The Origins of Christian Anti-Semitism

No. 81,

Interview with Pieter van der Horst

 

  • Christian anti-Semitism began much later than Jesus’ life. In the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, which are the historically more reliable ones, Jesus views himself as a messenger of God to the Jews and as a member of the Jewish people.
  • The New Testament has several anti-Semitic elements in its chronologically latest documents. The Gospel of John has Jesus call the Jews “sons of the devil.” There is also a case of an anti-Jewish outburst by the Apostle Paul.
  • The split between Jewish and gentile Christians brought with it the beginning of Christian anti-Jewish sentiments. In creating a new identity for itself, Christianity attacked the old religion as fiercely as it could, including demonization.
  • Toward the end of the fourth century, much-publicized sermons of the church father John Chrysostom combined Christian anti-Jewish elements derived from the New Testament with earlier pagan ones. These themes were gradually integrated into the anti-Jewish discourse of the church.

“Christian anti-Semitism began much later than Jesus’ life. In the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, which are the historically more reliable ones, Jesus views himself as a messenger of God to the Jews and as a member of the Jewish people. He wanted to prepare them for what he saw as the approaching end of time and God’s imminent kingdom. Jesus was not planning to initiate a new religion. The writer of a later book, the Gospel of John, has Jesus make anti-Semitic remarks. That book, however, is much less historical.”

Prof. Pieter van der Horst studied classical philology and literature. In 1978, he received his PhD in theology from Utrecht University. After his studies, he taught the literature and history of early Christianity and Judaism. Prof. Van der Horst is a member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences.

He remarks: “In the three more historically based earlier Gospels, one sees Jesus in fierce dispute with leaders of the various Jewish groups, such as the Pharisees and the Sadducees. It is clear from these texts that this is an internal Jewish debate. When, according to the Gospels, the Pharisees attacked Jesus because of his behavior, there followed a dispute of a halachic [Jewish law] nature. Jesus reasons in this context, remaining within the fold of Judaism. The debate, however fierce it may be, is less so than, for instance, the internal Jewish dispute between the Qumran sect and the Pharisees and the Sadducees.”

Non-Jews Become Christians

Van der Horst says it is difficult to determine where to place the beginning of Christian anti-Semitism. “It varied from location to location. In the Jerusalem Christian community it started much later than in the communities in Asia Minor, Greece, or Rome, or wherever else Christian communities came into being.

“The earliest Christian generation in Jerusalem consisted almost entirely of Jews. These people believed in Jesus as the Messiah, but saw themselves as true Jews. The book of Acts of the Apostles makes it clear that the first Jewish Christians went to the Temple in Jerusalem, attended synagogue services, and wanted to remain Jews.[1] There were tensions with mainstream Jews, who looked askance at the belief that a crucified person was the Messiah. There was, however, no breaking point or even a discussion of excommunicating the Jewish Christians.

“The situation changed slowly in the second generation of Christians. This was directly related to the missionary activities of people like the Apostle Paul and his collaborators. Their vision was that ‘salvation,’ as they called it, was intended by God not only for the Jewish people but also for others. They began to preach their message to non-Jews outside the Land of Israel as well.

“These earliest missionaries wanted to facilitate the entrance of non-Jews into the growing Christian community. They therefore began to downgrade the Torah (the Pentateuch) and its commandments. Later they started to toy with the idea that, if God wanted non-Jews to be part of the community as well, the commandments of the Torah should be solely for the Jewish members. That gave rise to the first tensions between Jewish and gentile Christians.”

Tension between Jewish and Gentile Christians

“Later on, as is also made quite clear in the New Testament, gentile Christians began to claim that their communities were the true Israel.[2] They asserted that in neglecting many of the Torah’s commandments, they-and not the Jews-knew what God wanted from His people. The issues of the centrality and the remaining value and validity of the Torah were among the first reasons for tensions. Here one sees the beginnings of a split between Judaism and Christianity.

“With this came the beginning of anti-Jewish sentiments in Christianity. It was also aggravated by a second factor. In the same period, perhaps in the second and certainly in the third generation of Christians-by the end of the first century of the Common Era-they began to explicitly call Jesus God. He, as a Jew, had never done so. In the four chronologically latest books of the New Testament, Jesus is called God, though only incidentally. These documents are all from around the turn of the first to the second century: the Gospel of John, the Epistle of the Hebrews, the Second Epistle of Peter, and the so-called Epistle of Titus.

“In the Gospel of John it is clear that this is going to be a breaking point between Jews and Christians. The Gospel’s author has Jews saying about Jesus, ‘He makes himself equal to God.’ We have to interpret this to mean that it is the Christians who are equating Jesus with God.

“From a Jewish viewpoint this is terrible. Once the Christians began to declare Jesus as equal to God, the core of Jewish monotheism was in danger. The Jewish leaders decided that they could no longer live under one roof with this group, which led to the break. The Christians then claimed that the Jews said they had to throw Jesus’ followers out of the synagogue.[3]  That is not historical, because it was not said in Jesus’ time but probably later, in the time of the writer of the Gospel of John.”

Heretics

“The Gospel of John is the only one to use the Greek word Aposynagogos. It means ‘thrown out of the synagogue’ and reflects the situation around the year 100 CE. Here one sees for the first time that Judaism and Christianity have split apart completely. It was probably in more or less the same period-which began after the year 70 CE-that the early rabbinical authorities inserted the additional benediction, the birkat haminim, into the Amidah [the main daily Jewish prayer].

“This birkat haminim consists of a curse of the heretics. Without doubt the  Christians at this time held beliefs that contradicted Jewish religious precepts. They were heretics because they no longer lived according to the Torah and they regarded a human being as God. These two major factors caused the definitive split between Judaism and Christianity.

“There were some lesser reasons as well. One was that in the Jewish wars against the Romans in 66 and 132, the Christians did not fight against the Romans. The Jews reproached them for this.”

Jesus, Son of God

Van der Horst adds that one should not confuse Jesus’ being considered God with his being called, earlier, “the Son of God.” He observes: “This is far less explosive. In the Jewish parlance of the first century the expression ‘Son of God’ had connotations that differ widely from what we are inclined to think of now. In those days the usage of the Hebrew Bible was still quite present in the minds of Jews. There the term ‘Son of God’ is used for the Jewish people as well as for the kings and prophets of Israel.[4]

“No one thought at that time that God was, so to speak, physically the father of prophets or kings. It was a metaphor for being in a very close relationship. That is why, for instance, the prophets’ disciples in the Hebrew Bible are called ‘Sons of the Prophets.’ Everyone knew that the prophets were not the fathers of their disciples.

“We do not know exactly when the expression ‘Son of God’ was used for the first time. In the New Testament it appears from very early onward, but not everyone meant the same by it. When the Apostle Paul called Jesus ‘the Son of God’ it was in the 50s CE, about twenty to thirty years after Jesus’ activities in the Galilee.

“Paul speaks of Jesus as being born from a woman.[5] If he had thought Jesus was born from a virgin, he would have said so. Jesus’ immaculate conception does not appear in the earliest Gospel either, that of Mark. It is only in the Gospels-more or less one generation later-of Matthew and Luke that one reads that Jesus is the ‘Son of God’ in a different sense. In this context it has to be interpreted in terms of Jesus being begotten by the Holy Spirit, which means by God. So it is only in these later texts that ‘sonship of God’ is understood in a more physical sense, that is, in a sense different from what it means in the Hebrew Bible.”

Matthew’s Gospel

When asked about the anti-Jewish texts in the Gospel of Matthew, Van der Horst answers: “That fits into another picture that is not in itself anti-Semitic. Only in this Gospel’s passion narrative of Jesus does one find that Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, says ‘I do not see anything evil in this man.’ Pilate then washes his hands as a token of his wish to have nothing to do with Jesus’ execution. Pilate’s wife says, ‘I had a dream about this man. Don’t touch him because he is completely innocent.'[6] This text is blatantly unhistorical. Everything we know from other sources tells us that Pilate was thoroughly unscrupulous and ruthless. The idea that he would save a person from capital punishment because he thought him innocent is almost ridiculous.

“Why then does Matthew exculpate the Romans from the death of Jesus? The text has to be understood in the context of his time, around the 80s of the first century. In the middle of the 60s CE, under the Emperor Nero, the first persecutions of Christians had begun. There are indications that after that period there were further minor persecutions on a local level. This frightened the Christians.

“For political reasons Matthew was keen that his writings should give the Romans the impression that Christians were not a danger to their empire. If a highly positioned person like Pilate says about Jesus ‘This man is completely innocent,’ it implies that Christianity is not something Romans have to fear. This in turn leads to the story of the Jews supposedly shouting ‘Let his blood come over us’-which means, ‘We take the responsibility for his death.’ Shifting the responsibility for Jesus’ death to the Jewish people is at odds with what Matthew says in the earlier parts of his Gospel to the effect that Jesus enjoyed immense popularity with the masses, that is, with the majority of the common Jewish people.”

Paul’s Anti-Semitic Outburst

“There is also an isolated case of an anti-Jewish outburst by the Apostle Paul. In one of his letters to the Thessalonians, the Christian community in the Greek town of Thessalonica, he reports that the Jews strongly oppose his preaching. Paul then works himself into a fury and says, ‘These Jews killed Jesus and the prophets and for that reason they displease God and are the enemies of all mankind.'[7]

“This is the only text in the New Testament that says the Jews are the enemy of the rest of mankind. This motif derives from pre-Christian pagan anti-Semitism, where it appears many times. It stands in complete opposition to what Paul says at length about the Jewish people in his Epistle to the Romans. In three chapters-9, 10, and 11-Paul paints a far more positive picture of the Jewish people. There is no mention of their being the enemy of humanity; nor is there any in Paul’s other letters.

“In his later letter to the Romans, Paul says: ‘We Christians should realize that the olive tree is the people of Israel and we are only grafted into this olive tree.'[8] His one case of an anti-Jewish outburst seems to be that of someone who did not always control his emotions.”

Is the New Testament Anti-Semitic?

Van der Horst relates to the often asked question whether the New Testament itself has anti-Semitic elements. “I would say yes, but again only in the chronologically latest documents. The clearest instance is that of the Gospel of John. There one sees that the split between Christians and Jews has occurred. It has happened recently and that is also why the language is so vehement. The anti-Jewish sentiment permeates the whole book, and it contains the most anti-Semitic verse in the New Testament.

“The author has Jesus distance himself completely from the Jewish people. He lets him speak about the Jews, their laws and festivals, as if he himself is no longer one of them. Worst of all, in a dispute between Jesus and the Jewish leaders, John has him say: ‘You have the devil as your father.'[9] In later Christian literature, that expression is picked up. This fatal short remark has had lethal consequences over two millennia. It cost tens of thousands of Jewish lives in later history, especially in the Middle Ages. This verse was taken by Christian Jew-haters as a license to murder Jews. These murderers thought: ‘If Jesus says that Jews have the devil as their father, we should eradicate them as best as we can.’

“All New Testament scholars agree that Jesus did not say what John puts into his mouth, but that it is the position of the Gospel’s author. When one religious group breaks away from its mother religion, it has to create its own new identity. The sociology of religion teaches us that, in its first phase, the new group always begins to attack the old religion as fiercely as it can and to demonize it. The most effective demonization is calling the Jews ‘children of the devil’ and having Jesus, the most important person in the new religion, say this himself.

“I once argued before an audience of Christian ministers that if we were to confront John with the consequences of what he wrote, he would deeply apologize and say, ‘Please, delete it from my Gospel.’ Until the present day these words have their influence, because the average Bible reader cannot contextualize them in the first century when they were written. The Gospel of John unfortunately is also one of the most popular books in Christianity.”

The Jewish Christians

“In the final decades of the first century, Jewish Christians no longer felt at home in mainstream Christianity. It had, by that period, become dominated by gentile Christians who disregarded the Torah and its rules of life. They also began to talk more and more easily about Jesus as being equal to God.

“Hence the Jewish Christians broke away and formed their own communities. They lived according to the laws of Moses, kept Shabbat, circumcised their children, and followed kashrut [the dietary laws]. At the same time they were believers in Jesus as the Messiah.

“There were by that time a variety of Jewish Christian movements, with different names. They survived for several centuries, but did not matter very much. In the fifth century we hear for the last time about the tiny, minority churches of Jewish Christians in the Middle East. Thereafter they must have died out.”

A Global Christian Church

Van der Horst explains that by the end of the first century, all or most of the documents that would form the New Testament had been written, but had not yet been canonized. “Deciding what belonged to the Christian canon took several centuries. Only by the end of the second century do we find for the first time a list of books of the New Testament. Several documents that nowadays are part of it were not yet included.

“It would take two more centuries before there was a complete New Testament. Until then there were disagreements about what was authoritative between, for instance, the communities in Asia Minor, Syria, and Egypt. One needed an overarching organization to unify the texts. The definitive canon of the New Testament as we now know it dates from the fourth century.

“Predominantly gentile Christianity slowly began to organize into what one would call a global church. Quite soon, the anti-Jewish sentiments and doctrines became part and parcel of the official doctrine of the mainline church. This occurred from the middle of the second century onward. In Sardis in western Turkey, Bishop Melito, in his so-called Peri Pascha [Passover sermon], says many negative things about the Jews and accuses them of having killed Jesus. Because Jesus is now clearly considered a God, the motif of deicide becomes one of the main elements in the anti-Jewish doctrines of the church.

“In Sardis there was a major synagogue, the ruins of which exist till today. The Jewish community there went on to flourish so much that even by the end of antiquity, or the early Middle Ages, i.e. the sixth and seventh centuries, this synagogue was still the largest religious building in town, larger than the main church.

“Gradually the motif of Jews being Christ-killers assumed a major role in the church’s anti-Jewish preaching. This is still very much alive in our day. Only many years after the Holocaust has the accusation that the Jews are responsible for the death of Jesus been officially rescinded by mainstream Protestantism and the Roman Catholic Church. It is, however, still adhered to by many of their followers.

“The motif of deicide committed by Jews is very much alive in other major churches, especially Orthodox ones such as the Russian, Greek, Serbian, and Bulgarian Orthodox Churches. The poisonous combination of the Jews being both guilty of deicide and children of the devil flourishes there. The two elements reinforce each other.”

John Chrysostom

“Among the church fathers, some are quite mild in their position toward Judaism while others are fiercely hostile. John Chrysostom, one of the best- known church fathers, is one of the most anti-Jewish.

“This bishop of Antioch, Syria, lived in the second half of the fourth and the beginning of the fifth century. His name means ‘man with the golden mouth,’ but much venom came from this mouth. He is not the first, but certainly the most outspoken, church father who combined horrific Christian anti-Jewish elements derived from the New Testament with originally pagan ones.

“John Chrysostom’s most notorious writings are a series of long anti-Jewish sermons, which he delivered in the main church of Antioch in 386 and 387 CE. They belong to the worst Christian anti-Semitic documents in antiquity. Besides calling the Jews ‘Christ-killers’-claiming they killed the person who was sent to them by God to save them in the Final Judgment-and ‘children of the devil,’ he also adopted various anti-Jewish clichés from pre-Christian pagan antiquity. These include motifs such as the Jews as haters of the rest of humanity and as nonbelievers in any god whatsoever.

“John Chrysostom and others could also reach back to the one statement where the Apostle Paul said the Jews were enemies of mankind. Through John Chrysostom these themes began to be integrated into the anti-Jewish discourse of Christianity. His anti-Jewish sermons have since become very influential.”

De-Judaized Christianity

“From a contemporary point of view we also have to give some attention to the heretic Marcion. A second-century figure, he was born in the Black Sea area but later moved to Rome. Marcion said that Christianity had completely superseded Judaism and should shed its last remnants. He thus claimed that the Christian canon should not contain the Old Testament.

“Marcion is important because his positions forced the mainstream church to take a stand on this issue and decide that the Old Testament would be part of its canon. This was despite the growing anti-Jewish sentiments in its developing doctrine. The church did not want to eliminate its Jewish roots, the Jewishness of Jesus, and the Jewish elements in the Gospels and the letters of Paul.

“There were still Marcionites in the third and fourth centuries. It is significant that in Christianity such a person could arise and attract a following. The main biography of Marcion was written by the German theologian Adolf von Harnack in the 1920s. He claimed it was inevitable that the church condemned Marcion in the second century, but a mistake that in the sixteenth century Luther and Calvin still took the same position. Von Harnack further described it as a tragedy that, in the twentieth century, the church still retained the Old Testament. He evidently was a Marcionite who wanted to expurgate all Jewish elements from Christianity. Other theologians in the Nazi period also tried to create a form of Christianity devoid of any Jewish elements. Some went so far as to say that Jesus was a  racially pure Aryan and not a Jew. Walter Grundman was the most notorious among them.[10]

“There were many Christian heretics in the second, third, and fourth centuries. They were as unfriendly to Judaism as the mainstream church. The small Jewish Christian movements were also considered heretical. The antiheretical books of the church fathers usually begin with attacks on the Jewish Christians. But, in the dispute between the mainstream church and other heretics, the stance toward Judaism only played a role in the excommunication of Marcion.”

Jewish Anti-Christian Discourse

“If one reviews the writings of the church fathers from the second to the sixth centuries, almost all are anti-Jewish. This discourse has become part and parcel of the doctrine of mainstream Christianity. This may be due partly to the anti-Christian discourse that Jews developed as a reaction to the attacks on them by Christians.

“In the second century one already hears from church fathers that Jews are spreading the story that Jesus was not born of a virgin, that his father was not God or a holy spirit, and even that Joseph, Mary’s husband, was not his father. The story claimed that Jesus was the child of Mary and a Roman soldier called Panthera and thus that she was an adulteress.[11]

“This is confirmed by Jewish sources. For instance, another text from the sixth or seventh century, the so-called Toldot Yeshu [History of Jesus], elaborates on this story. Besides saying that Jesus is the son of a Roman soldier, it claims that his healing miracles were magic tricks learned in Egypt with the purpose of destroying the Torah. We only know of some cases of such anti-Christian statements, but they are relatively well anchored in historical facts and are also found in the Talmud.[12]

“On some occasions Jews participated with the Romans in the persecution of Christians, so they were not only victims. Jews struck back on a much more limited scale than the church, which gradually achieved its position of power after the first Christian emperor Constantine allowed Christianity to exist in the Roman Empire in 313.

“While the Jews did not remain silent, their reactions had to be careful and limited, especially after the Roman Empire had officially become Christian at the end of the fourth century. Around 390 CE, the Emperor Theodosius I  decreed that Christianity was the only acceptable religion. This did not mean that from then onward all people in the Roman Empire became Christians.  There was fierce opposition, especially from the aristocrats who clung to their Roman or Greek religions. The Jews were not the church’s main target in that period as it still had to fight with the old pagans. That took one to two more centuries.”

Augustine

“The situation concerning the Jews more or less stabilized in the lifetime of the best-known church father, Augustine, who lived in Hippo in today’s Tunisia in the second half of the fourth and the beginning of the fifth century. He said with great authority that the Jews were a damned people but should not be persecuted and killed. They should be kept alive as witnesses that Christianity was right.

“Augustine did not want to convert Jews by force. Such forced conversion remained rare in antiquity. The first major case occurred around 630 CE in the Byzantine Empire, when the Emperor Heraclius decreed that all Jews there must be baptized and converted to Christianity. We know from historical sources that this decree was carried out in some places. Elsewhere, however, the authorities did nothing. This case occurred in the period when Islam was on the rise and only a few years before Muslims captured Jerusalem.”

Van der Horst concludes: “Over the centuries many discriminatory measures have been taken in Christian environments against Jews. The infrastructure for this was laid in the early history of Christianity, albeit not in the time of Jesus’ life or immediately thereafter.”

Interview by Manfred Gerstenfeld

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Notes

[1] Acts 2-5.

[2] Galatians 6:16.

[3] John 9:22; 12:42; 16:2.

[4] E.g. Psalms 2:7 and Hosea 11:1.

[5] Galatians 4:4.

[6] Matthew 27:15-26.

[7] 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16.

[8]  Romans 11:24.

[9] John 8:44.

[10] Susannah Heschel, The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008).

[11] E.g. Origen, Contra Celsum 1:32.

[12] For references to these sources see Peter Schäfer, Jesus in the Talmud (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007).

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Prof. Pieter van der Horst studied classical philology and literature. In 1978, he received his PhD in theology from Utrecht University. After his studies he taught there, among other things, as professor of early Christian and Jewish studies. His retirement lecture in 2006 on the myth of Jewish cannibalism, and the censorship by Utrecht University of a part of the lecture dealing with contemporary Muslim anti-Semitism, led to a major debate in the Dutch national media and academic world that drew international attention. Prof. Van der Horst is a member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences.

About Prof. Pieter van der Horst

Prof. Pieter van der Horst received his PhD in theology from Utrecht University where he subsequently became professor of Jewish studies.