Bait for Hate
Jewish professor Samuel Sandmel recounts two jokes he heard as a child. One was about a man who began to beat up several Jews after he left a church service. When a policeman intervened, the man protested, saying, “The Jews killed Jesus.”
The policeman replied, “That was two thousand years ago.”
The man retorted, “But I only heard about it this morning.”
The second story is of three Jewish people who were determined to convert to Christianity. Outside a church they drew straws to choose which of the three should go inside and then return to tell the others what happened. When the one emerged from the church, the other two ran to him asking, “How did it go?”
He replied, “Get away from me, you Christ killers!”1
Though meant to be humorous, these two stories poignantly reflect a common Jewish perception: Christians are hateful, and their religion is inherently anti-Semitic.
This viewpoint comes as a surprise to most Christians, who see the gospel message as one of love and reconciliation. Yet most Jewish people respond to that message with disbelief and skepticism. They examine the source of Christian doctrine and cringe over what they find.
To many, the New Testament and, in particular, the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John seem the seedbed for centuries of Jewish pain and persecution. They feel the Gospels, especially the passion narratives, germinated anti-Judaism that sprouted into anti-Semitism, which flowered into the Holocaust of World War II.
As Rabbi Leon Klenicki, director of the Interfaith Affairs Department of the Anti-Defamation League, wrote, “This diabolic event [the Holocaust] was a complex process nurtured by diverse spiritual, economic, and national reasons as well as the indirect influence of the ‘teaching of contempt,’ anti-Judaism that was part of Christian theology and teaching.”2
Texts such as Matthew 27:25 (“Then answered all the people, and said, His blood be on us, and on our children”) are looked on with horror. Many Jews believe Christians associate all Jews with the Devil since Jesus said to the unbelieving Jewish leaders, “Ye are of your father the devil” (Jn. 8:44).
The apostle John’s Gospel in particular is considered anti-Semitic because it frequently uses the phrase the Jews, which many Jewish people regard as a disparaging term that encourages stereotyping. Other Gospel passages are frequently cited as having anti-Semitic overtones, such as Matthew 23, where Jesus excoriated the scribes and Pharisees.
But the portions that disturb Jewish people the most are the passion accounts. These have been used for centuries to blame not only the Jewish authorities but all Jews of every generation for the execution of Christ. It is these reports of frenzied Jewish mobs crying out for Jesus’ crucifixion that send chills up the spines of Jewish readers. They know not only what the texts say, but also how they have been applied.
Many of the early church fathers preached against the Jewish people, referring to them as disinherited, accursed, enemies, Christ killers, robbers, and wild beasts. Over the centuries the Roman Catholic Church passed numerous injunctions against them; forced them to be baptized and wear distinguishable clothing, such as badges or horned hats; secluded and expelled them; extorted money from them; and even killed them.
In recent years attempts have been made to rectify these wrongs. In 1965 Vatican II issued what became known as the Nostra Aetate (“In Our Time”), an official declaration that not only included a call for “mutual understanding and respect” for the Jewish people, but denounced the charge of deicide (that is, the Jews alone are responsible for killing Christ).
Many Protestant churches over the last few decades have also decried anti-Semitism and rightly described it as “sin against God and man.”3
It’s Time to Confess
There is no denying that much of what has been said about and done to the Jewish people by those who have called themselves Christians has been reprehensible and loathsome. Admitting this fact goes a long way in the protracted journey to heal the breach between these two groups.
Moreover, God commands Christians, “Boast [gloat] not against the branches,” meaning the Jewish people, because they received the covenants and promises; the Gentiles were merely grafted into those by faith (Rom. 11:17–18).
Furthermore, God vows to bless those who bless the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and curse those who curse them (Gen. 12:3; 17:19; 28:13–14). This promise alone should move the church to serious reflection and confession to God for its sin against the Jewish people.
Affirming the Bible
Since, as conservative Christians, we believe that every word of Scripture is God-breathed, we cannot reject or repudiate any portion of it, whether Old or New Testament. History has already taught us that it is the rejection, repudiation, and reconstruction of the Bible that actually opens the door for anti-Semitism.
Erwin Lutzer, in his book Hitler’s Cross (Moody Press), relates how Adolf Hitler had to expunge and renounce portions of the Bible in order to hamstring the church and prepare the populace for his anti-Semitic “final solution.”
It is liberal rejection and repudiation of God’s Word that leads to a godless society where man is accountable to no one but himself. Human laws do not suffice. As Hitler revealed at Nuremberg, laws not based on standards higher than man are merely the opinions of those in power.
Christians, therefore, must never reject or repudiate the biblical text. To do so is not only a revision of history, but also a rejection of God.
The Importance of Literal Interpretation
A literal, or normal, interpretation of the Bible, taking into account the Bible’s historical and grammatical components, leads to a correct understanding of God’s Word.
Replacement Theology, based on a nonliteral, nongrammatical, nonhistorical method of interpretation when it comes to Israel, claims the church has superseded and replaced Israel. This erroneous position has done considerable damage to Jewish-Christian relations.
When Christians understand the Bible correctly, they rightfully comprehend that for Israel to be exalted is for God to be exalted since this proves God’s faithfulness to His promises.
Interpreting the Bible literally also helps people understand that the apostle John’s use of the phrase the Jews was not intended to mean every Jewish person, then or now. John was speaking in general terms to describe the group of Jewish religious leaders and their followers who rejected the claims of Christ.
A literal interpretation also compares Scripture with Scripture. Doing so reveals that the majority of the Jewish people who turned Jesus over to the Romans acted in ignorance (Acts 3:17). Furthermore, Gentiles, not only Jews, were responsible for Christ’s death (Acts 4:27). Ultimately, however, it was the sin of the whole world that caused Jesus to give up His life willingly (Jn. 10:17–18; 1 Jn. 2:2).
Nowhere does the New Testament make it the church’s mission to castigate Israel. If God wishes to chasten His people, He will do so Himself, as in biblical days. He did not give that responsibility to the Body of Christ.
- Samuel Sandmel, Anti-Semitism in the New Testament? (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978), 155.
- Leon Klenicki, “Basic Jewish and Christian Beliefs in Dialogue: Initial Hesitancies and Sensitivities—A Jewish Reading of Two Recent Documents,” Eugene Fisher and Leon Klenicki, eds., Understanding the Jewish Experience (1983), 2.
- The Sin of Anti-Semitism: Statements by Christian Churches (New York: Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, 1965), 11.