Anti‐Semitism has become the term commonly used for attitudes and actions against Jews. It was coined in the 1870s by the German agitator Wilhelm Marr in the campaign to eradicate Jewish influences in German culture. Sometimes the valid distinction is made between anti‐Semitism as a secular term built on racial and cultural thinking out of the Enlightenment, and anti‐Judaism as the earlier theologically grounded forms of contempt for Jews and things Jewish. Not least with the contemporary Arab‐Israeli conflict, the term anti‐Semitism is a sign of the narrow Western perspective in which the term was coined—both Jews and Muslims being Semites. Yet for the victims of anti‐Semitism, such distinctions, though valid, carry little weight.
The record of pre‐Christian anti‐Semitism in the Greco‐Roman world is mixed. The Jews were seen as a people of philosophers and the wisdom of Moses was highly respected. But there was also criticism of their rituals and their keeping to themselves, and the Sabbath was seen as laziness. The Roman satirists especially ridiculed circumcision. Yet on balance it seems that Cicero's reference to Judaism as a “barbarous superstition” (Pro Flacco 28) has been wrongly taken as representative of attitudes toward the Jews. In the history of anti‐Semitism the continuity between Christian and Greco‐Roman anti‐Semitism is often stressed in order to minimize Christian responsibility.
While at times making use of themes found in Greco‐Roman writers, Christian anti‐Semitism differs in one fundamental respect: Christianity claims to be the fulfillment of the prophecies and aspirations of Israel as they are expressed in Israel's own scriptures, which became the Old Testament of the church, now interpreted in the light of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The Jesus‐movement was a totally Jewish event—the Gospels know of few contacts of Jesus with gentiles. Christianity begins as a Jewish reform movement, and the formative conflicts by which the Christian identity is formed are conflicts within Judaism. The very Jewishness of Jesus and the apostles gives anti‐Semitism its intensity. The scars of the intra‐Jewish conflicts with Pharisees in Galilee and the chief priests and elders of Jerusalem, and with synagogue leaders in the Jewish Diaspora, are clearly visible in the New Testament, now from the perspective of churches where the “no” of the Jewish majority to the Christian claims is often contrasted with the “yes” of gentiles.
Jesus—and John the Baptist—speak the harsh language of the prophets, ridiculing or condemning the foibles of their contemporaries, cursing their unwillingness to listen and to repent. Woes are uttered and the listeners are called. The rhetoric is heavy: “brood of vipers” (Matt. 3.7; 12.34; 23.33; Luke 3.7), and so forth. When such words are spoken they are spoken by a Jewish prophet for a Jewish people. Jesus identifies with his people; it has been said that a true prophet of doom prays intensely that his prophecy be proven wrong, that it be a warning toward repentance.
Such discourse from within the Jewish communities fell into the hands of increasingly gentile churches when the vast majority of Jews did not accept Christian claims for Jesus of Nazareth. The gentile churches began to hurl the words of Jesus at the Jewish communities. What Jesus had said with prophetic pathos, identifying with his people, was now spoken by gentiles against “the Jews,” gentiles who felt that the fall of the Jerusalem Temple (70 CE) had proven them right and the Jewish people wrong. In that shift of setting lie the roots of Christian and New Testament anti‐Semitism. For the Jewish disciples there were the sadness, the disappointment, perhaps the frustration over the “no” of the majority of their fellow Jews; hence the need for a new identity, as the Jewish communities sometimes treated them harshly. The gospel of John already lives in that perception, sharpened into a literal demonizing of “the Jews” as having the devil for father (John 8.44). Jewish Christianity—by any account the nucleus of Christianity—is marginalized and declared unacceptable by both synagogue and church. The “we and they” dichotomy does not allow such complications.
The first to have discerned the specter of gentile Christian contempt for the Jews was Paul, the Jew who understood himself to be the apostle to the gentiles. In his final reflection on how his mission fits into God's total plan (Rom. 9–11), he warns his gentile converts against their haughty attitude toward Israel by affirming that all Israel shall be saved. He does so not by affirming that they will become Christians but rather refers to God's mystery (Rom. 11.25). Perhaps Paul's sensitivity was due to his personal history: it was religious zeal that had made him a persecutor of Christians.
In spite of Paul's warning, anti‐Semitism follows Christianity as its dark shadow. This anti‐Semitism remains basically rhetorical until the church becomes wedded to the political power of empires and governments. About a century after the emperor Constantine's conversion to Christianity (312 CE), Augustine lays down the principles on which Jews are allowed to exist in the Christian empire, yet with inferior status (City of God 18.46). His interpretation of Psalm 59.11 (“Do not slay them, lest my people forget; scatter them …”) established the status of the Jews as both protected and suppressed—a pattern that makes of the Jews a necessary negative witness to the truth of Christianity. Within this pattern of Christian anti‐Semitism, two motifs become prominent, both argued on biblical grounds: the Jews are guilty of deicide, of being godkillers (of having killed God), and Judaism is the wrong way to relate to God (by law rather than by faith). While the former charge is more prominent in Catholic and Orthodox lands, the latter dominates in Protestant cultures.
How can Christians read the Bible in a manner which guards against anti‐Semitism? Perhaps the majority of Christians have read and do read the New Testament's critique of Jews and things Jewish as directed to themselves: it is my hypocrisy, my boasting, my self‐righteousness that is attacked; it is my sin and lack of faith that swings from “Hosanna” to “Crucify, crucify.” Yet history shows that when calamities and frustrations call for scapegoats, these very texts have preconditioned Christian cultures toward anti‐Semitism.
To counteract such an effect of the Christian Bible—not least after the Holocaust—different strategies have been devised. A renewed study of the passion narratives makes it clear that Jesus was crucified by the Roman authorities. Crucifixion was a Roman means of execution. Also in the accounts of the Gospels it is the Jerusalem establishment, not “the Jews,” who collaborate. This agrees with Josephus's notes about the execution of James in 62 CE that the Sadducees are the harsh judges, while the Pharisees plead mercy (Ant. 20.9.199–202). As the story is told in the Gospels, the responsibility of the Jewish leadership is stressed and that of Pontius Pilate minimized, as he washes his hands and the crowd accepts the responsibility: “His blood be on us and on our children” (Matt. 27.25). And Judas usually looks more Jewish than do Jesus and the other disciples in the history of Christian art; one may ask: Why? The shift of emphasis from the Romans to the Jews is often explained by the need of Christianity to present itself as acceptable to the Roman authorities. A deeper reason may well be the theological need for understanding the passion as a fulfillment of the scriptures of the Jews and thus as an inner Jewish event. Yet there can be no historical doubt that Jesus was crucified under and by Pontius Pilate as a Jewish threat to Roman law and order.
When the New Testament and especially the gospel of John gives the impression that “the Jews” are the constant enemies and opponents, we must remember that both believers and unbelievers in the Jesus story are Jews. In order to make that more clear some translators choose to use words like “Judeans” or “the Jewish leaders.” One could even think of “the establishment,” for there is really nothing especially Jewish in the attitudes of those leaders. While such moves help to correct the historical understanding of the events and put them into perspective, it still remains a fact that the Gospels did perceive the controversies as part of Israel's refusal to accept God's offer of redemption in Jesus Christ. Judaism, on its part, understands the Christian claim for Jesus as false, while sometimes willing to recognize Jesus as a teacher among teachers in Judaism.
But Christians burdened by the horrendous history of anti‐Semitism have urgent reasons to recognize how the rhetoric of a fledgling and beleaguered minority turned into the aiding and abetting of lethal hatred when endowed with the power of being in the majority. Anti‐Semitism could be branded the most persistent heresy of Christian theology and practice. To unmask it is the first step. And the second is to complete and further develop the work begun in the Second Vatican Council: a vigilant audit of Christian preaching, teaching, Bible study, and liturgy as to what perpetuates and engenders contempt for Jews and Judaism. In such a task, dialogue with Jews is indispensable. In dialogue it becomes impossible for Christians to treat Jews and Judaism as obsolete or as a nonentity after the coming of the church. Yet such patterns of so‐called supersessionism have functioned as a major factor in the history of Christian anti‐Semitism.