History of Christian Antisemitism

Based on Jewish Roots: A Foundation of Biblical Theology for Messianic Judaism by Mr Daniel Juster (Rockville, Maryland: Davar Publishing Co., 1986, p. 141-148).   Daniel Juster is a graduate of Wheaton College and McCormick Theological Seminary. He has pastored messianic congregations, taught in various colleges, written many books and served as the President of the Union of Messianic Congregations (1979-86). Currently he is the Executive Director of Tikkun International.

“So, I ask, have they stumbled so as to fall? By no means! But through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles so as to make Israel jealous. Now if their trespass means riches for the world, and if their failure means riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean. Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry in order to make my fellow Jews jealous and save some of them”

Romans 11:11-14


Here we read the wonderful directive of God through Paul-that Jewish people see the riches of the Gospel in the lives of non-Jews and be moved to jealously because of the reality of a life and love so manifest. By this jealousy, they would turn to the Messiah and receive Him.

Sadly, the history of the Church hardly fulfilled this mission.

Soon after the Jewish apostles died, leadership of the Church was transferred to people who had no great respect for Jews or Judaism. Rather than seeing Jewish people as erring brethren to whom they were indebted for the gifts of Scripture, the Messiah and Old Testament saints, the Jewish people were looked upon as reprobates hated by God. Sentiment expressed against some Jewish leaders by Jewish followers of Yeshua was used by later non-Jewish leaders as an indictment of all Jewish people.

The Epistle of Barnabas, from the end of the first century, reflects this negative attitude and applies it to Jewish practices as well. As H. L. Ellison put it, “Already the so-called Epistle of Barnabas, which may go back to the last decade of the first century, uses such language about Jews, Judaism and the Law, as to make any effective contact between the two sides virtually impossible. As soon as it had the power, the Church did its utmost to defeat God’s purpose. It persecuted and bullied, thereby automatically putting itself in the wrong. It spread the vilest calumnies about the Jews.”(1) Ellison, H. L., The Mystery of Israel, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1966, 82ff.

Many writers did not display an accurate understanding of the very things they criticised, including the nature of the Old Testament revelation. Ignatius of Antioch, in the same period, was clear in indicating the uselessness of all Jewish things.

Justin Martyr, one of the famed leaders of the early second century, spoke of Jewish people and practice in condescending terms. In his dialogue with Trypho, he expressed dismay over the fact that Jewish followers of Yeshua still maintained their cultural identity and practice. He accepted the possibility of their salvation, but could not understand Jewish practice as a way of expressing their faith. Justin believed that fulfilment by Yeshua eliminated Jewish things.

As the decades passed, the Christian polemic against Jews and Jewish practice continued. Bishop Ambrose, in the 4th century, even went so far as to suggest that burning a synagogue was no sin. Why? Because the Jews rejected Yeshua; therefore, what could be considered a crime against others would not be a crime against Jews. This interpretation overlooked the fact that it was the Jews who first followed Yeshua and who originally spread the Good News throughout the Roman Empire; it overlooked the great number of Jews who did follow Yeshua; and it overlooked Judaism as the original context of Christian faith.

John ChrysostomJohn Chrysostom, however, is the author of the greatest virulence. Chrysostom was threatened because Christians in Antioch visited synagogues to gain a better understanding of the Jewish roots of their faith. Chrysostom held that the coming of Christianity eliminated the value of Jewish practice and identity. To destroy any Christian interest in Judaism, Chrysostom wrote eight sermons against the Jews. The poisonous hate of these sermons has not been surpassed. Nor was Chrysostom just an isolated individual. He was a renowned church leader. His viewpoint, therefore, became part of the attitude of institutional Christianity.

Augustine himself, the great theological giant revered by both Catholics and Protestants, added his own fuel to the fire. He explained the purpose of the continued existence of the Jewish community in strictly negative terms. The reprobate state of the Jews, who were under God’s judgment, would provide a witness to the truth of Christianity, he said, as well as an example of what happens to people who turn against God.

St Augustine Hebews Quote

Perhaps we could point to many parallels of religious and social prejudice. The venom released in intense religious dispute is great. Institutional Christianity became the state religion when Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in the fourth century. Religious bigotry thus became part of state policy; severe economic and social sanctions were progressively applied to the Jews. The church-state collaboration in discrimination was maintained for fifteen centuries.

When we come to our own age we find that Nazi leaders defended their actions by claiming to follow the history of church tradition. Luther’s sermons against the Jews were widely recounted. The historical image of the insidious Jew” prepared the way for Auschwitz. The Church found it difficult to recognise its own complicity; for although it had demeaned the value of Jewish people, it did not draw the implication that they had no right to exist. The Nazis drew this implication.

Catholic priests giving Nazi salute
Catholic priests and dignitaries from Rome giving the Nazi salute. Pope Pius XII wrote a Papal agreement (a Concordat) with Hitler and condoned his actions.

It is often asked, why did so many of the people of “Christian Europe” stand by during the Holocaust? Human weakness, ignorance, fear of taking risks for others, self-protection and a crowd mentality are often mentioned. Some point to the very work of the Devil himself in blinding the minds of people. However, to all of these reasons, we must add another key reason: The historic tradition of the Church in its teaching on Jews and Judaism served to undercut concern for the Jewish people.

In all fairness, we must mention that there were individual Christians who stood with Jewish people against this tradition. In their close walk with Yeshua, they gained a deep love for Jewish people, in many cases sacrificing their lives for their Jewish friends.

We should note that some have traced the origins of antisemitism to early Jewish persecutions of Christians. Although there was fierce persecution of Jewish followers of Yeshua, this was an intra-Jewish battle. The most competent scholars who deal with this early period now consider Jewish persecution of non-Jewish Christians an unwarranted assumption.

The greatest irony can be seen in the fact that Yeshua’s disciples opened the door to anti-Jewishness by adopting a liberal policy toward Gentiles and their admission into the universal body of believers. They were permitted entrance without the cultural restrictions of Jewish identity. This freedom was a great spur to the spread of the Gospel among the Gentiles. However, although the original identity and way of life among Yeshua’s followers were Jewish, when the later non-Jewish majority was in control, they restricted freedom and would not allow for Jewish identity within the body of believers.

The most glaring example of this is the Inquisition in sixteenth-century Spain. Those of Jewish origin who claimed to follow Yeshua, but yet celebrated Passover, were burned at the stake. We must also mention the Crusades to free the Holy Land from Arab-Islamic control in the twelfth century. The cross was used as a symbol on the implements of war. The Crusaders were offered freedom from hell and purgatory by participating in a Crusade. The cry went out that it was inconsistent to seek to rid the Holy Land of infidels when there were infidel Jews within the midst of the lands of Europe. Hence the Crusaders held their crosses high as they pillaged and destroyed Jewish lives and property throughout Europe on their way to the Holy Land. Many were burned alive and tortured. In his book, The Anguish of the Jews, Fr. Flannery made the perceptive statement that the cross-which was an intended symbol of giving up one’s life for another, a symbol of pacifistic (in relation to violence) but active love-was thoroughly adulterated. It was now a cross sharpened into a sword to torture, kill and plunder.

Who can evaluate the extent of suffering during the numerous expulsions from many nations, from Spain in 1492 and throughout Jewish history? Who can evaluate the damage from forced conversions at the point of the sword from Charlemagne in the ninth century and throughout later centuries? Or how can we sum up the economic and social deprivation? Even the Reformation brought little relief to Jewry. The early Luther was sympathetic to the Jewish plight; but the later Luther attacked the Jews when they did not convert to Lutheranism. He called for making them into a caste of menial labourers for the rest of the nation.

The widespread nineteenth-century pogroms in Russia were devastating to Jewish life once more. Every government made Jews the scapegoat during difficult times.

The saddest chapter of all might be the Jewish turncoats. These supposed converts to Christianity led the pogroms and Torah burnings. Their purpose was self-serving. Joseph Pfefferkorn in 16th-century Hungary was responsible for many Jewish deaths. When some Jews think of Hebrew-Christians, it’s his image that comes to mind. How tragic! Yet could there be many who honestly converted to Christianity when the Church required the convert to renounce all things Jewish, to change one’s Jewish name to a “Christian name,” and to give up contact with Jewish people? Each “convert” had to sign a document swearing an oath to all of these requirements!

eculum adhortationis iudaice ad Christu (Mirror of Exhortation of Jews to Christianity) - Johannes Pfefferkorn. Cologne, 1507.
Speculum adhortationis iudaice ad Christu (Mirror of Exhortation of Jews to Christianity) – Johannes Pfefferkorn. Cologne, 1507. This image is from the title page of one of his pamphlets which depicts the devil leading a man away from a baptismal font and toward a circumcision ceremony conducted by blind Jews.

The major ground for this antisemitism was often said to be the New Testament. A closer examination of the New Testament shows that its passages are not at all anti-Jewish but can be classified instead as follows:

  1. Statements, which are negative to the established leadership at Jerusalem consisting of Sadducees (a party which did not accept the resurrection of the dead or the prophets) and Pharisees. These were criticised severely either for a narrow legalism that was oftentimes self-serving and contradicted the spiritual intent of Scripture or,
  2. Comprised Scriptural statements which were critical of “the Jews” in the Gospel of John, but which were actually referring to the Judean leadership establishment from the perspective of Galileans. For example, Americans are known as Yankees in other countries; but in the South “Yankee” is used as a sectional term to refer to the North. In the same way, Galilean Jews referred to the Judean Jewish establishment as “the Jews.” The word in Greek for the Judeans is the same as the word translated “Jews.”
  3. Statements concerning the judgment that would fall on the nation due to the blindness of the leadership at the time. Nations as a whole suffer under the blindness of their leaders. Thus, though nations are judged corporately, there is no right to judge all the individuals in the nation.

These statements were made by Jews but were never intended to condemn all Jewish people. Most of the statements referred to only a particular group within the nation and are not meant as universal statements. These are statements of criticism between family members and are totally invalid when repeated by non-Jews as applying to all Jews. Anti-Semites never quote John 4:24 “ Salvation is of the Jews”-and admit that Jesus, the Saviour of the world, was, is and forever will be a Jew descended from Jacob! Nor do they quote Romans 11:28-29 – they are beloved for the Father’s sake the gifts and call of God are irrevocable.” Neither do they quote the Gospel statements which testify that “the common people heard Him gladly,” that many wept at Yeshua’s death and beat their breasts, and that the priestly establishment feared all of Jerusalem following Him (Luke 20:19; 22; 23:7; 24:20). Nor is it mentioned that myriads of Jews followed Yeshua (Acts 21) or that it was the Jewish blood of the Apostles and many other witnesses, which was spilled by non-Jews.

The Jewish apostles spread the Good News of Yeshua throughout the world. The debt of the Church is to Israel as Paul states, and the proper Scriptural response is gratitude and love. For as Paul says, “it is not you who supports the root, but the root supports you” (Romans 11:18). The whole of the Biblical testimony refutes the principles of antisemitism.

Let us note that the reason the leadership of Jerusalem handed Yeshua over to the Romans was that His popular following caused Him to be a threat to this leadership. Let us also note that it was a Gentile Roman instrument of capital punishment, the cross, which was his place of execution.

Theologically, it was God’s plan that Yeshua would die on the cross for the sins of the whole word (1 Peter 2:24). It was our collective and universal sin which placed Him on the cross. He died not for our punishment, but that through Him we might be freed from condemnation.

Too few were those who gave their lives in love for Israel. How few were those like the ten Boom family who fearlessly gave themselves with courage. This remarkable family lost a brother, father and sister in the Holocaust. Brother Wilem ten Boom was a writer against antisemitism and argued against the assimilation of Jews into Western Christian forms. He adopted Messianic Jewish conclusions back in the 1930’s. Corrie Ten Boom has well recounted the marvelous story of God’s grace in their service to Israel, stretching back to grandparents who supported Zionism(2)Corrie ten Boom, In My Father’s House.

In the light of all this history, there is cause for much sadness. The bridge between the Church and the Synagogue, the Messianic Jews, to all intents and purposes, ceased to exist. The Church and the Synagogue were light years apart in understanding each other. Yeshua was seen as a false god of the Gentiles by Jews, and as a Gentile Saviour by establishment Christianity. Gone was the great vision of Acts 15 of two great wings of one universal people of God: a Jewish wing and a non-Jewish wing, each part of one body, but each, in freedom, following their distinctive callings. Neither side would seek to dissolve the other, but there could be Hebraic congregations in Jewish areas, non-Hebraic in non-Jewish areas and mixed congregations where this was most feasible-all under the Lordship of Yeshua. Jews would be believers in Yeshua, but still loyal citizens of Israel. How Messianic Jews could have given the lie to antisemitism. How they could have reflected the Jewishness of Yeshua as a witness to the Jewish community and the Church! What a gain there would have been toward a deeper Biblical understanding of Israel and the Church in the purposes of God, thereby thwarting anti-Jewish theologies.


1 Ellison, H. L., The Mystery of Israel, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1966, 82ff.
2 Corrie ten Boom, In My Father’s House

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