If you don’t have a strong stomach, go straight to the second paragraph of this story. Nathan Hannover, who survived the 17th century Ukrainian pogroms, records in The Abyss of Despair how Bogdan Chmielnicki, liberator of his nation from the Poles, killed 100,000 Jews. He skinned some alive and fed them to the dogs; he buried others alive; he ripped open the bellies of pregnant women and inserted live cats, after cutting off the women’s hands so they couldn’t remove them.
For centuries the Jews of Eastern Europe lived in terror of the cry “Christ-killers”, which heralded the arrival of the Christian mob intent on destruction, rape and murder. Usually engineered by the government of the day to distract the Christian majority from their own troubles, the pogroms were whipped up from the pulpits. Indeed, the church has an appalling record of persecution of Jewish people over the past millennium.
So it is little wonder that Jews regard the New Testament with deep suspicion. Jewish scholar Daniel Goldhagen, author of the controversial Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, has written a new book, A Moral Reckoning: The Role of the Catholic Church in the Holocaust and Its Unfulfilled Duty of Repair, in which he calls on the church to admit to its misdeeds and repent.
Goldhagen claimed recently in The Age’s Saturday Extra that “the Christian Bible is replete with the most damaging and inflammatory anti-Semitism. All you need to do is change the word ‘Jews’ in the Christian Bible to ‘blacks’ and say blacks are the children of the devil, that they no longer hear God because they reject Jesus, that they killed the son of God, and all blacks are forever guilty of doing so, and let’s hand this book to a billion people and say it’s the word of God.”
Goldhagen is not the originator of this idea. It has been widely held in the Jewish community for centuries, as has the conviction that if this hatred is not present in the Bible, the Bible has certainly been used to justify it. As Rabbi John Levi, regional director of the Union for Progressive Judaism, says: “Most Jewish people do believe that anti-Semitism arose from religious texts. And it’s a major problem in the relation between the two faiths.”
So is Goldhagen right? Is the New Testament virulently anti-Semitic? Or is it rather, as Rabbi Levi implies, that the church over the centuries is guilty of misinterpreting its scriptures and taking verses out of context?
Goldhagen’s charge would have made little sense to the New Testament’s authors. After all, 25 of its 27 books were written by Jews (the exception is Luke, author of Luke and Acts), chiefly to Jews, arguing for what they considered the true Judaism against the orthodoxy of the day, represented by the Pharisees.
They opposed the contemporary Jewish religion, not the Jewish people – a vital distinction. In fact, they hoped to persuade and convert the Jews, and Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, made a point of approaching the Jews first in every town he sought to evangelise. For “the Gospel of salvation . . . is to the Jew first, and also to the Greek” (Epistle to the Romans, 1:16).
In the first two centuries of the church’s existence the persecution went in the other direction, from Jewish establishment to Christian minority. Even after the destruction of Jerusalem in AD70, Jewish communities were far more important in the Roman empire than Christian communities.
It was the stoning of Stephen (described in Acts 7) that caused the Christian Jews to flee and take the Gospel outside Judah. Before that they had little theology of mission to non-Jews.
This battle for the “true Judaism” provides the context in which the New Testament strictures later used to justify persecuting Jews should be understood. As early as the fourth chapter of Genesis (the first book of the Jewish Bible, or Old Testament), humanity is divided into two streams, the lines of Seth and Cain, those who will serve God and those who rebel.
There are no stronger admonitions of the Jews than those in the Jewish Bible, when the authors perceive that the people are deserting God. Moses condemns them as a stiff-necked and rebellious people from their beginnings as a nation (Exodus 33:3 and Deuteronomy 9:7). The prophets call them adulterers, idolaters, rulers of Sodom, people of Gomorrah, covenant-breakers, and much more.
For example, in the eighth century BC Hosea wrote: “Hear the word of the Lord, O people of Israel, for the Lord has a controversy with the inhabitants of the land. There is no faithfulness or kindness, and no knowledge of God in the land; there is swearing, lying, killing, stealing, and committing adultery; they break all bounds and murder follows murder” (Hosea 4:1,2).
The New Testament authors clearly saw themselves as writing in the same tradition with the same prophetic authority.
“Anti-Semitism” is a modern term, according to Graham Keith, author of Hated Without a Cause: A History of Anti-Semitism (1977). It was popularised by German journalist Wilhelm Marr in The Victory of Judaism Over the Jews (1879). Marr, an atheist, had no interest in religion but wanted to oppose Jews on social, economic, political and racial grounds.
But the concept, defined as hatred and persecution of Jews as a group – not the hatred of persons who happen to be Jews, but the hatred of persons because they are Jews – has a venerable history.
It is first documented in Exodus, when Pharaoh is frightened of the Hebrews, so persecutes them. Haman, in the Old Testament book of Esther, is a Hitler prototype who wants to exterminate every Jew. His defeat, and the salvation of the Jews, is celebrated each year in the Jewish feast of Purim.
This is very different to the sort of opposition found in the New Testament, where the fledgling Christian religion was fighting for its identity and in constant danger of being overwhelmed by orthodox Judaism. Early Christians wrote to defend their message to pagans and to Jews, and above all to reassure confused members of their own flock.
The apostle Paul writes his letter to the Galatians on this very subject. He had founded the small church there, but later Jewish-Christian teachers were saying that, besides keeping the faith Paul taught, the gentile believers should also be circumcised and observe Jewish law.
“O foolish Galatians!” Paul pleads. “Who has bewitched you . . . Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law, or by hearing with faith?” (Galatians 3:1,2).
This tension between Christian faith and Jewish law is a common Pauline theme. But no one could doubt Paul’s love for his people. “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen by race” (Romans 9:2,3).
So does the Jews’ “blindness” about Christ mean they are now God’s enemies? Paul addresses that question two chapters later: “I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected the people whom he foreknew.”One of the texts often used to foment hatred is Matthew 27:25, when Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, is trying to pardon Jesus but the mob refuses. Pilate washes his hands and says “I am innocent of this man’s blood”. Verse 25 says: “And all the people answered ‘His blood be on us and on our children’.” This verse was soon regarded as the self-condemnation of the Jewish people for all time.
But, as Keith points out, this interpretation is hard to sustain. Without getting too technical, there is no verb in the Greek text. The word “be” is put in for sense in English, which makes it sound like a wish or even a prayer.
In the wider context, Matthew’s message – like the rest of the New Testament – is clear that it is Christians, who by their sins, are responsible for Christ’s death. He died to save them.
The charge against the Gospel of John, is more serious. John often speaks of “the Jews”, and sets them in opposition to true believers. But John speaks of “the Jews” in several contexts, sometimes in a geographical sense, sometimes of the Jewish leaders only, and sometimes favourably, as when Jesus is identified as a Jew, or when He says “salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:9, 22).
The letters of John show the same distinction between those “of God” and “of the world” but in a new context. Some have left the Christian community for a new teaching, showing their allegiance is to the world. As Keith observes, it doesn’t matter whether they were originally Jews or Gentiles, it is their attitude to Christ that is vital.
The passage in John that has understandably caused most concern comes in John 8 where Jesus is addressing some Jews in Jerusalem who reject him, and who pride themselves on being Abraham’s children. Jesus says: “If you were Abraham’s children you would do what Abraham did, but now you seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth . . . 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. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44).
Reading that today, it is a difficult verse. But that surely is not Jesus’ intention, for it is clear that these Jews are not beyond hope – there is a way of escape from Satan’s bondage.
The language is strong, but no stronger than the Old Testament prophets. It should be seen as hyperbole, a rhetorical device common at the time. For example, in showing how committed his disciples have to be, Jesus says that unless they hate their father and mother, wife, children, even their own lives (Luke 14:25) they cannot follow him. Yet he loves and upholds the law, including the commandment to honour one’s parents, and repeatedly teaches that love is the great commandment. Overemphasis to make a point is common in the Bible.
The event that changed Jewish-Christian relations was the conversion of the Roman emperor Constantine in the fourth century. Christianity became the state religion – a mixed blessing. And from now on it would have power over the Jewish community.
For many centuries relations were relatively tranquil. Keith identifies the bureaucratic revolution at the end of the Middle Ages as the most important element in developing systematic anti-Semitism. The clerical class, envying the skill and influence of Jews at court, built a stereotype of the Jew as “dirty, downtrodden, sinister but contemptible”. Drawings showed Jews with long hooked noses, and the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) segregated them by ordering them to wear special clothing.
The crusades, though theoretically against Muslims rather than Jews, made the latter a legitimate target as “enemies of God”. Some on the first crusade in 1095 even delayed leaving for the Middle East so they could murder Jews in Europe.
Holocaust scholar Raul Hilberg says that since the fourth century “there have been three anti-Jewish policies: conversion, expulsion and annihilation. The second appeared as an alternative to the first, and the third as an alternative to the second . . . The missionaries of Christianity had said in effect: You have no right to live amongst us as Jews. The secular rulers who followed had proclaimed: You have no right to live among us. The German Nazis at last decreed: You have no right to live.”
But after the Holocaust, the horrified world took a fresh look at anti-Semitism. The thawing between Christianity and Judaism was made explicit at the second Vatican Council in the 1960s, which repudiated the idea that the Jews were responsible for the death of Christ.
Rabbi Levi believes that it is scholarship that is bringing greater mutual acceptance. “Scholarship is scholarship, whether Jewish or Christian. It doesn’t matter. When you have a biblical studies conference, you check your faith in at the door – what matters is the scholarship that you bring.”
So now, as in the beginning, it’s the word that counts.
Barney Zwartz is The Age religious affairs reporter.