Since the mid-twentieth century, church teachings have moved in a decidedly “pro-Jewish” direction. Jews are no longer blamed for deicide, Jesus’s Jewishness is emphasized, and Christianity’s Jewish roots are increasingly explored. Pope Francis has called antisemitism un-Christian and has urged followers to fight it. He has also told Catholics to no longer proselytize to Jews. Large Christian sects support Israel. Tragically, Christians themselves are now persecuted in Muslim countries and demeaned elsewhere.
But what to make of the widespread enmity toward the Jewish state in what might still be termed Christendom? Westerners today repudiate antisemitism vehemently as that old shameful thing. Anti-Zionism, we’re told, is different: it’s this new honorable thing. Except, “antisemitism” was once the new honorable thing. The word was coined in late nineteenth century Germany when there already existed a word for Jew-hate: Judenhass. Problem was, Judenhass referenced the old, vulgar theme of religion; not the new, scientific – hence legitimate – credo of race. Today, the legitimate credo is progressive politics.
This historical trajectory makes it unsurprising that if one looks closely, many motifs of progressive anti-Zionists bear a resemblance to their original forebear, classic Christian antisemitism (anti-Judaism for purists), however incongruous this association may at first seem.
The Christian bible is an ideal starting point for identifying shared problematic themes. It is true that most churches today do not honor anti-Jewish readings of scripture. Yet in centuries past the same text served the opposite end quite well. And although the consensus view today is that the Christian bible is not antisemitic, there are also those who differ; who consider it anti-Jewish polemic in its essence. (Scholar Daniel Jonah Goldhagen and Pastor Norman A. Beck independently speak of some 450 verses that defame Jews, looking at only part of the bible.)
I am not a religion scholar; moreover, I am Jewish, and to some, these two things will be seen as hindering a correct appreciation of Christian scripture. Nevertheless, I confess that upon first reading the Christian bible, I was utterly horrified at the ways that Jews are depicted. Obviously, I therefore also appreciate church efforts to dictate positive readings of controversial verses.
However…the Christian bible has already left an enormous mark on Western civilization. The publishing blockbuster of all time, some six billion copies are estimated to have been printed. Clearly, more people know biblical Jews than know living Jews, who have always been a numerically marginal people. This situation alone is strange and anomalous, and would seem to compel attention on the question of whether the Christian bible is antisemitic.
ARGUMENTS MAINTAINING THAT THE CHRISTIAN BIBLE IS NOT ANTISEMITIC
An illuminating place to begin is perhaps with the common arguments used to counter charges of antisemitism Here, one sees immediately not only the limits beyond which certain modern interpretations can go, but also how the Jew-hostile interpretations of yore, which have been orally retired by most churches, still thrive in the larger world.
“The bible does not rebuke all Jews.”
One teaching today is that the bible does not take issue with the Jewish people as a whole, either then or now. Only the rival religion of Judaism was being chastised. Or at worst, only a particular set of Jews – the priests or Judaeans or Pharisees or Sadducees – and then, only in a historically contextual way.
Yet the generic term “the Jews” does appear with some frequency; unqualified and with a negative connotation. It is acknowledged that The Book of John in specific departs from other gospels in using this generalized term. And 1 Thessalonians 2:14-15 broadly states, “The Jews who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out. They displease God and are hostile to everyone.” Likewise, when Pontius Pilate hesitates before killing Jesus, it is the whole crowd of Jews who repeatedly shout “crucify him!”
But there is another, implicit way, in which one might conclude that all Jews really are being rebuked. It is that biblical Jews are presumed to have the choice to follow Jesus, for some do, even though they must hide in fear from the Jewish leaders. Yet the majority of Jews make the “wrong” choice. It is this interpretation that is most consonant with the many centuries of torturing and killing random Jews for not following Christ. (The video Christian Jew-Hatred, Antisemitism or Anti-Judaism surveys this history.) And although the methods may have softened, even today, hundreds of Christian groups are hard at work to convert Jews to the “right” path.
It is obvious that an image of Jews as morally flawed is still with us. Jews are the only group supposed to consist of predominantly bad people, not good. Mexicans entering the U.S., we are rightly told, are mostly good and law-abiding; only a small number are criminals. Muslims, too, are good people leading harmless lives, we’re told; only a minority are radicals. With Jews, it is the reverse: only the small minority – anti-Zionists who vilify their own people – are good; the large majority (“Zionists”), are bad. Further, to qualify as “good,” some form of self-negation is required: for biblical Jews, it is renouncing Judaism; for Jews today, renouncing the Jewish state.
One also sees Zionist Jews excluded from the sympathetic view that if a populace does something questionable – say, they flood borders illegally, vote in an extremist, or participate in Nazi-era atrocities – this is because of extenuating circumstances such as endangerment, desperation, or authoritarian pressure. With Zionists, not only are reasonable actions (e.g., voting for Netanyahu) painted darkly (fascist Israel!), but all actions are ascribed to defective character rather than circumstances. It is hard to imagine that a whole group of people could be excluded from the romantic mythos about the goodness of the “common man” so sacred to modernity without centuries of a contrary mythos about the common Jew.
The good/bad divide goes further. Only Jews who accept Jesus are paradoxically considered true Jews in the Book of Revelation; those who do not, belong to the “synagogue of Satan.” This “true” Jews business and the world’s meddling into who is/isn’t Jewish marks another distinction. Other groups are respectfully empowered to dictate how they wish to be identified (Do you prefer “Black”? or “African-American”? “Queer”? or just “gay”?). Jews, by contrast, get told who they are; the most recent, and naturally, pejoratively intended term being “white.” And just as non-believers in the bible are not “true” Jews, “experts” proclaim that Zionists are not true Jews, even though a return to Zion is grounded in Judaism.
“Any apparent antisemitism is a misinterpretation.”
A much leveraged argument against any antisemitic biblical reading is that it is a misinterpretation. Thus, after the U.S. synagogue shootings in 2018 and 2019 (Tree of Life in Pittsburgh, and then Chabad of Poway in California) in which both assailants referenced scripture, their motivating understanding of the text was roundly denounced as a misinterpretation. This was the case even for the notorious and baldly-worded John 8:44, which the first shooter featured prominently on his social media profile. It states:
For you are the children of your father the devil, and you love to do the evil things he does.
Bible scholars in this CBS News article, for instance, explained that deriving any anti-Jewish inference from this verse is a gross distortion. They went on to lament that scriptural abuse is also common with respect to homophobia and racism. In the Daily Beast, religion expert Annette Yoshiko Reed does admit that the verse has “horrifying power,” but explains that the horror comes from white supremacy, with “whiteness” being ignorantly and anachronistically linked to the verse by the shooter.
Interestingly, John Chrysostom, a saint in East Orthodox, Anglican, Catholic, Lutheran, Coptic, and other churches, had an opposite take on Jews in the 4th century:
It is incumbent upon all Christians to hate the Jews. Anyone who has at any time persecuted, tortured, or massacred Jews has acted as an instrument of Divine wrath.
But the main thrust of this inquiry isn’t just the church and its approach to walking back Jew-hate, but how older church teachings still infuse our culture. Hence I will play devil’s advocate and consider what our world would look like if people did take John 8:44 at face value and viewed Jews as devil’s spawn. One need only turn to any mainstream media account of Mideast events and swap in the word “devil” for Zionists or Israel to see if it fits. I say it does.
Recall, the devil is evil by definition, so this means it always does evil and can never do anything good or neutral. Israel building a fence to protect all citizens from terrorists? Evil. Israel using airport-style checkpoints to screen for weapon-carriers? Evil. The occupation? Evil – and here, no other reason need even be entertained. How about 1940s Nazi escapees fleeing for their lives to the region Britain designated for them? Evil. Also, just because an act looks good, it is still evil. Giving back Gaza? Still evil. Medical care for Syrian refugees? Still evil. Gay-friendly Tel Aviv, including for Arabs? Still evil. The devil is not vulnerable, does not have human needs and emotions, and never reacts; he is always in control. Hence while Palestinians are forever driven by emotions like desperation and frustration, Israelis never are, even when Iran threatens to nuke them off the map.
An important corollary is that there is no way to be “anti-devil.” All good people are of course opposed to the devil! As such, charges of antisemitism are met with tremendous confusion and ambivalence, if not further accusations of evil. Zionists are said to “weaponize” the charge to deflect from their devilry. Or else they are accused of causing and committing antisemitism. It is exactly how one would respond to the devil pleading “anti-devilism.”
Happily, churches today maintain that Jews-as-devil is a horrible misinterpretation, but it was not long ago that a powerful leader worked from the wrong interpretation:
The personification of the devil as the symbol of all evil assumes the living shape of the Jew.
(Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf)
I do appreciate the conundrum of unsavory ancient sacred text. This occurs with Hebrew scripture as well, and mandating a non-literal interpretation is perhaps the only option. But given our societal backdrop, in which classics of literature will get pulled for potentially endangering the “safety” of say, a bi-sexual Inuit faster than you can say “woke,” the Jewish predicament stands in stark contrast.
“The Christian bible depicts an unremarkable dispute among Jews.”
A third way to implicitly argue that the Christian bible is not antisemitic comes as part of the larger, well-intentioned effort by both Jews and Christians to emphasize the Jewishness of Jesus and the Jewish roots of Christianity. It holds that the bible merely recounts a disagreement, albeit salty, between two groups of Jews, as commonly occurred in the era. Hence one is to infer that the Christian bible cannot be antisemitic.
I do believe that the two-Jewish-sects argument has had a positive effect in highlighting to Christians their affiliation with Judaism. However, there’s also a haziness to the argument that undermines it. For one thing, by the time the bible was written, the two designations used – “Jews” and “Christians” – already signified the same mutually exclusive core beliefs that they do today. For Jews, it is the Shema; for Christians, that the only way to the Father is through the Son. Indeed, Anglican minister William Nicholls, author of Christian Antisemitism: A History of Hate, notes that Paul forbade his converts to observe Torah.
And for all the “debating,” the actual Jewish argument for rejecting Jesus as messiah is nowhere featured. It is that to Jews, Jesus failed to fulfill the scriptural requirements of a messiah, with later claims of divinity additionally breaching the idolatry prohibition. The Christian bible instead teaches that the Jews rejected Jesus because his message of love was anathema to their corrupt and vile natures. So it may well be that the bible has captured a clash between Jesus-followers and a bunch of vile and corrupt Jews, but this is not the same as theological engagement.
Is there a real world carry-over of Jews lacking reasoned motives for their posture and instead acting merely out of depravity? Surely Israel is assumed to have no case to make, but to simply be depraved. Not even North Korea is analyzed this severely; it is at least acknowledged to have a geo-political predicament.
And even assuming all parties had been practicing Jews, this would not automatically disqualify the Christian bible from antisemitism. In fact, viewing the biblical clash this way prefigures quite well the antisemitism of many of today’s anti-Zionist Jewish agitators. Those who demon-ize other Jews and question the right of the Jewish state to exist qualify as antisemitic even in Pope Francis’s eyes. Further, today’s Jewish defamers of Israel also seek to convert the wider gentile world to the idea that theirs is a purer Jewish morality than that of their brethren. They are the “true” Jews.
ARE JEWS TRULY MALIGN IN THE CHRIST STORY?
Recently, one sees emphasis on a biblical interpretation that neutralizes malign motives for Jewish participation in the death of Christ. It holds that Jesus’s death was the pre-ordained, necessary precondition for resurrection and thereby, gentile salvation; essentially, a Jewish gift to Christians for which even gratitude is not out of order. Obviously, this framing is a welcome revision of the “Jews-as-malign” reading. That reading resulted in such horrors as the burning of Jews in Berlin in 1243 for allegedly torturing a wafer (the literal body of Christ in Catholic Transubstantiation) in a malign re-enactment of the crucifixion.
But the newer insight doesn’t revamp Jews in their essence. Gift or not, biblical Jews pursue their agenda of ensuring Jesus’s death in a despicable way.
If you go to biblegateway.com and search for the verb “plot,” you’re returned about a dozen occurrences in the Christian bible (it comes up plenty in the Hebrew bible as well!). A typical example is Matthew 12:14: “The Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus.” But if all that was needed was the death of Jesus for ultimate Christian salvation, the Jews might have achieved this end in a devout or conflicted or reluctant or at least a humane Kosher way – as mandated even for killing a chicken. Instead, the leaders plot, and then the masses bray for a gruesome Roman-style crucifixion. A repellent characterization remains, at least to my sensibilities, even if it stops short of deity-murder.
And so here we are in the 21st century everywhere hearing about Zionist “plots.” There is the coronavirus plot, Facebook plot, gender equality plot, Pakistan unity plot, smearing of Scottish pro-Palestinians plot, a book called “The Shadow of Antichrist & Zionist Plots”—these are some of the hits on just the first two pages of a Google search. Swap in “Iranian” or “North Korean plots” and the results are far more grounded. Swap in “Palestinian plots” and you get Israeli plots. People with no religion and no bible nevertheless know that “Zionists” plot. In fact, one might say that secular people are even more dangerous than observant Christians because they are not under sway of any counterbalancing positive messages from clergy.
Jews manipulate leaders to their will.
Churches are careful today to affirm that it was the Romans, not the Jews, who hold responsibility for killing Christ (curious that today’s Italians aren’t taking heat for it, no?). Nevertheless, Jews do compel Pontius Pilate to crucify Jesus, and he reluctantly does so. So the takeaway is odious in another way: Jews are the corrupt and malign “power behind the power,” coercing the nominal leaders to do their bidding. Again, no religion needed, no bible needed; the world has it down that Jews/Zionists strong-arm governments to fight wars for them, pony up money for them, and answer to their self-serving, anti-gentile ends. That this is the “Zionist” modus operandi is clear even on CNN in its way of talking about the U.S. lobby AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee).
Jews persecute Christians.
Though culpability for murdering Jesus has been lifted, it is also the case that biblical Jews persecute followers of Jesus, and the veracity of this misbehavior does not appear to get challenged by any new interpretation.
A search at biblegateway.com on “persecut” returns fifty-four entries. Jews today might be surprised to learn that some Christians, in their identification with biblical accounts, view themselves as victims of Jewish persecution. Of course, virtually all Jews alive today need look back at most a few generations to cite family members who suffered physical persecution at the hands of a Christian populace, whether it was the Russian and Polish pogroms of the late 19th century or the Holocaust. Nevertheless, per online comments I have seen, to some Christians there is a kind of parity between the mass-scale bodily harm Jews have recently lived in Christendom and their own recorded travail from antiquity.
A Christian sense of injury is also seen among scholars and clergy. The Orthodox Christian Information Center refers to Jews as “sometimes as persecutors themselves, sometimes as the persecuted.” Even Yale Divinity School Sterling Professor of Divinity Harold Attridge points to the as his way of disavowing any anti-Jewish intent behind “Jews are the children of the devil,” discussed earlier. The article paraphrases Attridge as saying:
People have been plotting against Jesus for some time, trying to arrest him and stone him to death. So Jesus reacts rather strongly and calls them children of the devil.
Indeed, one might go further and say that the hostile Jewish priestly power structure that hounds Jesus might well serve as a model for how Christians perceive the enduring dynamic between Jews and Christians.
I will not presume to make a leap between the specifically Christian sense of persecution and say, the Nazis’ felt need to “defend” themselves against Jews, since persecution complexes don’t require Christianity. On the other hand, it is unlikely that a false perception of Jews as powerful eternal enemies of Christians has been helpful to Jews’ standing in the West.
Other biblical characterizations of Jews, which include greed, stubbornness, hard-heartedness, perfidy, and enmity toward humanity have their echo in today’s characterization of Zionists; a.k.a., the “bad” Jews. Israel does not make peace because it is “stubborn,” its blockade of Gaza is because it’s hard-hearted, it tells lies about its history, and so on. Though Christianity may be moving forward, such anti-Jewish tropes endure, and they also have extended to the Arab world. As Tuvia Tenenbom, author of the best-selling Catch the Jew! notes, virtually all the blockbuster antisemitic titles in the Arab world are Western translations
JEWS ARE “RELIGION OBJECTS” IN THE WORLD
According to one source, around eighty percent of Jews live in only two countries, Israel and the U.S.; the remainder living in a small number of others. This means that ninety percent of countries have no Jewish presence to speak of despite the worldwide preoccupation with Jews and Israel. Hence one might say Jews are “religion objects” in Christianity as well as in the new “religion” of progressive anti-Zionism.
This odd status likely accounts for some of the anomalies in the way Jews are treated. For one thing, Jews don’t simply inhabit a place, they inhabit minds. More mundane minorities are safe from persecution if they manage to flee the threat zone. Jews, on the other hand, were hunted down even beyond national borders by the Nazis. And Theodor Herzl would turn over in his grave if he could see that the establishment of a thriving homeland for Jews far from the Europeans who detested them would only be Act I; that Europeans would continue to fixate on Jews long after they were out of sight.
“Pro-Palestinians” also have a religious Christian ring when they declare their agenda to be in Israeli interests (“tough love”). Christian proselytizers and many “pro-Palestinians” alike are concerned with the “redemption” of Jews/Zionists, who must be shown the way – the one way; namely, theirs. Christians want Jews to be saved, “pro-Palestinians” want Israelis to be safe; and in both cases this way entails some form of Jewish self-abnegation. You surely don’t hear such nonsense from Palestinians themselves, even though their desired outcome is identical.
“Pro-Palestinians” also replicate the Wandering Jew idea of Christianity in their insistence that Jews don’t belong in the Middle East. If Jews don’t belong in the Middle East and don’t belong in the countries they came from (almost all of which drove them out), then what is the “pro-Palestinian’s” positive belief regarding where Jews belong? The Dutch and British who had colonized South Africa had an obvious place to return to when apartheid was dismantled. To which country do those who accuse Zionists of colonialism see Israelis “returning”? It’s clear that today’s political hostility toward Jews is as uncompromising as the previous racial hostility. Just as no baptism could make racially deficient Jews acceptable, no amount of Jewish-controlled land is small enough to satisfy the anti-Zionist. Apparently, the belief remains that Jews should live only where gentile governments allow them to live and only for as long as allowed; in other words, the “Wandering Zionist.” The words of Pope Innocent III (1198–1216) evidently still apply: “Their sufferings and homelessness are the just deserts for their crimes.”
TO MANY, ANTISEMITISM IS ONLY SEMI-WRONG
It is indeed true that most churches have made profound, even momentous strides toward a new accord with Judaism. But antisemitism as practiced for millennia in Christendom is a tough nut to crack. As A. Roy Eckardt, professor, clergyman, and pioneer in Christian-Jewish relations, put it: “Are Christians antisemitic because of their faith or in spite of it? Both.” (Theological Approaches to Antisemitism, Jewish Social Studies, Oct. 1971)
As such, even Christians who earnestly believe their religion has nothing to do with antisemitism end up saying things that sound alarmingly equivocal to a Jewish ear, such as this:
The takeaway is that one of the most anti-Jewish fathers, Jerome, while never letting Jews ‘off the hook’ for sticking to the Old Covenant, nevertheless states that God stills love them.
Those who cite John, saying that ‘Jews are children of the devil,’ ignore statements in John, like ‘Salvation comes from the Jews.’
…Of course the flip side is: “Salvation comes from the Jews,” but let’s not forget that they are also “children of the devil.”
It becomes obvious that the term “antisemitism” really does not serve if the normative view of Jews is that they’re flawed in some measure. The IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) definition thus will never be accepted by those who most egregiously violate it. Perhaps a more objectively focused term such as “Jew-slanderer” would at least pre-condition a more substantive defense than simple denial.
The conundrum of definition is further revealed in this video debate about whether the Christian bible is antisemitic. We hear popular Messianic Jew Michael Brown asserting, “It’s not antisemitic to tell the truth.” “Truth” to him is whatever he says the bible says about Jews, regardless what any other source or person thinks is the truth about Jews, including Jews themselves. And in the anti-Zionist arena, one hears Jewish BDS activist Judith Butler declaring that “a passion for justice [has been] renamed as antisemitism” because to her, “justice” means destroying Israel; the known goal of BDS.
These individuals are implying that the majority of Jews are on the opposite side of truth and justice—and yet they do not see this very charge as antisemitic. Is that because by cultural definition, Jews who reject Christ or are Zionists are a priori immoral; again, the “anti-devil” oxymoron?
And so despite the strides of the church in mitigating anti-Jewish sentiment, the “background radiation of Christianity” (as William Nicholls termed it) is still with us. The rallying power of “Zionists stole land!” is eerily reminiscent in its bareness and mendacity of “Jews killed Christ!” But how can the world be expected to recognize that anti-Zionism is antisemitism when antisemitism isn’t recognized as antisemitism even when Jews are called sons of the devil?
Do you walk under ladders? A bad association with ladders purportedly dates back 5,000 years. Why would a bad association with “the Jews” disappear any sooner?
For a dose of hope and inspiration regarding Jewish-Christian relations, here is a remarkable TED talk by Megan Phelps-Roper, a woman who left the tiny Westboro Baptist Church in which she was raised. Notorious as an extremist hate group and not affiliated with any Baptist convention, Westboro nevertheless bases its anti-gay, antisemitic, anti-everyone credo in Christian Bible scripture.
Spoiler: Her hostile Twitter exchanges with a man from jewishly.com have a happy ending.