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.

Woodcut from 1492. Jews desecrating the host at Sternberg.

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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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.

Martin Luther
(c. 1483–1546)
“Let me give you my honest advice. First, their synagogues or churches should be set on fire, and whatever does not burn up should be covered or spread over with dirt so that no one may ever be able to see a cinder or stone of it. And this ought to be done for the honor of God and Christianity in order that God may see that we are Christians, and that we have not wittingly tolerated or approved of such public lying, cursing and blaspheming of His Son and His Christians….“Second, their homes should likewise be broken down and destroyed, for they perpetrate the same things there that they do in their synagogues. For this reason they ought to be put under one roof or in a stable, like gypsies, in order that they may realize that they are not masters in our land, as they boast, but miserable captives, as they complain of us incessantly before God with bitter wailing.“Third, they should be deprived of their prayerbooks and Talmuds in which such idolatry, lies, cursing and blasphemy are taught.“Fourth, their rabbis must be forbidden, under threat of death, to teach….“Fifth, passport and traveling privileges should be absolutely forbidden to the Jews. They have no business in the rural districts since they are not nobles, officials, merchants, or the like. Let them stay at home.“Sixth, they ought to be stopped from usury. All their cash and valuables of silver and gold ought to be taken from them and put aside for safekeeping. For this reason, as already stated, everything they possess they stole and robbed from us through their usury, for they have no other means of support. This money should be used in the case—and in no other—where a Jew has sincerely become a Christian, so that temporarily he may get one or two or three hundred florins, as he may require. This is so that he may start a business to support his poor wife and children, and the old and feeble. Such wickedly acquired money is accursed, unless, with God’s blessing, it is put to some good and necessary use….

Seventh, let the young and strong Jews and Jewesses be given the flail, the ax, the hoe, the spade, the distaff, and spindle, and let them earn their bread by the sweat of their brow, as Adam’s children are commanded. For it is not proper that they should want us accursed Gentiles to work by the sweat of our brow and that they, pious crew, idle away their days at the fireside in laziness, feasting and display. And in addition to this, they boast impiously that they have become masters of the Christians at our expense. We ought to drive the unprincipled lazybones out of our system. If, however, we are afraid that they might harm us personally, or our wives, children, servants, cattle, etc., when they serve us or work for us—since it is surely to be presumed that such noble lords of the world and poisonous bitter worms are not accustomed to any work and would very unwillingly humble themselves to such a degree among the accursed Gentiles—then let us apply the same cleverness [i.e., expulsion] as the other nations, such as France, Spain, Bohemia, etc., and settle with them for that which they have exhorted through usury from us, and after having divided it up fairly, let us drive them out of the country for all time. For, as has been said, God’s rage is so great against them that they only become worse and worse through mild mercy, and not much better through severe mercy. Therefore, away with them….To sum up, dear princes and nobles who have Jews in your domain, if this advice of mine does not suit you, then find better advice so that you and we may all be free of this insufferable devilish burden—the Jews.”

– Martin Luther
from his 1543 tract titled Concerning the Jews and Their Lies

R. Steven Notley

R. Steven Notley

R. Steven Notley is professor of Biblical Studies 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). He studied in Jerusalem…
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