This Easter, Is Christianity Still Promulgating Antisemitism?

This Sunday, Christians around the world will celebrate the peace and renewal promised by Easter, but at the heart of Holy Week liturgies leading up to the feast are a set of texts that have had brutal consequences for Jews, not just in the past, but in the present. The Gospel narratives of the passion and death of Jesus have, across centuries, framed how Jews are perceived. The response to the tragic events now unfolding in Gaza and Israel requires a fresh look at this unresolved and expressly Christian quandary. The lesson may be familiar, but it has urgent relevance.

An unfathomed thermal current long running below the surface of a broad culture—call it the culture of “the West”—is still being tapped, even if unconsciously. That current was first generated roughly two thousand years ago, in the way that early followers of Jesus told the story of the Crucifixion, as a crime laid at the feet of the Jews. After the Holocaust made plain that the “Christ-killer” slander was part of what prepared the way for the mass murder of Jews, the trope was repudiated by the Second Vatican Council, in the 1965 declaration Nostra Aetate. “What happened in His passion,” the fathers of the Roman Catholic council said, “cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today.”

But there was a problem. The Gospels themselves explicitly lodge the Christ-killer charge: for example, in Matthew, which is often read at Mass on Palm Sunday, Pontius Pilate pronounces Jesus not guilty and makes an offer to release him, but an assembled crowd of Jews cries, “Let him be crucified.” Pilate then famously washes his hands, saying, “I am innocent of the blood of this just person.” At which point, the crowd replies, let “his blood be on us, and on our children.” And so it has been.

Despite Nostra Aetate, neither the council fathers nor their successors put in place an effective educational structure that would enable people to understand that the narrative was most likely written not by eyewitnesses but by followers of Jesus in the late first century. Those second-generation Christians may not have known that Pilate was a brutal tyrant, or that any benign portrayal of him as being friendly toward a troublemaking nobody was surely false. The antagonism between the remembered Jesus and “the Jews” was one of which the actual Jesus would have known nothing. Though he participated in disputations that were normal in the Jewish community of his time—such as debates over what exactly the Shabbat laws required, or what deference was due to Caesar—he was in mortal conflict not with his own people but with the Roman government.

So how did this story come to be written? Jesus died in about 30 A.D. In the year 70, the Romans destroyed the second iteration of the Jerusalem Temple, which had anchored the faith of Judaism for hundreds of years. This act sparked an intense religious crisis: What was it to be a Jew without the Temple? For most, the answer lay in studying the Torah and, generally, the Hebrew Scriptures, and in the observance of halacha, or religious laws, including those governing Shabbat and the kosher diet. For some others, Jesus was becoming the new Temple, a transfiguration embodied in a prediction that the Gospel of John attributes to Jesus, referring to his own coming resurrection: “Destroy this Temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jewish-Roman War, which continued intermittently for decades, fuelled this intra-Jewish dispute—a familiar phenomenon, in which imperial overlords contrive to set subject peoples against themselves—and the Gospels, written in the decades after the Temple’s destruction, are a record of one side of that dispute. The phrase “the Jews” (in the Greek, “hoi Ioudaioi”) appears more than a hundred and forty times in the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles, which follows them in the New Testament, and the name usually signifies the many Jews who disagreed with those Jews who saw Jesus as the Messiah; the latter were fewer in number, but their version of the story is what survived.

But the Christ-killer charge is not the largest problem. Inspired by the anti-Jewish slant in some passages of the Gospels, many Christians have tended to remember Jesus—or, rather, misremember him—as if he were not a Jew at all. To portray Jesus as merciful and large-hearted, the Gospels render Jews more broadly as law-obsessed and unloving: in Luke, for example, Jews refuse to help a wounded traveller waylaid by a robber, leaving his rescue to the Samaritan. Gospel Jews are the foil against which the Gospel Jesus can dazzle as flawless. The Pharisees, a Jewish sect committed to religious laws, are painted so darkly in the role of Jesus’s antagonists that their name comes down to us as a synonym for hypocrites, not because that was so but because they were the forerunners of “the Jews” with whom the post-Temple Christians were in tension. In these ways, the “Gospel truth” boils down to a conflict of Jesus against the Jews. The first chapter of John declares, “He came unto his own, and his own received him not.” Not so. The only people who received Jesus in his lifetime—his apostles and disciples—were his own; they were Jewish.

Gradually, across the many years in which the Gospels took shape, Jesus came to be regarded as divine: he is depicted in John as saying, “I and my Father are one.” That made the purported crime of the Jews even worse, since the murder of God—deicide—is a cosmic transgression that’s impossible to adjudicate, much less forgive. And belief in the divinity of Jesus further undercut his followers’ ability to see him as a Jew. Judaism, after all, is a religion—a form of mediation between finite humans and the infinite God. Once Jesus was conceived of in a permanent mystical union with the Godhead, he no longer had any need of a go-between. He had no need, that is, of Temple sacrifice, Torah study, Shabbat observance, praying the Psalms. In following such practices, he would just have been going through the motions. A divine Jesus would have been, in essence, a pretend Jew.

The Roman war culminated in a large-scale Jewish uprising in Judea that was ultimately crushed in the year 136, a catastrophe that precipitated the demise of the Jewish center of Jesus’s movement. Elsewhere in the Mediterranean, gentile Christians—originally from a variety of polytheistic, pagan, and local religious traditions—began to dominate the nascent Church, and their reading of texts that emphasized Jesus’s conflict with “the Jews” would have led them naturally to remember him as if he, too, were a gentile. That fantasy took hold in the Christian imagination. (Images of Jesus typically depict him with white European features and long-flowing brown hair.) “Jesus against the Jews” is Christianity’s paradigmatic origin story, forming, in effect, a spoiled gene in the DNA of the Church. Because Christianity was the incubator of Western civilization, that gene was passed on. That origin story gave Christians and a Christianity-influenced culture a litany of oppositions: the Church against the Synagogue, the New Testament against the Old Testament, grace against law, faith against works, Easter against Passover, Sunday against Saturday, Portia against Shylock—and always, the Christian God of Love against the Jewish God of Vengeance.

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