Is the Bible Anti-Semitic?
Part of the controversy generated from the 2004 blockbuster “The Passion of the Christ,” was that the film was anti-Semitic. The charge was largely based on the film’s depiction of the Jewish religious establishment unjustly convicting Jesus of a capital crime and handing him over to Rome for execution. That much of the film is true to the Gospel accounts. But does that fact, or anything else in the New Testament, support the allegation that Christianity is anti-Semitic?
Once again, one must separate two issues: first, what Christians have done in the name of Christ; and, second, what the Bible itself condones and encourages. Some Christians have wrongfully discriminated against Jews or condemned them as “Christ killers.” Martin Luther famously wrote some hateful things about Jews who did not convert to Christianity. But the deeper question is whether they were acting in character with Christian ethics. It is clear that they were not. First, since Jesus and his twelve disciples (and later Paul) were Jewish, it would be odd indeed if they propagated a religion hostile to their own birthright. Jesus, in fact, favored the Jews in his ministry (Mark 7:24-30). He taught and healed Gentiles and commended their faith, but he began with the Jews.
Jesus deemed the Hebrew Bible to be divinely inspired and utterly truthful (Matthew 5:17; John 10:30), as did Paul (2 Timothy 3:16) and Peter (2 Peter 1:20-21). The Apostle Paul followed Jesus pattern of beginning with the Jews and then moving to the Gentiles. He proclaimed: “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile” (Romans 1:16). He follows this pattern throughout the Book of Acts (see 19:1-12, for example).
However, neither Jesus nor Paul nor any New Testament passage endorses the extant religion of the Jews of that day. Jesus repeatedly challenged many of the Jewish traditions of his day as unbiblical (see Matthew 15, 23) and claimed to be the fulfillment of the Hebrew Scriptures themselves (Matthew 5:17-20). The New Testament calls Jews—and everyone else—to accept the gospel of Jesus Christ and to become follwers of “the Way” (Acts 11:26). Jesus himself unites Jews and Gentiles into one Body, such that the old distinctions no longer apply (Galatians 3:26-28). He laments when so many of his own people fail to recognize him as Messiah (Matthew 23:37-39). Paul agonizes over the same fact, and wishes that he himself could be damned if that could bring about the salvation of his people (Romans 9:1-3; 10:1-2). There is no special animus against the Jews, but rather a greater pain over their unbelief, given their many advantages as God’s uniquely covenanted people.
We find, then, that there is no New Testament hostility against Jews ethnically. However, there is a call for Jews to find in Jesus the fulfillment of the revelation they have already received in “the law and the prophets.” In the Book of Acts, when Jews in a particular place reject Paul’s case for Jesus as the Messiah, he laments over their disbelief and then moves on to other Jews and to Gentiles. There are several New Testament texts that refer to Jewish hostility to the early Christians (1 Thessalonians 2:14-16, for example). This hostility to the gospel is condemned, but the Jews as a people are never condemned. There is no sense in Paul—or in any other New Testament writer or spokesperson—that Jews are somehow more culpable before God or less capable of responding rightly to the gospel. They are never demeaned as a people racially nor or they singled out for prejudice.
Concerning the betrayal and execution of Jesus, the fact that the Jewish religious establishment gave him over to the Romans for execution does not reveal some racial fault in the Jewish people. Moreover, it was the sin of humanity that required the death of Jesus Christ. No one human or group of humans, however misguided, put Jesus on the Cross. He offered himself freely on behalf of his people according to the sovereign plan of the Almighty. As Peter preached:
People of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God's deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him (Acts 2:22-24).
Christians today should recognize that Jews who continue to practice Judaism (or who are secular Jews) and do not convert to Christianity have every right to do so according to their conscience and under the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of religion (as do all religions that abide by the Constitution). Any apologetics or evangelism aimed at Jews should be done according to the highest ethical standards. However, to rationally and lovingly encourage (but never pressure) Jews to consider the claims of Jesus is no more anti-Semitic than challenging Hindus to convert to Christianity is anti-Hindu.