“Anti-Semitism was long justified by passages like this one from I Thessalonians: the Jews “killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets.”
For my regular readers, this is the first draft of Chapter One of my proposed book tentatively titled, The Jewish Problem, A Survivor''s Guide. This blog is significantly longer than usual, and I would appreciate any comments or suggestions on its accuracy, quality or any other thoughts you might have concerning the chapter or the book. I will post as blogs several other chapters, after which my blog may take a different direction altogether.
As I find comments consistent with my writing I will incorporate them directly into the on-line blog, allowing you the opportunity to participate directly in the editing process.
Thank you for accompanying me on this long, sometimes contentious, journey!
The Jewish Problem was born in Christian scripture and magnified over the centuries by that religion’s theologians. So the first task is to identify the sources of the “problem,” then describe its development over the centuries through Christian theology. What was it about Judaism that could so “threaten” Christianity as to represent so great a threat? As Ruether described it in the Christian Introduction,
“The anti-Judaic tradition in Christianity grew as a negative and alienated expression of a need to legitimate its revelation in Jewish terms.”
In other words, had the new religion taken any of several alternative routes available in its early centuries (Marcionism, for example, rejected Jewish scripture and the “Jewish god”); had Christianity, comprising Jewish and Pagan features moved rather towards the latter then Judaism and the Jewish People might well have been persecuted as Other more typical of xenophobia. But the Jewish Problem would likely have been far less a threat and preoccupation leading to mass murders in the Middle Ages, the Holocaust in the 20th Century.
Background to first century Jewish messianism: When Gaius Pompeius Magnus conquered Judea in 63 B.C.E. he set off a century of uprisings to rid monotheist Judea of its pagan occupiers. According to Josephus tens of thousands of rebels suffered crucifixion, a slow and cruel death intended by Rome to discourage others from joining the rebellion. The numbers of the crucified rebels would multiply many-fold when the disconnected uprisings coalesced into the First Jewish War, 66-70 C.E.
The presence of Pagan occupiers in Judea was more than a nation-on-nation struggle: it was an affront to the land and people of God, of monotheistic Judaism. Having only a century earlier rid itself of the Hellenist Seleucid pollution, today celebrated as Hanukah, the Jews were not about to accept Pagan Rome’s legions roaming the countryside. A period of national desperation, the longer it continued the greater the hope for messianic intervention. Surely God would not allow Pagans to subjugate His people, the Holy Land?
Although the insurrection was ultimately lost a century later, over that period there were some significant Jewish success, and with those successes their leaders were believed inspired by God. At times the victorious leaders believed themselves to be God’s messiah. It was this, a leader inspired by God to defeat the enemy, that constituted, that defined the role of “messiah.”
All must have realized the hopelessness of defeating Rome, master of an empire conquered and defended by its legions. And the longer the conflict continued, the greater the desperation among the people, the more intense the hope and expectation that God would, in the end, provide a true messiah. It was this that Josephus describes as uniting the leaders of the two largest militias: that by a final and desperate effort to eject the Pagans that God must intervene to save Jerusalem and his people. And with that victory would God return to History, establish His reign on Earth: the Malchut Shamayim, “Kingdom of Heaven.” According to Isaiah, 59:19-20,
“When the enemy shall come in like a flood, the Spirit of the Lord shall lift up a standard against him… and the Redeemer shall come to Zion.”
But the hoped-for messiah did not appear. And in 70 C.E. the Romans conquered and sacked Jerusalem, destroyed the temple and, according to Josephus, more than one million Jews, insurrectionists and civilians, were crucified or died in combat before Temple and City were razed, and Jewish sovereignty was finally brought to an end.
Jewish messiah, Christian Messiah: It was against this century-long backdrop of desperation, hope and ultimate defeat that Christianity emerged. Why Christianity developed away from Judaism was a result of the role assigned the messianic figure by Paul and those who followed (gospel “authors;” later theologians). Jewish tradition provided for messianic intervention. But by tradition the Jewish messiah was an otherwise ordinary Jew, a human being inspired by God to lead the Jews to “salvation” through victory, not as consolation for defeat. Through the Jewish messiah God would provide the reward in the here-and-now, not in the after-life. In fact the very idea of an after life, acceptable in pagan religions, is also outside mainstream Judaism. Most Christian scholars writing today recognize that the “Messiah” described by Paul and the gospels, a man-god, was typical of the pagan “Mystery religions,” not Judaism. And this likely explains why Paul was forced to turn to the pagans, a pool of potential converts closer to his representation of “messiah.”
Paul’s epistles, his letters to his communities of converts scattered across the eastern Mediterranean, either incorporated existing oral tradition, or inspired the gospel literary form of which several dozen survive today. Four gospels, each representing an important Christian community of the period, were adopted as canonical. All gospels not selected were “heretical” and destroyed when located. The selection of the four is variously described as emerging between the second and fourth centuries, perhaps at the Council of Nicea in 325. Rome’s emperor, Constantine, had recently chosen Christianity as official religion of the empire to quiet growing restiveness to Roman rule.
For reasons made clear in Paul’s serial arguments with the Jerusalem leadership, his “salvational” messianic sect, violating basic precepts of Judaism, would have attracted few converts in Judea. Where it did succeed was among the pagan communities spread across the Empire. For decades Judaism had paved the way for Christianity, had attracted pagans by its mysterious and invisible god, and especially its ancient history. Some estimates put the number of converts before the fall of the Jerusalem as high as ten percent of practicing Jews (after the war rabbis began discouraging conversion). Before the fall converts were even found in the emperor’s household. Women in particular found conversion easier where men may have been discouraged from the final step by circumcision.
Many among the pagan religions attracted to Judaism generally followed practice, Shabbat and holidays, lived among or nearby Jewish communities, but chose not to fully convert. These are today referred to as, “god-fearers,” and it was among these that Paul’s liberalized “Judaism” took root:
In Romans 2:28 he attacks Jewish practice directly by arguing that “the Jews” misunderstand the true meaning of circumcision:
“circumcision,” Paul taught, “is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter.”
Paul’s differences with the “Jerusalem leadership” and with normative Judaism define his “mission to the Pagans.” In 1 Thessalonians 2:16, for example, he chides James, et al, for,
“forbidding us to speak to the Gentiles that they may be saved.”
His epistles reflect how far he has drifted, or perhaps failed to understand how far he was moving away from Judaism in his self-assigned mission to the Pagans. How close or distant his views of Jesus differ from James and Peter is impossible to known since we have only Paul’s writings to go by. As he describes his disagreement with Jerusalem the argument appears limited to practice. But increasingly his attacks on the leadership and the Jews intensify, even accusing “the Jews” of deicide. He represents “the Jews” as,
“rejected by God, enemies of mankind: the Jews “both killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove out us, and pleased not God, and are contrary to all men.”
For these crimes, Paul concluded, God transferred his covenant to the “new” Jews, to Paul’s communities of converts. Paul’s accusations would become a theme that would reappear in the gospels, be magnified by generations of theologians as the Jewish Problem. Paul set the stage for centuries of anti-Jewish animus and persecution.
Introduction to the gospels: Whether Paul’s mission was as a non-Jew as Robert Eisenman describes in James, the Brother of Jesus, or as a Jew his mission is openly competitive with, and often anti-Jewish in message. Whatever his motives, in the end he inspired a religion in conflict with Normative Judaism.
Paul co-opted Judaism, characterized his own mission as the true “Judaism,” inheritor of the “ancient history” so attractive to the pagans; the “invisible “one” god that excited pagan imagination and attracted pagan converts. By removing such barriers to easy conversion as male circumcision and dietary laws the new “Judaism” represented an easier path to “Jewish” conversion. Very likely Paul’s first converts were from among the “god-fearers” described above, pagans attracted to Judaism and attached to Jewish communities in the Diaspora; “half-Jews who failed to take the final step to normative Judaism.
To judge by Paul’s epistles communities of converts were sprinkled across the eastern Mediterranean from “Syria” to Rome. Eventually these would grow and, by the fourth century, become the official religion of Rome, transform the crumbling Roman Empire into the Holy Roman Empire. But in the early centuries the new Christian communities, rejected by Jew, curiosity to pagan, likely felt both vulnerable and in competition with Judaism.
Paul died before “Mark,” considered the first of the canonical four appeared. But his influence on the genre appears throughout the four. Matthew 27:25, for example, directly refers to 1 Thessalonians 2,
“the Jews who both killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets… The wrath of God has come upon them at last.”
But Matthew fleshes out what may be called the first Christian “blood libel” with literary flair, dramatically expands on Paul to produce a piece of literature far more accessible to the pagans and naïve readers into the future. This gospel, and that of John would, as scripture for Christendom among whom most Jews were dispersed, inspire centuries of anti-Jewish persecution spanning centuries at the cost of millions of Jewish lives. And this long before the 20th century and its attempted “final” solution to the Jewish Problem. In Mein Kampf Hitler had Paul and Matthew in mind as he described the proposed Final Solution as, “fighting for the work of the Lord.”
Anti-Judaism and the Gospels: Whatever Paul’s sympathies regarding the Jewish-Roman War, and his loyalties are “conflicted” in his writings, he would not have attracted pagan converts based on support of the Herodian puppet regime, to which he was related by blood, and loyal, over the Jewish insurrectionists. And aside from those criticisms of Judaism and the Jerusalem leadership which peppered his writings, his epistles are more theological than polemical. By the time of his death Paul’s legacy was a transcendental Christ rather than a “human” Jesus; for the Jews one more in a series of failed messiahs. And, as is apparent in the four future canonical gospels, Christianity was already divorcing from whatever the “Jewish” messianic movement might or not have been1.
The stage upon which Christianity emerged was the Roman Empire, not war-ravaged Judea. And the difference is represented not just in the qualities expected, but in the term used to describe Jesus: the Christ, Greek for the Jewish “messiah.” Where Jesus’ “death and resurrection” mirror Pagan religious tradition, Jewish tradition called for a person inspired by God to lead the Jews to victory over Rome, deliverance in the “here-and-now.” Christ Jesus, according to Paul, provides a consolatory victory following defeat in life. Where the Jewish Messiah might herald God’s “return” to History with the universal peace in His Kingdom of Heaven, Christ Jesus will herald the transformation upon his “return,” which Paul expected “imminently,” then “soon” and eventually and towards the end of his life, indefinitely-delayed.
Then there is the improbability of Rome’s governor, Pontius Pilate, as represented in the gospels. As Pilate appears in historical documentation he despised the Jews, intentionally provoked the populace to riot. Because of his inciting rebellion he was recalled to Rome and relieved of his governorship. But in the gospels this tyrant is represented as humane, sympathetic to Jesus accused of insurrection against Rome! The entire trial by the Sanhedrin and judgment before Pilate also contradict Jewish custom. The Sanhedrin could not have met on the eve of Passover; and there was no death penalty for “blasphemy.” If the “trial” did occur it would been solely the province of Rome, from charge, to conviction, to execution.
According to Paula Fredriksen, a Catholic theologian whose writings are said to have inspired the Vatican’s 1965 Nostre Aetate absolving present-day Jews of blame for Jesus death, the gospels
“function as community-building documents. They offer religious proclamation, not simple history.”
The Gospels: Historical fact or literary invention?
First Problem as history: All four canonicals were written after the destruction of Jerusalem, and the John gospel likely appeared a half-century after Paul’ death. None were written at the time of the events described so are generally recognized as “legendary” by biblical scholars.
Second: The earliest surviving gospel materials date from the 4th Century and were themselves transcriptions of earlier transcriptions. Even these survivals are but tiny fragments. An example of “originals” that survived the passage of time is Papyrus 46, a page from Corinthians likely transcribed sometime between 175-225, a century or more after Paul’s death.
The oldest gospel fragment is from “John” and dates dated from the second century:
The recto of Rylands Library Papyrus P52 from the Gospel of John (Wikepedia)
The “John” fragment is in Greek, generally considered the original language of Christian scripture. Clearly such fragments reveal little of the originals, which means that today’s scriptures are the end-result of many generations of transcriptions complete with errors and religious biases accepted as “original:”
“no modern version could ever be identical to whatever the original had been: too many generations of copyists stood between scholar and the text’s distant, ancient author.” (Frederiksen, The birth of Christianity, in Jesus, Judaism & Christian Anti-Judaism, p. 10)
Until approximately two hundred years ago Christian scripture was universally accepted as “historical.” With the introduction of scientific criteria,
“the differences in tone among the Gospels emerged with increasing clarity, which in turn called into question their status as historical witnesses… the evangelists in their individuality came to be seen more as creative interpreters…” (Frederiksen, pps. 9-10)
Since Greek was the language of Christian scripture it is safe to assume that the source of Jewish scripture Paul and the evangelists drew on was the Greek translation of the original Hebrew, the Septuagint. In the Hebrew, as one important example of mistranslation, Isaiah 7:14 reads,
“a “young girl” (‘aalmah) gives birth to a child, but in Greek the new mother is a “virgin” (parthenos)… The gap between history and theology began to widen.” (Frederiksen, p. 10)
But debate among scholars today does not erase the fact that, as Frederickson reminds, until about two hundred years ago all considered scripture “historical” and “the inerrant word of God.” Scholarly debate has little impact on faith. Not even religious authorities can easily change long-held tradition. In 1965 the Vatican accepted Nostre Aetate which, in part, exonerated present day Jews from the curse of Matthew 27:25. Yet for years following its adoption antisemitism among Catholics increased. And “the Jews,” guilty of Jesus murder as portrayed in Matthew, remain so in the minds of most believers even today.
The opening page of Matthew dated +/- 1291 (Wikipedia)
The Matthew Gospel: All four canonical gospels represent “the Jews” as guilty in the crucifixion of Jesus. But “Matthew” is most graphic and strident. It has also been the most influential over the centuries in shaping the attitude and thought of generations of theologians from Augustine to Luther and beyond. According to Matthew’s telling the “Jewish mob” not only demands Jesus’ death but insists future generations of Jews share in blame:
“What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” Pilate asked. They all answered, “Crucify him!” “Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate. But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!” When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!”
“All the people answered, ‘His blood be on us, and on our children.’”
And at the depicted crucifixion Jesus is placed between two “bandits,” a term certainly appropriate in Rome’s eyes. As the description appears in the gospels it clearly represents a pro-Roman, anti-Jewish motive. Jews, on the other hand, would have described them differently, perhaps “freedom fighters”?
As regards the “bandit” demanded by the “mob” instead of Jesus, “Jesus Barabbas (Matthew 27: 17): in the Aramaic Bar-Abbas translates, “son of God”! According to Dead Sea Scrolls authority and friend Robert Eisenman,
“Matthew refers to Barabbas only as a "notorious prisoner…" John 18:40 refers to Barabbas as a lēstēs ("bandit"), "the word Josephus always employs when talking about Revolutionaries."
Josephus may have been a traitor, but he always remained a Jew. Living in Rome called for compromises and he, as did Christianity, accomodated himself to his surroundings. And so, in his writings, Jewish "rebels" were called “lēstēs (“bandit”)!”
The John Gospel: Where “Matthew” was most identifies “the Jews” and “deicide,” “John’s” contribution to anti-Judaism was in having Jesus describe “the Jews” as demonic antichrists, setting in motion “Jew” and “superstition”:
“You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”
And while reference to John’s description would, along with "Matthew," appear in writings by the Church Fathers, “John” would emerge as an important reason for anti-Jewish violence in the later Middle Ages, a time of natural disaster and social dislocation. In times of instability, times when life seems out of control, people seek something outside themself, an object to blame for their misfortune. In the Late Middle Ages Satan believed to lurk just beyond vision, lurking behind trees, in shadows. And “the Jews,” described by “John” as "children of Satan," as "antichrists," provided an at-hand outlet for fear and rage.