Commentary Magazine

Christian Teaching and Anti-Semitism
Scrutinizing Religious Texts

Traditionally, the study of anti-Semitism was concerned with the objective factors which over the centuries have contributed to Christian hostility toward Jews. In particular the religious sources of this hostility were emphasized. Anti-Semitism was seen as the consequence of the fundamental point of conflict between the two traditions—that Christians affirm, while Jews deny, that Jesus is God’s Messiah—a conflict which was exacerbated by such other contributory features as the frequent misrepresentation of Jews and Judaism in Christian teaching. Since Hitler, however, it has been recognized that the religious explanation is unable to account for the hold that anti-Semitism may have on an individual, or on a whole people. The more recent tendency has consequently been to describe anti-Semitism chiefly in sociological or psychological terms, and to focus attention on the subjective factors involved.

Thus, from the side of social psychology, Dr. Eva Reichmann, in her pioneer work Hostages of Civilisation, argued persuasively that the historical factors which had played a part in the development of the “Jewish problem” in Germany would never have produced the violent anti-Semitism of the Nazi movement had it not been for the social disorganization that followed upon the First World War. Then in 1950 there appeared The Authoritarian Personality, the principal volume in the Studies in Prejudice. The authors of this important work were a group of psychologists at the University of California, and their concern was not so much with the anti-Semite specifically, as with the broader problem of the individual “whose structure is such as to render him particularly susceptible to anti-democratic propaganda.” But the authors assumed that anti-Semitism “is based more largely upon factors in the subject and in his total situation than upon actual characteristics of Jews, and that one place to look for determinants of antisemitic opinions is within the persons who express them.”

These valuable new insights, however, have not superseded the older approach. No one has yet asserted that the character structure of the individual by itself is the cause of anti-Semitism. Psychological and sociological factors are the driving force behind the thoughts and actions of the prejudiced man, but these thoughts and actions are molded and nourished by historical and religious conditions. Anti-Semitism is at one and the same time an “objective” and a “subjective” phenomenon.

Indeed, the new emphasis on the part played by character structure in anti-Semitism has served to stimulate a renewed concern with the religious factor itself, and particularly with the religious education of the child. This has been one of the many important consequences of the evidence in The Authoritarian Personality that prejudice is usually developed early in life. Favorable contact in childhood with members of other groups can act as a barrier to the birth of prejudice, and for very many Christians their first—and sometimes their only—contact with Jews comes in their early religious training. At this stage impressions can be planted which, years later, their origins forgotten and their presence unsuspected, can grow into sentiments of affection and respect toward Judaism, or of hostility and resentment.

In England, the Council of Christians and Jews, with the aid of a panel of educators, began in 1953 a survey of a considerable number of books used in religious teaching and discussed the findings at a conference held in the fall of 1954. In America, the problem has long been a concern of the American Jewish Committee which for over two decades cooperated with members of Drew University in a general study of the effect of religious teachings on intergroup relations. This work has led to an investigation by various institutions within each of the major religious groups in America of teaching materials used by Jews, Protestants, and Catholics. The major study (of Protestant texts) is being conducted at the Yale Divinity School, while Dropsie College in Philadelphia is looking into Jewish textbooks and St. Louis University into Roman Catholic. Two other studies—by Southern Methodist University and by the Catholic University of America and the Catholic Bible Association—have also been undertaken in cooperation with the American Jewish Committee. But it may be some time before the results of all these American studies are available.

At present, the fullest treatment of the problem is to be found in La Catéchèse Chrétienne et Le Peuple de la Bible (The Christian Catechism and the People of the Bible)1 by Paul Démann, a Roman Catholic priest, whose name is a respected one in interfaith circles in France. Fr. Démann examines a large number of the textbooks used in the religious schools of Frenchspeaking Roman Catholic parishes (i.e. in France, Belgium, Switzerland, and Canada), and the quotations he cites often provide a sorry picture for Christians—although it should be said that some of the anti-Semitism revealed appears to be political, rather than religious, in origin. There is also the further point that, according to Fr. Démann, many of the more recent books to come into use reveal a very different spirit. This judgment would in my opinion also be true of conditions in America and England, where the newer books are similarly marked by an emphasis on the Jewish origins of Christianity, a desire to pay tribute to the spirit of Judaism at the time of Jesus, and a sympathetic handling of problems such as the crucifixion story.

It is in connection with the crucifixion that the problem of religious anti-Semitism is posed in its sharpest form, for nothing can more quickly create sentiments of antipathy toward Jews in children than the grotesque simplification of the story into the statement that the “Jews killed Jesus”—however much the particular author may wish to guard against anti-Semitism. Historically, several factors played a part in the crucifixion—Roman civilization, the religious zeal of the Pharisees, the patriotism of those among the Jewish masses who were looking for a warrior messiah to drive the Romans into the sea, and Jesus’ own conviction that his death was not a casual historical accident, but part of the age-old purpose of God, so that he died “as it was written.”

To explain so complex a situation to children is, of course, very difficult, and it is made even more difficult by two other factors. The first is that in the period during which the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles were being written, Judaism was in a state of crisis that resulted from the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E., and this crisis showed itself partly in the persecution—at times to the death—of Christians (then still regarded as Jewish heretics) and their exclusion from the synagogue. It is not therefore remarkable that the Gospels should occasionally reflect this tense situation and give an unfavorable picture of contemporary Jewry; and one of the purposes of the author of Acts was apparently to persuade the Roman government that Christianity was an essentially law-abiding religion, with trouble only arising when Jews came on the scene.

If Judaism, then, was engaged in detaching itself from Christianity in the 1st century, some of the writers of the New Testament were also actively engaged in detaching themselves from contemporary Judaism. This much must be said. But secondly, it is no less true that there was a real and significant opposition on the part of Jesus to much of the religion of his day. There was a crucifixion, and some Jews did have a connection with it: and this too must in all honesty be said.

The usual over-simplification of the crucifixion story in teaching manuals takes the form of putting responsibility squarely and indiscriminately on the shoulders of the mass of Jews:

Pilate gave the Jews the choice between Jesus and Barabbas . . . the Jews chose Barabbas, and asked for Jesus to be put to death.

We become indignant at the machinations of the Jews, the willingness of Judas to be their catspaw, and of Pilate to be their tool.

Herod refused to have anything to do with the matter, and sent Jesus back to Pilate, who ordered a scourging to be inflicted (hoping thus to satisfy the Jews). This did not satisfy them. “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” they howled. And Pilate dared not oppose them.

Sometimes the effect is to establish an association of “Jews” with “enemies of Jesus.”

The whole crowd followed . . . the majority of them were Jews, his enemies, who wished to see him die.

In order to undertake a complete and impartial study of the life of Jesus, we have to consult those texts which are concerned with him, whether they come from his enemies, those indifferent to him, or from his friends: i.e. Jewish, Roman and Christian sources.

But Jews may not only be equated with “enemies of Jesus”; they may also be “wicked.” There is a warning note to the teacher in one book, for younger children:

Do not use the expression “the wicked soldiers who were ill-treating Jesus,” without taking care that the children do not identify “to be a soldier” with “to be wicked.”

There is nothing, however, to forbid the phrase being applied to Jews, and, in fact, the teacher is told:

One should not speak of “wicked soldiers,” but of “wicked Jews.” In the Passion narrative the soldiers should be treated as simply doing what they are ordered to do.

And other books cited by Fr. Démann contain such incidental statements as: “Now those wicked men—they were Jews—spoke thus”; “But the Jews were pitiless, and clamored ‘Crucify Him’”; “the heart of the Jews was as stone”; “the wretched Jews . . . took pleasure in seeing Jesus suffer.” (The AJC Committee Reporter for July 1956 likewise notices the collocation of the epithets “immoral,” “materialistic,” “self-seeking,” “proud,” “deceitful,” “wicked,” with the term “Jew” in many Christian texts.)



But since the Gospels do not present the Jews as standing united in opposition to Jesus, these accounts are forced to play down the Jewishness of the “good Jews.” The mother of Jesus, for example, is described as “a young woman espoused to a man named Joseph,” and she is said to have lived “in the country of the Jews.” Of the Apostles, the children are told that Jesus “chose twelve men.” Another Jew well disposed toward Jesus becomes simply “a man.” The two Pharisees who became disciples of Jesus, Joseph of Arimathaea and Nicodemus, are referred to as “two pious men.” A rather longer passage from a very widely used manual is a reductio ad absurdum of this tendency to obscure the fact that virtually all the first Christians were themselves Jews:

Who was on the side of Jesus? The sick he had healed, the unhappy that he had comforted, the poor he had associated with, the children he had blessed, the guilty he had pardoned—all those who loved the gospel and wanted to hear further teaching about God. Who was against Jesus? The Jews who looked for a glorious Saviour. . . .

The effect such teaching can have on the impressionable minds of children is clear.

There are, however, other authors who try to bring out with delicacy, sympathy, and imagination the true Christian perspective on the crucifixion. A British author remarks:

We must make it plain to our hearers that the whole blame for the crucifixion cannot be put on the shoulders of the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Romans, and the Jewish populace of the time. The contemporaries of Jesus must, of course, share the blame; they were the historical agents of human sin. But they were acting on behalf of us all; they were doing what we should have done if we had been there to do it. . . . It would be pleasant to put the blame on Pontius Pilate, or Judas, or Caiaphas; but the attempt to shift the blame always breaks down in the end, and all who see the love of Jesus on the Cross are brought to acknowledge that it was they who crucified Him, whatever anyone else may have done towards it.

An American author likewise insists on an accurate statement of the historical evidence:

When we speak of the Crucifixion, we must be careful to guard our teaching so that we do not give the impression that the Jews crucified Christ. The Romans had a part in it also. The Jewish people as a whole did not crucify Him, but certain religious leaders and the rougher element of the population.2

And another American, a Catholic, bluntly says: “A Christian believes that his own sins were the cause of the crucifixion.”

From French Catholic sources there are two further examples of how this difficult subject can be handled without either distorting the facts or arousing the child’s antagonism to Jews:

If a child interrupts the lesson and says, “The wicked men,” point out to him that it is he himself who is wicked, like all of us, and that it was because of our sins that Jesus died.

Who was responsible for the sufferings of Jesus . . . was it only the people who were there, Caiaphas, Pilate, etc.? This question is very important if we are to grasp the meaning of what happened. No, those who were there were not responsible above all others . . . indeed they were only the agents of the consequences of the sin of us all. . . . It is each one of us who is responsible. We must firmly say that it is our sins which were the true cause of the sufferings of our Saviour. Those who were there were only sinners like the rest of us, and it was for us as well as for them that Jesus suffered.



But what of the Jewish rejection of Jesus? The Christian must take the view that historic Israel, once the organ of special revelation, has been transformed by the coming of Jesus into a community that includes anyone—Jew or Gentile—who submits to the Law of Christ. Transformation, however, implies a certain continuity: a Christian cannot, without falling into inconsistency and error, believe that Judaism was finally and completely rejected in the coming of Jesus, but only that it was superseded. Yet some manuals make it appear that there is a radical discontinuity between Judaism and Christianity. We read, for example, in one book, that “for Christianity to establish itself, it was necessary that Judaism should disappear.” This kind of falsification easily passes over into the presentation of Jews as members of a castoff race, inexorably damned by an irrevocable divine decree. Thus an American writer:

The Jews turned their backs on God, they refused His Son and they worshipped pagan gods. And they have been sorely punished for centuries as a result. . . . They are not really wanted anywhere.

In another author we find a similar idea:

Jerusalem and the Jews were visibly punished by God. . . . The temple was destroyed, and with it, the Mosaic religion came to an end. Since then the Jews have wandered through the whole earth, homeless and without a country.

The same sentiment is given a particularly ugly turn when Jesus is said to have predicted “the destruction of Jerusalem and of the nation of deicides.”

Why, then, do Jews still exist today? “To provide the world with the most tangible evidence of divine justice,” one author tells us. “As an instance of the wrath of God,” says another. “God preserves them,” teaches a third, “so that they may continue to expiate their national crime. . . .”

What sort of justice this can be which thinks in terms of a collective guilt extending now over some nineteen centuries it is hard to understand. And this whole way of thinking is open to criticism at so many other points that we are not surprised to learn from Fr. Démann that it finds much less place in recent books than in those of twenty or thirty years ago. For not only does the existence of the State of Israel make nonsense of the idea of the “homeless Jews,” but, to controvert statements which interpret the Jewish dispersion as a punishment for the crucifixion, we have ample evidence that Jews were to be found all over the Mediterranean world long before the birth of Jesus. Christianity, indeed, has traditionally seen in this pre-Christian dispersion more a blessing than a curse, since Jews in the Hellenistic countries, by spreading the knowledge of Scripture, helped prepare the way for the new faith.

But in any case, where the New Testament sees the crucifixion as the revelation of a principle of love, this interpretation makes it a principle of hatred and division. Finally, while Christians cannot be expected to ignore the stern sayings of Jesus about the judgment that must fall on those who have rejected him, the idea of irrevocable rejection fails to take account of St. Paul’s picture in Romans 11:29 of a God who does not “go back on His gifts and His call” but wills to reunite both Christian and Jew in the fellowship of the Church.



If the New Testament presupposes at every point a sympathetic knowledge of the Old Testament, it also presupposes a similar acquaintance with Judaism at the time of Jesus. Certain recent authors emphasize this:

If we are to understand the life and acts of Jesus, his teaching, and the reception be received from his contemporaries, it is essential that the gospel story be seen against its historical background.

Other authors pay tribute to the vigor of the pre-Christian Jewish dispersion, and to the success of its missionary activity, which made some headway among the adherents of the “higher paganism.” But it seems that relatively few authors feel the need for providing their young readers with a sufficient account of such background information, let alone of the vigorous and diverse development of Judaism that took place in the period following the close of the Old Testament. Where 1st-century Judaism is mentioned, it is usually caricatured and its “inferiority” to Christianity highlighted. Here is a Canadian Protestant writer on “synagogue worship”:

Think of what we know of the synagogue and its worship. From what we know of it all, it was steeped in formality and worldliness. It was superficial and unreal. Our Lord’s own words leave no doubt as to the prevailing tone of the synagogue worship, and show how much He disagreed with the teaching there.

Such worship, of course, would be no more than we could expect from a people described by another writer as “neither believing in God, nor loving Him.” He continues: “The low state of morality in Jerusalem was such that [Josephus] called it ‘a second Sodom.’” Another book, which contains much the crudest specimens of this sort of thing, amplifies the description:

Think a little of the mentality of the people that Jesus addressed. They looked for happiness in silver and gold, in low sensuality, in empty glory, strife and revenge. Everywhere, from Jerusalem to Rome, there was one desire, one ideal: happiness and wealth, sensual pleasure, power.

It will come as no surprise after this to find that the tendency of some authors is to concentrate attention on one element of the Jewish messianic hope, and one only:

Who were against Jesus? The Jews who looked for a rich and glorious Savior, warlike and victorious, with an army . . . he would triumph over their enemies and wipe them out for ever.

In a word, “this people had lost the awareness of its true vocation, and dreamed only of revenge and political dominion.” Even the Apostles, an English writer tells us, were at one time “full of Jewish bigotry and prejudice.” The same writer describes the people of Nazareth as “angry in their narrow Jewish way.” On another occasion he makes the inevitable comment:

One imagines that there was a touch of humor, of gentle irony, when Jesus said that it was Gentiles who worried about material things. No race is more keen on this than the Jews, and so when Jesus said, truly of course, that Gentiles worried about such things, His hearers could hardly miss the implication against themselves.

As one would expect, the Pharisees come off especially badly: “Most of us,” remarks the English writer just quoted, “regard the Pharisees as frauds and humbugs,” and he might have adduced in support of his statement the definition of “pharisaical” in Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary: “Resembling the Pharisees; outwardly, but not inwardly religious: hypocritical; self-righteous and censorious of others’ manners and morals.”



Here again the matter is a complicated one for Christians. There was a real controversy between Jesus and the Pharisees, but the nature of the controversy is easily misunderstood. The old Liberal Protestant school, of which Adolph Harnack of Berlin was the greatest representative in the early years of this century, tended to think of Jesus as the supreme embodiment of true religion and morals, with the Christian gospel viewed along rather commonplace ethical lines. For this school the root of the controversy with the Pharisees was that Jesus criticized their legalism, their failure to see that moral commandments were more important than ceremonial and ritual.

Such a view (which lies behind the current misrepresentation of the Pharisees) involves rather serious difficulties in the understanding of the history. Why should the Pharisees have sought so passionately to destroy Jesus, if this were all? After all, Pharisaism knew perfectly well that, in the words of the later Rabbi Meir, “upon the intention of the heart depends the validity of the words,” and the Talmud repeatedly stresses the need of kavanah) just as it repeatedly condemns as “hypocrites” and “Pharisaic plagues” those who did not display this quality.

Influenced by the work of critics like George Foot Moore and Israel Abrahams—who have done much to restore the reputation of the Pharisees among Christian scholars—more recent exegesis of the Gospels is able to make sense of the hostility to Jesus. The teaching of Jesus, it is now generally recognized, was primarily messianic and only secondarily ethical. He came as Messiah, not as a prophet, and as Messiah he could declare that the Torah was superseded, that it was now nothing more than a stage belonging to the past. The Pharisees, like everyone else, had to decide whether God was visiting and redeeming His people in Jesus, or whether Jesus was hopelessly deluded—in which case his criticism of the Law must be considered a subversive attack on Judaism itself. They decided to uphold the Law against him.

Several of the authors we are considering are well aware of these new insights, and they take the obvious and surely correct position that the strictures of Jesus were directed less against the Pharisaism which had so much in common with his own teaching than against individual Pharisees who fell below their own standards. We find one writer describing the Pharisees as

Descendants of the pious men who in Maccabaean days had vigorously resisted hellenisation, and died as martyrs for their faith, they sought to realise in the most exemplary manner the holiness proclaimed by the Law. This accounts for their great reputation among the mass of people.

But the old clichés are still being repeated in some books:

The Pharisees were hypocrites who emphasized external practices, but who, in secret, disobeyed the precepts.

The Pharisees . . . made a pretense of retaining intact the religion of their ancestors, but they thought only of that which is external. They were hypocrites: their religion was a mere show. They fasted continually—or appeared to fast-their prayers were endless, and on top of the Divine Law they had imposed innumerable practices which were minute and fantastic, if not often ridiculous. Their hearts were essentially full of pride, ambition and wickedness . . .

Children are further told by an English-Canadian writer that

To the Scribes and Pharisees the sabbath was an idol to be worshipped, and they had hedged it around with petty and childish scruples as to what was lawful to do on the Sabbath day. They were in bondage to the day.



The problem of revising the kind of text we have been considering involves, of course, more than the substitution of accurate for inaccurate statements, or the removal of passages that obviously derive from prejudice. What needs to be done is to recreate among Christians a spiritual sympathy with Jewish traditions and faith. Historically, Western Christendom has shown a marked ambiguity toward its Jewish heritage. On the one hand, it has treasured that heritage, for obvious reasons. Jesus was himself a Jew, of Jewish lineage and descent, and it was to his own people that he directed his work in the first place; the first disciples were also Jews. When, in the course of a single generation, Christianity passed over into the Greek world, it was only a stubborn insistence on the Jewish elements in its gospel—an ardent, instinctive monotheism, a belief in a personal, holy God who is Creator of all things and whose purpose is revealed in history—embodied in corporate, essentially Jewish, forms of worship which (historically speaking) prevented Christianity from disintegrating into yet another form of Greek religiosity. On the other hand, there is the long record of suffering inflicted on the Jewish people by the Church in the name of Christ—a record of which the average Christian is entirely ignorant.

The real ground for hope in the present situation is that a widespread and thoroughgoing stock-taking with respect to the Jews and Christianity’s Jewish sources is now in progress among Christians. One important cause of this revaluation is the growing list of scientific studies—from the Christian as well as the Jewish side—which in the last few years have broken through the old stereotypes of 1st-century Judaism, and which have done much to correct common misapprehensions about Rabbinic literature.

But there is a more compelling cause, involving a change in the Christian attitude toward the Old Testament. Fr. Démann tells us that “in the great majority of catechisms and manuals of dogma, the place given to the Old Testament is practically nil.” The reasons for this neglect are not difficult to understand. For one thing, in the first quarter of the 20th century critical work on the New Testament tended to stress the Hellenistic background of Christianity (the Greek mystery religions, the idea of the “dying god,” etc.) and inevitably this led to a weakening of the traditional preoccupation with the Jewish heritage of the new faith.

Moreover, the old “evolutionary” school of Bible scholars viewed the Old Testament not so much as the revelation of God to Israel but as the story of how Israel moved from the virtual superstition of patriarchal days to the lofty monotheism of the great prophets, from narrowly particularist ideas of a Chosen People to a broad universalism, a religion for all mankind. This tended to make the Old Testament simply an interesting, and rather remote, example of the development of higher and nobler ideas about God given to us by a nation which had (as the saying went) “a genius for religion”—a book not in itself much more relevant to Christians than, say, the Buddhist scriptures. Modern study of the Gospels, however, finds that the influence of Hellenism on early Christianity was peripheral and the influence of Judaism central—and Christian scholars are therefore once again seriously concerning themselves with the Old Testament.

Along with this renewed interest has gone the elaboration of a new approach which rejects the “evolutionary” attitude toward the Old Testament and which tries to interpret the Bible from within, as viewed by those who shared its faith and hope.3 The new approach sees that the Bible is primarily about a movement of God to man, and only secondarily about a movement of man to God. This means that the Old Testament must be regarded not as the record of how a remote ancient people went from “lower” to “higher” theological conceptions, but as the story of how God worked out His saving purposes in history through the Chosen People of Israel.

Both the reawakened preoccupation with the Jewish heritage of Christianity and the new approach to Old Testament interpretation are bound to have powerful effects in the long run on the attitudes of Christians toward Jews and Judaism. An honest writer of a textbook will no longer be able virtually to ignore the Old Testament with good conscience, or to present it in effect as one religious “classic” among many. If, for example, he is dealing with the topic of Jesus and the Church, he will start from the picture in Genesis: mankind, created for fellowship with God, but separated from Him by its own sin. The succeeding history then becomes Heilsgeschichte, the history of salvation, the story of God’s saving purpose worked out in the life of His believing and worshipping people, Israel. Only when he has looked at the story in this light, will he then pass on to explain that within this Israel Jesus was born, and that he died to reconstitute it so that henceforth it might not be limited to one nation only, but might be catholic, including 311 nations, and that in Abraham and his seed all the nations of the earth should be blessed.

In this way, and as New Testament scholarship increasingly shows the unity of the themes of the New Testament with those of the Old, Christians are forcefully reminded that they are heirs of the Old Testament tradition of belief and worship, and that they are sharers in its benefits. Inevitably there is a new and fruitful meeting between Judaism and Christianity. Christians are taught to look for the origin of the Church in the day when Israel was delivered from Egypt and a Covenant made with it. The Old Testament is once again given a positive value as the record of a valid revelation, and the place where Christians no less than Jews are taught fundamental truths of their religion.

There is hope today that religious teaching may come to act as a barrier against, rather than a contributing factor to, the spread of anti-Semitism.



1 This study forms vols. 3 and 4 of Cahiers Sioniens (1952), a periodical devoted to interfaith work between Christians and Jews, and to the Jewish heritage of Christianity.

2 This quotation (which stems from material of the Evangelical and Reformed Church) is reported to be a revision of older material which read, “When Jesus was arrested, the first place to which He was taken was the High Court of the Jews, presided over by the High Priest. Its members belonged to the aristocratic families of Jerusalem. According to the Jewish law, Jesus claiming to be the son of God, should be punished by death.”

3 See my article “The New Old Testament” in COMMENTARY, April 1956.


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