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Jews in the New Testament

Many verses in the New Testament (NT) can be seen as critical of Jews, in particular the Pharisees, the dominant Jewish group of that era. The most famous verse in this respect is Matthew 27:25, which states "Then answered all the people, and said, His blood be on us, and on our children". Other notable passages ascribe blame for Jesus' execution to the Jewish Sanhedrin and portray the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate as an unwilling authority forced to comply with the desires of a Jewish crowd. Criticism of Jews is not unique to the new testament: there are plenty of verses criticizing Jews in the Old Testament as well.

Other episodes in the New Testament paint a more positive picture of the Jews. For example, the New Testament says that Jesus is Jewish, is (along with John the Baptist) called rabbi, and is crucified with a sign calling him the "King of the Jews". Many Jews are portrayed as following Jesus and converting to Christianity, and it is said that "salvation is of the Jews" (John, 4:23).

Table of contents

Christian Views

Like most of the Bible, and indeed most of any religious book, different groups and individuals have interpreted these verses in different ways. Some Christians interpret some Biblical passages in one way while interpreting other passages in different ways.

  1. The classical Christian view, is that these verses are condemning those Jews that have not accepted Christian beliefs about God and Jesus. This is a theological and not a racial position, because Jews can be "saved" by converting to Christianity.
  2. One claim holds that some of these verses are a critique of "Judeans", meaning specifically the Jews from Judea, as opposed to Jews from Gallilee or Samaria for instance. This is based on a translation of the Greek word Ioudaioi as Judeans rather than Jews. This view is becoming popular among Biblical scholars and is held by the Jesus Seminar.
  3. Some hold that these verses are a critique of some Jews, or specific individuals, or some aspects of Judaism at the time of Jesus, but not of all Jews, nor of the Jewish faith in general, nor of any Jews today. This view is held by the Roman Catholic Church.
  4. Some hold that these verses are a critique by the flawed and human writers of the Bible that should not be interpreted as the word of God, but rather understood in the context of the time and the prejudices of the writers. People who hold this position generally do not believe that the entire Bible is literal truth.
  5. Some hold that these verses are a critique of the Pharisees as the moneyed, self-righteous establishment of the Jewish community. Some modern-day liberal ministers argue that well-to-do, churchgoing Christians, not modern Jews, are the group most comparable to the Pharisees whom Jesus criticized.

For views of Christian Biblical scholars, see below.

Views of Christian Churches

There are many Christian churches which have changed or clarified their teachings on this subject. A study of these churches, the changes the made, and important documents on this issue can be found in the entry on Christianity and anti-Semitism.

As one example, the Catholic Church reversed its views on Jews with a series of statements beginning in 1965. In the Nostra Aetate, Pope Paul VI proclaimed that:

  • "The Church believes that by His cross Christ, Our Peace, reconciled Jews and Gentiles. making both one in Himself".
  • "God holds the Jews most dear for the sake of their Fathers; He does not repent of the gifts He makes or of the calls He issues".
  • "the death of Christ ... cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today".
  • "the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures".
  • "the Church ... decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone".

Jewish views

Most Jewish scholars and rabbis today consider themselves to be the heirs of the Pharisees. Thus verses that single out the Pharisees for criticism have more of a sting for modern Jews than many Christians realize. For views of Jewish Biblical scholars, see below.

Some say that the classical Christian position, while theological and not a racial position, nevertheless has ethnocidal implications since a Jew who converts to Christianity is often no longer considered to be Jewish. Some Jews thus perceive this stance as an attack on the Jewish nation, even though it is not couched in racial terms.

Use of critical verses

These verses have been used to incite prejudice and violence against Jewish people. Professor Lillian C. Freudmann[?], author of "Antisemitism in the New Testament" (University Press of America[?], 1994) has published a study of such verses and the effects that they have had in the Christian community throughout history. Similar studies have been made by both Christian and Jewish scholars, including, Professors Clark Williamsom[?] (Christian Theological Seminary[?]), Hyam Maccoby[?] (The Leo Baeck Institute[?]), Norman A. Beck[?] (Texas Lutheran College[?]), and Michael Berenbaum[?] (Georgetown University).

Occasionally, these verses have also been used to encourage anti-Christian sentiment amongst non-Christians. Christian apologists argue that by taking isolated verses out of context, people distort the message of Christianity, setting up a straw man caricature to knock down.

Biblical scholarship

Most of the verses in question are attributed not to Jesus (who was himself a Jew) but to the authors of the New Testament. Jesus' disciples, Paul, and the first Christians were Jews, including the authors of the New Testament. By the time the New Testament was finished Christians already had begun to view themselves, and be seen as, a separate religion; they were no longer part of the Jewish community. Judaism itself was also undergoing significant change following the destruction of the Temple and the end of animal sacrifices. During the time the New Testament was written, a number of Christians shifted their emphasis from seeking Jewish converts to seeking gentile converts. Many biblical scholars observe that different books appear to be aimed at different audiences, and suggest that the intended audience may have influenced the writers.

Some of the New Testament was probably written for a non-Jewish audience, some time after the events they describe. Some scholars have sugested that some things Jesus said or did, or that Pharisees said or did, which were clear in meaning to Jewish contemporaries, would not have been quite as clear to the later Gentile authors or readers. They further suggest that these later Gospels were a selective account that interpreted Jesus' life so that it would be less threatening to the Roman authorities, and more congenial to Gentiles. But such an interpretation would not only reveal, it would add to, the growing gulf between Jews and Christians.

Thus, although the New Testament authors were not racially prejudiced against their fellow Jews, they may have displayed religious or theological prejudice against Jews who remained followers of Judaism rather than become Christians, particularly since Jews claimed to be the heirs to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob's covenant with God; heirs to the covenant of Sinai; and followers of the sacred scriptures -- the very sources of Christian legitimacy. Once Christianity established itself as a new religion, by converting gentiles and by not obeying Mosaic law, Christians were no longer of particular interest (let alone threat) to the Jewish leadership. But as long as Jews claimed to be following the same Bible that Christians believed prophesied Jesus's messianic status, they necessarily threatened Christian claims. Moreover, since Jesus was Jewish, the fact that Jews did not recognize Jesus as their Messiah was an implicit threat to the legitimacy of Christianity and something that Christians had to explain, both to themselves and to potential gentile converts.

Detailed interpretations

Here are some references where scholars have gone through parts of the New Testament to try and decide the writer's (or writers') original message on Jews and Judaism:

See also: Christianity and anti-Semitism, Persecution of Christians

External Links

  • Nostra Aetate (http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_decl_19651028_nostra-aetate_en)

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