Part II: New Testament Accusations Against Jews

Before we get to Martin Luther’s antisemitic ravings, we need to look at the classical roots of antisemitism in both paganism and the roots of Christianity. In the novel And After the Fire on p. 55, there is a reference to the repudiation of Luther’s antisemitism by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in 1994. (I believe it was 1993.) Recently, Lutheran Churches all over the world have been busy renouncing Luther’s antisemitic ravings, but with very few efforts to link them to Luther’s general theological position. The Lutheran World Federation (LWF) defines “anti-Judaism” as referring to the specifically theological formulations that denigrate Jews and their faith, but also deny that Jews are God’s chosen people. “Jews…had murdered our Lord and Savior, and ever since, Jews had continued to bring down condemnation on themselves by refusing to accept Jesus as the Messiah.” (104AAF)

No one can dispute that criticism of Jews preceded Christian anti-Judaism. Witness the Book of Esther and Haman. The Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus, in his book, Of the Antiquity of the Jews Against Apion, attacked the Egyptian priest Manetho portrayed by Tacitus (1:26) for writing fiction in denying the account of the Torah concerning the 400-year Israelite presence in Egypt. Josephus accused him of inventing a King of Egypt, Amenophis, to whom he attributed fabulous stories. (In historical fact, Amenophis II was likely the son of Thutmose III who was possibly the oppressor of the Israelites.) According to Manetho, Amenophis began as an enlightened and wise ruler but one forced by the Israelite behaviour into war and his own flight into Ethiopia, along with that of his army. In his version, the Israelites, in the end, were responsible for their own ethnic cleansing from Egypt.

Amenophis was the name of both the king and a seer. “Amenophis …seemed to partake of a divine nature, both as to wisdom, and the knowledge of futurities.” He told the king, “that he might see the gods, if he would clear the whole country of the lepers, and of the other impure people.” The king did; 80,000 were expelled and “sent to those quarries which are on the east side of the Nile, that they might work in them; and might be separated from the rest of the Egyptians,” including priests polluted with the leprosy. Amenophis then prophesied that, “certain people would come to the assistance of these polluted wretches [as it turned out, the Israelites] and would conquer Egypt; and keep it in their possession thirteen years.” He did not tell the king lest he be rebuked. Then he committed suicide.

The king, knowing nothing of the prophesy, in his generosity and empathy for the lepers working in the quarries, “set apart the city Avaris …for their habitation, and protection.” The ungrateful wretches, however, appointed their own ruler, Osarsiph, a priest suffering from leprosy, to whom they pledged absolute obedience, and planned a revolt. The new ruler provided a set of laws totally at odds with Egyptian law, commended that they not worship the Egyptian gods, that they kill and destroy all the sacred Egyptian animals. The king sent envoys to the shepherds who had been displaced from Avaris and raised an army of 200,000 joined with 300,000 of his own forces to repel the invasion. But the rebels were joined by a very large mercenary army from Jerusalem. The king, instead of joining battle, took flight to Ethiopia,

“The people of Jerusalem, when they came down together with the polluted Egyptians…treated the men in such a barbarous manner, that those who saw how they subdued the…country, and the horrid wickedness they were guilty of, thought it a most dreadful thing. For they did not only set the cities and villages on fire; but were not satisfied till they had been guilty of sacrilege; and destroyed the images of the gods, and used them in roasting those sacred animals, that used to be worshipped; and forced the priests and prophets to be the executioners and murderers of those animals; and then ejected them naked out of the country.” It turned out that the real name of Osarsiph, the Egyptian leprous priest, was Moses.

Look at the portrayal of the Israelites – mercenaries, barbarians, brutal, disrespectful of local laws and religious practices, including the treatment of sacred animals, ruthless in battle and the ones who laid waste villages, towns and cities. And their leader was an ex-Egyptian priest. However, this effort to demonize an enemy is not the same as antisemitism. One can paint a picture of the brutality and amoral character of an enemy, but the actions are not seen as rooted in their religion or natures. They behave simply as barbarians. They may also be treacherous and led by traitors. Demonization, in its ordinary rather than original meaning, is not equivalent to antisemitism.

Juvenal was a member of a rotting Roman aristocratic class whom he pilloried in his satires directed primarily at the corrupt Roman society full of whores, fortune tellers, legal scoundrels and impoverished teachers. Both Jews and Christians were also satirized. He usually inverted Jewish beliefs and practices to look at them from an opposite angle. His writings are neither anti-Jewish and certainly not antisemitic even as they paint a very negative portrait of religious Jews. 

Some whose lot it has been to have Sabbath-fearing fathers, worship nothing but clouds and the numen of the heavens [he presumed Jews were sky-worshippers], and see no difference between the flesh of swine and humans since their fathers abstained from pork. They got themselves circumcised, and are wont to condemn our Roman laws, preferring to learn and honour and fear the Jewish commandments, all that Moses handed down in that arcane tome of his – never to show the way to any but fellow-believers (if they ask where to get water, find out if they’re foreskinless). But their fathers were the culprits; they made every seventh day taboo for all life’s business, dedicated to idleness.” (Satire IV, 96-106)

King Antiochus (Maccabees I) depicted Jews as rooted in superstition. He was hell bent on introducing Hellenistic civilization to Judea and Samaria. He regarded Jews as the vilest of nations. Was he then antisemitic? Perhaps this went beyond demonizing one’s enemies, for the Jews were not enemies but a subject people who perhaps were viewed as a threat to his power.

Nevertheless, classical pagan anti-Judaism was rooted in politics more than religion, even as the religion was portrayed as totally irrational, but it did have a link with what became Christian anti-Judaism since these negative characteristics were rooted in the special character of the Jews. After all, Jews believed in only one God and that was surely an unforgiveable superstition. Jews kept shabbat. Jews rejected Greek and Roman customs. Jews circumcised their sons. They would not eat pigs and kept milk and meat separate. In other words, they were simply socially and culturally strange.

However, Christian hostility to Jews and Judaism was motivated primarily by religion, in the rivalry with Judaism, more in terms of belief than as a threatening nation. Except for the fear of infectious ideas and practices, the rivalry has continued for two millennia. Since the second century CE, Christians were compelled to demonstrate not only the superiority of Christianity to Judaism, but that the new religion had superseded Judaism. To that superiority was added the following in increasing degrees of antipathy: contempt for Judaism and Jews; the need to exclude Jews from contact with Christians; the need to expel Jews and take or destroy their property; the need to exclude Jews from the legitimate nations of the world; the need to exterminate Jews.

The roots of that hostility can be clearly traced to the New Testament. When Barnabas went to find Saul (Paul), in Antioch the followers of Jesus of Nazareth were, for the first time, called “Christians” (Acts 11:26). In Paul’s account, Christians had distinguished themselves from the rest of the Jewish community by the following theological beliefs and political experiences:

  1. Baptism by the Holy Spirit when you allow yourself to be possessed by the Holy Spirit; (Acts 1:4) “Friedemann [Bach] hated to think of Sara condemned to hell because she was a Jew. But who was he to question the ways of the Lord? The Bible was clear on this issue. Like all good Lutherans, Friedemann knew his Gospels. Whoever believes in Him, he will not be condemned; but whoever does not believe, he is already condemned, for he does not believe in the name of the only begotten Son of God, said the Gospel of John.” (85AAF)
  2. Faith versus the law was central. “The name of the piece [by Johann Sebastian Bach] was Wir das Joch nicht tragen könnenWe are unable to bear the yoke. ‘Of the law of Moses’ would be understood to finish the line.”(72AAF)
  3. For salvation, faith versus good works characterizes Lutheranism
  4. The mission was the whole world not just Judea and Samaria.
  5. The resurrection of Jesus; (op. cit.)
  6. Tanach prophesied the coming of Jesus as the Messiah; (Acts 1:15)
  7. Judas as a traitor (prophesied as such), but a true witness; the money received was given to another and caused the other’s land to be made desolate and his body to swell and burst; (op. cit.)
  8. Speaking in tongues on the Pentecost (Shavuot), 50 days after Passover, and the day the church was purportedly born; (2:2)
  9. Devout Christian Jews and proselytes, both amazed and sceptical, from all across the Mediterranean of different dialects and classes, spoke a common language of incarnation, death, resurrection, ascension and the effusion of the divine or Holy Spirit; (2:14)
  10. Apocalyptic visions are universal and not gender or ethnic specific; God poured forth His Spirit upon all flesh so that the children of believers shall all be able to prophecy through seeing visions and having and interpreting dreams so that everyone who accepts “the name of the Lord” shall be saved; (2:14)
  11. Jesus came by God’s predetermined plan and pre-knowledge, thereby favouring a doctrine of predestination; (op. cit.)
  12. Men of Israel are Christ killers who nailed up and murdered Jesus using non-Jews, “men without the Law;” – the Roman persecutors were merely the instruments of the real oppressors, the Jewish establishment; (op. cit.)
  13. Bauer: “These are Jews that Bach is talking about in the cantatas, They’re punished because they refuse to accept Jesus as God’s Messiah. This is the message that Bach is bringing us. Now, surely we agree that murder goes too far.” (235AAF)
  14. Peter declares Jesus as a descendent of David who prophesied the coming of Jesus as both Lord and Christ; (2:37)
  15. Repentance and baptism in the name of Jesus Christ “so that your sins will be forgiven” and so that, amongst “this perverted nation,” you are able to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit; (op. cit.)
  16. Mass conversion, cult communal behaviour – followers sold personal possessions and their wealth was divided according to need; failure to do so results in death; (2:41 – see also 4:32 & 5:12b)
  17. Healing so a cripple could walk again; (3:1)
  18. Sadducees (priestly class) are the enemy who repress and arrest; (4:1)
  19. Blaming Jews who did not believe for the crucifixion; (4:13)

“Jew’s…had murdered our Lord and Savior, and ever since, Jews had continued to bring down condemnation on themselves by refusing to accept Jesus as the Messiah.” (104AAF)

20. Accepting Christ as one’s saviour equals the exclusive route to God; “In no one else can salvation be found;” (op. cit.)

21. Effort at suppression, but in the name of freedom, resisted; (4:13)

22. Guilt of conspirators linked to Herod and Pontius Pilate; (4:23)

23. Revision of the Passover story – Moses was “an excellent speaker;” he killed an Egyptian upon return to Egypt; this suggests that these Christians were ignorant of the text and only knew loose versions of the tale; after all, truth belongs to Christ and not to history; (7:20)

 24. Israel rejects Moses – story of golden calf; (7:35) – selective reading

 25. Israelites were portrayed as obstinate, blind and disobedient and now “betrayers and murderers”; (7:51)

26. Martyrdom and stoning of Stephen; (8:1b)

 27. Baptism in the name of Jesus Christ; (8:14)

28.  Epiphany and conversion of Saul on the way to Damascus. (9:1&19b)

The church then splits between the circumcisers and those who no longer believe circumcision is necessary. (15:1; see also the Letter to Galatia 2:1) For Jewish Christian believers, Judaism is reduced to its essentials – only the laws of not worshipping idols, eating only kosher meat, and avoidance of sexual immorality. (15:22) The gospel denounces the misbehaviour of Jews who supposedly follow the law but break it in practice; they know not Christ and are hypocrites. (Letter to Rome 2:17) For being a true Jew is an inward not an outward matter; (3:1) God’s plan is now righteousness by faith and not through the Law (3:21) and acceptance of Jesus as your Lord and Saviour. 15:1) Christians were clearly and unequivocally out to redefine Judaism.

It is in this context that I now want first to explore the efforts of contemporary Lutherans to repudiate Luther’s antisemitism and then, in a subsequent section, explore the theological connection between Luther’s antisemitism and his theology to indicate that the severance is not quite so easy.

To be continued.

With the help of Alex Zsman


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