Anti-Semitism: Boundary of Jewish-Christian Understanding

by Dale Stover

Dr. Stover is an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, June 26, 1974, pp. 668-671. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Christians can repudiate anti-Semitism by (1) supporting Zionism on theological grounds and (2) criticizing it on ethical grounds. The author raises charges of anti-Semitism that have been raised in connection with the New Testament, the film Jesus Christ Superstar, and critics (such as Dan Berrigan) of the State of Israel.

"Anti-Semitism" carries a great deal of emotive force. Hitler’s maniacal program of genocide, which annihilated 6 million Jews in our century, has imbued the term "anti-Semitism" with a quality of dread -- dread of an incoherent and unconditional evil which is unaccountably present in human form. However, since the end of World War II and the emergence on the world’s political scene of the State of Israel, "anti-Semitism" has often been used with reference to one’s stance vis-à-vis this 20th century nation, and thus has acquired quite new shades of meaning.

The subtleties which register in the current use of the term are rooted in history, which gives evidence of a long series of hateful and oppressive acts against Jews. To interpret this history as "anti-Semitic" is to say that Jews were persecuted simply because they were Jews. Because Christian societies have been most notably responsible for oppression of Jews, the meaning of "anti-Semitism" is particularly connected with the way in which Jews and Christians understand one another. More specifically, it often implies an anti-Jewish bias on the part of Christians. Could it be that the current use of the term indicates the true character of relations between Jews and Christians today?

Let us see. Anti-Semitism has recently been charged against the New Testament, against the film Jesus Christ Superstar and against political critics of the State of Israel. An inquiry into these three cases should show us where the boundary line of understanding between Jew and Christian lies.

Anti-Semitism in the New Testament

The "discovery" that there is anti-Semitism in the New Testament is obviously anachronistic in several senses. For one thing, as used in that connection, "anti-Semitism" draws its meaning from an assessment of recent events; that is, the present meaning of the term is falsely applied to an ancient era. Nevertheless, the charge is widely accepted as proved. Could this be seen as an attempt on the part of Christians to cope with the frightful history of Jewish suppression in Christendom? Thus the Christian who reads in, the Gospel of John, for example, that "the Jews" are opposing Jesus winces at this imputation of guilt to a whole people. Can an interpretation be found that explains both modern anti-Semitism and the apparently anti-Semitic tenor of New Testament language?

Form-critical study of the New Testament is helpful here. Form criticism claims that the final written form of the New Testament documents was greatly influenced by the struggles the young church was undergoing. In the light of that claim, it is reasonable to attribute the New Testament’s use of the phrase "the Jews" to the point of view of an era when the church was in conflict with the Jewish community, hence to conclude that the anti-Semitism in the New Testament is incidental. The anti-Semitism of subsequent centuries may be seen as related to this adventitious root. This interpretation allows us to understand the kerygma and the figure of Jesus as essentially prior to and apart from anti-Semitic tradition. Indeed, it would seem that they must be so understood if we are to retain our faith, since a Christianity which is inherently anti-Semitic is abhorrent.

The trouble with this interpretation is precisely its implied admission that the New Testament is "anti-Semitic." Thanks to historical-critical research, today’s Christian can look at the New Testament so dispassionately that he or she can acquiesce when it is made the dumping ground for 20th century garbage. In other words, modern anti-Semitism, even in the virulent form of Nazism, can be ultimately blamed on the New Testament writings.

But to explain anti-Semitism as both rooted in the New Testament and also as an excisable feature of it is surely to dispatch the problem of anti-Semitism too glibly. Moreover, theologically speaking, it is profoundly in error. The first century conflict between church and synagogue was hardly incidental. On the one hand, the New Testament does not represent Jesus’ Jewishness as peripheral. After all, Jesus is the Messiah, the fulfiller of the Torah and the prophets, the bringer-in of the kingdom and the founder of the New Israel; and the election of the Jews is now understood in terms of the election of Jesus. On the other hand, the majority of Jews refused to accept the Christian kerygma, and in time their persistent refusal became an embarrassment to the church and an apparent refutation of the Christian claim that Jesus was the Messiah. Are not Jews and Christians perennially bound together in theological conflict by the very nature of their faith, both claiming election by the one and same God? And is it not a kind of theological self-hatred for Christians to dismiss this conflict?

Theological conflict is not necessarily tantamount to "anti-Semitism"; that is, modern anti-Jewishness. The New Testament church was not repudiating Jewishness -- on the contrary! New Testament references to "the Jews" cannot be understood as a rejection of Jewishness; rather, they betoken a conflict between church and synagogue because of the church’s claim of its own Jewishness. That claim would have been vindicated by the conversion of all the Jews. Hence the church could not oppose the synagogue on the grounds of the synagogue’s Jewishness, but only on the grounds of its being an incomplete Jewishness.

It is clear, however, that the New Testament’s so-called "anti-Semitism" -- which in fact only reflects early Christian difficulties with established Judaism -- was in later times used to justify real anti-Semitism. Indeed, to condone the charge of anti-Semitism in the New Testament is to follow the lead of the real anti-Semites who first proposed this line of argument. Real anti-Semitism becomes a possibility precisely when the Jewishness of Christianity is deleted. And that happens when the historical character of Christianity is ignored in favor of a rational conception of the relation of God to humankind which applies on a universal scale without regard to historical particularities. This sort of concept is’ likely to be based on some transcendent universal such as subjective religious experience or a categorical ethical imperative. Rationalized Christianity is especially susceptible to various kinds of anthropocentric, culture-bound claims to absoluteness. Since it is inevitably subject to some cultural or sectarian imperialism, ethics in the abstract is so far from being a guarantee against anti-Semitism as actually to be the first step toward anti-Semitism.

I suggest that when Christians charge the New Testament with anti-Semitism they have rationalized their faith and are therefore highly susceptible to anti-Semitism. It would follow that Jews have far more to fear from a rationalized Christianity than from one in conflict with Judaism over the question of Christianity’s Jewishness. It might indeed be said that the so-called anti-Semitism in the New Testament is evidence of a close theological kinship between Jews and Christians which accounts for their "family quarrel" but might in the end lead them to embrace each other.

Anti-Semitism in ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’

While the charge of anti-Semitism in the New Testament has generally been made by Christians’ attempt to deal with anti-Semitism, it is largely Jews who have laid the same charge against the film Jesus Christ Superstar. Their protest may surprise those who see this popular musical as a dramatization of the modern counterculture’s revolt against the establishment. The Jews, however, class this film with the tradition of the passion play, which spotlights the Jews as the real killers of Christ; and they call for the abolition of all passion plays as such. Is this a Jewish overreaction to the present in terms of past memories? Are Jews actually complaining that the kerygma itself is in poor taste?

Certainly the passion of the Christ is bedrock for Christian theology. But how genuinely are passion plays related to the historical fact of the crucifixion of Jesus? The Eucharist is the traditional and authentic dramatization of identification between believers and the crucified Lord. A passion play, however, is not a Eucharist. In a passion play one is a spectator; in the Eucharist one is a participant. The passion play obscures one’s personal responsibility for the crucifixion and affords an opportunity to put the blame on others. In the Eucharist the act of worship in confession, offering and thanksgiving identifies the participant directly and corporately with the atoning action of the crucifixion-resurrection event.

I suggest that, because they encourage a spectator role instead of personal involvement, passion plays inherently tend toward anti-Semitism. In this sense Jesus Christ Superstar can be called a passion play. It might indeed be seen as reinterpreting the role played in the crucifixion by the Jewish leaders; it seems to present them as implicated not by their Jewishness but by their being the establishment. But on the whole the film promotes an ideological reaction against all establishments rather than an understanding of oneself as personally, and inevitably, involved in society and its establishments and therefore also in the crucifixion. In thus blaming others and failing to recognize the guilt of every human being, Jesus Christ Superstar repeats the theological mistake of Christian anti-Semitism.

Of course, it is entirely possible to present the Holocaust as a Jewish passion play -- one in which the Nazis are the murderers and the 6 million the sacrificial victims. There are those who see a Luther as a precursor of Hitler and the Nails as a type of Christian. This Jewish passion play puts the shoe on the other Foot: the Nazi Christians are now killers of God.

But when the Holocaust is interpreted as an act so monstrous that it is separate and distinct from all other human evil; when the victims are understood as a special case among all other victims of oppression; when the men who did this deed are differentiated from all other men as being singularly demonic and non-human -- then there is no connection between those criminals and ourselves, no possible continuum between our sin and Nazi sin. As an expression of human revulsion at the Holocaust this denial of corporate responsibility is comprehensible, but will it suffice for a Jewish theological understanding of man? Does it not tend toward a passion-play point of view? Since the Holocaust forms the backdrop for the Jewish conception of the State of Israel, should not Jews guard against the temptation to let Zionism function as a sort of Jewish chauvinism which results from a passion-play division of humanity into guilty and righteous?

Anti-Semitism in Criticism of Israel

Political critics of the State of Israel appear to fall automatically under the ban of anti-Semitism. Even Daniel Berrigan, that stalwart champion of peace, recently discovered to his surprise that his criticism of Israeli policies had deeply offended Jewish sensitivities. Arthur Hertzberg, president of the American Jewish Congress, found Berrigan’s strictures so reprehensible that he called them "old-fashioned theological anti-Semitism" (American Report, October 29 and November 12, 1973, containing respectively Berrigan’s "Responses to Settler Regimes" and Hertzberg’s reply). Was this an attempt to smear Berrigan? Is the charge of anti-Semitism against political critics of Israel being employed as a coercive tactic?

A fair reading of Hertzberg’s piece must lead to the conclusion that he has done his utmost to misunderstand Berrigan. He deliberately misquotes Berrigan in order to bolster his own claim that the priest favors the destruction of Israel, and he totally disregards the central questions raised by Berrigan, dismissing them as "horror stories." Nevertheless, Hertzberg has some grounds for accusing Berrigan of anti-Semitism. As the Jewish leader sees it, bias is the only possible explanation for what he considers Berrigan’s perversity in posing as a "prophet" calling Israel to account. However, by citing its "Jewishness" as a ground for his criticism of Israel, Berrigan has given Hertzberg a sounder basis for the anti-Semitism charge.

The question of Israel’s Jewishness is what animates both Berrigan and Hertzberg. On the one hand, Israel is a state claiming all the rights and privileges of modern nations, so that no special conditions such as exceptional ethical requirements should be placed upon it. On the other hand, Israel is essentially and above all a Jewish state, and as such claims special status.

Berrigan thinks it fair to level against Israel the same charges of nationalism, militarism and exploitation that he has already made against other countries (especially the U.S.). But at the same time he cannot resist saying that Israel is particularly guilty because as a Jewish state it should know better (than America, for instance?). As he sees it, the State of Israel can be especially castigated for moral failure. Not only has it been an errant modern state; it has sold its birthright. Consequently, in Berrigan’s view, Zionism is a pseudo-Jewish nationalism engaged in "cold war" exploitation of humanity.

But Hertzberg holds that Israel should not be judged differently from other nations, and that in the exercise of nationalistic power Israel’s record compares quite favorably with that of other modern states. At the same time, he claims that, whatever the remaining ambiguities concerning the conflict between Israel’s rights and the rights of Palestinians, they can be morally interpreted in favor of Israel, because the State of Israel is necessary for Jewish existence. He sees Israel as fundamentally a religious community, and Zionism as a courageous affirmation of Jewish identity.

What is the meaning of this failure of dialogue between Christian and Jew? Is it not that Berrigan’s pseudo-theological indictment of Israel and Hertz-berg’s pseudo-ethical defense of Israel reflect an identity crisis on the part of both Judaism and Christianity?

Berrigan understands his Christian faith in strictly ethical terms (though Christianity is not really a religion of ethics). On the basis of this mistake he views Jewishness as ethically normative for Christianity, and consequently charges Israel with repudiating its theological inheritance because of its moral failure. Indeed, for Berrigan the true Jew is ethically pure, a "suffering servant"; and in fact he sees himself as a true Jew in that sense, which also defines Christianity for him.

Hertzberg is especially agitated about Berrigan because the latter’s ethical view of Jewishness represents the fundamental temptation for a modern Jew. The Holocaust exposed the insufficiency of interpreting Judaism as a religion of ethics. When Jews confront holocaust, they realize that there is about their existence a fearsome particularity which eludes moral categories and demands a response that is not simply ethical. Despite Hertzberg’s attempted defense of Israel on ethical grounds, his real argument for Israel is "the continuity of community." In this sense, Zionism is more profoundly rooted in theological, considerations than in ethical concerns.

I suggest that Christians can repudiate anti-Semitism by (1) supporting Zionism on theological grounds and (2) criticizing it on ethical grounds. As to the first point, Christians have a positive theological investment in a Zionism which makes for a viable Jewish state. Jews are an empirical reminder of the entire human-historical dimension of the Christian faith, inasmuch as Jews are a vital sign of the Jewishness of Jesus; that is, of his historical humanity. It is precisely the historicity of Jesus which has been dangerously obscured in Christian theological history -- an obscuring which coincides, with anti-Semitism. So far as present-day Jews by their existence signify for Christians the real humaness of Jesus, they are a reminder of the identification of the whole historical-human realm with the human existence of Jesus. For Christian faith this identification embraces all humanity as such, including Jews and their Jewishness; and the redemption of man rests directly upon this identification of God with all humanity in the historical being of Jesus. Jews, therefore, serve Christians as an inescapable witness to the historical arena as the location of God’s action in the world. Christian support of a positive Zionism in the form of a Jewish state means support for the historical continuation of Jewish existence and repudiation of an anti-Semitism that is willing to take advantage of Jewish powerlessness.

As to the second point, Christians will be in controversy with Israeli nationalism as with every nationalism. Christians are called to a suffering-servant role; they are to identify in non-ideological concern with all authentic human suffering in the name of Jesus the Christ. Therefore, Christians are called to oppose a Zionism which plays the cold war game along with the exploiters of the world. For example, a Christian must stand with the dispossessed Palestinians against those who dispossess them.

Daniel Berrigan is right when he scathingly denounces the ruthless side of Israeli policies, but he flirts with anti-Semitism when he comes close to begrudging Jews any entry into the sphere of nationalism. Arthur Hertzberg is right when he claims that the privilege of nationalism is proper and necessary for Jews, but he errs egregiously when he substitutes the charge of anti-Semitism for an explanation of Israeli complicity in oppressive policies. Berrigan inappropriately uses "Zionism" to denounce Israel, and Hertzberg just as inappropriately throws the term "anti-Semitism" at Berrigan.

Anti-Semitism and Covenant Religion

Our three case studies should contribute to an understanding of Judaism and Christianity as covenant rather than ethics religions. A look at anti-Semitism in the New Testament turned up the Christian claim to Jewishness and to historical particularity. A consideration of Jesus Christ Superstar underlined that the Christian covenant embraces all human beings -- that the atonement of Jesus as the Christ; the covenant person, includes everyone and permits no ethical divisions. And reflection on the State of Israel brought out the importance to Jews of being God’s people in the human form of a national community, and the humanness of Jesus as the Christian locus of God’s identification with human history.

As the covenant religions they are, Judaism and Christianity are close kin. But when a rationalized ethics is substituted for the covenant as the ground of faith, their identities are perverted and anti-Semitism takes root. Let Christians then see Jews as a positive sign of the historical anchorage of their faith; and let Jews see Christians as nondiscriminatory critics of nationalisms, even of Israeli nationalism. Let a Berrigan realize that Hertzberg’s Zionism is a simple desire for space to be human in a vital Jewish way, and let a Hertzberg understand Berrigan’s outcry as a courageously impartial identification with human suffering. In sum, let Jews and Christians alike appreciate the covenant nature each of the other’s faith.