Many scholars have asked the above question. If you read the Gospel accounts, you might easily see why some feel that Jesus was anti-Semitic. Although Jesus was a Jew, He certainly said extremely harsh words to the religious rulers. Some of His parables characterized the Jews in a very negative light. He pronounced woes on the cities of the Galilee region. After His first sermon, the people wanted to stone Him.
Michael Cook, a New Testament scholar, wrote, “These texts (in Matthew’s Gospel)… pose a serious dilemma for Christians committed to interfaith relations.”
Cook suggested three different approaches for dealing with the problem.
- A denial that the New Testament itself is anti-Jewish.
- Acknowledgement of anti-Jewish sentiment in the New Testament, but mainly in terms that tend to minimize its importance or otherwise explain it away.
- Open recognition that the New Testament is profoundly anti-Jewish and that this is a serious problem requiring full confrontation.
Cook has made some great points about the debate over just how anti-Semitic are the word in the Gospels. This includes the thought that the harsh tone belongs to the Gospel authors and not Jesus. The idea that the Christians would want to appear distance from Judaism is a new concept for me. I had never thought about Christians wanting to appear as allies to Rome given the civil unrest among the Jews.
Cook pointed out that the one major hurdle was that Jesus had been crucified on a cross, a Roman punishment given primarily to subversive people. Cook suggested that this may be the reason that Jewish leaders were saddled with the blame for Jesus death. By Pilate washing his hands and distancing himself from the decision, it makes it easier for Christ to appear a victim of Jewish hatred not a traitor who deserved Roman justice.
Greek influence on the Gospels likely impacted the presentation of the Jews according to Cook. Jewish customs struck others as bizarre. They refused to worship the Greco-Roman gods and received preferential treatment in this area from Rome. Cook suggested that some Christians, especially those with strong Greek backgrounds may have resented this fact.
As Cook pointed out the Holocaust and the use of Scripture to support it is one of the reasons that society is looking to explain the apparent anti-Jewish sentiment in the Gospels.
God’s harsh tone toward the Jews is not something new with just Jesus’ earthly ministry. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures God punishes the children of Israel and speaks negatively about their loyalty to them. They are compared to a harlot, thieves, stubborn children, pagans, etc. At one point, God threatened to wipe them out completely until Moses interceded on their behalf. My main point is that both testaments show God’s animosity toward sin even as He acts out love, grace and mercy. The focus should not be on whether or not we are offended by God. Instead, the right question is, “Have we offended God?”
It is clear that the Jews sinned against God throughout their journey in the Scriptures just as the Gentiles did. The focus of both Judaism and Christianity should be God and His glory not the feelings of any particular group of religious people. That is where some sort of humanism has crept into both religions – Christianity and Judaism. At the same time, misguided people have taken the Scriptures out of context to justify horrible acts against Jews.
I really like the view that the Gospels capture a snapshot of a religious as it is passing through a development phase. We must always judge Scripture based on its place in God’s redemptive history of mankind. Many things in the Bible may seem odd or objectionable to modern-day readers. We have to understand it in terms of where the people were at the time and then attempt to translate that reality into today’s world.
I guess I view the “harsh words” in the Gospels as more anti-humanism and works-based righteousness than I do as anti-Semitic. Jesus spoke against the human condition rooted in sin. The Jews were just one example of that. They had been called to be a light to the nations and were not fulfilling their mission.
Christ’s harsh tone was a provocation. Jesus was calling the chosen people to understand that God’s redemptive work was coming to a climax. The rhetoric may have been escalated somewhat given what was on the line and what was going down at the time.
I don’t think that Jesus was a racist at all. He merely pointed out the fallen human condition and the problems caused by religious piety. He loved the Jews enough to tell them the truth that their righteous acts were not enough to land them a ticket to heaven. If you look at Jesus’ rebuke from that point of view, He was doing those He challenged a big favor.