Jesus of Nazareth was born, lived, and died as a Jew. During his lifetime, Jesus never rejected his people. Although far from canonical for Judaism, his preaching was undoubtedly rooted in Judaism. He likely belonged to the group of the Pharisees or Essenes (certainly not a Sadducee). Some scholars describe him as part of the apocalyptic teachers predicting the arrival of the Kingdom of God. The Romans saw the growth of this kind of narrative as a danger to the stability of their province. Jesus was more of a problem for the Romans than for the Jews.
Despite the common social context and Jesus’s Jewish identity, during the first century CE (Common Era), the conflict between Jews and the followers of Jesus (Christians, as they believed Jesus was the Christ, the chosen one) was increasing. The destruction of the Second Temple by the hands of the Romans inevitably shocked the Jewish world at its core.
The catastrophic event was interpreted differently by the two groups. If the Temple’s destruction was a punishment for the Pharisees because of the Jews not complying with the divine covenant, for Christians, it was a sign that God abandoned the Jews and the Torah became obsolete. After Jesus’s death, his followers, at first Saul of Tarsus (once a Pharisee who changed his name to Paul), taught that Jesus came to fulfill the divine law, and therefore there was no more need to follow the law of Moses. Jesus offered himself as a sinner offering, providing a path to salvation, and faith in Jesus became the only way to reach that salvation. Although there are some positive statements regarding Jews, the gospels grew increasingly anti-Judaic. Christians accused the Jews of following a sterile religion, blind to the divine truth that had just revealed itself. In the New Testament Book of Hebrews, chapter 8, verse 13, it is written: “(Jesus) By calling this covenant “new,” he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear.”
The Christians interpreted the entire Torah as a narrative predicting the arrival of Jesus, the Christ. All blessings were for the Christians, while the curses were for the Jews who refused to recognize Jesus as Christ. By 100 CE, the gospel by St. John, the most anti-Jewish of all gospels, was popular among Christians. In this gospel, the collective term “Jews” is used 71 times (compared to the 16 in all other gospels). In ch 8 v 44, his accusations are extreme and push the Jews outside of any acceptable human morality, accusing them of being not the children of G-d but the children of the devil. This accusation – the Jewish soul allied with the devil – will become a dominant theme in the middle ages.
The Christian’s key accusation against the Jews was the anti-historical charge of deicide, the murder of God. Despite no historical evidence (on the contrary, it is evident that the Romans executed Jesus), the gospel of St. Matthew (chapters 24 to 26) lifts the Romans of their responsibility and accuses the Jews of deciding Jesus’s faith and death by crucifixion. Despite its flimsy narrative, the words of this gospel, chapter 25, “(Let) His blood be on us, and on our children” will lead to collective punishment of the Jews throughout the centuries, generation after generation.
At this time of history, the hostility of the New Testament was probably more motivated by the political desire to blame the Jews for Jesus’s death rather than the Romans. The Romans had power over both groups, and there was no convenience for the fragile Christian sect to build an aggressive narrative against their rulers. Moreover, the theological dispute between Jews and Christians was arriving at a turning point. The accomplished truth of one narrative would be the proof that the other is wrong. Overall, the hostile Christian narrative progressed in time, as did the distance between the two groups. It was not a sudden event. Likely, it was the result of different kinds of interests. In the centuries that followed Jesus’s death, leading Christian thinkers, the Church fathers, expanded on the accusations against the Jews. They were indeed involved in political convenience, conversions rivalry, self-determination, and preservation of their theology.
In the II century CE St. Justin Martyr proclaimed that as the Jews killed Christ, their suffering would continue generation after generation. As time went on, this became a self-fulfilling prophecy. In the III century, Origen wrote that the destruction that came at the hands of the Romans was the punishment for the killing of Jesus by the devil’s agents (the Jews).
In the rivalry to gain as many converts as possible – or to avoid losing followers to Judaism – the Christian leaders wanted to reinforce the boundaries of the two religions and distance the Jewish origins of Christianity; attacking and denigrating Judaism was without doubt part of this goal. In the IV century, in his two-volume work, Eusebius, a Greek historian of Christianity, distinguished the good Hebrews (the proto-Christians) from the bad Hebrews (the Jews). St. Gregory of Nyssa condemned the Jews as hateful deicides.
John Gager in “The Origins of Antisemitism” reflects a transformation in Christian thought that occurred as Christianity transitioned from a persecuted sect within the Roman Empire to its legal and eventually official religion. These thoughts can be summarized in the following:
- The Jews neither know the Lord, nor understand Him, nor receive Him.
- The Jews would not understand the Holy Scriptures and that they would be intelligible only in the last times after Christ had come.
- Jews would lose Jerusalem and leave the land they inherited.
- Jews would lose the light of the Lord.
- The first circumcision of the flesh is abrogated and a second circumcision of the spirit is promised.
- The former law of Moses would cease and new law given.
- Another dispensation and a new covenant would be given.
- The old sacrifice would be ended and a new one celebrated.
- Two peoples were foretold, a greater and a lesser, the old people of the Jews and a new people that would consist of us.
- The Gentiles rather than the Jews would reach the kingdom of heaven.
- The Jews would be able to receive pardon for their sins only if they wash away the blood of the slain Christ through baptism, and if they come over to the Church and obey its teachings.
St. Jerome linked the Jews to the traitor Judas. However, the climax of the Christian anti-Jewish narrative was reached in the sermons by the Greek Church Father St. John Chrysostom (344-407 CE): The synagogue is a lodging-place for demons, a fortress of the devil. The core of his rhetoric was the odious assassination of Christ, and the very existence of the Jews was a threat to Christianity. In his context, his highly aggressive rhetoric was probably to attack Judaizers to discourage conversions to Judaism rather than Jews themselves. However, in the following radically changed context, the impact of his words became devastating for generations to come.
St. Augustine developed the witness theory regarding the Jews. This theory evolved on three key points: 1) Jews were allowed to live among Christians but only in an inferior position. Their status as II-class citizens would be an example of those who reject Christ. 2) Jews also served as unconscious librarians for Christian truths. According to St. Augustine, by venerating the Torah and reading it repeatedly, the Jews are (unconsciously) repeating the prediction of the arrival of Jesus. 3) Some Jews had to be still alive during the time of the second arrival of Jesus so they could witness they were wrong and convert to Christianity. For St. Augustine, Jews were personified by traitorous Judas and Cain, who killed his brother Abel. Jews were condemned to wander the earth forever, branded with the mark of shame.
Another example of an historical false accusation was the stealing of sacramental bread known as the “host desecration” myth, which was a part of anti-Jewish propaganda in medieval Europe. This myth accused Jews of stealing consecrated host wafers from Christian churches and then desecrating them. The host in Catholic belief represents the body of Christ, and thus, any desecration of it was considered a grave sin and a direct attack on the essence of Christian faith. The myth was one of several baseless and harmful accusations against Jews during the Middle Ages, alongside others like blood libel (the false claim that Jews used the blood of Christian children for ritual purposes) and well poisoning. These accusations often led to violent pogroms and persecution of Jewish communities.
This kind of Christian narrative, which caused self-justified Jewish hatred sentiments, would endure for almost two millennia even until after the Holocaust. Different despicable episodes witness how these Jew-hatred sentiments were still alive in the Church clergy even in the 1950s and 60s.
The teaching of this anti-Jewish part of theology over many centuries has so deeply ingrained prejudices that they unconsciously persist even in today’s most secular aspects of western society.
Only in 1965, in Nostra Aetate issued by the Vatican II Council, the blame for Jesus’s death was limited to some Jews living at his time– all the other Jews, especially future generations, could not be blamed for his death. Pope John XXIII (the moving force behind Vatican II) wrote a prayer before his death asking for forgiveness as Christians forgot the love of Jesus and should forget the curse laid on the Jews as with that curse, they crucified Jesus a second time. In 1993 the Vatican took a further step by declaring illegitimate any interpretation of the scriptures that could lead to antisemitism.
Today, we are living in a world that is increasingly interconnected yet plagued by various forms of division and conflict. There are too many victims and too much suffering for too many people, no matter the religion, nationality, ethnicity, race, or diversity of any kind. Recognizing our shared humanity is crucial for building a more peaceful and compassionate world. May we always remember we are all humans with our potential and limitations, and that we should try to build a world where we can all live, coexist and prosper, and hate towards other human beings cannot be part of it.