Antisemitism in the New Testament

Reading commentaries of most of the New Testament it is commonplace for the writer to say that aspects of the New Testament which may seem antisemitic to the reader are not really antisemitic because they were written by Jewish people in the first century. This was an internal argument, they remind us, Jew vs. Jewish-Christian, not Jew vs. Gentile-Christian, thus it is no basis for contemporary Christian antisemitism.

It is true, and good to remember, that early Christianity was one of many sub-groups born in that period from ancient Yahwism, or 2nd temple Judaism, or whatever your preferred terminology is. The religion that was formed in the synagogues shares the same ancestry as the religion that was formed in the ecclesia.

Nevertheless, I can’t help but think that this idea that the New Testament can’t be antisemitic because it was written by Jews is false. Feminism understands that women internalize the ideas and structures of patriarchy too. Being a woman doesn’t make you immune to misogyny. Many women are complicit in keeping other women, or even themselves, down.

Being a person of color doesn’t make you immune to racism. I’m not talking about that nonsense called “reverse racism.” I mean that plenty of black people have unwittingly absorbed and believe that their skin color makes them inferior.

The same is true of class. It isn’t only rich people that believe the lie that poor people are to blame for their poverty. Many people standing in the unemployment line internalize that shame and guilt and wonder why they are failing to grasp the American dream.

So why would the Jewishness of the authors of the New Testament be any protection from them holding and propagating antisemitic ideas?

What is important about this is that following the Holocaust Christians naturally had a lot of shame about our complicity in (total responsibility for?) that evil. Rather than recognize the roots of that evil all the way through our history, beliefs, and even in the bedrock texts of our faith, we instead seek to protect the Bible, to keep it innocent. We blame it on a specific subset of Christians, or even just specific individuals. We say to ourselves, “they weren’t real Christians” (in a variant of the No True Scotsman falacy) or “they didn’t truly understand the Bible.” In this way we preserve the seeds of evil in our beliefs without taking responsibility for the fruit.

Instead of doing that, lets freely point out evil in the Bible where we see it. Don’t take your scissors out, it’s good that the rot is found in scripture. Otherwise how would we ever recognize ourselves in its pages?

  • r.holmgren

    Of course your suggestion is correct that women, blacks, the poor etc. can betray their own kind. So can Jewish people. The question is, were the authors of the New Testament doing that when they wrote their letters? Just because it can be done doesn’t mean that it was done. The same can be asked of the Old Testament prophets when they called down the wrath of God on their own people. Were these authors responding to the evil displayed before them or to individuals of a certain race.

    Jew on Jew antisemitism has NEVER jumped off the page when I’m reading. The issue from cover to cover has, to me, always been the presence of evil, the betrayal of our Creator and His plan for our salvation. For someone to read into it antisemitism requires an antisemitic mind-set. I remember the first time I heard the suggestion that the authors were antisemitic, I could scarcely believe the accusers were serious. I could scarcely believe it when I heard that Jews suffered during WWII because they as an identifiable group, were accused of being responsible for the death of Jesus. Are people simply not able to recognize evil when it smacks them upside the head? The answer is of course, no we aren’t, hence ridiculous and unfair judging of not only the Jews but the Jewish and Gentile authors of the New Testament.

    When referring to “The Jews” it seems obvious to me that the authors were talking about the Jewish religious leaders who believed themselves to be the most Jewish of Jews. “We’re children of Abraham.” What’s more, Jewish people have been hounded and persecuted and have fought off attempted genocide ever since they crossed the Jordan into the Promised Land. And that’s why I wonder, are the Jews God’s chosen people because they are almost universally hated OR are they almost universally hated because they are God’s chosen people?

    • aricclark

      I’d be careful assuming that what seems “obvious” to you is automatically correct or should be obvious to all. I’ve read plenty of commentaries that propose the idea you state here that when they refer to “the Jews” they are referring to the religious leaders. I’m proposing a different reading, that there was hurt and hate in the hearts of some of the writers of the New Testament just as there is in many human hearts. That is reflected somewhat in their writing which is at least intemperate and at times outright slanderous toward Pharisees, scribes, priests, the temple institution and yes, sometimes, the entire people of Judea. It is a complex relationship, as most are. But it is wise for us to recognize these things because they are true about us as well.

  • J. R. Daniel Kirk

    Aric, thanks for drawing me here via FB!

    I agree with you about the difficult things directed at Jews and/or Judeans and/or non-Christian Jews on the pages of the NT. John depicts “The Jews/Judeans” as the principal culprits in many things, and distances Jesus from them by having Jesus say things such as, “As it’s written in THEIR law…” Their? Really?

    It is one of the tragic pieces of irony that Matthew, “the most Jewish Gospel,” has provided what is perhaps the greatest fodder for anti-Jewish acts and sentiment in its cry of the crowd, “His blood be on us and our children!”

    So, I want to agree with you that we have in the NT Christian Jewish writers saying things about non-Christian Jews that are hateful toward them and/or potentially damaging to them as a group.

    There is one place where I wonder if your analogies break down, though. The non-Christian Jews were the powerful insiders in the relationship. John demonstrates the pain of excommunication that some members of John’s community have suffered for confessing Jesus to be the Messiah, for example. I don’t think that mitigates the problems, especially when those texts come to be wielded by Christians who are, later in history, the ones in power. But in terms of characterizing what’s going on in the pages, I think this is an important thing to keep in mind.

    Finally, one my greatest hesitations in signing off on “anti-semitism” as a label for what’s going on in the NT is that I wonder if it doesn’t depend on a modern theory of race. In that sense, I wonder if it isn’t as wrong to say that there are anti-Semites as it is to say that there were monotheists. The category might not fit the ways that ancient Romans et al distinguished among peoples and races.

    Of course, then there’s the question of whether you can be an anti-Semitic Jew, which I still find my mind resistant to!

    • aricclark

      I was conflicted about using the term “anti-semitism” too because of how much it relies on a modern theory of race. I agree it doesn’t really apply in a clean or neat way. There is clearly some in-group/out-group hatred going on there. It’s just hard to name with the categories we are accustomed to.

      You’re also right that the non-christian Jews were the powerful insiders relative to the christian-jews. That is why I used the examples of women, minorities, and the lower classes above. It’s the combination of hatred + power that is truly toxic, but the way these ideologies work isn’t just by the powerful oppressing the less powerful, it is by the less-powerful accepting the premise of inequality as well. Hence a number of vocal women critics of egalitarianism etc… The situation is further complicated by the fact that though non-christian Jews were powerful relative to Christian-jews they were still a conquered minority in the Roman Empire. What I would suggest is happening in some of the NT is christian-jews are intentionally using Roman stereotypes and such against non-christian Jews. They are reveling in Rome’s destruction of the temple, for example.