Anti-Judaism and the Origins of Christianity


Anti-Semitism was long justified by passages like this one from I Thessalonians: the Jews “killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets.”


Introduction: The purpose of this blogstream is to investigate the historical foundations for the West’s Jewish Problem, how such a thing as the Holocaust could occur. Such an investigation must begin with the source of religious anti-Judaism in Christian scripture, which begins today. Future writings will trace anti-Judaism through centuries of theological interpretation and development and, eventually, its transformation to secular antisemitism.


So long as Jew hatred remained within religion it victims might find relief through conversion. But with the 18th century Age of Reason; once Jewish identity was described by “science” by bloodline and genealogy; once, in other words, religious anti-Judaism morphed into secular antisemitism “conversion” not even religion would provide refuge.



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 meant to discourage others from joining the rebellion. Those numbers would multiply many-fold when the disconnected uprisings coalesced into the First Jewish War, 66-70 C.E.


 First century Roman frieze depicting Titus victory over Judea (Wikipedia)


The presence of Pagan occupiers in Judea was more than a nation-on-nation struggle. It was an affront to the land of Judaism’s one God. Having only a century earlier cleansed the temple of the Hellenist Seleucid pollution celebrated in Hanukah, the Jews were not about to accept Rome’s legions roaming the countryside. The century of on and off desperate insurrections brought some successes against far superior military forces, a seeming miracle that raised the rebel leader to the status of possible messiah. All must have realized the hopelessness of defeating Rome’s legions, and the longer the conflict continued the greater the hope and expectation that God would, in the end, provide a messiah. It was this that brought together the leaders of the two largest militias, the hope and expectation that God would intervene to save Jerusalem and establish His reign on Earth, the Malchut Shamayim, “Kingdom of Heaven.” According to Isaiah, 59:19-20 the messiah will arrive:


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 died in the siege.



Paul and the emergence of Christianity: It was against this century-long background of desperation, hope and, finally, defeat that Christianity emerged. Why Christianity developed away from Judaism was due to the role assigned the messianic figure by Paul and his followers. Jewish tradition called for messianic intervention, a leader to provide salvation through victory, not consolation following defeat. Most Christian scholars writing today recognize that the “messiah” described by Paul and the gospels was a figure far closer to the pagan “mystery religions” than to Jewish tradition. And it was among the pagans that Paul attracted his converts.


Paul of Tarsus “conversion” and career as evangelist began several decades after Jesus’ assumed death and corresponded to the final decades of the Jewish struggle against Roman rule and pagan influence. Paul’s epistles, his letters to his communities of converts scattered across the eastern Mediterranean, appear to have inspired a literary form, the gospels, of which several dozen survive today but from among which four would be selected as canonical, likely in the forth century. Divergent and often contradictory the gospel stories describe the earthly mission, crucifixion and ascension to heaven of Jesus the messiah or, in Greek translation, Christos; in English, Christ.


 Paul of tarsus as depicted on a chapel, (Wikipedia)


The salvational messianic sect of Judaism had little success attracting Jews living within or outside Judea for reasons outlined above. Where Christianity did strike root and begin to find acceptance was in the pagan world. Judaism always held attraction for some pagans who admired its ancient history, its invisible god, its day of rest. Conversion to Judaism even occurred within the emperor’s household. But due to its strict requirements of diet and circumcision Judaism, at least among the men, was more successful in attracting “partial” converts, or “god-fearers,” who followed rituals and participated in services and holidays, but declined formal conversion.


Paul’s success lay in eliminating the requirement of full conversion to Judaism: eliminating the need for circumcision removed a significant barrier for male converts. But eliminating full conversion and circumcision also brought him into conflict with the sect’s leadership, made up of temple-observant Jews, called today the Jerusalem Church. Testy and combative by nature Paul took the fight directly to the Jerusalem leadership.


In Romans 2:28 Paul argues that “the Jews” misunderstand the true meaning of circumcision: “circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter.” His frustration with the Jerusalem leadership is reflected in 1 Thessalonians 2:16where he chides them for, “forbidding us to speak to the Gentiles that they may be saved.” 


But removing himself from the mission of the “Jerusalem church” presented serious problems for his self-defined mission as representative of the Jewish movement. He accuses “the Jews” of collective blindness, a veil covering their eyes, seeing as “through a glass darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12). He is the first to accuse the Jews of deicide, to suggest they are 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,” (1 Thessalonians 2:14-15). For these crimes God transferred his covenant to the “new” Jews, to Paul’s communities of converts. His accusations would become a theme that would reappear in the gospels, be expanded on by generations of theologians, set the stage for centuries of anti-Jewish animus and persecution. 




For a visual history of periods and events described in this section of the discussion you are invited to visit Antisemitism in Art, an on-line work in progress.