The Bible’s Viewpoint
Is the “New Testament” Anti-Semitic?
AN American evangelist once stated: “The institutional church has sinned through much of its history and has much to answer for at the Judgment, especially for the anti-Semitism practiced against the Jewish people.”
Why has anti-Semitism had such a long and ugly history, persisting even into the 20th century? Some blame the Christian Greek Scriptures, the so-called New Testament. For example, Krister Stendahl, dean of Harvard Divinity School, claimed: “That . . . New Testament sayings have functioned as ‘divine’ sanction for hatred against the Jews is well-known and a commonly accepted fact.” Though this may be commonly accepted, is it really true?
Who Was Blamed for Jesus’ Death?
One passage often cited as evidence of “New Testament” anti-Semitism is Matthew 27:15-25. There we are told that a Jewish crowd demanded that the Roman governor Pontius Pilate have Jesus impaled, even crying: “His blood come upon us and upon our children.” Was the “New Testament” there teaching that all first-century Jews were responsible for Jesus’ death and that Jews should forever be known as Christ-killers?
First of all, how did most Jews react to Jesus during his ministry? The “New Testament” reveals that Jesus was extremely popular with the Jewish crowds, particularly in Galilee, where he conducted most of his ministry. (John 7:31; 8:30; 10:42; 11:45) Just five days before his arrest and execution, a Jewish crowd welcomed him into Jerusalem as the Messiah.—Matthew 21:6-11.
Who, then, wanted Jesus put to death? The “New Testament” notes that Jesus was unpopular with the chief priests and many of the Pharisees and Sadducees because he exposed their hypocrisy. (Matthew 21:33-46; 23:1-36)* High Priest Caiaphas was one of the foremost opposers of Jesus. No doubt he had suffered personal economic loss when Jesus chased the money changers from the temple. (Mark 11:15-18) In addition, Caiaphas feared that Jesus’ popularity with the Jewish crowds would eventually lead to Roman intervention and to his personal loss of power. (John 11:45-53) Thus, the chief priests and and other religious leaders plotted Jesus’ death and handed him over to a Roman court for execution. (Matthew 27:1, 2; Mark 15:1; Luke 22:66–23:1) How ironic that Jesus’ popularity with the Jewish masses led to his death!
In view of Jesus’ popularity, how could a Jewish crowd clamor for his death? Since most of Jesus’ supporters were Galileans, it is possible that the crowd who wanted him dead were mainly Judeans. The Galileans tended to be warmhearted, humble, and straightforward by nature, while the Judeans tended to be haughty, rich, and highly educated, especially in Jerusalem. Significantly, Matthew reveals that the crowd was incited by “the chief priests and older men.” (Matthew 27:20) What lie could they have told the crowd so as to arouse them in this way? Was it the lie that they earlier presented at Jesus’ trial and that was repeated during Jesus’ execution, namely, that Jesus said he would destroy the temple?—Mark 14:57, 58; 15:29.*
If this Jewish crowd was not the entire Jewish people, why did the apostle Peter, when speaking to a large crowd of Jews assembled some 50 days later in Jerusalem for the Festival of Weeks, say: “You fastened [Jesus] to a stake by the hand of lawless men”? (Acts 2:22, 23) Surely Peter knew that most of them had little to do with the events that led up to Jesus’ execution. So, what did Peter mean?
According to the Scriptures, an unatoned murder brought culpability not only on the murderer but also on the community that failed to bring him to justice. (Deuteronomy 21:1-9) For example, the entire tribe of Benjamin had once been judged as bloodguilty for failure to punish a group of murderers in their midst. Although the great majority of the tribe were not directly involved in the murder, by tolerating this crime, they were condoning it and thereby bore a measure of responsibility. (Judges 20:8-48) Indeed, it has been noted that “silence gives consent.”
In a similar way, the first-century Jewish nation acquiesced in the crime of their bloodguilty leaders. By tolerating the murderous actions of the chief priests and Pharisees, the entire nation shared responsibility. No doubt this was why Peter called upon his Jewish audience to show remorse.*
What were the consequences of such a rejection of Jesus as the Messiah? Jesus said to the city of Jerusalem: “Your house [the temple] is abandoned to you.” (Matthew 23:37, 38) Yes, God withdrew his protection, and the Roman armies subsequently destroyed Jerusalem with its temple. Just as a man’s family would feel the consequences if he squandered all his possessions, the loss of divine protection was felt not only by those who cried out for Jesus’ death but by their families as well. In this sense Jesus’ blood did come upon them and their children.—Matthew 27:25.
However, nothing in the “New Testament” claims that future generations of Jews would bear special guilt for the death of Jesus. On the contrary, because of his love for their forefather Abraham, God showed the Jews special consideration, offering them the first opportunity to become Christians. (Acts 3:25, 26; 13:46; Romans 1:16; 11:28) When this opportunity was eventually extended to non-Jews, God ceased dealing with any person on the basis of national origin. Peter said: “For a certainty I perceive that God is not partial, but in every nation the man that fears him and works righteousness is acceptable to him.” (Acts 10:34, 35) The apostle Paul later wrote: “There is no distinction between Jew and Greek.” (Romans 10:12) Jews then had the same status before God as non-Jews, and that is still true today.—Compare Ezekiel 18:20.
Why Anti-Semitism in Christendom?
It can therefore be seen that the “New Testament” is not anti-Semitic. Instead, the “New Testament” records the teachings of a man who lived and died as a Jew and who taught his Jewish followers to respect the ideals of the Mosaic Law. (Matthew 5:17-19) But if the “New Testament” is not to blame, why has there been such persistent anti-Semitism in Christendom?
Christianity itself is not to blame. In a way similar to that of the false Christians in the time of Jude who were “turning the undeserved kindness of God into an excuse for loose conduct,” professed Christians throughout history have dragged the name of Christ into the mire of bigotry and prejudice. (Jude 4) Thus, the anti-Semitism in Christendom has been due to the selfish prejudices of people who have been Christian in name only.
Interestingly, Jesus himself foretold that some would claim to have performed all sorts of powerful works in his name but would really be “workers of lawlessness”—no friends of his! (Matthew 7:21-23) Many of these have tried to use the “New Testament” as a justification for their hatreds and prejudices, but reasoning people can see through that hollow pretense.
False Christians will have to answer to God for their anti-Semitism. But just as the existence of counterfeit money does not disprove the existence of real money, the existence of imitation Christians in no way diminishes the fact that there are, indeed, true Christians, people who are known for their love, not for their prejudices. Why not get acquainted with such people at the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses near you?
First-century Jewish historian Joseph ben Matthias (Flavius Josephus) records that by this era, Israel’s high priests were appointed and deposed by the agents of Rome as often as once a year. In this climate, the high priesthood degenerated into a mercenary office that attracted the worst elements of society. The Babylonian Talmud documents the moral excesses of some of these high priests. (Pesaḥim 57a) The Talmud likewise notes the tendency of the Pharisees toward hypocrisy. (Soṭah 22b)
Jesus actually said to his opponents: “Break down this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” (John 2:19-22) But as John points out, Jesus was referring, not to the temple in Jerusalem, but to “the temple of his body.” Jesus was thus comparing his anticipated death and resurrection to the demolition and reconstruction of a building.—Compare Matthew 16:21.
Similar responsibility has been noted in modern times as well. Not all citizens of Nazi Germany were directly involved in the atrocities. Nevertheless, Germany recognized a community responsibility and voluntarily chose to indemnify victims of the Nazi persecution.
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Anti-Semitism in Christendom is practiced by people who are Christian in name only
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Neither Jesus nor his disciples promoted anti-Semitism