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Antisemitism and Orthodoxy

by Stephen Methodius Hayes

The 20th century will be remembered for many things, good and bad, but one of the worst things it will be remembered for will be genocide -- the attempt to exterminate a race of people. In chronological order there were the German attempt to exterminate the Hereros in 1906, the Turkish attempt to exterminate the Armenians 10 years later, the German attempt to exterminate Jews in the 1940s, and genocide in Rwanda in the 1990s. The list is not exhaustive, but of those the German attempt to exterminate the Jews stands out as the biggest, and the most deliberate.

What drove the Nazi rulers of Germany to genocide was antisemitism, hatred of Jews, that was propagated as an ideology from the middle of the 19th century, and popularised by the Nazi government of Germany in the 1930s and 1940s.

Antisemitism is a form of racism. It is hatred of Jews as a race of people. Jews are defined by both race and religion. People who do not practice the religion of Judaism may still regard themselves as Jews by descent. And antisemitism, certainly the Nazi variety, concentrated on descent. Jews who had abandoned Judaism were still likely to face discrimination, arrest, and even death, and many did.

The scale of the genocide in Nazi Germany, and the vehemence of the antisemitism that caused it, have led people, since the end of the Second World War, to try to find the sources of antisemitism. And some have concluded, as a result of their investigations, that Christianity itself is the cause of antisemitism. They say that Christianity is inherently antisemitic. They assert that the roots of antisemitism are to be found in the earliest Christian documents -- the New Testament, and that all subsequent antisemitism grew and developed from that. The line is traced through the Church Fathers -- St John Chrysostom coming in for particularly heavy criticism -- with the Spanish Inquisition, Martin Luther and pogroms against Jews in Tsarist Russia being mentioned along the way.

St John Chrysostom and the pogroms, in particular, have led to Orthodox Christianity being tarred with the antisemitic brush, at least in the minds of these researchers, and, by extension, in the minds of many of their readers. Is it true? Is Christianity, and in particular Orthodox Christianity, inherently antisemitic?

It is not possible to give a full answer to such a question in a short article like this. The most I can do is give a few pointers, and some suggestions for further reading, and appeal to Orthodox historians to do some research into the subject and perhaps write something more adequate.

Christianity and Judaism - the common roots

Both Christianity and modern Judaism sprang from Second-Temple Judaism, which came to an end in AD 70, with the suppression of the Jewish revolt by the Romans. Second-Temple Judaism was not monolithic. There were several different parties and sects, of which the best known were the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes and Zealots. By the end of the first century AD there were in effect only two - Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism, both of which sprang largely from the Pharisees. Much of the New Testament was written about the time that Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism were going their separate ways, and to some extent it reflects the theological polemics of the split. For example, the gospels report on Jesus' disputes with leaders of the Pharisee and Sadducee parties. There is very little mention of the Zealots (other than that one of Jesus' disciples belonged to them - Luke 6:15) and none of the Essenes.

In some ways Jesus could be seen as a Pharisee reformer, critical of some of the leaders of the group for their vanity and hypocrisy, but generally sympathetic with their theology. In English we often use the term "Pharisaical" as if it were a very bad thing, but if we read the gospels, the complaint of Jesus was not that the Pharisees were too Pharisaical, but that they were not Pharisaical enough. They were playing the role, acting the part, but the reality was missing (the word "hypocrite" means "actor").

Those who say that Christianity was fundamentally antisemitic point to the Gospel according to St John, where Jesus debates not so much with the Pharisees as with "the Jews", and the Jews are made to seem the villain of the piece. St John even has Jesus say that the Jews were children of the devil (John 8:44), and you can't get much more antisemitic than that! If Jews are children of the devil, then they must be fair game, and the gas chambers of Auschwicz are too good for them.

Another verse used to support the thesis that Christianity was antisemitic from the beginning is Matthew 27:27, when the crowd demand the death of Jesus. When Pilate hesitates, the crowd shout that they will accept responsibility: "His blood be on us and on our children." This verse, the critics say, was intended to justify Christians in hating Jews as "Christ-killers", and to perpetuate this hatred for all generations.

Two questions arise from this:

  1. Do these verses really indicate "antisemitism" on the part of the NT writers?
  2. Can they legitimately be used by Christians to justify antisemitism?

I believe that the answer to both questions is "No".

What is antisemitism?

Antisemitism, the hatred of Jews as a race is a phenomenon of the 19th century. Antisemitism was part of a wider movement of racism that intensified towards the end of the 19th century, and led to several attempts at genocide in the 20th century. To read it back into the first century, or even the 4th century, is anachronistic. It is bad history.

Is the "antisemitic" interpretation valid?

Apart from the question of anachronism, there is also the question of a faulty reading of the New Testament text. Who are the "Jews" that are referred to in the gospels? Jesus was a Jew by religion, as were most of his disciples. But the Greek word that is translated into English as "Jews" is actually "Ioudei", and could just as easily (and in many contexts more accurately) be translated as "Judaeans". Jesus and his disciples were Jews, but not Judaeans. They were not normally resident in Judaea, but in Galilee, which was under a different political authority, and they spoke with a different accent (Mt 26:73). When Jesus debated with the Judaean Pharisees (Jn 8), they said he was a Samaritan (Jn 8:48). Samaritans were regarded as heretics. The woman of Samaria recognised Jesus as a Jew (Jn 4:9) and Jesus does not dispute this. Surely if John were antisemitic, and intending to promote antisemitism, he would have suppressed such evidence? The Samaritan woman also recognises the theological differences (Jn 4:20). By calling Jesus a "Samaritan", therefore, the Judaean Pharisees imply that he is a heretic, and perhaps his northern accent sounds to them as though it could just as easily be Samaritan as Galilean (Samaria was geographically between Judaea and Galilee, and Jesus had passed through it on his way to Judaea).

I believe that those who maintain that the Gospel according to St John is "antisemitic" have failed to distinguish between Jews and Judaeans, and that by assuming that "Ioudei" meant "Jews" in every case, they have read antisemitism into the text where none exists.

I do not dispute that some of these passages of scripture have later been used by Christians, including some Orthodox Christians, to justify antisemitism, but I believe that those who have done so were mistaken, and were misinterpreting the text. So I believe that using the text to justify antisemitism is twisting it, whether it is done by those promoting antisemitism, or by those promoting antiChristianity by claiming that Christianity is inherently antisemitic.

What about the "antisemitic" writings of St John Chrysostom?

In the fourth century St John Chrysostom wrote a polemical work "against the Jews". He was trained in the schools of classical rhetoric and he pulled no punches. His language was harsh, intemperate and at times crude and insulting. It would certainly not pass the standards of polite or scholarly discourse today.

Many of those who cite St John Chrysostom as a source of antisemitism, however, have not read this work or any other by him. They know nothing of the setting, and many have seen nothing but a few of the nastier insults quoted out of context. I sometimes get the feeling, reading such critiques (which are several generations removed from the scholarly originals, so that tentative suggestions made by scholarly researchers have become indisputable facts in the minds of those looking for something to bash Christianity with) that somewhere there is a collection of Patristical excerpts, containing all the things that the Church Fathers have said against women, or Jews, or other groups, all collected in one convenient place for reference by modern polemicists, who use this as a source to avoid having to read the original texts in their proper context.

St John Chrysostom was not really writing against Jews, but against Judaising Christians. There were Christians who would attend Jewish services and prayer meetings, and adopt Jewish customs, and say how superior they were to Christian ones. He rejects their approach, and compares Jewish theology and practice with Christian, trying to show the superiority of Christian beliefs and practices, and their incompatibility with each other.

It is quite clear that he thinks Christianity is superior to Judaism, and that Christians should therefore not attend Jewish services and prayer meetings or adopt Jewish customs. But is this "antisemitic", or does it justify antisemitism? Again, I would say it is not and it does not. Theological disagreement is not antisemitism, even when expressed in very rude language. And theological differences do not justify either pogroms or genocide.

One could also look at the thing from the other side. In our day there are still Judaising Christians, and there are also Christianising Jews. These Jews call themselves "Messianic Jews". They have grown up as Jews, and call themselves Jews, but they believe that Jesus was the Messiah. They continue to call themselves Jews, but like to call themselves "completed Jews". Orthodox Jews regard them as apostates and heretics, and some of the web sites that denounce them as such use rhetoric that differs little from that of St John Chrysostom against Judaising Christians in the 4th century.

When we look at St John Chrysostom's writing, we should also look at the setting. Where was he writing from, and what were things like in those days?

Wilken (1983:30f) says:

Paganism and Christianity were not on equal footing in Antioch. Hellenism set the tone, undergirded the institutions and inspired the art and literature. In the schools the 'air one breathed' was Greek, not Christian. It is commonly thought that by the end of the fourth century, especially after the conversion of Constantine and the accession of an Orthodox Christian emperor, Theodosius I, to the imperial throne in 379, the Christian religion had come to dominate the society. From the perspective of later history such an interpretation is understandable, but to those living through this period, things did not appear this way. In the opening paragraphs of his work 'On those who oppose the monastic life', written most likely after 379, John (Chrysostom) bemoans the treatment of Christian monks while an orthodox Christian sat on the imperial throne... John did not expect that the emperors would always be Christians or that the policies of the present emperor would necessarily continue.

It is easy to say, with hindsight, that from that time on Christianity went on to become more secure in Antioch, a condition that would last for at least two more centuries. But Theodosius was the first emperor since Constantine to be sympathetic towards Orthodox Christianity, and could, as far as St John Chrysostom knew, quite easily be replaced by one who wasn't. There were possibly some still alive who had suffered under the persecution of Diocletian, or who at least remembered those days. Other emperors had favoured Arianism, and in Antioch itself Arianism was still as influential, if not more so, than Orthodoxy.

To take a text written in such a setting, and use it to justify hatred of Jews today, is the worst kind of demagoguery.

Where do we go from here?

So what should be the attitude of Orthodox Christians to Jews today?

I believe that we will continue to have deep theological differences with Jews. We believe that the Messiah has come; Jews do not. We believe that Jesus was not only the Messiah, but God incarnate. Jews do not. As long as there are Jews and Christians in the world, we will continue to disagree over such things. The differences won't go away. If Jews become Orthodox Christians, then they must become Orthodox Christians, and not something in between like "Messianic Jews". And Orthodox Jews will regard them as apostate, just as Orthodox Christians will regard as apostate a fellow Christian who becomes a Jew. Orthodox Christians will follow St John Chrysostom's exhortation in not celebrating the Feast of Tabernacles in Jewish fashion, as some Judaising Christians advocate today, and I suspect that in that some Orthodox Jews at least would be the first to agree.

Yet, despite these differences, there are many ways in which Orthodox Jews and Orthodox Christians share a common heritage and even similar outlooks on life that can allow us to respect one another, even if we do not agree on theology.

Can we regard Jews as "Christ-killers" and on that ground justify hating, oppressing or persecuting them? I believe that if Orthodox Christians do such a thing, that is a sin that we must confess and forsake. When it comes to the death of Christ, the only guilt that we need to consider is our own. We pray every day in Lent, "Grant me to see my own transgressions and not to judge my brother". That is the spirit of true Orthodoxy. Nothing could be further from it than antisemitism.

From Palm Sunday to Pentecost we read in the scriptures about the Jerusalem mob. They were Judaeans and Jews from other nations (Ioudei. On Palm Sunday, we are told, they shouted "Hosanna!" as Jesus rode into Jerusalem. A few days later, they were shouting "Crucify him!" and "His blood be on us and on our children". And Jesus, we are told, said "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." If we, as Christians, refuse to forgive those whom God has forgiven, we deny Christ, and we place ourselves among the crowd who called for his death, and put ourselves out of the range of God's forgiveness by denying it to others. On the day of Pentecost, seven weeks later, we are told that St Peter spoke to the same Jerusalem mob, who had clearly witnessed the events of Palm Sunday and Great Friday. He said, "God has made this same Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ" (Ac 2:36). And the crowd asked "What shall we do?" And St Peter replied, "Repent and be baptised, every one of you for the remission of sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children.

To claim, as some have done, that the words of the curse "His blood be on us and our children" justify Christians in hating Jews, supposing them to be descendants of people who actually shouted that, is in fact to crucify Christ afresh. If Christ said "Father forgive them" who are we to refuse to forgive them or their supposed descendants, for a wrong done not to us, but to him? The crowd is us. When we hear those events from Palm Sunday to Pentecost, we are the ones who shout "Hosanna" one day, and crucify him the next. Ours is the avarice of Judas. Lord, grant me to see my own transgressions, and not to judge my brother. Lord, have mercy.

What is the status of this article?

Throughout this article I have qualified my statements by saying things like "I believe..." and "I think...". I have not said "The Church teaches..." These are personal opinions. They are the opinions of an Orthodox Christian, but they are not the teaching of the Church. As I said at the beginning, I hope it may stimulate church historians and theologians to write more fully and more authoritatively on this matter, because I believe it is an important one.

For further reading:

The following books deal with the history of Jewish-Christian relations, especially in the first four centuries of the Christian era. They are not exhaustive, and none of them is written by an Orthodox Christian, so they cannot be taken as indicating an Orthodox point of view. They do, however, give useful background information.

Braham, Randolf L (ed). 1986. The origins of the Holocaust: Christian anti-Semitism. Boulder: Social Science Monographs. Dewey: 261.260924

Neusner, Jacob. 1987. Judaism and Christianity in the age of Constantine. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Dewey: 292.3872

Shanks, Hershel (ed). 1992. Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism: a parallel history of their origins and early development. Washington, DC: Biblical Archaeology Society. Dewey: 261.2609015

Wilken, Robert L. 1983. John Chrysostom and the Jews: rhetoric and reality in the late 4th century. Berkeley: University of California Press. Dewey: 261.2609394

For more information

The following links have more information on this topic:

Was St John Chrysostom antisemitic?

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Created: 28 September 2001
Updated: 28 May 2006