by Professor Veselin Kesich

Spring/Summer 1998

   We know of hostility against the Jews in the Roman Empire, before the rise of Christianity. In Alexandria in the thirties of the first century, well-documented riots erupted against the Jewish inhabitants. Alexandria at the time had a large and influential Jewish population. Fear of Jewish influence in city affairs and their persistent aspirations to hold administrative and magisterial office aroused the Alexandrians to use violence against the Jews. The attack took the form of a classic pogrom: the Jewish parts of the city were attacked, their shops and homes were first looted and then burned.

   The Emperor Claudius (41-54) condemned both parties to the riots and threatened to punish those responsible. He warned the Alexandrians not to violate any habitual Jewish rites of worship, but to allow them to practice the same customs as in the time of the late Augustus, who had guaranteed the Jewish practice of their own customs according to their traditional law. He warned the Jews as well not "to force their way into contests for magisterial or administrative offices, but to enjoy their own profits, reaping the advantage of an abundance of good things in a foreign city."

   Due to their dietary laws, Jews did not associate with their pagan neighbors, nor would they eat meat offered to idols. This charge is familiar to Christians; a considerable portion of I Corinthians is devoted to the food offered to idols (I Cor.8-10). Paul did not require Christians to abstain from eating this food, but he criticized the attitude of those who participated in the life of society, as well as of those who tried to avoid any contact with their pagan neighbors. He warned the first of their destructive use of freedom, which they exercised without concern for other members of the community. Without love and responsibility for "the brother for whom Christ died," they were creating division in the church. Paul also did not spare those who preferred a life of isolation from contacts with the outside world. Strict observance of dietary laws separated Jews from their pagan neighbors and made them a closed society. Jewish exclusiveness, on the one hand, and their efforts to find political outlets and influence commensurate with their numerical and economic power, on the other, inspired anti-Jewish feeling that ended in violence.

   Historians have also noted Roman respect for Judaism. Many Romans were attracted and even converted to it, despite its exclusiveness. The Roman authorities respected Jewish ancient customs, although they were uneasy regarding the growing Jewish strength and influence, both numerical and economic. They insisted on having political control over them. Certainly, they never planned a "final solution," never asked for their destruction. Therefore, some historians would not apply the term "anti-Semitism" to what happened in Egypt in the first century. They tend to assume a Christian, purely religious origin of anti-Semitism, which led in our century to the holocaust. Since World War II there has been a prevalent opinion that the origins of anti-Semitism are located in the New Testament, especially in the writings of Paul and the evangelists Matthew and John. The purpose of this article is to briefly examine the passages in the New Testament which have often been cited as anti-Semitic, not simply in tone but in content. We shall discuss them in their historical context, which reveals the meaning of the text.


   The apostle Paul wrote his first extant letter about twenty years after the death and resurrection of Christ and twenty years before the destruction of the Temple and the city of Jerusalem (70A.D.) This letter, I Thessalonians, belongs to the period of history of the Christian church when small messianic communities in Palestine and the diaspora were struggling for their very existence and identity. They were not outside Judaism but within this diverse religion before the destruction of the Temple. Paul was a Jew, and, as we shall see, his attachment to his people was reflected in his letters. But those who have questioned his feeling of solidarity with and love for his people often cite one passage (I Thess. 2:14-16): 

        For you, brethren, became imitators of the Churches
    of God in Christ Jesus which are in Judea; for you
    suffered the same things from your own countrymen as
    they did from the Jews, who killed both the Lord Jesus
    and the prophets, and drove us out and displease God
    and oppose all men by hindering us from speaking to
    the Gentles that they may be saved so as always to
    fill up the measure of their sins.  But God's wrath has
    come upon them at last.

   The "anti-Jewish" tone of this passage has no parallel with any other in the Pauline letters. Some therefore have been ready to dismiss this passage as an interpolation. But we have no evidence for such a solution, except that the passage offends our sensitivity to its harshness. It most probably reflects historical circumstances, perhaps a particular event, in Paulís relationship with his kinsmen by race during his missionary work in Thessalonika.

   As can be documented based on correspondence with the communities Paul founded, he was persecuted both by Jews and Gentiles (2 Cor.11:24ff, also Rom.15:31 and 1 Thess 2:2). Both Acts 17:3,5 and 1 Thess.2: 2,14-16 point to persecution of Paul in Thessalonika. Acts recounts that the apostle upon his arrival went to "the synagogue of the Jews," as his custom was, and "for three weeks" was arguing and interpreting the scriptures and proclaiming that Jesus is the Christ (Acts 17:2-3). The people revolted; Paul was hindered in his preaching and expelled from the synagogue, but not necessarily from the city itself. He most probably stayed longer than three weeks. In his letter he reminds the brethren about his labor and toil; "we worked night and day, that we might not burden any of you." The work that he describes done in the city must have taken more than three weeks preaching in the synagogue (1Thess.2:9-12). This historical context helps us to understand the outburst in Thessalonians cited above.

   The Thessalonian Christians received the Gospel "in much affliction" and became "imitators" of Paul and his companions (1 Thess. 1:6; 3:7). Paul draws a parallel between his own experience in diaspora and that of the churches in Judea. He accused "the Jews" of Jesusí death. The Romans of course bore primary responsibility for the crucifixion, but the Temple leadership was also involved in removing Jesus, whom they regarded as a troublemaker. The Passion gospels too point to Roman responsibility and the role of the Temple authorities. In 1 Thess.2:14-16 Paul had in mind a particular local group who instigated riots against him and his followers, and not Jews in general or the Jewish people.

   This important distinction is reflected in Paulís use of the term "Jews," not "Hebrews" or "Israelites." The term "Jew" (Ioudaioi) was a general, not a racial, designation. Paul does not use the term "Hebrews," which refers to the race of Jews, nor "Israelites," a religious term. Paul himself is an "Israelite" and a "Hebrew" (2 Cor. 11:22). He opposes and criticizes his "own countrymen" as one who stands within Judaism. He uses language that was by no means unusual in an "intra-Jewish" dispute. Antagonistic groups in Judaism employed terms such as bringing the "wrath (orge) of God" down on those who "suppress the truth" (1 Cor. 1:18). In another example, the Qumran sectarians saw themselves as "sons of light," and all other Jews as "sons of darkness." The outsiders are on Satanís side and for that God hates them and will destroy them. The insiders, members of the settlement near the Dead Sea, unrestrainedly curse all others and desire revenge. Comparing the harshness of the polemic tone used among other Jews, Paulís attacks against those who hindered his preaching were more controlled.

   Paul saw himself as a patriotic Jew, an Israelite, a child of Abraham. His letters, particularly those autobiographical passages, explicitly confirmed his Jewishness (Gal. 1:13-17; 2 Cor. 11:22, Rom. 11:1f, Phil. 3:4-6). According to the Book of Acts, Paul observed Jewish feasts and worshipped in the Temple (Acts 21:26). It is revealing how emotionally attached he was to the Jewish people. "For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen by race" and "from their race, according to the flesh, is Christ" (Rom. 9:3-5). His pain must have been so intense, almost unbearable, for he also confessed that nothing in all creation would be able to separate him "from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom. 8:39). In the view of David Flusser, one of the best known Jewish New Testament scholars, Paul "could feel a solidarity with and love for the Jewish people," despite his sharp criticism of Jewish rejection of the Gospel. At the end of his work in Asia Minor, confronting this rejection, Paul nevertheless concluded that his mission to the Jews was not a complete or final failure. There is "mystery" in Jewish opposition to the Gospel. Jews and Gentiles will coexist, but at the end they will be reconciled "in Christ." This would be like "the resurrection of the dead." God will be victorious and "will banish ungodliness from Jacob" (Rom. 11:25-26).

   To reveal to Gentile Christians Godís plan of salvation and their place in it, he uses the metaphor of the olive tree (Rom. 11:17-24), which was endemic in most places known to him. He compared the Jews to the fruitful olive tree and the Gentiles to wild olive shoots. Gentiles were grafted onto the Jewish olive tree in place of the branches that had broken off (Jews who did not respond to the Gospel), "to share in the richness of the olive tree" (Rom. 11:17). Gentiles should never forget a historical fact that the first followers of Christ were Jews and the God of Israel, upon whom they depend, offers them their salvation. If the God of Israel "did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you" (Rom. 11:21). Then in the same epistle Paul criticized the Gentile world for corruption of thought and idolatrous worship and threatened them with Godís judgment (Rom. 1:18-25). The parable of the olive tree revealed Paulís love for the Jewish people and his appreciation of Jewish spiritual achievements.

   His faith in Christ, however, had expanded and transformed his notion of Israel. In the cross and resurrection of Jesus, he saw the realization of Israelís hope. The future is inaugurated in the present. Those who believe and who are baptized in the Risen Christ are children of Abraham. They are blessed with Abraham (Gal. 3:9). They are now Godís Israel (Gal. 6:16). For Paul, Christ was the final revelation of God. Christ is telos (end, goal, fulfillment) of the law (Rom. 10:4). The cross of Christ, the perfect expression of obedience to God, brought the law to fulfillment. It is not now the Torah but Christ, love incarnate, who regulates all life. He is the end of the law as the way of salvation. There are now no different ways for salvation, one for Jews and another for Gentiles. Salvation comes by faith in Christ.

   By articulating his theological vision and seeing in Christ the fulfillment of the richness of his own tradition, Paul stands not outside but within the tradition of Judaism. This brought him into conflict with the views of other Jewish groups or movements. Paul never planned or desired to create a new religion that would oppose Judaism. He was interpreting Jewish sacred history as an Israelite. Some of his kinsmen in Jerusalem as well as in diaspora opposed him and even resorted to violent means to hinder him in his ministry of reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles. After his martyrdom the new leaders of Judaism considered Paul as their enemy, as one who had burst the boundary lines of Judaism and put himself outside the pale of Israel. But Paul proclaimed Christ from within Judaism. This is what the text and our tradition transmit to us. Charges that Paul was an anti-Semite are baseless.


   The destruction of the Temple and the Roman conquest of Judaea in 70 AD had a profound impact with crucial consequences for the relations between Jews and Jewish Christians. When it became clear that the outcome of the Jewish-Roman war (66-70) would be catastrophic for the people of Israel, a farsighted Jewish leader, Yohanan ben Zakkai, decided to found a center outside Jerusalem. He appealed to the Roman general Vespasian (later emperor, 69-79) to allow him to organize a school at Jamnia (Yavneh), a place on the coast of Palestine which was already under Roman control. The main purpose of the school was to make the Torah applicable to daily life, even without the cult of the Temple. Confronted with the disruption of ties that had existed between Jews in Palestine and those in Diaspora, the rabbis and sages of Jamnia undertook to create worldwide unity in Judaism. To achieve this goal, the rabbis had to eliminate the diversity that had been the hallmark of pre-Jamnia Judaism.. The Jamnia teachers added to synagogue worship a petition against the apostates and heretics: "As for the renegades, let there be no hope, and may the arrogant kingdom soon be rooted out in our days and the minim perish as in a moment and be blotted out from the book of life and with the righteous may they not be inscribed. Blessed art thou, O Lord, who humblest the arrogant" (Shemoneh Esreh [ The Eighteen Benedictions] , a prayer of synagogue worship). Recognizing that they were included in the minim, the Disciples of Christ would no longer be able to attend the synagogue and recite this prayer. Several of the New Testament writings, among them the Gospels of Matthew and John, reveal the reaction of Jewish Christians to the new Jewish movement toward unification.

   The evangelist Matthew wrote his gospel in the eighties, that is, during the drastic religious development within Judaism that followed the destruction of the Temple. It reflects the conflicts caused by the determination of the Jewish religious leaders of Jamnia to define the limits of Judaism. The gospel offers some insights into the reaction of Jewish Christian communities, probably located in or around Antioch, to these new trends.

   Here we must keep in mind that the evangelists had as their primary task to narrate the story of Jesus, including his relations and conflicts with the people and the Jewish sects, and of his last week in Jerusalem. All four close their gospels with the crucifixion and resurrection. Producing for their communities these "foundation documents," the evangelists could not dissociate themselves from the events crucial for the church at the time when they recorded their witness. When they wrote the Gospel of Jesus, they necessarily reflected the life of the church. Matthew and John wrote for their Christian communities to encourage and strengthen their faith while facing hostility and expulsion from their local synagogues.

   When the author of Matthew completed his gospel, the destruction of the Temple was past history (22:7). Gentiles as well as Jews threatened the church to which he belonged (Matt. 10:17-18). In their own experience, they had seen Jesusí prophetic warnings fulfilled. Previously they had experienced various forms of harassment, but now expulsion and persecution. We may find the best expression of the attitude of the Christian leaders toward the successors of the ancient Pharisees, the rabbis and sages of Jamnia, in Matthew 23. Matthewís gospel mirrors the intense dispute between the "scribes and Pharisees" and the followers of Christ, who had been expelled from Jewish local synagogues. This appears to be a bitter struggle between two interpretations of their common sacred tradition. The heritage that both groups share together forms the basis for Matthew's argument. The Christian communities to which the gospel was addressed were firm in their conviction that they too belong to the people of Israel. It is a feud within the family about the direction Judaism should take after the catastrophe of 70 AD. The dividing line between them is the answer that they give to the question of who Jesus is and what place the Torah was to occupy. What we should be aware of when we read Matthew 23, where the language of denunciation "is neither charitable nor politically correct," is that this chapter does not depict a confrontation between two religions, one Jewish and another Christian. What we have are two groups claiming to be under the umbrella of Judaism. After Jamnia the separation started, but at the time the Gospel was written Jewish Christians had not yet cut their ties with other Jews. Reacting to their expulsion in vitriolic terms, they attacked the Pharisees as hypocritical, legalistic, blind and murderous. They could not reconcile themselves to their role as minim, for whom there was no hope and who would be blotted out from the book of life. By ascribing to Jesus these attacks on the Pharisees, the evangelist somewhat colored the picture of Jesus, who occasionally had friendly relations with some Pharisees.

   The historical context of Matt. 23 also helps us to understand the reason why the community of Matthew rejected the title "Rabbi" and "Father." Christian believers are no longer to apply these titles to the Jewish sages and rabbis: "Call no man Father on earth, for you have only one father who is in heaven." In pre-Rabbinical Judaism, the term "rabbi" was one of particular respect; his disciples called Jesus "rabbi". Paul claimed to be "the father in Christ Jesus through the Gospel" to Christian communities he founded and nurtured. It is only after the Jamnia movement, when "rabbi" became a technical term for an approved Jewish teacher and "Father" was applied to their sages, that we find the titles prohibited.

   Both Jewish and Christian interpreters of Matthew 23 have recognized that the language of denunciation we find here has Jewish roots. Not only was the dispute within Judaism, but the manner in which Matthew expressed his criticism is rooted in Jewish tradition. "The so-called Woes [ woe to you scribes and Pharisees . . .] of Matt. 23:13-36 are written in a common form of Jewish admonitions," asserts Moshe Weinfeld. We must understand the "cosmic sentence" on all Jews, "His blood be on us and all our children" (Matt. 27:5), ascribed to the priests, elders and the crowds, as a bitter polemical remark from those expelled from the synagogue.

   Matthew was not nor could he have been an anti-Semite. His gospel is far from being an anti-Semitic book. He wrote his gospel not against Judaism but against the Jamnia interpretation of the tradition, which he also claimed as his own. Matthew, like any New Testament text, needs a dispassionate analysis within its historical context for the benefit of both Jews and Christians. In later ages, there is no doubt that many Jews saw Matthew as one of the fathers of Christian anti-Semitism. Many Christians have fed their anti-Jewish prejudices with Matthewís list of denunciations. Neither side is interested in the historical context of this first-century document, but readily reinterprets the text according to its own premises. A modern scholar has wittily remarked that treating Matthew 23 without consideration of the historical forces that shaped it is like "a picnic to which the evangelist brings his text and we all bring our meanings." Of course, not every church member can be expected to plunge into historical study in order to understand these passages. All would gratefully receive guidance in sermons that would confront these seemingly difficult texts within a perspective that is historically meaningful and spiritually enriching.


   What does the latest of the four Gospels reveal about relations between Jews and Christians in the last decade of the first century? How do we come to regard this "most Jewish" of the Gospels as the most anti-Semitic, and John as the "father of anti-Semitism"?

   The fourth Gospel had a long period of growth over a period of tumultuous history. It includes the eyewitness of the Apostle John, a member of the group of the Twelve. The corner stone of this document is the Palestinian tradition, originating from the apostolic witness. The gospel incorporated material from other liturgical and historical sources that had kept the tradition of Jesus. It attained its final form in the nineties. Apparently, it was the Church at Ephesus, which approved this Gospel. It reflected various historical periods: the life and experience of Johnís community in Asia Minor at the close of the century, as well as the time and history of Jesus.

   The account of the healing of the blind man in John 9 illustrates this double perspective. The man healed by Jesus tells his neighbor about the healer. The Pharisees started an interrogation, as the miracle had occurred on the Sabbath. When the parents of the healed man were questioned, they denied knowing the identity of the healer, "because they [ fear] the Jews, for the Jews had already agreed that if any one should confess him to be Christ, he was to be put out of the synagogue" (9:22). This extraordinary narrative seems to have combined two historical happenings: Jesusí struggle with the Sadducees and Pharisees, woven together with the contemporary conflict between Christians and the Jews of Jamnia. Events from the end of the century are fused with those that had occurred sixty years earlier, all in one text.

   The church with which the evangelist John was associated found itself in great danger. When they confessed who Jesus was (Jn. 5, 10, 9), they were expelled from the synagogues and were exposed to the threat of the Roman authorities without this protection. Reorganized Judaism did not want them in its midst. The Romans, who respected Judaism as an old traditional religion, were suspicious of new cults and considered them dangerous for the Empire. In fact, the Christians of Asia Minor regarded themselves as heirs of a very old tradition, not the nucleus of a new religion. We should stress that only in this Gospel the term aposynagogos, "put away from the synagogue," appears not once but three times (9:22, 12:42, 16:2). These references help us to define the period of the composition of the Gospel and give us an opening into the life the community in this time of crisis.

   The term "Jew" occurs more than seventy times in the Gospel. The "Jews" we met here are clearly distinguished from the Jewish followers of Christ. They follow "their law" and belong to "the realm of darkness." This language recalls that of the Essenes against the priests in Jerusalem, as we have noted. The Gospel sometimes uses the term "Jew" almost as a technical designation for Jewish religious authorities hostile to Christ. Scholars have documented that in the text John condemns opposition to Jesus, not the race of Jews. The term is also used in a positive, appreciative meaning; it recalls that "salvation is from the Jews" (Jn. 4) and refers to the Jewish feasts. The term "Jew" covered as well both the followers of Jesus and those who rejected him (11:45-46). Despite the evangelistís polemic with the Jews provoked by the conflicts and opposition to Jesus and the expulsion of his followers, he remained faithful to the historical facts and did not exonerate the Roman responsibility for the crucifixion.

   Like Matthew, we should not denounce the evangelist John as anti-Semitic, nor can we thus characterize the tradition incorporated into his gospel. We should judge in its historical context what modern experience might lead some to interpret as "anti-Semitic." Actually, Wilhelm Marr, an anti-religious and anti-Jewish German, first used the term "anti-Semitism" late in the nineteenth century. He regarded race or national origin, not religion, as the primary reason for separating Jews from Germans. The idea that race takes priority over religion grew in our century with the rise of totalitarianism into a glorification of race, ending with the Holocaust. As for ancient origins of anti-Semitism, we should look again to the causes of the riots in Alexandria, with their religious, ethnic, political and economic elements, rather than to Jewish-Christian documents of the first century. Let us remember the words of Paul: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28).

[Professor Kesich is Emeritus Professor of New Testament at St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary.]


Visit the Orthodox Church in America Homepage