Is the New Testament Anti-Semitic?

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During my freshman year of college I took a world civilization class. I will never forget that one of our required readings actually said that the New Testament authors were anti-Semitic. That is, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and every other writer in the New Testament hated Jews. This idea that the New Testament is a book that teaches hatred toward the Jewish people is also taught by some world-renowned scholars, including scholar Gerd Ludemann. In a debate with William Lane Craig, a popular defender of the Christian faith, Ludemann said that the Gospels were anti-Semitic. He even went as far to say that a “literal understanding of the New Testament story of the resurrection leads to anti-Semitism.”[1] Is this all true? Is the New Testament anti-Semitic? Let’s take a look.

Anti-Semitism or Anti-Judaism?

A good place for us to start is to make a distinction between what Stephen Davis notes as anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism. The former is a theological disagreement with Jews while the latter is the racial hatred of Jews. It is obvious that the New Testament has forms of anti-Judaism, that is, it strongly disagrees that many of the Jews rejected Jesus as the Messiah. Davis goes on to makes a good point: “It is true that anti-Judaism can lead to anti-Semitism, but it need not necessarily do so.”[2] Although the New Testament does have anti-Judaic arguments within, this does not mean that it is anti-Semitic, although sadly, some Christians in the past have used anti-Judaic arguments to favor anti-Semitism.

To start with it should be common sense that the New Testament is not anti-Semitic. Remember that the New Testament was written by Jews, except Luke and Acts, which were written by a man (Luke) who learned much about Christianity from a Jew (Paul). We must also remember that Jesus was a Jew, and he never denied or doubted anything in the Old Testament, like its divine inspiration and authority, nor did he reject worship at the Jewish Temple, or the covenant God made with Israel. Jesus saw himself as the fulfillment of the Old Testament, not as someone who was abolishing it (Matthew 5:17). The earliest Christians were also Jews who did not want a break between Judaism and Christianity. “[I]n fact, they believed that accepting Jesus as the Messiah was the correct Jewish thing to do.”[3] Craig Evans notes:

“It is surprising how many fail to perceive the oddness of the assumption that the New Testament and early Christianity were anti-Semitic. Should it not strike us as hard to explain how a first-century Jewish sect, centered around a revered Jewish teacher thought to be Israel’s Messiah, God’s Son, and fulfillment of Israel’s scriptures, within one generation of its founding could mutate into an anti-Jewish, perhaps even anti-Semitic, movement? Surely this is improbable. I suspect scholars have unconsciously and uncritically read the New Testament through the eyes of the patristic church [the early church period after the apostles had died and the New Testament had been written], which, sad to say, did give vent to anti-Semitic expressions.”[4]

What parts of the New Testament are Anti-Semitic?

Matthew 23 is sometimes looked at as an anti-Semitic passage. In this chapter, Jesus scolds the Pharisees, a religious sect in Israel at the time, for being hypocritical and not doing what was right. This passage “has all the earmarks of a conflict within Judaism rather than an exercise in anti-Semitism [racial hatred]. Moreover, one cannot help but notice the similarities between Jesus’ polemic against the religious leaders of his day and attacks on the religious establishment in many of the Old Testament prophets, especially in Amos and Jeremiah.”[5] If Jesus was anti-Semitic, then the Old Testament prophets, like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, etc., must have been anti-Semitic as well, even though they were Jews who loved their nation (Israel).

Sometimes Paul is said to be anti-Semitic, like in 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16:

“For you, brothers, became imitators of God’s churches in Judea, which are in Christ Jesus: You suffered from your own countrymen the same things those churches suffered from the Jews, who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out. They displease God and are hostile to all men in their effort to keep us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. In this way they always heap up their sins to the limit. The wrath of God has come upon them at last.”

When one studies this passage closely it is clear that it is not anti-Semitic but anti-Judaic. It is teaching against the Jews who rejected Jesus as the Messiah and persecuted the Jews who did accept Jesus. This is a theological argument against the Jews who rejected the Messiah, not some form of racial hatred.

Although Paul did criticize the Jews for rejecting Jesus and misinterpreting the Old Testament Law, he was proud of his Jewish heritage for his entire life (Acts 25:8; 26:5; 28:17; 2 Corinthians 11:22; Philippians 3:4-6). Why would he hate the Jews racially but be proud to be a Jew racially? In fact, Paul, in Romans 9-11, held to the hope that the Jewish people would turn to Christ and be saved. “He regarded Israel’s privileges (the covenants, the law, adoption as God’s own people, the promises etc.) and responsibilities (being a light to the Gentiles, etc.) in the plan of God to be irrevocable (see especially Romans 9:4-5; 11:28-29).”[6]

Lastly, isn’t the Gospel of John anti-Semitic? John uses the term “the Jews” in a way that has been interpreted to be a form of hatred towards the Jewish people. John 7:1 says, “After this, Jesus went around in Galilee, purposely staying away from Judea because the Jews there were waiting to take his life.” Does this passage not teach us that all the Jews in Judea were so evil that they wanted to murder Jesus?

First off, remember what I said earlier. How could the gospel be anti-Semitic when Jesus himself was a Jew? And remember that the disciples, including John, were Jews as well. The term “the Jews” in John can mean different Jewish groups depending on the context. At times the term will refer to the entire Jewish nation, especially when Jewish customs are being discussed (John 2:13; 3:1; 5:1; 6:4). However, the term “the Jews” is used to refer to, not the entire nation of Israel, but to certain Jews who were enemies of Jesus, particularly the religious leaders who plotted against him (John 5:15-18; 7:1, 13; 9:22; 10:31-33; 18:12; 19:7, 12, 38; 20:19).[7] Notice that in John 7:1 falls into this last category? (also note that I discussed the so-called anti-Semitism in John in another article).

Conclusion

Sadly, there have been Christians who have twisted Scripture to support anti-Semitism. However, the passages in Scripture that are used in this way, when they are properly understood in context, are shown to be theological disagreements with the Jews who rejected Jesus as Israel’s Messiah, not a flat-out hatred towards Jews based on race. The New Testament is not anti-Semitic, and the myth that it is needs to be rejected.

 

 


[1] Gerd Ludemann. “The Debate.” In Jesus’ Resurrection: Fact or Figment? Paul Copan and Ronald K. Tacelli, eds. (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 200). Pgs. 42, 66-67.

[2] Stephen T. Davis. “The Question of Miracles, Ascension & Anti-Semitism.” In Jesus’ Resurrection: Fact or Figment? Paul Copan and Ronald K. Tacelli, eds. (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 200). Pg. 81-82.

[3] Davis, 82.

[4] Craig Evans. Anti-Semitism and Early Christianity. Quoted in Davis, 82.

[5] Davis, 82-83.

[6] Ibid., 83.

[7] Ibid., 83.

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