Antisemitism: A History

The Origins and Inspirations of Christian Antisemitism

The roots of Christian antisemitism can be traced to two main—but related—beliefs: The Jewish rejection of Jesus as the messiah and Jewish complicity in the death of Jesus. Gerard S. Sloyan, “Christian Persecution of Jews over the Centuries,” U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, accessed November 28, 2018, https://www.ushmm.org/research/about-the-mandel-center/initiatives/ethics-religion-holocaust/articles-and-resources/christian-persecution-of-jews-over-the-centuries/christian-persecution-of-jews-over-the-centuries; “Blood Libel,” U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, accessed November 28, 2018, https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/blood-libel. This section will first examine sources of antisemitism within the New Testament of the Christian Bible, followed by an exploration of how these passages and themes have shaped Christian-Jewish relations and Christian antisemitism over the centuries.

Jewish rejection of Jesus has been a historical point of contention between Christians and Jews for centuries. At odds with the core of Christianity, the Jewish people reject both Jesus as the messiah and any divinity attributed to him. Jewish religious authorities conclude that Jesus failed to fulfill the biblical prophecies that would qualify him as the messiah. Shraga Simmons, “Why Jews Don’t Believe in Jesus,” Aish HaTorah, March 6, 2004, https://www.aish.com/jw/s/48892792.html.

Jewish rejection of Jesus has spurred two primary responses: The label of Jews as Christ-killers and the belief that Jewish souls are condemned to Hell and must therefore be saved. Both these themes are illuminated in the New Testament, such as in this passage in the Book of Romans:

Brothers and sisters, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. I can testify that they have a zeal for God, but it is not enlightened. For, being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking to establish their own, they have not submitted to God’s righteousness. Rom. 10:1-3 (New Revised Standard Version).

Jewish rejection of Jesus forms the basis for the Jewish persecution of Jesus, which is the second theme prevalent throughout the New Testament that has made a lasting impact. Throughout history, certain passages of the New Testament have been used to promote the idea that Jews sought or participated in the death of Jesus.

The Gospels paint a picture of Jews as a whole plotting the death of Jesus, and also plotting excommunication of Jesus’s followers: “His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue.” John 9:22 (New Revised Standard Version). The seventh chapter of John describes Jesus fleeing the Jews because “the Jews were looking for an opportunity to kill him.” John 7:1 (New Revised Standard Version). Later on, the Jews are actively plotting to kill Jesus: “So from that day on they planned to put him to death.” John 11:53 (New Revised Standard Version).

Recounted throughout the Gospels is the story of Pilate offering a crowd of Jews the opportunity to free Jesus, but the crowd instead chooses to free the criminal Barabbas. In the Gospel of Mark, Pilate comes to the realization that the chief priests of Israel had turned Jesus over to the authorities out of jealousy. According to the gospel, Pilate asked a crowd of Jews if they wanted him to “release for you the King of the Jews?,” but the chief priests “stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas for them instead.” Mark 15:1-15 (New Revised Standard Version). Luke 23 further illustrates:

Then they all shouted out together, “Away with this fellow! Release Barabbas for us!” (This was a man who had been put in prison for an insurrection that had taken place in the city, and for murder.) Pilate, wanting to release Jesus, addressed them again; but they kept shouting, “Crucify, crucify him!” A third time he said to them, “Why, what evil has he done? I have found in him no ground for the sentence of death; I will therefore have him flogged and then release him.” But they kept urgently demanding with loud shouts that he should be crucified; and their voices prevailed. So Pilate gave his verdict that their demand should be granted. He released the man they asked for, the one who had been put in prison for insurrection and murder, and he handed Jesus over as they wished. Luke 23:18-25 (New Revised Standard Version).

Early Christianity struggled to address the issue of the Jews, whose scriptures they believed provided support for Jesus’s messianic role and the simultaneous Jewish rejection of Jesus, which hindered the religion’s legitimacy. The Roman destruction of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. reinforced the idea among early Christians that God had rejected the Jews because they had rejected Jesus as their messiah. Phyllis Goldstein, A Convenient Hatred: The History of AntiSemitism (Brookline: Facing History and Ourselves National Foundation, 2012), 25. In the Book of Acts, the Apostle Peter admonished the people of Israel as he and John raised up a lame man outside the Temple:

When Peter saw it, he addressed the people, “You Israelites, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk? The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus, whom you handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate, though he had decided to release him. But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. Acts 3:12-15 (New Revised Standard Version).

The role of Jews in condemning Jesus has been both a major source of Christian antisemitism and an area of debate within Christian doctrine. The story of Jesus’s crucifixion at the hands of the Jews is the central event of the Passion of the Christ, a depiction of the final hours of Jesus’s life leading up to his death and resurrection. The Passion was first performed as a play in Medieval Europe and notoriously portrayed Jews as the villains behind Jesus’s death. According to theology professor Philip Cunningham, in Religion News Service (RNS), “Passion plays often combined the most negative ‘anti-Jewish’ elements from the four Gospels into a composite narrative that was more hostile to Jews than any single Gospel alone.” A. James Rudin, “Christians, Jews and the dubious history of the Passion play,” Religion News Service, March 27, 2018, https://religionnews.com/2018/03/27/christians-jews-and-the-dubious-history-of-the-passion-play/. Cunningham further said that Christianity had for centuries adopted the notion that in order for Christianity to be true, Judaism had to be false. A. James Rudin, “Christians, Jews and the dubious history of the Passion play,” Religion News Service, March 27, 2018, https://religionnews.com/2018/03/27/christians-jews-and-the-dubious-history-of-the-passion-play/. In 1988, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) issued a set of criteria for depicting the Passion. “Criteria for the Evaluation of Dramatizations of the Passion,” U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1988, http://www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/ecumenical-and-interreligious/jewish/upload/Criteria-for-the-Evaluation-of-Dramatizations-of-the-Passion-1988.pdf. This was the culmination of decades of reform within the Church in terms of its relations with Jews and other non-Christians that began in the late 1950s.

On January 25, 1959, Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council, also known as Vatican II. The Church’s first ecumenical council in almost 100 years drew between 2,000 and 2,500 bishops to Rome through the 1960s for a series of discussions on how to reform Church doctrine and how the Church engaged with non-Catholics. Jordan G. Teicher, “Why Is Vatican II So Important?,” NPR, October 10, 2012, https://www.npr.org/2012/10/10/162573716/why-is-vatican-ii-so-important. One of the new doctrines to emerge from Vatican II was Nostra Aetate in October 1965, which redefined the Church’s relations with the Jewish people. The document acknowledged that Jews largely did not accept the Gospel after Jesus’s death and “not a few opposed its spreading,” but also recognized that “God holds the Jews most dear for the sake of their Fathers….” “Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions Nostra Aetate – Proclaimed by His Holiness Pope Paul VI on October 28, 1965,” The Holy See, October 28, 1965, http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_decl_19651028_nostra-aetate_en.html.

The document went on to embrace the classic Christian position of replacement—that God formed a new covenant with Christianity that replaced the covenant with the Jewish people. But at the same time, it sought to redefine Christian-Jewish relations. Under Nostra Aetate, “any presentations that explicitly or implicitly seek to shift responsibility from human sin onto this or that historical group, such as the Jews, can only be said to obscure a core gospel truth.” “Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions Nostra Aetate – Proclaimed by His Holiness Pope Paul VI on October 28, 1965,” The Holy See, October 28, 1965, http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_decl_19651028_nostra-aetate_en.html. Nostra Aetate recognized the centrality of the Passion narrative to Christianity, but while it presented the Jewish leaders of the time as responsible for Jesus’s death, it rejected the position that all Jews shared responsibility for the crime. “Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions Nostra Aetate – Proclaimed by His Holiness Pope Paul VI on October 28, 1965,” The Holy See, October 28, 1965, http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_decl_19651028_nostra-aetate_en.html.

Nostra Aetate created a new paradigm for Christian-Jewish relations, but it did not end the promulgation of negative Jewish stereotypes using the Passion.

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