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Is the New Testament Anti-Jewish?

Scholars debate whether the New Testament is anti-Jewish: what are the verses under discussion, and what are the arguments for both regarding the New Testament as anti-Jewish and for denying that this is the case?

Model of the Second Temple in Jerusalem during the time of Herod. The Israel Museum

Antisemitism is usually defined as a racist view that regards Jews as a distinct people, driven toward greed, political domination, and perversion, such that even converting to Christianity cannot erase this biological taint. Given that definition, the New Testament is not antisemitic. Mary and Joseph, Peter and Paul, Mary Magdalene and Jesus himself, are Jews. Luke 2:21 mentions Jesus’s circumcision; Paul’s delineates his Jewish credentials: “circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee…’ (Phil 3:5). Whether the New Testament is anti-Jewish, and even how to define anti-Judaism—as a belief system, a set of practices, communal identity, et cetera—remain debated. Like determining whether Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice” is anti-Jewish, Twain’s Huckleberry Finn is racist, or Rushdie’s Satanic Verses is anti-Muslim, answers differ, depending on readers and definitions. That New Testament verses have been interpreted as anti-Jewish is beyond doubt.

Select Passages (a few of many)

Matthew’s insistence that “all the people” (that is, all the Jewish people) shouted to Pilate, “Let [Jesus] be crucified.… His blood be on us and on our children” (Matt 27:25) led to the Christian teaching that all Jews are Christ-killers (the Roman Catholic Church rejected this view in 1965 with the publication of Nostra Aetate, and other church groups have followed this lead).

In John’s Gospel, Jesus refers to the “Jews” (Greek: Ioudaioi) as being “from your father, the devil” (John 8:44). This verse and others gave rise to the false stereotype, common in parts of Christian Europe, that Jews had cloven hoofs and horns (Michelangelo’s horned Moses added support). Well-meaning Christians have twice asked me when I had my horns removed.

In Acts 3:15, Peter accuses “men, Israelites” (i.e., “you Jews”) of having “killed the author of life”; in 1Thess 2:14-16, Paul mentions the “Jews, who killed the lord Jesus and oppose all people.” In 2Cor 3:13-15, Paul states that Jews cannot understand their own Scriptures: “to this very day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds; but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed.” The Epistle to the Hebrews (Heb 8:13) goes farther: “In speaking of ‘a new covenant,’ he [Jesus] has made the first one obsolete. And what is obsolete and growing old will soon disappear”; the only covenant remaining is the one Jesus mediates.

Revelation (Rev 2:9; Rev 3:9) speaks of the “synagogue of Satan,” although more likely the people condemned are not Jews but gentiles “who say they are Jews and are not” (Rev 2:9), that is, gentile followers of Jesus who have adopted Jewish practices such as Sabbath or holiday observance, dietary regulations, or circumcision.

The Arguments (a few of many)

Rejecting the thesis that the New Testament is anti-Jewish, scholars make several arguments. In each case, other scholars counter.

First, some scholars distinguish between authorial intention (i.e., what the author had in mind) and the reception of the text (i.e., how readers interpret). The New Testament writers were not anti-Jewish, they argue; to the contrary, Matthew, John, Paul, et cetera were Jews arguing with fellow Jews, and an in-house argument cannot be anti-Jewish. However, the gospels may not have been written by the people to whom they are ascribed, the authors of Mark and Luke may have been gentiles, and Hebrews is anonymous. Nor do we know their target audiences, whether a small group or any follower of Jesus. But we do know that gentiles (non-Jews) read these texts. Jesus the Jew spoke with fellow Jews, but when his words appear in a narrative directed to non-Jewish audiences, they take on different connotations. Paul, the apostle to the gentiles (Rom 11:13), does not intend to be anti-Jewish, but in attempting to prevent his gentile readers from adopting Jewish practices, he can certainly sound it.

Second is the claim that the New Testament is no more anti-Jewish than Israel’s prophets or the Dead Sea Scrolls. The claim is correct but not conclusive. Jews preserved the books of Amos and Hosea, not the New Testament. The Dead Sea Scrolls are historically situated sectarian texts, not works proclaimed in gentile contexts. Nor do two wrongs make a right: invective is still invective. 

The third argument notes that the New Testament may sound anti-Jewish, but that is because the Jews were expelling Jesus’s followers from synagogues (see John 9:22); therefore, the rhetoric is reactive. Problems here include lack of evidence for such expulsion (even John leaves the claim as a threat) and the lack of any empire-wide Jewish system that could promote it. Were expulsions occurring sporadically—quite possibly—all the more reason to enquire about their motivation: were followers telling Jews that they were all hell-bound without accepting Jesus as lord? Were they endangering Jews by telling gentiles to stop worshiping the state gods?

Fourth, some scholars argue that the New Testament cannot be anti-Jewish because it celebrates Jewish concerns: the G-d of Israel; Abraham, Moses, and David; Jerusalem; the Jewish Messiah. In Rom 11:1, Rom 11:29, Paul writes, “Has God rejected his people? By no means!… I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham … for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.” However, to appreciate what the Church came to call the “Old Testament” is not the same thing as to appreciate Jews and Judaism, which have a two-thousand-year history past the Scriptural pages. Other Christians read the New Testament as claiming that all promises made to Israel “according to the flesh” (i.e., Jews) now belong to them. This view is called supersessionism or replacement theology.

Fifth, some readers correctly note that rabbinic Judaism makes negative comments about Jesus, so the New Testament is no worse than the Talmud. The problem here is the comparison base. The New Testament should be familiar to every Christian, but most Jews have never seen a Talmud or know what it contains. Nor again do two wrongs make a right.

Finally, some Christians insist that the text cannot be anti-Jewish, because anti-Jewish views are contrary to divine will and the New Testament is divinely inspired. Other scholars distinguish between theological proclamations and conclusions based on historical or literary evidence.  

Now What?  

While scholars debate whether the New Testament is anti-Jewish, we agree that it has been interpreted in ways that promote hatred of Jews and Judaism. Most Christians do not consciously read their texts as promoting hatred of Jews; most see Christianity as about love, not hate. But as long as the text is proclaimed, readings that suggest the Jewish people are demonic, evil, or otherwise despicable will surface. It is our responsibility—whoever we are—to counter such readings.

  • Amy-Jill Levine is University Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies, Mary Jane Werthan Professor of Jewish Studies, and Professor of New Testament Studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School and College of Arts and Science in Nashville, TN; she also Affiliated Professor, Woolf Institute, Centre for Jewish-Christian Relations, Cambridge UK and in spring, 2019, teaching at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome.