The absence of abusive rhetoric, the selective criticism of an aspect, albeit a
significant one, of first century Judaism, and the belief in the continuity
between the two covenants, makes Hebrews appear far less anti-Jewish than
other New Testament writings. However, when considering the theme of the
book as a whole, it is difficult to see how it is possible not to regard it as
marking a decisive break between Judaism and Christianity.
2.4.2 One Way?
Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we
know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no
one comes to the Father but by me’. (John 14:5-6)
Together with the claim in Acts 4:12 that there is salvation in no one else
except Jesus Christ, Jn 14:6 is a key confessional statement for Christians.
These two verses provide the basis for the stock question which anyone
engaged in inter-faith discussions must be prepared to answer: ‘Do you or do
you not believe that Jesus is the only way to God?’ Both are often quoted to
support unbridled statements about the exclusiveness of Christianity and the
damnation of unbelievers. For the dialogue-minded Christian, the problem
which they pose is not the derogatory anti-Jewish polemic characteristic of the
rest of John and Acts, but the insinuation that God does not hear the prayer of
a Jew. From the Jewish standpoint, they imply a sweeping denial of the
validity of the Torah as a means of access to God because they appear to
state categorically that Christianity has superseded Judaism. In dealing
realistically with this difficult text two considerations merit attention.
The first is concerned with the nature of the statement ‘no one comes to the
Father but me’. These words are included by John in a section of the gospel
usually referred to as the Last Discourse, in which Jesus addresses his
disciples in a lengthy monologue (13:31-16:33). Theories about the origin of
this Disclosure vary considerably. Some commentators believe that it contains
a verbatim report of what Jesus said at the Last Supper and on other
occasions. Accordingly, the words must be regarded as part of the original
Christian message dating back to the time of Jesus. Another view is that
John’s portrayal of Jesus was not intended to be historical. James Dunn, for
example, thinks ‘it is hardly likely’ that the claims Jesus makes about himself
‘were already in place from the beginning of Christianity’.70 This conclusion is
supported by the fact that the Johannine Jesus is so different from the Jesus
of the Synoptics. For example, the unequivocal claims he makes in John,
when he speaks of God as his Father and refers to himself in the ‘I am’
sayings as ‘the bread of life’, ‘the way’, ‘the truth’, etc., are nowhere to be
found in the other three gospels. Also, in John Jesus uses long, complex
discourses in which he frequently speaks of himself, whereas in the Synoptics
he uses pithy sayings and epigrams, and rarely refers to himself.
This difference in style and content of Jesus’ teaching has led scholars to
postulate that John’s gospel contains the theological reflection of a later age
put into the mouth of Jesus. Barnabas Lindars feels that the ‘conclusion is
inevitable that John writes at a time when the living memory of Jesus is
fading, and do the portrait of Jesus is becoming more stereotyped and shaped
by dogmatic considerations.’71 The Last Disclosure may well contain actual
sayings of Jesus which the evangelist used to develop a particular theme, but
in its final form it resembles the sermon or homily of the Synagogue. It is, in all
probability, John’s own composition, and as such it inevitably blurs the
distinction between history and interpretation. It reflects the doctrinal concerns
of an age later that that of Jesus.
The titles which Jesus gives himself in the Fourth Gospel, and the claims
which he makes, were first applied to him by early Christians like John the
Evangelist in an attempt to convey what significance he had for them. They
are essentially confessional, and therefore historically conditioned, as all
creeds are. Furthermore, they belong to the language of worship, adoration
and affirmation. They come to the fore between 80 and 90 CE when Judaism
and Christianity were fiercely competing for adherents. This confessional
nature of Jn 14:6 should be borne in mind for it has significant ramifications
for inter-faith dialogue. The comment of N.A. Beck with reference to the
exclusive claim of Acts 4:12 is applicable also in this context. ‘Salvation for the
Christian is in the name of Jesus. This is a matter of confession that any
Christian, indeed every Christian, is entitled to make. When it is clearly
presented as a statement of faith rather than as a general statement of fact
(which presumably could be verified by empirical means!), the anti-Jewish
polemic is lessened at the same time that the Christian confession is
highlighted.’72 Knowing that for Christianity Jesus provides access to the
Father does not preclude that possibility that the Torah does the same for
The second point which must be recognised when pondering this text is the
continuing validity and vitality of Judaism. Are we, because of a theology of
Christian uniqueness, to disregard historical evidence and insist that Judaism
does not provided access to God? Are we, with the Anglican Alternative
Service Book’s Good Friday prayer to lump Jews together with ‘all who have
not known’ God? The great Jewish philosopher and theologian Franz
Rosenzweig answers this question when he notes the exact wording of Jn
14:6 and offers his own interpretation of it. ‘What Christ and his Church mean
within the world – on this point we are agreed. No one comes to the Father –
but the situation is different when one need no longer come to the Father
because he is already with him. That is the case with the nation of Israel (not
the individual Jew). The development of Judaism passes by Jesus, to whom
the heathen say “Lord”, and through whom they “come to the Father”; it does
not pass through him.’73 In view of the anti-Judaism present in the rest of the
gospel and the constant emphasis on supersessionism, it may be debated
that this is what John really meant. Nevertheless, Rosenzweig is surely right
in saying that Israel (though no necessarily every individual Jew) knows the
Father and has access to him. He admits that others, who are not already with
God, will be brought to him only through Jesus Christ, but this means of
access is not necessary for those who already have one in the Torah. The
one who already is with the Father has no need to come. Hair-splitting
exegesis perhaps, but surely worth noting.
3. The Answer: Suggested Solutions
There is ample evidence from the pages of the New Testament that its
authors engaged freely in a vicious polemic against Jews. There is evidence
also from the annals of Christian theology that such polemic has determined
the attitude of the Church to Jews and Judaism for almost 2000 years.
Whether one refers to it as anti-Judaism or anti-Semitism, there can be no
doubt that a deep antipathy to Jews, or at least to specific groups of Jews,
exists in Christian Scripture and that it possesses a dangerous power. The
negative stereotypes, still current in Christian thinking, are to be found in the
Bible: because the Jews, as pawns of Satan, killed Christ, they were rejected
by God and replaced by the Church.
Though they present a major obstacle for Jews wishing to engage in dialogue
with Christians, these hard sayings are primarily a Christian problem. But the
difficulties they present will be apparent only to those Christians who regard
the Holocaust as an ‘orienting event’ for them as well as for Jews, who feel
that the New Testament has been used as a warrant for the anti-Judaism of
later centuries and who, like J.B. Metz, distrust any theology ‘which is the
same before and after Auschwitz’. For them the issue resolves around
negating the ‘antisemitic potential’ of such texts. We shall now note briefly
some of the suggestions put forward in recent years to do just this by
summarising the main points to emerge from the previous chapter.
3.1 Censorship and Circumlocution
The most direct method of combating the hostility manifested by the New
Testament authors towards the Jews would be to make a new translation.
This solution is proposed by N.A. Beck as a means of dealing effectively with
texts which, though part of the original proclamation, have proved in the
course of centuries to be ‘damaging to Jewish people, dehumanising to
Christians and detrimental to Christianity’.74 Translators who were sensitive to
the issues raised by the Holocaust would decide which sections were harmful
and take the appropriate steps to negate their influence. For instance, on the
grounds that it is thought by many to come form the hand of a later editor and
not that of Paul, 1 Thess 2:13-16 could be taken out of the text of the letter
and relegated to a footnote. Likewise ‘the Jews’ in John and Acts could in
many instances be translated as ‘the Jewish leaders’ without doing any
injustice to the text. A new translation which was both sensitive and
interpretative could go a long way in negating the pernicious potential of very
many passages.
But as Beck realises, his solution is too radical for the majority of Christians. If
it does gain acceptance, he feels that it will probably take at least a century to
do so. The reasons why it does not commend itself may be summarised in the
following questions: Is the contemporary Christian community authorised to
rewrite the Bible? Should the concerns of any particular age (e.g. liberation
theology, human sexuality) be allowed to dictate our attitude to the sacred
text? Would the excision of hostile passages not encourage future Christians
to disregard the possibility that the New Testament is the tap-root of antiSemitism and focus exclusively on the early Fathers?
If these questions are insurmountable with regard to the biblical text which is
used regularly in the Church’s worship, they do not apply to other aspects of
the Christian proclamation. There is no reason why the anti-Judaism of the
first century should feature in our thinking, preaching and teaching – even if it
does have to remain in our liturgy. Even though censorship is out of the
question, there is surely a place for what Beck calls ‘interpretative
circumlocutions’ whenever we are called upon to expound a polemical
3.2 Historical Background
Critical study of the Bible has emphasised the fact that the New Testament
writings are historically conditioned and that the circumstances under which
they were written impose limitations upon them. Attending to the historical
background of the documents can help to explain, though not excuse, they
anti-Jewish polemic. The tension during the first century between Christianity
and Rom on the one hand and the Jews on the other will serve to illustrate the
When the inhabitants of Judea rebelled against their Roman overlords in 66
CE, the Christians feared that they would be punished along with the
insurgents during the inevitable retaliation. They were not convinced that the
Romans would differentiate between Jews and non-Jews when the time came
to restore order. They therefore felt it to be in their best interests to distance
themselves from the Jewish community and thereby prove that the followers
of Jesus were not a threat to the Empire. This led them to blame the Jews for
the crucifixion and exonerate Rome. This in turn produced polemical literature
in which anti-Judaism is prominent. By the time John’s gospel was written, the
Christians were being persecuted by Jews. They were being driven from the
synagogues for professing that Jesus was the Messiah. It is possible that the
Fourth Gospel was written in the wake of such excommunication and that its
author and final editor deliberately castigated the Jewish authorities for their
cruelty. The mutual hostility between the Synagogue and the Johannine
Church must be taken into account when one investigates the scathing
polemic which permeates the gospel.
Consideration of the historical circumstances not only helps to explain the
hostility, it also helps us to recognise that the authors of the gospels read
back into the ministry of Jesus issues which applied to their own time, forty or
fifty years later, when the Church and the Synagogue were rapidly parting
company. Jesus need not necessarily be identified with the standpoint of
evangelists. Referring to the death of Jesus, J.K. Elliot writes, ‘The Gospel
writers, spurred on by apologetic motives, distorted the original events. The
anti-Jewish slant of the New Testament does not therefore represent the
situation at the time of Jesus’ ministry. Christians should separate the
historical events leading up to the crucifixion from the church tradition that
reported them…. The anti-Jewish bias in the New Testament can thus be
removed from the life of Jesus.’75
3.3 Sociological Considerations
An argument often used to combat the suggestion that the Jewish nation as a
whole stands condemned in the pages of the New Testament, and even to
deny the existence of anti-Judaism in Christian Scripture, is the one which
regards the hostility as an expression of ‘in-house quarrelling’. According to
this view, the polemic is a factional polemic indicating an intra-Jewish debate
in which one group of Jews criticises another. Since Jews themselves are
engaged in the dispute, the end-result cannot be labelled anti-Semitic or antiJewish. The prophet Amos is not regarded as being anti-Jewish despite his
harsh condemnation of Israelite society. The Dead Sea Scrolls are not
branded anti-Semitic although they criticise in no uncertain terms a form of
Judaism unacceptable to the author. Support for this argument is found in the
fact that modern scholars, such as Jacob Neusner, speak of the ‘Judaisms’ of
the period in question. The ‘normative’ Rabbinic Judaism of later centuries
had not yet developed. At this time the religion was deeply divided. It was
fragmented into diverse sectarian groups such as Pharisees, Sadducees and
Essenes which had their own characteristics and espoused a particular
interpretation of the Law. Furthermore, the Book of Acts indicates that early
Christianity had attracted thousands of Jews within a very short period. (See
2:41; 4:4; 5:14; 6:7; 21:20) When these converts slander Judaism and attack
their former co-religionists, the quarrel must be seen as inter-Jewish, the
messianists against the rest.76
While this explanation commends itself to many, others are not so ready to
accept it. The Israeli scholar David Flusser writing in the foreword to a book
by Clemens Thoma, rejects it out of hand. His reaction is typical of many
when he writes,
Do not tell me that such statements and ideas (the polemics) are merely
inner-Jewish disputes or prophetic scoldings. All of them sound Greek and not
Hebrew, that is, they emerged among Gentile Christians, even though one or
other redactor may have been a Christian of Jewish descent.77
The New Testament authors were writing decades after the death of Jesus
and were unambiguously pro-Church in their attitude. This bias may well
account for what many believe to be exaggerations in the portrayal of
missionary success in Acts. Paul, whose writings pre-date Acts by about forty
years in some cases, gives a far less rosy picture. Despite his repeated selfidentification with the Jewish people, in his letter to the Romans he is greatly
concerned with the lack of response among Jews. He complains that ‘down to
this very day’ they have been blind and resistant to the Gospel (11:7f. Cf.2
Cor 3:14; 1 Thess 2:15f.). It would seem that Gentiles were far more
responsive to the preaching of the early missionaries than were Jews – if we
take Paul as our authority.
Although this objection is in turn criticised for assuming that Judaism and
Christianity were totally separate and distinct entities when the New
Testament was written, it does indicate that the inter-Jewish dispute theory is
not as firmly based as some maintain. While, however, it cannot be used to
exonerate the New Testament of anti-Jewish polemic, it has the merit of
emphasising that the protagonists were local groups of first century Jews. The
factional polemic in which they were engaged cannot therefore be applied to
all Jews throughout the history of the Church. In that sense the ‘in-house’
argument does serve to negate the anti-Semitic potential of the Christian
3.4 The Rhetoric of Slander
Another, but not unrelated, perspective from which to consider these hard
sayings is that which takes into account the social setting of ancient polemic
and the conventions governing its use. Because rhetoric is so influential in
shaping hostile attitudes, the understanding of slander from the historical and
literary point of view is an important issue. The insightful article by Luke
Johnson is an instructive guide at this point.78
In defining the circumstances under which anti-Jewish polemic developed, it
must be recognised that those Jews who accepted Jesus as Messiah during
the first century were a powerless group existing on the fringes of society.
They were a persecuted minority whose leaders were arrested and killed.
Although the Romans played a prominent part in the persecution, Christians
blamed the Jews – witness 1 Thess 2:14-16 which, even if it is an
interpolation, demonstrates that in Palestine, and beyond, the messianists
regarded local Jewish communities as the perpetrators of their suffering. The
experience of cruelty at the hands of the parent body led Christians to
concentrate on their own survival and on securing their own identity. This in
turn produced a fierce dispute characterised by the rhetoric of slander.
Such disputation was commonplace among the various ‘schools’ or
‘philosophies’ in the ancient Greek world, all of which debated their respective
beliefs with considerable acrimony and abusive language. They would refer to
opponents as ‘evil-spirited, impious, liars, charlatans and flatterers’, standard
charges used in treating any subject. Though this was the recognised way of
dealing with an opponent, the primary purpose of such polemic was to boost
the morale of one’s own school, not so much to denigrate the opposition. It
was meant essentially for internal consumption.
Since Judaism was also perceived to be a philosophy by the ancient authors,
the rhetoric of slander is found also in Jewish apologetic writings. The first
century historian Josephus defends his own people against attack by referring
to hostile Gentiles as ‘frivolous, seditious, ignorant, mendacious and filled with
envy’, language which is typical of the cut and thrust of disputation. But
Josephus does not reserve his slander for Gentiles, he castigates in exactly
the same vein fellow-Jews who displease him. For instance, he condemns the
Zealots, who actively opposed the Roman authorities, of scoffing at the wards
of the prophets and treating them as fables, of committing rape and murder, of
polluting the Temple, thereby alienating God. They are the dregs of society,
the scum of the nation.
The same contentious polemic characterises other Jewish sources
contemporaneous with the New Testament. The community responsible for
the Dead Sea Scrolls refers to outsiders, both Gentiles and Jews, as ‘sons of
the pit’ and ‘men of the lot of Satan’ who are ruled by an angel of darkness.
The Psalms of Solomon and Fourth Ezra likewise refer to fellow Jews as
‘sinners’ and ‘unrighteous men’ who ‘live in hypocrisy in the company of the
Given that this rhetoric of slander was a recognised feature of factional
polemic in both the Gentile and the Jewish world, is it surprising to find it
within the New Testament also? Were its authors doing any more than
employing conventional techniques when they referred to their opponents as
blind and obdurate hypocrites who killed the prophets and whose souls were
inhabited by demons? If not, then it may be argued that the harsh anti-Jewish
rhetoric of the Christian Scriptures is typical of the age, and inasmuch as it
belongs to all parties, it is not inappropriate. The vitriol should not be taken
literally but as an indication that the addressees are opponents about whom
not enough bad things can be said. The myth of the satanic Jew would
thereby be robbed of its destructive force.
3.5 Theological Issues
Although the derogatory anti-Jewish polemic of the New Testament is
distasteful, to say the least, it is easier to handle than the replacement
approach. In one sense the supersessory claims of Hebrews and John are a
greater stumbling-block for dialogue than the hostile outbursts of Matthew and
Luke. While the condemnation of first century Jewry for obduracy, murder and
hypocrisy can be explained (though perhaps not to everyone’s satisfaction) in
terms of historical circumstances, sociology or rhetoric, the same cannot be
done with supersessionism. This is because, according to the displacement
theory, an exclusive Christianity simply writes off Judaism as a defunct
religion. Nothing will shake the conviction held by millions of Christians that no
one comes to God but through Christ. The suggestion that a verse like Jn
14:6 is not an authentic saying of Jesus but an early confession of faith will fail
to impress many people and will not encourage them to read the text in a
different light or pay closer attention to the context.
However, despite the weight of Christian tradition, many modern theologians
are unhappy with supersessionism and feel that it should be re-evaluated.
Marcus Braybrooke summarises the reasons why the view that God has
revoked his covenant with Israel is unsatisfactory: ‘It calls in question God’s
trustworthiness and faithfulness to his promises. It ignores the continuing
spiritual fecundity of Israel and the faithfulness of the Jewish people. It is
based on a misreading of Jesus’ attitude to the Torah and perhaps also on a
misunderstanding of the teaching of Paul.’79 In order to take account of these
points and overcome the concept of displacement which seems to be inherent
in the New Testament idea of a new covenant, scholars have proposed two
different approaches. Some maintain that there is only a single covenant
which embraces both Judaism and Christianity. This view implies that the
covenant of Sinai, which was renewed in Jeremiah 31, was not annulled on
Calvary but extended through Jesus to the non-Jewish world. There is
therefore a continuing purpose for Judaism within the one covenant. Others
subscribe to the two covenant idea. This perspective stresses that there are
real differences between the religions, but they are seen as complementary
rather than contradictory. A leading exponent of this theory, James Parkes,
understands the Sinai covenant to be essentially communal in orientation,
whereas that of Calvary is concerned with the individual. Here again, the
second does not replace the first; they are both linked as equals, neither is
superior to the other. In the words of John Pawlikowski, ‘The revelation at
Sinai stands on an equal footing with the revelation in Jesus.’80
Dialogue with Jews has led Christian theologians to question not only the
convenantal theology of the author of Hebrews, but also the supersessory
christology of John. According to the teaching of Jesus, the Messiah’s task
was to inaugurate a kingdom of peace, justice and harmony on earth. But as
Jews are quick to point out, there is no evidence that such an era has yet
dawned. The two thousand year history of the Church has done little to
substantiate the biblical claim that Jesus finally brought in the messianic age
in his own person. The fashioning of a christology to meet this objection has
exercised many theologians over the past two decades.81 Some are beginning
to take seriously the Jewish ‘no’ to the Gospel.
3.6 ‘Christ against Scripture’
The New Testament, if taken literally and quoted selectively, can be used to
support anti-Jewish polemic and to show that the Church has replaced Israel
as the covenant people of God. Its does this because Scripture shapes the
identity of the individual and the community by supplying images and
concepts which influence our attitudes and actions. Anti-Judaism ‘has shaped
Christian identity by telling us who we are. It has said that we are not Jewish,
that we are anti-Jewish, that we are better than Jewish, that we as a new
spiritual people have replaced the old carnal Jews, that we are ruled by grace,
not law, and so forth.’82 Our concluding section will be a brief review of a
specific way of dealing with Scripture so as to minimise its negative influence
in this particular sphere and neutralise its anti-Semitic potential.
Surprisingly, given his antipathy towards Jews and Judaism, this method is
associated with Martin Luther. Luther’s well-known dictum, ‘the Scriptures
point to Christ alone’, sums up his view of the Bible. The Scriptures must be
‘understood in favour of Christ, not against him. For that reason they must
either refer to him or must not he held to be true Scriptures.’83 Scriptural
authority is not to be found in the actual text of the Bible but in the Gospel
which is enshrined in that text. The good news which forms the central core of
the Bible is the key to interpreting its message. The words of Scripture must
serve the Word of God. Because Jesus Christ is ‘King of Scripture’ for Luther,
his Gospel is a court of appeal above and beyond the Bible. Priority must be
given to the Gospel of Christ over Scripture. If adversaries ‘press the
Scriptures against Christ, we urge Christ against the Scriptures’. (Urgemus
Christum contra Scripturam)84 To illustrate this principle of an authority higher
than the Bible, Schubert Ogden draws an analogy between the authority of
Scripture and that of a judge in a court case. ‘Both the judge and the accused,
who is subject to the judge’s authority, stand under the same laws and rules
of justice, which are as binding on the judge’s verdict as they are on the
actions of the accused.’85
The law which applies to the defendant applies equally to the judge, so that if
the judge acts capriciously, the accused may appeal to a higher power. In the
same way, the authority of Scripture derives from a higher authority, that of
the Gospel of Christ. With reference to Jesus, both Scripture and those under
its authority are on the same level. The fact that a concept or image is found
in Holy Writ does not necessarily make it authoritative for the reader.
In the context of Jewish-Christian dialogue, this means that texts which are
manifestly antagonistic to Jews should be interpreted in the light of the
Gospel, because ultimately they stand under its critique. If they do not ‘point
to Christ’, if they do not make plain the unconditional love of a gracious God to
all people, if they do not promote justice and righteousness in society, in
short, if they contradict the ‘good news’ of God in Jesus Christ, are we not
justified in repudiating them? If Luther had practised what he preached
(‘Christ rather than Scripture’) with reference to the Jews, he would not have
penned the tracts which laid him open to the charge of being responsible for
the bitterest anti-Jewish statements ‘in all Christian literature’.86
I close with two quotations. The first is from R.E. Brown, the eminent Roman
Catholic biblical scholar. After every public reading of anti-Jewish passages
from the New Testament, Brown urges the preacher to state forcefully:
…that such hostility between Christian and Jew cannot be continued today
and is against our fundamental understanding of Christianity. Sooner or later
Christian believers must wrestle within the limitations imposed on the
Scriptures by the circumstances in which they were written. … They must
reckon with the implications inherent in the fact that the word of God has
come to us in the words of men. To excise dubious attitudes from the
readings of Scripture is to perpetuate the fallacy that what one hears in the
Bible is always to be imitated because it is ‘revealed’ by God, the fallacy that
every position taken by an author of Scripture is inerrant.87
The second quotation is taken from Hans Kosmala, under whom I was
privileged to study at the Swedish Theological Institute in Jerusalem.
The statements of the New Testament are manifold, and they are dependent
in many ways on the thought and the language of their time. It is the task of
the New Testament exegete to study the philological and historical
background carefully before making any rash theological conclusions or
continuing in old misrepresentations and prejudices. It is then the task of the
minister and catechist to adjust his views and instructions in the light of such
careful study. The last and more general question we shall have to ask
ourselves is even more fundamental, namely: how far are the statements of
the New Testament basic and essential for our faith, in our time.88
The Conflict of the Church and the Synagogue, New York, 1934, 1961
See e.g. A. Lukyn Willliams, Adversus Judaeos, Cambridge, 1935; E. Flannery, The Anguish of the Jews,
New York 1965, 2nd rev. ed. 1985
The Jews and the Gospel, Westminster, Md. 1961, p.5. But see the introduction to R.R. Ruether, Faith and
Fraticide, New York, 1974, where Baum states that he changed his mind after reading Ruether’s book.
Evaluating the Past in Catholic-Jewish Relations, in P.Scharper (ed.), Torah and Gospel, New York, 1966,
‘Are the Gospels Anti-semitic?’, JES 5, 1968, p.487.
‘Facing the Truth, Judaism 27, 1978, p.325
Op.cit., Philadelphia, 1978, pp.144,162
Op.cit., p.246. For a critique of Ruether’s views see T.A. Idinopulos and R.B. Ward, ‘Is Christology
Inherently Anti-Semitic?’, JAAR 45, 1977, pp.193-214; M. Lowe, ‘Real and Imagined Anti-Jewish Elements
in the Synoptic Gospels and Acts’, JES 24, 1987, pp.267-284
Preface to A.T. Davies (ed.), Antisemitism and the Foundations of Christianity, New York, 1979, p.xi.
Mature Christianity: The Recognition and Repudiation of the Anti-Jewish Polemic of the New Testament,
London, 1985.
Op.cit., p.25
For the term ‘antisemitic potential’ see R. Fuller, “The Jews” in the Fourth Gospel’, Dialog 16, 1977, p.36.
See the discussion by D. Tracey, ‘Religious Values after the Holocaust: A Catholic View’, in A.J. Peck (ed.)
Jews and Christians after the Holocaust, Philadelphia, 1982, pp.87ff.
See N.A. Beck, op.cit., pp.32ff.
E. Bauer, Ein Bilderbuch für Gross and Klein, Nürenberg, 1936.
‘On the Jews and their Lies’, Luther’s Works, Philadelphia 1971, Vol. 47, p.278.
See J.Trachtenberg, The Devil and the Jews, New Haven, 1943.
P.W. Harkins, Eng. trans. Discourses against Judaizing Christians, 1:6.6 and 1:7.5, Fathers of the Church:
Washington, 1979. Vol.68, pp.24,28.
J. Gager, The Origins of Anti-Semitism, Oxford, 1983, p.132.
See e.g. G.B. Caird, The Revelation of St John the Divine, London, 1966, p.35; J.M.P. Sweet, Revelation,
Philadelphia, 1979, p.85.
See S. Frayne, ‘Vilifying the Other and Defining the Self: Matthew and John’s Anti-Jewish Polemic in
Focus’, in J. Neusner and E.S. Frerichs (eds), ‘To See Ourselves as Others See Us’: Christians, Jews,
‘Others’ in Late Antiquity, California, 1985, pp.118f.
A.Y. Collins, ‘Vilification and Self-Definition in the Book of Revelation’, in G.W. Nickelsburg and G.W.
MacRae (eds), Christians among Jews and Gentiles, Philadelphia, 1986, p.314.
‘Anti-Semitism and the Popularity of the Fourth Gospel in Christianity’, CCARJ22, 1975, p.49.
Art. ‘New Testament’ in JE, 1905, Vo 1.9, p.251.
For a useful review see J.T. Townsend, ‘The Gospel of John and the Jews: the Story of a Religious
Divorce’ in A.T. Davies (ed), op.cit., pp.72ff.
See the seminal studies of J. Louis Martyn, History and Theology in the Fourth Gospel, rev. ed. Nashville,
1979, and R.E. Brown, The Community of the Beloved Disciple, New York, 1979.
R.E. Brown, op.cit., p.23.
See S. Frayne and A.Y. Collins, op.cit
Quoted by I. Greenberg, ‘Judaism and Christianity after the Holocaust’, JES 12, 1975, p.525.
J.M. Oesterreicher, ‘Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions’ in H.
Vorgrimler (ed.), Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II, New York, 1967-69, Vo1.3, pp.33-40, 80,
107, 113f.
Eng. trans. In Answer to the Jews, 7:10 and 8:11, Fathers of the Church: Washington, 1975, Vo1.27,
pp.40S, 407.
See D.G. Morin, Anecdota Maredsolana., 1897, Vo1.3, pt.2, p.191, lines 12-15.
E. Werner, Melito of Sardis: the First Poet of Deicide’, HUCA 37, 1966, pp.191ff.
Quoted by P. Winter, On the Trial of Jesus, Berlin, 1961, p.1.
The following paragraphs draw on standard redaction-critical studies of Matthew, e.g., W. Trilling, Das
Wahre Israel, 3rd rev. ed. Munchen, 1964; D. Senior, The Passion narrative according to Matthew, Leuven,
Op.cit., p.55. See also N.A. Beck, op.cit., p.159; G.M. Smiga, Pain and Polemic: Anti-Judaism in the
Gospels, New York, 1992, p.60.
The Setting of the Sermon on the Mount, Cambridge, 1966, p.290.
‘End-Expectation and Church in Matthew’, in G. Bornkamm, G. Barth and H.J. Held, Tradition and
Interpretation in Matthew, London, 1963, German original 1960, p.39.
J.Fitzmyer, ‘Anti-Semitism and the Cry of “All the People”’, TS 26, 1965, pp.670f.
H. Reventlow, ‘Sein Blut komme über sein Haupt’, VT 10, 1960, pp.311ff.
B. Przybylzki, ‘The Setting of Matthean Anti-Judaism’, in P. Richardson and K. Granskou (eds), AntiJudaism in Early Christianity., Waterloo, 1986 Vol.1, p.198.
K.W. Clark, ‘Gentile Bias in Matthew’, JBL 66, 1947, pp.165ff; W. Trilling, op.cit., G. Strecker, Der Weg der
Gerechtigkeit, 3rd rev.ed. Göttingen, 1971.
See further D.R.A. Hare, The Theme of Jewish Persecution of Christians in the Gospel according to St
Matthew, Cambridge, 1967.
G.N. Stanton, ‘The Gospel of Matthew and Judaism’, BJRL 66, 1983-84, p.218.
See e.g. E. Haenchen, The Acts of the Apostles: A Commentary, Oxford, 1971: J.T. Sanders, The Jews in
Luke-Acts, Philadelphia, 1987, ch.3.
Op.cit., p.207.
Luke and the People of God, Minneapolis, 1972.
See S.G. Wilson, ‘The Jews and the Death of Jesus in Acts’, in P. Richardson and D. Granskou (eds),
op.cit., Vol.1, p.158.
Quoted by C. Klein, The Theological Dimensions of the State of Israel’, JES 10, 1973, p.702.
‘On the Jews and their Lies’, op.cit., p.192
Quoted by H. Graez, History of the Jews, Eng. trans., London, 1892, Vo1.3, p.358.
Paul the Apostle of Jesus Christ, Eng. trans., London, 1875, Vo1.2, p.87.
I and II Thessalonians, World Bible Commentaries: Waco, Tx., 1982, pp.48f.
B.A. Pearson, ‘I Thessalonians 2:13-16: A Deutero-Pauline Interpretation’, HTR 64, 1971, p.93.
‘Paul and the People of Israel’, NTS 24, 1978, p.8.
F.D. Gilliard, ‘The Antisemitic Comma between 1 Thessalonians 2:14 and 15, NTS 35, 1989, p.298.
E. Best, A Commentary on 1 and 2 Thessalonians, Black NT Commentaries: London, 1972, p.122.
P.W. Harkins, Eng. trans. op.cit., 5:1.6, p.99.
Op.cit., p.73.
Op.cit., p.303.
‘Luke and the Restoration of the Kingdom to Israel’, ET 89, 1977-78, p.77.
The History of Israel, Eng. trans. 2nd ed. London, 1960, German original, 1950, p.432.
Quoted by P. von der Osten-Sacken, Christian-Jewish Dialogue, Philadelphia, 1986, p.179, n.68.
Described in ibid., p.13.
See W.S. Seiferth, Synagogue and Church in the Middle Ages: Two Symbols in Art and Literature, New
York, 1970, plate 26.
Quoted by N. Lohfink, The Covenant Never Revoked, New York, 1991, p.5.
N.A. Beck, Op.cit., p.276.
Op.cit., p.120.
‘To the Hebrews or Against the Hebrews: Anti-Judaism and the Epistle to the Hebrews’ in S.G. Wilson (ed.)
Anti-Judaism in Early Christianity, Waterloo, 1986, Vo1.2, p.15.
J.D.G. Dunn, The Partings of the Ways between Christianity and Judaism and their Significance for the
Character of Christianity, London, 1991, p.176.
John, Sheffield, 1990, p.42.
Op.cit., p.217. M. Braybrooke, Time to Meet, London, 1990. Ch.5 contains an illuminating discussion of the
New Testament’s christological claims in relation to other faiths. See also K. Cracknell, Towards a New
Relationship: Christians and People of Other Faiths, London, 1986, ch.5, which discusses a Christianity for
religious pluralism.
Quoted from Rosenzweig’s magnum opus The Star of the Redemption by H.J. Schoeps, The JewishChristian Argument, Eng. Trans. 3rd ed. London, 1963, p.142.
Op.cit., p.13.
‘Separating Jesus from the Gospels’ Anti-Jewish Bias’, CG 1 (1993), p.7.
See e.g. J.D.G. Dunn, Op.cit., ch.8.
A Christian Theology of Judaism, New York, 1980, p.17. See also M. Cook, ‘The New Testament:
Confronting its Impact on Jewish-Christian Relations’, in M. Shermis and A.E. Zannoni (eds), Introduction
to Jewish-Christian Relations, New York, 1991, pp.46f.
‘The New Testament’s Anti-Jewish Slander and the Conventions of Ancient Polemic’, JBL 108, 1989,
pp.419ff. What follows is based principally on this article.
Op.cit., p.74.
Christ in the Light of the Jewish-Christian Dialogue, New York, 1982, p.122.
For a general survey see M. McGarry, Christology after Auschwitz, New York, 1977.
C.M. Williamson and R.J. Allen, Interpreting Difficult Texts: Anti-Judaism and Christian Preaching, London,
1989, p.63.
‘Theses concerning Faith and Law’ in Luther’s Works, Philadelphia, 1960, Vo1.34, p.112.
‘The Authority of Scripture for Theology’, Interpretation 30, 1976, p.246.
J. Marcus, The Jew in the Mediaeval World, New York, 1960, p.165.
‘The Passion according to John: Chapters 18 and 19’, Worship 49, 1975, p.131.
‘His Blood on Us and on our Children’, ASTI 7, 1968-69, p.122.
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