While we speak about the tenuous relationship between Christians and Jews dating back to the time of Christ, the seeds for the schism within Judaism may have been planted more than 500 years prior. Jeremiah was one of a group of distinguished prophets whose works became part of the Old Testament canon. The Jewish “wisdom” prophets lectured, warned and blamed all who would listen about the sins of their own people, the resulting punishments that God had prescribed for them, and what they had to do to get back into God’s good graces.
Some prophets targeted Jewish monarchs as an idolatrous distraction which prevented the people from properly hearing the Word of God. Other prophets still maintained that Jews should continue to believe that God would not abandon his chosen people. Regardless of the specific message, it was clear that the overall prophetic approach to God’s covenant with the Jewish people was changing. “A good century after the return from Exile… the doctrine of retribution, of God’s righteousness, which rewards and punishes… d been shattered,” said Catholic theologian Hans Kung in his book Judaism: Between Yesterday and Tomorrow (Kung 113).
In the passage quoted from Jeremiah above, the prophet is predicting that a new covenant would be formed between God and his people, an agreement that would supersede the pact made between Moses and God upon Sinai and at the Red Sea. The first covenant, Jeremiah indicated, would become null and void because of the sins of the Jewish people. The new covenant would absolve these sins and reaffirm God’s fidelity to his people.
This famous prophecy provides the foundation and the core of the central theological teaching of the New Testament,” said The Collegeville Bible Commentary on the Old Testament. “It underlies, but without explicit references, much of the ‘new life’ theology of St. John and is central to the teaching of Jesus in John’s Last Supper discourse. ” (Collegeville 469). While Jeremiah is interpreted from many perspectives, some early Christian apologists proof-texted his words as an indication that the Jews had been cast aside by God because they had not remained faithful to Him and his Mosaic covenant.
Jesus of Nazareth was the fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophesies, so some claimed, and the Jews would remain shunned and doomed to wander through the desert until they repented by accepting the personification of God’s saving grace. “The Old Israel along with its Old Testament… had been succeeded, fulfilled, completed, replaced, and/or displaced by the New Israel, the New Testament, the Christian Church, the new people of God,” said Rabbi A. James Rudin about the Christian attitude during the formative years of the Church (Fisher, Rudin, Tannebaum 9).
Sensitivity relating to the perceived expiration of the first Mosaic covenant has brought forth a minor controversy in recent decades about the political correctness of referring to the Old Testament as being “old. ” Some Catholic Scripture professors express a preference for “Hebrew Scriptures,” while others apologetically retain the old reference to prevent confusion. (Pazcuzzi 2/97). The issue of Judaism having been superceded by Christianity will be addressed at various points in this paper.
In addition to the writings of Jeremiah, other Old Testament works written in the centuries prior to the birth Christ pointed to the coming of a messiah to save the Jewish people from their continuing history of enslavement, persecution, and dislocation. Some Jews waited for a David-like king to rescue them. Others felt that Jesus Christ–who had suffered for the sins of his people, the one who had endured and conquered death–was the true messiah.
Whether the messiah had come or the messiah was still yet to come was the key issue between the Jews who remained Jews during the first and succeeding centuries versus those who founded the sect which worshipped Christ and became known as “Christians. ” While the theological implications of resurrection also became a significant issue between the two branches of Judaism, historical documents suggest that Jews and Christian Jews were still worshipping together around the middle of the first century, and were discussing and acknowledging their differences.
Reverend Robert S. Smith suggests that, at that stage, the differences between Jews and Christian were seemingly more like “a family fight,” not necessarily showing signs of the formation of a new religion (Smith 10/18/97). Toward the end of the first century, however, relations between the two sects began to seriously deteriorate. As Christian zealots, apologists, Church Fathers, and first and second century scribes made their case for Christianity amidst Greek and Roman persecution, they directed vehement attacks at the Jews, from whom Christian Jews had more or less officially broken off from following the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 80 AD.
At that time, Jewish leaders who remained faithful to Mosaic Law, began excommunicating Christian Jews, ending decades of relatively peaceful coexistence and shared worship. What seemed to exacerbate the rift between the Jews of the first century and Christians to a point of no return was the accusation of “diecide,” that by conspiring with the Romans to crucify Jesus, the Jews who did not embrace the prophesied Messiah had actually killed God on earth.
“To murder God: the very phrase is chilling! aid Rabbi Rudin in his analysis of Jewish-Christian relations “The charge was hurled at an entire people, and not solely at the Jewish people who were alive at the time of Jesus” (Fisher, Rudin, Tannebaum 10). To seemingly gain favor with the Roman hierarchy, early Christian writings emphasized Jewish involvement in the death of Christ and minimized the Roman role. This is especially evident in the Gospel of John.
“The Gospel of John contains some of the most hostile anti-Jewish statements in the Christian scriptures,” said R. Alan Culpepper, Scripture Professor at the Southern Baptist Seminary in his essay “The Gospel of John as a Threat to Jewish-Christian Relations. ” “So sharp is the contrast in that gospel between Jesus’ exhortations to his followers to love one another and the hostile references to the Jews that Kaufmann Kohler commented that John is ‘a gospel of Christian love and Jew hatred. ‘” (Charlesworth page 21).
Anti-Jewish sentiment could not only be found in the Gospels but also in the writings of St. Paul, himself a converted Jew, and someone who once lovingly analogized the relations between Judaism and gentile Christianity as a grafted olive branch. “In proclaiming his Christian message Paul stressed that the Jewish nation had been rejected by God, and the new Covenant had superseded the old,” said David Cohn-Sherbok, in his book The Crucified Jew. “In these ways the New Testament laid the foundations for later Christian hostility to the Jewish nation… and served as the basis for the early Church’s vilification of the Jews” (Cohn-Sherbok xv).
In his book Jesus Through the Centuries, Jaroslav Pelikan also raises the issue of Catholic theological focus fueling the flames of Christian hatred of the Jews. “Would there have been such anti-Semitism, would there have been so many pogroms, would there have been an Auschwitz, if every Christian church and every Christian home had focused its devotion on icons of Mary not only as Mother of God but as the Jewish maiden? ” asked Pelikan. “And Jesus as Rabbi Jeshua bar-Joseph in the context of the history of a suffering Israel and a suffering humanity? ” (qtd. in Charlesworth page 51).
According to Cohn-Sherbok, a theology professor at the University of Kent in Canterbury, England, anti-Jewish hostility which, he claimed, had evolved from the Adversos Judeos of the Church Fathers, continued into medieval times. On their way to the Crusades to free the Holy Land from Moslem control, Christian crusaders routinely massacred Jewish communities as part of their religious zeal. The persecution of Jews has been so pervading and so rampant down through the centuries that one might be tempted to overlook some attempts at humane treatment. Bernard of Clairvaux served as the spiritual leader of the Second Christian Crusade in 1144.
He was greatly distressed by the slaughter of five thousand European Jews during the First Crusade in 1096 and he spoke out to prevent a repeat performance. Pope Calixtus II in 1120 issued the Papal Bull Sicut Judaeis. That document forbade the mistreatment of Jews, and that same document was invoked by others Popes in later reigns. Despite the efforts of Bernard and Calixtus, hundreds more Jews were slaughtered during the Second Crusade (NCR 12/12/97 24) Stories circulated among Christians at various points in history about Jewish rituals that required the blood of Christian children.
On into the Middle Ages, Jews were not just reviled for their non-Christian religious beliefs but were condemned as being satanic, blasphemers, and as a “sub-species of the human race. ” (Cohn-Sherbok page xvi. ) Major Jewish exterminations followed a medieval fable, which blamed the Jews for the poisoning drinking water and causing plagues. Post-medieval literature depicted Jewish caricatures and stereotypes such as Shakespeare’s image of Shylock in the “Merchant of Venice. ”
Martin Luther spoke as harshly about Jews as he did about the Catholic Church when he initiated the Protestant Reformation. 92 was not just the year that the Spanish monarchy bankrolled Columbus’ expedition to the New World. In that same year, the Catholic Spanish rulers brought anti-Jewish contempt to a logical conclusion with its Inquisition, the expulsion of Jews from their nation and the torture of those who claimed to have been converted. From the Middle Ages on down through modern times, Jews were persecuted throughout Europe, as social and economic steps were taken to counter what were seen as demonic traits coupled with purported genetic predisposition to greed, gluttony, and manipulation of the monetary system.
In many European nations, Jews were forced to live in isolated ghettos, were prevented from owning land, were limited in their vocations, and were forced to wear identifiable clothing. “The centuries of Judaism after the Crusades are full of enforced religious dialogues, compulsory baptisms, burnings of the Talmud… of condemnations, expulsions, resettlements, plunderings, torture, and murder,” said Hans Kung in regard to what some view as the punishment for the Jewish complicity in Christ’s death.
Any attempts to rationalize the evil that has been done to Jews down through the centuries reeks of triumphalism,” said Father Robert S. Smith in response to a suggestion by another professor at the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception that throughout history, anti-Semitism must be taken within context of the times. “It should be clear to all Christians that, in terms of relations with the Jews, the Holy Spirit has failed us” (Smith 10/18/97). In fairness, over the first 1900 years after the Jewish schism, not all of Catholic and Christian attitudes toward Jews were uniformly oppressive.
For limited periods of time, there were tolerable conditions in some countries for people of the Jewish faith. There were also some Catholic leaders who found ways to show tolerance and understanding toward the Jews. It also must be noted that there was, conversely, contempt in word, writings, and deeds displayed by rabbinical Judaism toward Christians during these centuries as well. Recent efforts by Jewish historians such as David Biale of Berkeley emphasize the success, achievements, and power bases that Jews did have at various points during this time period (Kung page 159.
Although it predominates its history, the Jewish heritage is not simply one of continual suffering, persecution, and subservience. Nonetheless, the majority of available historical evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that theologically-fueled anti-Semitism prevailed during the nineteen centuries following Christ’s death, and many of these attitudes and persecutions provided logical segues which led up to 20th century European anti-Semitic atrocities.