Weekly Q&A: How did Christian anti-Judaism begin?

The non-Jewish followers of Jesus established themselves as a “third race” towards the end of the first century and in the early second century A.D. By this, they distinguished themselves from both the Jews and those who worshipped idols. They sought to identify themselves as the “true Israel” and disassociate from the Jewish people and Judaism. In their view, Judaism rejected Jesus and was, therefore, erroneous. Jews, moreover, murdered Jesus. Or so these Christians claimed.

They redefined the original “Jewishness” of Jesus’ movement to show Christianity as the only true religion. As such, it needed to be “Law free” and separated from any Judaizing. The Church Fathers struggled for supremacy and distinction from Judaism. To do this, they claimed the Jewish Law was no longer necessary, they removed the God of the New Testament’s ethnic, Jewish identity, and they prohibited interaction between Christians and Judaism.

Christian leaders declared the Jewish Law (Torah) as obsolete, devoid of any practical value. Ignatius of Antioch declared the practice of Jewish Law forbidden to Christians. Jews had to stop living as Jews when they became Christians (Letter to the Magnesians 8:1; 9:1; 10:3; see Letter to the Philadelphians 6:1). Justin Martyr permitted Jews to continue practicing Jewish observances, but he forbade them from suggesting that non-Jews should obey the Law of Moses (Dialogue with Trypho a Jew 47).

Official cannon law prohibited Christian participation in Jewish rituals at the Councils of Antioch (A.D. 341) and Laodicea (c. A.D. 360). The imperial orthodoxy of the Byzantine Empire opposed non-Jews practicing Jewish customs and criminalized conversion to Judaism. Jews became increasingly marginalized within late Roman society and became the subject of outbursts of violence fueled by the rhetoric of bishops and the theology of the Church Fathers. Within the Byzantine Empire, few Christians knew that Jesus and the Apostles were Jews.

Asia Minor became a particular location of tensions between Christians and Jews in the second century A.D. This already appears in the letters John wrote to Smyrna and Philadelphia (Revelation 2:8-11; 3:7-13). The Martyrdom of Polycarp tells of the Roman execution of Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, in which the Jews played a catalytic role. This work styles its story on the death of Jesus in the Gospels and Stephen in Acts; thus, we may question the degree of the Jewish involvement.

Of particular importance is the homily, On the Passion (Peri Pascha), by Melito of Sardis. Melito lived in Sardis, located in Asia Minor, in the second century A.D. His homily accused Jews of deicide, killing God, for the first time. Meilito falsely claimed that the Jews scourged and crucified Jesus. Conveniently, Pilate and the Romans remain absent from Melito’s homily. The Jews killed Jesus; the Jews killed their Lord. This became a common refrain of Christian anti-Judaism.

Today, it is essential that we understand the dangers of these distorted beliefs. For centuries, sermons and writings have claimed that the Jewish people—as a whole—rejected Jesus, and therefore God rejected them. But this is not an accurate reading of the Scriptures and nor is it an accurate portrayal of the historical accounts and events. 

The New Testament makes no such claim that gentile Christians replaced the Jews as God’s chosen people or covenant community. Rather, it presents the good news that gentiles have been given the gracious privilege of being grafted into the covenant and family of faith, which had been established by God with Abraham and his descendants.

Marc Turnage is President/CEO of Biblical Expeditions. He is an authority on ancient Judaism and Christian origins. He has published widely for both academic and popular audiences. His most recent book, Windows into the Bible, was named by Outreach Magazine as one of its top 100 Christian living resources. Marc is a widely sought-after speaker and a gifted teacher. He has been guiding groups to the lands of the Bible—Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Greece, and Italy—for over twenty years.

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