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Anti-Judaism in the Gospels

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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Comments

  1. Avatar
    maxhirez  October 16, 2012

    Your branching out into broader history here mirrors an experience I recently had where it became apparent that, even in a room full of college graduates (no advanced degrees) I was the only person who had any idea what the Thirty Years’ War was about (context-blindness to Christianity as a cause of historical violence.) It sometimes seems that to most Americans, history began in the year One and then skipped ahead a millennium and a half. Is that a fair assessment of your student base as well? What about in academia? Does the tendency to concentrated on one era, area, even in some careers a single fragment of a text blind scholars to important wider contexts?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 16, 2012

      Yup, and things are getting increasingly specialized. Well, I guess they’ve been specialized for a long time. One of my closest friends, a NT scholar, used to claim that her scholarly expertise was the book of Romans, chapters 9-11!

  2. Avatar
    mjardeen  October 16, 2012

    I think the key to understanding the transition from Jesus to Christ, from a man to a God is to understand the transition from Christianity being a faith of a Jewish apocalyptic preacher to a faith for gentiles. In making that transition the Roman’s became the big prize. At least in the long term blaming the jews made a lot more sense as the religion ceased to be Jewish. Once it became a Roman faith the one thing that vanished was any aspect of Judaism from the religion. Name one Jewish holiday that Christians celebrate.

  3. Avatar
    fallingblood  October 16, 2012

    I’m not fully convinced by this explanation as I think it is a little too much of a generalization. Looking at just the Gospel of John, since it appears to be the most anti-Jewish, there is a problem with assuming that “the Jews,” as a complete group, were being condemned.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but the leading idea with the authorship of John is that it was produced in a Jewish community that had somewhat recently been kicked out of the synagogue. Most likely the authors still remained Jewish (at least in their eyes). For them, Jesus (and most likely the disciples) still remained Jewish as well. So it wouldn’t make much sense for John to have been condemning all Jews.

    Instead, I think it may be more reasonable to assume that when “the Jews” are condemned, a specific group of Jews were being condemned instead, and it was probably coming out of the current troubles the community of John was facing.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 16, 2012

      Could be. But it doesn’t explain the definite article “the” when “the Jews” are condemned. (Why doesn’t he say “the Pharisees” or “the Jewish leaders” or “some of the Jews,” etc.?)

  4. Avatar
    Christian  October 16, 2012

    I don’t read ancient Greek, so please excuse my ignorance: in John, when Pilate hands Jesus over “to them”, is it possible to understand “to the soldiers (who brought him there)”? I suppose that would not make a big difference, though.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 16, 2012

      That’s how it is commonly interpreted, but the nearest antecedent in the Greek is the Jewish leaders. I think John is using very heavy irony here: “the Jewish leaders” really were responsible for jesus’ death.

  5. Avatar
    Jim  October 16, 2012

    My opinion is that at least for the gospels, the negativity was flung more at the “Jewish religious leaders” rather than the total population with the twelve tribe birthmark when caught with their pants down (possibly three remaining tribes might be more accurate within the first century context). Paul also took some shots at the “old covenant” by calling it obsolete. Nevertheless, I suppose there was still enough in the NT documents for a guy like Martin Luther to run with. (I still maintain that Luther’s wife Katharina von Bora, who among other administrative tasks ran a brewery, would have been the better candidate to head the Protestant Reformation. At least this would have dropped the anti-Semitism and made drinking beer a mandatory religious sacrament instead).

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 16, 2012

      Actually, Luther was quite a famous beer drinker himself! Conservative evangelicals take note!

      • Avatar
        tcc  October 17, 2012

        Luther HAD to have been drunk when he thought up the idea of faith alone. That’s the most nihilistic philosophy ever.

        “FAITH ALONE, BRAH! NO WORKS!”

        “Wait, Martin, if God only cares about faith and not moral duties for salvation, then how can God be the source of all morality? If the only thing that matters is belief, and that this life is just a waiting room for eternal bliss, doesn’t that mean life and morality is completely meaningless?”

        *Luther tosses back a pint, vomits, passes out*.

  6. Avatar
    Xeronimo74  October 16, 2012

    The one thing I never understood was this: According to Christian belief Jesus HAD to die (and ‘be resurrected’) in order to ‘destroy Death’ and ‘save Mankind’, right? And that there was no other option than this ‘suicide mission’ (if there was, why didn’t God opt for that one?), that his execution was NECESSARY as a sort of ‘cosmic ritual’.

    But if that was the case then shouldn’t the Christians THANK both the Jews and Judas (assuming a betrayal by Judas really happened – Paul, for example, doesn’t mention it) in helping Jesus to succeed? Since Jesus couldn’t just have nailed himself to a cross in order to accomplish the mission he was out to fulfill?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 16, 2012

      Yes, this is one of those questions taht a lot of people raise. My sense is that it is related, generically, to bigger issues related to divine foreknowledge and even predestination (cf. Jesus Christ Superstar on this issue, with respect to Judas). E.g., if God predestines who will be saved, how can he blame those who are damned? And, well, is that fair? Same set of questions.

      • Avatar
        Xeronimo74  October 17, 2012

        I don’t see the immediate connection to those issues though? I mean, it’s primarily a matter of logic, no? IF Mankind could only be saved by an ‘innocent human’ (Jesus) getting executed unjustly (= an arbitrary condition defined by God) THEN, in order for God’s plan (to save Mankind) to be a success, someone HAD to get Jesus executed unjustly. Otherwise God’s plan would have failed. And that wouldn’t have been possible, right?

        So it still seems like the Christians would have THANK both the Jews and Judas for playing their part in this cosmic ritual. If they hadn’t played their parts then, according to biblical concepts, Mankind could not have been saved and Death could not have been destroyed! Also, lucky Mankind that Jesus didn’t die of some illness or broke his neck in the country side before his time!!!

        There are so many illogical concepts and severe incoherences in most of the Christian beliefs if one really analyzes them rationally … I can’t understand how believers don’t realize this?

        (on a side note: what’s the big deal about Jesus’ alleged sacrifice in the first place? Nothing was really lost since he simply returned to his former state of being and wasn’t really human all along anyway)

  7. Avatar
    Christian  October 16, 2012

    If we compare similar stories in the gospels in the chronological order of composition, is it possible to bring forth other evolutions, besides anti-Judaism? In total, would these themes be considered characteristics of what you call proto-orthodoxy?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 16, 2012

      Good question! I’ll have to think about it! The one that some scholars (Raymond Brown, e.g.) have pointed out is that the time in which Jesus becomes the Son of God seems to develop chronologically: at the baptism in Mark; at the conception in Luke; in eternity past in John.

  8. Robertus
    Robertus  October 16, 2012

    The progressive exoneration of Pilate is obvious, as well as the growing anti-Judaism. But the view of Judaen/Jewish responsibility for Jesus’ death is seen from the very earliest evidence we have, in Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, which some critical scholars date as early as 40 CE:

    “For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea, for you suffered the same things from your own compatriots as they did from the Jews, who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out; they displease God and oppose everyone by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. Thus they have constantly been filling up the measure of their sins; but God’s wrath has overtaken them at last.”

    1 Thes 2,14-16 (RSVP)

  9. Avatar
    Mikail78  October 16, 2012

    Bart, as always, excellent post. This is just one of many reasons why I think the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy is not only intellectually infantile, but dangerous as well. If one is going to say the Bible is inerrant and everything in it is true, holy, and good, one has to basically approve of such sinister views that we read about here.

    Thank you for being a voice of reason and sanity.

  10. Avatar
    donmax  October 16, 2012

    I wrote a response earlier, but it got lost somewhere in the ethernet after multiple interruptions. Don’t have time to elaborate now except to say I’m not buying what you’re selling. Making a distinction between anti-Jewish attitudes in the distant past and the anti-Semitism of more recent times only serves to exonerate Christian superstition from ongoing endemic Jew hatred that culminated in the horrors of Holocaust. It’s no accident that Franco, Mussolini and Hitler were all raised Roman Catholic.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 16, 2012

      I’m not saying there is not continuity. I’m saying modern anti-semitism — which of course was directly linked to the anti-Judaism of the earlier Christian tradition — was given a different footing with the development of 19th century anthropological theories of race, and became even *more* insidious.

      • Avatar
        donmax  October 16, 2012

        That I can accept. “Directly linked” is the key point here. Jew hatred, both overt and covert, is part and parcel of mainstream Christianity. Even secular historians tend to de-emphasize the connection, as well as the causation.

  11. Avatar
    Peter  October 16, 2012

    Bart.

    Is there any chance that PP was reluctant to pass a sentence of death on Jesus because he was worried about the effect it would have had on the people of Jerusalem (who you say were always ‘fired up’ with religious fervour during Passover), namely, it would give them a reason to start some kind of uprising or revolt?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 16, 2012

      Doesn’t look like it. He never seems to have minded offending the Jews he was ruling, and crucifying Jesus was probably meant to set an example of what happens to someone who opposes Roman rule.

      • Avatar
        Peter  October 16, 2012

        OK. 2 very quick ‘yes or no’ questions!!

        Do you think it’s likely that PP would have known about the scene Jesus caused in the Temple?

        Would PP have made the connection between the titles ‘Messiah’ and ‘King of the Jews’ had the Jewish authorities not been involved? Did they put the spin on Jesus’ teachings that left him vulnerable to PP’s ‘justice’?

  12. Avatar
    DPeel  October 16, 2012

    I grew up in a conservative Southern Baptist church. I was taught “Jesus died for our sins”. The death of Jesus was a “substitute” for me. Also, I was told the “Jews killed Jesus” and rejected Jesus and this was bad. But, it always seemed that the Jews were doing the work of God (according to this theology). I was told this was “God’s plan”. Why be angry with someone for doing God’s bidding? Strange!

    • Avatar
      tcc  October 16, 2012

      I always thought it was weird that Jesus tells Peter to “get in behind me, Satan” when Peter tries to convince Jesus to not go to the cross, but then the gospel writers portray Judas as evil for CAUSING Jesus’ death, too. It makes no sense.

      Is Jesus’ death a good thing or a bad thing!? Make up your minds, dead anonymous religious guys!

  13. Avatar
    mjardeen  October 17, 2012

    Among evangelicals and fundamentalist thee seems to be this love-hate relationship towards Jews. They are both God’s chosen and also the killers of Jesus. Watching Gibson’s Passion I am struck by the absolution presented for both PP and his wife who seems to covert on the spot. Gibson goes to great pains to make the movie a statement of his fundamentalist Catholic faith. Bart, I don’t remember reading your opinion on the movie and it’s portrail of the Gospels.

  14. Avatar
    proveit  October 17, 2012

    Do you think the story would have been different if it weren’t for circumcision? Would the followers of Christ have become Jews if it were easy?

    Crossan said in one of his books that adult men actually got circumcised and often got infections. I don’t have a problem with seeing this as a major game changer for the men. It would not have been a problem for the women though, which would be a further complication.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 17, 2012

      Yes, I think if believers had to be circumcised, things would hvae been very different indeed.

  15. Avatar
    Christian  October 17, 2012

    There is a translation of the NT where many instances of “the Jews” have been translated instead as “the Judeans”. It softens the antisemitism of many passages, but do you think this is what John had in mind?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 17, 2012

      It’s a matter of debate among Johnannine scholars. I personally don’t think he is simply referring to people who live in Judea.

  16. Avatar
    lfasel  October 18, 2012

    As in one of your previous articles, literacy in antiquity, It is highly unlikely that the REAL Apostle John every wrote that book ascribed to him, as it says in Acts 4:13. Or else he had a lot of free time and money to spend as an adult.

  17. Avatar
    bobnaumann  October 19, 2012

    Could the Gospel of John have actually been written by a Jewish follower of Jesus? Would a Jew have Jesus to proclaim that he was God? Wouldn’t have been blatant heresy? Isn’t more likely that John was written to support the emerging theology of the divinity of Christ in the Second Century as the Church Fathers were trying to distance themselves from the Jews?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 19, 2012

      Well, if it was a Jew, it was one that had developed some unusual views! But he would n’t be the only one. There were Jews in antiquity who thought that there were divine beings along with God Almighty.

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