Antisemitism is on the rise in the US. Blind liberal support for Muslims translates into blind liberal animus towards Israel. Likewise, the Trump campaign has drawn anti-Semites out from under the rocks. So this might be as good a time as any to consider the question: why should Jews trust Christians? Given the persecution of Jews in church history, what, if anything, has changed?
1. There are different ways of framing the issue. We might review some historic reasons why Jews were subject to persecution. If we reject the traditional reasons, then we reject persecution based on that rationale. For instance, Jews as well as some Gentiles claim the NT is a seedbed of antisemitism.
i) As a Christian, I won't disown what the NT says. We've become so sensitized to how these passages have been abused that it takes an effort to hear them as they were originally meant to be heard.
ii) The NT regards disbelief in Jesus to be culpable. I understand how Jews might find that offensive or even threatening. Keep in mind, though, that this is a two-way street. After all, many Jews regard belief in Jesus as culpable. Maimonides considered Christians to be heretical idolaters and polytheists, given their belief in the Trinity and Incarnation. Should I take offense at that? No.
Take the 18 Benedictions, added to the Jewish liturgy, that pronounce a curse on Christians. It's really a malediction rather than benediction. Should I take offense at that? No.
Consider what the Talmud says about Jesus:
Jesus was hanged on Passover Eve. Forty days previously the herald had cried, “He is being led out for stoning, because he has practiced sorcery and led Israel astray and enticed them into apostasy. Whosoever has anything to say in his defense, let him come and declare it.” As nothing was brought forward in his defense, he was hanged on Passover Eve. Tractate Sanhedrin (43a).
That indicts Jesus as a false prophet, according to the classic Mosaic criteria (Deut 13:1-5). Should I take offense at that? No.
Likewise, the OT regards paganism as culpable. So both sides consider certain theological positions to be, not merely mistaken, but blameworthy.
iii) It's not just Jewish disbelief in Jesus that's culpable; gentile disbelief in Jesus is culpable.
2. And all the people answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!” (Mt 27:25).
i) Although Matthew attributes this to the entire crowd, surely that's rhetorical. Presumably, they didn't come there with a script which they recited in unison. To the contrary, this is a spontaneous outburst in response to Pilate. They didn't know ahead of time what he was going to say.
Probably, what happened is that one person in the crowd said it, and the rest of the crowd nodded in agreement. Or perhaps some of them repeated it after one person initially said it. Matthew uses general language to indicate consent. Not that everyone said it, but they agreed with the sentiment.
ii) The speaker or speakers lack the authority to inculpate later generations in their misdeeds. It's not their prerogative to extend the blame for their own misdeeds to later generations who did nothing of the kind. In fact, the Mosaic law repudiates that principle: "Fathers shall not be put to death because of their children, nor shall children be put to death because of their fathers. Each one shall be put to death for his own sin" (Deut 24:16).
Just because their statement assigns corporate responsibility to Jews in general doesn't make them collectively guilty. The speaker had no right to implicate others who were not party to the original misdeed. You can't make people complicit in wrongdoing by saying they are complicit in wrongdoing. They must actually be complicit in wrongdoing.
iii) The Jews who participated in the death of Christ died 2000 years ago. They have already been judged.
iv) However, someone might say that when Jews continue to reject Jesus, that's an extension of the original crime. There's a grain of truth to that, but it's not confined to Jews. Rejecting Jesus is blameworthy in general, whether you're Jewish or gentile.
In addition, there's often no significant distinction between Jews and gentiles. Many Jews are secular Jews or cultural Jews. Many Jews never read the NT, or even the OT. They are only Jewish in the sense that they had some Jewish ancestors.
v) Although there's a sense in which disbelief in Jesus is a punishable offense, it's not my prerogative to punish that offense. That pertains to eschatological judgment. I'm not responsible for what you believe. It's not my duty to punish blasphemy, heresy, &c. You are accountable to God, and not to me, for what you believe. It would usurp God's prerogative for me to avenge blasphemy, heresy, &c.
vi) Conversely, Jesus was executed on a charge of blasphemy. So my own position is far more lenient than the traditional Jewish position.
3. You are of your father the devil (Jn 8:44).
i) In context, that's a reference to the Jewish opponents of Jesus.
ii) It's a two-way street. His opponents accused Jesus of being possessed. Both sides do that.
iii) "Son of Belial" accusations are a stock feature of intramural Jewish polemics.
4. and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan (Rev 2:9).
Passages like this (1 Thes 2:14-16 is another case in point) have their background in 1C Jewish persecution of Christians. However, the proper Christian response is not to retaliate, but to love and pray for our enemies and persecutors (Mt 5:43-48). Likewise, the default position of evangelicalism is to evangelize the lost.
Moving further into church history, what accounts for the historic antisemitism in Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy? Several factors:
5. The separation of church and synagogue led to interpreting the Bible in ways detached from its Jewish milieu.
i) However, the Third Quest for the historical Jesus accentuates the Jewishness of Jesus and the Jewishness of the NT.
ii) Likewise, the messianic Jewish movement fuses church and synagogue. Both developments serve as a salutary corrective.
This is too complex to analyze in detail, in this post.
i) However, as regards antisemitism, it conflates distinct issues. Replacing the old covenant with the new covenant is hardly equivalent to replacing Jews with Christians, or Jews with Gentiles, or Israel with the church. That's a category mistake.
ii) As the Jewish Virtual Library puts it:
"All warnings and rebukes contained in the Jewish scriptures were applied to the Jewish people, while all praise and promise were applied to the Church."
Clearly that's arbitrary. Either consistently apply both OT maledictions and promises to the church, or don't apply either one to the church.
7. The early church arose in autocratic societies with kings, emperors, and aristocrats. That gave the medieval church an authoritarian mindset. For instance, the polity of the Roman church mirrors the ancient Roman upper class: the pope is the counterpart to the emperor, the bishops ("princes") are counterparts to Roman aristocrats. By the same token, the Orthodox church has always been an organ of the state.
The patrician aspect was further bolstered by the fact members of the upper clergy were often drawn from the ruling class. That was the educated class.
Within that framework, theological dissent was treated as insubordination. Jews were treated in much the same way as "heretics" and "schismatics". The notion of civil tolerance for theological dissent was alien to that mindset.
If, however, you reject that autocratic paradigm, then you nullify that rationale for religious persecution. As a low-church, free-church evangelical, I reject the autocratic paradigm.
8. There's the question of how conversion is understood. Do we define conversion in terms of personal conviction or public conformity? If the latter, then that fosters a policy of mass conversion based on coercion rather than persuasion. This, in turn, underwrites the traditional one ruler/one religion policy (cuius regio, eius religio).
Likewise, if you think saving grace is channeled through the sacraments, which function ex opera operato ("by the very fact of the action's being performed"), then conversion is not about convincing people to believe.
Moreover, spiritual change is induced, not by the direct action of the Spirit, but mediated by sacramental actions, viz. baptism regeneration rather than immediate regeneration. The church becomes the mediator of salvation.
By contrast, evangelical traditions that stress sola fide and immediate regeneration place far more emphasis on the persuasion and individual responsibility. Likewise, on a Zwinglian view, the sacraments aren't channels of saving grace. For an evangelical like me, there's nothing in my theology that would even give a foothold to coercive conversion.
9. After transubstantiation became dogma, Catholics accused Jews of "Host desecration". Literally torturing wafers to make them bleed.
That's a dramatic example of how superstitious theology can be dangerous.
10. Jews were scapegoated for the black plague. Accusations that Jews poisoned wells.
i) To begin with, that reflects a prescientific understanding of how the plague was transmitted.
ii) More to the point, since Jews were hardly immune to the plague, it would be mass suicide for them to engineer an outbreak, even if that was within their power. Jews were just as susceptible to infectious disease as their gentile neighbors.
11. Let's take another historic example: Luther's antisemitism. What accounts for that? I'm not a Luther scholar, but this is my impression:
i) The law/gospel dichotomy has the potential to denigrate the OT and Judaism. In fairness, that's not distinctive to Lutheran theology. Baptist and Anabaptist theology accentuate the discontinuities between the old covenant and the new covenant.
The potential for abuse is not a logical implication. Moreover, you have theological traditions that see more continuity between the old covenant and the new covenant.
ii) Luther was a reactionary. Responding to Catholic legalism. And he could view Judaism through the same prism.
That's a fairly idiosyncratic posture. Driven his personal experience.
iii) It's sometimes said that Luther's antisemitism was theological rather than racial. Certainly there's some truth to that. However, his case against the Jews was larded with malicious urban legends about the Jews, viz. Jewish physicians plotting to poison Christians. That isn't theological. Rather, that reflects social conditioning. That's part of the European culture he was born into.
iv) There were, however, eminent Lutheran theologians like Melanchthon and Osiander who took different position than Luther. Both men published tracts attacking the infamous blood libel.
By contrast, Catholic polemicist John Eck, at the request of the bishop of Eichstätt, responded with a tract defending the blood libel.
a) The blood libel is absurd. To begin with, kosher laws require Jews to drain blood from meat. If Jews are forbidden to consume animal blood, consumption of human blood would be even more prohibitive.
b) Since Jews were already a threatened, persecuted minority, it would be mass suicide for them to kidnap Christian kids to exsanguinate.
v) We might ask why some Protestants at the time took a more sympathetic view of their Jewish neighbors. One reason might be that back then, if you wanted to learn Hebrew, it was natural to study Hebrew with a rabbi. Once you befriended the rabbi and his family, it was harder to credit malicious rumors about Jews.
By contrast, medieval Catholicism, which relied the Vulgate, had no use for Hebrew. It was Protestant Reformers who insisted on going back to the source.