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The Church’s False Witness Against Jews

by Carl D. Evans

Dr. Evans is a associate professor of religious studies at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. This article appeared in the Christian Century May 5, 1982, p. 530. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Paul M. Van Buren’s offering in The Christian Century’s “How My Mind Has Changed” series (June 17-24, 1981) is eloquent testimony to a new awakening occurring in academic circles. Christian theologians, biblical scholars and church historians are becoming increasingly aware of the necessity to rethink what they do in light of Jewish theology, history and exegesis. Van Buren’s admission that much of Christian theology has been “wrong about Israel, the people of God, and therefore to that extent wrong about the God of Israel” echoes similar assessments by other scholars.

One obvious sign of this new consciousness is the development of courses in Jewish studies at theological schools around the country. At Harvard Divinity School, for example, the appointment of a Jewish Ph.D. to the faculty has added several important courses in Jewish studies to the standard Christian theological curriculum. Krister Stendahl, professor of divinity and former dean there, has stated the importance of such study in the context of Christian theological education:

The Ninth Commandment actually says it all: Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor. For our culture in general and for the ministers, pastors and priests in particular, it is important that we do not picture “the other,” the other person’s faith, in a manner that they do not recognize as true. Yet much of religious thinking has been shaped by the thoughtless and even unintentional distortions of other persons’ faith, thoughts, intentions and history [Harvard Divinity Bulletin, November-December 1980].

In Stendahl’s terms, the new awakening is the growing recognition that much of Christianity’s witness, insofar as it says or implies something about Jews and Judaism, has been a violation of the ninth commandment. This false witness is not confined, of course, to theological systems and seminary curricula. After eight years of undergraduate teaching at the University of South Carolina, where most students in my biblical courses are “products” of Christian churches, I am convinced that false witness against our Jewish neighbors is commonplace, even habitual, in the routine life of the church  -- in its study, worship and witness. If this were not so, students entering my classes would not hold so many erroneous ideas about Jews and their religion.

It is commonly believed that Judaism is a bibical religion, the religion of what Christians call the “Old Testament.” Here one fundamental error already has been made, and a second is bound to follow. The first is the failure to recognize that post-biblical developments dramatically transformed the character of Jewish religion. There emerged, roughly contemporaneous with the rise of early Christianity, what is known as rabbinic Judaism. In many significant ways rabbinic Judaism goes beyond or modifies the religion of the Hebrew Scriptures. The Mishnah and the Talmud, not the Bible itself, embody the spirit and the character of rabbinic Judaism. It is from these rabbinic materials, about which most Christians know so little, that Judaism today draws its inspiration and instruction for faith and practice.

The second mistake that usually follows from the the first is that Christians tend to interpret the Old Testament religion from the perspective of the New Testament, which for the most part is presented as a fulfillment of the Old. The religion of the Old Testament, by implication, is inadequate, incomplete or unfulfilled. Consequently, not only do Christians often consult the wrong sources for their understanding of Judaism, but to make matters worse, the sources used are put at a disadvantage by Christian principles of interpretation. Is it any wonder that Judaism is misrepresented by so much of what we say about it?

Given the common misunderstanding of the sources of Judaism, a number of other fallacies usually succeed it. It is believed by many that Judaism at the time of Jesus was stagnant, rigid and spiritually empty. To the extent that this view is represented in our preaching and our teaching, in our liturgy and our curriculum, we are bearing false witness. Any knowledgeable Jew (or non-Jew, for that matter) can readily identify the evidence of spiritual vitality in first century Judaism. There were the sectarian groups, of which the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes and Zealots were the most prominent. There was temple Judaism and synagogue Judaism, worship by priestly sacrifice and worship by communal prayer. There was Jewish apocalypticism and Jewish gnosticism. There was Hellenistic Judaism and Palestinian Judaism. There were liberals, moderates and conservatives. By any standard, the Judaism of the first century was vibrant, exciting, diversified and spiritually alive. Had this not been the case, the Jewish sect later known as Christianity would not have emerged. Indeed, much of that which is cherished in Christianity today is a by-product of the rich spirituality that gave birth to rabbinic Judaism.

Let me be more specific. It is commonplace to hear Christian sermons that reprove the Pharisees for being self-righteous, sanctimonious, hypocritical and obnoxious. Nothing could be further from the truth, despite the attempts of several New Testament writers to portray them in this way. The Pharisees as a group were quite the opposite. In the words of Jewish historian Ellis Rivkin, they held

a firm and unwavering belief in an alluring Triad: (1) God the just and caring Father so loved each and every individual that (2) he revealed to Israel his twofold Law -- Written and Oral -- which, when internalized and faithfully obeyed, (3) promises to the Law-abiding individual eternal life for his soul and resurrection for his body [A Hidden Revolution (Abingdon, 1978)].

Within this twofold Law, especially the Oral Law, is an understanding of divine grace, mercy and compassion which rivals anything that can be found in Christianity. For the Pharisees, all of this had to be internalized so that it transformed the very character of one’s being. Just as for Jesus and Paul, the ultimate reality was within, not without.

Christian misrepresentation of the Pharisees is not surprising, given what the New Testament says about them. For example, Matthew 23 repeatedly excoriates them for hypocritical actions, and the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18) portrays the Pharisee as conceited and self -righteous. Herein lies much of the problem. The Christian Scriptures -- diligently read, believed and followed by the faithful -- present a one-sided perspective on the rivalry that eventually drove a permanent wedge between Christianity and Judaism.

This rivalry, born of strong convictions on both sides, stirred deep emotions and prompted outbursts of careless rhetoric and unrestrained diatribes. The resulting distortions, as reflected in the New Testament, make us see the worst in Judaism rather than the best. The exaggeration in the portrayal of the Pharisees is especially pronounced because it was Pharisaic and rabbinic Judaism, the mainline Jewish religion after the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D., that engaged early Christianity in the inter-religious rivalry.

Further, it is often said that Judaism is a religion of law, whereas Christianity is a religion of grace. Again, to the extent that we propagate this view in our preaching and our teaching, we are guilty of bearing false witness. Rabbinic Judaism does not fit our legalistic stereotypes at all.

Consider, for example, this rabbinic exposition of the verse in the Torah which reads, “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious” (Exod. 33:19):

In that hour God showed Moses all the treasuries of the rewards which are prepared for tie righteous. Moses said, “For whom is this treasury?” And God said, “For him who fulfills the commandments.” “And for whom is that treasury?” “For him who brings up orphans.” And so God told him about each treasury. Finally, Moses spied a big treasury and said, “For whom is that?” And God said, “To him who has nothing I give this treasury,” as it is said, “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious and I will show mercy on whom I will show mercy” [Exod. R., KI Tassa, XLV 6].

Or consider this rabbinic version of the parable of the prodigal son:

A king had a son who had gone astray from his father a journey of a hundred days; his friends said to him, “Return to your father”; he said, “I cannot.” Then his father sent to say, “Return as far as you can, and I will come to you the rest of the way.” So God says, “Return to me, and I will return to you” [Pes. R. 184b-185 a].

The rabbinic materials leave no doubt that grace is fundamentally important to Judaism. “To an earthly king, a man goes full, and returns empty; to God, he goes empty and returns full” (Pes. R. 185 a).

From the Gospels one gets the impression that Judaism has no heart, no compassion beyond a devotion to the Law. Meticulous observance of the Law, down to each jot and tittle, is more important to the Jew than relationships with human beings, so we are led to believe. Here is an example of what the rabbinic sources say on the subject:

A heathen came to Shammai, and said to him, “Accept me as a proselyte on the condition that you teach me the whole Law while I stand on one foot.” Then Shammai drove him away with the measuring rod he held in his hand. Then he went to Hillel, who received him as a proselyte and said to him, “What is hateful to you do not to your fellow: that is the whole Law; all the rest is its explanation; go and learn” [Sab. 31 a].

This is the Golden Rule, at least in negative form -- espoused by Hillel before the time of Jesus. The school of Hillel, the liberal wing of Pharisaism, was the dominant influence in rabbinic Judaism; therefore, the importance of relationships and deeds of lovingkindness is repeatedly emphasized in the rabbinic sources.

Thus we can see that the common Christian perception of Judaism is distorted as well as inaccurate. We have been guilty of bearing false witness against our Jewish neighbors. What is needed to correct our image is a massive effort to re-examine what we say about Jews and Judaism in sermons, lessons, liturgy and life. The ninth commandment offers a special challenge as we make this effort.

Anyone familiar with church history should feel the urgency of this challenge. From New Testament times to the present, it is difficult to find a single period when the church has not acted shamefully toward the Jews. I’m convinced that anti-Semitism has been such a powerful and persistent nemesis largely because of the church’s false witness against the Jews.

The negative concept of Jews and Judaism begun in the New Testament, and developed further in the writings of the church fathers, created an entire adversos Judaeos tradition. The titles of the tracts by themselves often indicate the nature of the writings: An Answer to the Jews (Tertullian), Expository Treatise Against the Jews (Hippolytus), Three Books of Testimonies Against the Jews (Cyprian), Eight Orations Against the Jews (John Chrysostom), Tract Against the Jews (Augustine), and many more.

The sermons of the great orator John Chrysostom offer perhaps the most offensive examples of these patristic diatribes. A single passage from his preaching is all that is needed to make the point:

I know that many people hold a high regard for the Jews and consider their way of life worthy of respect at the present time. This is why I am hurrying to pull up this fatal notion by the roots. . . . A place where a whore stands on display is a whorehouse. What is more, the synagogue is not only a whorehouse and a theater; it is also a den of thieves and a haunt of wild animals . . . not a cave of wild animal merely, but of an unclean wild animal. .. The Jews have no conception of [spiritual] things at all, but living for the lower nature, all agog for the here and now, no better disposed than pigs or goats, they live by the rule of debauchery and inordinate gluttony. Only one thing they understand: to gorge themselves and to get drunk [Eight Orations Against the Jews 1, 3, 4].

The widespread polemics against the Jews in the theological foundations of early Christianity led to serious social consequences for the Jews during the Middle Ages. In an excellent study of the problem, Rosemary Radford Ruether argues that “the negative myth of the Jew, developed in the patristic adversos Judaeos tradition, was incorporated into the legal status of the Jew in Christendom” (Faith and Fratricide [Seabury, 1974]). This myth led to a loss of civil rights, to ghettoization, punishment by Inquisition and public executions, expulsion from countries like England, Spain and Portugal, brutal attacks by the Crusaders, pogroms and so on. The medieval treatment of the Jews, buttressed by continuing theological justification, is the legacy that we have inherited in the modern period.

Consider another description of the treatment of Jews and Judaism in the Middle Ages. Jewish author Samuel Sandmel writes:

Judaism was normally described not as a religion but as either a superstition or a vomit. Jews were barred from the ordinary personal liberties. They were in due course forced to wear “the Jewish badge.” They were alleged to use for the Passover Seder not wine but the blood of Christian children whom they kidnapped and killed for that purpose. They were alleged to sneak into churches and stab the holy wafer (“the host”), from which flowed the “real blood” of Jesus. In the Black Plague they were accused of poisoning the wells of the Christians. It was declared that they could be distinguished by their own “Jewish” smell. The Jews of the Rhineland were massacred in the First Crusade in 1906, for the Crusaders saw no reason to wait until they reached the Holy Land to show their might to the infidels. The art and folk tales of the age before the invention of printing paved the way for later printed art and picture books showing villainous Jews doing dreadful things to Christians. The Jewish rabbinic writings were recurrently either censored or confiscated and burned [Anti-Semitism in the New Testament? (Fortress, 1978)].

To anyone who knows this tragic history, it comes as no great surprise that the Holocaust could and did take place in the heart of Christendom. The Nazis’ “final solution” cannot be divorced from the attempts to get rid of the Jews throughout church history -- first by forced conversion, then by expulsion, then by extermination.

If all of us knew this tragic history better, I’m convinced that we would feel the urgency to cease our false witness against Jews and Judaism.

How do we begin to correct the problem? For starters, we need to observe the ninth commandment. What we say about our neighbors, including their religion, should be that which they can recognize as true. We should consult the sources from which they draw their own religious understanding, or, if this cannot be done, we need to read informed authorities on those sources.

But more than that is required. The dismantling of erroneous views and the construction of new ones take time and effort. Indeed, for many it is a never-ending task. Let me suggest how this reconceptualization might take place.

Obviously, the pastor is the key person in any congregation. He or she has the opportunity to correct misconceptions or reinforce appropriate conceptions, whichever the case may be. Here are some things that can be done:

1. Scriptural texts read for public worship should be studied carefully with these questions in mind: How are Jews and Judaism portrayed in these texts? Is this portrayal accurate or is it a distortion? Where distortions are found, the sermon should include information to project a more accurate picture of matters. In lectionary readings for the Lenten season, for example, the responsibility for the crucifixion is often shifted from the Romans to the Jews. The pastor can readily explain the shift, and the resulting historical distortions, by making reference to the apologetic motives that prompted the New Testament writers to avoid statements that would have aroused Roman antagonism against the early Christians.

2. Prayers, litanies and other elements of worship should avoid the thoughtless rhetoric that can subconsciously prejudice people. An order of worship for Good Friday evening in my own United Methodist tradition, for example, includes a prayer of intercession which states:

O merciful God, who has made all men, and hatest nothing that thou has made, and willest not the death of a sinner, but rather that he should be converted and live: Have mercy upon all who do not know thee, or who deny the faith of Christ crucified. Take thou from them all ignorance, hardness of heart, and contempt of thy Word; and so bring them home, blessed Lord, to thy fold, that we may be made one flock under one shepherd. Jesus Christ our Lord.

It seems to me that such a prayer, uttered by Christian worshipers on Good Friday evening, is bound to suggest that those “who deny the faith of Christ crucified” are none other than “the Jews.” The language used to characterize those who “should be converted” -- their “ignorance, hardness of heart, and contempt of thy Word” -- echoes the negative descriptions of Jews in Scripture and the adversos Judaeos tradition. The prejudicial implications of such language can be avoided if the worshiper is led to claim the identity of the sinner.

3. Church school teachers should be sensitized to the problem through workshops and courses of study. We cannot assume that lay teachers will become aware of the anti-Judaism in the Christian tradition unless they are confronted with the wrongness of our stereotypes. A study course in Judaism, preferably taught by a rabbi, would be enormously valuable.

4. Literature and audiovisual aids used in the church school should be carefully selected. Occasionally, even in the literature of the mainline denominations, one will find culpable statements. Even so, use of approved denominational curriculum materials would substantially reduce the problem.

5. Most mainline denominations have adopted official statements with respect to anti-Semitism and other forms of prejudice. These should be presented to our congregants -- preferably studied by them -- at least once a year.

In essence, I am inviting pastors and congregations to join in the new awakening which is already occurring in many circles. Lest the obvious be overlooked, let me add that wherever possible Christian-Jewish dialogue groups, for both laity and clergy, should be established. We must cease our false witness for the sake of the church’s integrity and in fairness to our Jewish neighbors.


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