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The sad legacy of Christian anti-Semitism


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26 Apr 2013
The sad legacy of Christian anti-Semitism

As a Christian, it seems to me that Christianity has sadly played a significant role both in anti-Judaism and the persecution of the Jewish people. The teachings of various established churches included the charge that Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus, and thus they deserved to be punished. The prolonged suffering and dispersal of Jews among the nations were seen as just retribution for their monumental crime of killing God. Another theological concept basically claimed that Christianity had replaced Judaism, due to the Jewish people’s poor performance as the Chosen People of God.

All in all early Christianity, spearheaded by the early Church fathers, began to view Judaism as inferior to Christianity and Jews themselves as evil and cursed, unworthy of mercy and love. In essence, a Jew was regarded as worse than a pagan.

One of the most well-known detractors of Jews was the Church father John Chrysostom (354-430), who accused the Jews of, among other things, idolatry and housing the Devil himself in their synagogues.

In his “First Homily Against the Jews”,Chrysostom insisted that, “Jews are dogs, stiff-necked, gluttonous, drunkards. They are beasts unfit for work… The Jews had fallen into a condition lower than the vilest animals… The synagogue is worse than a brothel and a drinking shop; it is a den of scoundrels, a temple of demons, the cavern of devils, a criminal assembly of the assassins of Christ…. I hate the Jews, because they violate the Law… It is the duty of all Christians to hate the Jews.”

Several centuries later, this visceral anti-Jewish propaganda was refuelled by the influential reformer Martin Luther. When asked, “What shall we do with this damned, rejected race of Jews?” Luther responded:

“First, their synagogues should be set on fire… Secondly, their homes should likewise be broken down and destroyed… Thirdly, they should be deprived of their prayer books and Talmuds in which such idolatry, lies, cursing, and blasphemy are taught… Fifthly, travelling privileges must be absolutely forbidden to Jews… If however we are afraid that they might harm us personally… then let us settle with them for that which they have extorted usuriously from us, and after having divided it up fairly, let us drive them out of the country for all time.”

Centuries later, such pronouncements were a source of inspiration to the Nazis. Both Chrysostom and Luther were quoted by Nazi officials and their works were reprinted by the Third Reich. Quite strikingly, their views were also quoted by the defence in the Nuremberg war crimes trials. For instance, Julius Streicher, editor of the anti-Semitic weekly Der Stürmer, asserted at his trial that Martin Luther also should have been there presenting his case. Thus one can clearly see the link between classic Christian anti-Judaism and modern racist anti-Semitism.

Because Christianity shared a tradition with Judaism, the Jews constituted a perpetual challenge to Christian truth. Even more disturbing was the fact that the Christian Messiah hailed from the House of David. One way of overcoming this dilemma was to increasingly diminish and blot out the Jewish identity of Jesus.

As a consequence, the Jewish character of Jesus was removed and he became first and foremost a Christian, leaving little to connect Christians to Judaism. However, Jesus was indeed a Jew, as were his family and disciples, and there is nothing in the New Testament which negates that.

In Matthew 5:17. Jesus states clearly:"Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them.”

Similarly, the Gospels record Jesus celebrating the Jewish holidays, and describe him as wearing the garments of a religious Jewish male.

Perhaps the saddest attempt at removing any traces of Jewishness both from Church practices in general and from Jesus’ persona in particular took place in the Nazi era and the effort to ‘de-judaize’ Germany. To this end “Deutsche Christen”, the so-called German Christian Church, disassociated Christianity from the Old Testament altogether and turned Christ into a perfect “Aryan Jesus”. They also published their own de-judaized New Testament, altered their hymn books, and updated their catechism, all in the effort to rid German Christianity of all Jewish influence.

It is no wonder then that when Kristallnacht – the Night of the Broken Glass – took place on November 9, 1938 the churches of Germany were silent. The mass pogrom saw 30,000 Jews rounded up and taken to concentration camps, while 1,000 synagogues were burned all over Germany. The lack of public criticism left the Nazis with a sense that they now had a license to forge ahead with anti-Jewish actions, including the confiscation of Jewish property. As far as I know, there was only one church leader who publicly lamented that “synagogues too are houses of God”.

By the time Germany ignited World War Two in 1939, many opportunities to react had been lost. Increasingly, churches throughout Europe mostly kept silent while Jews were persecuted and murdered. Any protest was exceptional.

Several factors lay behind this deafening silence: anti-Judaism in churches expressed in sermons and by other means; Europe’s identity as a primarily Christian continent and a perceived need to protect the church institutions themselves. This, in turn, raises a very profound question: In times of crisis, is it more important for a church to protect its institution or to be a voice of morality?

What does come through clearly are the limits of human compassion. In such a situation, how was it possible for only some to react to the Lord’s leading while most of humanity were deaf to His gentle voice.

Let us all remember the words – very serious words – of the detained pastor and concentration camp inmate Martin Niemöller: “Christianity in Germany bears a greater responsibility before God than the National Socialists, the SS and the Gestapo. We ought to have recognised the Lord Jesus in the brother who suffered…”

Dr. Susanna Kokkonen is Director of Christian Friends of Yad Vashem. Learn more about this vital work at

The ICEJ has an official partnership with Yad Vashem to help that institution carry its message about the universal lessons of the Holocaust to the Christian world.


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