Foundations of antisemitism: the gospels

Introduction: If Paul and the gospels reflect the struggle with Judaism for identity and survival, the writings between the second and fifth centuries reflect a rear-guard defense against the continuing attraction of Judaism for early Christians.
Paul of Tarsus is regarded by most forms of Christianity as the father of the religion. In the previous blog, Anti-Judaism and the Origins of Christianity the roots of future anti-Judaism were noted in several of Paul’s epistles. Easily the most damaging in influence was 1 Thessalonians 2:15-16, where “the Jews” are blamed for the death of Jesus: “the Jews who both killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets… The wrath of God has come upon them at last.” Paul died before the first written gospel appeared but his influence upon the later literature is clear. Matthew 27:25 directly refers to 1 Thessalonians 2, but with far more drama. This gospel, and that of John, would provide inspiration for centuries of anti-Jewish persecution, resulting in the murders of millions of Jews long before the 20th century and the Holocaust. In Mein Kampf Hitler justified his extermination program as, “by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord.”
Anti-Judaism and the Gospels: Historically Rome was the ruling authority in Judea. If Gospel accounts are assumed accurate then Jesus was tried, convicted and executed under Roman law as administered by its procurator, Pontius Pilate. But in the struggle for Christianity’s survival it was necessary to appease Rome. And so a man described as a beast by multiple historical sources emerges in the gospels as a man of conscience, sympathetic to the accused. Pontius is even portrayed washing his hands, a Jewish custom, after the mob “overrules” his judgment. By gospel accounts it is “the Jews,” battling the pagan occupation, who are pronounced guilty.
According to Paula Fredriksen, whose writings are said to have inspired the Vatican’s Nostre Aetate, the gospels “function as community-building documents. They offer religious proclamation, not simple history.” Three of the four gospels included in Christian cannon, those attributed to Mark, Luke and Matthew, are dated between 70 and 100 C.E., following the fall of Jerusalem. The fourth gospel, John, was written or compiled in the early second century. While there is disagreement among scholars today regarding how the gospels are to be interpreted, for most Christians no guidance is needed: the gospels are the inerrant “word of God.” No room for question or debate.
All four gospels refer to “the Jews” disparagingly; agree that “the Jews” are responsible for the death of Jesus. But two gospels, those attributed to Matthew and to John, go much farther in drama and graphic description. Where Paul’s polemics were subdued, with the gospels the gloves came off.
The beginning of Matthew in Minuscule 484 (Wikipedia)
[Visit Antisemitism in Art for a visual history of antisemitism from the 4th to the 21st century]
The Matthew Gospel: According to“Matthew”the Jews are described something akin to a lynch mob, not only demanding Jesus’ death, but demanding responsibility and blame for all future Jewish generations.
Which of the two will ye that I release unto you? And they said, Barabbas. Pilate saith unto them, What then shall I do unto Jesus who is called Christ? They all say, Let him be crucified. And he said, Why, what evil hath he done? But they cried out exceedingly, saying, Let him be crucified. So when Pilate saw that he prevailed nothing, but rather that a tumult was arising, he took water, and washed his hands [a Jewish, not Roman tradition] before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this righteous man; see ye to it. And all the people answered and said, His blood be on us, and on our children.”
What’s not to hate?
Records dating from Pilate’s governorship actually paint a very different picture of the governor as not only contemptuous of Jews, but going out of his way to provoke confrontations and riots. He was recalled by the emperor for fanning the fires of rebellion.
The John Gospel also presents the “the Jews” at Jesus’ trial in an incendiary fashion, but where this gospel surpasses the others is in its incessant characterization of Jews as demonic antichrists.
“I know,” John has Jesus say, “that ye are Abraham''s seed: yet ye seek to kill me... I speak the things which I have seen with my Father: and ye also do the things which ye heard from your father... Ye are of your father the devil…” (John 8: 37-47)
This association of the Jews with Satan is repeated throughout the gospel, and John has far more accusatory references to “the Jews” than all three earlier gospels combined.
The Byzantine emperor Nicephorus III receives a book of homilies from John Chrysostom, the Archangel Michael stands on his left (11th cent. Illuminated manuscript), Wikipedia
St. John Chrysostom (c. 344-407): The impact of these scriptures on the future of theological and popular anti-Judaism are graphically represented by the sermons of John Chrysostom (Golden Tongue), a fourth century Archbishop of Antioch. According to John Parkes, author of the classic 1934 study implicating Christian anti-Judaism with antisemitism and the future Holocaust, Conflict of the Church and the Synagogue, referred to Chrysostom’s sermons as "the most horrible and violent denunciations of Judaism to be found in the writings of a Christian theologian (perhaps Dr. Parkes, a Catholic priest but, was not familiar with the writings of Martin Luther).” Chrysostom’s sermons built on Matthew’s condemnation of the Jews as the “deicide people” and provide a bridge from gospel to Augustine and beyond.
I had written a closing paragraph to this submission, then came across a better summary by Paula Fredriksen. In her contribution to her collection, Jesus, Judaism and Christian anti-Judaism she explains why anti-Judaism grew increasingly strident in the fourth century:

“It spread, I think, because of the Diaspora synagogue. Although we might expect that Jewish communities, now persecuted, should be shriveling up… [they] are thriving… monumental [in some places].Gentiles keep dropping by, cocelebrating Sabbaths and holidays, picking up the occasional Jewish practice… Fourth-century Gentile Christians, despite the anti-Jewish ideology of their own bishops, kept Saturdays as their day of rest… indeed, still celebrated Easter according to when the Jews kept Passover… made the effort to take oaths in front of Torah scrolls… had rabbis bless their fields, and let their children marry one another. Occasionally, and despite heavy penalties [eventually death], these Christians even converted to Judaism. We can still hear the [bishops] frustration and plaintive anger…  Bracing for the imminent onslaught of the autumn high holidays-Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Sukkot - Chrysostom cried out to his synagogue-going congregation, “Don’t you know that if the Jews’ way of life is true, then ours must be false?”… As long as Mediterranean social life was still intact… Jews and Gentiles still mixed and mingled… When this changed, in the early Middle Ages, this tradition of civility changed too, and Christian anti-Judaism led more directly to violence, even murder.” 



Recent writings in this Series:


1. Anti-Judaism and the Origins of Christianity