Is the New Testament Anti-Semitic?

canstockphoto12724103One of the things that I have heard recently is that the New Testament is anti-Semitic. Certain New Testament passages, particularly in John and in Acts, are cited to justify the claim, and at first glance the verses do seem to support the accusation, citing that Jesus’ main opponents are the Jews, and they are the ones who are most responsible for killing Jesus.

For instance, John 7:1 says that Jesus avoided going to Judea “because the Jews were looking for an opportunity to kill him.” In John 10 the Jews are ready to stone Jesus for blasphemy, but he somehow escapes them. After raising Lazarus from the dead the Jews sought to kill Jesus, so that “Jesus therefore no longer walked about openly among the Jews, (John 11:54 NRSV). In Acts the Jews are the enemies of the budding church and persecuted them. So is the accusation of anti-Semitism accurate?

Well, certainly Christianity has a very dark history regarding the Jews, calling them Christ-killers and actively persecuting them. Towards the end of his life Martin Luther’s writings were particularly virulent against the Jews. Many have noted that there is a connection between Luther and the anti-Semitism that Hitler took advantage of, and one shouldn’t ignore the fact that Nazi Germany rose in the midst of a Christian nation. And they all claimed the Bible to justify their anti-Semitism.

They were wrong. The Bible is not anti-Jewish. It is a Jewish book through and through, from Old Testament through the New. Jesus of course was a Jew, as were the first converts, even in Gentile lands. In most of Paul’s letters he is dealing with Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians living and worshiping together.

The New Testament presents Jesus as the fulfillment and the climax of the story that runs through the Old Testament. You can’t reject a story of which you are the fulfillment.

The confusion lies in the New Testament use of the word “Jew,” so let’s back up and give a little context. The gospels present two forces as Jesus’ main opponents: the Romans and the temple cult. The temple, of course, was in Jerusalem in the Roman province of Judea, (derived from Judah), and it is from here that we get the name “Jew.” In many contexts the word “Jew” means anyone of Israelite and Hebrew descent, but that is not always so.

At the time of Jesus a person from Galilee would call himself an Israelite and a Hebrew, but not a Jew. He wasn’t from Judea or from the tribe of Judah. He was a Galilean.

Israelites in the Diaspora were called Jews, but that usage reflects the general understanding of any person of Hebrew descent, and generally the Epistles use this word, but not as opponents of Christianity. Paul didn’t consider Jews his enemies or Christ-killers, and his ministry was not to disenfranchise Jews but to get them to see that God had opened up the covenant to include all people, Jew and Gentile.

In John and in Acts that we see the Jews as opponents of Christ, but this is term is limited to those Judeans around Jerusalem who supported and profited from the temple cult. (Go back above and read John 7:1.)

Jesus’ critique of them is that they themselves were persecutors of other Israelites, not unlike Isaiah and other prophets who held the religious leaders responsible for leading the common Israelite astray and even exploiting them.

So the word “Jew” needs to be seen in this context as a shorthand way of talking about the temple leadership. Jesus’ and Paul’s statements against the Jews shouldn’t be seen as anti-Semitism but as anti-temple leadership.

The New Testament doesn’t present the Gentiles as replacing the Jews but that they too are part of the Covenant, which was previously restricted to Israel. And this isn’t an innovation, it was part of the plan all along.

Anti-Semitism is a terrible stain in the history of Christianity, but the problem isn’t with the Bible but with people who justify their nationalism, religious and ethnic bigotry with cherry-picked verses and a faulty understanding of New Testament language, history, and culture.

Image: © Can Stock Photo Inc. / zatletic

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