The Origins of Christian Anti-Semitism

by Sandra S. Williams

Student/Judaic Studies Program
University of Central Florida



The Holocaust took place only a few decades ago under the very eyes of Christian Europe. The Christian clergy looked on while six million men, women, and children were murdered. And as the Jewish extermination program spread from one end of Europe to the other, the Pope sat in the Vatican with his attitude of neutrality concerning Hitler and his victims. There can be no doubt that the mass genocide of millions of Jews all over Europe called for enormous participation by huge numbers of people, both Protestant and Catholic. The horror of these events transcends anything known in human history. That it should have happened at all and in our time, and in a part of the world long thought to be civilized, culturally advanced and “Christian” is incomprehensible. What would cause such terrible hatred of every Jewish man, woman, and child that they should become the mortal enemy of the populations with whom they had lived for generations? What allowed millions of people who considered themselves to be Christians to participate as perpetrators, collaborators, or silent bystanders, as six million men, women, and children were slaughtered? And how did a competition between two sister religions become so great an abyss that it made mass murder possible? These are the questions this paper seeks to answer through an understanding of the theology and practice of the Christianity in which these perpetrators, collaborators, and bystanders were raised, and which would support an environment that could allow such a horrific event to take place.

In the light of history, one can’t help but wonder if the events of this century have had any impact on today’s Christian theology students who will be tomorrow’s pastors and teachers? As the foundational teachings of the faith and the writings of the Church Fathers and “great theologians” are studied, are they accepted uncritically as indisputable authority? And to what extent is the information on Jews and Judaism presented in inadequate, biased, and distorted ways? As these students graduate, will they go on to teach large numbers of Christians who will be even less informed? As they stand in their pulpits and talk about “the Jews,” the “Pharisees,” the crucifixion of Jesus, and the early Church, will these pastors and teachers no longer be thinking of Auschwitz?

To understand the anti-Semitism of Christian Europe of this century, one must look back two thousand years to the birth of Christianity and its separation from its beginnings in Judaism. As we look back to the beginning of the Christian Era, the issues are indeed multitudinal and complex. Only through a knowledge of this critical time of transition can we understand the roots of the prejudice which developed into Christian anti-Semitism. To understand how a thoroughly Jewish religion of the Nazarene sect became the anti-Jewish religion of the Christian Church, it is necessary to retrace the events of the early centuries starting with Jesus.

It is the intent of this paper to focus on the person of Jesus and his teaching, the theology and teaching of the Apostle Paul, culminating with the writings and theology of the Church Fathers through the 4th and 5th centuries and how each has or has not contributed to the roots of Christian anti-Semitism.



Who Was Jesus?

Jesus was born a Jew, on Jewish soil. He was brought up in a Jewish family, taught from the Hebrew Bible, and his followers consisted entirely of Jewish people. He knew not Greek, Egyptian, Roman, or Persian. He spoke only Hebrew and the everyday language of the day…Aramaic. He was a Jew preaching to Jews. Although his teachings had universal implications, he was essentially a partisan and not an internationalist. As far as can be determined, Jesus was a faithful and righteous Jew, teaching strict adherence to the Torah. His teachings were typically simple, practical, and ethical, without evidence of arrogance or parochialism.

Much of his teaching was Haggadic in character and consisted of parables, legends, and poetic sayings of the great teachers of Israel.Typically his teachings were prophetic in nature with concern for the Kingdom of God and the near end of the world. Jesus frequently made use of the expression…Son of God. Bratton asserts that “this expression was a Hebrew idiom referring to the spiritual sonship of every person. The later use of the phrase by hellenized theologians to indicate Jesus’ divinity as God’s only son has no source in Jesus the Semite.” From the gospels it is evident that Jesus actively participated in the culture of his day. It is also evident that he believed in much of the spiritual thinking of his time, such as demon possession, evil spirits, exorcism, and God’s miraculous intervention in the world. Practically all of his sayings, including the Lord’s Prayer (Math. 6: 9-13), can be found in Jewish writings before his time…the Old Testament, the Apocrypha, Rabbinical teaching, or the Essene literature.

The genius of Jesus lies in his ability to select and to emphasize. He selected Jewish ethical principals and revitalized them for his hearers and sharpened their meaning. He reread the law, substituting positive principals for negative commandments, redefining religion along prophetic lines. He taught the potentiality and high worth of every individual, the paramount importance of personal moral integrity, the conviction that there is purpose in life, the idea of altruistic service as the true test of greatness, and the attitude of good will in all human relationships. “The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew seems to compile most of Jesus’ principals while Luke illustrates them in parables. Jesus was in fact a faithful Jew. “Nothing in the Nazarene’s teachings constituted formal heresy from the Jewish point of view: even at the end of the first century, a doctor of the law, Rabbi Eliezer, considered that Jesus, too, would have a place in the world to come”

Why Was Jesus Never Accepted by His People?

If Jesus was a loyal and faithful Jew, why then the strange silence on the part of Israel concerning one of her most influential sons? According to Bratton, the reason for this is twofold: “The first was the impossible claims made for Jesus as the new God of the Gentile Christians who spurned the universal God of Judaism.” One can only imagine how the Jews of Jesus’ time must have felt about this claim, that he should be considered to be God himself and a rival of their own God. “The exaltation of Jesus to a deity destroyed whatever interest there may have been on the part of Jews in his teachings.

The other reason according to Bratton was the Christian persecution of Jews once the Church was in power. Instead of putting the teachings of Jesus into practice, Christians began a reign of terror throughout the Roman world. This was to continue down through the centuries. In the name of Christ, Jews were treated with contempt, hunted down, tortured cruelly, and killed.

In 1905, Julius Wellhausen, a distinguished German scholar, declared that “Jesus was not a Christian, but a Jew.” Many a Christian was no doubt surprised, because for 1900 years Jesus had been considered not as a man, and even less as a Jew, but as the second person in the Trinity, even God Himself. “If the Jews had failed to recognize Jesus as one of their prophets, it was because the organized Church – both Catholic and Protestant – was concerned only with protecting its official portrait of Christ, the God, and prohibited any scholarly investigation of Jesus, the man.

The Fundamental Teachings of Jesus

The primary thrust of Jesus’ teaching seems to be that of the Kingdom of God. Scholars are divided on Jesus’ major emphasis. Some say that the “eschatological element was purely secondary and that Jesus used the term ‘Kingdom of God’ to refer to the achievement of the will of God in individual life and society at large.” Others believe that “Jesus was an apocalyptist and regarded himself as a Messianic figure sent by God to announce the near end of the world and the establishment of God’s Kingdom.” At the time of Jesus, the longing for deliverance from foreign oppression had become an obsession. And it was from Rome that the people sought their deliverance.

The most indepth writings concerning Jesus come from the gospels. But one must remember that the gospels were not written by historians or biographers, but by theologians. The final editing was to take place by Gentile Christians who were opposed to the law of Judaism and whose chief interest was in attracting other Gentiles to Christianity. It does not appear from the situation at the time that it was Jesus’ intention to institute a new religion. He asked his followers to go beyond the Law in the sense of striving for selflessness and to have the heart of a servant. From the gospel accounts, his concerns were clearly for worship of God and justice toward all men.

In the gospel of John, “the Jews” are clearly represented as Jesus’ main adversaries. This can be seen in almost every chapter. “By the time the 4th gospel was written (approximately 125 C.E. according to modern scholars), the individuals who opposed Jesus were long forgotten. And after one hundred years they gave way to the generalization ‘the Jews.'”

Jesus and the Pharisees

Because of their portrayal in the gospels as hypocritical and self-righteous, the Pharisees have been looked down on by Christians for almost 1900 years. It is the contention of the gospels that the Pharisees had turned Judaism into a sterile, formal religion that was devoid of life and vitality; that because of them, Judaism had become nothing more than a yoke and a burden to the people.

The Pharisees, along with the Sadducees, were descendants of the Hasidim, the loyal supporters of the Maccabean revolt against the Syrians in the second century B.C.E. They were really the founders of many of the religious teachings and ethical principals that have survived in Judaism to this day. Their main contribution was the “interpretation of the Torah and the commentary that accompanied it…later called the Talmud. Their interpretations have stood the test of time and were later to be found in the Mishnah and the Gemarah, giving continued application of the law to Jewish life down through the ages.”

Travis Herford, an authority on Pharisaism, writes “it belongs to the irony of history that the Pharisees should be charged with a bigoted and stiffnecked hardening and sterilizing of the religion of the Jews, when it was they, as contrasted to the Sadducees and other literalists, and they alone, who gave it the flexibility and adaptability of spirit that enabled it to live and survive.” A point of interest, Jesus himself was a product of the Pharisaic synagogue and frequently taught in it.

Jesus’ Death

Near the end of his life, when Jesus made his entry into Jerusalem, he was received by a great crowd of people. It was the time of Passover and one can only imagine what a hot bed of agitation Jerusalem could be under Roman rule, which was undoubtedly of great concern to the ruling priests and the Roman prefect. There are more than a few historical scholars who believe that “the movement led by Jesus was a social and political Messianism and therefore a direct threat to Roman rule, and that Jesus was arrested and condemned and crucified by the Romans as a political rebel.” This view goes entirely against the gospel accounts.

Other scholars believe that “those responsible for the condemnation of Jesus were the leaders of the priestly Oligarchy, belonging to the sect of the Sadducees.” These priests held the interests of the upper class and were rigidly orthodox. They hated and feared Jesus as a revolutionary who was stirring the people up with his dangerous Messianic ideas. Earlier, Jesus had attacked the temple, the very symbol of the national religion.

Logic and reason do not support, as Christians have claimed through the centuries, that Jesus was killed and nationally rejected by his people. People from all walks of life seemed to be irresistibly drown to his teachings and his personality, as is evident from the frequent crowds that gathered around him. And as Morais states “perhaps the best proof that his enemies were a minority, and also of his popularity among the crowds congregated in Jerusalem, is that the ruling council took the precaution to arrest him in a solitary place and late at night, the time always preferred by tyrannical religious and secret police.

The Gospel of John

Before leaving Jesus and continuing to look further into other origins of Christian anti-Semitism, the teachings of the Gospel of John should be further examined. It must be remembered that when the gospels came to be written, the sect of Christians were in open conflict with Judaism. Most scholars agree that the Gospel of John is the latest of the four. According to Morais, “Few Bible scholars accept that it was really written by the Galilean Fisherman who became Jesus’ closest disciple.” If in fact the date of the writing of John’s gospel is 125 C.E., this would be a major miracle indeed, for the Galilean fisherman to have written such a work.

The accounts of Jesus differ in the gospels, especially concerning the trial of Jesus. John’s gospel, however, is the only one that collectively describes the enemies of Jesus as “the Jews.” In none of the other gospels do “the Jews” demand, en masse, the death of Jesus. In the other three gospels the plot to arrest Jesus and put him to death is always presented as coming from a small group of priests and rulers. Whoever was the author of John’s Gospel, one thing has become clear: the image of “the Jews” acting collectively as the enemy of Jesus became fixed in the Christian mind. Successive generations of Christians were to read in the gospels the collective guilt of the Jews in the death of Christ.

A further word needs to be added concerning the guilt of “the Jews” in the death of Jesus. At the time of the Roman occupation of Israel, there were already more Jews living in the Diaspora than in Palestine. It would not have been possible for all Jews to have been aware of the existence and teachings of Jesus. Even the community of Galilee (Jesus’ childhood home) was more than a days journey away, and it is doubtful they were even aware that his arrest and crucifixion had taken place until after the fact.

The Christian doctrine essentially teaches that God had sent his son into the world to save it and that his earthly appearance and death were foreordained. Foundational teachings by the Church Fathers is that salvation for all men came only through Christ. One of the great paradoxes of Christianity that can only be answered by Christians themselves is the argument so well taken by Bratton, who attests: “From the standpoint of common sense, if Jesus Christ was predetermined and was necessary as the culmination of God’s plan for the redemption of the world, then those who were supposed to have accomplished that death should be praised rather than blamed. If Christ’s death was God’s will and the only condition for salvation, it would seem unreasonable to anathematize those who helped bring it about. Rather than be castigated, they should be canonized.

When Jesus ended his ministry, it was not yet a religion. It was Jews who first carried his teaching into the Diaspora, where it was to find success beyond their imagination. It was to the hellenized Jews that the apostle Paul was to bring this message first and also to include the Gentiles.


Early Jewish Christianity

As recorded in the Book of Acts, the members of the very first Christian community in Jerusalem were strictly observant Jews who observed the law to the last detail and had every intention of continuing to do so. They followed all the requirements of the law, including the observance of Shabbat, circumcision, and the dietary laws. New recruits came only from among fellow Jews. “These earliest Christians had no thought of being anything but good Jews. They were not called “Christians” until after the middle of the first century at Antioch.” Up until that time, they were known by various names including the Nazarenes, Ebionites, the Brethren, Followers of the Way, Sons of Light, and Galileans. And among them were diverse points of view and theologies.

From the accounts in Acts, it is clear that it was the Greek speaking Jews of the Diaspora, or the Hellenists, whose attitude toward the Gentiles was one of openness and tolerance. It was they who were considered by the leaders in Jerusalem to be the greatest threat to the fledgling group of Nazarenes. After his conversion, Paul the Apostle, was such a Jew. As recorded in Acts, the first great conflict in the history of the Church was this clash between these Hellenized Jews and the more orthodox followers of Jesus.

The Conflict

The main issues in the conflict were: 1) Did salvation through Christ supersede or make optional obedience to the Mosaic Law? and 2) If Gentiles were already God-fearing and converted to Christ, should they be responsible for following the whole of Jewish Law or not? Because Jesus’ teaching had been strictly to Jews in Israel, the question had not arisen. The Nazarenes who were led by Peter and James (the brother of Jesus) said YES. They presided over the synagogue of Nazarenes in Jerusalem. The Hellenists said NO, and they were led by a religious genius and an outstanding leader: Paul or Saul of Tarsus. Those in Jerusalem held strictly to the Mosaic Law, maintaining that circumcision was a necessity for all followers of Christ. Paul, on the other hand, had undertaken missionary journeys where he had converted Greeks to Christianity. He maintained that the Law was not necessary for Greek converts. For Paul, the only requirement was to be baptized into the faith. “Law or no Law, he considered his Greek converts to be bona fide Christians.” James and Peter, however, remained insistent that a Gentile had to become a Jew before becoming a Christian.

Paul set up his headquarters in Antioch, a Syrian city. It was here that the segregation barriers of Jews and Gentiles began to fall, and the Jewish sect of Nazarenes began to be called in Greek, Christianoi, or followers of Christ (Acts 11: 19-26). Because the conflict remained unresolved, the Christian community of Antioch decided to send Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem for a conference with Peter and James. There are two accounts of this conference. Galatians 2 is Paul’s own account of how he took Titus, an uncircumcised Gentile, along with him to prove his point. Here he claims an unqualified victory over the orthodox viewpoint in Jerusalem. The second account is by Luke (Acts 15) who reports that an agreement was worked out. In both accounts, there is agreement that Paul won his argument. As a result, Paul and Barnabas became fully accredited as missionaries to the Gentiles. And so in 48 C.E. the Council of Jerusalem established the legitimacy of Gentile Christianity and freed it from the requirements of the Jewish Law. From that time on, Christianity would develop its own vocabulary in Greek and Latin, and also ways of expression which would make it increasingly divergent from those of Judaism and its origins.

Leon Poliakov points out that “when Paul made this crucial decision to exempt Christian proselytes from the commandments of the law and from circumcision, he thereby changed the course of world history.” And so Paul became known not only as the Apostle of the Gentiles, but also among his fellow Jews as the “Apostate of the Law.“He had opened the door to the Gentiles without requiring from them obedience to the law, and they in turn had introduced into the new religion all their abominations – deification of Christ, the cult of the Virgin Mary harking back to the great pagan goddesses, the setting up of images in Churches, which was an open infringement of the second Commandment, and so on.”

Although Paul and other missionaries continued to preach in the synagogues, the gulf began to widen between church and synagogue. And although Christianity was birthed in Judaism and was at its inception powerfully influenced by it, it none the less ceased to be Jewish in language and outlook.

Judaism, threatened by the popularity of this new religion, reacted by closing its ranks. The Jews established a canon of the Hebrew Bible and condemned the writings of the Nazarenes. “Apparently the final break occurred when the Jewish patriarch, Gamaliel II, included an imprecation against the Christians in the Shemoneh Esreh (Eighteen Benedictions)” ….an important prayer to guard against apostates. At this point, Christians were no longer seen as harmless followers of Judaism, but as grave heretics.

Paul and Torah

Many historians believe that Paul never advocated that Jews should stop following the Torah, only that Gentiles could now come into the covenants of Israel without adhering to the Law. The implications of his teachings, however, were to have profound effects upon succeeding generations of Christians.

Because of the essential conflict between grace and law, Paul devotes much of his letters to dealing with the issue of the Law and Jewish legalism. The view expressed by Davis is that Paul does not seem to “disagree with individual Jews, but with Judaism itself, saying that Christianity has replaced it. By attacking the Law as such, Paul appears to attack the very essence of Israel and he does so from a position of knowledge.” One can only imagine what those early Gentile converts must have thought of Judaism. Paul, the Pharisee, the disciple of the great Rabban Gamaliel, who has experienced the best that Judaism has to offer, has rejected the Law so completely that he does not advocate that Gentile proselytes should adhere to it.

In the Pauline letters, Judaism is reflected as a joyless mechanical means of earning salvation by doing the works of the Law. And the God of the Jews is portrayed as a remote and gloomy tyrant who lays the burden of the Law on men. Against this portrayal of Judaism, the gospel of freedom from the Law is indeed welcomed as good news. And only a people who were stubborn and stiff-necked would refuse to be liberated from this burden.

When one considers that the three pillars on which Judaism stands are God, Torah, and Israel, an attack on any one of them would be considered anti-Jewish. In Romans 10: 4 Paul declares that “Christ is the end of the Law” and this can be interpreted as the end of the history of Israel as the people of God. This was to bring about, beginning from the second century onward, the replacement theory in Christian theology, which essentially states that the Church has now replaced Israel as the chosen people of God, and this has been one of to the greatest obstacles in the Christian’s understanding of the Jews.

From the Jewish point of view, it was Paul’s apparent abrogation of the Law which was most disturbing. Jewish interpreters and those who know something of Jewish thought and Torah, felt that “Paul’s attacks were not merely unfair, they missed the mark completely. The Rabbis never speak of Torah as the means to salvation, and when they speak of salvation at all, it is the way of Torah, which is your life.” In the eyes of Judaism “faith and works are never seen as opposites, for each would be meaningless without the other.”

When one considers that most Christian scholars have drawn their primary understanding of the Jewish concept of Torah, not from Jewish sources, but from the pages of the New Testament itself, their ignorance is understandable and not surprising. The result, unfortunately, has been historical inaccuracy and misunderstanding of the religion in which Christianity has its origins.

Paul’s Divergence from Jesus

Jesus and Paul seem to be in agreement in basic religious and ethical values. Paul is in agreement with Jesus on God’s omnipotence, His fatherhood, His unity, and His benevolence. When it comes to the Kingdom of God, their conception seems to be mixed. Both regard it as a future event and also as a spiritual condition. “For both, the Law had ceased to have absolute significance. Jesus’ attitude toward legalistic Pharisaism was one of discrimination or relative importance; Paul’s criticism of the Law was based on his belief in “Justification by Faith, rather than works.”

From his own point of view, Jesus regarded his sonship as ethical and spiritual. “Such terms as ‘Son of Man’ and ‘Son of God’ are ambiguous and reflect on the one hand the Jewish Messianic connotation, and on the other, the later Johannine deification process.” In the gospels, Jesus gives no acknowledgement or recognition of his preexistence. On the other hand, it is Paul’s contention that “Christ was preexistent in heaven, shared in creation, gave up his divine existence, came to earth as a man, lived and died for man’s salvation, was exalted as Lord, and was to return to judge the world and establish God’s Kingdom.” Yet according to Bratton, Paul is neither a polytheist nor a tritheist. His theology subordinates Jesus to God. The difference in their teaching is that Jesus’ theology was theocentric, while Paul’s was Christocentric. Once Paul’s letters became canonized, this led to the beginning of the process of deification of Jesus, which ultimately let to the Nicean Creed in the fourth century.

It was this divergence between Jesus and Paul that was to set the pattern for all future Christian thought. Bratton proposes that Paul’s theology was neither consistent nor systematic, but rather it was formulized “on the run.” “His teaching was a mosaic blending of various elements from his Jewish heritage and his Greek environment. Paul’s speeches in Acts, as compared with his letters, reveal a variety of attitudes toward Jewish Law and toward the place of Jewish history in God’s plan of salvation. In spite of his opposition to the requirements of the Law for Gentiles, he had non-Jewish converts circumcised and also preached to Jews as his first responsibility. His Christology was likewise ambiguous. The impact of pagan thought on his changing intellectual formulations compelled him to see Jesus as something more than human, and yet as a Jew he could not bring himself to equate the historical Jesus to God. He spoke of Christ as divine Lord, but he cannot be considered a Trinitarian in the fourth century sense of the word.”

The main factors contributing to the rift from Judaism was the belief by the early Christians in the risen Christ and their rejection of the primacy of the Torah. From there, they were to go on to assert that they were the people of God, and that the Old Testament ceased to be important except as a preparation for the New Testament. Paul had laid the foundation, and by the end of the first century the rift was complete.


The Hellenization of Christianity

Were it not for the teachings of Paul, it is possible that the early Nazarene movement might have survived in an atmosphere of coexistence among their fellow Jews. Aside from questions concerning the Messiahship of Jesus, there were no great conflicts. With the emergence of the early Catholic Church, there lies a vast chasm between it and primitive Christianity. A complete metamorphosis is seen as the teachings of Jesus became a theological system. The spontaneous enthusiasm of the first age of Christianity has been replaced with a highly organized Church system with authority, creeds, and a canon of scriptures. The religion of Jesus has been replaced by a religion of blessings, which are received only through sacraments, which are given only by the priests. The key to this transformation is Hellenization.

When primitive Christianity broke from Judaism, it was immediately exposed to a world teaming with the Greek, Persian, and Egyptian cults. As Paul and other early missionaries sought new converts, it is not difficult to see how they would naturally and even unconsciously begin to utilize accepted terms in the propagation of their message. It also seems logical to assume that these new converts already had other religious ideas, which they brought with them as they came into the new faith.

The mystery religions which were rampant in the Greek world at that time became the medium in which Christianity patterned itself. “The chief mysteries were Eleusinian, Dionysiac, and Orphic (Greek); Isis, Serapis, and Osiris (Egyptian); Mithra (Persian); and Adonis or Tammuz (Syrian). These cults offered man salvation through faith and sacrament. Their devotees conquered sin by obtaining a state of ecstasy or enthusiasm in which they became united mystically with the Savior…God.”32 There seems to be a striking resemblance to the Pauline experience called “in Christ.” As Christianity grew, the moral message of Jesus was lost sight of as the mystery of his person became the prime consideration. And as Christianity became more hellenized and separated from Judaism, it spread more rapidly.

The Canonization of the New Testament

During the quarter-century following the death of Jesus, nothing seems to have been written about his ministry or teachings. At first the sayings of Jesus were written in Aramaic, then later in Greek. The first Gospel was that of Mark, written about 70 C.E., to be followed by those of Matthew and Luke. By the end of the century, Paul’s letters had also acquired scriptural status.

There were two reasons for making a new body of scripture. One was the natural desire for a document that would record the events that were happening and to distinguish the new faith from the Jewish religion. The other basic reason for canonization was to separate the orthodox or genuine from the heterogeneous mass of literature that had begun to accumulate in the first two centuries.

The process of canonization was determined by two factors: one was automatic and the other arbitrary. Along with the Hebrew Bible, certain books were being used in the services of worship. These books which were read purely for edification were automatically included. “Among the books cited as being regularly used in the period from 100 to 170 C.E. were the Four Gospels, Acts, the Letters of Paul, I Peter and I John.”33

The years 220-400 C.E. saw the acceptance of the above list, plus those books which up to this time had been almost universally rejected, such as James, II Peter, II and III John, Jude, Hebrews, and Revelation. On the other hand, several other books which had previously been regarded as canon were rejected. These include Barnabas, Hermas, the Didacha, and I Clement. The authorities of this closing period were Origen from Alexandria; Cyprian, the Bishop of Carthage; Eusebius, the Christian Historian of Caesarea; and Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria. In 367 they issued for the first time a canonical list that was the same as the present New Testament. Jerome used this same list for his later translation. In 397 the Council of Carthage ratified the list and it became canonized.

From this brief outline, it appears that the canonization of the New Testament was purely a human process. The Church was to teach that scripture was an infallible revelation and divinely predetermined, which discouraged any later objective and scholarly investigation from within its own ranks.

The Emergence of the Catholic Church

By the year 300 C.E., the clergy had become a distinct class. It was organized on an hierarchical basis of deacons, presbyters, and bishops. It held complete authority over the laity. When the Council of Constantinople in 381 made the bishop of the principal cities “patriarchs,” the Roman bishop refused the title and called himself “Pope” and “Visible Head of the Church.”

As Christianity evolved into the Catholic Church, there was much disagreement about the nature of Christ. The Latin view of Cyprian and Tertullian identified Christ with God as co-equal and co-eternal. On the other hand, the Greek or Eastern Church was divided. The Alexandrian school held Christ to be of the same substance as that of the Father, whereas the Antiochian school subordinated Christ to the Father. The controversy became so intense that Constantine convened the Nicean Council in 325 C.E. This was made possible by the recognition of Christianity as the official religion of the Empire by Constantine in the Edict of Milan in 313. “The so-called Nicean Creed as used today was the one probably adopted at the Council of Constantinople in 381.” The Nicean formula decided once and for all the oneness of Father and Son, and it pronounce anathemas on all those who did not accept it. The Latin theologians of the Western Church had prevailed, their leaders were Tertullian, Cyprian, and Augustine.

Tertullian (150-225 C.E.), presbyter of Carthage, had been trained for the Law. His approach was rigid and legal. His reasonings were…”Only those who were baptized and followed the prescribed course of penitence could hope for release from punishment” and “Divine revelation not reason is the source of all truth.”

Cyprian (200-258 C.E.), bishop of Carthage, had been a pupil of Tertullian. He is credited with the much quoted phrase “Outside the Church, there is no salvation.” “He instigated the Lord’s Supper as a magical rite and the practice of celibacy.”

Augustine (354-430 C.E.), bishop of Hippo in North Africa, became the Father of Roman Catholic thought. He believed that man’s citizenship was already in heaven, and the present life is but a prelude to the heavenly life. But heaven is only for those who God has chosen. Some are predetermined, others are not.

Leo the Great in the fifth century and Gregory the Great in the sixth century, gave Augustine the official stamp of approval. The transition to the Catholic Church was now fairly complete. Sacrament was now central to the religion and it was grounded in authority. Any inquiry into the basis of the faith was not permitted.

By the fifth century, Christianity had rejected the rationalization of the Greeks. It turned it’s back on tolerance and rational thinking, embracing legalism, dogma, authority, and sacramentalism. The rejection of Hellenism was to bring on a thousand years of darkness.

The Anti-Semitism of the Church Fathers

The war of the Christian Church against the Jews began with the Church Fathers’ relentless attacks on those Jews who stubbornly refused to accept Jesus as Messiah. “The unbridled utterances of bigotry and hate coming from the venerated Church Fathers of the early Christian Church raises some doubt as to both their sanity and their saintliness.”37 Despite their belief that Christ’s death was necessary and predestined, they denounced the Jews as a “condemned race and hated of God.”

Before expounding further on the anti-Semitism of the Fathers, it is only fair to mention that from the days of Paul onward, there was considerable anti-Christian hostility from among the orthodox Jews because of the claims of Christianity. Because the rapidly growing Church was becoming a real threat to Judaism, fear and hatred of Christianity would not be surprising. It is quite possible that the Jews may have aided and even instigated the early Roman persecution of the Christians in the first few centuries.

Because of the growing power of the Church, Christian theology and the Church Fathers were to become more and more obsessed with Jewish guilt. The following teachings of the Fathers were to be handed down throughout succeeding generations in Christendom. Origen (185-254 C.E.) echoed the growing hostility:

“On account of their unbelief and other insults which they heaped upon Jesus, the Jews will not only suffer more than others in the judgment which is believed to impend over the world, but have even already endured such sufferings. For what nation is in exile from their own metropolis, and from the place sacred to the worship of their fathers, save the Jews alone? And the calamities they have suffered because they were a most wicked nation, which although guilty of many other sins, yet has been punished so severely for none as for those that were committed against our Jesus.”

The Church, who was now Israel, had to discredit the other Israel. And it did so by making anti-Jewish theology an integral part of Christian apologetics. The Fathers turned out volumes of literature to prove that they were the true people of God, and that Judaism had only been a prelude to or in preparation for Christianity. Justin Martyr along with Hippolytus (170-236 C.E.) was obsessed with the belief that the Jews were receiving and would continue to receive God’s punishment for having murdered Jesus. Hippolytus writes:

“Now then, incline thine ear to me and hear my words, and give heed, thou Jew. Many a time does thou boast thyself, in that thou didst condemn Jesus of Nazareth to death, and didst give him vinegar and gall to drink; and thou dost vaunt thyself because of this. Come, therefore, and let us consider together whether perchance thou dost boast unrighteously, O, Israel, and whether thou small portion of vinegar and gall has not brought down this fearful threatening upon thee and whether this is not the cause of thy present condition involved in these myriad of troubles.”

As the Church came into power in the fourth century, it turned on the synagogues with even greater intensity. Jewish civil and religious status was deteriorating, thanks to the influence the bishops had in the political arena. Laws were passed making it a capital offense for any Jew to make a convert, they were excluded from various professions, denied all civil honors, and their autonomy of worship was being threatened. In every way, they were being discriminated against. Christians felt that their belief in divine punishment was now supported by this growing evidence.

Hilary of Potieres spoke of the Jews as “a people who had always persisted in iniquity and out of its abundance of evil glorified in wickedness.” Ambrose defended a fellow bishop for burning a synagogue at Callinicum and asked “who cares if a synagogue – home of insanity and unbelief – is destroyed?” Gregory of Nyssa (331-396 C.E.) gave the following indictment:

“Slayers of the Lord, murderers of the prophets, adversaries of God, men who show contempt for the Law, foes of grace, enemies of their fathers’ faith, advocates of the Devil, brood of vipers, slanderers, scoffers, men whose minds are in darkness, leaven of the Pharisees, assembly of demons, sinners, wicked men, stoners, and haters of righteousness.”

The strongest attacks on Jews and Judaism by the Church Fathers are to be found in the Homilies of Chrysostom (347-407 C.E.) in his Antioch sermons. He is considered to be among the most beloved and admired in Church history. His name translates in Greek as St. John the Golden Mouthed. His discourses were prompted by the fact that many Christians were meeting on friendly terms with Jews, visiting Jewish homes, and attending their synagogues. Chrysostom said:

“The Jews sacrifice their children to Satan….they are worse than wild beasts. The synagogue is a brothel, a den of scoundrels, the temple of demons devoted to idolatrous cults, a criminal assembly of Jews, a place of meeting for the assassins of Christ, a house of ill fame, a dwelling of iniquity, a gulf and abyss of perdition.”44

“The Jews have fallen into a condition lower than the vilest animal. Debauchery and drunkenness have brought them to the level of the lusty goat and the pig. They know only one thing: to satisfy their stomachs, to get drunk, to kill, and beat each other up like stage villains and coachmen.”

“The synagogue is a curse, obstinate in her error, she refuses to see or hear, she has deliberately perverted her judgment; she has extinguished with herself the light of the Holy Spirit.”

Chrysostom further said that the Jews had become a degenerate race because of their “odious assassination of Christ for which crime there is no expiation possible, no indulgence, no pardon, and for which they will always be a people without a nation, enduring a servitude without end.”

He elaborated further on God’s punishment of the Jews:

“But it was men, says the Jew, who brought these misfortunes upon us, not God. On the contrary, it was in fact God who brought them about. If you attribute them to men, reflect again that even supposing men had dared, they could not have had the power to accomplish them, unless it had been God’s will…Men would certainly not have made war unless God had permitted them…Is it not obvious that it was because God hated you and rejected you once for all?”48

On another occasion Chrysostom is quoted as saying “I hate the Jews because they violate the Law. I hate the synagogue because it has the Law and the prophets. It is the duty of all Christians to hate the Jews.”

Chrysostom’s Homilies were to be used in seminaries and schools for centuries as model sermons, with the result that his message of hate would be passed down to succeeding generations of theologians. The nineteenth century Protestant cleric R. S. Storr called him “one of the most eloquent preachers who ever since apostolic times have brought to men the divine tidings of truth and love.” A contemporary of Storr, the great theologian John Henry Cardinal Newman, described Chrysostom as a “bright, cheerful, gentle soul, a sensitive heart…”

Augustine, the great theologian, was also guilty of the growing hatred. In a sermon on Catechumens, he says:

“The Jews hold him, the Jews insult him, the Jews bind him, crown him with thorns, dishonor him with spitting, scourge him, overwhelm with revilings, hang him upon the tree, pierce him with a spear…The Jews killed him.”

“But when the Jews killed Christ, though they knew it not, they prepared the supper for us.”

In another sermon he characterized the Jews as “willfully blind to Holy Scripture,” “lacking in understanding” and “haters of truth.”

The Church Fathers had sown the seeds of intolerance and Jews were to become the object of hatred and persecution all over Europe for centuries to come.


Many of the sources reviewed in the writing of this paper agree that Jesus was, in fact, an observant Jew and that he was loyal to the faith of his people, as is also my own conclusion. It seems clear that he did not have any concern for starting a new religion or for the conversion of his own people to a faith outside their own. Clearly, his concerns were for the Kingdom of God, brotherly love, and for teaching the moral and spiritual implications of the Law (Mat. 5:17).

In reading the accounts of Jesus, some Christians have wrongly interpreted his criticism of the “Pharisees” [which were in all probability Sadducees] and their attention to the fine distinctions of the Law, as an indication that the Law was no longer necessary. Therefore, any Jews who observed Jewish Law would not find favor with Jesus. To do this is to remove Jesus from his culture as well as it is to misunderstand what he was teaching. But this alone cannot be used to develop an anti-Jewish theology.

As previously stated, if not for the innovations of Paul, it is possible the early sect of the Nazarenes might have survived within Judaism, or at least lived in an atmosphere of coexistence. Paul’s innovations were to have such a profound influence that they have affected the course of world history. The position presented in this paper is that it was the hellenization of Christianity that caused its separation from Judaism. Paul himself, the Apostle to the Gentiles, was a hellenized Jew from Tarsus in Cilicia. It was the lack of understanding on the part of the Gentiles concerning Jewish Law, Jewish life, and the Jewish mind set that was to cause the reactionary attitudes of early Gentile Christians; attitudes which were first against Judaism and were later to become the anti-Semitic policies of the Christian Church.

Although Paul taught the Gentiles that through faith alone in Jesus Christ they could now enter into the covenants of Israel, he never advocated that Jews should not follow Torah. Paul’s mission was to the Gentiles and his position was to simply make the faith accessible to Gentiles whom he felt were not required or obligated to take on the sometimes uncomfortable demands of Jewish Law. For example, by dropping the requirement for male circumcision, he made conversion to Christianity painless. A Christian proselyte could continue to live his life in his own culture without major interruption. And so began a blending process of Jewish and pagan customs and festivals which were later to become institutionalized by the Church, e.g. Sunday observance, Christmas, Easter. Because of this blending and “gentilizing” of Paul’s teaching, Judaism seemed to the Gentile Christian mind set to be more and more in error. By removing the requirement for Gentiles to follow Torah, he unwittingly set the stage for the later anti-Semitism of the Church Fathers.

On the other hand, the writings and speeches of the Church Fathers as presented in this paper, clearly speak for themselves as to the blatant anti-Semitism, Jewish hatred, and intolerance that was pervasive by the fourth and fifth centuries. The Church had begun to act in ways that were in diametric opposition to its founder. Jesus never taught his followers to convert people by force, or to persecute, oppress, or harm people simply because they disagreed with his message. It is not difficult to understand how Christian anti-Semitism has been perpetuated, since the very men who laid the foundational Christian theology and developed the Nicean Creed were, in fact, some of the worst anti- Semites in history.

In the first century C.E. one out of every ten citizens of the Roman Empire was following Judaism. It was Judaism that had introduced God to the Roman world, but it was Christianity that was to become the state religion. Despite the rapid growth of this new religion, the Jews remained faithful and steadfast in their ancient religion. The people to whom Jesus addressed his message and to whom he belonged, rejected all Christian claims concerning him. By continuing to keep Torah, the Jews threatened the very truth, if not the very existence of Christianity. If Judaism remained valid and the only path to God, then Christianity was invalid.

The Church Fathers had a very logical solution to this problem…their apologetics would deny the legitimacy of the Jews and Judaism. The Church promoted itself as the new Israel, and the other Israel had to be discredited. And it did so by citing the Jews own scriptures against them, not just on specific issues, but on the fundamental questions of Israel’s status as God’s chosen people. In the process, the Christian religion became saturated with anti-Jewish sentiments.

The Church Fathers misinterpreted Jesus’ teachings and lacked understanding of his Jewish culture. They assumed Paul’s teaching to have universal application to Gentile and Jew alike, while failing to understand that his teaching of not being “under the Law” was not intended as instruction for the Jews. The Church Fathers developed, therefore, an extreme theology that was rigid and intolerant and required the Jews to abandon Judaism or be seen as “foes of grace, enemies of their fathers’ faith, and advocates of the Devil.”

Persecution followed the Jews wherever they went in the centuries that followed. Over time, three progressively severe policies were to be applied against the Jews: conversion (you can not live among us as Jews), expulsion (you can not live among us), and annihilation (you can not live). It is therefore my conclusion that the Church Fathers bear the major responsibility for the origins of Christian anti-Semitism.

Before closing it is important to point out that Christian anti-Semitism is not simply a shameful blemish on the early Church, but is an underlying element of its theology that has endured through the centuries and into modern times. It is tragic that in later times even the well known Church reformer, Martin Luther, was finally seduced by all the anti-Jewish propaganda of his time. Although in his earlier ministry Luther sympathetically acknowledged the shameful way the Church had treated the Jews and urged kind treatment of them, in later life he was to write the complete opposite. Here in part is what Luther wrote in C.E. 1543. Note that Adolf Hitler seemed to use it as a general guide for implementing the earlier phase of his “final solution” against the Jews:

“What then shall we Christians do with this damned, rejected race of Jews? Since they live among us and we know about their lying and blasphemy and cursing, we cannot tolerate them if we do not wish to share in their lies, curses, and blasphemy. . . . .We must prayerfully and reverentially practice a merciful severity. . . . . Let me give you my honest advice:

First, to set fire to their synagogues or schools and to bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn, so that no man will ever again see a stone or cinder of them. This is to be done in honor of our LORD and of Christendom.

Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed.

Third, I advise that all their prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing, and blasphemy are taught, be taken from them.

Fourth, I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb.

Fifth, I advise that safe conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews. For they have no business in the countryside, since they are not lords, officials, tradesmen, or the like. Let them stay at home. [We might well ask “What home?”, since they were all presumably burned in point two!]

Sixth, I advise that usury be prohibited to them, and that all cash and treasure of silver and gold be taken from them, and put aside for safe keeping.

Seventh, I recommend putting a flail, an ax, a hoe, a spade, a distaff, or a spindle into the hand of young, strong Jews and Jewesses and letting them earn their bread in the sweat of their brow.”


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