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Do the Gospels Promote Anti-Semitism?

Over the last couple of weeks we have been looking at various passages from the Gospels that have been used by some to argue that Jesus condones violence. Here is a link to each of them:

The Cleansing of the Temple and Non-Violence

Was Jesus Unloving Toward the Pharisees?

Violent Parables?

Why Did Jesus Curse a Barren Fig Tree?

That Weird Episode with the Pigs

Jesus Came to Bring a Sword?

Did Jesus Instruct Us to Arm Ourselves?

Why Didn’t Jesus Denounce Military Service?

In this post, I want to address the frequently made allegation that the Gospel writers promote anti-Semitism and that these writings are at least partly responsible for the animosity and violence that has been directed toward the Jewish people over the last two millennia.

The most commonly cited evidence of the Gospel’s alleged anti-Semitism is that they each pin the blame for Jesus’ crucifixion on the Jews. For example, Mark has Jesus several times announce that he must go “to Jerusalem to be put to death by the Jewish authorities” (Mk 8:31; 9:31; 10:32-4), and, assuming Markan priority, he is followed by Matthew and Luke (Mt 16:21; 20:18; Lk 9:22; 18:31-3).

Along the same lines, immediately after Pilate tells the Jewish crowd that Jesus’ execution “is your responsibility,” Matthew reports that the crowd responded by declaring; “His blood is on us and on our children” (Mt 27:25). One scholar notes that no other statement in the NT “has provoked so much murder, misery and despair among Jews in subsequent church history…”[1]

But the harshest criticism is typically directed toward the Gospel of John. John mentions “the Jews” seventy-one times in his Gospel, and they are consistently put in a disparaging light. The Jews are depicted as spiritually blind and as openly hostile to Jesus, several times seeking to kill him prior to the crucifixion (e.g. 5:16; 7:1; 8:57-9). One scholar goes so far as to argue that John casts “the Jews” as being “by nature evil and unredeemable,” as when he depicts Jesus as saying that the Jews are “of the devil” (8:44).[2]

Moreover, it is sometimes argued that John is even more explicit than the Synoptic Gospels in placing the blame for Jesus’ crucifixion on the Jews. John depicts Pilate as repeatedly acknowledging Jesus’ innocence, and he not only absolves himself of all responsibility for his execution, he even repeatedly tries to set Jesus free (19:12, cf. 18:29- 31; 38-40; 19:4, 6). Finally, while Joseph of Arimathea must keep his faith in Jesus quiet out of fear of Jewish leaders, John depicts Pilate as graciously giving him permission to give Jesus a proper burial – something that was otherwise denied executed criminals (19:38).

Do these aspects of the Gospels reflect an anti-Semitic attitude? Here are five reasons why I think they do not.

First, its hard for me to see how the Gospel authors could have anti-Semitic attitudes when three of them were Jewish (most agree that Luke was Gentile) and when the Savior they were writing about was Jesus! Their polemic was not against Jews, but against non-believers. Yes, the majority of non-believers at the time the Gospels were written happen to be Jewish, but their race had nothing to do with this polemic.

Second, it is simply inaccurate to claim the Gospels place all the blame for Jesus’ death on the Jews. Pilate is arguably even more culpable than the Jews, for he delivers Jesus over to be flogged and crucified out of sheer political expediency, despite that fact that he believes Jesus to be innocent. Not only this, but while Jewish leaders bring the charges against Jesus and arrest him, it is soldiers under Roman rule who carry out the crucifixion.

Third, the theological meaning that these authors find in the crucifixion undermines the charge that they were interested in pinning the blame for Jesus’ crucifixion on their unbelieving Jewish contemporaries. For each of these authors, Jesus was no one’s victim, and the crucifixion was no random act of violence. This event unfolded according to God’s redemptive pre-determined plan. Hence, for example, Jesus repeatedly speaks about his suffering as something that he came to do and that was his Father’s will. Moreover, each of the Gospels depict Jesus as freely offering up his life as a ransom for multitudes (Mt 20:28; Mk 10:45) – indeed, to bear the sin of the whole world (Jn 1:29; 2 Cor 5:21; I Pet 2:24; I Jn 2:2). Hence, if anyone is ultimately responsible for Jesus’ death, it is all of humanity!

Fourth, many of John’s references to “the Jews” cannot possibly refer to all Jews. For example, John notes that among the Jewish crowd that had gathered for the Festival of Tabernacles, some people believed Jesus was “a good man” while others believed “he leads people astray.” Yet, John adds, “no one was speaking openly of Him for fear of the Jews” (7:12-3, NASB). Since the entire crowd was Jewish, it is apparent that John’s reference to “the Jews” was directed only to Jewish leaders. This phenomenon occurs a number of times in John (e.g. 7:13; 9:22; 19:38).

Fifth, there is no reason to assume that John believed that Jews or anyone else was “by nature evil and unredeemable.” To the contrary, John places great stress on God’s universal love and the universal scope of the salvation he offers the world in Christ (1:7; 3:15-6; 4:42; 5:23; 6:50; 7:37; 11:48; 12:32). And, far from thinking any group could be evil “by nature,” John along with the other four Gospels depict humans as free agents who decide their own destinies. Hence Jesus and his disciples consistently implore people to turn from the destructive path they are on and to enter into the kingdom (e.g. Mt 4:17; 13:16-24; Mk 1:15; 6:12; Lk 7:31; 10:13-6; 13:1-5; Jn 3:18; 7:17, 37).

For these reasons, I think there is no merit to the allegation that the Gospels are anti-Semitic or that they are responsible for the animosity and violence that Jewish people have experienced over the last two millennia. No, the responsibility for that tragedy rests squarely on the shoulders of the Church! In contradiction to everything our (Jewish!) Savior taught us, Christians throughout history have treated Jews in inhumane ways, even torturing and murdering hundreds of thousands in the Inquisition. And, more often than not, they sited the verses we have just examined to justify it.

I thus do not believe we need to apologize for the Gospels. But we definitely need to apologize for the Church. And to the Jewish people as well as everyone else, we need to make it as clear as we can that, insofar as people who professed faith in Christ treated Jews in hateful and barbaric ways, they had nothing to do with the Christ they professed faith in.

[1] . Lüdemann, The Unholy in Holy Scriptures: The Dark Side of the Bible (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1997), 93.

[2] M. Desjardins, Peace, Violence and the New Testament (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997), 102;

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