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When Christians Went on the Attack Against Jews

I return now, for a couple of posts, to my thoughts on the rise of anti-Judaism in the early Christian tradition, and my thesis that it was largely driven by a different way of reading the Bible, that the Christians insisted the Jewish scriptures were looking forward to Jesus as a suffering messiah who would die for sins, and in doing so fulfilled all sorts of prophecies, and most Jews thought this entire view was nonsense, if not blasphemous.

Here is where my thoughts move on from what I said in the last post on the matter.  Should you need to refresh your memory, it is here:   https://ehrmanblog.org/why-christians-needed-an-old-testament-pagan-attacks-on-the-faith/

 

An important point to stress is that Christians recognized that if their own interpretations of the Jewish Bible were correct, the Jews’ own interpretations were necessarily invalid.   As I argued in Triumph of Christianity, the distinctive feature of early Christianity vis-à-vis all the other religions of the Roman world – including Judaism – was that Christians argued their views provided the way of salvation and the only way of salvation.  Christians introduced into the world or religion the sense of exclusivism: if we are right, you are wrong.   The implications for the battle over the Jewish Scriptures were that Jews could not claim any right to them, since they predicted the Christian message and the Christian religion, not the Jewish one.   It was these implications that led to the rhetorical violence that we see in the Christian opposition to Jews in the first four centuries, opposition driven almost entirely by an appeal to the Bible as Christian rather than Jewish.

We can see this polemic already in the earliest stages of the early Christian tradition within the pages of the New Testament itself.  And it is easy to trace its increasing severity and animosity with the passing of time.   In my book I will spend considerable space discussing the key texts, most of them completely unknown to the reading public at large.  As examples (the first being the exception):

To see these examples, which start getting quite, well, robust, you will need to belong to the blog.  Joining is quick, easy, and inexpensive — especially considering what you get for your membership fee.  And the entire fee goes to charity.  So why not join?

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Heightened Opposition to Jews in Early Christianity
Why Was the World Created in 4004 BC?

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Comments

  1. tompicard
    tompicard  July 3, 2019

    really ?
    >> As I argued in Triumph of Christianity,
    >> the distinctive feature of early Christianity vis-à-vis
    >> all the other religions of the Roman world – including Judaism –
    >> was that Christians argued their views provided the way of
    >> salvation and the only way of salvation.

    I don’t see that from reading the New Testament
    are you making a distinction between NT and ‘early christianity’
    [Though I grant that I haven’t read Triumph of Christianity, ]
    if so, do you (i.e will you clarify ) that these polemics are antithetical at least to Jesus teachings and probably the NT as a whole

    your example from the canonical Gospel of John can be easily countered by the most famous verse 3:16
    For God so LOVED THE WORLD that he . . .
    emphasis on ‘God loving the world’ does not sound exclusivist to me, many other examples throughout NT abound

    and if you want to compare non-canonical early christian writers like Barnabas and Justin, how about Origen who as far as I can tell believed and wrote of universal reconciliation, ie hardly exclusive salvation for christians

    1
    • Bart
      Bart  July 5, 2019

      I’m not saying that every single verse of the NT teaches this. But exclusivism is definitely a major theme of the New Testament. I could cite verse after verse; just within the chapter you mention, for example, check out 3:36. And read the writings of Paul. And the speeches of Acts. And the book of Revelation.

      3
  2. tompicard
    tompicard  July 3, 2019

    >> the distinctive feature of early Christianity vis-à-vis
    >> other religions – including Judaism –
    >> was that Christians argued their views provided the way of
    >> salvation and the only way of salvation.

    question
    was Judaism NOT exclusive ?
    whatever ‘salvation’ meant to them in the first century, did they believe it was available to gentiles?

    that would be helpful for me to know
    thanks

    • Bart
      Bart  July 5, 2019

      No, Jews typically did not teach that non-Jews were going to hell. And yes, many were open to conversion by non-Jews, but it was not for “salvation” in the way Christians said. You may want to read the book on “Mission” by Martin Goodman for a good overview.

      1
      • Avatar
        dankoh  July 6, 2019

        There is very little in the literature of the period of what Jews thought would happen to non-Jews after death, and most of what there is focuses on those non-Jews who had persecuted Jews (thus, Wisdom and 1 Enoch). – I call it “postmortem revenge.” B. Sanh. 105a is one of the few Talmudic references I am aware of that allows a place in heaven for righteous Gentiles (the ones who obey the covenant of Noah).

        • Bart
          Bart  July 7, 2019

          Yes, I’ll be dealing with this in my book on the History of Heaven and Hell.

  3. Avatar
    Phil  July 3, 2019

    I would like to ask you a question Dr Ehrmann – I recently had occasion to recite the Nicene creed, in the form in which is occurs in the Book of Common Prayer. Why is Pontius Pilate mentioned by name?
    I can’t imagine that this efficient and terse statement of faith , much debated over, has anything in it by chance. What core element of the faith requires a name check for Pilate?

    1
    • Bart
      Bart  July 5, 2019

      Originally it was in order to situate Christ in a historical moment, becaues of the Christian view that God had acted specifically in history to change the course of all history.

      5
  4. Avatar
    fishician  July 3, 2019

    Just this morning saw an article saying that in a poll about 20% of Americans think a small business should be able to deny service to Jews due to religious convictions, and of course the numbers were even higher for LGBTQ and Muslims. Even a surprising number for African Americans. Pretty sad that religion is so often used as an excuse to justify our own prejudices. If your religion prevents you from treating people fairly and as equals, you need a new religion.

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  5. Avatar
    Hon Wai  July 3, 2019

    Did pagan writers in Antiquity commonly showed deference to Judaism owing to its perceived ancient lineage? Wasn’t it equally common to find that they mocked the weird beliefs (worship of only one god surely was as absurd as having only one friend) and inconvenient practices (no pork, circumcision, they were lazy as they worked only 6 days) of the Jews? Surely the Roman overlords stationed in Palestine sometimes provoked the Jews (e.g. erecting statue of Caligula in the Temple)?
    You explained earlier that Christians defended themselves against pagan charges by claiming they really did have ancient roots, and their religion fulfilled the ancient scriptural promises. Are you implying that many of the verses in the NT referring to Jesus as the fulfilment of the scriptures, and the disciples searching through the scriptures originated among Gentile Christian communities? I had thought these passages and fulfilment hermeneutics originated very early on. Author of GMatthew writing to a Jewish audience cited scriptures to prove Jesus fulfilled the prophecies.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 5, 2019

      Many did, yes. And yes, many mocked weird beliefs of Jews, just as they mocked weird beliefs of lots of other people who weren’t Greek or Roman. And yes, there was occasional political opposition as well. But my argument is that the hatred and opposition to jews for practicing their Jewish religion (i.e. for being “wrong”) is principally a Christian in vention.

      2
  6. Avatar
    Hogie2  July 3, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,
    Is there a particular time in history when fundamentalist Christians began to be “pro-Jewish”, or maybe “pro-Isreal” would be more accurate? It seems that on the one hand, anti-semitism resides more on the far right, yet many far right Christians are pro-Israel to a fault (while simultaneously believing individual Jews will go to hell without accepting Jesus), because they believe Israel becoming a nation in 1949 is prophetically significant (maybe I just answered my own question). Or has there always been a faction of Christianity that viewed the Jews as “the chosen people “?

    1
    • Bart
      Bart  July 5, 2019

      Yes, pro-Israel is more accurate. Largely it had to do with developments in 19th century Christian thinking about the end times and the need for Israel to exist before Jesus could come back. I think I posted on this a few months ago. If 2 Thess. 2:2 indicates that the anti-Christ will arise in the temple in Jerualem, then it needs to be there, which means Israel needs to rebuild it, which menas that Israel has to be in control of the the promised land, and especially Jerusalem, which means it also must have the temple mount. And so Christians began to support the Zionist movement, and many very conservative Christians still do — not becuase of love of Jews (they will all rot in hell) but because of the need for Israel to control the temple for Jesus to return. Maybe I’ll repost on this.

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      • Avatar
        nichael  July 5, 2019

        If I may, for those interested in these topics I’m going to take this opportunity to plug Craig Koester’s excellent course for the Teaching Company on “The Apocalypse”.

        With regard to the question above there are a couple of good lectures on the details of the various species of modern apocalypsists, and how they use the Bible to support their respective views.

        [[And as a small, but specific, example, I’d like to pick a tiny nit with the reference to “the anti-Christ” above (although I’m sure Dr Ehrman knows this and is only using a kind of shorthand here. 😉 )

        That is, the passage in 2Thes does not refer to the “anti-Christ” but to “the man of lawlessness”. More to the point, the *only* place where “anti-Christ” is mentioned in the NT is in 1John [note: NOT in Revelation] where it is used to describe a specific class of heretics.

        This is a very good example of the way in which most modern apocalypsists (perhaps best typified by the Dispensationalists or the “Left Befind” folks) tend to pick fragments of seemingly random verses, and mix them into a hodgepodge, from which they compose with their particular narrative.]]

        1
      • Avatar
        Phil  July 7, 2019

        I think that another reason evangelical Christians can sometimes be a bit besotted with Israel, and I am remembering my youth and some of those I grew up amongst, is not only to do with the Second Coming. It is also because in some vivid way it seems to prove that the Bible is true. So much of the Bible, such as the times of Jesus, the Romans, the Old Testament, are all so far in the past and nothing can be seen of them today. But Israel is mentioned all over the Bible – and here is Israel again! Back to life! So it is one of the few things about the Bible that is undeniably, unignorably a reality – here is this place talked about so much and it is back among as again. So some feel. I certainly felt a bit of that, back in the day.

  7. Avatar
    Zak1010  July 3, 2019

    Jesus did not consider Jews enemies.The disciples of Jesus did not consider the Jews as enemies. They were commanded by Jesus to spread the word to Jews, the children of Israel ( their own brethren ). Jesus did caution the disciples to take heed of the Pharisees who were hypocrites ( Jesus words – never called them enemies ) , yet still commanded the disciples to preach to them for guidance.
    Around the turn of the 1st century, most Christians were followers of Paul ( a pharisee convert to his Christianity ) His followers were predominantly ex- pagan with no real attachment to Abrahamic, Mossiac creed nor knowledge of Jewish traditions ( OT ). Given the political atmosphere at that point in time, labeling the Jews in a negative way was acceptable ( specially when the Jews were called God killers).
    As far as circumcision. Circumcision was a command to Abraham by God. Abraham handed down this ordained command through his sons Ishmael and Isaac. That is why both the Muslims and Jews observe circumcision in high regard. ( not a reason to identify them for prosecution as Justin says ).
    It would have been very interesting had the Book of Barnabas made it into the NT. Even though Barnabas was a direct student of Jesus, I wonder why it didn’t.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 5, 2019

      The letter of Barnabas was written sometime in the 130s CE, so not by someone who knew Jesus. If it *had* made it into the NT, probalby Christainity would have become yet more anti-Jewish, earlier on, than it even was.

      4
  8. Avatar
    nichael  July 3, 2019

    >> “Christians introduced into the world or religion the sense of exclusivism: if we are right, you are wrong.”

    I’m confused by this statement.

    I can understand why we can consider most pagans not be “exclusivist”, but I don’t understand why we wouldn’t consider the religion of most mainstream Jews to be so (at least once Judaism had become a strictly monotheistic religion).

  9. Avatar
    brenmcg  July 3, 2019

    I think of all the gospels John’s puts the least responsibility for Jesus’s execution on “the Jews”.

    In the synoptics its the crowd that call for Barabbas’s release and Jesus’s execution.

    In John its the chief priests that call for it.
    19:6 “As soon as the chief priests and their officials saw him, they shouted, Crucify! Crucify!”
    19:15 “Shall I crucify your king? Pilate asked. We have no king but Caesar, the chief priests answered.”

    • Bart
      Bart  July 5, 2019

      One problem is that in John’s Gospel (alone) the enemies of Jesus are frequently simply called “the Jews” — as if ALL of them were his enemies. It’s a strange phenomenon, long discussed. (Like saying “the Americans” hated Obama)

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      • Avatar
        brenmcg  July 6, 2019

        But it is no different than when he uses “the Romans”; 11:48 “the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation”. Its not as if he’s claiming all Romans would be responsible for it.

        He also uses “the Jews” where its clearly not meant to be *all* Jews – 11:36 “Jesus wept. The Jews said see how he loved him”.

        John’s is the only gospel who has Jesus specifically describe himself as a Jew – 4:22 “You worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews”.

        • Bart
          Bart  July 7, 2019

          No different? Hmmm… I don’t think anyone would argue the Gospel of John could be used as grounds for persecuting Italians….
          (John 4:22 does not include a statement by Jesus saying “I am a Jew.” BTW, notice when he talks to his enemies among “the Jews” he talks about “your” law….)

          • Avatar
            brenmcg  July 7, 2019

            But if the Italians had never become christians it might have been used against them (not only did the romans kill christ they also destroyed gods holy city) – through no fault of the writer of the gospel of John.

            Also doesnt Josephus refer to the law and Jews in similar terms? – “for the Jews, by demolishing the tower of Antonia, had made their temple four-square, while at the same time they had it written in *their* sacred oracles … ”
            and “The Jews took this prediction to belong to themselves in particular, and many of the wise men were thereby deceived in their determination”.

          • Bart
            Bart  July 8, 2019

            Yes, Christians attacked those who did not become Christian. But they did not focus on any other ethnic or national group per se, other than the Jews. If you can think of an exception, I’d love to know it! (Where are the pogroms against the Brits? or the Galatians? or the Italians?)

            And yes, Jews did see themselves as a people “set apart.” They did NOT, however, think that anyone else needed to convert to their views or they were damned by God. (That is, however, precisely what the Christians thought)

          • Avatar
            brenmcg  July 9, 2019

            Yes but just dont think john should get the blame for it – the main charge against him is his use of the phrase “the jews” – but josephus does the same

          • Bart
            Bart  July 9, 2019

            When does Josephus say that “the Jews” are the enemy? I’m not saying “the Jews” is a phrase that never occurs in ancient literature outsdie of John. I’m saying that John portrays “the Jews” as the enemies of Jesus and (read chapter 8), “children of the Devil.” You won’t find that in Josephus!

          • Avatar
            brenmcg  July 9, 2019

            I think if “the jews” in Ch8 was replaced with “the Romans” it would be much clearer that he’s only talking about those present who are challenging his claims.
            “Then the Romans said to him, You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?”

            Its only after centuries of European antisemitism that Ch8 sounds racist.

          • Bart
            Bart  July 10, 2019

            Yeah maybe. But if you said “Americans are the spawn of Satan,” (= The Jews are children of the Devil,” John 8), I think many people would say that that sure sounds anti-American.

          • Avatar
            brenmcg  July 11, 2019

            But if the story was about an american messiah with 12 american disciples and he told “the americans” challenging him in Time square “you are the spawn of satan” – the author probably wouldnt mean “all” americans.

          • Bart
            Bart  July 12, 2019

            I’ve never heard of a situation like that, someone who was saying to other Americans that “the Americans” are spawn of Satan.

      • Avatar
        dankoh  July 7, 2019

        What about the passage in Matthew where “the Jews” say “his blood be on us and on our children” (something no one would ever say, but that’s not the point). Seems to me Matthew is either blaming all the Jews or saying that all the Jews brought blame on themselves.

        • Bart
          Bart  July 7, 2019

          Yes, Matthew is clearly anti-jewish at this point too. But he doesn’t say “the Jews” here. He says “all the people.”

  10. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  July 4, 2019

    The one question I have about Christians seeing the Old Testament as being their Bible is that the Old Testament scriptures, quoted in Matthew, used to foretell the crucified Messiah, just do not seem that convincing. They do not, for example, contain the word “Messiah” so it is hard to see exactly what these Old Testament scriptures are predicting and about whom or what (maybe Israel) they are predicting. So, my question:

    Were early Christians really convinced by this Old Testament evidence of a suffering Messiah when this evidence really does not seem that convincing, at least to me? Wouldn’t they, and we, really need more convincing evidence? For example, having the word “Messiah” clearly stated in these Old Testament scriptures would seem important. Surely, conclusions so important would require more convincing evidence. Don’t extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence? Thanks!

    1
    • Bart
      Bart  July 5, 2019

      Yes, as today, in early Christianity some believers were convinced by OT passages that do not seem to be at all what they were really saying….

      3
  11. Avatar
    RICHWEN90  July 4, 2019

    I think “exclusivity” can be translated very nicely into “intolerance”. Intolerance cohabits easily with bigotry and hate. Bigotry and hate are often associated with persecution and genocide. And so it goes– the enduring legacy of Christ our Lord… who is said to have said that he came not to bring peace, but to divide families, and peoples, with a sword. Well, if that’s the case, he was a great success! But at least that’s only what he was SAID to have said, long after the fact, by other people who never knew him, who might well have been merciless and hateful bigots. I think we can safely say, that whatever Christ actually said and whatever his mission actually was, the words and the mission have been twisted and perverted beyond all recognition.

    2
  12. tompicard
    tompicard  July 4, 2019

    Follow up question:

    It seems to me that Christians from the beginning (probably from Jesus) believed that ‘salvation’ (again whatever salvation means) was available to ALL people.

    was that not somewhat unique to other religions of the Roman World.

    I do not get that was a idea readily spread/expounded by Judaism. not to the degree it was expounded by christianity. but let me know if I am wrong.
    Or in pagan world was that idea common, weren’t only ‘special’ people saved?

    Do you think that the christian idea that salvation is available to ALL will have any bearing in your book, if you proceed ?

    1
    • Bart
      Bart  July 5, 2019

      Yes, it was *available* to all. But those who didn’t accept it were condemned forever. That’s something you don’t get in other religions at the time.

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  13. Avatar
    Pegill7  July 4, 2019

    I’ve just finished reading Elaine Pagels “Why Religion.” While it focuses on tragedies in her personal life she claims a return to Christianity which was brought about by her studies of the Nag Hamaddi Library which she wrote a book on.
    She never explains what kind of Christianity she now embraces. I know that you and she have written on some of the same subjects, so I was just wondering if you might have picked up on what she believes as a practicing Christian.
    Thanks in advance if you choose to respond to my query.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 5, 2019

      I do know (well, a bit), but I’m not sure I should share it publicly.

      1
  14. Madawaska
    Madawaska  July 4, 2019

    FYI
    Judaism and Christianity Both Rely on the Hebrew Bible. Why Do They Interpret It So Differently? (June 14, 2019)
    https://time.com/5606942/jewish-christian-bible/?fbclid=IwAR1L-6rbuBXBtYwvT_XaU8uf0iif-FcPs_TsRJWcXWW6angFGd1dGkenSqI

  15. fefferdan
    fefferdan  July 4, 2019

    Bart
    “Christians introduced into the world or religion the sense of exclusivism: if we are right, you are wrong.” Hadn’t Jews already introduced this concept? Going back to the time of King Josiah and before, Jews had destroyed “pagan” altars and killed “idolatrous” priests. How is this not exclusivism? Wasn’t Jewish exclusivism also a major issue in the time of the Hasmonean revolt, when the stricter faction of Jews refused to accommodate Hellenistic universalism? Wasn’t it also an issue in the Jewish revolt in 70 c.e., when Jews attempted to throw off the Roman yoke, while Christians explained that even though their messiah was a king in a spiritual sense, they were not trying to upset the social order?

  16. Avatar
    Matt2239  July 4, 2019

    It appears contradictory to say that Jews were the exception to the Roman requirement that locals observe the Roman gods, but then assert that Christians introduced exclusivity into the religious landscape. Although there may be debate over what people believed about themselves and others, there’s one thing the objective evidence supports: Jews were identified and exempted from standard practice. That also creates a powerful incentive for people to join Christianity — a way to escape Roman religious oppression without enduring the unpleasant practices of Judaism like listening to rabbis and circumcision, not necessarily in that order (in all fairness).

  17. Avatar
    Pattylt  July 4, 2019

    Imagine an American prophet named Anointed Savior and He has a group of followers that believe He lived and died to save us from our sins. This group of followers have reinterpreted the New Testament to show that everything written there actually refers to Anointed Savior. They claim all those Christians have just closed their minds to seeing the truth. I imagine there would be a bit of push back from Christians yet this is what they essentially did to Jews and the OT.

    Nothing better than taking a religions sacred scriptures and telling that religion they don’t know or understand their own books!

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  18. Avatar
    willsguise  July 5, 2019

    Dr Ehrman, On the issue of Jewish non-exclusivity, where would you say Ezra ch 9 subtitled DENUNCIATION OF MIXED MARRIAGES in the NRSV and ch 10 v 10 onwards subtitled FOREIGN WIVES AND THEIR CHILDREN REJECTED and the similar sentiments expressed in Nehemiah ch 13 v 23 onwards fit in?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 7, 2019

      Yes, many Jews did want to live in communities of Jews without non-Jews among them. I was referring to views of *salvation*. The idea that you had to agree with Christians or you would be forever condemned as one who rejected God — that is not found in Judaism. We don’t have records of Jews ever saying, about their religious views/practices, We’re right, therefore You’re wrong, and You are going to be punished for it.

  19. Avatar
    dankoh  July 7, 2019

    How do you see Paul in this perspective? He does write with some invective against Jews in 1 Thess. 2:14-16, but in Romans he is much more positive toward the Jews. Granted, Paul was not always consistent.

    As regards Thessalonians, Dickieson, Hagner, and others think it was an example of what I would call “polemical overkill” such as was common in those days, and Paul says equally bad things about some of his fellow Christians. Would you agree with that term?

    I think you can draw a distinction between pre-70 and post-70 Jesus Movement thinking about the Jews. Prior to 70, Paul and the others (who were still mostly Jews) thought Jewish indifference to Jesus was a passing thing and they would come around. After 70, when the Jews refused to accept the destruction as a sign that God had turned against them, and also because the balance of Jesus followers had begun to shift from mostly Jews to mostly Gentiles, that, I would argue, is where you begin to see much more vituperative polemic.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 7, 2019

      I think this is one of the few places in the New Testament where the term almost certainly refers to “the Judeans” (people living in Judea) rather than “the Jews” (anyone who follows Jewish practices/customs). The context seems to me to require that understanding.

      1
  20. Pattycake1974
    Pattycake1974  July 7, 2019

    I understand how important it is to provide education about Jewish persecution, but one thing I feel gets neglected is how women suffer in Orthodox Judaism much like women in fundamentalist Christianity and Islam. I’m not an uber feminist either by any stretch of the imagination (I’m good with traditional roles too—whatever one wishes to do, then great!), but it really angers me when I read that Jewish women are required to PRESENT THEMSELVES to a rabbi. It’s so disgusting!

    Here’s an article that discusses what I’m talking about—

    https://www.richarddawkins.net/2016/11/i-had-to-take-my-dirty-panties-to-a-rabbi-and-so-has-every-orthodox-jewish-woman/

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