Anti-Jewish Tendencies in the Synoptic Gospels

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The scourge of anti-Semitism has not departed from the Church. Though recently there have been encouraging signs, many Christians still harbor prejudice against Jews. The Synoptic Gospels may have helped spawn this prejudice. They may even play a continuing role in perpetuating it.

Was Jesus anti-Semitic? Did he actually reject particular aspects of his own Jewishness? Some verses in the Gospels do appear anti-Jewish. However, did these anti-Jewish tendencies begin with Jesus and his followers or did they originate elsewhere? A thorough examination of the Gospels reveals that not all of the accounts are identical in their presentation of Jesus and his contemporaries. Each of the writers has left his own individual style on his composition. In this study we will carefully consider the differing accounts in hope of determining whether anti-Jewish or anti-Judaistic sentiments belonged to Jesus and his first followers. For the purposes of the study I have ordered the Gospels according to their increasing anti-Jewish sentiment.

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Conclusion

In this brief study I have tried to demonstrate that at its earliest stage the church was marked by a relative freedom from anti-Jewish sentiment. However, the natural evolution of early Christianity from its Jewish context brought tensions that have penetrated even into the early strata of the synoptic tradition. Mark amplified the conflict between Jesus and his contemporaries. Mark’s primary motives were to present Jesus as an abandoned Messiah. For the most part, he possessed no anti-Jewish penchant.

The gospel of Matthew, on the other hand, possesses a number of anti-Jewish statements that may be the work of a later Gentile scribe. These revisions paint the entire Jewish nation as culpable for the death of Jesus. In the scribe’s thinking, Israel had been rejected in lieu of the Gentile church. These ideas reflect little of Jesus’ own thinking or experience. Ironically, Jesus himself knew of some in his own day who saw the people of Israel as rejected and viewed themselves as the sole custodians of the holy Scriptures and the holy place. To these first-century supplanters—the Samaritans—Jesus’ response was simple but categorical: “Salvation is of the Jews” (John 4:22).

Standing at the entrance to a pre-World War II German village, this sign warned travelers that Jews were not wanted. Jesus remained outside, too.
Standing at the entrance to a pre-World War II German village, this sign warned travelers that Jews were not wanted. Jesus remained outside, too.

For readers’ reactions to this article and responses from the author, R. Steven Notley, and the editor, David Bivin, see these Readers’ Perspective posts: “Disgusting Illustrations Distract from Worthy Content!“; “If a Jew mistreats a Jew, does that make him anti-Semitic?“; “What is the Jerusalem School’s hermeneutical criterion?“; and “Mark’s Account of the Cleansing of the Temple: Literary Device or Historical Fact?

This article originally appeared in issue 51 of the Jerusalem Perspective magazine. Click on the image above to view a PDF of the original magazine article.

  • R. Steven Notley

    R. Steven Notley

    R. Steven Notley is Distinguished Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at the New York City campus of Nyack College. A member and past director of the Jerusalem School of Synoptic Research, Notley earned his Ph.D. in Comparative Religions at the Hebrew University (1993).…
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