Sources of Christian and Western Anti-Semitism

Roy Herndon Smith

I was a member, for a number of years, of the Jesus Seminar, a collection of New Testament and other scholars who were attempting to determine who the historical Jesus was and what he actually said and did. What they found radically contradicts most of what we get taught in our churches. For instance, see John Dominic Crossan, Jesus, A Revolutionary Biography.

The portrayal of Jesus as over against the Jews began with the composition of The Gospel of Mark shortly after the destruction, as punishment for revolting against Rome, of the Second Temple by Rome in 70 ACE, an event some Jews call the first holocaust. Rome also began to exile the Jews from Jerusalem at this time; in 136 ACE, when they were banned from living in Jerusalem. Up until the destruction of the Second Temple, most, if not all, of the communities associated with Jesus considered themselves and were accepted as Jewish reformers. But the destruction of the Second Temple led some leading Jews to question why God would allow this evil to happen to them and to conclude it was because they had disobeyed God’s ordained laws. The groups associated with Jesus regularly disobeyed certain religious prohibitions, such as eating with “unclean” non-Jews. In an attempt to atone for their sin and thus win God’s favor back, a number of the Jewish synagogues expelled the groups associated with Jesus. These expelled groups, who considered themselves to be Jews, not only lost their mother communities, they also lost the sanction, granted by Rome to the Jews, to worship their own God in their own way; they were subject to even worse Roman persecution than the other Jews. In response, a member of one of these groups, Mark, the composer the first (in time) gospel, wrote the Passion Narrative. The story of Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection preceded Mark and was the basis for a communion liturgy. But in these stories and liturgies (for instance, as Paul wrote about them in his letters), there is no betrayal of Jesus to the Jewish authorities by Judas, Mark introduced that element of the story. Doing so served four purposes: (1) it explained the destruction of the Second Temple–God used Rome to punish the false Jews for killing the Son of God, Jesus; (2) it established the groups associated with Jesus, who had been rejected by their mother communities, as the good, faithful, Jews, while the ones who rejected them (as they had rejected Jesus) were evil betrayers of God; (3) it gave these groups the faith that, no matter how persecuted they were now, just as God had resurrected Jesus, He would resurrect them and bring them to their rightful place as the good and holy rulers of the world; (4) it allowed them to appeal to Rome to grant them, the true and good Jews, the sanction to worship as they willed, rather than continuing to grant that sanction to the false and bad Jews. For this part of the history of Chritian anti-Semitism, take a look at Burton Mack, A Myth of Innocence.

It took another two hundred and fifty years for the appeal to Rome to work. During this time, there were a number of Christian groups with different understandings of who Jesus was, different theologies, and different ways of relating of the Jews. In 312, Constantine, who was fighting to become emperor, converted to Christianity. In 313, he consolidated his rule over the Western Roman Empire; he ascribed his success to his being a Christian and issued a proclamation giving Christians the right to worship as they pleased. In 324, Constantine consolidated his rule over the Eastern Roman Empire and thus became the ruler of the whole Empire. Realizing the usefulness of having a single imperial religion to quell discord and rebellions, he called the Council of Nicea, in which leaders of various Christian groups established Christianity as a hierarchical religion with a single statement of faith. The Nicene Creed did three things: (1) it established Christianity as an imperial religion which authorized, as sacred, the empire as its worldly representative; (2) it thus made any challenge to the goodness and legitimacy of imperial rule an attack on God; it thus allowed the empire to mobilize the faithful to crush dissenters; and (3) by locating the phrase, “On the night he was betrayed,” at the heart of the mass, which every believer was supposed to go to at least once, and preferably more than once, a week, it established a regularly repeated reminder that the Jews are ultimately the ones responsible for any evil; in other words, it established the Jews as serving a role every imperial regime needs, a scapegoat to be blamed whenever the regime is in trouble for any reason. This history of Christian and Western anti-Semitism, from the Inquisition, to the Holocaust, to the present burning of synagogues, results.

The anti-racism teacher, Archie McCall, said that the source of a group’s systemic sin–such as racism or, in this case, anti-semitism–lies at the heart of a group’s identity, in what it holds to be most sacred and good. The sources of Christian and Western anti-semitism lie in the betrayal motif which lies at the heart of the Passion Narrative, which lies at the heart of most Christians’ faith. A few Christian groups have recognized this source and have eliminated the betrayal motif from their communion liturgies and readings during this Easter season; most have not.