Is the New Testament Anti-Jewish? by Amy-Jill Levine

Antisemitism is usually defined as a racist view that regards Jews as a distinct people, driven toward greed, political domination, and perversion, such that even converting to Christianity cannot erase this biological taint. Given that definition, the New Testament is not antisemitic. Mary and Joseph, Peter and Paul, Mary Magdalene and Jesus himself, are Jews. Luke 2:21 mentions Jesus’s circumcision; Paul’s delineates his Jewish credentials: “circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee…’ (Phil 3:5). Whether the New Testament is anti-Jewish, and even how to define anti-Judaism—as a belief system, a set of practices, communal identity, et cetera—remain debated. Like determining whether Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice” is anti-Jewish, Twain’s Huckleberry Finn is racist, or Rushdie’s Satanic Verses is anti-Muslim, answers differ, depending on readers and definitions. That New Testament verses have been interpreted as anti-Jewish is beyond doubt.

Select Passages (a few of many)

Matthew’s insistence that “all the people” (that is, all the Jewish people) shouted to Pilate, “Let [Jesus] be crucified.… His blood be on us and on our children” (Matt 27:25) led to the Christian teaching that all Jews are Christ-killers (the Roman Catholic Church rejected this view in 1965 with the publication of Nostra Aetate, and other church groups have followed this lead).

In John’s Gospel, Jesus refers to the “Jews” (Greek: Ioudaioi) as being “from your father, the devil” (John 8:44). This verse and others gave rise to the false stereotype, common in parts of Christian Europe, that Jews had cloven hoofs and horns (Michelangelo’s horned Moses added support). Well-meaning Christians have twice asked me when I had my horns removed.

In Acts 3:15, Peter accuses “men, Israelites” (i.e., “you Jews”) of having “killed the author of life”; in 1Thess 2:14-16, Paul mentions the “Jews, who killed the lord Jesus and oppose all people.” In 2Cor 3:13-15, Paul states that Jews cannot understand their own Scriptures: “to this very day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds; but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed.” The Epistle to the Hebrews (Heb 8:13) goes farther: “In speaking of ‘a new covenant,’ he [Jesus] has made the first one obsolete. And what is obsolete and growing old will soon disappear”; the only covenant remaining is the one Jesus mediates.

Revelation (Rev 2:9; Rev 3:9) speaks of the “synagogue of Satan,” although more likely the people condemned are not Jews but gentiles “who say they are Jews and are not” (Rev 2:9), that is, gentile followers of Jesus who have adopted Jewish practices such as Sabbath or holiday observance, dietary regulations, or circumcision.

The Arguments (a few of many)

Rejecting the thesis that the New Testament is anti-Jewish, scholars make several arguments. In each case, other scholars counter.

First, some scholars distinguish between authorial intention (i.e., what the author had in mind) and the reception of the text (i.e., how readers interpret). The New Testament writers were not anti-Jewish, they argue; to the contrary, Matthew, John, Paul, et cetera were Jews arguing with fellow Jews, and an in-house argument cannot be anti-Jewish. However, the gospels may not have been written by the people to whom they are ascribed, the authors of Mark and Luke may have been gentiles, and Hebrews is anonymous. Nor do we know their target audiences, whether a small group or any follower of Jesus. But we do know that gentiles (non-Jews) read these texts. Jesus the Jew spoke with fellow Jews, but when his words appear in a narrative directed to non-Jewish audiences, they take on different connotations. Paul, the apostle to the gentiles (Rom 11:13), does not intend to be anti-Jewish, but in attempting to prevent his gentile readers from adopting Jewish practices, he can certainly sound it.

Second is the claim that the New Testament is no more anti-Jewish than Israel’s prophets or the Dead Sea Scrolls. The claim is correct but not conclusive. Jews preserved the books of Amos and Hosea, not the New Testament. The Dead Sea Scrolls are historically situated sectarian texts, not works proclaimed in gentile contexts. Nor do two wrongs make a right: invective is still invective. 

The third argument notes that the New Testament may sound anti-Jewish, but that is because the Jews were expelling Jesus’s followers from synagogues (see John 9:22); therefore, the rhetoric is reactive. Problems here include lack of evidence for such expulsion (even John leaves the claim as a threat) and the lack of any empire-wide Jewish system that could promote it. Were expulsions occurring sporadically—quite possibly—all the more reason to enquire about their motivation: were followers telling Jews that they were all hell-bound without accepting Jesus as lord? Were they endangering Jews by telling gentiles to stop worshiping the state gods?

Fourth, some scholars argue that the New Testament cannot be anti-Jewish because it celebrates Jewish concerns: the G-d of Israel; Abraham, Moses, and David; Jerusalem; the Jewish Messiah. In Rom 11:1, Rom 11:29, Paul writes, “Has God rejected his people? By no means!... I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham … for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.” However, to appreciate what the Church came to call the “Old Testament” is not the same thing as to appreciate Jews and Judaism, which have a two-thousand-year history past the Scriptural pages. Other Christians read the New Testament as claiming that all promises made to Israel “according to the flesh” (i.e., Jews) now belong to them. This view is called supersessionism or replacement theology.

Fifth, some readers correctly note that rabbinic Judaism makes negative comments about Jesus, so the New Testament is no worse than the Talmud. The problem here is the comparison base. The New Testament should be familiar to every Christian, but most Jews have never seen a Talmud or know what it contains. Nor again do two wrongs make a right.

Finally, some Christians insist that the text cannot be anti-Jewish, because anti-Jewish views are contrary to divine will and the New Testament is divinely inspired. Other scholars distinguish between theological proclamations and conclusions based on historical or literary evidence.  

Now What?  

While scholars debate whether the New Testament is anti-Jewish, we agree that it has been interpreted in ways that promote hatred of Jews and Judaism. Most Christians do not consciously read their texts as promoting hatred of Jews; most see Christianity as about love, not hate. But as long as the text is proclaimed, readings that suggest the Jewish people are demonic, evil, or otherwise despicable will surface. It is our responsibility—whoever we are—to counter such readings.

Amy-Jill Levine, "Is the New Testament Anti-Jewish?", n.p. [cited 19 Sep 2019]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.com/en/tools/bible-basics/is-the-new-testament-anti-jewish

Contributors

Amy-Jill Levine

Amy-Jill Levine
Professor, Vanderbilt Divinity School

Amy-Jill Levine is University Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies, Mary Jane Werthan Professor of Jewish Studies, and Professor of New Testament Studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School and College of Arts and Science in Nashville, TN; she also Affiliated Professor, Woolf Institute, Centre for Jewish-Christian Relations, Cambridge UK and in spring, 2019, teaching at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome.


A collection of first-century Jewish and early Christian writings that, along with the Old Testament, makes up the Christian Bible.

Attributed authorship. ("Tradition ascribed the Pentateuch to Moses, even though he probably did not actually write it himself.")

A collection of Jewish texts (biblical, apocryphal, and sectarian) from around the time of Christ that were preserved near the Dead Sea and rediscovered in the 20th century.

Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).

A broad, diverse group of nations ruled by the government of a single nation.

A detailed letter, written in formal prose. Most of the New Testament books beyond the gospels are epistles (letters written to early Christians).

A variant way of writing the word for the biblical deity, meant to display piety by avoiding spelling out the name in full. The practice derives from a desire to avoid having to discard an item on which the name of the deity is written, as it could be perceived as a desecration if the name were spelled out in full.

A gospel is an account that describes the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the northern kingdom of Israel during the divided monarchy, or more broadly describing the biblical descendants of Jacob.

The religion and culture of Jews. It emerged as the descendant of ancient Israelite Religion, and is characterized by monotheism and an adherence to the laws present in the Written Torah (the Bible) and the Oral Torah (Talmudic/Rabbinic tradition).

Of or related to the written word, especially that which is considered literature; literary criticism is a interpretative method that has been adapted to biblical analysis.

A written, spoken, or recorded story.

a formal document issued by the Roman Catholic Church discussing the relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and non-Christians

Also called the Hebrew Bible, those parts of the canon that are common to both Jews and Christians. The designation "Old Testament" places this part of the canon in relation to the New Testament, the part of the Bible canonical only to Christians. Because the term "Old Testament" assumes a distinctly Christian perspective, many scholars prefer to use the more neutral "Hebrew Bible," which derives from the fact that the texts of this part of the canon are written almost entirely in Hebrew.

Related to the rabbis, who became the religious authorities of Judaism in the period after the destruction of the second temple in 70 C.E. Rabbinic traditions were initially oral but were written down in the Mishnah, the Talmud, and various other collections.

(rhetorical) The art of persuasion in writing and speech.

The world's largest Christian church organization administered by hierarchy made up of a single pope and a network of cardinals, bishops, priests, and renunciates (such as nuns and monks).

Related to a particular religious subgroup, or sect; often used in reference to the variety of Jewish sects in existence in the Roman period in Judea and Samaria.

A collection of rabbinic writings, mostly interpretations of the Hebrew Bible and the Mishnah (another rabbinic collection). There are two Talmuds, the Palestinian and the Babylonian, so called after the region in which each is believed to have been compiled. The Talmuds were likely composed between the third and the sixth centuries C.E.

Relating to thought about the nature and behavior of God.

Writing, speech, or thought about the nature and behavior of God.

An argument, especially distilled into a sentence or two; the main contention of a writing, speech, or collection of communications.

Luke 2:21

Jesus Is Named
21After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived ... View more

Phil 3:5

5circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee;

Matt 27:25

25Then the people as a whole answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!”

John 8:44

44You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father's desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because ... View more

Acts 3:15

15and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses.

1Thess 2:14-16

14For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea, for you suffered the same things from your own compa ... View more

2Cor 3:13-15

13not like Moses, who put a veil over his face to keep the people of Israel from gazing at the end of the glory that was being set aside.14But their minds were ... View more

Heb 8:13

13In speaking of “a new covenant,” he has made the first one obsolete. And what is obsolete and growing old will soon disappear.

Rev 2:9

9“I know your affliction and your poverty, even though you are rich. I know the slander on the part of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a s ... View more

Rev 3:9

9I will make those of the synagogue of Satan who say that they are Jews and are not, but are lying—I will make them come and bow down before your feet, and they ... View more

Rev 2:9

9“I know your affliction and your poverty, even though you are rich. I know the slander on the part of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a s ... View more

Rom 11:13

13Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I glorify my ministry

John 9:22

22His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out ... View more

Rom 11:1

Israel's Rejection Is Not Final
1I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe ... View more

Rom 11:29

29for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.

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