The hostile takeover: Gospels and Acts
In the gospels, Jesus is presented as the Jewish Messiah, fulfilling the Jewish prophecies and bringing a new covenant with God. Though he is very popular with the common people (mostly Jews), and though he selected Jewish disciples to carry on his message, there are also many disputes with the Jewish authorities, culminating in his crucifixion and subsequent resurrection. And the Jewish people are explicitly made to take responsibility for this death.
Then in Acts, the conflict escalates as the message is spread across the Roman empire and preached to the Gentiles. Again, this preaching work is mostly done by Jews, often preaching to Jews, but there is also a lot of conflict with Jews who don’t accept the new message. Both Jesus and his disciples appropriate Jewish scriptures to condemn Jews, displaying a hostility to Christianity’s roots that is best explained by the perceived threat of Judaism as a rival religion.
There are enough verses that I am convinced this “hostile takeover” was a core part of the gospel message, not some later perversion of True Christianity. I have no idea how many of these verses were originally intended to be anti-semitic: many seem more critical of the religion of Judaism than of the Jewish nationality. However, what I am certain of is that many of these verses and ideas enabled later Christian anti-semitism.
In a post like this, I expect criticism no matter how many passages I quote: If I quote too many, some will appear trivial, but if I quote too few many will argue that I’ve missed the True Meaning of Scripture. Since I think it a core part of the Christian message, I have tended to err towards quoting more passages rather than fewer. Feel free to skim or skip the post altogether - but also be assured there are more I could use if I wanted to…
Finally, as a historical note: I do not assume that these narratives are literal history. Nor does my doubt stop at the many miraculous occurrences in the text. I don’t have any reason to believe that any of the sayings I’ve quoted were said by a historical Jesus, and when it comes to Acts I think the early growth of the church particularly implausible.
However, for this article I’m more interested in the implications of the text than in its historical accuracy. So for convenience I will speak about what Jesus, Paul, etc. said without further qualification. This is consistent with the many Christian interpreters over the years who have taken the text as gospel.
Appropriating Jewish scripture
Gospel Jesus set the tone nicely for the Christian appropriation:
You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.John 5:39 - 40 (ESV)
It didn’t matter how carefully the Jews studied their scriptures - they wouldn’t truly get them until they accepted Jesus as the heart of those scriptures and the source of eternal life. John presents these Jews as deliberately rejecting a self-evident truth.
In one of his parables, Jesus also tied these scriptures to the message of the resurrection:
But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’”Luke 16:29 - 31 (ESV)
In the context of the gospel it seems almost certain Luke is pointing forward to Jesus’ resurrection. While it requires a little reading between the lines, I suspect it’s suggesting that any Jews who reject Jesus are also rejecting their own holy books, Moses and the Prophets. And even passages which initially seem to uphold the law have been reinterpreted:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.Matthew 5:17 - 20 (ESV)
In light of subsequent Christian teaching this passage has typically been interpreted as “Jesus fulfilled the law through his death, and now we have replaced the law with true religion”. Note also that it casually criticises the scribes and Pharisees (a group that the rest of the gospel builds up as keeping the law thoroughly).
Jewish guilt for the death of Jesus
So when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” And all the people answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!” Then he released for them Barabbas, and having scourged Jesus, delivered him to be crucified.Matthew 27:24 - 26 (ESV)
In this passage, Jesus is condemned to death. The Gentile representative on the spot is exonerated (in fact, he literally washes his hands of guilt), while the Jewish people as a whole accept blood-guilt for themselves and their children.
Similar happens in the gospel of John:
Now it was the day of Preparation of the Passover. It was about the sixth hour. He said to the Jews, “Behold your King!” They cried out, “Away with him, away with him, crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar.” … Pilate also wrote an inscription and put it on the cross. It read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” Many of the Jews read this inscription, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and it was written in Aramaic, in Latin, and in Greek. So the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but rather, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews.’” Pilate answered, “What I have written I have written.”John 19:14 - 15, 19 - 22 (ESV)
This time, the passage seems to suggest that the Gentile ruler is better aware of Jesus being the true King of the Jews than the Jewish people were, and that the Jews rejected his rule in favour of the Caesars (who at time of writing had probably already destroyed their city).
I’m not actually sure whether the “original message” from these passages was that the Jews were evil and worthy of punishment because they killed Jesus, or that they were misguided to be rejecting their own Messiah. Or maybe it was something else completely. But the effect of this and other passages was to reinforce the concept of the Jewish nation as the Christ-killers, which had devastating consequences later.
Some lethal parables
Though the gospels present Jesus as a messenger to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel”, they also prepared the way for expansion beyond Israel. The Jewish people had rejected Jesus, and so God would have to reject them and look elsewhere. For example, there are several parables which have commonly been interpreted with the Jews as the bad guys. And the results are, bluntly, not pretty:
He proceeded to tell a parable, because he was near to Jerusalem, and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately. He said therefore, “A nobleman went into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom and then return. … But his citizens hated him and sent a delegation after him, saying, ‘We do not want this man to reign over us.’ … But as for these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slaughter them before me.’”Luke 19:11 - 12, 14, 27 (ESV)
The king was angry, and he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city. Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding feast is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore to the main roads and invite to the wedding feast as many as you find.’Matthew 22:7 - 9 (ESV)
But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.’ And they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.” Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures:
“‘The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is marvelous in our eyes’?
Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits.Matthew 21:38 - 43 (ESV)
Yes, these parables are stories, and are probably not meant to be taken literally. But the pattern is clear: In each case there is an original group of citizens / invited guests / tenants. They rejected their king / master’s son and committed other crimes. And ultimately they were to be executed for their misdeeds and replaced by another group of people who would accept the king.
The last passage I quoted makes it explicit that this is talking about the kingdom of God being taken away from Israel and given to a different group of people. Who else could this different group be than the Gentiles?
Whether or not the parables were originally meant to justify anti-semitism, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see how they could be used to justify extreme measures against adherents of the rival religion. In fact, it only took a few hundred years for one of these parables to be used to justify outright war with a different branch of Christians.
John and “the Jews”
John’s gospel is interesting because of the sheer number of times it mentions “the Jews” as a group - usually negatively. We typically glossed “the Jews” as “the Jewish religious authorities”, and related it to the criticisms of the Pharisees and the Sadducees in the other gospels. However, the label must have helped some to view all non-Christian Jews as the problem.
John also contains passages which seem to go out of their way to alienate Jewish followers. For example, Jesus is said to have lost many of his disciples after telling them they must eat his body and drink his blood to have eternal life. This was shocking, since not eating blood was one of the strongest prohibitions in the law (incidentally, this was said to have been upheld by a Christian council in Acts).
Another example had Jesus supposedly talking to “the Jews who had believed in him”:
Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and I am here. I came not of my own accord, but he sent me. Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. 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 out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me. Which one of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.”John 8:42 - 47 (ESV)
That escalated quickly - I thought Jesus was supposed to be the nice guy?
So what grounds did Jesus have for criticising them? Well, they didn’t accept Jesus, the self-styled messenger of God. As a result they were clearly of the devil, potential murderers, liars who had nothing to do with the truth, and ultimately (in spite of their Jewish ancestry) not God’s people. A convenient message for later Christians wanting to separate themselves from Judaism.
John then presents Jesus’ death as a deliberate plan by the Jewish authorities for the greater good:
But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all. Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.” He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad. So from that day on they made plans to put him to death.John 11:49 - 53 (ESV)
I think this passage serves two purposes:
It puts in the mouth of the Jewish high priest a prediction of Jesus’ salvation work to both Jew and Gentile (a key part of later Christian doctrine).
It reminds the reader that that death was part of a pre-meditated plan by Jewish authorities.
Near the conclusion of Jesus’ public ministry, the criticism of the Jewish onlookers is summed up like this:
Therefore they could not believe. For again Isaiah said,
“He has blinded their eyes
and hardened their heart,
lest they see with their eyes,
and understand with their heart, and turn,
and I would heal them.”John 12:39 - 40 (ESV)
From the Christian viewpoint, any Jews who refused to accept Jesus’ message were guilty of misunderstanding their own scriptures and rejecting their God. That is definitely a hostile takeover.
And this passage from Isaiah turns out to be popular: Not only is it mentioned in all four gospels, but Paul also uses it at the summing up of his ministry in Acts.
Acts: The Christian message spreads to the Gentiles
After Jesus’ resurrection, Luke foreshadowed the appropriation of the Jewish prophecies to the Christian cause and the proclamation of the message to the Gentiles:
Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”Luke 24:44 - 47 (ESV)
Then in Acts Luke tells that story, starting early with a mission statement:
So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”Acts 1:6 - 8 (ESV)
The disciples are reassured that Jesus is going to return (still any day now, only 2000 years later). But their main mission is not waiting for that fulfillment of the promised kingdom of Israel, but building a Jesus empire on earth.
More national guilt
In their first major public speech, before an audience from across the empire, Peter makes guilt for Jesus’ death an important part of his sales pitch:
“Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”Acts 2:36 - 38 (ESV)
He then doubles down on it in his second speech to the Jewish multitudes:
The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our fathers, glorified his servant Jesus, whom you delivered over and denied in the presence of Pilate, when he had decided to release him. But you denied the Holy and Righteous One, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. … And now, brothers, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. But what God foretold by the mouth of all the prophets, that his Christ would suffer, he thus fulfilled. Repent therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago. Moses said, ‘The Lord God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers. You shall listen to him in whatever he tells you. And it shall be that every soul who does not listen to that prophet shall be destroyed from the people.’ And all the prophets who have spoken, from Samuel and those who came after him, also proclaimed these days. You are the sons of the prophets and of the covenant that God made with your fathers, saying to Abraham, ‘And in your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed.’ God, having raised up his servant, sent him to you first, to bless you by turning every one of you from your wickedness.Acts 3:13-15, 17 - 26 (ESV)
Here Peter appropriates Jewish ancestors, heroes, scriptures, and prophecies to his own purpose. And he also criticises the Jewish people for rejecting and crucifying Jesus, as part of a speech alternating between nice words and threats.
Good Jews are those who will repent, seek forgiveness for their personal and national sins, and acknowledge their own wickedness. They will join the club and listen to anything Jesus says, and will be blessed as a result.
Bad Jews will not listen to Jesus’ words, and will reject the clear (appropriated) word of Moses and the prophets. They will remain in their wickedness and will be destroyed from among their people, because anyone who wasn’t Christian would no longer be considered a true Jew.
Then, brought before the Jewish authorities, he makes it even more plain:
Let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead—by him this man is standing before you well. This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”Acts 4:10 - 12 (ESV)
Not only does he allude to their guilt in orchestrating Jesus’ death, but he also uses their own scriptures to present them as the bad guys. And then he makes an explicit claim to exclusivity: Jesus is the only way to salvation. Again, in the Christian view presented here, true Jews have to become Christians and join the club.
Stephen the martyr
As the conflict escalates, we come to the story of Stephen, the famous first martyr. Here is what he is charged with:
And they set up false witnesses who said, “This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us.”Acts 6:13 - 14 (ESV)
While the author claims this is false witness, who can look at Christianity today and say this isn’t “guilty as charged”? Christians today follow Christian customs and teachings that are very different to those in the Law of Moses. And removing the hold of the Law of Moses was an important part of Christianity’s spread to the Gentiles.
Stephen, on trial, then goes on to give the Jewish authorities a history lesson. Unfortunately, either this spirit-filled witness to Christ or his inspired biographer allowed some errors into the story. But never mind - there was plenty of scope left for a dramatic conclusion:
“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did not your fathers persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.”Acts 7:51 - 53 (ESV)
This is indeed an inflammatory conclusion, suggesting that Jewish resistance to God was a national failing through the generations rather than being an isolated slip-up. How much damage could that do in the wrong hands?
And Acts takes Stephen’s subsequent death as the ideal point to introduce Paul, starting on the side of the Jews before his dramatic Road to Damascus experience. Then for the rest of the book Paul uses his (Jewish) religious credentials to travel the Roman empire preaching in (Jewish) synagogues and teaching a religion that he was moving away from Judaism. Which led to encounters like this:
The next Sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord. But when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and began to contradict what was spoken by Paul, reviling him. And Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly, saying, “It was necessary that the word of God be spoken first to you. Since you thrust it aside and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles. For so the Lord has commanded us, saying
“‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles,
that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’”Acts 13:44 - 47 (ESV)
This is yet more of the kind of hostility I object to: Paul has chosen to use his Jewish religious qualifications to teach a new religion, and it’s somehow the fault of the Jews that they don’t accept it. I particularly dislike saying that it is the Jews who “judge themselves unworthy of eternal life” - remember, before Paul’s new religion came along they had reason to believe they were the chosen nation. It reminds me of Christadelphians who draw hard lines on fellowship, then say when someone has crossed those lines that they have “placed themselves out of fellowship”.
Acts presents Paul as a polarising figure even within the Christian church. Not all the Jewish believers were happy with Paul relaxing the rules for the Gentiles, and they couldn’t be won over by saying “Look how many followers we’ve got now”:
After greeting them, he related one by one the things that God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. And when they heard it, they glorified God. And they said to him, “You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed. They are all zealous for the law, and they have been told about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or walk according to our customs. What then is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come. Do therefore what we tell you. We have four men who are under a vow; take these men and purify yourself along with them and pay their expenses, so that they may shave their heads. Thus all will know that there is nothing in what they have been told about you, but that you yourself also live in observance of the law.”Acts 21:19 - 24 (ESV)
Even as a believer I was unhappy with this passage because it felt sneaky: We, as Gentile believers, were quite happy to have rejected many of the restrictions of the Jewish law, and yet we were celebrating Paul misleading other Jews by his own personal adherence to the law.
However, note the sequel: The plan fails because of some unnamed “Jews from Asia” who stir up a mob who try to kill Paul. And guess what? Paul is saved by the Gentile Romans, and in fact turns out to be a Roman citizen himself. He takes another chance to speak to the mob, who eventually conclude that preaching to the Gentiles is worthy of death:
“And he said to me, ‘Go, for I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’” Up to this word they listened to him. Then they raised their voices and said, “Away with such a fellow from the earth! For he should not be allowed to live.”Acts 22:21 - 22 (ESV)
Later, other Jews plan to assassinate Paul, with direct, high-level support from the Jewish authorities:
When it was day, the Jews made a plot and bound themselves by an oath neither to eat nor drink till they had killed Paul. There were more than forty who made this conspiracy. They went to the chief priests and elders and said, “We have strictly bound ourselves by an oath to taste no food till we have killed Paul. Now therefore you, along with the council, give notice to the tribune to bring him down to you, as though you were going to determine his case more exactly. And we are ready to kill him before he comes near.”Acts 23:12 - 15 (ESV)
(I had thought that it was only John that used “the Jews” as a negative term, but it seems I was wrong).
Paul is eventually sent to Rome for trial, and the book finishes with him dismissing Jewish representatives in Rome who wouldn’t listen:
And disagreeing among themselves, they departed after Paul had made one statement: “The Holy Spirit was right in saying to your fathers through Isaiah the prophet:
“‘Go to this people, and say,
You will indeed hear but never understand,
and you will indeed see but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and with their ears they can barely hear,
and their eyes they have closed;
lest they should see with their eyes
and hear with their ears
and understand with their heart
and turn, and I would heal them.’
Therefore let it be known to you that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen.”Acts 28:25 - 28 (ESV)
It’s hard to see how early Gentile readers could go away from passages like this with a positive view of the Jews as a nation. They were shown as both ignorant and frequently hostile. To such a reader the author is saying “They don’t want you at all. And even those who might tolerate you want to apply lots of extra rules to you.”
And to me all of this makes sense as part of a fight between two rival religions. Christianity made its exclusive claim to be the winner on the back of its rival’s sacred scriptures, and that claim relied on rejecting the rival’s ability to interpret those scriptures. The resulting conflict often spilled into vilification of individuals and groups upholding that traditional scripture interpretation.