As a believer, I came to the conclusion that replacement theology was the best interpretation of the relevant New Testament texts (discussed here). However, now after re-reading a lot of the relevant texts I see this as an attempted hostile takeover of Judaism. Not only did the New Testament authors appropriate important parts of the Jewish religion, but they also displayed contempt for those Jews who would not follow them. And I was shocked by how frequent and virulent the criticism was, because I just never saw it reading those texts as a believer.
Many of the New Testament writings claim to be founded on the Old Testament prophecies and practices. However, as I discussed in my last two posts, there are many Jews who reject those claims, and I myself consider the claims weak. The historical result of this is that Judaism and Christianity were rival religions, not partners interpreting shared scriptures. Since the Jews challenged the Christian understanding of Jewish scripture, it seems they were viewed as a significant threat.
Christianity built its legitimacy on the Jewish scripture, starting with the foundational claim that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah. However, what it ended up with was a completely different religion appropriating Judaism for its own purposes. One of the biggest changes was a conscious attempt to appeal to Gentiles at large rather than the chosen, separate Jewish nation. This required removing some of the more rigid Jewish customs.
Well, I talked about removing things, but technically few things have been outright removed. Instead, they have been appropriated by Christians and then radically changed. For example:
- The promises to the Jews’ illustrious ancestor Abraham were reapplied to Jesus and his followers.
- The chosen people were now Christians rather than Jews, and were chosen by grace rather than by birth into the chosen nation.
- Salvation was to be by faith, not by works of the law.
- Jesus was now the One True Priest, replacing the Levitical priests.
- As well as being priest, he was also the one perfect sacrifice for sin, removing all need for other sacrifices.
- Jesus’ blood was the blood of a new covenant (replacing the previous everlasting covenant).
- The earthly tabernacle in which sacrifices were offered was just a shadow of the true tent in heaven, while there are also several references to Christian believers becoming a temple where God would dwell.
- The Passover, Israel’s joyful memory of escape from slavery, now had Jesus as the Passover lamb (probably also symbolising salvation from sin).
- Physical circumcision (given to Abraham as an everlasting covenant) was replaced by circumcision of the heart.
- The Sabbath was no longer retained as a God-ordained day of rest and worship. Some kept it, some didn’t. Eventually it mostly shifted from the seventh day of the week to the first day, when Christ was said to be raised - though the New Testament contains many more references to sabbath worship than to the first day of the week.
- The law itself was fulfilled and/or replaced, and no longer applied. But never mind, Christianity was a religion of salvation by faith with a whole new rule-book to enrich the world.
In addition to the many re-applications, there were also things added in the New Testament that could be expected to make Jews uncomfortable:
- Accepting Gentiles (particularly uncircumcised ones).
- Talk of eating blood, in particular when remembering Jesus in bread and wine.
- Eating unclean animals.
- Appearing to blame the Jewish people for the death of Jesus.
- In John, consistently presenting “the Jews” as the bad guys.
So that’s some of the appropriation I see. How about the hostility?
In the New Testament Jews are frequently criticised for not accepting Christianity. And some of that criticism seems well and truly over the top. For example, Jews are said to be following a weak and dated religion. They are still in slavery, and have been replaced by people who are truly free. They are blind and deaf to the true meaning of their scriptures, and their hearts are hardened. In fact, they judged themselves unworthy of eternal life, so they are considered worthy of death and promised the future wrath of God. On the topic of circumcision, Paul even calls for those requiring circumcision to mutilate themselves.
So does this hostility against the rival religion result in anti-semitism?
Firstly, I think it’s important to draw a distinction between critiques of a religion and discrimination against followers of that religion. For example, on this blog I frequently criticise Christian texts and teachings, but I certainly do not intend to attack individual Christians or view them as somehow lesser because of their belief in Christianity.
The same could be true of Christianity’s relationship to Judaism: it could be criticising the Jewish religion without attacking individual Jews. While it might be poor taste to spit on the religion that gave your religion birth, it doesn’t require you to attack the followers of that religion.
That said, I think the New Testament goes beyond hostility towards Judaism as a religion to hostility for those who follow it. Perhaps the main goal was still criticism of the rival religion and its followers to shore up a vulnerable new religion. While I now think some of the verses were intended to be anti-semitic, perhaps the authors themselves would have been surprised to see them applied so indiscriminately 1,000 years later.
However, whether the debate was originally about religion, nationality, or both, the fact is that these verses did enable later Christian anti-semitism. And if they were, as I suspect, partially written in response to early Christian vulnerability, that didn’t stop them having major consequences when Christianity became the dominant religion.
This may come as a shock to those who have only heard the pro-Jewish parts of the Bible, or were under the impression Christianity was a religion of peace and love. Hey, I came from a pro-Jewish denomination, and some of these verses shocked me (though the fact I hadn’t noticed them earlier also shocked me).
For believers who want to base their Christianity solely on the Sermon on the Mount and similar “nice” parts of the teachings of Jesus (like say Tolstoy did), then these problems go away. It’s essentially treating Christianity as an entirely new religion rather than as a child of Judaism (I think there are other problems with the Sermon on the Mount, but they can wait for another day).
But for believers who do acknowledge the New Testament claims of Christianity’s Jewish roots, I think those Jewish roots make for a very unstable foundation. And I suspect that led to New Testament hostility which helped enable anti-semitism over the last 2,000 years, including church fathers, European monarchs, popes, leading reformers, and perhaps sometimes the Christian population as a whole. The Holocaust was tragic, but it was certainly not an isolated incident.
So where are these verses?
Well, so far I’ve made plenty of claims about New Testament teaching in this post, and haven’t supported a single one. Don’t worry - verses are coming!
Basically, once my annotated list reached 10,000 words (and growing) I decided it was best to start with a summary rather than try and keep it all in one massive post. I’ll try and get the rest out in more manageable chunks over the next month or so.