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"To the Jew First": The New Testament and Anti-Semitism

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Preface

In Rom 1.16, Paul tells the Christians at Rome that he is “not ashamed of the gospel, for it is God’s power for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (NET). With the release of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ on February 25, 2004 (Ash Wednesday), the issue of whether there is anti-semitism in the NT has become a topic of conversation in coffee shops and street corners, around the drinking fountain, in the gym. Diane Sawyer’s national interview of Gibson a week before the release put a common denominator to the discussion: Gibson’s answers and her questions could be witnessed by all. But the nagging question of what the scriptures taught on this subject still need to be addressed.1

So, what does the NT have to say about anti-semitism? To put it more bluntly, Is the NT anti-semitic?

Some Texts in Question

Among the most important texts that address this issue are the following: Matt 27.25; Acts 2.36; 1 Thess 2.14-15. These all seem to be anti-semitic. On the other hand, there are several other passages that are largely ignored in this debate. Among them are John 4.22; Rom 3.1-2; chs. 9–11, esp. 9.1-5; 1 Cor 9.20; 10.32. We will address those as well.

Texts that seem to Affirm Anti-Semitism

  • Matt 27.25: “In reply all the people said, ‘Let his blood be on us and on our children!’”
  • Acts 2.36: “Therefore let all the house of Israel know beyond a doubt that God has made this Jesus whom you crucified both Lord and Christ.”
  • 1 Thess 2.14-15: “(14) For you became imitators, brothers and sisters, of God’s churches in Christ Jesus that are in Judea, because you too suffered the same things from your own countrymen as they in fact did from the Jews, (15) who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets and persecuted us severely. They are displeasing to God and are opposed to all people…”

In each of the above texts certain Jewish groups are blamed for the death of Jesus. In Matt 27.25 (the wording of which was taken out of The Passion at the last minute), it is a specific Jewish group that essentially tells Pilate that they will face the responsibility of Jesus’ death in the sense that they regarded him to be guilty. But in Acts 2.36, Peter addresses Jewish visitors to Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost—most of whom were probably not in Jerusalem or even Israel on the day of the crucifixion. Yet Peter says that they crucified Jesus. He thus expands the blame of Jesus’ death on more Jews than those originally responsible. In 1 Thess 2.14-15, Paul does something similar, but the restriction here is on those particular Jews who were to blame for Jesus’ death. Our Lord also says of the nation that they “kill the prophets and stone those sent to you!” (Matt 23.37). We’ll come back to that text in a moment.

The problem with these texts is that although they squarely place the blame for Jesus’ death on Jews, this is not all the NT says about the matter. A proper treatment of this issue demands that we look at the rest of the NT.

Texts that seem to say something else

  • John 4.22: “You people worship what you do not know. We worship what we know, because salvation is from the Jews.”
  • Rom 3.1-2: “(1) Therefore what advantage does the Jew have, or what is the value of circumcision? (2) Actually, there are many advantages. First of all, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God.”
  • Rom 9–11: too lengthy to quote, but note that these three chapters address the future of the Jews and Paul’s longing to see his fellow countrymen saved.
  • Rom 9.1-5: “(1) I am telling the truth in Christ (I am not lying!), for my conscience assures me in the Holy Spirit— (2) I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. (3) For I could wish that I myself were accursed—cut off from Christ—for the sake of my people, my fellow countrymen, (4) who are Israelites. To them belong the adoption as sons, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the temple worship, and the promises. (5) To them belong the patriarchs, and from them, by human descent, came the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever! Amen.”
  • 1 Cor 9.20: “To the Jews I became like a Jew to gain the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) to gain those under the law.”
  • 1 Cor 10.32: “Do not give offense to Jews or Greeks or to the church of God…”

In Jesus’ response to the Samaritan woman, he says plainly that “salvation is from the Jews” (John 4.22). Paul will elaborate on this theme in Rom 3.1-2 and 9.1-5. In the latter passage, Paul goes so far as to say that if it were possible he would go to hell if that could bring any of his fellow countrymen to Christ! This is a far cry from anti-semitism! Indeed, it is the greatest love that a person can show someone else. In 1 Corinthians, Paul indicates the proper attitude that each of us should have toward Jews and Gentiles alike: we must not cause them offense, but should love them and seek to win them for Christ.

In Rom 9–11, Paul gives a theological answer to the problem of the Jewish rejection of their Messiah. On the one hand, he laments what his fellow countrymen have done (9.1-5). On the other hand, he shows that this is within the sovereign will of God, that the Jewish rejection of Christ has paved the way for Gentile salvation (11.11-15). But throughout this section Paul hints that God is not finished with the Jews yet. In 11.25-32 he says that “all Israel will be saved” (11.26) and implies that all people—Jew and Gentile alike—are responsible for the death of Christ (v. 32).

Summary

Several principles can be seen in these texts that we need to wrestle with:

  • Although the Jewish nation is culpable for the death of Jesus Christ, it is so because Jesus was the king of the Jews. He had a special relationship to them.
  • But the NT authors unequivocally do not give up on the Jewish nation. There is hope for their salvation, and indeed prophecy to that effect. It is precisely because of the attitude that the apostles and our Lord had toward the Jews that we as Christians do not have a right to have any other attitude. Paul was willing to go to hell if that would bring salvation to any of his fellow Jews. And our Lord said that although the nation killed its own prophets, he still loved them: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you! How often I have longed to gather your children together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you would have none of it!” (Matt 23.37). In other words, our attitude toward Jews must be a desire to see them come to know the Savior. And this means that we must love them. This is the consistent attitude of the NT writers.
  • Not only this, but the NT places a special emphasis on the Jews in terms of the priority of evangelism. “To the Jew first, and also to the Greek,” as Paul said (Rom 1.16). Anti-semitism brings hate; the NT offers hope.
  • Are the Jews the only ones responsible for the death of Jesus? Hardly. From a divine perspective, we could say that God is responsible—at least in some sense. Isa 53.10 says: “Yet it was the will of the LORD to bruise him; he has put him to grief; when he makes himself an offering for sin…” (RSV). Why? Because only in this way could our sins be paid for. As Paul declares in Rom 3.23, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” The ‘all’ includes Jews and Gentiles. He goes on to say that “they are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (v. 24). How is this possible? How was this accomplished? “God publicly displayed him at his death as the mercy seat accessible through faith. This was to demonstrate his righteousness, because God in his forbearance had passed over the sins previously committed” (v. 25). In other words, it was our sins that put Jesus on the cross. Thus, if the NT is anti-semitic, it is anti-humanity eve more so—for it condemns us all as sinners. But condemning one’s sins is not the same as hating the individual. Why? Because the NT offers the gift of eternal life to all who would embrace Jesus Christ as their Savior—there is no distinction.
  • One of the problems we are facing is culture’s shifting values. Today in America, racism in any form is considered the most heinous of sins. Coupled with this is the positive attitude about a peculiar kind of tolerance: we must tolerate any and every viewpoint to the extent that we cannot criticize any. Yet fifty years ago, cultural values were decidedly different. At that time, communism was considered the worst evil possible. As Christians, we must hold fast to the truth of the Word of God and not allow our present culture to dictate what is right and wrong. Yes, racism is wrong; it is evil. But for the NT to condemn the Jewish nation is not racism because (a) the writers were themselves Jews, (b) all mankind is equally condemned, and (c) the writers also offer hope and love to all sinners. In short, there is absolutely no room for Christians to hate anyone precisely because Christ died for all.

1 All scripture quotations are from the NET except where noted.

Related Topics: Cultural Issues