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The New Testament and Anti-Semitism

Jimmy Akin

In recent years charges have been leveled that New Testament, especially the Gospel of John, displays a fundamental hostility toward the Jewish people. The claim is that this hostility became the basis for persecution of the Jewish people and, eventually, for racial anti-Semitism, which only developed in the last few centuries as new ideas about biology and heredity came into fashion.

This claim is not only demonstrably false, but absurd on its face. It is only by a grossly selective and un-contextual reading of the New Testament that such a case could be argued. In particular, one must ignore a number of key facts: 

1. The New Testament was written almost entirely by Jews. 

Except for Luke, the writers of the New Testament were Jewish, as were almost all of the individuals mentioned in the gospels, including and especially Jesus of Nazareth. 

It is scarcely likely that such writers would view their own people as evil. Indeed, they can be absolutely passionate about their love for their people (e.g., Rom. 9:1-5, 10:1). Great respect is also shown for them by Luke, who was indebted to Jews for his eternal salvation. 

Neither Jesus of Nazareth nor his apostles nor the authors of the New Testament viewed Judaism as anything evil. Indeed, they regarded Jesus and the movement he founded as the full flowering of Judaism and the fulfillment of centuries of Jewish.aspirations.

2. The New Testament authors endorse Judaism as being of God. 

The New Testament authors’ conviction that Christianity is the fulfillment of Judaism and that Christianity is of God cannot be made intelligible except on the principle that Judaism is also of God. 

It is Judaism, not paganism, that preserved knowledge of the true God, and it is from Judaism that salvation comes. Thus, as Jesus and the Gospel of John put it, “we [Jews] worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22). 

Judaism was thus regarded as a very good thing, though incomplete apart from the Messiah—a principle that would be acknowledged by Orthodox Jews today, who also view Judaism as not completely fulfilled until the advent of the Messiah.

3. The New Testament authors are lavish in their praise of the Jewish people’s blessedness

. This is especially the case with the Apostle Paul, who declares, “Then what advantage has the Jew? . . . Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews are entrusted with the oracles of God” (Rom. 3:1-2) and “They are Israelites, and to them belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ” (9:4-5).

4. The New Testament explicitly reaffirms God’s continuing love for, election of, and plan for the Jewish people. 

For the New Testament writers, God continues to love his people, to keep faith with them, and to hold for them a special place at the heart of his plan of the ages (Rom. 3:3, 11:1-2, 11-12, 14-36). Because of their special place, they deserve to have the first preaching of the coming of the Messiah (Acts 13:46, Rom. 1:16).

5. The New Testament criticisms of non-Christian Judaism represent “in house” rebukes. 

Because the New Testament is suffused with and based upon a Jewish ethos, the critiques it provides of the Judaism of its day are “in house” rebukes that must be read as limited criticisms given from the viewpoint of those who accept and endorse the basic Jewish worldview. 

6. Schools of Judaism have always provided a running critique of each others’ positions.

In making such critiques, the early Church was no different than other Jewish schools of thought in its day (or today, for that matter). 

Naturally, early Christians had critical things to say about other movements within Judaism. Had they not had criticisms of some sort, they would not have been a distinct movement. 

Consequently, certain ideas characteristic of the Pharisees and the Sadducees are critiqued in the New Testament (most notably the Pharisee practice of corban, cf. Matt. 15:1-9, and the Sadducee disbelief in the resurrection of the dead, cf. Matt. 22:23-33). 

7. Prophetic rebuke of the Jewish community for its sins is an equally prominent element of the Hebrew Scriptures. 

In typical Near Eastern fashion, the critique of particular sinful behaviors is sometimes phrased in a dramatic, even hyperbolic, fashion that is designed to startle and arrest the hearer, to prompt examination of conscience and repentance (cf. Matt. 23). 

The actions of key Jewish leaders in the first century served to stimulate the New Testament’s “prophetic rebuke” of the authorities of their day—particularly, the role of key Jewish leaders in the events leading up to the execution of Jesus and the later persecution and execution of many of his followers. 

Indeed, prophetic rebuke of the existing Jewish culture by Old Testament prophets are even more startling, arresting, and graphic than those in the New Testament. For example, they often depict Jerusalem and Samaria as women who have left the Lord and become whores, engaging in gross religious immorality (e.g. Is. 47, 57, Ezek. 16, 23, Hos. 1, 3-4).

8. The New Testament recognizes that the Israel’s rejection of Messiah only applied to some Jews. 

Some have been troubled by the New Testament’s collective references to the Jewish people opposing Christ or having turned aside from God’s desires for them. Yet such collective references are deliberately hyperbolic. 

It is universally recognized among the authors of the New Testament, being Christian Jews themselves (or, in Luke’s case, closely associating with Christian Jews), that the Jewish people did not all reject the Messiah or turn aside. “A hardening has come upon part of Israel”— only a part, and only temporarily—”until the full number of the Gentiles come in” (Rom. 11:25; cf. Rom. 3:3, 11:1, 7).

9. The Hebrew Scriptures also make collective references to Jewish people as sinful.

Such references are by no means unique to the New Testament. The Hebrew Scriptures paint with an equally broad brush when rebuking God’s people for their sins (e.g., Deut. 9:13-14, 31:27, 1 Sam. 8:7-8, 1 Kings. 17:8-12, Is. 65:2-5, Hos. 1:6-9, 4:1-2). 

10. Collective references in the New Testament are part of a deliberate irony. 

The disciples of Christ were bewildered by the bulk of the Messiah’s own people could reject him and how the leaders of the people plotted his execution. Even after Jesus was vindicated by God and gloriously raised from the dead, the disciples were stunned by the profound irony that most of Messiah’s own people rejected the One God sent to them. Yet they remembered Jesus’ words, “[I]t cannot be that a prophet perish out of Jerusalem” (Luke 13:33) and, on another level, “A prophet is not without honor, but in his own country” (Mark 6:4). Israel as a nation, though not as individuals, had a history of rejecting the prophets God sent to it.

This acutely felt irony is behind a particular mode of expression, especially in John’s gospel, which is often misunderstood today. The internal evidence of John’s gospel shows that it was written by a first century Jew who had intimate knowledge of the nation as it was before the Roman War of the A.D. 60s, yet the author refers to “the Jews” as opposing Jesus. As a Jew himself, living in a Church that was still largely made of Jews, the author knew perfectly well that not all Jews opposed Jesus. His expression is thus to be understood as a bitterly ironic reflection on the fact that most Jews of the day failed to support Messiah when he came. 

The central irony of John’s gospel, expressed in its first chapter, is that “He came unto his own, and his own received him not” (1:11, KJV). Such collective references must be read in the ironic manner in which they were intended.

11. The New Testament has equally harsh things about Gentiles who do not worship the true God. 

The New Testament is no softer on sinful behavior performed by Gentiles than it is on sinful behavior performed by Jews (Rom. 1:21-25, 28-32, 1 Cor. 12:2, Eph. 4:17-19, 1 Thess. 4:5, 1 Peter 1:18). Consequently, the New Testament could not be called any more anti-Jewish than anti-Gentile.

12. The Hebrew Scriptures contain equally harsh statements about Gentiles. 

Like the New Testament, the Old Testament has harsh things to say not only about Jews but also about Gentiles (e.g., Lev. 25:45-46, Deut. 7:3-5, 18:9-14, Ps. 137:8-9, Neh. 5:9, Esth. 9:5, Is. 52:1, Jer. 10:2-3). Consequently, the New Testament could not be called anti-Jewish without opening the Hebrew Scriptures to an equal charge of anti-Gentilism.

The New Testament does critique the sins of God’s people, whether non-Christian Jews, Christian Jews, Christian Gentiles, or non-Christian Gentiles—but the methods by which it does so, including prophetic rebuke and irony, are continuations of the same modes of critique found in the Hebrew Scriptures. 

These expressions pointedly and graphically called attention to the sin of the many without implying that the Jews were not God’s chosen people and without implying that many individual Jews were pious and faithful to the Lord. 

Only if passages are taken selectively and out of context can be twisted into an argument that the New Testament is anti-Jewish. To make such an accusation is to accuse Christianity itself of being intrinsically anti-Jewish, and this form of anti-Christianism is no less bigoted than the hostility toward the Jewish people that it seeks to rebut. Ultimately, it must be recognized by all fair-minded individuals that anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism are contrary to both Christianity and to the New Testament.


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