The conflict between Christianity and Judaism didn’t just stop with the New Testament. They remained rival religions, and as Christianity gained more power it built on that New Testament foundation with terrible results. When I look in the writings of church fathers, kings, popes, and leaders of the reformation, time and again I see the same verses and concepts I highlighted in the previous two posts popping up - and the results aren’t good.
This wasn’t something I intended to go into detail about, since I’m not in the least expert in it. But I couldn’t ignore the fact that the verses I’d highlighted had been weaponised in terrible ways. So while this isn’t a systematic study of 2,000 years of Christian-Jew relations, I do think it highlights the consequences of these religious texts.
Just to be clear, remember that my core argument is not that Christianity is inherently anti-semitic (I personally came from a largely pro-Jewish denomination). Instead, as far as scripture goes I argue that:
- Christianity as a religion formed as a takeover of Judaism.
- This led to many verses in the NT which were critical of Judaism, and often of individual Jews.
- Those verses were used and expanded on by the later church, and sometimes used to justify atrocities.
Over and over again, the same themes came up:
- The Jews were responsible for the death of Christ, and were under a curse.
- The Jews should have accepted Christianity as the logical conclusion of Judaism - otherwise they were hard-hearted and ignorant of their own scriptures and prophecies.
- Jews were dangerous because they might persuade Christians to leave Christianity (even if those “Christians” were Jews who had been persuaded or forced to convert by previous persecutions).
- Keeping any of the laws and customs of the Jews was dangerous, since it was a clear slippery slope to converting to Judaism and trying to be saved by “law” not “grace”.
- Christians protecting Jews from persecution were sharing in their sins.
And each of those can be deduced from the New Testament - but when Christians became the majority religion and gained power those verses gained a very different meaning.
According to the gospel story, Jesus went into synagogues and preached. Paul in his travels routinely visited the local synagogue in the hope of making converts (then abused the Jews for not accepting his self-evident message). However, fast-forward a few hundred years and synagogues were considered a threat to True Christians. To the extent that St John Chrysostom was using words of Jesus and Paul to demonstrate that Jews were possessed by demons and that Christians shouldn’t go near their worship.
Originally, I suspect Christians were vulnerable and looking for legitimacy from Jewish scriptures and support from Jewish converts. When they didn’t get it, they turned nasty - but they at least had to play minimally nice to get preaching opportunities. Once the power dynamic had changed, they were able to tell Jews “We’re in charge. Take it or leave it”.
Then the shared foundations became a liability, since the Jews were a witness that it was possible to look at the appropriated scriptures and not see Jesus Christ in them. Worse, those shared foundations made it easier for Jews and Christians to slide back to Judaism. To prevent this slide, Christianity needed to separate themselves as much as they could from Judaism.
However, though the social context was very different, the verses remained the same, and divorced from that original context they became even more dangerous. What would Paul have thought about it? I suspect he would have been amazed to see Christians with that level of power. Would he have agreed with the way his writings were being used? Obviously no-one can know for sure - personally, based on his writings I suspect he would have been completely in favour of any attempts to convert Jews to Christianity, but perhaps less happy with Jews being marginalised and persecuted for holding the “wrong” religion. But he’d still totally agree it was the wrong religion, and that the Jews were hard-hearted for not seeing the truth in Christ.
Finally, it is almost certain that it wasn’t just about religion - there were also racial, social, and cultural issues in the conflict between Christians (the majority) and Jews (the minority). And perhaps sometimes (often?) the religious argument was a cloak, giving a justification for persecution that was really about other things. But the fact remains that the teachings were there, they did have terrible results, and they are frequently based on scripture.
Not only does Christianity have a serious legitimacy problem because of its misappropriation of Jewish scriptures, but the very terms of that misappropriation justified later abuses against its Jewish brethren once it gained power. Beliefs have consequences.
As with the previous two posts, I’ve erred on the side of lots of quotes, and tried to make the context of the quotes clear. This means it’s a really long post (even by my standards), so feel free to skim through the quotes or skip them altogether.
However, I would recommend that you consider the section on Fiddler on the Roof (showing how it affects real people), as well as the final section on whether these people are True Christians.
I’ve quoted Justin Martyr a couple of times in previous posts. His dialogue with Trypho provides something of a middle ground: It’s after the New Testament, but before Christianity really gained power. And it is a continuation of the hostility and appropriation I complained about in the New Testament.
Justin has taken it on himself to teach a Jew the True Meaning of his own scripture. And he shows a great sense of Christian superiority throughout - so much so that I could (and did) pick references nearly at random.
Jews worship the same God, but Christians have a new and final covenant:
Nor do we think that there is one God for us, another for you, but that He alone is God who led your fathers out from Egypt with a strong hand and a high arm. Nor have we trusted in any other (for there is no other), but in Him in whom you also have trusted, the God of Abraham, and of Isaac, and of Jacob. But we do not trust through Moses or through the law; for then we would do the same as yourselves. … For the law promulgated on Horeb is now old, and belongs to yourselves alone; but this is for all universally. Now, law placed against law has abrogated that which is before it, and a covenant which comes after in like manner has put an end to the previous one; and an eternal and final law—namely, Christ—has been given to us, and the covenant is trustworthy, after which there shall be no law, no commandment, no ordinance.
Christians are spiritual Israel:
Trypho: What, then? Are you Israel?
Justin … As therefore from the one man Jacob, who was surnamed Israel, all your nation has been called Jacob and Israel; so we from Christ, who begat us unto God, like Jacob, and Israel, and Judah, and Joseph, and David, are called and are the true sons of God, and keep the commandments of Christ.
He blames the Jews for not properly understanding their scriptures, and instead listening to their teachers who haven’t understood scripture:
“I excuse and forgive you, my friend,” I said. “For you know not what you say, but have been persuaded by teachers who do not understand the Scriptures; and you speak, like a diviner, whatever comes into your mind.”
I exhort you to give all diligence in this very great struggle for your own salvation, and to be earnest in setting a higher value on the Christ of the Almighty God than on your own teachers.
Further, to persuade you that you have not understood anything of the Scriptures, …
Then comes his final conclusion: You should be like me…
And I, praying for them, said, “I can wish no better thing for you, sirs, than this, that, recognising in this way that intelligence is given to every man, you may be of the same opinion as ourselves, and believe that Jesus is the Christ of God.”
From the Jewish Virtual Library article on Justin Martyr:
Justin’s thesis is an extension of the kind of reasoning which pervades the New Testament. In essence it makes the claim that Christianity is the authentic flowering of biblical Judaism, and that the Jews who cling to their faith in its old form are clinging to an obsolete doctrine. For doing so they are berated as blind and stubborn and insensitive, a fossil people clinging to a superseded faith.
Justin does not content himself with the exposition of a Christian interpretation of the Bible. He often denounces the Jews for having crucified Jesus, and he accuses them of continuing to persecute Christians. He finds many indications that God had deemed the Jews as especially reprehensible. In repudiating the efficacy of the law as prescribed in the Bible, Justin makes the bold assertion that the law was initially given to the Jews because, as an especially unspiritual race, hard-hearted, rebellious, and ungodly, they needed a more elaborate law, with many more disciplines as a means of mitigating some of their offensive qualities. For the gentiles, however, it was enough to prescribe two commandments as Jesus did, the love of God and the love of man (Dial. 93:4). Justin also makes himself into a philosopher of history and offers the theory that the defeats of the Jews in the wars against Rome, both in the year 70, and again in 135, were God’s visitation of a deserved punishment, because they had sinned so grievously by crucifying Christ and rejecting his new faith. Justin gloated as he contemplated the destruction of Jerusalem and the collapse of the Jewish struggle for freedom, and he taunted Trypho with this sweeping assertion: “All this has happened to you rightly and well, For ye slew the Just One and His prophets before Him, and now ye reject, and … dishonor those who set their hopes on Him, and God Almighty and Maker of the universe who sent Him …” (Dial. 16:3–4).
Justin’s invective against Jews and Judaism entered the mainstream of Christian thought and became a sinister influence which contributed not a little toward the development of what is known as Christian antisemitism.
Augustine is considered one of the most influential Christian theologians. The main work I will be quoting from is Contra Faustum, in which he is actually arguing against Manichaeans, but finds plenty of time to talk about the Jews. In this, Augustine builds on both the Old Testament and the New Testament (and, of course, his own fertile imagination) to come to some fairly abhorrent conclusions.
He makes an extended analogy with the story of Abel and Cain, concluding that Jews in his day were under the curse of Cain, which was to be administered by the Christian church:
As Cain’s sacrifice of the fruit of the ground is rejected, while Abel’s sacrifice of his sheep and the fat thereof is accepted, so the faith of the New Testament praising God in the harmless service of grace is preferred to the earthly observances of the Old Testament. For though the Jews were right in practising these things, they were guilty of unbelief in not distinguishing the time of the New Testament when Christ came, from the time of the Old Testament. … Abel, the younger brother, is killed by the elder brother; Christ, the head of the younger people, is killed by the elder people of the Jews. Abel dies in the field; Christ dies on Calvary.
God asks Cain where his brother is, not as if He did not know, but as a judge asks a guilty criminal. Cain replies that he knows not, and that he is not his brother’s keeper. And what answer can the Jews give at this day, when we ask them with the voice of God, that is, of the sacred Scriptures, about Christ, except that they do not know the Christ that we speak of? … So the voice of God in the Holy Scriptures accuses the Jews. For the blood of Christ has a loud voice on the earth, when the responsive Amen of those who believe in Him comes from all nations. This is the voice of Christ’s blood, because the clear voice of the faithful redeemed by His blood is the voice of the blood itself.
So the unbelieving people of the Jews is cursed from the earth, that is, from the Church, which in the confession of sins has opened its mouth to receive the blood shed for the remission of sins by the hand of the people that would not be under grace, but under the law. … That is, the Church admits and avows the Jewish people to be cursed, because after killing Christ they continue to till the ground of an earthly circumcision, an earthly Sabbath, an earthly passover, while the hidden strength or virtue of making known Christ, which this tilling contains, is not yielded to the Jews while they continue in impiety and unbelief, for it is revealed in the New Testament. While they will not turn to God, the veil which is on their minds in reading the Old Testament is not taken away. This veil is taken away only by Christ, who does not do away with the reading of the Old Testament, but with the covering which hides its virtue.
That is, It is not as you say, not by bodily death shall the ungodly race of carnal Jews perish. For whoever destroys them in this way shall suffer sevenfold vengeance, that is, shall bring upon himself the sevenfold penalty under which the Jews lie for the crucifixion of Christ. So to the end of the seven days of time, the continued preservation of the Jews will be a proof to believing Christians of the subjection merited by those who, in the pride of their kingdom, put the Lord to death.
The Jewish nation, whether under Pagan or Christian monarchs, has never lost the sign of their law, by which they are distinguished from all other nations and peoples. No emperor or monarch who finds under his government the people with this mark kills them, that is, makes them cease to be Jews, and as Jews to be separate in their observances, and unlike the rest of the world. Only when a Jew comes over to Christ, he is no longer Cain, nor goes out from the presence of God, nor dwells in the land of Nod, which is said to mean commotion.
So Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus, were sent away from the presence of God, and would remain under this curse while they held onto the practices of the law. Christians were not to kill them, but to keep them under continual subjection so they could continue to suffer for killing Jesus. The Old Testament is still around, but it has to be interpreted in a Christian way (“removing the veil”). And if individual Jews become Christian, they can be free of the curse of Cain.
Then, from the incident of Noah’s drunkenness, Augustine concludes that the two “good” sons are Gentiles and Jews who have accepted Jesus, while the “bad” son condemned to servitude are Jews who stick with Judaism (note that in more recent times this passage was used to justify African slavery - scripture can be quite versatile when you have a point to prove):
Again, the sufferings of Christ from His own nation are evidently denoted by Noah being drunk with the wine of the vineyard he planted, and his being uncovered in his tent. For the mortality of Christ’s flesh was uncovered, to the Jews a stumbling-block, and to the Greeks foolishness; but to them that are called, both Jews and Greeks, both Shem and Japhet, the power of God and the wisdom of God.
Moreover, the two sons, the eldest and the youngest, carrying the garment backwards, are a figure of the two peoples, and the sacrament of the past and completed passions of the Lord. They do not see the nakedness of their father, because they do not consent to Christ’s death; and yet they honor it with a covering, as knowing whence they were born. The middle son is the Jewish people, for they neither held the first place with the apostles, nor believed subsequently with the Gentiles. They saw the nakedness of their father, because they consented to Christ’s death; and they told it to their brethren outside, for what was hidden in the prophets was disclosed by the Jews. And thus they are the servants of their brethren. For what else is this nation now but a desk for the Christians, bearing the law and the prophets, and testifying to the doctrine of the Church, so that we honor in the sacrament what they disclose in the letter?
The occupation of all the world by the Church among the Gentiles was exactly foretold in the words: “Let God enlarge Japhet, and let him dwell in the tents of Shem.”
This theme is continued in his better known The City of God:
But the Jews who slew Him, and would not believe in Him, because it behoved Him to die and rise again, were yet more miserably wasted by the Romans, and utterly rooted out from their kingdom, where aliens had already ruled over them, and were dispersed through the lands (so that indeed there is no place where they are not), and are thus by their own Scriptures a testimony to us that we have not forged the prophecies about Christ. And very many of them, considering this, even before His passion, but chiefly after His resurrection, believed on Him, of whom it was predicted, “Though the number of the children of Israel be as the sand of the sea, the remnant shall be saved.” But the rest are blinded, of whom it was predicted, “Let their table be made before them a trap, and a retribution, and a stumbling-block. Let their eyes be darkened lest they see, and bow down their back alway.” Therefore, when they do not believe our Scriptures, their own, which they blindly read, are fulfilled in them, lest perchance any one should say that the Christians have forged these prophecies about Christ which are quoted under the name of the sibyl, or of others, if such there be, who do not belong to the Jewish people. For us, indeed, those suffice which are quoted from the books of our enemies, to whom we make our acknowledgment, on account of this testimony which, in spite of themselves, they contribute by their possession of these books, while they themselves are dispersed among all nations, wherever the Church of Christ is spread abroad. For a prophecy about this thing was sent before in the Psalms, which they also read, where it is written, “My God, His mercy shall prevent me. My God hath shown me concerning mine enemies, that Thou shalt not slay them, lest they should at last forget Thy law: disperse them in Thy might.” Therefore God has shown the Church in her enemies the Jews the grace of His compassion, since, as saith the apostle, “their offence is the salvation of the Gentiles.” And therefore He has not slain them, that is, He has not let the knowledge that they are Jews be lost in them, although they have been conquered by the Romans, lest they should forget the law of God, and their testimony should be of no avail in this matter of which we treat. But it was not enough that he should say, “Slay them not, lest they should at last forget Thy law,” unless he had also added, “Disperse them;” because if they had only been in their own land with that testimony of the Scriptures, and not every where, certainly the Church which is everywhere could not have had them as witnesses among all nations to the prophecies which were sent before concerning Christ.
Here he explicitly calls the Jews enemies of the Christians - a far cry from seemingly pro-Jewish verses like “salvation is of the Jews”. The Jews were scattered among the nations, but remained distinct and kept the Law so the church could use them as witnesses of the prophecies of Christ.
St John Chrysostom
In his Eight homilies against the Jews, St John Chrysostom draws liberally on both the OT and the NT, including many of the verses and concepts I highlighted in my previous posts (before reading these homilies). His main point is that Christians should not be involved in Jewish fasts or attend Jewish places of worship:
The festivals of the pitiful and miserable Jews are soon to march upon us one after the other and in quick succession: the feast of Trumpets, the feast of Tabernacles, the fasts. There are many in our ranks who say they think as we do. Yet some of these are going to watch the festivals and others will join the Jews in keeping their feasts and observing their fasts. I wish to drive this perverse custom from the Church right now. … I am afraid that, because of their ill-suited association and deep ignorance, some Christians may partake in the Jews’ transgressions; once they have done so, I fear my homilies on these transgressions will be in vain. For if they hear no word from me today, they will then join the Jews in their fasts; once they have committed this sin it will be useless for me to apply the remedy.
As I’ve already stated, I think this shows the shift in power dynamic. Christians are in charge, so they no longer need to seek any legitimacy from preaching in or even attending synagogues. Instead, those same synagogues are considered a threat.
Going on, he abuses Jews for keeping the Law at the wrong time:
Nothing is more miserable than those people who never failed to attack their own salvation. When there was need to observe the Law, they trampled it under foot. Now that the Law has ceased to bind, they obstinately strive to observe it. What could be more pitiable that those who provoke God not only by transgressing the Law but also by keeping it? On this account Stephen said: “You stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart, you always resist the Holy Spirit”, not only by transgressing the Law but also by wishing to observe it at the wrong time.
And he goes further:
They failed to accept the yoke of Christ, nor did they pull the plow of his teaching. Another prophet hinted at this when he said: “Israel is as obstinate as a stubborn heifer”. And still another called the Jews “an untamed calf”.
Although such beasts are unfit for work, they are fit for killing. And this is what happened to the Jews: while they were making themselves unfit for work, they grew fit for slaughter. This is why Christ said: “But as for these my enemies, who did not want me to be king over them, bring them here and slay them”.
Yes, that’s right. He literally called the Jews beasts “fit for slaughter”. I’m not clear whether this was intended to justify God killing them, or Christians generally killing them, but either way I find it disturbing.
He calls Jesus as witness that the Jews don’t know God:
But at any rate the Jews say that they, too, adore God. God forbid that I say that. No Jew adores God! Who say so? The Son of God say so. For he said: “If you were to know my Father, you would also know me. But you neither know me nor do you know my Father”. Could I produce a witness more trustworthy than the Son of God?
If, then, the Jews fail to know the Father, if they crucified the Son, if they thrust off the help of the Spirit, who should not make bold to declare plainly that the synagogue is a dwelling of demons? God is not worshipped there. Heaven forbid! From now on it remains a place of idolatry. But still some people pay it honor as a holy place.
And as a result, he claims that the synagogue is a dwelling of demons. Even going onto say that individual Jews have demons:
Certainly it is the time for me to show that demons dwell in the synagogue, not only in the place itself but also in the souls of the Jews.
Because Jews crucified Jesus, Christians are to keep separate from them:
Consider, then, with whom they are sharing their fasts. It is with those who shouted: “Crucify him, Crucify him”, with those who said: “His blood be upon us and upon our children”. … Is it not strange that those who worship the Crucified keep common festival with those who crucified him? Is it not a sign of folly and the worst madness?
He is quite convinced that there is a conflict between the two religions, and while they share much in common only one can be right:
If the Jewish ceremonies are venerable and great, our are lies. But if ours are true, as they are true, theirs are filled with deceit.
This is my strongest reason for hating the synagogue: it does have the Law and the prophets. And now I hate it more than if it had none of these.
This is why I hate the Jews. Although they possess the Law, they put it to outrageous use. For it is by means of the Law that they try to entice and catch the more simpleminded sort of men. If they refused to believe in Christ because they did not believe in the prophets, the charge against them would not be so severe. As it is, they have deprived themselves of every excuse because they say that they do believe in the prophets but they have heaped outrage on him whom the prophets foretold.
He especially hates Jews because they are too close to Christianity (sharing the Old Testament), and yet don’t accept the Christian interpretation of the Old Testament. Sometimes the closest religions are the bitterest rivals.
It’s so bad that Christians should use force to prevent other Christians from attending the synagogue:
Let me get the start on you by saying this now, so that each of you may win over his brother. Even if you must impose restraint, even if you must use force, even if you must treat him ill and obstinately, do everything to save him from the devil’s snare and to free him from fellowship with those who slew Christ.
He finally concludes by appropriating words of Moses (originally spoken to the Jews) to say it’s not his fault if Christians don’t listen to him:
I could have said more than this, but to keep you from forgetting what I have said, I shall bring my homily to an end here with the words of Moses: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you”. If any of you, whether you are here present or not, shall go to the spectacle of the Trumpets, or rush off to the synagogue, or go up to the shrine of Matrona, or take part in fasting, or share in the Sabbath, or observe any other Jewish ritual great or small, I call heaven and earth as my witnesses that I am guiltless of the blood of all of you.
Expelling the Jews from Spain
In 1492, after 100+ years of specific Christian persecution of and restrictions on the Jews, they were expelled from Spain by the Alhambra Decree. This wasn’t the first such expulsion, but it was one of the largest, and religious conflict was the specific reason given.
The decree is quite wordy, so for once I’ll summarise the relevant parts: The decree claimed there were some “wicked Christians who Judaized and apostatized from our holy Catholic faith”, with the main cause being “interaction between the Jews and these Christians”. The first response, in 1480, was to segregate the Jews from Christians, and to start the Spanish Inquisition to try and discover false converts to Christianity (Jewish Christians who were still following some or all of the Law).
However, by 1492 they decided this wasn’t working - there were still reports from the inquisitors and “other devout persons” that Jews were convincing Christians to adopt Jewish practices and observe the Law of Moses. This “redounded to the great injury, detriment, and opprobrium of our holy Catholic faith”. And since this was considered one of the “greater and most dangerous and most contagious crimes”, the solution was to banish all Jews from Spain. Which was entirely reasonable because of guilty by association.
Jews then had a few months to leave the country (or convert to Christianity - which many did). Officially, they were able to sell their properties and take their possessions with them, but in practice it ended up a fire sale. And if they failed to leave, or if they later even passed through the country as practicing Jews, they were to be executed without trial:
They incur the penalty of death and the confiscation of all their possessions by our Chamber of Finance, incurring these penalties by the act itself, without further trial, sentence, or declaration.
That’s right: Christianity, originally claimed to be a Jewish religion, was now being used as the justification for making practicing Judaism a capital crime. And anyone who tried to protect these Jews were subject to forced confiscation of all their possessions.
In reality it seems that many of the Judaizing Christians being complained about were Jews who had felt it necessary to be baptised because of previous persecutions, and either still held to their Jewish faith or had relatives who did. And while officially the church did not approve of forced conversions, once a Jew was baptised, they were forbidden to return to Judaism.
In 1215, the Fourth Council of the Lateran included several provisions affecting Jews and Muslims: They were to wear special clothing to make it clear they weren’t Christian (so no Christians would accidentally marry them), and converted Jews were not to return to their former faith. As with the Spanish Jews in the previous section, they were viewed as a dangerous rival religion, that Christians (including Jewish converts) had to be kept separate from.
In later years, various popes issued papal bulls placing further restrictions on the Jews, particularly in the Papal States: establishing ghettos, restricting their interactions with Christians, limiting the occupations they could follow, and requiring them to wear yellow to identify themselves.
Remember, these declarations were coming from the leaders of the largest Christian church in the world. What’s more, their justifications came from some of the New Testament texts and concepts I’ve highlighted in previous posts. Take for example the start of the Cum nimis absurdum (1555):
It is absurd and utterly unacceptable that the Jews, who due to their own guilt were condemned by God to eternal slavery, can, with the excuse of being protected by Christian love and thus tolerated living in our midst, show such ingratitude toward the Christians.
Later, the bull claims that Jews are “evidence of the true Christian faith”, they are in slavery because they are in error, and that they should accept the catholic faith and be freed:
Considering that the Church of Rome tolerates these very Jews (evidence of the true Christian faith) and to this end [we declare]: that they, won over by the piety and kindness of the See, should at long last recognize their erroneous ways, and should lose no time in seeing the true light of the catholic faith, and thus to agree that while they persist in their errors, realizing that they are slaves because of their deeds, whereas Christians have been freed through our Lord God Jesus Christ, and that it is unwarranted for it to appear that the sons of free women serve the sons of maids.
Don’t forget that the “piety and kindness of the See” was what was confining them to the ghettos, limiting the kinds of work they could do, and requiring them to be identified by wearing yellow.
Fourteen years later the bull Hebraeorum gens (1569) expelled Jews from some of the Papal States, beginning with the claim they were Christ-killers (but also religious and economic rivals):
The Jewish people fell from the heights because of their faithlessness and condemned their Redeemer to a shameful death. Their godlessness has assumed such forms that, for the salvation of our own people, it becomes necessary to prevent their disease. Besides usury, through which Jews everywhere have sucked dry the property of impoverished Christians, they are accomplices of thieves and robbers; and the most damaging aspect of the matter is that they allure the unsuspecting through magical incantations, superstition, and witchcraft to the Synagogue of Satan and boast of being able to predict the future.
The Catholic Encylopedia tries to minimise these declarations in its article on History of Toleration. For example:
The edicts issued at various times for the destruction of copies of the Talmud, the Bull “Cum nimis absurdum” of Paul IV constraining the Jews of Rome to live segregated in a Ghetto and subject to other harassing disabilities, represent rather the prejudices of individual pontiffs than any consistent principle of persecution.
The popes are presented as protectors of the Jews:
Looking at the documents of unquestioned authenticity extracted by Stern from the papal Regesta it becomes clear that throughout the later Middle Ages the Jews in almost every emergency turned to the popes as to their natural protectors. Despite such legislation as that of the Fourth Council of Lateran (1215) imposing the wearing of a distinctive badge and excluding Jews from public offices, still even such a summary as that in the Jewish Encyclopedia (s.v. “POPES”) distinctly leaves the impression that the Holy See exercised on the whole a markedly restraining influence on the persecuting spirit of the Middle Ages.
However, for a document trying to excuse the church as a whole, I still think it contains fairly damning words. It refers to a Sicut Judæis, confirmed by many popes, which in part states:
We therefore, although they prefer to continue in their hardness of heart rather than be guided by the hidden meaning of the prophets to a knowledge of the Christian faith, do nevertheless, since they invoke our protection and aid, following in the footsteps of our predecessors and out of the mildness of Christian piety, extend to them the shield of our protection.
Remember, these are being held up as the good popes: They protect the Jews, but still claim that Christians have the true understanding of Jewish scripture, and that Jews are deliberately hardening their heart to not see it. And yes, as I’ve pointed out in my previous posts, this is consistent with a large body of New Testament teaching. But if, as I’ve argued, the NT is an unwarranted appropriation, this gracious condescension is unwarranted appropriation in spades.
Whether or not the worst cases were due to individual prejudice rather than to systematic church teaching, they did draw on the New Testament. New Testament teachings did enable these persecutions. And neither the church nor the Bible were able to prevent them happening. Surely that’s a problem?
These practices didn’t stop with the Catholic church. Martin Luther, widely considered one of the most important leaders of the Reformation, continued the work.
In 1523, he wrote That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew. Here, his principle target is Catholics, and so Jews are treated more positively:
Therefore, I will cite from Scripture the reasons that move me to believe that Christ was a Jew born of a virgin, that I might perhaps also win some Jews to the Christian faith. Our fools, the popes, bishops, sophists, and monks - the crude asses’ heads - have hitherto so treated the Jews that anyone who wished to be a good Christian would almost have had to become a Jew. If I had been a Jew and had seen such dolts and blockheads govern and teach the Christian faith, I would sooner have become a hog than a Christian.
They have dealt with the Jews as if they were dogs rather than human beings; they have done little else than deride them and seize their property. When they baptize them they show them nothing of Christian doctrine or life, but only subject them to popishness and monkery. When the Jews then see that Judaism has such strong support in Scripture, and that Christianity has become a mere babble without reliance on Scripture, how can they possibly compose themselves and become right good Christians? I have myself heard from pious baptized Jews that if they had not in our day heard the gospel they would have remained Jews under the cloak of Christianity for the rest of their days. For they acknowledge that they have never yet heard anything about Christ from those who baptized and taught them.
I hope that if one deals in a kindly way with the Jews and instructs them carefully from Holy Scripture, many of them will become genuine Christians and turn again to the faith of their fathers, the prophets and patriarchs. They will only be frightened further away from it if their Judaism is so utterly rejected that nothing is allowed to remain, and they are treated only with arrogance and scorn. If the apostles, who also were Jews, had dealt with us Gentiles as we Gentiles deal with the Jews, there would never have been a Christian among the Gentiles. Since they dealt with us Gentiles in such brotherly fashion, we in our turn ought to treat the Jews in a brotherly manner in order that we might convert some of them.
Clearly he believes Christianity is the true conclusion of Judaism. His main concern is that Jews should be taught the correct gospel and not persecuted, and then he expects some of them will be converted.
There is the familiar appropriation of Jewish scriptures and prophecies to his own purposes. And then he does criticise the Jews for not interpreting the passages in the same way as he does. For example, after talking about the Promises to Abraham:
For since God cannot lie, it was inevitable that Christ should be the seed of Abraham, that is, his natural flesh and blood, like all of Abraham’s descendants.
He then links this to the virgin birth (after dismissing Jewish objections to his interpretation of Isaiah):
This is enough for the present to have sufficiently proved that Mary was a pure maiden, and that Christ was a genuine Jew of Abraham’s seed. … So certainly no one can doubt that it is possible for God to cause a maiden to be with child apart from a man, since he has also created all things from nothing. Therefore, the Jews have no ground for denying this, for they acknowledge God’s omnipotence, and they have here the clear testimony of the prophet Isaiah.
He draws on Jacob’s prophecy of kingship belonging to Judah, and claims it is fulfilled by the resurrected Jesus whose eternal kingdom consists of all the Christian nations of the world:
Thus, the kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ squares perfectly with this prophecy. For there was a hegemony among the Jews until he came. After his coming, however, it was destroyed, and at the same time he began the eternal kingdom in which he still reigns forever. That he was of the tribe of Judah is unquestionable. Because as regards his person he was to be an eternal king, it could not be that he should govern in a temporal and secular sense, because what is temporal will pass away. Conversely, because he had to be David’s natural seed, it could not be otherwise than that he should be a natural, mortal, temporal, perishable man.
Now to be temporal and to reign eternally are two mutually contradictory concepts. Therefore, it had to turn out that he died temporally and departed this life, and again that he arose from the dead and became alive in order that he might become an eternal king. For he had to be alive if he were to reign, because one who is dead cannot reign; and he had to die too if he were to shift from this mortal life, into which he necessarily had to enter to fulfil the Scripture which promised he would be the natural blood of David and Abraham.
The prophecy says that nations shall be gathered to or be subject to this shiloh. Now I ask the Jews: When was there ever such a man of Jewish ancestry to whom so many nations were subject as this Jesus Christ? David was a great king, and so was Solomon; but their kingdom never extended beyond a small portion of the land of Syria. This Jesus, on the contrary, is accepted as a lord and king throughout the world, so that one may consider as fulfilled in him the prophecy from the second Psalm [v. 8], where God says to the Messiah, “I will give you the Gentiles for your possession, and the uttermost parts of the earth for your inheritance.” This had indeed come true in the person of our Jesus since the time when the scepter was taken from the Jews; this is quite apparent and has never yet happened in the case of any other Jew. Because shiloh was to come when Judah’s scepter was ended, and since that time no other has fulfilled these prophecies, this Jesus must certainly be the real shiloh whom Jacob intended.
It is amazing that the Jews are not moved to believe in this Jesus, their own flesh and blood, with whom the prophecies of Scripture actually square so powerfully and exactly, when they see that we Gentiles cling to him so hard and fast and in such numbers that many thousands have shed their blood for his sake. They know perfectly well that the Gentiles have always shown greater hostility toward the Jews than toward any other nation, and have been unwilling to tolerate their dominion, laws, or government. How is it then that the Gentiles should now so reverse themselves as to willingly and steadfastly surrender themselves to this Jew, and with heart and soul confess him king of kings and lord of lords, unless it be that here is the true Messiah, to whom God by a great miracle has made the Gentiles friendly and submissive in accordance with this and numerous other prophecies?
(I of course have argued that one reason why the Gentiles accepted Christianity is because it relaxed or rejected a lot of the exclusivity of Judaism)
For Luther, Jews recognising Jesus as the true Messiah is only the starting point. After that, they will have to recognise him as God:
If the Jews should take offense because we confess our Jesus to be a man, and yet true God, we will deal forcefully with that from Scripture in due time. But this is too harsh for a beginning. Let them first be suckled with milk, and begin by recognizing this man Jesus as the true Messiah; after that they may drink wine, and learn also that he is true God. For they have been led astray so long and so far that one must deal gently with them, as people who have been all too strongly indoctrinated to believe that God cannot be man.
He favours the “law of Christian love” over papal law. Remove the restrictions on Jews, and they’ll be able to learn more about Christianity:
If we really want to help them, we must be guided in our dealings with them not by papal law but by the law of Christian love. We must receive them cordially, and permit them to trade and work with us, that they may have occasion and opportunity to associate with us, hear our Christian teaching, and witness our Christian life. If some of them should prove stiff-necked, what of it? After all, we ourselves are not all good Christians either.
So, that’s appropriation, but not anti-semitism. However, that all changed sometime in the 1530s. And in the 1540s he wrote On the Jews and their Lies, which called for many of the same restrictions and persecutions as the Catholic church had used.
Why? Because he is concerned that Christians will be found guilty of not having dealt sufficiently severely with the Jews. As a result, Christians were not to tolerate Jews. After all, they were bound for hell:
What then shall we Christians do with this damned, rejected race of Jews? Since they live among us, we dare not tolerate their conduct, now that we are aware of their lying and reviling and blaspheming. If we do, we become sharers in their lies, cursing and blasphemy. Thus we cannot extinguish the unquenchable fire of divine wrath, of which the prophets speak, nor can we convert the Jews. With prayer and the fear of God we must practice a sharp mercy to see whether we might save at least a few from the glowing flames. We dare not avenge ourselves. Vengeance a thousand times worse than we could wish them already has them by the throat.
Then he gives some “sincere advice” (slightly abbreviated - full list here):
First to set fire to their synagogues or schools and to bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn, so that no man will ever again see a stone or cinder of them. This is to be done in honor of our Lord and of Christendom, so that God might see that we are Christians, and do not condone or knowingly tolerate such public lying, cursing, and blaspheming of his Son and of his Christians.
Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed. For they pursue in them the same aims as in their synagogues. Instead they might be lodged under a roof or in a barn, like the gypsies. This will bring home to them that they are not masters in our country, as they boast, but that they are living in exile and in captivity, as they incessantly wail and lament about us before God.
Third, I advise that all their prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing and blasphemy are taught, be taken from them …
Fourth, I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb. For they have justly forfeited the right to such an office by holding the poor Jews captive with the saying of Moses (Deuteronomy 17:10 ff.) in which he commands them to obey their teachers on penalty of death, although Moses clearly adds: “what they teach you in accord with the Law of the Lord.”
Those are the points that seemed to me particularly driven by the religious conflict, and the suggested consequences are serious. Notice how burning synagogues was to show Luther’s followers were Christians, while even tolerating them was to share the Jews’ guilt. Luther’s other three points were that Jews weren’t to be allowed to travel, they weren’t to charge usury, and they were to be made to work the land and “earn their bread in the sweat of their brow”. As well as being forbidden usury, their money was to be confiscated for the “good and worthy cause” of helping Jews who are “sincerely converted” to find a new occupation.
Luther complains about the Jews’ exclusivity:
Yes, this is it, this is the bone of contention, that is the source of the trouble, that makes the Jews so angry and foolish and spurs them to arrive at such an accursed meaning, forcing them to pervert all the statements of Scripture so shamefully: namely, they do not want, they cannot endure that we Gentiles should be their equal before God and that the Messiah should be our comfort and joy as well as theirs. I say, before they would have us Gentiles whom they incessantly mock, curse, damn, defame, and revile share the Messiah with them, and be called their co-heirs and brethren, they would crucify ten more Messiahs and kill God himself if this were possible, together with all angels and all creatures, even at the risk of incurring thereby the penalty of a thousand hells instead of one. Such an incomprehensibly stubborn pride dwells in the noble blood of the fathers and circumcised saints. They alone want to have the Messiah and be masters of the world.
OK, so not only have the Christians appropriated the Jewish texts, but now they are going to blame the Jews for refusing to recognise it. Few of Luther’s ideas here are new, but there is a virulence in it. Later he says:
How, then, do we incur such terrible anger, envy, and hatred on the part of such great and holy children of God? There is no other explanation for this than the one cited earlier from Moses, namely, that God has struck them with “madness and blindness and confusion of mind.” So we are even at fault in not avenging all this innocent blood of our Lord and of the Christians which they shed for three hundred years after the destruction of Jerusalem, and the blood of the children they have shed since then (which still shines forth from their eyes and their skin). We are at fault in not slaying them. Rather we allow them to live freely in our midst despite of their murdering, cursing, blaspheming, lying, and defaming; we protect and shield their synagogues, houses, life, and property. In this way we make them lazy and secure and encourage them to fleece us boldly of our money and goods, as well as to mock and deride us, with a view to finally overcoming us, killing us all for such a great sin, and robbing us of all our property (as they daily pray and hope).
There seems to be a little projection here. Luther literally says that Christians are at fault for not treating Jews harshly enough, and then attributes the anger, envy, and hatred to them. And yes, he definitely says Christians are at fault in his day for not slaying Jews in vengeance for the alleged actions of their ancestors more than 1,000 years ago.
Fiddler on the Roof
Fiddler on the Roof is one of my favourite movies. Yes, it’s fiction, but it reflects the way many Jews were forced to leave Imperial Russia.
So, in the film, why did the Russian official call for a demonstration against them? Because they were “Christ-killers”. Yes, that same old accusation.
I like Tevye’s response to God after hearing of the demonstration: “I know, I know we are the chosen people. But once in a while, can’t you choose someone else?” Because I think this goes back to the heart of the matter: The Jews were the chosen people. It said so in their home-grown scriptures. Gentiles tried to appropriate that “chosen people” tag, and that led to conflict between the two religions, with Jews often getting the worst of it.
Fiddler on the Roof has many great songs, but one that is relevant and particularly appeals to me here is the final song, Anatevka:
In this we see the Jews’ continuing hopes for a Messiah, followed by them trudging through the snow away from their homes. To me, these images (with appropriately mournful music) are more effective than reading theological debates or statistics of the numbers affected by anti-semitism. Because these things are not just theological debates. They affect real people.
I don’t care whether you think Jews are wrong theologically (personally, I think both Christians and Jews are). That doesn’t justify the many actions Christians have taken against them over the centuries. It’s not OK to confine them to ghettos, or to expel them from a place they have lived for generations, or to kill them. The debate isn’t just words on paper: Real people are affected.
And that was when I came across a review of Fiddler on the Roof with content warnings for “strong promotion of false religion, and glorification of soviet communism”. And that review caused me to lose my cool more than anything else I read while writing this article (which probably says something about me…)
To the reviewers, Christianity is the One True Religion, and Judaism is an offensive false religion:
Fiddler on the Roof is a quaint, creative musical, and one of the most heavily religious movies of all time. The religion, however, is not only not Christianity, it’s hostile to Christianity, and the movie’s heroes are not merely non-Christian, they’re avowedly anti-Christ. Portraying a destructive religion in such a strongly positive light that it’s impossible to like the movie without compromising essential Christian beliefs, Fiddler on the Roof is nothing more than unbelief disguised as faith, and legalism disguised as tradition.
Fiddler on the Roof’s protagonists make it abundantly clear that they do not have Christ, and the scriptures make it abundantly clear that those who do not have God the Son - Christ - do not have God the Father, either. This means that any religious expression on the part of the Jewish characters is not a positive element, but an offensive negative element, just as serious and just as wrong as any other false religion.
Fortunately, I’m pretty sure they are in the minority: I know many Christians who like Fiddler on the Roof, and before this am not sure I had ever come across a Christian who disliked it on religious grounds.
But then the review annoys me further by trying to weasel out of association with anti-semitic Christians, while still claiming their particular brand of Christian religion is true and Judaism is false:
The wrongdoings of the professing Christians are portrayed as a result of their religion, not a violation of it. For instance, a Russian official demands local involvement with a government attack on Jews on the grounds that they are “Christ killers”, and insinuates that honoring Christ requires harming Jews. Fiddler on the Roof is a story in which it’s entirely possible that none of the characters possess saving faith, but the only characters who have even a chance are among the villains, not the protagonists.
As I’ve gone to great length to demonstrate, the actions of those “professing Christians” is a direct result of their religion. Anti-Judaism is a core part of the Christian message, and it can easily spill over into anti-semitism. This is something that has happened time and again through history, and can be readily traced back to the New Testament.
Since I talked about anti-semitism affecting real people, it’s difficult to look past the Holocaust. This is something many Christians want to treat as an isolated event. Depending on the choice of bogeyman, it could be due to atheism, or perhaps due to evil-ution, but it’s definitely got nothing to do with Christian anti-semitism.
However, it is clear that Hitler claimed to be Christian when rising to power (though perhaps more for political purposes than from actual conviction). It is also clear that the Nazis used Martin Luther’s works (particularly On the Jews and their Lies), and that they managed to get support and control of a large part of the Lutheran church.
Hitler was certainly aware of the Catholic history of anti-semitism. Take for example this statement to a German Catholic Bishop:
I have been attacked because of my handling of the Jewish question. The Catholic Church considered the Jews pestilent for fifteen hundred years, put them in ghettos, etc., because it recognized the Jews for what they were. In the epoch of liberalism the danger was no longer recognized. I am moving back toward the time in which a fifteen-hundred-year-long tradition was implemented. I do not set race over religion, but I recognize the representatives of this race as pestilent for the state and for the Church, and perhaps I am thereby doing Christianity a great service by pushing them out of schools and public functions.
Hitler’s program was different from most Christian anti-semitism because it was explicitly race-based rather than religion-based. As I’ve seen it expressed, Hitler could and did send Jewish Christians to the gas chambers, while Christianity accepted them (though, as I’ve pointed out, they could still be suspected of not truly converting to Christianity). The reality is of course more messy - for example, when Christians in medieval times were complaining about Jewish usury it had nothing to do with religion.
So I don’t think Luther’s works or the teachings of the Catholic church were solely responsible for the Holocaust - but I do think they helped enable it, and I do think the New Testament helped enable those writings. As Hitler was aware, the Holocaust was not just an isolated incident. It is inseparable from well over a thousand years of conflict between Christian and Jew - conflict in which the Jew often got the worst.
Not True Christianity?
For many, a first response to this article will be something like “That’s not True Christianity - Christianity is a religion of love”. I’ve already stated that I don’t think Christianity is inherently anti-Semitic (though I do think it’s inherently anti-Judaism). But I don’t think that the teaching can be so easily dismissed.
I’ve produced evidence from the church fathers, leaders of the largest Christian denomination, and a leader of the Reformation. How can these be dismissed as not truly Christian? Sure, minor denominations like the Christadelphians may dismiss them all as “Christendom astray”, but even they have to accept the New Testament. I’ve produced an extensive list of New Testament verses, then shown that through history those verses have been drawn on to justify anti-semitism.
This is a larger issue: If someone calls themselves Christian, and presents a string of verses to support their position, how can we deny they are Christian? Who is the arbiter tasked with judging who are True Christians and who aren’t? And how can we know that arbiter is interpreting things correctly?
And if you say the arbiter is something like “the clear teaching of scripture”, then I think you’ve already lost. I spent years trying to determine “the balance of scripture”, but I will no longer do so, because I don’t believe it exists.
So, why do these ideas keep coming up through Christian history? Well, one clear reason is that the writings of former Christian leaders are still around. But a deeper reason is that the same underlying New Testament texts are there, ready for each generation to use if they so wish. Christians can try and evade responsibility, but they have no way of getting rid of the texts. They can interpret them differently, or they can decide the texts don’t apply now, but that won’t necessarily prevent the next generation from using them.
And so right now I’m feeling quite pessimistic. I think these verses will continue to be used, and dismissing the interpretation as Not True Christianity doesn’t help to change that future.
But it’s not just the future - the No True Christian argument is also trying to rewrite the past. Bluntly, I don’t think it would be much consolation to Jews who lost their property, their livelihoods, or their lives to know that it wasn’t done by a True Christian. And that’s questionable anyway, because the reality is that the anti-semitism was encouraged by some who are still viewed as great theologians, based on the New Testament text.
Maybe the Jesuses and Pauls and Augustines of this world really didn’t intend some of the persecution - but it happened based on their words, and can continue to happen today. This is part of the legacy of giving Christians power: They used it to settle old scores which were a direct result of their hostile takeover of Judaism.