Newsletter: Vol. 12, Iss. 2
June 2014

Difficult Conversations About Judaism, Anti-Semitism
and Palestine

Duncan MacPherson

Christianity, Islam and Judaism share a great deal in terms of beliefs, ritual and ethics. Paradoxically, common ground has also been contested ground and relationships between all three of the Abrahamic faiths have frequently been problematic. In this essay, I will focus only on the problematic of the Christianity-Judaism relationship. It has been said that the preacher should prepare his or her sermon with the Scriptures in one hand and the newspaper—or today perhaps the iPad—in the other. However both the Bible and the Newspaper will highlight aspects of this problematic.

Consulting New Testament texts, the preacher finds that they speak of ‘the Jews’ in ways that have been used to justify anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism and have produced a supercessionist theology that sees Judaism as the Old Israel now replaced by the new People of God, the Church. Turning from Bible to the news—through whatever medium—the preacher is frequently confronted by political and moral issues surrounding the modern State of Israel.

Following the full realization of the enormity of the crimes committed against the Jews in the Nazi extermination camps a number of Jewish and Christian thinkers began to discern the roots of anti-Semitism in allegedly anti-Judaic verses in the Gospels, particularly in Matthew and John, where the Jews seem to be represented as responsible for the Crucifixion.

The term ‘Jew’ (Ioudaios) in the New Testament refers primarily to an inhabitant of Judaea or to someone originating from Judaea.1 By extension it also came to refer to those who identified with the temple cult in Jerusalem as opposed to the Samaritans whose focus of worship was at Mount Gerizim.2 However, the term came to refer to opponents of Jesus during his ministry. This is particularly the case in the Gospel of John where the ‘Jews’ (Ioudaioi), are referred to no less than 39 times in a clearly pejorative sense.3

Rejecting anti-Judaic and replacement interpretations of Scripture, the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Non-Christian Religions, Nostra Aetate, denied that the Jews were collectively cursed for the crucifixion of Christ and stated that blame could not be laid ‘against all the Jews… Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures...”4

Meanwhile some Jewish, Christian and post-Christian critics have identified the New Testament itself as the source of the problem, seeing the role ascribed to the Jews in the New Testament as part of a ‘culture of contempt’ leading directly from John’s Gospel to the gas chambers. Among these critics, John Dominic Crossan, of De Paul University, Chicago, ex-Catholic priest and former co-chair of The Jesus Seminar, praised Raymond Brown’s disavowal of anti-Semitism but expressed regret at his acceptance of the historicity of the passion stories, which Crossan believes fuelled centuries of Christian anti-Semitism.5

Summarizing the views of biblical scholars who identify an anti-Judaic tendency in modern historical-critical scholarship, Clark M. Williamson sees the root of this tendency in the way in which Jesus was depicted ‘over-and-against’ the Judaism(s) of his time. Williamson breaks this tendency down into four main areas. The first of these is the concept of ‘late Judaism’: a degenerated Judaism, ‘preparatory for and inferior to Christianity.’ The second is the characterization of late Judaism as blindly legalistic in its interpretation of the Scriptures so that only the Church can read the scriptures (Legalistic Jews were ‘deaf to the gospel’: Jeremias). The third area consists of the historical misrepresentation of the Pharisees as the enemies of Jesus. The final area is seen as an affirmation of guilt for the death of Jesus by his Jewish contemporaries,6 and it was the radical difference between Jesus and the Pharisees that explains Jesus’ tragic end.7 Against this anti-Judaic tendency among historical critical scholars Williamson urges the view of Sanders that first-century Judaism ‘kept grace and works in the right perspective,’8 citing passages in first-century Jewish writings that emphasize grace as paramount. For Williamson, supercessionism has been responsible, directly or indirectly, for “too many unconscionable assaults upon Jews. History’s slaughter-bench is drenched with the blood of those slain because they ‘obstinately’ refused in their ‘blindness’ to see that the Christian alternative was better.”

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The New Testament speaks of ‘the Jews’ in ways that have been used to justify anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism and have produced a supercessionist theology that sees Judaism as the Old Israel now replaced by the new People of God, the Church.