Among the many ways one can distinguish religions, I believe it reasonable that a primary feature of the assemblies St. Paul started was their non-Jewish (“Gentile”) orientation. If we follow the chronology of St. Paul’s letters, starting from about year 50 of the Common Era to perhaps late 60’s C.E., Gentile Christianity, as distinct from that practiced by Jesus’ original Jewish followers, arose within a generation after Jesus’ death. Its recruits were urged by St. Paul to accept Jesus Christ as divinity and savior from sin; and to reject laws of the Jewish Torah, such as circumcision, dietary restrictions, Sabbath and Temple observances that particularly identified Jews. To St. Paul, one is “justified” by “faith” in Jesus Christ and not by “deeds” specified in Jewish Scriptures.1

Whether or not we call the changes in St. Paul’s Gentile churches emblems of a new religion,2 it seems clear from New Testament Gospels and other early Christian writings that Gentile Christianity became both a dominant and dominating form of Christianity by the beginning of the second century, supplanting the authority of Jesus’ original Jewish followers. It is significant that aside from differences in beliefs among St. Paul’s churches on whether Jesus Christ’s body had been earthly or celestial, or whether end of the world is coming now or later — differences which must have seemed arcane to much of Roman society — Gentile Christianity, in its various forms, presented itself to the Roman world as separate from Jews by its non-Jewishness.3

Although Jews can draw some comfort that more Christian theologians now recognize the Jewishness of Jesus and his disciples,4 a rarely discussed question that needs to be answered is: what led to Gentile Christianity’s opposition to Jewishness despite the Jewishness of Jesus and his disciples? Specifically, what purposes did opposition to Jewishness serve in Gentile Christianity; especially in the virulent form it quickly adopted accusing the Jews of deicide? And why did it persist?

I think the sources and sustenance of Gentile Christianity’s anti-Jewishness are not hard to find.

  1. Anti-Jewishness helped evangelize Gentiles who viewed Jews and Jewish practices as “foreign,” “unsociable,” and “inhospitable” — regarding Jews as outside of Gentile society.5
  2. Anti-Jewishness helped prevent the loss of Christian converts to Judaism and Jewish Christianity, by making “Jews” an object of derision.6
  3. Anti-Jewishness helped disparage Jewish versions of the Jewish Bible that conflicted with Gentile Christian reinterpretations. These new interpretations claimed that Gentile Christianity was divinely envisaged in the Jewish Scriptures, yet Biblically commanded religious practices were no longer necessary. Such reinterpretation was also necessary to account for the historic absence of any persons named “Christian” before Gentile Christianity’s initial appearance in the first century C.E.7
  4. Anti-Jewishness enabled Christianity to pose as an unfairly persecuted group, whose salvific divinity, Jesus Christ, was martyred by Jews, an alleged immoral malevolent people— a “common enemy” — who then also oppressed his followers.8
  5. Anti-Jewishness facilitated Christianity’s relationship with Roman authorities and Roman converts by absolving Romans of crimes against Jews such as the murder of Jesus and the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, which were blamed on the Jews themselves.9
  6. Anti-Jewishness helped Christian leaders resolve internal conflicts by discrediting Christian dissidents for presumably following Jewish teachings. (See Note #17.)

Each of these advantages would have helped embed anti-Jewishness into Gentile Christianity’s development, and some deserve to be further explored. Unfortunately, what seemed to have begun as differences with Jews on a religious level quickly advanced into demonizing Jews on a racial level — from anti–Jewishness to anti–“Jews.” Issues raised against Jews included various myths used to explain why Christians were anti-Jewish.10 Also, Jewish failure to adopt Christianity was ascribed to myths of sinfulness and intransigence, as though there could be no justifiable cause to reject this new self-proclaimed religion. However, if we discount such biased accusations, there were many valid reasons, both rational and religious, why Jews did not become Christian.11

In the New Testament, Gospel narratives 12 turned the few fragments known of Jesus the Jew into a mythic drama about Jesus Christ and his Jewish opponents. By the year 100 or so, the term “Jew” used 70 times in the New Testament Gospel of St. John, had already replaced “Scribes,” “Pharisees,” and other subgroup designations. Denouncing Jews as an ethno/racial entity — Jew-hatred now called antisemitism 13 — further widened the gulf between Judaism’s synagogues and Gentile Christian churches and made Jew-hatred a common feature of Christian culture.14

Even earlier than St. John’s Gospel, Gentile readers of the Epistle of Barnabas and the New Testament letter Epistle to the Hebrews mordantly concluded that the Jews had lost God’s favor, now bestowed on Christians. Jesus the messianic Jew who preached a “Kingdom of God” for oppressed countrymen under Roman rule, 15 was transformed by literary means into the innocent victim of intolerant Jewish pietists.16 The more loathsome and demonic any ties to Jews, the more difficult for potential converts to be attracted to Judaism, or for Christians to be proselytized by “Judaizers” into the “heresy” of Jewish Christianity,17 or be attracted to any opposing view tainted with a “Jewish” label. However Gentile Jesus believers may have comported themselves religiously, and whether or not some Jews may have joined St. Paul’s Gentile churches, any identity of Gentile Christianity with Jews quickly became “orthodox” Christian anathema.

Further discomfiting Christian leaders was Jewish disbelief in Christianity’s basic theology of Jesus Christ as divinity (God or Son of God). Jewish denial placed Christianity’s claim to Biblical legitimacy at issue, and early Christian leaders were engaged for centuries trying to align the meaning and context of passages in Jewish Scriptures with Christian needs. The Jewish Bible was therefore retained, not primarily for its rules and rituals, whose observance Gentile Christian leaders mostly condemned as anachronistic, but to claim divine support for the coming of Jesus Christ and convince Romans of Christian antiquity.18

The attempt to extract Christian legitimacy from the Jewish Bible led to apologetics and polemics claiming that “hard-hearted” Jews failed to fully understand and follow their own Bible because of Jewish sacrilege, wickedness, and inferiority, as opposed to the sanctity, virtue, and superiority of its self-elected Christian successor.19

The inevitable consequences of Gentile Christianity’s claims for Biblical legitimacy thus also led to Jew hatred:

  • To present itself as a truly ancient religion Gentile Christianity reinterpreted Jewish Scriptures to show they prophesied Jesus Christ’s appearance, life, and death. Now posing as the “True Israelites,” Gentile Christians made clear they were supplanting antedated Jews.
  • Jewish persistence in obeying Biblical religious laws was an abiding challenge to Christianity’s presumption of Biblical antiquity and was blamed on the Jews for misunderstanding their own Bible.

A primary issue for Christian leadership was therefore how to confer religious authority on Gentile Christian beliefs and customs from Jewish Scriptures that proclaim contrary laws, doctrines, and practices. That is, how can the Jewish Bible be designated as a Christian document, and its writings reinterpreted, without denigrating Jews for not sharing such illusions? Antisemitism thus became inexorably tied to Christianity’s self-identification as an antique “Gentile”-oriented religion, albeit with a Jewish-born savior. Had such Biblical claims not been made, as some Christians suggested, and a non-Jewish savior been found or created, Christianity, had it survived, would undoubtedly have had a different relationship with Jews.20

Unfortunately, despite absence of any Christian movement or “Church” during Israel’s entire Biblical history, Christian Fathers held on to pretensions of being the “True Israel,” and hostility to Jews never faltered. Jews were symbolized as malevolent “Christ killers,” destined to wander the earth universally despised, exhibiting to all Christians the punishment for “deicide”— the murder of Jesus. Identifying “Jews” in this stereotyped racial/religious/cultural fashion thus provided a simple evil counterpart to “Christian godliness” that set up an impenetrable border between Jews and Christians. Demonizing these “rebellious” Jews, who fought wars against Roman rule in the first and second centuries of the Common Era, and blaming them for Jesus’ death, also placed Christianity in a closer, concordant relationship with Romans who were thus absolved of crimes against Jesus and other rebellious Jews.21

In summary, antisemitism developed into a prominent and persistent feature of early Christian development, and the reasons for its introduction and expansion need to be examined and understood. Although serious measurement of social and religious factors leading to the success of Christianity remains difficult,22 it seems clear that antisemitism, on both social and religious levels, helped Christianity to flourish, and was essential for its self-justification as a divinely revealed religion. The intensity and flagrance of anti-Jewish virulence by Christian saints and clerics through the first four centuries of Gentile Christian development appears otherwise unexplainable.23

Once Christianity reached its position of state power in the fourth and fifth centuries, and forcibly suppressed Judaistic influence, one might have expected antisemitic bigotry to diminish, since Christianity would no longer need to actively protect its authority and doctrines. In reality, antisemitism remained an obstinately entrenched Christian feature since Christian anathema could continually be focused on politically impotent Jews for their presumed enmity to Jesus. For example, “Passion Plays” portraying the Gospel story of Jesus with its fantasies of loathsome Jewish antagonists, provided a church-sponsored platform for antisemitic Christian education into present times. From “Judas” to “Jew” was not even a slip of the tongue. Early Christian theology, along with many of its later practitioners, thus established Jewish suffering as deserved retribution for supposedly opposing/betraying/convicting Jesus Christ the Savior by first century authorities. This invested Christian antisemitism with psychological/emotional justification that has lasted as long as Christianity itself — that one is punishing those who punished one’s God.

From their beginning as Christianity’s religious enemies, Jews could also be targeted for society’s ills, as causative agents for famines, plagues, and other social calamities. Religious antipathy merged into racial/ethnic antipathy to provide a single vulnerable target — “Jews”— supposedly poisoning wells, sacrificing Christians in satanic rituals, and depriving honest Christians of their just rewards through monetary greed and secretive cabals. Antisemitic psychology thus turned Jews into convenient scapegoats on which to project Christians’ own malevolent immoral feelings, resentments, and envious desires.24 Demagogic clerics, politicians, and ideologues could then intensify these feelings, turning passive hatred into active violence. Two millennia of history show how markedly Christian concepts of Jews affected Jewish lives.

Although persecution of Jews varied in time, place, and form, behind the persecutions lay the alleged “truth” of the Christian Gospels and their antisemitic stories, “canonized” as unchangeable divinely revealed texts. As the mainstays of Christian religious literature, the Gospels continue to be acclaimed by Christian clerics and theologians wherever Christianity is preached and practiced. It therefore seems clear that other than openly repudiating antisemitic themes in the Gospels and accompanying Christian literature, damaging effects of Christian antisemitism will remain. 25

We should note that there are many Christian individuals and institutions that do acknowledge Christian antisemitism and seek to mediate its effects.26 Nevertheless, we should also note that there is as yet no effort by Christian institutions or their leaders to renounce the New Testament’s continually transmitted antisemitic messages, nor to seriously review the motivations that induced Christian antisemitism and kept it alive.

For Jews, there is a double aspect of how one can look at Gentile Christianity. On one hand, monotheistic, ethical, and social empathetic features of Judaism adopted by Christianity stand to its credit. On the other hand, Gentile Christianity’s virulent anti-Jewishness and concomitant antisemitism was a sign of its leadership’s failure to accept Jews as fellow human beings and treat them respectfully. Unfortunately, what is missing is tolerance, not only ethnic but religious. Theological differences between Christianity and Judaism, although heartfelt, cannot be tested. Since no religion or sect can prove it is the only communicant with God, it can hardly claim to be the only religious authority. As relates to all religions, the theology of how to configure and worship a god is a matter of variant beliefs and not evidential fact. Can we agree that human value rests on one’s behavior and effect on others (one’s humanity), not on one’s theological beliefs?