Anti-Semitism in The New Testament?
In the wake of the Holocaust the problem of anti-Semitism has been significantly transformed. Before the Third Reich came into being, anti-Semitism was a widespread phenomenon characterized by a general suspicion toward Jews in relation to Jewish cultural influence. Theologically, Jews were held responsible in a special way for the death of Jesus. This was an old teaching, rooted in the centuries-old conflict between Christianity and Judaism. The reality of the Holocaust caused many scholars of the post-war years to take a new look at anti-Semitism, with their concerns focused on the origins of anti-Semitism as much as its contemporary dynamics. In this context, the Bible itself—specifically the New Testament—has been cited as a primary source for the evil of anti-Semitism. To the extent that anti-Semitism has been defined as a major intellectual crime, the New Testament is seen as a major accessory, if not the crime’s fundamental root. Let us look more closely at this aspect of the Accusation.
The Christian historian Paul L. Maier, writing in Christianity Today, calls attention to the views of a Jerusalem rabbi, Eliezar Berkovits, that indict the New Testament as “the most dangerous anti-Semitic tract in history.” Maier goes on to affirm that the rabbi’s views are shared by a growing number of Christian theologians who would call for editorial exclusion of all such anti-Semitic passages from the Bible. According to authors Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin, the New Testament is largely an anti-Jewish polemic, which they suggest was written for the singular purpose of discrediting Israel in the context of early Church conflicts with the Jewish community. They view the founders of Christianity as promulgating arbitrary doctrines while attributing them to Jesus, doctrines which constitute the theological invalidation of the Jews’ continuing existence. For them, the New Testament “canonized anti-Semitism.” Jewish scholar Samuel Sandmel has also cited various New Testament sources of alleged anti-Semitism, while interpreting Jesus's denunciation of the Scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23 as a polemic by the early church against all Jews.
“Christian anti-Semitism,” then, is considerably more than a matter of church history and the errors, misperceptions, and sins of Christians over the centuries. The Christian scriptures are seen as being at the core of a great historical crime that led and contributed eventually to the greatest crime ever committed against the Jews¬—the Nazi Holocaust. It is a serious issue for Christians, for the New Testament is regarded as more than just another collection of historical documents. Those documents are accepted as the inspired Word of God. The Accusation implies that the Bible contains such a faulty view of humanity that the hatred of the Nazis for the Jews was somehow the outgrowth of Biblical religion and theological orthodoxy.
Indeed, do the New Testament and anti-Semitism go hand in hand together?
The matter is not at all as clear as the accusers might assert, and history can temper the weight of fanatical indictments against the Christian scriptures. Whereas it is true that the church visited much persecution upon the Jews during the Middle Ages, one could well argue that these actions were hardly the result of the church’s adherence to New Testament authority. The Medieval church is hardly notable for a recognition of the centrality of scripture, and even if certain passages of the New Testament were quoted to support actions against the Jews, what does that prove? The question, always, is the validity of interpretation. In fact, the church’s forsaking of scriptural authority was the precise issue of the Reformation. We also do well to take note of the persecution of Christians—various proto-Reformation “heretics”—for their recognition of Biblical authority over church tradition or mere Papal power. Jews and Biblically orientated Christians alike were regarded as enemies or heretics, and if one speaks of a Medieval “Christian” anti-Semitism, one might just as easily speak of a “Christian” anti-Christianity. An accurate assessment of “Christian anti-Semitism” recognizes that the historic persecution of Jews by the church was one facet of a larger antagonism against all who resisted the authority of Rome.
The notion that the New Testament expresses anti-Semitism is curious, given the actual attitudes toward the Christian scriptures by Nazi authorities themselves. Indeed, there is scant evidence that Nazi leaders sought to use the New Testament to prove a case against the Jews. Had it been possible to make such a case from the New Testament, we might expect that they would have done do. Instead, we find that pastors were jailed and intimidated for teaching the New Testament doctrine of Jesus’s Jewish human origins, and that the Nazi polemic insisted on driving a wedge between the Old and New Testaments, with the ultimate goal of discrediting both. In his Christmas sermons of 1933, Cardinal Michael Faulhaber lamented the growing demand “for the complete elimination from Christianity of all Jewish elements” as expressed in official statements and elements of the popular culture as well. He characterized such voices as having “swelled into a chorus” demanding an elimination of the Old Testament. He then went on to stress the inter-relatedness of the Old and New Testaments to the effect that Christianity could not be understood apart from the Hebrew scriptures. Most importantly, he stressed the New Testament doctrine that salvation was not a matter of blood and race, calling attention to John's gospel and the epistle to the Romans. Although Faulhaber’s sermons are criticized today for their cautious and even ambivalent character, they clearly offer an implicit indictment of the Nazi worldview.
Not all Jewish critics of the New Testament agree as to the extent of the New Testament’s anti-Semitic authorship. Sandmel attributes the historic persecutions of Jews in Christendom to the general propensity of mankind for cruelty and as “one of the many horrors with which the history of mankind has been unduly filled, [representing] not so much a Christian characteristic as a human one.” He rejects the notion that Nazism represented a “Christian” form of anti-Semitism, pointing out that such confusion can only come through mistakenly identifying “Gentile” with “Christian.” Further, he makes it clear that the historic allegation that Jews, as a collectivity, are “Christ-killers” is not found in the New Testament. Prager and Telushkin, however, hold a contrasting view and affirm that the editors of the New Testament went beyond a simple historical narrative of the Jewish opposition to Jesus and his crucifixion to suggest that all Jews, then and forever, are implicated in the murder of Jesus and, therefore, God himself.
Because of its affirmation of the centrality of scripture, the Protestant Reformation and its long-range impact weighs heavily in this discussion, for the Reformation was grounded in the recognition of Biblical authority as the key to Christian faith and practice. Whereas it is true that anti-Jewish sentiment continued in the wake of the Reformation, it is also true that measurable improvement in Christian-Jewish relationships did in fact occur. And, this improvement can be traced to the growing respect for the Bible that the Reformation brought about.