Introduction- Anti-Semitism in the inception of the Christian Church
Paul and his responsibility
The four Gospelists- Mark, Matthew, Luke and John- The progressive anti-Semitism of each succeeding Gospel
True break between Christianity and Judaism- 19th “blessing” added, 85-96 CE- synagogue prayer against heretics
Rabbis founded Academy when the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed- 70 CE- concentrated on Torah study and atonement by kindness rather than sacrifice and atonement
“People of the Book”- Judaism became a portable religion
Rabbis came to believe the worst threat to Judaism was from Gentile, not Jewish, Christianity-
Split between Judaism and Christianity- the two became separate religions
Extended discussion of the four Gospelists and their anti-Semitism, or anti-Judaism, appropriation of the Hebrew scripture as a prediction of Jesus and his works
Gentile Christians did not observe Judaic rules for converts- Paul’s converts had to accept baptism and make a profession of faith- Jewish rules discarded- acceptance of Torah, circumcision, immersion in ritual bath, bringing a sacrifice to the Temple (until 70 CE)
“Letter to the Hebrews” New Testament composition- 64 CE. Anti-Semitism and the belief Christianity had superseded Judaism- Christianity a new covenant
“Letter of Barnabas” not in the New Testament but contemporaneous with its later portions- 85-150 CE. Against both the Temple (now destroyed) and the House of Study (rabbis) - Highly anti-Semitic- Letter attacked Judaism’s traditions and rituals- in competition with Judaism for members
Discussion of the idea of supersession- Notion of the Christian Church that it had co-opted the position of its members being the elect of god from Judaism- attitude prevalent from 2nd Century to the 19th Century
Widening of gap between Christianity and Judaism- Christian belief Christ was divine, the issue of salvation, the approach to the Bible-
Short discussion concerning Church fathers and theologians- their views on supersession and their hostility to the Jewish religion and people- Justin, Tertullian, etc. Pronounced anti-Judaism-
The hegemony of the Christian religion and the fate of the Jews in a Christian world-
Constantine, the Roman Emperor, from 312 CE, began to elevate Christianity as the de facto religion of the Empire
Jews began to lose rights and status under the Christian state- myth of Jews as Christ-killers entrenched in Christian minds-
An extended discussion of laws passed against the Jews, becoming more severe with almost each succeeding Emperor, from Constantine to Justinian
Canon (Church) Law now equal to state law under Justinian- 6th Century
A comparison between canon laws passed against Jews in the Medieval Era and later measures passed by the Nazi party in the 1930’s- remarkable similarity
Race theories such as began in earnest in the 19th and 20th Centuries did not come into play until the Spanish Inquisition which began in 1478 CE-
Spain occupied with the notion of “pure blood”- considered Jewish blood impure
Augustine stated, and the Christian Church adopted, as policy- that Jews should be preserved, but in misery, as a witness to their sins with the second coming of Christ-
High Middle Ages- 11th, 12th and 13th Centuries- Christian anti-Semitism reached its height- Christian culture was at its high point as well-
Jews massacred and expelled from their countries- an extended discussion of the anti-Semitism of the time- the Crusades and the slaughter of Jews in some cities of the Rhineland, as well as Jerusalem-
Most professions closed to Jews, only banking and money-lending were open to them-
Jews possessed capital and loaned it out- A discussion of difference between Jewish and Christian beliefs about interest-
Jewish bankers and lenders began to be the legal serfs of royalty- Princes pushed them to charge high fees and interest- Jewish lenders subject to high taxes and property confiscation at death-
Jews gained the reputation for greed and expertise- hated by Christian populace-
Jews suffered several massacres, some to get rid of debts by debtors
Christian Church’s role in allowing Christian debtors, especially crusaders, to default on loans made by Jews-
The “blood libel,” about Jews killing Christian children for blood to mix with unleavened Passover bread- an extended discussion- no ritual murders existed in reality, according to scholars
Jews accused of defiling the Christian consecrated host-
Jews accused of poisoning wells during the Black Death in Europe – 1348 CE- Many Jewish people murdered-
4th Lateran Council- 1215 CE- severe measures passed against Jews- Jews had to wear “badge of shame”- a yellow circle- in some communities-
Jews accused of many crimes- tortured, killed, sometimes whole groups were massacred
The Talmud put on trial – burned and banned- around 1242 CE- restored by Pope in 1247 CE-
After persecution from the Black Death rumors many Jews moved to Eastern Europe, from about 1349 CE and remained there-
Council of Trent- middle of 16th Century- Catholic Counter-Reformation in response to Protestantism- ruled all humanity, not just Jews, responsible for Jesus’ death-
Protestant Reformation- 16th Century- Martin Luther began by hoping to convert Jews, ended by virulent anti-Semitic statements- wanted Jewish synagogues and homes burned, Jews to be forced to do manual work, rabbis to be forbidden to teach and even to have Jews expelled from Germany
A prominent Nazi during the Nuremberg Trials of 1945 to 1946, said if he was on trial, so should Martin Luther be tried-
Conclusion- the Christian Church was responsible for Jewish anti-Semitism and the subsequent measures passed against Jews, culminating in their being tortured, murdered and massacred- Church was anti-Semitic from its very beginning- some reasons for anti-Semitism- denial of Church anti-Semitism is a lie-
Christian Anti-Semitism Part 1
The articles and books mentioned as references may be found at the end of the lecture, “Christian anti-Semitism”, in the Bibliography at AtheistScholar.org. In addition, “An Atheist Perspective on the Inquisition”, has more information on the Spanish Inquisition and references in the Bibliography at AtheistScholar.org.
During the lecture, I will be using the term, Christian, to denote the early Church. The word, Christian, was first used around 40 CE or a little later. The other word for the Christian sect was Nazarene. I shall also be using anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism interchangeably, although the term, anti-Semitism, was first used in the 19th Century. The first use of the term, Catholic, was around 110 CE. But the Church did not call itself Catholic until around the end of the 3rd Century CE and into the 4th Century. The word, Catholic, meant “universal.”
This lecture, the first of a two part discussion of Christian anti-Semitism, will discuss the early years of Christianity vis-à-vis its relationship to Judaism. It is important to keep in mind that Christianity began as a Jewish sect rather than an independent religion. The four Gospels of the New Testament will be examined, as well as the motives for the anti-Judaic tone in those writings. Then we shall glance at the work of some early Christian theologians and at the canons of the Christian Church. We shall observe what happened to the Jews in a Christian world, when Christianity achieved hegemony in the Roman Empire in the 4th Century.
We shall learn of the theological notion of the Christian supersession of Judaism, the theological differences between the two faiths and why they finally separated into two different religions. The role of the Jewish people as bankers and lenders in Christian societies, and the treatment and view of Jews during the Crusades and the Black Death will be looked into. The various rumors and hatred that resulted in the death, torture and massacre of many Jews will be discussed in relation to Christian beliefs. We shall glance at the similarity between early church canons and the measures the Nazis passed against Jews in the 20th Century. The position this lecture takes is that anti-Semitism was embedded in Christian ideology from the earliest days of the Church and was not the perversion of it that some Catholic apologists claim.
In discussing the issue of the earliest anti-Semitism of the Christian Church, I am going to pass over the topic of the Apostle Paul’s alleged anti-Judaism. I have written about Paul in “Jesus’ Imagined History” at AtheistScholar.org and elsewhere during this series of lectures. Paul is a difficult thinker to understand when trying to decipher his putative hatred of Judaism. It is now believed that members of the early Church may have misinterpreted some of Paul’s Epistles. Modern scholarship has discovered that some of the Epistles that contained anti-Judaic references were not Paul’s, but forgeries. Some of the other, authentic Epistles were laden with interpretations that seemed to indicate Paul’s anti-Judaism. But when scholars have studied the work that is considered genuine, Paul’s views on Judaism have come to appear more nuanced and less vitriolic than originally believed.
Therefore the first part of this lecture will pass over Paul’s Epistles to concentrate on the four New Testament Gospelists, Mark, Matthew, Luke and John. Those writers were openly anti-Judaic, and the vitriol and bitterness against Judaism grew with each succeeding Gospel. However, I would like to mention before moving on from the topic of Paul’s anti-Semitism, that it was Paul who was the first to set forth the kernel of the Christian myth. Some scholars are of the opinion that since that myth culminated in inherent anti-Judaism, we must hold Paul somewhat responsible for the notions that later generations found in his work.
Before turning to the Gospels of the New Testament, I would like to review the break between Christianity and its Jewish parent. Lawrence Schiffman’s research has placed the schism between the two religions earlier than most Christian scholars had believed. His explanation and dating makes the schism, which was actually gradual, more intelligible. Christian scholars believed the break came with the introduction of a nineteenth “blessing” around 85-96 CE, which was a curse against ‘heretics.’ The Blessings, formerly eighteen of them, were the important synagogue prayers which were said three times a day. But the complete break really came about when Christianity began to be viewed as a Gentile movement rather than a Jewish heresy.
When Jerusalem fell to the Romans in 70 CE and the Temple was destroyed, a group of rabbis founded an academy at Yavne, a coastal area, with the permission of the Roman government. The rabbis were the new Sanhedrin, the Jewish governing body. Many scholars are of the opinion that those rabbis were responsible for the survival of Judaism for two thousand years.
They had already been more interested in Torah study than Temple sacrifice and atonement, so the transition was not impossible for them. The Yavne rabbis shifted to the concept of prayer rather than sacrifice, which could no longer be performed after the Temple’s destruction. They believed that atonement could come about through prayer and acts of loving kindness. The Torah-studying rabbis were most likely the reason why the Jewish people came to be called “The People of the Book.” They created a type of portable fatherland, whose religion did not depend on sacred places. They still dreamt of a complete return to Israel, but for centuries a return was considered merely a dream as only a few Jews continued to live there. For the majority, daily life and worship were carried out in exile.
Nevertheless, the rabbis and the Jewish people viewed the Temple’s destruction as a disaster. The rabbis believed the Jewish religion was under a threat to its survival and decided that it was necessary to close ranks. At the very first, they had regarded Paul’s Christian sect and his Jewish converts as the worst peril. They viewed the Gentiles who converted to the Christian sect as merely ignorant. But since the Jewish converts knew their religion and knew their Torah, the rabbis considered them heretics. However, from around 150 CE up to Constantine’s elevation of Christianity in 313 CE, the rabbis became aware that the greatest threat to their religion was from Gentile Christianity, which had become openly anti-Judaic. From what may be discerned from the historical records, the rabbis apparently cursed those practicing the kind of Gentile Christianity that was hostile to Judaic religious laws. They called such Christians minim, or heretics.
According to William Nicholls, the rabbis “effectively separated Jewish Christians, not to mention Gentiles, from the body of the Jewish people.” In such a manner did Judaism and Christianity ultimately split off from each other and become separate religions. Elaine Pagels and other scholars have written extensively about the increasing anti-Judaism of each of the four New Testament Gospels. Studying the statements from each one reflects the growing and irreparable break of the Christian religion with the Judaic one.
It was the Gospel authors who began to create the specific anti-Jewish beliefs of historic Christianity. Many scholars consider the Gospels remarkable works of art. Whether or not they may be considered so, there is no disputing that they were artful propaganda, disseminating the Christian faith and its salvation myth. So convinced were the Gospelists and the early Christian Church hierarchy about the truth of their beliefs, that they had no compunction against appropriating the older texts they found in the Greek Bible. Randel Helms is convinced they believed so strongly that Jesus’ life and death were predicted in advance by the Jewish scriptures, they felt at liberty to use those texts as though they were historical information. They also freely altered traditional material in the Jewish texts to corroborate with the propagation of their myth. Some scholars have come to the conclusion that the Christian Gospelists and Church hierarchy took over the Jewish Bible, making it their own.
We must keep in mind, with regard to the rabbis closing ranks against the Gentile Christian sect, that the Gentile converts were not observing the rules set down for conversion to Judaism.
A male convert to the Jewish religion had to meet four requirements: (1) to accept the obligations of the Torah in full, (2) to be circumcised, (3) to be immersed in a ritual bath, the mikveh, and (4) to bring a sacrifice to the Jerusalem Temple (after 70 CE, when the Temple no longer existed, the sacrifice obligation was dropped.) Females did not have to undergo circumcision and the mikveh became of supreme importance for them to carry out. However, Paul’s branch of Christianity did not require full acceptance of the Torah, circumcision, or sacrifice. He seemed to have omitted immersion as well, because the Christian rite of baptism carried a different meaning. Paul’s converts made a profession of faith and were baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Paul believed “love was the fulfilling of the law.”
We must keep in mind that we cannot take the Gospel accounts, as I have frequently mentioned in earlier lectures, as accurate historical narrations about Jesus and the story of his time on earth. The Gospel accounts of the Pharisees’ opposition to the alleged historical Jesus actually reflected the Jewish establishment’s opposition to the early Christian Church at the time the Gospels were composed. The Gospel accounts of the wicked behavior of the rabbis of Jesus’ era were a description of the rabbis of the later era, who had begun to proscribe Christianity and to expel the Christian sect from their synagogues. The expulsion of Christian Jews created great tension between the two groups, but Judaism would have become very watered down had converts been allowed to disregard the rules of the original faith.
I would now like to turn to the four Gospels of the New Testament.
We need to keep in mind that there were over 100 Gospels available at the time when the Church Councils decided which ones would be regarded as canonical and included in the New Testament. The four we have were probably chosen because of their agreement with each other and because they were backed by money and influence at the Councils. There were several important councils from 382 CE to 397 CE that decided on the material that would be included in the New Testament. The Council at Carthage in 397 CE was especially influential on the final choice of the 27 books that make up the present New Testament. Mark’s Gospel was composed around the 70’s CE, then Matthew’s in the 80’s CE. Luke was written in the 80’s or 90’s CE and John most likely in the 90’s or early 100’s CE.
I would like to discuss the four Gospels with regard to their versions of the alleged trial of Jesus and their pronounced anti-Judaism. It is important to remember that Paul never spoke about any trial in his accounts of Jesus’ death. (Please see Jesus’ Imagined History at AtheistScholar.org and The Devil, Part One at AtheistScholar.org. for extended discussions of the four Gospels.) It is impossible to imagine that he would not have mentioned a trial had he known of one. Nor can one imagine that if there had been any Jewish persecution of Christ, Paul would have failed to report it. His account, most likely from the 40’s to the 60’s CE, is the earliest record of Jesus and the Christian sect that we have. Mark, the initial Gospel, was the first to speak about a trial and to report the alleged words of Jesus’ accusers. Matthew’s account followed Mark, while Luke and John might have been using a few other sources. Neither of them explicitly mentioned a trial.
It is pretty generally concluded by scholars in the present day that Mark either created the vivid scene of Jesus’ trial, or partly depended on earlier scribes for the account. The likelihood of earlier accounts of such a trial is very low. So it was Mark who probably began the calumny that it was Jews who put Jesus to death. He wrote that the Jews held the trial at Passover, which was never done. He claimed the Jewish Sanhedrin charged and found Jesus guilty of blasphemy because of his messianic claim. The Sanhedrin then supposedly prodded the Roman government to put Jesus to death by depicting the messianic claim as a threat to Roman power. My earlier lectures have discussed the pains the Gospel writers took to portray Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, as being forced to execute Jesus. The historical truth was that Pilate was such a brutal authority that he was recalled to Rome because of his excessive use of force during his term of office. Mark was most likely a disaffected Jew, hostile to the mainstream Jewish rabbis and their synagogues, and anxious to portray Christians as cooperating with Rome.
Matthew appeared to know Judaism much more thoroughly than Mark did. Interestingly his account blamed the Jews much more than Mark’s had. The High Priest was depicted as pushing Jesus for an open confession of guilt. The Priest’s wording when he asked Jesus about his transgression was specifically whether Jesus claimed to be the “Messiah,” the son of god. Matthew did all he could to make the guilt of the Jews as egregious as possible, even writing that the Jewish court provided false witnesses.
Matthew also depicted the Jewish leaders as representing the wishes of all the Jewish populace when they pushed to have Jesus put to death.
It was Matthew who painted the picture of bloodthirsty Jews not only demanding Jesus’ death but voluntarily taking on the guilt for it, crying out: “His blood be on our heads and that of our children.” Matthew depicted a noble and innocent Jesus who adhered to traditional Judaism, and who was unjustly attacked by bloodthirsty and wicked Jews. William Nicholls states this Gospel can be considered the charter document of anti-Semitism. Matthew created a myth that reflected the serious split between the early Christians and the Jewish religion, and charged that the Jewish religion was the blameworthy party.
Luke continued the tradition of blaming the Jewish people for Jesus’ death. Luke reported an abbreviated version of Jesus’ trial. There were no charges, no witnesses, no confession and no verdict. Luke implied that it was the Jews who killed Jesus. He depicted them as being very nearly a lynch mob. Luke described Pilate claiming that Jesus was innocent three times. (Such a triadic structure has traditionally been a literary, not a historical pattern.) Pilate was depicted as a defender of Jesus, declaring him innocent, and he appeared to be desperately trying to dissuade the Jewish people from their blood lust against Jesus. One commentator states that according to Luke, the Jews were the authors of all evil. But Luke did imply that the Jewish people and their leaders were acting out of ignorance, in some sort of agreement with god’s plan, and that repentance for the Jews was possible. Later Church anti-Semitism would go much further to vilify the Jews, but Luke provided the Church with some of its core material.
John, probably written about the turn of the 1st Century, was the most anti-Judaic of all the Gospels. Elaine Pagels, along with a many experts, believes he may have been a Jewish convert.
Most scholars are in agreement that John’s group had been excommunicated from its synagogue, thus exacerbating the bitterness and anger between Christians and Jews during the later time of the conflicts. As with the first three Gospels, John’s account had everything to do with the time he composed it, rather than the earlier time of Jesus’ alleged historical ministry and death on the earth. In one sense, John returned to a cosmic conflict like Paul’s, with Jesus being attacked and killed by the powers of evil. John opened his Gospel by describing the beginnings of the earth. He identified Jesus as divine light and his opponents, the Jews, with Satan. He mentioned Jews seventy-nine times. It is clear that John felt no identification with the Jewish people and viewed them with hostility and venom.
John believed that the motives for killing Jesus were satanic, claiming that the Jews were children of the devil. Some scholars speculate that John’s group might have been involved in an esoteric Judaism that the rabbis firmly rejected. He echoed the other Gospelists in laying the foundations for Christian anti-Judaism. The prologue to the John Gospel implied that there was a new doctrine that had passed to the Gentile Church and left behind the unbelieving and rejecting Jews.
There is no question but that the Gospels, the writings of the very early Christian Church, set the dialogue for Christian attitudes and beliefs about Jews. That such pseudo-history was regarded as historical narrative, as most early religious documents claim, has contributed greatly toward crystallizing the stereotype of the Jews as relentless but hypocritical opponents of Jesus, and in the final analysis, as Christ-killers. The majority of New Testament readers have always been non-critical believers, naïve people who believe the Bible is inerrant, written by men inspired by god. Such people could not help but come away from the Gospels with a highly critical opinion of the Jewish people.
Racist views about Jews came at later historical periods, but the stage had been set by the material in the New Testament. The Gospelists rejected the people of Israel’s validity as the covenant people. As Christian teaching developed, the New Testament context provided a firm background for the belief that the Jewish people’s election by god had been cancelled on account of their not merely rejecting the Messiah, but also killing him. Traditional Christianity accepts the binding authority of New Testament scriptures. Therefore it has no theological defense against the charges that it has been anti-Semitic. The later doctrine of supersession is embedded within the New Testament Gospel theology. Church theology became insistent that Christianity had taken over as the Church favored by god because the divinity had rejected the Jewish people who had cast out and then killed his son. Christians saw little hope for Jews unless they converted to Christianity. The Gospels are a foreshadowing of the later hatred and persecution of the Jewish people by the Christian Church.
Contemporary Christians attempt to claim that Christianity originally believed in a doctrine of love that was corrupted by later influences. Such claims are not true. Let me quote William Nicholls as to what had taken place by the completion of the compilation of the New Testament. “Christian anti-Judaism is not a later distortion of an originally pure religion. It is embedded in the foundational documents of the faith.”
We shall be glancing at the doctrine of supersession shortly because it is very important to understand the path of the development of anti-Semitism within the Christian Church. Supersession was a significant element in the long history of anti-Judaism and persecution of the Jews when Christianity achieved hegemony.
One may find among the early writings of the New Testament, at least one book which demonstrates a commonality with later Christianity as opposed to its companion pieces. The title of the book, “To the Hebrews,” was added later. Although it was believed to be authored by Paul, the conclusion of contemporary scholars is that it is quite obviously not in accord with either Paul’s theology or his style. However, the elegant literary composition has suggested to some that it was written by someone in the Pauline circle. “To the Hebrews” was probably composed around 63 or 64 CE. This date is probably correct, but if modern scholarship is on target, “Hebrews” is quite different from the thinking of Paul, and presumably, Paul’s followers.
Despite Paul’s conviction that Jesus’ alleged resurrection had ushered in a new era, a cosmic upheaval, he remained a Jew. But the author of “Hebrews” was so firmly sure that Jesus was superior to Moses and that the new covenant was superior to the old one, that many Biblical scholars are convinced that he could no longer be considered a Jew. In fact, he may never have been one. He spoke of the covenant of Sinai as abolished and replaced with something better.
Paul and other Christians had never gone so far, even though they believed in the new covenant. However, they thought its difference from the old would be because god would put the Torah into the hearts of the people, so that they would be better able to follow its precepts.
According to biblical experts, there are no prophesies in the Old Testament scriptures that suggest any renewal of the covenant that will abolish the old one.
The author of “Hebrews” went even further. The old covenant, he claimed, was already defective and not capable of fulfilling its function. Compared with the new dispensation, the old was inferior and obsolete. It is noted by experts that such theology may not have been hostile to the Jewish people, but is most decidedly anti-Jewish in that it degraded and invalidated Judaism in relation to Christianity, the religion of the so-called “new covenant.”
An advance in the anti-Semitic position of Christianity may be found in a volume outside the New Testament, but which was likely contemporaneous with its later portions. The “Letter of Barnabas” was seriously anti-Jewish, outstripping the prejudice of the New Testament authors. However, the text of “Barnabas” made it clear that the writer, just like Matthew and John, knew a great deal about Judaism and used an argument based on Jewish terms to invalidate Judaism. According to Nicholls: “It is clear that his arguments are not original. He is heir to a tradition that has already been using scriptural proof-texts to establish the superiority of Christianity over Judaism. The texts are often quoted in translations found only in Christian authors. Such ideas go well back into the 1st Century, even if they lack contemporary documentation.”
The origin and date of “Barnabas” is a matter of continuing debate among scholars. There is a date range of about 85 to 150 CE.
There is an interesting article by Schuster and Richard placing Barnabas’ origin in Syria-Palestine around 98 CE, during the reign of the Roman Emperor, Nerva. Nerva had relaxed some of the anti-Jewish attitudes of the Empire and a wavering project had been instituted to rebuild the Jerusalem Temple that had been destroyed in 70 CE. The writer of “Barnabas” would have been threatened by such a project, as there was already a prevailing Christian belief that god had destroyed the Temple to punish the Jews for killing Jesus. Furthermore, any attempt to rehabilitate the Jews would have increased the rivalry between Jews and Christians as to which religion was the authentic possessor of the covenant.
There was not a true consensus in the Christian community on this issue. Some Christians argued that both groups possessed the covenant, but the author of “Barnabas” completely rejected such a position. It was an untenable idea for the “Barnabas” author, who was adamant that the Jewish people as covenant people had been completely superseded by the members of the Christian church. In fact, he claimed that when Moses had broken the Ten Commandment tablets, the Jews had been rejected.
The writer of “Barnabas” had a double animus: he was against two Jewish institutions, both the Temple and the rabbinic House of Study. He did not want to see the Temple rebuilt, most likely because he feared it would attract members away from the Christian sect. He claimed that the Temple practice of animal sacrifice had necessarily been abolished by the true sacrifice of Jesus. He stated that the Christian preaching of the good news of Christ’s resurrection and the rite of Baptism had done away with sacrifice as a remission of sins.
His animus against the rabbinic School of Study was his ongoing disagreement with scriptural interpretations, which the rabbis knew backward and forward. “Barnabas” attempted to claim that Christian knowledge and interpretation of scripture was far superior to that of the scholarly Jewish rabbis.
The problem for Christians vis-à-vis scriptural interpretation was that the rabbis were not only experts in interpreting the scriptures but had come out of the same tradition and community as the sacred books. To achieve scriptural accord with their novel interpretations, the Christian thinkers were forced to make many claims up. Writers like Barnabas and the Church pillars claimed that their knowledge, gnosis, originated with divine inspiration through the Spirit, the Holy Spirit.
Here are some of Barnabas’ claims against Jews, which would become fixtures in later Christian literature. Christians had righteousness and Jews were given to acts of evil. God did not want sacrifice but spiritual service, so the Jewish Temple sacrifices had been invalidated.
Barnabas went on to claim that Jewish dietary laws had been misunderstood; Christians understood that what was important was the overcoming of the flesh. Concerning circumcision, Christians were superior because they were circumcised in their hearts. It is possible to see the strong competition between Judaism and Christianity during the early years of the Church through “Barnabas” and other writings. There is speculation among scholars that the quality of rabbinic interpretation of scripture and the openness of some of the rabbis had pulled back Jewish converts from the Christians.
Barnabas was determined to keep the members who were already Christians and to stop prospective members from returning to traditional Judaism. In the centuries to come, such rhetorical anti-Judaism would be repeated many times, with tragic consequences.
Now I would like to turn to what has come to be known as the theology of supersession- the claim of the Christian, or Catholic Church, that it had co-opted the position of the elect people of god. The Christians claimed that they had replaced the Jews as the deity’s chosen people because of god’s anger when the Jews killed Jesus, his son. This notion had begun to crystallize by the 2nd Century and was a standard feature of Christian theology until the late 20th Century. Scholars state that the supersession doctrine was the second phase in the widening development of anti-Semitism in the Christian Church, a completion of the myth that the Church was successfully propagating.
We need to keep in mind that in the early years, the Christian movement was merely a sect in Judaism. However, its apologists were asserting that Jesus was the Messiah. They claimed his resurrection had proved his Messiahship and that the earlier scriptures had predicted this fact. Paul had added the salvation myth that was dependent on Jesus’ sacrifice and the early Church began to develop the fabrication more fully.
The 2nd Century saw an augmentation of the issue with the Christian claim that Jesus was the divine son of god. Nicholls states that the quarrel became: “… a conflict that was between two claimants to be god’s people.”
There were other points of contention, as well, that widened the chasm between Christianity and Judaism.
Christianity was ultimately forced to define itself in relation to Judaism, from which it had emerged. The problems between the two faiths increased as Christianity developed its specific theology. The issue of salvation was particular to the Christians, who had the notion that nobody could be saved except by believing in the death and resurrection of Christ. The Jewish religion believed in the Noahide covenant, which stated that those who observed it, even without being Jews, had an excellent chance of being saved in the world to come.
The very serious parting between the two faiths was also due to their different approaches to the Bible. For the Jewish people, it was, and remains, and I quote: “…commitment to the commandments of the Torah as the divinely required human response to god’s deliverance.” Members of the Jewish faith feel committed to this day to a high ethical standard, but they also understand their religion to have laws binding on the entire community. The Torah, they believe, is not just about religion, but about state and business matters.
The Christian Church abandoned the older Jewish covenant, with its legislation of corporate and personal behavior. There was even some question whether the Christian Church should retain the Jewish scriptures. Nevertheless, for a long time, the Septuagint translation was the only Bible of the Church. Eventually though, some so-called “apostolic” writings were chosen to make up the New Testament. The Church was in somewhat of a quandary.
Even though it denied the relevance of the older Jewish scriptures, it had already claimed that it was in those same scriptures that Jesus’ Messiahship and divinity had been foretold. The Christians used and read scripture as foreshadowing Jesus and the Christian Church. Those parts which could not be provided with a prophetic or symbolic meaning were ignored and considered obsolete.
It is very clear that the entire Old Testament was transformed, and while it was retained by the Christian Church, its meaning was now considered typological or prophetic. When Christians set it up beside the canonical New Testament, it became a new and different book. The Christians maintained that Jesus was the Messiah and that the Torah was therefore not binding on Gentile Christians.
The conflicts between Christians and Jews increased and became irreconcilable. By the 2nd Century, many important Church Fathers wrote profusely on theology and church issues. Concerning the Jewish religion, their views ranged from claims of the supersession of Judaism to outright hostility to Judaism. Justin Martyr (died 165 CE) had no doubt about supersession but believed that Christians should pray for the Jews’ repentance. He wrote that the Jews’ hope would lie in conversion to Christianity. The 2nd Century Melito of Sardis accused the Jews of deicide. Marcion, a 2nd Century Gnostic believer, had the notion that the Jewish faith worshipped a different god than the Christian one. He jettisoned the Jewish Bible, unlike other Christians.
Tertullian, an important 2nd Century theologian, wrote with a well-defined and intense anti-Judaism.
A Catholic writer, David Efroymson, has written a penetrating doctoral thesis on Tertullian, who was convinced of Jewish inferiority. He accused the Jews of iniquity on twenty- three counts, from killing Jesus to hypocrisy. Here is Efroymson on other Church Fathers who were against Judaism: “Eusebius ( 4th Century) will use it as a launching pad for his history of the Church, contrasting the triumph of the Church with the calamities that befell the Jews in “punishment” for their treatment of Jesus. Athanasius (3rd Century) will use it to show that the Arians are “no better” than the Jews.”
“For Augustine, one of the “real” errors of the Pelagian vision will consist in the “Jewishness” of Pelagianism and the Pelagianism of the Jews. The Synod of Elvira (305 to 306 CE) will legislate against the Jews as non-Christians. And Ambrose (4th Century) will prohibit the rebuilding of a burned synagogue because the Jews have no rights; they will have become not only non-Christians, but almost non-persons. The road from here to Auschwitz is long, and may not be direct, but one can get there from here.”
Now I would like to turn to the fate of Jews in a Christian world.
Christianity had begun as a small sect, but by about 312 CE and on into the 4th Century, it became the de facto religion of the Roman Empire. How did the hegemony of the Christian myth affect the legal situation of the Jews, who from 212 CE had obtained Roman citizenship, full rights under the law and some privileges? As the Christian myth became installed within the state’s legal system, Jews began to lose rights and status, although they retained nominal Roman citizenship for hundreds of years more.
But the myth of Jews being Christ-killers had become entrenched in Christian minds and Christians began to believe that Jewish people should not have the same rights and status as Christians.
When the Emperor Constantine granted Christians freedom from persecution and other legal liabilities with the Edict of Milan, 313 CE, he also extended such rights to all religions. As a practical matter, pagans were not interfered with, but Jews did not receive the same consideration. Constantine passed laws against Jewish proselytism and made Sunday the official day of rest. Jews, celebrating their Sabbath on Saturday, lost two days of business. They now had to participate in a public office called the decurionate. Those officials had to collect the taxes and make up any deficit out of the own pockets. The office was a hardship for both Roman pagans, Christians and Jews. Formerly Jews had been exempt.
Constantine’s sons were more severe. The laws against Jews owning Christian and pagan slaves became egregious. There were draconian intermarriage laws instituted that prohibited unions between Jews and Christians. After those statutes, there were other ones passed which made the legal situation for Jews somewhat worse and a few laws that eased their difficulties, so the status of Jews remained the same until the reign of Theodosius I, in 379 CE. (Please see “The Christian Damning of Sex” at AtheistScholar.org for a discussion of both Theodosius’ and the 6th Century Justinian’s draconian laws against sex.)
Theodosius and his sons created edicts that sharply worsened the position of Jews. Not only were the laws egregious but the wording of those laws was gratuitously insulting to the Jewish people.
Furthermore, despite protections still legally offered, the actual state of affairs was very different. Synagogues were burnt down, the tradition of the Jewish patriarch ended, newly constructed synagogues were forfeited to the Catholic Church and repair of existing synagogues incurred heavy fines. The death penalty was instituted for Jews who committed the so-called crime of “corrupting the faith of a Christian.” Various laws included the aforementioned insulting language to describe Jewish people, such as calling them a “savage animalistic sect, and using words about them such as “wickedness,” “outrageous crimes” and so forth. The Jewish legal situation worsened with nearly every new Emperor. It may have been Arcadius, Theodosius’ son, who took away the Jewish right to give evidence in a Christian court.
Justinian was Emperor from 527- 565 CE of what remained of the Byzantine Empire. According to Nicholls, “The 8th and 9th Century Byzantine codes were based on Justinian’s work, and it continued to influence medieval legislation in the East up to the end of the Byzantine state at the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in the 15th Century. I mentioned Justinian’s egregious sexual laws earlier. It is important to keep in mind that not only the Christian myths but the legislation concerning and connected with them drifted to many other countries by the 10th Century, such as Russia and other Slavonic nations. Justinian’s code left out Theodosius’ affirmation of the legality of the Jewish religion. Justinian’s Novella 131 put canon law, church law, on the same level as state law. This measure substantially worsened the position of Jews as canon law was much less restrained than government law toward the Jewish people. Governors of provinces and Christian bishops now shared the power in their areas.
The civil government had, in a small way, protected Jews from the Church because of legal issues. But the new law required bishops to inform the emperor if they found the civil authorities “lacking in zeal” when implementing anti-Jewish legislation.
The history of the canon laws of the Catholic Church reflects the clear picture of the worsening situation for Jews from about 306- 1434 CE. The Synod of Elvira, 306 CE, did not allow Christian parents to give their daughter in marriage to a Jew. One of the egregious laws is interesting: Christians were forbidden to seek blessings from Jews on behalf of their crops. It was feared the Christian benediction on the crops would then be rendered invalid. Christians at that time often believed Jews possessed magical powers. The laity had the notion that such powers, for good or ill, had more efficacy than that of the Christian clergy. By the Middle Ages, Christian magic appropriated names, transmuted ones, from the Jewish Kabbalah for its use. Notions such as these endured for centuries and traces of them could be found among the Nazis in Holocaust Germany in the 1930’s and 1940’s.
Raul Hilberg wrote an important work in 1985, called The Destruction of the European Jews. In that volume, he demonstrated the remarkable comparisons between the canon laws passed by various Church Councils in the Medieval Era and the later measures enacted by the Nazi party in Germany in the 1930’s. Hilberg’s Table of Comparisons makes it very clear that the Nazi measures were not original but that they followed a known precedent. This lecture does not have the time to list the measures and their similarities completely, but a few examples will provide some insight into how the Nazis arrived at some of their ideas.
Since I have already mentioned a few of the laws earlier, I would like to concentrate on some others and point out how similar the prohibitions of the Church Councils were to the Nazi measures concerning the Jewish people.
The Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 CE decreed Jews must wear a yellow badge on their clothing. The Nazis decreed the yellow badge for Jews on September 21, 1939. In 1267, the Synod of Breslau decreed compulsory ghettoes for Jews. The same measure was put into effect by an order in Germany on September 21, 1939. The Council of Basel, in 1434 CE, did not permit Jewish people to obtain academic degrees. On April 25, 1933, a law was passed against the “Overcrowding of German Schools and Universities,” and Jews were excluded.
The only thing lacking in the above examples from Hilberg’s Table were the race theories, the egregious notion that Jews were inherently inferior and wicked because of their impure blood. By the end of the Middle Ages, the development of Christian anti-Semitism was substantially complete. But the blood notion began to be seriously bruited about in 15th and 16th Century Inquisition Spain. In the 19th Century racial theories were added to the mix and the stage was set for the 2oth Century Holocaust. It is important to keep in mind that the Nazis were not original in their initial beliefs and measures against the Jewish people. The prejudice and hatred was there before them, in the Christian myths created, and then propagated by the Christian Church. Theologian after theologian, important Church Fathers, ranted against the Jewish people, and except for the 12th Century Abelard, their hateful rhetoric grew with each century.
The early popes, who felt a responsibility to uphold the old Roman legality, were to some extent more restrained in hostility against the Jews and more respectful of Jewish legal rights than, say, many monks and friars, the inferior clergy. But this does not mean they were friends to the Jews. The popes believed the Jews were Christ-killers, and that Christianity’s new spiritual laws had superseded the old Jewish law. They were particularly invested in the thinking of the 4th Century Augustine, the premier Catholic Church theologian, who stated that the Jews’ destiny was to survive until the second coming of Christ as a witness to their crimes. Jews were to “…be preserved, but in misery.” This phrase was repeated many times over the centuries.
Pope Gregory the Great, who ruled the Church from 590-604 CE, came up with a policy called: “Sicut Judaeis non.” He ruled in a case that : Just (sicut) as license ought not (non) to be presumed for the Jews (Judaeis) to do anything in their synagogues beyond what is permitted by law, so in those points conceded to them, they ought to suffer nothing prejudicial. Subsequent popes usually followed the words of the powerful Gregory, but it is necessary to emphasize once again that none of the popes could be called friends or protectors of the Jews. The hatred and violence against the Jews exhibited by many of the Church’s venerated saints prior to sainthood, and by many monks and friars are well documented. They not only engaged in vicious rhetoric, but frequently encouraged the populace to commit deadly violence against Jews.
It was during the High Middle Ages of the 11th, 12th, and 13th Centuries that the Christian myth became the source of intense, virulent and frequently deadly hatred toward the Jewish people. Christian culture had come to its fullest expression in art, architecture, philosophy and mysticism during that era.
But at the same time, the myth of Jews being Christ-killers also grew to expanded proportions. New accusations were added as well, which appear to have been, at least in part, the result of wide-spread paranoia. Jews were tortured and massacred, and very soon, entire Jewish populations were expelled from their countries, countries in which they had resided for several centuries. The theological offenses the Jews had been charged with were surpassed by the Christian populace’s newer calumnies about them. Worse yet, many of those false charges have survived in some people’s minds up to the present day.
I have already discussed the Crusades in an earlier lecture (See “An Atheist Perspective on the Crusades” at AtheistScholar.org for an extended discussion of all the Crusades.) But I would like to glance at what happened to the Jews at the time Christian societies were fighting Islam in the Holy Land in 1096 CE. Apparently, before heading to the East, some of the crusaders acquired the notion that infidels who had sinned against god and Jesus were nearer at hand. They could, they thought, gain as much merit in saving their souls by killing the Jewish infidels in their midst.
Many crusaders attacked a number of cities in the Rhineland, giving Jews a choice of Christian baptism or death. Sometimes they did not even give them a choice, just slaughtering them at random. The clergy did try to stop the blood lust at first, but then became frightened of the angry crusaders and had to yield. The Archbishop of Mainz tried to protect the Jews in his city, and was forced to flee the wrath of the citizens. More than one thousand Jews died, some of them resorting to the ancient rite of preserving their faith by taking the lives of their wives and children, and then of themselves.
When the crusaders finally arrived in Jerusalem, they did not confine themselves to killing Muslims. The Jews of the city were shut up in a synagogue and burnt alive.
A man called Bernard was the official preacher of the First Crusade. He opposed what he considered the excess zeal of the crusaders and insisted that he had never given permission to anyone to preach or commit murder. But his reasons are remarkable and disquieting to the contemporary mind. He did not seem to consider the killing of Jews as wrong in itself. Rather he invoked the old theological chestnut that Jews (alone of all the infidels) must be preserved until the second coming of Christ, as a witness to their own crimes. Bernard, later made a saint, was unable to see the Jewish people as human beings, but rather as players in a cosmic theological drama. One author writes: “Leaving aside the unique personality of Abelard, this was the best that Medieval Jews could hope for from their Catholic neighbors.”
Originally Jews had been farmers, craftsmen, traders and investors in international commerce. Gradually these occupations were closed to them, especially after the First Crusade. Additionally, Jews could not join guilds, which were held together by Christian rites and oaths. Commerce became a Christian monopoly. However, capital was very hard to come by during that era. Precious metals were scarce because they had been used for state and ecclesiastical regalia. The Italian city-states, because of their dealings with Muslim countries, had developed a large international trade and eliminated Jewish competition. But they had tied up large amounts of European capital in the process. Many Jewish financiers had held on to the capital they had earned during their former successes in international trade.
There were no outlets for this capital except to lend it out to those who needed it.
Jews understood the Torah to mean that interest should not be charged to fellow-Jews. But they did not believe that they were forbidden to charge interest when they loaned money to Christians. Later, they extended the practice to Jews as well. The Catholic Church, along with its theologians and philosophers, believed the Old Testament forbade charging interest and tried to prohibit it. But the European economy had changed from an agricultural to a mercantile stage. Many scholars have considered this period to be the beginning of early capitalism. Since capital was needed, people who had it wanted to use it as a commodity. They could not be expected to merely give it away. So ways were found around the prohibition and eventually the Church gave up and merely tried to control interest rates.
The rates were very high by modern standards. Since many people could not keep up the repayment of both capital and interest, there was a high number of defaults. It became a common practice to demand collateral for the loan- a house, jewelry and so on. The Jewish lenders came into a large supply of second-hand goods with the loan defaults and made money selling the items. Eventually Italian and other lenders competed with the Jewish ones, and the Jewish monopoly ended. Italian and Germans were not accused of usury, but the Jews were. One may observe the further development of anti-Semitism as Jews became profitable money lenders. Due to the closing of international commerce to them, they were in the position of making primarily consumer loans, which increased the hostility of the Christian people who borrowed from them.
By the 12th Century, the social and legal situation of Jews began to undergo another change. Prior to this, most of the regulation of Jewish activities had been by charter. Those charters affirmed the royal interest in Jewish banking and gave Jews some protection. But by the 12th Century, the theological notion of the necessity of Jewish servitude had become widespread, and for legal purposes, Jews became the property of the princes they provided services to as financial agents. A strange new concept arose as well. It began to be believed that since the Jews were condemned by their crimes to eternal servitude, it was important to bring them under royal or imperial jurisdiction as “serfs of the Royal (or Imperial) Chamber.” Such a measure, however, did provide Jewish financiers with some measure of protection. Frederick I of Germany detailed the rights of the Jews of Regensburg, in an 1182 document. He stated his intention to protect them, as they were the “serfs of our Chamber.”
Obviously Jewish financiers, some of them extremely wealthy and well-connected, were not literally treated as serfs. They were always at liberty. In fact, no one could detain another prince’s Jewish financier. Here is one royal order: “Nobody whatsoever may keep the Jew of another lord; and wheresoever a man shall find his Jew, he shall be entitled to seize him by right, as being his slave and property.”
Despite the protection from princes, Jews were subject to confiscatory taxation and they had no recourse. Furthermore, since they considered Jews their property, the kings felt free to confiscate the financiers’ property when they died. The financiers and bankers were used by the princes for their own purposes.
If the kings wished, they would allow financiers to expand their business, and if they needed or wanted money, they could take a portion of the lenders’ profits. Jewish financiers were often forced to drive up their own interest rates because they had to take account of the various practices used by royalty to appropriate their profits. The result was that while the Jewish bankers were not really responsible for the high interest rates, their debtors hated them even more than creditors are generally disliked.
Jews gained the reputation for financial greed and expertise when the truth was that they had been forced into the banking profession and were working under the pressure of practices they were not responsible for. Such hatred and prejudice often gave rise to violence. There were assaults on Jewish people in English cities and elsewhere. In 1171, there was an attack on Jews in France who were accused of ritual murder. In 1190, there was a violent attack on Jewish citizens just before Passover in the city of York, England. William of Newburgh, a contemporary chronicler, wrote candidly about the events. The attack on the Jews was led by their debtors, who included the local nobles. King Richard I, ostensibly the Jewish financiers’ most powerful protector, was overseas at the time.
The Jewish bankers and their families shut themselves up in a castle in the city. Realizing they would be overpowered, many killed themselves and their wives and children. A few who tried to preserve their lives by converting to Christianity were massacred anyway. William of Newburgh was quite open about the fact that the leaders were some of the nobles heavily in debt to the Jewish bankers. He called it “the daring plan.” After the massacre, the documents that recorded the debts to the lenders were destroyed.
Although the chronicler was shocked by the violence, he expressed no sympathy for the Jews. There was an inquiry but no one was punished. The debtors had liquidated their debts by liquidating their creditors.
The Catholic Church, which did not want the Jewish lenders to operate, but was unable to stop the practice, did all it could to interfere with it. The Church often allowed Christian debtors to default on the principal or interest on their loans. Several times, the Church also placed a moratorium on repaying debts by those who were fighting in the Crusades. Since the Church allowed the moratorium, recruitment for participation in the Crusades rose quickly. Jewish lenders were sometimes impoverished by such measures. Worse, Jews had no other way open to them to earn their living.
Hatred of the Jewish people by Christians rose as the 12th Century progressed. There was a small basis in reality for the accusation of usury, unfair as it was. But the next accusation, called the ‘blood libel,” which began around 1144 CE or earlier, had no validity and led to the massacre of many innocent Jews. The libel was the allegation that Jews ritually murdered a Christian child at the season of Passover. They were accused of using the child’s blood to mix with the unleavened bread eaten at that time.
Such fantasies were given confirmation by men like Theobald, a monk who was a convert to Christianity from Judaism. Theobald wove an incredible tale, which fed the fantasies of Christians. He picked the city of Narbonne, France, where there was a large Jewish community, as a center of the Jewish conspiracy. He claimed Jewish leaders chose a different city each year and met there to carry out the blood ritual.
Theobald claimed that the Jewish religion obliged the Jewish people to do so. He made out that the Jews had to avenge themselves on Christ because of their exile, so they would sacrifice a Christian child each year at Passover.
In 1144 CE, in Norwich, England, a twelve year old skinner named William was killed. He was known to the Jewish community because of his profession and was on friendly terms with them. When his murdered body was found, the Jews were believed to have been his killers. The rumors said the Jewish community had kidnapped him and held him until Passover. Then the Jewish people, under the supervision of the head of the synagogue, were said to have bound and gagged the child, tortured him, stabbed his head with thorns, tied him to a cross and killed him with a stab to the side. It was alleged that they did this as a mimicry of the passion of Christ. The poor child was declared a saint by the Church. He became St. William of Norwich, a martyr to imagined Jewish blood thirst.
A cult of the child grew up around children who Jews were believed to have murdered, and unsurprisingly, miracles began to occur in the areas their bodies were located. Such miracles attracted pilgrims and wealthy people to visit and were quite profitable for the cities who owned the murdered saints. There were frequent reports of Jews killing children in many European cities. All in all, there were one hundred and fifty cases of alleged ritual murder and many Jews were massacred in retaliation for their imagined crimes.
Several popes issued bulls that denied and forbade the accusation against the Jews. But at the same time, the Catholic Church affirmed its approval of the cult of the child martyrs.
Frederick II of Germany finally investigated, questioning many Jewish converts to Christianity. He determined that Jewish people did not harm children and had no use for Christian blood. But the blood libel lingered, even up to the 2oth Century in some quarters. In the early years of the 2oth Century, a Jewish man in Czarist Russia was accused of the ritual murder of a young Christian boy. International outcries prevented his conviction and execution.
Contemporary scholars have investigated and have discovered that “there is not a single case of ritual murder that stands up to a critical investigation.” William Nicholls explains that: “In fact, Jews are forbidden by the Torah to consume blood in any form.”That is why they conduct ritual slaughter to drain blood out of the animal they plan to eat, then salt and wash the meat to rid it of any residual blood. Even a speck of blood in a fertilized egg renders it inedible to an observant Jew, and in the Middle Ages, nearly all Jews were observant. In addition, Jews would not kill children because children represent the continuation of life, the highest value in Judaism.
None of the fantasies of Jewish ritual murder existed in reality, only in the inflamed and superstitious minds of Medieval Christians. Flannery states: “The ritual murder calumny stands in the judgment of history as the most monstrous instrument of anti-Jewish persecution in the Middle Ages.”
The Jewish community was also accused of host desecration. In 1215, the Fourth Lateran Council defined the Catholic Church’s doctrine of transubstantiation. The allegation against the Jews was that the Jews would procure a consecrated host.
According to Christian belief, the host had been changed into the body and blood of Jesus. The Jews were said to obtain the host from the Mass with the help of a Christian, who would retain it after receiving it from the communion rite. In the usual version of the fantasy, the Jews would take the host to their synagogue or home. There they would trample on it, and stick pins into it. The Jewish people were alleged to be repeating the original crime against Jesus by this violence on the host. The accusation was first made at a town near Berlin and nearly all the Jews of the town were burned to death. All told, there were about a hundred recorded instances of allegations of host desecration, and many of the accused Jewish people were massacred. A final absurdity to the story was that in many cases, Christians claimed that the victimized host began to bleed, bringing many of the repentant Jews who witnessed it to conversion to Christianity.
Why Jews would believe the consecrated host was sacred, rather than a piece of bread, is a mystery. But such accusations demonstrate how much the Medieval mind credited the notion that Jews believed Christian doctrines and were acting deliberately with malice. When the high point of the Middle Ages was reached, Christians believed that Jews had committed deicide and other horrific crimes, were guilty of usury and blood lust, harbored an insatiable hatred of Christ and were child killers. But at the same time, Christians thought that Jews believed in Christian doctrines. With such common misconceptions and paranoia being bruited about, it was not much of a step to strip the Jewish people of human features and then to identify them as being satanic.
Joshua Trachtenberg has thoroughly documented the image and perception of Jews in the Middle Ages.
There is an abundance of evidence that Christians believed that Jews were at one with Satan. The literary sources confirm this image of Jews at that time, but there is additional proof in the engravings and the mystery and passion plays. One of these plays has survived into the modern world, the well known Oberammergau play. This production troubles both Jews and some well-meaning Christians in the present day with its anti-Semitic elements, although many of the worst elements have gradually been eliminated.
In 1215, the Fourth Lateran Council was held at Rome. Pope Innocent III called for it in a losing bid to take supremacy over the Empire. There were five canons passed against the Jewish people by the council. The measures included a strenuous attempt to control Jewish interest rates and the remission of interest on all loans made by Jews to people who joined the Crusades. There was also permission given for a “healthy compulsion” to be exercised against Jews in Spain who had converted to Christianity and who were believed to secretly perform Jewish rites and retain Jewish customs. In addition, Jews were not allowed to go out in public for three days before Easter. Since Jews wore their best Sabbath finery on Saturday, Christians interpreted such clothing as a mockery of Christ on the days of Jesus’ passion. Good Friday was particularly proscribed for Jews to venture outside.
The second canon had the worst consequences for the Jews. It required Jews and Saracens, male and female, to wear distinctive dress from Christians. Apparently the purpose was to prevent sexual relations between Christians and Jews. While the canon did not specify the type of different dress Jews should wear, many localities required Jews to wear the “badge of shame.”
This was a yellow circle, which was supposed to symbolize Jewish love of gold. No matter how many times the popes ordered Christians to desist from violence against the Jews, the language and measures such as the dress canon against the Jewish people actually stoked the fires of fear, hate and murder by the Christian populace. Those measures were put in place by the Catholic Church.
Once the canons of the Fourth Lateran Council went into effect, false allegations against Jews over the 13th and 14th Centuries resulted in anti-Semitic outbreaks during which many Jews were slaughtered. The popes remained silent during those massacres, which as scholars state: “…lent an air of complicity to the mob violence.” Jews, under torture, would often admit to their so-called crimes, making detailed confessions. Then the persecutors would feel justified in their actions. The usual practice followed was that upon the death of the “criminal,” all the debts and mortgages to him were cancelled. His Christian accusers would frequently divide up the spoils between them.
Oddly, the Talmud was put on trial at this period. Christians had long believed that the Talmud was the chief obstacle to Jews converting to Christianity. Then Christians gradually arrived at the notion that the Talmud contained insults to Jesus and his mother, Mary. While the present Talmud’s text does not insult Christianity, the earlier texts did make mention of Jesus as ben Pantera. This was a reference to an old tale that circulated about Jesus having been the illegitimate son of a Roman soldier.
In 1239, spurred on by allegations from a Jewish convert that the Talmud contained blasphemies, Pope Gregory IX ordered that the bishops and European secular rulers should seize all Jewish books and examine them. Most rulers procrastinated, but the pious King Louis IX of France called for a disputation on the matter that was held in Paris. In March of 1240, the Dominicans and Franciscans examined the Jewish books, condemned them, and then had twenty-four cartloads of them burned. In 1247, the Jewish people petitioned Pope Innocent IV, explaining the Talmud was absolutely necessary for their religion. The Pope ordered the Jews’ books returned to their owners. The Papal legate reluctantly complied, writing complaining letters which argued the books were full of errors and had turned the Jews away from understanding Christian scriptures. According to Nicholls, the false myths about the Talmud resurfaced at the end of the 19th Century.
In 1348, the Black Death, the bubonic plague, reached the shores of Europe and spread, leaving large numbers of dead citizens in its wake. It was carried by rats and fleas, but the Medieval citizens believed it was a punishment for human sin, or perhaps a plot. As the number of stricken people grew, the panicked populace cast about for an explanation. A rumor was begun, which spread faster than the plague, that the wells had been poisoned. The Jews were blamed for this. They were said to be part of an international conspiracy centered in Toledo, Spain. Messengers with little bags of poison were rumored to have been sent to many cities in a coordinated effort to drop the poison in wells, with other Jews helping them. The rumors added that Jewish rabbis had instructed the criminals to commit the poisonings.
Jews in many cities were questioned and tortured, which forced them to confess to such fantasies as international conspiracies. Many cities put Jews to the death by burning. The Christians in Northern Europe were especially hard on the Jewish population, burning Jews either in their homes, in buildings, or at the stake. Many Jews set their own homes on fire, perishing before Christians could kill them.
This time, the Pope, Clement VI, twice issued bulls, condemning those who blamed the Jews for the plague as having been seduced by the Devil. The Pope exhorted people that the plague was in areas where there were no Jews, and that in other areas, Jews were also perishing of the plague. However, the flagellants, Christian fanatics who went from town to town whipping themselves in penance for the plague, had a pernicious influence on the populace. They did not confine themselves to blaming sinful behavior for the disease, but accused the Jews as well. The flagellants helped spread the plague and hatred of Jews wherever they went. Nicholls states: “In Freiburg, Augsburg, Nuremberg and so on, the Jews were slaughtered with a thoroughness that seemed to seek the final solution.”
Many, in fact, most of the surviving Jews fled to Eastern Europe, at that time a safer haven. The flagellants were finally stopped by the combined efforts of rulers, cities, the Church and the universities. Some Jews returned to Western Europe, where their services remained in demand. But after about 1349 CE, the future of the Jewish people lay in Eastern Europe.
The Spanish Inquisition was initially begun to discover if Jewish converts, or conversos, who had become Christians, were secretly practicing the Jewish religion.
Please see “An Atheist Perspective on the Inquisition” at AtheistScholar.org where you will find a lengthy discussion of the Spanish Inquisition. But it is important for the purposes of this lecture to emphasize that the notion of impure blood, the alleged hereditary taint of the Jews, began during the Spanish Inquisition in the 15th and 16th Centuries. While scholars have so far not been able to connect the Spanish concept directly to similar beliefs about Jewish impure blood during the 19th and 20th Centuries, that Inquisition was the first time Jews were viewed as evil by descent. It was a foreshadowing of the future events in Germany in the 20th Century.
In the middle years of the 16th Century, the Council of Trent was part of the Catholic Counter-Reformation, a response to Martin Luther, Calvin and the spread of the Protestant religion. The Council ruled that all humanity was responsible for Jesus’ death, and not only the Jews.
But the Protestant Reformation of the 16th Century did not bring relief to the Jews. Martin Luther’s early years were filled with the hope that Jewish people would convert to Christianity if approached with kindness and love. But in his later years, perhaps because his hope of converting the Jews had not borne fruit, Luther attacked the Jews with scurrilous invective. He ranted that their synagogues and homes should be burned down, their holy books taken away and their rabbis forbidden to teach. He said that Jews should be forbidden to travel and should only do manual work for Christians. He reached a low point when he speculated that it might be wise to settle with the Jews financially and rid the country of them.
I am quoting Nicholls here: “At his trial in Nuremberg after the Second World War, Julius Streicher, the notorious Nazi propagandist and editor of the scurrilous anti-Semitic weekly, Der Sturmer, argued that if he should be standing there, arraigned on such charges, so should Martin Luther.”
We know that Jews were the objects of intense Christian hatred, particularly during the Middle Ages. However much one investigates the complex religious, sociological, economic and political interactions of the time, one is left with the question “why?” There is no one answer. But it was in a Christian context that anti-Semitism grew, flourished and became virulent and malevolent. Paranoia and projection, resentment toward Christianity projected onto Judaism, secret desires to be rid of the responsibility of children turned outward to rumors of Jewish ritual murder, fear and hysteria that grew from the spread of the bubonic plague- all those factors entered into the persecution of the Jewish people by Christians.
My position is that religion is too often a generator of hate and violence and that the Christian religion is no exception. I believe this lecture has provided proof that anti-Semitism was not an anomaly, some perversion of the original peaceful and loving Christian philosophy, but that it was embedded in its very roots, at the genesis of the early Church.
Religion kills and it kills more people and creates more hatred when it is allowed to achieve hegemony in a society. We are faced with religious attempts to make the United States a Christian country. Indeed, Christian apologists lie and claim that this nation was founded on Christian principles.
Let us give them the lie and keep our nation safe from the sectarian violence and hatred that has poisoned so many countries for centuries. Let us have done with Christian, or any religious notions, and preserve the Enlightenment values our founders desired for our country. They had seen the kind of violence, ignorance, superstition and hatred religion had spawned in Europe and tried to eliminate it from the United States. Let us honor their wisdom and work to keep our country free, rational and tolerant. Let us dedicate ourselves to the spurning and defeat of the hate mongers of religious persecution and murder in the name of their god.
The next lecture will be Christian anti-Semitism, Part Two, and will begin with the popes, the Catholic Church and the Jews in Europe from approximately 1814. It will concern the issue of the popes against the Jews. They were.
Thank you for your attention. I am looking forward to our discussion.
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