Is the New Testament anti-Semitic?

By Victor Buksbazen – Permission to reprint from The Lewis and Harriet Lederer Foundation, 6204 Park Heights Avenue Baltimore, Maryland 21215.

The New Testament is a book which to millions of people reveals God’s love for all men. In recent years this book has been attacked by some Jewish leaders as responsible for Christian hostility to the Jews. Some even demanded that the New Testament be corrected and the so-called anti-Semitic statements be removed. Jewish opposition to the New Testament has a history which goes back to the very beginning of the Christian movement. Some of the ancient Rabbis have coined a pun on the Greek word for the Gospel, “Evangelion,” and called it in Hebrew “avon Gilion” – “The scroll of sin.” Others have perverted the Hebrew name of Jesus, “Yeshua,” into “Yeshu,” the letters of which comprise the initials of the words, “Yemach shemo verzichro”- “May his name be obliterated and forgotten.”

The original hostility to Jesus was based on the charge that Jesus committed blasphemy: “This was why the Jews sought all the more to kill him, because he not only broke the Sabbath but also called God His Father, making himself equal with God.” (John 5:18).

To the old charges against the New Testament, new ones were added later. Assertions were made that the New Testament account of the crucifixion casts the Jews in the role of “Christkillers,” thus fostering “Christian anti-Semitism.” Another accusation was made that the New Testament contains a number of anti-Semitic passages.

Before we proceed further, it is necessary to answer two basic questions:

(1) Who were the authors of the New Testament?
(2) Were they reliable and trustworthy witnesses?

It should be remembered that the first disciples and followers of Jesus were all Jews, most of them Galileans, a simple and patriotic people who often rebelled against their Roman oppressors. They shared the trials and tribulations of their Jewish countrymen, and with them hoped for a speedy redemption from their oppressors and for the coming of the Messiah to deliver them. The figure around whose life and message the New Testament is centered was Jesus, the Man from Galilee, a descendant of the house of David (Matthew chapter 1; Luke 3:23-38). He lived a holy and blameless life, and was the only person in history who could challenge his opponents with the question, “Which of you convicts me of sin?” (John 8:46).

An unbiased reader of the New Testament will soon discover that this is a book which breathes a spirit of love and compassion for all men, and tender feelings for the Jewish people, the kinsmen of Jesus. Like the prophets of the TENACH, Jesus called his people to repentance and to return to God. He grieved over Israel’s disobedience to God and their unbelief.

On one occasion Jesus wept over Jerusalem and lamented in these words: O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not! Behold, your house is forsaken and desolate. (Matthew 23:37-38).

Some forty years later his words came true. Jerusalem became desolate, and the Holy Temple was razed by Romans. His love for Israel and his faith in their high calling to be a light to the nations were beyond question. Speaking, to a Samaritan woman at the well in Sychar (modern Nablus), Jesus pronounced these timeless words: “You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22).His words of rebuke were similar to those of a prophet, a lover of his people, and not of an enemy. This is also true of the famous Saul-Paul who was once an ardent Pharisee and persecuted the Jewish believers in Jesus. Saul-Paul gives us a glimpse into his own heart in these words: “Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they might be saved” (Romans 10:1). His faith in the election of Israel was unshakable in spite of their disobedience to God. “I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin” (Romans 11:1). He added this affirmation of Israel’s final redemption and glorious destiny. “And so all Israel will be saved” (Romans 11:26).

The apostles were loyal sons of Israel and, like the prophets of old, burned with a holy fire of indignation against disobedience to God, and possessed an unquenchable desire that Israel be saved. Any historical document is only as trustworthy as its author. The matchless nobility of character of Jesus and his disciples, and their absolute dedication to the truth, are a guarantee of the trustworthiness of the New Testament. Since the authors of the New Testament were men of high moral and spiritual integrity, we must assume that what they have recorded is of the highest order of truth. If we cannot trust the New Testament, neither can we trust any historical record. All history then becomes a deception and a delusion.

The sayings of Jesus always provoked the opposition and antagonism of those who were carnally minded and not attuned spiritually to his person and message. However, this is also true of the TENACH. Long before the days of Jesus we find that the people equally objected to the prophets because they did not like to listen to things which interfered with their selfish ways or made demands on their moral or spiritual life. Isaiah accurately described the attitudes of Israel’s leaders to the prophets of his own time:
That say to the seers: “See not”, and to the prophets: “Prophesy not unto us right things, speak unto us smooth things, prophesy delusions” (Isaiah 30:10).

Was the Prophet Isaiah an anti-Semite because he called the leaders of his time, “Rulers of Sodom,” and his kinsmen, “Ye people of Gomorrah”? (Isaiah 1:10). Of course not! The prophets were impelled by God and their overburdened hearts to speak the truth as they saw it. The same was true of Jesus and his disciples who taught in the line of the prophetic tradition. Their castigation had one purpose; repentance and spiritual rebirth. This kind of teaching has always provoked resentment.

There were other reasons for the opposition of the religious leadership to Jesus. They objected to his castigation of the establishment: the Temple priests, the Scribes, the Pharisees, and the elders. Another and even more basic reason for their hostility was, as we have already observed, his extraordinary claim to be the Son of God. In the eyes of his opponents this was blasphemy worthy of death.

After Jesus healed a paralytic on the Sabbath Day, we read: “This was why the Jews sought all the more to kill him, because he not only broke the Sabbath but also called God His Father, making himself equal with God. (John 5:18).”

The often misunderstood use of the term “the Jews” in the Gospel of John requires a word of explanation. Quite frequently it is used collectively for the organized opposition to Jesus, but it is also employed to describe the inhabitants of Jerusalem and Judea. However, the expression, “the Jews,” is also used in a positive and favorable sense as when Jesus says to a Samaritan woman “Salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22). Jesus himself was called “a Jew” by the Samaritan woman without any objection or denial on his part. Sometimes the designation “the Jews” is also applied to those people who admired Jesus and followed him (John 11:45; 12:11).

In the past the Gospel of John was considered the most Hellenistic of all the Gospels. New Testament scholars now commonly assume that it is the most Jewish Gospel. Like the Qumran writings, with which it has a number of similarities, it is also a document of protest against the Temple priesthood and the official religious establishment. When John refers to “the Jews” he frequently means the organized opposition to Jesus and his followers, arising primarily from the religious leaders. The Gospel of John was written after the fall of Jerusalem, predicted by Jesus (Matthew 23:37-38), when the Synagogue changed its liturgy to make it impossible for Jewish believers in Jesus to stay inside the community. John took his place alongside this persecuted minority around the year 80-90 CE, being forced out of the Jewish community of which they had hitherto been an integral part. This was the historical setting of John’s Gospel. It was a time when the Synagogue persecuted the young Church in Jerusalem. John’s Gospel tells of an embattled and harassed minority, torn between love for its people and loyalty to Jesus, the Messiah.

In the 23rd chapter of Matthew Jesus pronounced a series of prophetic woes, similar to Isaiah’s not against the teaching of the Pharisees but against the insincerity of some of them (by no means all). Jesus distinctly approved of many of their teachings, but warned his disciples against their ways and practices, ‘for they preach, but do not practice” (Matthew 23:3). He followed this with some grave accusations: “They bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with their finger” (Matthew 23:4). Jesus continued that the Pharisees love ostentatious prominence, to be seated in the place of honor in the synagogues, and to be called Rabbi or Master (verses 5-12).

Jesus then pronounced a series of woes against the Scribes and Pharisees, calling them hypocrites, for they devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers (verse 14). He called them blind guides who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel (verse 24). If one is to charge Jesus with being unkind to the Pharisees, what must we say about prophets like Isaiah who castigated mercilessly the leaders of his people in even more scathing words: “Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil . . . Woe unto them that are wise in their own eyes . . . That justify the wicked for a reward. . . “ (Isaiah 5:20-23).

What about Jeremiah’s lament: “Concerning the prophets. My heart within me is broken . . . For both prophet and priest are ungodly . . .” (Jeremiah 23:9, 11). The harsh condemnations of false prophets, priests, and unfaithful shepherds were far more frequent in the TENACH than in the New Testament. Should we therefore call the prophets of the TENACH anti-Semites? They spoke as the Spirit of God moved them, even as Jesus and his disciples did.

Much has been made by Jew-haters of every generation of the conduct of the Jerusalem crowd and their leaders when Jesus stood before Pontius Pilate for final sentencing. The Gospels record (Matthew 27:15-25; Mark 15:7-15; Luke 23:13-24) how the crowd incited by the priests demanded from Pilate that he set free Barabbas and crucify Jesus: LET HIM BE CRUCIFIED . . . HIS BLOOD BE ON US AND ON OUR CHILDREN (Matthew 27:22, 25). Many misguided Christians have argued that by these words of the Jerusalem mob and their leaders the Jews have called down upon themselves and upon Jews of all generations the wrath of God, and consequently deserve to be persecuted and punished. One of the obsessive fears of many Jewish people is their belief that the crucifixion account singles them out as a nation of “Christ- killers,” and that this is the underlying cause of anti-Semitism. The pagans of the pre-Christian era hated the Jews, persecuted them, and often resorted to pogroms centuries before Jesus. They found excuses for their wicked acts, such as: Jews were atheists because they worshipped an invisible God. Or: Jews were lazy because they refused to work on the Sabbath.

Should we condemn all Greeks of every generation for the judicial murder of Socrates, committed by some of the foolish leaders of Athens in the fourth century BCE? Should we hold every Russian responsible for the bloody murders of Stalin, or all the Germans for the heinous needs of the mad-man Hitler and his henchmen? For every Jew who shouted “Let him be crucified,” there were many devout Jewish men and women who followed Jesus to the cross weeping. What does the New Testament really teach about the meaning of the crucifixion of Jesus? Does it hold up the Jews for scorn or contempt? Indeed not!

The meaning of the cross is summed up by the Apostle John in these words: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

The whole emphasis of the New Testament is not on men, but on God Himself and His eternal purpose of reconciling the world to Himself through the sacrifice of His Son. When Jews speak of anti-Semitism in the New Testament, this merely indicates that they are reading into it their own distorted perspectives, or their own unfortunate experiences through the centuries among so-called Christians. Those who blame the Jews for the crucifixion have completely missed the significance of the cross.

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