The Bible (both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament) is primarily about Jews. You may think “duh,” but to some, this is a genuine revelation, especially when it comes to the New Testament. All the major players in the Bible are Jews (except a few foreign kings). Jesus was a Jew too. So it comes as no surprise that Christians spend a lot of time talking about Jews and their religion, Judaism. But what does surprise many Christians is when I tell them that it matters how we talk about Jews. Why does it matter? Here’s five good reasons:
1. Jews and Judaism are Still Around
There are no more Hittites, Canaanites, or Babylonians. There is no one worshiping Baal and Ashera, Marduk or Tiamat. Unlike those other groups mentioned in the Bible, Jews as a people still exist and Judaism is still a vibrant religion in the world today. So the first reason why it matters how Christians talk about Jews is because they aren’t hypothetical constructs of people who used to exist centuries ago. When we talk about Jews, we are talking about our neighbors, our friends, your child’s school teacher, the police officer that might respond to your call…in other words: we are talking about real people who deserve respect and human dignity. Our favorite Jewish rabbi, Jesus of Nazereth once said, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (Luke 6:31)
2. Modern Judaism is not Ancient Judaism
Christians know that Christianity’s parent is first century Judaism. It was the religion of Jesus and Paul. It was the religion that formed and shaped early Christianity. As it turns out, Modern Judaism has the same relationship with ancient Judaism that Christianity does. Both religions share ancient Judaism as a common ancestor. That means that assumptions that you make about first century Judaism that you read about in the New Testament are not valid observations about modern Jews and Judaism. If a non-Christian read the New Testament and then said to a Christian, “Oh, so you all meet in homes and share all your property?”, you would scoff (or at the very least, correct them). It’s the same way with modern Judaism. Modern Judaism is more shaped medieval rabbinic theology than it is first century theology. So if you, a well-meaning Christian, read something about Judaism in the New Testament and want to offer a criticism of the synagogue down the street – just don’t, because it won’t be anything close to accurate.
3. How We Talk About Jews “Back Then” Shapes How We Think About Jews Now
A very common Christian misconception about Judaism is that it is a religion about working your way to Heaven. Many Christians think that Jews believe something akin to: “if I can follow the law well enough, I’ll be good with God.” That is the farthest thing from Judaism, both ancient and modern. The concept of grace in the Bible originates with the Hebrew scriptures and the story of God’s people, Israel. From the very first time that God chooses Abraham and his descendants, to the covenant at Sinai, to the exile to Babylon and return, God deals with his people out of mercy and grace. And yes, Christians would claim that God’s grace culminates in the person Jesus, but Jesus didn’t invent it either. So why then does so much of the New Testament talk about Jews who were legalistic? Because Paul is battling Jewish heresy. That’s right – legalism is heretical in Judaism too.
So what does this have to do with the way Christians talk about Jews? All too often Christian talk about Jews like this: “those Jews back then thought that they could work their way to Heaven, but then Jesus came and brought grace and set us free from all of that!” Not only is that factually and theologically wrong, but talking about Jews and Judaism like that forms an opinion about Judaism in the minds of the speakers and hearers. I cannot count the number of times I’ve heard well-meaning Christians describe the Jews who meet in the Synagogue down the street as “legalistic” and “trying to work their way to heaven by following the law.” This means that Christians incorrectly and unfairly demean Judaism and turn its adherents into followers of a broken religion.
4. Talking Bad About Jews Has Led to 1900 years of Christian Anti-Semitism
Like it or not, there is a long Christian tradition of anti-Semitism stretching all the way back to the 2nd century CE. The early 2nd century apocryphal work The Epistle of Barnabas declared that the Jewish people “proved themselves unworthy” of the spiritual blessings, covenants, and inheritance which had been been given to Christians. In Barnabas, the very reason that Christians are in a covenant with God is because the Jews had their chance and lost it. In Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, Justin Martyr (100-165 CE) applauded the Jewish persecution under the Romans where Jerusalem was sacked, the temple was destroyed, and Jews were scattered all over the empire. This suffering, Justin declared, was well-deserved divine justice for killing Jesus. Many of the most famous early church fathers, such as Origen, Hippolytus, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, and John Chrysostom, continued this trend not only by attacking Judaism but also Jews as people. The Jew that is described in their works was not a human but a monster. This bad theology paved the way for the next thousand years of expulsions, forced baptisms, strict dress codes, ghettos, and even massacres of entire communities. During the Crusades, thousands of Jews were slaughtered amongst the Muslims, all done under the banner of the cross. During the Spanish Inquisition, Jews were forced to convert or be killed, but even after their conversion many were looked upon with suspicion by the Church, were treated as inferior, and slowly marginalized (sometime just Google “Marranos”). This continued into the Reformation with spiritual giants like Martin Luther writing tracts such as On the Jews and Their Lies where he encouraged Protestants to burn down synagogues and Jewish homes and to confiscate their religious texts. He wrote to Jews that, “You are not worthy of looking at the outside of the Bible, much less of reading it. You should read only the bible that is found under the sow’s tail, and eat and drink the letters that drop from there.”
Disgusted yet? We’re not done. All of this laid the groundwork for a radical political party in central Europe to begin a campaign of anti-Jewish propaganda that in just 15 years led to the mass murder of 6 million Jews. You know it as the holocaust. Of course, the Church didn’t concoct or carry out the genocide, a madman did that. However, historians agree that such a feat would not have been possible if not for a tradition of 1800 years of Christian anti-Semitism. It’s also true that Christians largely didn’t speak out during the horror. Some did speak out, like the great German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who lost his life because of his protest. Most, however, remained silent.
The one ray of hope is that over the past 50 years Christians have gone to great lengths to begin to repair the broken bridges. The Pope even recently apologized for our long history of abusing our Jewish neighbors. These bridges are being built slowly, but every time a Christian speaks ill of our Jewish neighbors, they take Christianity collectively back one step into a very dark past.
5. Good Christian Theology Says Jesus Lets Gentiles Join God’s People
The above four reasons come from history and understanding modern Judaism. This last reason, however, comes right out of Christian theology. A common Christian misconception from a misreading of the Bible is that Christians have replaced the Jews as God’s people (this is known as “supersessionism”). Not only is it wrong, but the apostle Paul would be raving mad if he found out people actually believed that! In Paul’s Letter to the Romans he clearly maps out his theology about how the Christians fit into God’s people – and it definitely wasn’t replacement.
When God called Abraham, he chose a people, and made a permanent covenant with his descendants. God specifically extended his grace to that group of people so that they could be his light to the world. In the Hebrew Bible, one pictured used to describe God’s people is an olive tree. Olive trees can be fruitful for centuries before it becomes necessary to chop them down to the stump. From the stump, new shoots will grow and the tree perpetuates itself. This is the image used to describe the House of David in Isa 11:1 – God has cut it down, but new shoots will grow and God’s promise will be renewed. This is also the metaphor that Paul uses in Romans 11:17-24 to describe how Gentiles were added to God’s people. According to Paul, Gentiles are grafted-in to God’s people through the Messiah. In other words: Gentiles join God’s people, not replace them. Paul also warns his Gentile readers harshly:
“But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in their place to share the rich root of the olive tree, do not boast over the branches. If you do boast, remember that it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you. You will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand only through faith. So do not become proud, but stand in awe. For if God did not spare the natural branches, perhaps he will not spare you.” — Romans 11:17-21 (emphasis mine)
At the time that Paul was writing, he saw Gentiles as being grafted-in to God’s people, not replacing them. God made a permanent covenant with Abraham and his descendants and the last time I checked, God keeps his promises. So are Jews “saved”? I don’t know; that’s God’s business. God is the one who breaks off and grafts-in. Here’s what I do know: when you talk about Jews today, you are talking about those descendants of Abraham. Why not take Paul’s advice? Do not be proud, but stand in awe. Above all else, that means humility.
If you are a Christian, the next time you talk about Jews, hopefully you’ll keep some of this in mind.
P.S. If you want to comment and discuss, that’s fine. But please note that I have no intention of getting into a theological debate about whether or not Jews are saved, etc, because that’s not the point of this post. This post is just about why Christians should take more care to speak better of Jews.
1. Yes, I realize that for much of the Bible, the term “Jew” is an anachronism. But a portion of the group of people known as the “Hebrews” would eventually become known as Jews after the name of their kingdom “Yehud.” But for the sake of clarity in the this article, I’m just calling it “Jews.” Thanks for understanding.
2. For more on Christian anti-Semitism and a history of Jewish-Christian relations, see these works (note this is just scratching the surface):
- Edward Kessler, An Introduction to Jewish-Christian Relations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010)
- Clark Williamson, Has God Rejected His People? (Nashville: Abingdon, 1982)
- Michael Frassetto, Christian Attitudes Toward the Jews in the Middle Ages: A Casebook (New York: Routledge, 2007)
- Elizabeth T. Groppe, “Revisiting Vatican II’s Theology of the People of God After Forty-Five Years of Catholic-Jewish Dialogue,” Theological Studies Vol. 72 No. 3 (2011)