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Christian Antisemitism In The Church Is Much Worse Than You Thought!

by Dr. Eitan Bar
17 minutes read

Antisemitism, or hostility and discrimination towards Jews, has a long and complex history within Christianity. While Christianity emerged from Judaism and Jesus himself was a Jew, over the centuries, many Christians have harbored deep-seated prejudices against Jews and Judaism. These attitudes have often been fueled by religious and political ideologies and have manifested in various forms, including violence, persecution, and institutionalized discrimination.

One of the earliest and most influential sources of Christian antisemitism was the New Testament, whereby verses were taken out of context. As we covered earlier, some passages in the New Testament, such as the story of the crucifixion itself, have been used to justify persecution and discrimination against Jews. In addition, the early Christian Church fathers, such as John Chrysostom and Augustine, wrote extensively about the supposed “evil” of the Jews and the alleged responsibility of the Jewish people for the death of Jesus, further contributing to negative attitudes, including severe persecution, within the Christian community towards Jews in general, which led to a reaction from the Jewish side. A vicious circular cycle that fuels itself. However, the distinction was that the Jewish response was in writing, not through violence. Considering Jesus’ commands to love and care – even for your enemy, one would expect the Christians to be on the non-violent side.

Over the centuries, these attitudes have manifested in various forceful ways. During the Middle Ages, Jews were frequently violently persecuted by Christians. In many European countries, Jews were forced to live in ghettos, restricted in their occupations, and subjected to numerous legal and social disabilities. In some cases, such as the infamous Spanish Inquisition, Jews were forced to convert to Christianity or face persecution and execution.

Numerous Church Fathers asserted that every Jew was fundamentally and repulsively un-Christian or anti-Christian and that Jews transmitted indelibly evil characteristics to their descendants.

Consequently, the sacrament of Christian baptism could not cleanse the “stench of Jewish unbelief.” Associating Jews with heresy, the second-century Christian apologist Justin Martyr argued that God had given Moses’ Law to the Jews to restrain the inherently sinful wickedness of the Jews. Augustine maintained that no Jew could ever escape the stigma of their ancestors’ denial and murder of Christ.[i] He wrote that the evil of the Jews, “in their parents [in parentibus], led to death.”[ii] His mentor, Jerome, claimed that all Jews were Judas and innately evil beings who betrayed the Lord for money.[iii] John Chrysostom, early church father and the archbishop of Constantinople, dubbed Jews deicides with no opportunity for “atonement, excuse, or defense.”[iv] Referencing Jeremiah 13:23, “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots?” in the seventh century, Isidore of Seville declared that the Jews’ evil character never changed.[v]

A Byzantine proverb stated, “When a Jew is baptized, it is as if one had baptized an ass.”[vi] In the following century, John of Damascus wrote that God granted the Jews the Sabbath due to their “absolute propensity for material things.”[vii]

The widespread belief was that the Jew was inherently evil and that this evil was in his blood. Therefore, converting them to Christ will not be possible.

These early manifestations of Christian racism persisted into the Middle Ages. When in 1130, Anacletus II, great-grandson of a converted Jew, was elected Pope, Bernard of Clairvaux adopted the racist stance that “it is an insult to Christ that the offspring of a Jew has occupied the chair of Peter.”[viii] Ironically, forgetting Peter himself was a Jew.

These early forms of Christian racism continued into the modern era, further complicating the relationship between Christianity and antisemitism. It is essential to acknowledge that while not all Christians adhered to racist beliefs, these ideas were widely accepted, persisted within the Christian tradition, and contributed to the climate that enabled the Holocaust. The intersection of Christian theology, antisemitism, and racism created a toxic environment that allowed for the vilification and persecution of Jews throughout history.

The Holocaust should never be solely attributed to Christian ideology, but the longstanding tradition of Christian antisemitism played a significant role in the development and execution of this genocide. To understand the full scope of the Holocaust, one must consider the complex interplay of ideological, historical, and social factors that led to the persecution and extermination of millions of Jews. Recognizing the role of Christianity in this context is not an indictment of the faith as a whole but rather a necessary step in understanding the forces that contributed to one of the darkest chapters in human history.

The Jesuit periodical Civiltà Cattolica, backed and supervised by the Vatican, conducted a racist anti-Semitic crusade from the late nineteenth century until at least 1945. In 1880, Father Giuseppe Oreglia penned:

The Jews — eternal insolent children, obstinate, dirty, thieves, liars, ignoramuses, pests and the scourge of those near and far. Oh how wrong and deluded are those who think Judaism is just a religion, like Catholicism, Paganism, Protestantism, and not in fact a race, a people, and a nation! . . . For the Jews are not only Jews because of their religion . . . they are Jews also and especially because of their race.

The following year, Oreglia added that driven by the devil, Jews could not become members of another nation or race, “they are born Jews and must remain Jews. Hatred for Christians they imbibed with their mother’s milk.”[ix]

When newly appointed Archbishop Théodore Kohn (Cohen), a Catholic scholar and convert from Judaism, attempted to address a Catholic Congress in 1896, he faced jeers, and the Vatican requested his resignation.[x]

In 1904, French Catholic newspaper claimed that “the Church of Satan is incarnated in the Jewish race.” In 1934, a Polish Catholic journal Pro Christo observed that even after seven generations, converted Jews still emitted their “Jew-stench”—a concept related to the association of Jews with the devil, who smelled like feces.[xi]

In the early twentieth century, the Churches disavowed racist attitudes toward Jews, presumably because of the Christian sacrament of baptism, but they often acted as if they were evaluating Jews based on their race. Furthermore, many racists, if not most, do not entirely supplant their pseudo-scientific Judeophobia for their Christian anti-Semitism. Instead, they incorporate their racist ideology into their pre-existing religious prejudice against Jews. Traditional religious anti-Semitism has coexisted with racist anti-Semitism for nearly 2,000 years. For two millennia, through sermons, theological writings, laws, art, and literature, Christian anti-Semitism has focused on the Jews’ persistent “sins” and “crimes”—their obstinate adherence to their perfidy, their avarice, their treachery, their servitude, and their murderous fury at Christ and Christians. On some occasions, Christian racism resulted in the mass murder of Jews. Crusaders and other medieval Christians frequently massacred Jews, whom they deemed hopelessly unconvertible, without offering the choice of baptism. These murderers, much like John Chrysostom and Martin Luther, regarded Jews as irredeemably Jewish and deserving of annihilation. The National Socialists harbored similar sentiments and, mutatis-mutandis, opted for the same resolution to the “Jewish Problem.”

Following their study of American opinion in the 1960s, Charles Glock and Rodney Stark discovered that even during a period of burgeoning ecumenical harmony led by the Catholic Vatican II Council, approximately half of the Americans interviewed—Catholic and Protestant, lay and clergy alike—believed that the Jews are responsible for their own suffering.

The narrative that the Jewish people deserve the persecution and dispersal they’ve faced over the last two millennia due to their rejection of Jesus as the Messiah is common among many Christian perspectives. But have we ever wondered what would have occurred if they had accepted Him?

Imagine, if Jesus had been hailed as their king by the Jews, and His crucifixion had been averted, the vital elements of the Christian faith — atonement for sin through the blood of Christ and the resurrection — would not have transpired. In essence, the birth of Christianity as we know it would not have occurred.

These interview respondents were the same individuals who, associating Jews with materialism, criticized them for being avaricious. The researchers concluded that far from being strictly secular, “the core and essence of anti-Semitism rested on Christianity.” A staggering 95 percent of Americans derived their secular stereotypes of Jews from the Christian faith.[xii]

Other investigations into prejudice and stereotyping suggest that although the human mind possesses an innate tendency to classify, it does not inevitably categorize others based on race or ethnicity. This results from cultural conditioning. For instance, in England from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, Jews were stereotyped similarly to how they had been since the era of the Church Fathers or at least the Middle Ages and would continue to be until the Nazi period, as: cursed, Antichrists, avaricious, blasphemers, brutes, cheats, circumcisers, cowards, crucifiers, cutthroats, deicides, desecrators of the Host, devils, dogs, fences, parasites, foul-smelling, bleeding, infidels, lascivious infidels, locusts, usurers, murderers, obstinate, stiff-necked, peddlers, perfidious, poisoners, pigs, proselytizers, ravens, reptiles, ritual murderers, serpents, witches, subverters, traitors, thieves, tricksters, swindlers, unclean beasts, and wolves. A similar pattern emerged in late nineteenth-century France during the Dreyfus Affair.[xiii]

Christian associations of the term “Jew” with detestable deeds and traits have been integrated into the languages of the West. In the Deutsches Wörterbuch, initiated by the Brothers Grimm in 1838 (and completed in 1960), “Jude” was defined as “Jew: …of their evil traits—they are offensive and slovenly, greedy and extortionate. [One says] in a whole variety of idioms—dirty as an old Jew; he stinks like a Jew;…to taste like a dead Jew…to practice usury, to cheat, to profiteer, to borrow like a Jew.”

The dictionary also highlighted that “Jew” refers to a portion of a pig’s spinal column; to “jew” (jüdeln) signifies talking, bargaining, or smelling like a Jew.[xiv] In the seventeenth century, Littré’s French Dictionary defined “Juif” as someone who accrues money through deceit. In colloquial (Brazilian) Portuguese, as in English, all things associated with Christianity are considered good and valuable, but to “jew” (judiar) implies mistreatment, torment, or mockery. “Judeu,” or Jew, denotes a malevolent, miserly individual. One saying proclaims, “A Jew, not a Christian, killed my dove, my dove so tame that it would eat out of my hand.” “Judiada” alludes to inhuman, barbarous, and cruel behavior. In popular belief, Jews drank human blood and consumed babies. Who would commit such acts? According to scholar Célia Mentlik, “no other than the Antichrist.”[xv]

The Oxford English Dictionary contains numerous historical examples of the usage of the words “Jew” and “Jewish” in English.[xvi] Nearly half of the definitions are compound words that convey offensive and repulsive connotations. For example, a “jewbush” is one that induces vomiting and death.

The term “antisemitism” has traditionally been distinguished from “anti-Judaism,” “Judaeophobia,” or “Judenhaß.”[xvii] “Antisemitism” (Antisemitismus) is a nineteenth-century German neologism that replaced “Jew-hatred” (Judenhaß) in polite discourse, carrying with it undertones of scientific authority, political activity, and racism. In its narrowest conception, antisemitism suggests that it was not the religion of the Jews that incited hostility (anti-Judaism) but rather the biological-race aspects of the Jewish character as manifested in their behavior.

The historical continuity of anti-Jewish ideas and imagery serves as clear evidence that no fundamental difference exists between anti-Judaism and antisemitism. One recent author has outlined a dozen beliefs held by modern antisemites about Jews: (1) conspiracy, (2) intent to conquer the world, (3) desire to harm Christians, (4) immorality, (5) money-grubbing, (6) control of the press, (7) ruination of Christians economically, (8) creation of godless Communism, (9) murder of Christian children and drinking their blood, (10) destruction of the Christian religion, (11) traitors to their nation, and (12) the need for segregation and curtailing of Jewish rights.[xviii] All these traits—control of the press and creation of Communism could be subsumed under “conspiracy”—are not modern but stem from the writings of the Church Fathers and the Christian Middle Ages.

Every Christian is responsible for preventing the shedding of “innocent blood” and should love their neighbors as themselves—both first expressed in the Hebrew Scriptures.[1] Shortly after the Holocaust and World War II, German-Christian philosopher Karl Jaspers posited that as witnesses to any crime, we must intervene to avoid incurring the deepest form of “metaphysical guilt.”[xix] Choosing to remain silent in the face of evil is a form of complicity, though not as morally reprehensible as directly committing the act. The Church Fathers who established the theological framework portraying Jews as history’s most deplorable people, the medieval theologians and some popes who expanded and enforced this system, certain American presidents, some British government officials, National Socialists, and Holocaust deniers—all have played varying yet critical roles in perpetuating the evil of antisemitism, culminating in the unparalleled atrocity of the Holocaust. It is vital to recognize that while history cannot be altered, the past must be examined; we need to learn from and remember the injustices committed in God’s name and pledge never to let such evil recur—against Jews or anyone else.

As Christians, it is vital to explore the biblical Jewish roots of the faith to gain a deeper understanding of the Scriptures and the culture from which they originated. However, while doing so, we must also be mindful of the anti-Semitic interpretations of many Church Fathers and avoid perpetuating harmful stereotypes and misconceptions about Judaism and Jewish people. By acknowledging the Jewishness of Jesus and the early Church, we can gain a greater appreciation for the shared history and heritage and develop a more nuanced understanding of how both faiths have evolved over time.

Ultimately, it is essential to approach the early Jewish roots of the Christian faith with humility and an open mind and to seek out resources and perspectives that challenge our assumptions and broaden our views. In this way, we can build bridges of understanding and mutual respect between Christians and Jews and embrace the richness and diversity of our shared spiritual heritage.

Early Church Antisemitism

So far, I have provided a bird-eye view of Christian antisemitism. Now, I will explore specific examples, names, and events to highlight the pervasiveness of antisemitism and the persecution of Jews by Christians and in the name of Jesus throughout history. I must emphasize—especially to any Jewish readers—that many Christians have shown love and support for the Jewish people, understanding their moral and spiritual responsibility to care for them and not to boast over them, as stated in Romans 11:18.

Church Fathers

During the early years of Christianity, numerous Church Fathers harbored unfavorable opinions of Jews and Judaism. The origins of Replacement Theology and the resulting anti-Semitism can be traced back to the early stages of Christianity, which is especially ironic given that the first Church was initially a predominantly Jewish movement which was established in Judea by Jewish followers of the Jewish Messiah, with its foundational documents authored by Jews. Regrettably, many influential Church Fathers who played significant roles in shaping early Christianity forgot these facts, promoting anti-Semitism instead, thereby tainting the core of the Christian faith:

  • Ignatius of Antioch (50-117 AD) taught that those who partake in the celebration of the Passover are partakers with those who killed Jesus.[xx]
  • Justin Martyr (100-106 AD) claimed God’s covenant with Israel was no longer valid and that the church had replaced the Jews.[xxi]
  • Irenaeus (130-202 AD) declared the Jews were disinherited from the grace of God.[xxii]
  • Tertullian (155-230 AD) blamed the Jews for the death of Jesus and argued they had been rejected by God.[xxiii]
  • Origen (185-254 AD) was responsible for much anti-Semitism based on his assertion that the Jewish race was responsible for killing Jesus.[xxiv]
  • Eusebius (275-339 AD) taught that the blessings of Scripture were meant for the church, while the curses were meant for the Jews. He asserted that the Church was the “true Israel.”[xxv]
  • Hilary of Poitiers (291 – 371 AD) said, “Jews are a perverse people, accursed by God forever.”[xxvi]
  • Sylvester I (314-335), the pope at the time of Nicaea, ordered:

No priest shall… be friendly or sociable with Jews, nor should anyone take food of drink with the Jews, for if this was decreed by the holy apostles, it is incumbent upon the faithful to obey their command; and the synod shall excommunicate anyone who does not comply with this order.

  • Gregory, bishop of Nyssa (335–395 AD), said:

Jews are slayers of the Lord, murderers of the prophets, enemies and haters of God, adversaries of grace, enemies of their fathers’ faith, advocates of the devil, a brood of vipers, slanderers, scoffers, men of darkened minds, the leaven of Pharisees, a congregation of demons, sinners, wicked men, haters of goodness!

  • Ambrose (340-397 AD) said:

The Jews are the most worthless of all men. They are lecherous, greedy, rapacious. They are perfidious murderers of Christ. They worship the Devil. Their religion is a sickness. The Jews are the odious assassins of Christ, and for killing God there is no expiation possible, no indulgence or pardon. Christians may never cease vengeance, and the Jew must live in servitude forever.
God always hated the Jews.
It is essential that all Christians hate them.[xxvii]

  • John Chrysostom (349-407 AD) preached a series of sermons against the Jews in which he stated:

The synagogue is worse than a brothel…it is the den of scoundrels and the repair of wild beasts…the temple of demons devoted to idolatrous cults…the refuge of brigands and debauchees, and the cavern of devils. It is a criminal assembly of Jews…a place of meeting for the assassins of Christ… a house worse than a drinking shop…a den of thieves, a house of ill fame, a dwelling of iniquity, the refuge of devils, a gulf and a abyss of perdition…I would say the same things about their souls… As for me, I hate the synagogue…I hate the Jews for the same reason.

Chrysostomalso denied that Jews could ever receive forgiveness. He claimed it was a Christian duty to hate Jews and that Jews are Satan worshipers. Chrysostomwas canonized a saint.[xxviii]

  • Jerome (347-420 AD) was the second-most voluminous writer after Augustine of Hippo in ancient Latin Christianity. Jerome described the Jews as:

Serpents wearing the image of Judas. Their psalms and prayers are the braying of donkeys… They are incapable of understanding Scripture.[xxix]

  • St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD) is admired for his many writings, primarily by Protestants, especially Calvinists and Lutherans, who consider him one of the theological fathers of pre-Protestant Reformation times. Augustine asserted that the Jews deserved death but were destined to wander the earth humiliated as a witness to the victory of the church over the synagogue.[xxx]

It is important to note that these views were not universal among all Christian leaders, as few Christian leaders have actively opposed antisemitism and sought to build positive relationships with Jews.

Significant Church Councils

  • Synod of Elvira (305 AD in Spain) 

The Synod of Elvira was a council of bishops held in the city of Elvira (present-day Íllora) in the Roman province of Baetica. The counsel prohibited Christians from sharing a meal with a Jew, marrying a Jew, blessing a Jew, or observing the Sabbath.[xxxi] These decisions were part of a larger trend in the early Christian church of distancing itself from Judaism.

  • First Council of Nicaea (325 AD in Turkey)

Perhaps the most known Council in Christian history, the first Council of Nicea, was a council of Christian bishops held in Nicaea (now Iznik, Turkey) in 325 CE. It was a significant event in the early history of Christianity and had some consequences for the relationship between Christians and Jews. While the Council of Nicea was not primarily focused on issues of antisemitism or the treatment of Jews, it greatly affected it. The Council of Nicea was called by the Roman Emperor Constantine I, who sought to unite the Christian Church and resolve conflicts over Christian doctrine.

  • None of the bishops of Jewish background were allowed to join the council.[xxxii]
  • The Council Changed the celebration of the Resurrection from the Jewish Feast of First Fruits to Easter in an attempt to disassociate it from Jewish feasts.
  • The Council stated: “For it is unbecoming beyond measure that on this holiest of festivals we should follow the customs of the Jews. Henceforth let us have nothing in common with this odious people.”[xxxiii]
  • A decision was made to replace Passover with Easter, and to replace the Saturday Sabbath with a Sunday Sabbath.[xxxiv]

Emperor Constantine said, “Let us then have nothing in common with the detestable Jewish crowd; for we have received from our Savior a different way.”[xxxv]

The persecution of the Quartodecimans marked the beginning of a dark era. The term “Quartodeciman” is Latin for “fourteeners,” referring to Jews who celebrated Passover on the 14th of Nisan. As time went on, performing circumcision was outlawed, with violations punishable by death. Eventually, Jews were prohibited from holding public office or serving as officers in the military.[xxxvi] Later, restrictions were put on where the Jewish people could live, with whom they could do business, and where they could travel.[xxxvii]

This article was taken from my book, “Why Don’t Jews Believe in Jesus.

[1] Gen. 4:9 and Deut. 19:10; see also Num. 35:9–31 and Josh. 20:1–9.

[i] Gerhart Ladner, “Aspects of Patristic Anti-Judaism,” Viator: Medieval and Renaissance Studies 2 (1971), 362.

[ii] Augustine, Adversus Judaeos 7, 10, see also 8, 11. “Occidistis Christum in parentibus vestris.”

[iii] Jerome, The Homilies of Saint Jerome (Washington, DC 1964), 1:255, 258–62.

[iv] John Chrysostom, Homilies against Judaizing Christians, 6.2.10.

[v] Contra Judaeos, 1, 18, in Rosemary Ruether, Faith and Fratricide (New York 1965), 130.

[vi] Quoted by James Parkes, The Conflict of Church and Synagogue (New York 1979), 290.

[vii] “On the Sabbath,” 4:23, in Ruether, Faith and Fratricide, 148.

[viii] Mary Stroll, The Jewish Pope: Ideology and Politics in the Papal Schism of 1130

(Leiden 1987), 166.

[ix] Quoted in David Kertzer, The Popes against the Jews: The Vatican’s Role in the Rise of Modern Anti-Semitism (New York 2001), 136–8.

[x] Kertzer, The Popes against the Jews, 208.

[xi] Kertzer, The Popes against the Jews, 210–11.

[xii] Charles Glock and Rodney Stark, Christian Beliefs and Antisemitism (New York 1966), xvi, 185–7, 50–65, 73–4, 105. See also Rodney Stark et al., Wayward Shepherds (New York 1971), 5, 9–10, 50; Alphons Silbermann, Sind Wir Antisemiten? (Cologne 1982), 51–2.

[xiii] Frank Felsenstein, Antisemitic Stereotypes: A Paradigm of Otherness in English Popular Culture, 1660–1830 (Baltimore 1995); Quillard, Le Monument Henry.

[xiv] Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm, Deutsches Wörterbuch, 2nd ed. (Leipzig 1877), Vol. 4, S. 2353.

[xv] Célia Szniter Mentlik, “HISTÓRIA, LINGUAGEM E PRECONCEITO: ressonâncias do período inquisitorial sobre o mundo contemporâneo,” Revista História Hoje 2 (5) (November 2004); http://www.anpuh.uepg.br/ historia-hoje/vo12n5/celia.htm

[xvi] Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford 1933, 1961), 5:576–7; and the Oxford English Dictionary Supplement (Oxford 1976), 2:18–19.

[xvii] See, for example, Fischer, The History of an Obsession.

[xviii] Kertzer, Popes against the Jews, 206.

[xix] Karl Jaspers, The Question of German Guilt (New York 1947), 32.

[xx] www.religioustolerance.org/jud_pers1.html John G. Gager, The Origins of Anti-Semitism (London: Oxford University Press, 1983 ), pp. 127-129.

[xxi] Centre for the Study of Historical Christian Antisemitism, “Justin Martyr,” www.hcacentre.org/JustinMartyr.html

[xxii] LeadershipU, “The Jews as the Christians Saw Them,” www.leaderu.com/ftissues/ft9705/articles/wilken. html

[xxiii] Centre for the Study of Historical Christian Antisemitism, “Origen,” www.hcacentre.org/Origen.html

[xxiv] California State University at Northridge, “Canons of the Church Council at Elvira (Granada) ca. 309 AD,” www.csun.edu/~hcfll004/elvira.html

[xxv] Centre for the Study of Historical Christian Antisemitism, “John Chrysostom,” www.hcacentre.org/JohnChrysostom.html

[xxvi] https://www.khouse.org/articles/2020/1372/

[xxvii] Gabriel Wilensky, Six Million Crucifixions: How Christian Teachings About Jews Paved the Road to the Holocaust, (San Diego,CA: QWERTY Publishers, 2010), p. 98.

[xxviii] Ibid., “St. Jerome,” www.hcacentre.org/Jerome.html

[xxix] Ibid., “Saint Augustine,” www.hcacentre.org/Augustine.html

[xxx] John Weiss, Ideology of Death: Why the Holocaust Happened in Germany, (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1996) p. 15.

[xxxi] New Advent, “Easter Controversy,” www.newadvent.org/cathen/05228a.htm

[xxxii] Bagatti Bellarmino, The Church from the Circumcision: History and Archaeology of the Judeo-Christians (Jerusalem: Franciscan Printing Press, 1971), 93.

[xxxiii] Gene Shaparenko, The Resurgence of ‘Christian’ Anti-Semitism,” www.aquatechnology.net/RESURGENCE.html

[xxxiv] Dr. Louis Goldberg, God, Torah, Messiah (San Francisco: Purple Pomegranate Productions, 2009), 128.

[xxxv] Vita Constantine 3.18, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/25023.html.

[xxxvi] https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/2617027/jewish/Overview-of-Christian-Antisemitism.html.

[xxxvii] G. Sujin, “The Protestant Reformers and the Jews: Excavating Contexts, Unearthing Logic,” ed. Christopher Metress, MDPI, Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute, April 20, 2017, www.mdpi.com/2077-1444/8/4/72/html.

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Dr. Eitan Bar
Author, Theologian, Activist