Anti-Semitism In Christianity Today
Jews and Christians had a very rocky relationship in the first one hundred years after the life and death of Jesus
Many Christians involved in support of Israel fail to recognize the amazing moment in history that we are privileged to be a part of today. Only those who know a little about the sad history of Jewish-Christian relations can appreciate the miraculous turnaround that has occurred, and understand the importance of recognizing and eradicating all forms of modern anti-Semitism seeking to divide us again.
Persecution and animosity toward the Jews began early in their history, long before Christianity. Pharaoh, Haman, and Antiochus Epiphanes are only a few examples of evil men who tried to destroy God’s chosen people. But, while the Jews have had many enemies throughout history, we who are Christians should be concerned about the part some of our forbearers played in this disturbing drama. That persecution of the Jews arose from within our ranks is a tragedy and a shame with which our community must deal.
Jews and Christians had a very rocky relationship in the first one hundred years after the life and death of Jesus. At first it was an internal squabble between Jews who believed in His Messiahship and Jews who did not. But beliefs in the Roman Empire had political ramifications. The Jewish religion was legal, as was Christianity when it was seen as a sect of Judaism. But, Christianity brought troubles on the Jewish community due to its allegiance to a King other than Caesar so it was shunned and sometimes persecuted.
During the Roman siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD, the Jews who believed in Jesus had already fled the city and escaped it all, because Jesus had warned them to do so, as recorded in Matthew 24. When they later returned to Jerusalem, they were resented and accused of being traitors.
Then in 132 AD, when the mainstream Jewish community looked for someone to lead a rebellion against the Romans, many joined with Simon Bar Kokba thinking he was the Messiah. But the Jews who believed in Jesus refused to join this rebellion, saying they already were following the Messiah. As a result, some were slaughtered as traitors during the fighting. This schism tore the two communities apart and marks the moment when the official split occurred between the Church and the Synagogue.
At the same time, the Church was becoming predominantly Gentile and made up of pagans who had converted to Christianity with no knowledge of, nor appreciation for, the Jewish roots of the faith, nor of the Jewish people themselves. A number of Gentile Church fathers began to distinguish Christianity by preaching against Judaism and warning their followers away from it.
This is how the teaching of Supersessionism, or Replacement Theology, took root. Replacement Theology taught that the Jews had been cursed by God for their rejection of Jesus’ Messianic credentials and had been therefore replaced by the Church in the plans and purposes of God. This theology lead to a teaching of contempt for the Jews as “Christ Killers” and gave sanction to their maltreatment.
Once Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire, the Church became a tool of the monarch and lost its spiritual integrity. Anti-Jewish theology then paved the way for anti-Jewish legislation by the ruling powers. This included discrimination, persecution, forced conversions, ghettos and expulsions.
Centuries of this type of religiously motivated and state empowered anti-Semitism prepared the way for the Nazi Holocaust. To paraphrase Raul Hillberg in The Destruction of the European Jews, the early church declared: “You have no right to live amongst us as Jews.” The secular rulers who followed that era expelled Jews from their lands or confined them to ghettos as though to say: “You have no right to live amongst us.” Then Hitler later decreed “You have no right to live.”
This is the deadly progression of anti-Semitism down through the ages. The fact that the Christian church had a central role to play in this tragedy is a shame and something we all must come to terms with as Christians.
Today we are privileged to be part of a tectonic shift among Christians away from that anti-Semitic past. The roots of this great turnaround lie in something that happened some five hundred years ago: the translation of the Bible into the common languages and its widespread availability thanks to the printing press. For most of Church history, ordinary Christians did not have access to the Bible to even know what it taught. Only those who knew Hebrew, Greek or Latin were able to read it. As a result there were teachings about the Jewish people that simply were not grounded in Scripture and produced centuries of anti-Semitism in the heart of Christian Europe. Replacement Theology and the teaching of contempt for the Jewish people were the fertile ground for anti-Semitism which led to their persecution, expulsion, and murder.
However, as soon as Christians were able to read the scriptures for themselves, many discovered the error of their ways. They realized that Jesus was Jewish and that Christianity had been born out of Judaism. They also read the many promises of God to one day regather the Jewish people back to their ancient homeland. Preachers began to teach about that return, and they prayed for and supported it as an act of justice for a people who had suffered persecution for centuries.
Some of the greatest and most respected Evangelicals in history were what we would call Christian Zionists today: John and Charles Wesley, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Bishop Ryle of Liverpool, Professor Jacob Janeway of the Scottish National Church, and many others. The only difference between them and today’s Christian Zionists is that they looked forward in hope to a future event, while today’s Christian Zionists have witnessed the return of the Jews to their homeland and actively support a current reality.
While Replacement Theology does still exist, and is usually the dividing line in the Christian world regarding those who support Israel and those who do not, the Church as a whole has come a very long way in its relations with the Jewish people.
In addition to the wide availability of the Scriptures, the Christian world also has been profoundly affected by two events over the last century which have brought about a major change in their relations with the Jewish people. The first was the Holocaust, which shook the historic churches predominant in Europe. The Catholic and Lutheran churches in particular re-evaluated their theology and liturgy. In fact, some of the most beautiful words of Christian repentance towards the Jewish people ever written are by the Catholic Bishops of Europe.
But, a second event that has had an even greater impact on the Evangelical world was the birth of the State of Israel. Over the last forty years, millions of Christians have visited Israel to “walk where Jesus walked” and for the first time met a Jewish person. It is no coincidence that over the past four decades as Christian tourism to Israel has mushroomed so has Jewish-Christian relations.
But, more importantly, Evangelicals are reading the Bible with a new worldview. The Jewish people have been gathered from the north, south, east, and west, returning to their homeland in fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham. Christians are no longer looking down on the Jewish people and heaping condemnation on them. Instead, they are loving, comforting, and blessing them.
Churches are honoring and exploring the Jewish roots of Christianity to learn more about our own faith. The fact that God is faithful and is fulfilling His promises to the Jewish people is an encouragement to Christians that we serve a faithful God who is true to His Word. Now, as a result, the fastest growing segment of Christianity, which is Bible-based and Evangelical, is largely pro-Israel.
The ICEJ Making History
With this history in mind one can understand why the birth of the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem (ICEJ) in 1980 was such an historic, ground-breaking moment. It was the first time in history that Christians had voiced support for Israel on such an international scale and from the heart of the newborn State of Israel. It is also understandable that some segments of the Jewish community were, and still are, skeptical.
We cannot change two thousand years of history overnight. But, the ICEJ has had the privilege of confronting this history and establishing a new relationship with the Jewish people for thirty-six years now. Proof of this new relationship can be found in the ICEJ’s partnership with Yad Vashem. The Christian Friends of Yad Vashem is taking Holocaust awareness to Christian churches around the world, teaching them about anti-Semitism in our day and how to stand against it.
The majority of Christians today would never condone the religious anti-Semitism which fueled centuries of discrimination, persecution, ghettos, and exiles in the heart of Christian Europe, nor the racial anti-Semitism embraced by Hitler which led to the horrific genocide campaign known as the Holocaust. There is no turning back.
However, there is a reason why historian Robert Wistrich calls anti-Semitism “the longest hatred.” This evil pursuit of the Jewish people has continued for millennia, and every time it seems to be dying out it reinvents itself with a different look and a different name. The goal, however, is always the same: to rid the world of the Jewish people.
The new form of anti-Semitism challenging our world today is political anti-Semitism. Since a Jewish nation-state is antithetical to the ruling philosophies of our day, globalism and secularism, this modern form of political anti-Semitism is finding large-scale acceptance today. It is directed not at individual Jews but against the Jewish state and is called anti-Zionism.
There is still religious anti-Semitism, but this time it is found throughout the Muslim world and is responsible for the genocidal rhetoric emanating from jihadist groups and the clerical regime in Iran. Muslim anti-Semitism, however, is not condemned but tolerated by anti-Zionist Western leaders who blame its spread on Israeli policies.
Not all criticism of Israel can be considered anti-Semitic. However, criticism of Israel becomes anti-Semitic when it delegitimizes the state and questions its right to exist; when it uses anti-Jewish rhetoric and stereotypes; when it judges Israel by a different standard than for any other nation; and when it becomes an excuse to attack local Jewish individuals and institutions.
This new anti-Semitism, while rife in the Middle East and Europe, is trying to infiltrate America, including the Christian churches. The challenge is for the various denominations which have denounced classical anti-Semitism, and sought a right relationship with the Jewish people, to recognize that the anti-Zionist campaign demonizing Israel is also anti-Semitic. One cannot demonize a nation without that being a demonization of the people, and the Israeli people are a subset of the Jewish world. This is why a Jew can be attacked on the streets of Paris because Israel took defensive actions in Gaza.
Some of the mainline denominations in America deny this is anti-Semitic and have passed anti-Israel resolutions in line with this delegitimization campaign. Within the Evangelical ranks, we even have a new movement to be: “Pro-Israel, Pro-Palestine, Pro-Peace and Pro-Justice.” This movement seeks to “correct” the pro-Israel movement within Evangelical Christianity by entertaining an anti-Israel narrative under the banner of “love and peace” for all!
Exactly what does it mean for an Evangelical to be pro-Palestine? The Palestinian Authority is a corrupt government which discriminates against Christians, jails and tortures Muslim converts to Christianity, honors terrorists, does not allow freedom of speech, and fosters incitement in the public square based on lies about Israel. Is this really what the pro-Palestine Evangelicals are supporting?
In 2011, two ethics professors from leading Christian universities issued a scathing “Open Letter to America’s Christian Zionists” in which they accused Christian Zionists of being sinful for supporting Israel and encouraging Israel’s sinful policies. They went so far as to say that should “some nation” become “inflamed with resentment” at Israel and “make their land desolate,” noting that sounded like a “nuclear attack,” that Christian Zionists would bear part of the responsibility.
The ICEJ issued a strong response, but because of the growing influence of these voices, we went on to build an educational website to defend both Israel, and Christian support of Israel. The purpose of the IsraelAnswers.com website is to equip Christians to better articulate a defense of Israel, as well as of Christian Zionism.
But more than respond, we need to close the door to anti-Semitism altogether. There are two open doors in the Christian Church in America to this deadly influence.
Replacement Theology is gaining traction in Christian circles today under various names and guises, one of which is Fulfillment Theology. Jesus said He did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it. However, Fulfillment Theology maintains that Jesus did abolish the law, and with it God’s covenantal relationship with Israel. It also teaches that all of the Old Testament promises to Israel are fulfilled in Jesus and the birth of the Church, and thus they are no longer valid with regards to modern Israel. Although this view may lack the same degree of animus towards the Jews, Fulfillment theology still winds up in the same place as Replacement theology – namely that God is finished with Israel.
It is important to clarify here that just because someone holds a form of Replacement or Fulfillment Theology does not mean that they are anti-Semitic. Some theologians simply interpret the New Testament in this way. Many pastors hold Replacement views as a theological assumption based on the lack of teaching on Israel and the Jewish people in seminary. Therefore, they begin ministry with the assumption that Israel and the Jewish people are irrelevant; it is all about the Church today.
While this thinking may be a vestige of Replacement Theology, it is not the anti-Semitic version of the past which went on to call for the persecution and demonization of the Jews. Nevertheless, it is the same theological foundation from which historical Christian anti-Semitism sprouted. Many scholars agree that the Holocaust could never have happened had it not been for the centuries of Christian anti-Semitism rooted in this theology. Therefore, we need to be very concerned about its growth and learn to refute it.
Replacement Theology assumes four things:
1. That God does not know what He is doing because Plan A failed. The people in Plan A (Israel) failed him, and He had to come up with a new plan with a new people. Yet, Ephesians 1:4-6 says that God’s plan, laid before the foundations of the world, was always that we would be adopted into the family of the redeemed through Jesus. Redemption through His death was always plan A.
2. That God is unfaithful: He does not keep His Covenants, nor His promises. Yet, Psalm 89:34 says: “My Covenant I will not break nor alter the word that has gone out of My mouth.” Jeremiah 33:37 says that only if God breaks His covenant with night and day, and with the moon and the sun, would He be able to break His covenant with the Jewish people.
3. That the Abrahamic Covenant has been abolished or spiritualized either in part or in whole. Yet, the New Testament confirms the Abrahamic covenant and its promises (which always included the Land), and assumes a future time of restoration in the Land as promised by the prophets. In Acts 1:6-7 Jesus did not deny his disciple’s hope in a future restoration of the kingdom to Israel and instead addressed the timing of that event as something only the Father knew. He had earlier declared that Jerusalem would one day be under Jewish sovereignty again in Luke 21:24.
4. That if people fail God He rejects them forever. Yet, the Apostle Paul in Romans 11 affirms that God’s call over the Jewish people as a nation is irrevocable. Psalm 89:33-34 is clear that even though God should punish the people of Israel for their sins that His lovingkindness would never be taken from them, nor His faithfulness, and He would never break His covenant with them.
Growing Biblical Illiteracy in America
Another door leaving the Church vulnerable to anti-Semitic teachings is the loss of biblical literacy in America. Some of the mainline denominations denied the authority of the Bible long ago. They use it more as a devotional resource with wisdom for everyday life and not as absolute truth. These denominations are in rapid decline because they practice a religion that is not faithful to its founding truths.
One of the core tenants of Evangelicalism is its belief in “scripture alone” as the infallible source of doctrinal truth. While evangelical Christianity, and its inherent support for Israel, is mushrooming in Asia, Africa and Latin America, it has plateaued in the United States (and Europe) and is losing its momentum. This is evident in the growing biblical illiteracy in society, not to mention prominent Evangelical voices challenging core biblical tenets – including the definition of marriage, the nature of human sexuality, and the sanctity of life.
Across America, pastors and ministers are confronted by a widening chasm of biblical illiteracy that in turn is contributing to the societal and moral breakdown which is engulfing the families in their churches. They struggle to know how to instill a conviction of the Bible’s truth and power to a biblically illiterate generation.
However, what we have found is that understanding God’s dealings with the Jewish people throughout the ages puts the whole Bible into perspective, and underscores its relevance and immediacy to all of us today. It is, in many ways, the ‘answer key’ that helps the rest of Scripture make sense in its proper context.
Israel, in our view, is the greatest single antidote to biblical illiteracy. Once a Christian understands the biblical significance of Israel and the Jewish people, they ‘get’ the entire Bible. Thus, the ministry of the ICEJ exists not just to bless Israel, but to help the worldwide Body of Christ come to a greater understanding of this unique land and people, and through them, the very Scriptures themselves.
The Effect of Anti-Semitism on the Church
You and I are part of an historic shift in Christianity. The largest segment of the Christian world, the Catholic Church, has embraced the Jewish people. The Evangelical world, which is the second largest segment of Christianity and is projected to one day be the largest based on current growth rates, has not only embraced the Jewish people but the State of Israel as well. I am hopeful that the bulk of Christianity will never go back to its anti-Semitic past.
However, we must learn to recognize and stand against the anti-Semitism of our day. The current political form called anti-Zionism seeks to rid the world of the influence of the Jewish people by challenging their right to be a nation. At its worst, this new brand of anti-Semitism condones the mass annihilation of Jews in their restored homeland.
Anti-Semitism’s goal in the modern Christian world is to rob Christians of the very root that sustains our faith and to separate us from a people who demonstrate the truth of the Bible and the faithfulness of God to always keep His word. As the Apostle Paul said, it is the Jewish faith that is the very root which supports us. To be separated from that root means spiritual death.
Therefore, the battle against this evil ideology is our battle. It behooves us to do everything we can to help churches recognize it for what it is and to stand against it.