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Anti-Judaism in the Gospels: A Blast From the Past

Four years ago now I offered up the following response to a question about whether the Gospels of the New Testament are anti-Semitic.  Here’s the post!

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QUESTION:

It is in my understanding that it is of common scholarly opinion that the Gospel writers (at least Matthew, Luke, and John) were rather anti-Semitic in nature. Correct? How would you respond to that claim? After reading “The Origin of Satan” by Elaine Pagels, it is a subject that deeply interests me, and I would love to hear your professional opinion on the matter.

RESPONSE:

This question actually ties into some of the things I’ve been thinking about with respect to the stories of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and so it seems appropriate to answer it now rather than in a separate blog. I won’t deal with the question on the very broadest level, but will consider one feature of the Gospels that shows that with the passing of time they become more and more anti-Jewish.

I should say at the outset that I do not think that the Gospel writers, or anyone else in their time, was “anti-Semitic.”   The idea and reality of anti-Semitism are modern, and are based on modern sense of “race” as these were developed by the anthropologists of the 19th century.   The idea that there was a Semitic “race” has been used for all sorts of hateful purposes in the modern period.  As just one example, throughout the Middle Ages – before the modern period — and on into the nineteenth century, “Jews” were understood to be people who subscribed to and followed the Jewish religion – but not that they had racial characteristics.  There were indeed persecutions of Jews, since the conversion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century.   For Jews to escape persecution, they needed to stop being Jews and convert to become Christians.  It was that way up through the Enlightenment.

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Why Don’t People See Discrepancies in the Bible? Readers’ Mailbag October 15, 2016
Jesus and the Ten Commandments

28

Comments

  1. Avatar
    smackemyackem  October 14, 2016

    Good stuff right here!

  2. TWood
    TWood  October 15, 2016

    Is it right to assume the Sanhedrin wanted Jesus to die or at least go away—IOW does the evidence support that certain leading Jews would have desired to stone Jesus to death for things like blasphemy (not necessarily for his claim to be God, but for his claim to be their Messiah)?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 15, 2016

      It does appear that Jesus was turned over to the Romans by the Jewish authorities, yes. It is often thought that it was because he was seen as a troublemaker issuing threats agains the Temple.

      • Avatar
        godspell  October 18, 2016

        He was clearly challenging the authority of the Temple priests, and many other aspects of the Jewish religious order, because he felt they were obstacles to the coming of the Kingdom. Not because he was anti-Jewish, but because he felt the Jewish authorities were too concerned with things that didn’t matter.

        And of course, in challenging the authority of those the Romans had entrusted with the task of keeping the peace (which they did out of concern for the lives of their people, knowing very well what the Romans were capable of when provoked), he was challenging Rome itself. So it’s very unlikely Pilate gave his crucifixion a second thought. That being said, if the Jewish authorities hadn’t considered Jesus a problem, neither would he. He would have assumed they knew which troublemakers in their own community needed to be taken care of. That was their job. His was to pass sentence.

  3. talmoore
    talmoore  October 15, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, do you see a similar evolution in Paul’s letters, say, from an indifference to his fellow Jews in 1 Thessalonians to an outright hostility in Galations and Romans? The website Jew or not a Jew considers Paul to be the first “self-hating Jew” and a traitor to his people, who was the ultimate catalyst (more so than Jesus) to the eventual rise of anti-Semiticism. http://www.jewornotjew.com/profile.jsp?ID=738

    • Bart
      Bart  October 15, 2016

      No, I don’t think Paul ever shows hostility to Jews. In Galatians and Romans he is opposing *Christians* who are maintaining that gentile converts to the faith have to keep the Torah (specifically circumcision). He never indicates a hatred of Jews per se, and suggests on the contrary that he himself continued to keep Torah. His issue is whether gentiles should be compelled to do so.

      • Avatar
        Newbhero  October 22, 2016

        Paul is all over the place on Judaism. For example, in Acts, he presents himself as a jewish/law-keeping jew to the Jerusalem church (which presumably still kept law). Then there are teachings where he says that law keeping is optional, and in others he basucally says he doesnt follow law anymore, that it was just a temporary thing that only served to make people sinners and be curser etc. The question is then if these sentiments evolve linearly (ie the earlier, the more pro-law and the later the more anti-law), or if all these various opinions happened simultaneously (meaning he was lying to the jerusalem church by pretending to follow law) especially with him saying that he pretends to follow law when around jews, but then stops when with gentiles.

  4. Avatar
    twiskus  October 15, 2016

    Just curious, you mention Pilate is increasingly innocent chronologically, but I noticed you went from Mark to Luke, then to Matthew saying his innocence is even more clear. I know they were written extremely close (80-85 CE) and was curious if there is anything in the two books that *could* place one before the other?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 15, 2016

      Actually I meant to put Matthew before Luke. They are both hard to date, but most scholars make Luke later.

      • Avatar
        twiskus  October 15, 2016

        I figured and appreciate the clarification!

  5. Avatar
    DGigena  October 15, 2016

    If it was not possible for Jew authorities to influence a governor decision during Jesus time.
    Why it was a something that people will believe as feasible by the time of Matthew or Luke’s gospels?
    Did political situation changed during that 50 year period?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 16, 2016

      My sense is that most people never had any direct involvement with Roman governance. Seems strange, in our days of mass media.

  6. Avatar
    Triassicman  October 15, 2016

    Bart, I was brought up in a fundamentalist church much like yourself and I never ever remember getting the impression that Jews, per se, were responsible for deicide. It was the Pharisees specifically that were the antagonists with all other Jews being the protagonists. Our church had respect for Jewish people and I remember during the Yon Kippur war of 1973 our Pastor praying that God would protect his people. Our church also had love and acceptance for homosexuals and transgenders but not for the homosexual act. I wonder about your personal experience on the subject?

  7. Avatar
    Wilusa  October 15, 2016

    Just about “being a Jew” – am I correct in understanding that most Jews today consider a person “automatically” a Jew if the person has a Jewish *mother*, with the religion or other characteristics of the father being irrelevant?

    About “race” in general – this baffles me. I remember reading in a textbook, when I was a schoolgirl, that there are so *many* differences among the three then-acknowledged human “races” – skin color being the least of them! – that if not for the all-important criterion of complete interfertility, they should be classified as different *species*. It was emphasized that no one was *better* than any other; there were just a lot of *differences*. But recently, I’ve read arguments for not even considering them different races!

    • Bart
      Bart  October 16, 2016

      Yes, in modern Israel to be a Jew your mother must be Jewish. (not your father, since, technically speaking you don’t know who your father is, but you do know your mother)

      • Avatar
        HawksJ  October 16, 2016

        So, is ‘race’ no longer a kosher term, pun intended?

        And, relatedly, are you saying that ‘being Jewish’ should no longer be considered a race AND a religion (although I know you don’t have to be one to be the other)?

        • Bart
          Bart  October 18, 2016

          I’m saying that ancient people did not have our understanding of “race” as developed in the nineteenth century, so we can’t really say that someone is “anti-semitic” if they have no concept of “semites.”

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  October 16, 2016

      But the majority of Jews in the world today live outside Israel. Most Jews are probably aware of the rule of thumb that, if your mother was Jewish, you are Jewish. But many Jews don’t follow that strictly. Some young Jews who had a Jewish mother and who converted to Christianity still consider themselves Jewish while others don’t. Many who did not convert but, when asked if they are Jewish, will qualify their answer: “I’m a cultural Jew” or “by heritage but not religion.” Some say “I was born Jewish” but seem to leave it open whether they still are.

    • Avatar
      flyboydh1  October 26, 2016

      Judaism through the mother is biblical.

  8. Avatar
    Eric  October 19, 2016

    Idea of “race” was certainly not the same as ours, but doesn’t the concept of the Jewish people in the OT and beyond rely on descent from Jacob? In a sense, this is a “racial” definition. Also, in my reading of the prophets and so forth, it seems God views his Chosen People to be those so descended, even if they are NOT following his LAW i.e. Judaism (hence his visiting repercussions upon them).

    • Bart
      Bart  October 20, 2016

      For most modern people race is not really about a family geneology.

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  October 20, 2016

      People refer to “this people” and “that people” in parts of Eastern Europe. They are all Caucasian (except some tend to have olive complexion and black hair) but they are all Caucasian. There are tribes in Africa that are all Black but are distinguished as tribes and peoples. By the time of Jesus, many Jews had intermarried with other people; one was David’s grand-mother Ruth, the Moabite. If you don’t accept the story of Khazars adopting Judaism en masse, then intermarriage is the only explanation for the wide diversity of appearance among Jews. Some people call the Jews “a people”: a few call them “a civilization.” Since there have always (or for centuries) been converts to Judaism, any genetic consistency has been watered down.

  9. Avatar
    AlanGoldman  October 23, 2016

    Please note that I had last communicated with you on another of your Blog topics, i.e., “Why don’t people see discrepancies in the Bible,” and analyzing the effects of transmission by oral tradition prior to the writing of the Gospels, and discussing my own experiences at College studying under Professor Albert Lord, upon whose pioneering work in the field of oral tradition in general you had so pertinently referenced in your recent book, “Jesus Before the Gospels” (2016), pp.182-87. With respect to the topic of this particular blog, I think that the (increasingly) anti-Jewish tone of the Gospels, especially John’s, which always references “the Jews,” and early Christians as acting in one way or the other “for fear of the Jews” (identifying the Jews as being the “laos”) meaning, “the people” as such, without any distinction from “the Jewish Leaders,” or any Jewish Sects, such as the Sadducees/Temple Priests, Pharisees/scribes, etc. (this, despite some modern, “liberal” interpreters well-intentioned, yet apologistic, contention that “laos” was not “really” meant to denominate the “ethnic” Israel — see, annotations to the Gospel John found, passim, in the New Oxford Annotated Bible, and the Harper Collins Study Bible) is substantially attributable to Historical Forces in the Post-70 CE (i.e., post-“First Jewish War”/Temple Destruction) era. Significantly, my conclusion is consistent with your primary observation that Ancient “anti-Jewish” feeling is not conceptually equivalent to “modern Anti-Semitism,” which is essentially “racial,” rather than primarily “religious,” in its bigotry. Instead, as I contend further, below,anti-Jewish feeling was primarily motivated by Political forces at work in the History of the times.

    Having been a History major at College, as I previously told you, my observation is precisely that that anti-Jewish sentiment should not be regarded as primarily “religious,” operating in the abstract vacuum of the realm of ideas only, but was fundamentally politically motivated by the historical events of the times, specifically, the Imperial Roman suppression, and de-legitimization of the very nation-state identity of “JUDEA,” — the very name of such former province the Romans, in a calculated act of spiteful insult, officially altered, in the aftermath of the Roman defeat of the conquered Province of “Judea Captiva” (as the Arch of Titus still today memorializes) to the new name of: “PALESTINE” — deriving from and referencing the historical, “Biblical,” Foes of the Israelites, namely, “the PHILISTINES”, which the Romans, having a well-developed sense of history, reached back into the Hebrew Bible to resurrect and apply, vindictively, to the entire region of the former province Judea.

    So, BEFORE the destruction in 70 CE of the (Herodian) Second Temple in Jerusalem, and BEFORE any of the Gospels had been written, the Pauline Epistles (which, as you know better than I, are considered to have been written before 70 CE), together with the oral-based tradition in which they circulated, had in fact all quite eagerly sought to identify “Christianity” WITHIN the tradition of “Judaism” in the minds of Roman officialdom (specifically, as being the correct, logical outgrowth of the established and official acknowledged JEWISH religion and tradition, and in “fulfillment” of Jewish Biblical prophecy, Judaism then being a widely appealing religion to a considerable number of predominantly “Greek”-speaking “GOD-FEARERS ” — as the Book of Acts so often terms them. In fact, Judaism itself had, for centuries before the Christian era, made room for so-called “God-Fearers” in the form of those gentiles who at least subscribed to the so-called Noahide Covenant, and, in Roman times, a considerable number of “Gentiles” were increasingly attracted to Judaism (both by Judaism’s very “antiquity,” a prized concept in even in “Ancient” times, and by its appeal to high moral standards as an integral part of religious devotion itself, such moral concerns NOT generally being an attribute of “pagan” religious devotion as such, which instead was primarily concerned merely with the proper practice of the ritualistic propitiation of the various gods; such “moral” concerns were, at the time, regarded as properly being NOT within the purview of “religion” as such, but of the (then-competing) schools “PHILOSOPHY” (e.g., Stoic, Middle-Platonist, Epicurean, Cynic, etc). In our “modern times,” it is important, though often difficult, especially for the non-historian general public, to bear in mind that not ALL “ancient” history was regarded as “ancient” to the “ancients”… Indeed, in the Roman era, ANY religion that was regarded as “ancient,” then, was, ipso facto, deemed to have credibility and legitimacy — the Romans themselves having a reverence for “History” because they admired and borrowed (appropriated) so such much from other cultures, like the Egyptian, and especially the Greco-Trojan, and not just the Greek Gods, but even going so far as to claim, in the “Aeneid” (Augustian-era Propaganda), to be themselves the very descendants of Paris of Troy, and heirs to Troy’s posited Glory and Destiny, as well as at the same time perceiving themselves to be the very culmination of History itself. So before the First Jewish Revolt in 66 CE, it was, as startling as it may seem to Christians today, then an open question as to which religion would attract more proselytes, temple-centric orthodox Judaism or its Christian offshoot, or, even within nascent “Christianty” itself, a “Jewish” Christianity.that would have required observance of the Mosaic Law, the so-called “Judaizer”-strain of “Christianity” — against which Paul and other authors of the Epistles so inveighed.

    The crushing of the Judea after the 66-70 CE “Jewish War” as (Josephus, a turn-coat, Roman sycophant and would-be Historian, styles his pro-Roman slanted personal account, “The Jewish War,” in conscious imitation of the Roman-centric perspective of “Foreign” Wars, such as the “Punic Wars,” the “Mithradadic War,” the “Jurgathine War,” etc.) thus, necessarily, caused a profound reorientation in the attitude of early “Christians” towards the PRACTICAL UTILITY of identifying themselves with the then, post-70 CE, militarily-crushed province/nation of Judea. Likewise, “the Jewish War” caused a demotion of the status of the Jewish religion itself in the Roman Empire, thus causing it to lose most of its prior allure/cache in the Roman world. Post-70 CE, the emerging Christian movement, therefore, found it most highly impolitic to associate itself, at least in such an intimate way, with the now-discredited religion of “Judea Captiva”. Naturally, the Christian movement recognized that what had once been a kind of Asset, i.e., its close identification with Judaism, had become converted into a terrible Liability. Consequently, it is only to be expected that Christianity in general would, quite logically, from a Political viewpoint, seek to place considerable distance between itself and the then-recently crushed nation/Province of Judea (renamed “Palestine”) and its “Jewish” religion. So, of course, Pontius Pilate became ever more exculpated and exonerated of his role as an executor, and, quite literally, the executor, of Jesus as a subversive rebel in opposition to Roman Imperial Dominion. The Christian belief-system and movement, as reflected in the Gospels, especially those written post-70 CE (which all are, except, perhaps, Mark — the least overly “anti-Jewish”) thus became ever more careful to emphasize the “Christian” acknowledging of the legitmacy of Roman Rule as such, while at the same time (albeit sometimes sub rosa, as reflected in the dense, cryptic, allegorical imagery of Revelation, the Apocalypse of John, still in effect resisting the Cult of “Emperor worship” because it so directly conflicted with worship Jesus as King of Kings). Ultimately, as we know, Christianity engulfed and subsumed the political machinery of the Roman Empire itself, to become the (only) authorized religion of the Empire in its waning days, as Roman Emperors desperately grasped for some single, unifying, organizing principle/belief-system that would facilitate the administration of the decaying, disintegrating Empire.

    Respectfully submitted,
    Alang573@aol.com

  10. Avatar
    Newbhero  October 27, 2016

    I think the NT treats jews as a race and not as mere religion. If it was merely a religion, paul would say that he “used to be jew” rather than still was. Also, all the talk about “their fathers” or “his blood be upon our children” and “god blinded them” etc.

  11. Pattycake1974
    Pattycake1974  January 1, 2017

    Are there differences between ancient Judaism and modern Judaism? If so, what are a few of the most prominent differences?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 2, 2017

      Lots! For one thing,, modern Judaism isn’t one thing but lots of different things. So too ancient Judaism. But all that is way too much to describe in a comment!!

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