The Importance of Considering the Source
Baseball manager Dusty Baker ignited a controversy last year by saying Latino and African-American ballplayers “work in the heat” better than white players do.
Their color “is more conducive to heat than it is to the lighter-skinned people,” said Baker, who is Black. “That’s why my ancestors were brought over here, for this heat.”
Public reaction came swiftly. Newspaper editorials and radio talk-show pundits speculated aloud that if a white person had expressed such beliefs, he would have been fired.
Surprised by the criticism, Baker disagreed with those who considered his comments racist, feeling they should be regarded no differently than Italians speaking about Italians or Greeks speaking about Greeks.
Baker told reporters, “If I want to talk about African-Americans, that’s my prerogative. I can say stuff and call someone of my color things that you all can’t say.”
Baker’s point is well taken. Words matter, but what matters more is who actually speaks them. The fact that Baker is African-American makes all the difference.
Jewish people probably understand Baker’s position; we who are Jewish make disparaging comments about one another about as often as the sun rises in the East. You need look no further than the chambers of the Knesset, Israel’s version of Congress. Its elected representatives regularly hurl verbal assaults at one another whenever they disagree. These may include anything from name-calling and cursing to shouting and screaming.
A Gentile could not indulge in such diatribes without being accused of anti-Semitism. Yet Israeli Jews understand that the Knesset is the home of many “family” squabbles. Jewish people have long held a reputation for flamboyant disagreement. And most will smile when they hear the well-known joke, “Get two Jews together, and you will get three opinions.”
‘Slurs’ From the Prophets
But politics is not the only arena where Jewish people feel free to speak frankly to one another, even if that means they speak harshly. The Hebrew Scriptures contain numerous verbal attacks delivered by Jewish people to Jewish people. A sampling of epithets includes:
- Stiff-necked—Exodus 32:9; 33:3; Deuteronomy 9:6, 13; Jerermiah 17:23
- Hard-hearted—Ezekiel 3:7
- Rebellious—Ezekiel 2:3, 5–8; 3:9; Jeremiah 5:23
- Sinful and laden with iniquity—Isaiah 1:4
- Evildoers, corrupters—Isaiah 1:4
- Foolish, stupid, devoid of understanding—Jeremiah 4:22
Who spoke these words? None other than the Jewish prophets called by God to deliver messages of truth and condemnation to their own Jewish brethren, calling them to repent and return to the God of their fathers. And where are these words recorded? In the Torah and Prophets—the Jewish Bible that Gentiles and Christians refer to as the Old Testament.
Furthermore, Jewish tradition teaches that Scripture is sacred and holy. It is the Word of God. The high regard in which it is held is shown in the following rules established to insure it is handled with care:
- No common objects are to be placed on top of a Bible, for it alone is supreme.
- The reader kisses the text before reading it.
- Torah scrolls are beautifully covered with ornate cloth and precious jewels.
- Should a Torah scroll accidentally fall to the floor, a limited food fast must be implemented.
And so it is noteworthy that such highly esteemed and sacred literature includes such hostile language between fellow Jews. Yet no one in the Jewish community has ever labeled this text racist, hateful, or anti-Semitic.
All in the Family
Although most Jews do not consider the New Testament to be God’s Word, it, too, records Jewish “family” squabbles. Specifically, the first four books (the Gospels of Matthew, Mark,
Luke, and John) are eyewitness accounts of the life and works of Jesus of Nazareth. The writers chronicle passionate debates and disagreements and record reactions by the Jewish leaders to the teachings of “this man” Jesus.
Jesus used strong, seemingly hostile language to convey His message to His people. Yet His style was no different from that of the ancient prophets. His preaching was much like a surgeon’s scalpel, directed skillfully, precisely, and quickly to the place of needed repair. And, though a scalpel may initially inflict pain, the end result is better health.
In the same way, Jesus’ scathing, insightful words may have been painful to hear; but their truth, if applied, worked spiritual health. Jesus delivered His message with the same fervor as the prophets before Him. And though many Jewish people were persuaded to follow Him, many more rejected Him.
From the time He first spoke them to now, Jesus’ words have troubled and infuriated the Jewish community. As a result, some claim His words are anti-Semitic, and some have even called for them to be expunged.
A Jewish theologian described the New Testament as “the most dangerous anti-Semitic [sic] tract in history,” supporting “oppression, persecution and mass murder of an intensity and duration that were unparalleled in the entire history of man’[s] degradation. Without Christianity’s New Testament, Hitler’s Mein Kampf could never [have] been written.”1
These are strong indictments. Does evidence within the New Testament allow for such strong criticism? Consider the facts:
- All the writers except one, Luke, were Jewish.
- Jesus, the centerpiece of the New Testament message, is Jewish.
- His followers were all Jewish.
- The twelve disciples were all Jewish.
- The first church was all Jewish.
As with the Dusty Baker controversy, words matter; but the speaker matters more. The Gospels record intense Jewish debate within the ranks of the Jewish people. Historically, the “Christian” church has not understood the Jewishness of the text and, at times, has blatantly misused it. Jewish history runs red with blood because people lifted verses to justify their unjustifiable hatred of Jewish people. A Jewish Web site puts it this way:
Using the New Testament as its authoritative source, the Church has painted the Jews as an icon of unredeemed humanity—they become an image of a blind, stubborn, carnal, and perverse people, a dehumanization that formed the psychological prerequisite to the atrocities that followed.2
Putting Things in Perspective
What are some aspects of the New Testament that create such an outcry?
1. The Gospels record vicious names describing Jewish people.
Jesus described the Pharisees as serpents, vipers, blind guides, fools, whitewashed sepulchers, hypocrites, extortionists, and killers of the prophets (Mt. 23:13–36). These criticisms were directed against specific Jewish people, not against all. Jesus publicly confronted these individuals because He saw a dichotomy between their positions as leaders within the Jewish community and their lifestyles.
His approach was similar to that of the Old Testament prophets when they confronted the priests and prophets of their day. Jeremiah 26 is but one example of a Jewish prophet (Jeremiah) who preached against the leaders of his own people.
Historically, Jewish people are extremely critical of their leaders and, in fact, use similar language to describe them. Anti-Semitism is not the issue; theology is.
2. The Gospels blame Jesus’ death on the Jewish people.
No denying the text. All four Gospels say the Jews cried out, “Crucify him.” But the text also teaches that the Romans actually performed the heinous act (Mt. 27:27–35). The Jewish people had no authority to do so (Jn. 18:31). Yet today’s Italians are not accused of being Christ killers.
Most important, the New Testament teaches that no one took Jesus’ life; He offered it freely as a once-for-all sacrifice for sin (Jn. 10:17–18; Heb. 10:4–10). His death was part of God’s plan. One of the New Testament’s most beloved verses states,
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life (emphasis added, Jn. 3:16).
Thus the New Testament acknowledges that a portion of the Jewish people participated in bringing about Jesus’ death. But it also clearly shows they did not act alone. The Romans arrested Him, beat Him viciously and mercilessly, then crucified Him. It was a crime of humanity in opposition to God’s eternal plan of redemption.
3. The Gospels attack the Jewish people collectively.
They do not. Throughout history, anti-Semites have condemned Jewish people as “Christ killers” because of verses like John 5:16, which they have misinterpreted: “And therefore did the Jews persecute Jesus, and sought to slay him.”
Although the people who persecuted Jesus were Jewish, not all Jews persecuted Him. The term Jews did not imply the entire Jewish race. It identified a select group at a particular time, and that specific group was indeed Jewish. Many other Jewish people, in fact, followed Him.
Furthermore, John 4:22 records, “Salvation is of the Jews.” When the Nazis were throwing Jewish people into the ovens during World War II, claiming they were Christ killers, none ever quoted John 4:22! Yet that verse is as much a part of the New Testament as any other. Thus the New Testament teaches that without the Jewish people, there would be no salvation or forgiveness of sin because through them alone came Jesus, the Messiah of Israel and Savior of the world.
4. Jesus claimed to be the Messiah.
This statement is absolutely true. In John 4 a Samaritan woman said to Jesus, “I know that Messiah cometh, who is called Christ” (v. 25).
His response to her was stunning: “I that speak unto thee am he” (v. 26). His forthright answer immediately began to distance Jewish people from Him and from one another.
Later the Scriptures say division occurred because some believed He was “the Prophet”; others said, “This is the Christ” (Jn. 7:41). “So there was a division among the people because of him” (Jn. 7:43).
The core issue was—and still is—the Messiahship of Jesus. Is stating, “Jesus is the Messiah/Savior,” anti-Semitic? For that matter, is stating, “Jesus is not the Messiah/Savior,” hatefully anti-Christian? Obviously the answers are no.
Those who believe the Gospels believe the words of Jesus. The same Jesus who said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no man cometh unto the Father, but by me” (Jn. 14:6) also said, “Love your enemies” (Mt. 5:44) and wept over Jerusalem (Mt. 23:37–39).
Those who follow Christ accept the fact that their faith will separate them from those who are without Christ. But rather than preaching hatred toward those who are not Christians, the New Testament preaches love, tenderness, compassion, and prayer.
When Dusty Baker delivered his opinion on skin color, he expected people to consider the source. And when people read the Gospels, they, too, need to consider the source. A book so obviously Jewish could never be anti-Semitic.
- Eliezer Berkovitz, quoted in Howard Taylor, Is the New Testament the Source of Anti-Semitism? [www.apologetics.fsnet.co.uk/ntantism.htm].
- “The Anti-Jewish New Testament,” Messiah Truth Counter-Missionary Education, [www.messiahtruth.com/anti.html].