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Section: Antisemitism

The Church and Judaism

The Sermon on the mount, Jesus preaches to his followers
The Sermon on the mount, Jesus preaches to his followers Image: Wikimedia Commons public domain

According to the Gospels, about 2000 years ago, under Roman rule, a Jewish teacher in Judea attracted a big following. This teacher was Jesus of Nazareth. After his death many people believed that Jesus was the promised saviour.

Later on some of his ideas formed the basis of a new religion called Christianity. The teachings of Christianity, as they developed, came to differ from several basic Jewish ideas. The two religions split from each other and became entirely separate.

Portrayal of Jews in the New Testament

A painting of Jesus with the 12 disciples during the last supper. Whilst all of the disciples would have been Jews, you may note that Judas (bottom centre-left) has been portrayed as a Jew with a large nose and with a bag of money over his shoulder.
A painting of Jesus with the 12 disciples during the last supper. Whilst all of the disciples would have been Jews, you may note that Judas (bottom centre-left) has been portrayed as a Jew with a large nose and with a bag of money over his shoulder. © 2011 Beit Hatfutsot.

From reading the New Testament it is easy to believe that Jews are the villains and Christians the heroes. However, Jesus and his disciples were Jews, and the discussions recorded in the New Testament are Jewish discussions. Such discussions continue today amongst Jews, as they argue about the best interpretations of Jewish teachings. The four main gospels were written from around 60 to 110 years after Jesus’ death.

During that time there was much animosity between the Jews and the followers of Jesus. The idea developed that Jesus was the saviour of mankind. He had come into this world to save it from its sins. Some of his followers believed he was the physical son of God.

To believe in Jesus you no longer had to follow the Jewish commandments or the rules that Jesus himself would have followed. What mattered was faith in Jesus, not deeds. The Romans, who were responsible for killing Jesus, were not blamed for this even though they controlled the entire country. According to the gospels, Jesus was tried for treason, sentenced to death and crucified (the Roman method of execution). The later gospels painted the Jews as the villains of the story, responsible for Jesus’ murder.

The New Testament has since been used to demonstrate that the Jews were the enemies of Jesus, and therefore the enemies of God.

Teachings about Jews in the ancient world

According to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus' crucifixion was authorized by Roman authorities at the insistence of leading Jews. This image shows The first page of the Gospel of Mark in Armenian, by Sargis Pitsak, 14th century.
According to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus' crucifixion was authorized by Roman authorities at the insistence of leading Jews. This image shows The first page of the Gospel of Mark in Armenian, by Sargis Pitsak, 14th century. Image: Wikimedia Commons public domain.

In the first few centuries of Christianity, Jews were shown as the killers of Jesus and, because of the claim that Jesus was the Son of God, were the killers of God as well.

It was thought that killing a God would require ‘devilish’ powers, therefore it was thought that the Jews were in league with the devil and that, because they did not accept Jesus as their saviour, they were damned.

In early Christian teaching everyone who did not believe in Jesus was damned. The Jews were sometimes seen as being particularly wicked because they had been given the opportunity to accept Jesus and had not.

Early Christians accepted what the Bible says about Jews being chosen by God. They therefore did not want to destroy them, but wanted to humiliate and, if possible, convert them. As a result Jews suffered greatly, especially after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire.

Churches in the world today

  • Christianity has split into several different Churches over the centuries. The three great divisions are between:The Roman Catholic Church, led by the Pope and based in Rome,

The Orthodox churches which are mostly to be found in Eastern Europe and around the Middle East and

The Protestant churches, which broke off from the Roman Catholic Church and have produced various different groupings over the last 500 years.

Sometimes these different groups have been in bitter argument, and even at war, and this grim history is still evident. When the Pope visited Greece several years ago, some leaders of the Greek Orthodox Church refused to meet him. This was because they still felt deeply about the massacres of their people carried out by Catholic Crusaders centuries ago.

However, in the 20th century, a movement began, called ecumenism, which called for the different churches to learn to work together and respect each other’s common Christianity.

All around the Christian world Christians from different churches and denominations have started to work together for the common good. This is still developing. It has led some Christians to think again about the way in which they treat those with whom they don’t agree.

This has had an impact on Christian relations with Jews. There are various projects where Christians and Jews (and sometimes Muslims) work together to recognise what they have in common as well as learn to respect their differences.

Popular preaching in medieval times

William of Norwich (c. 1132 – March 22, 1144) who was a boy whose death was, at the time, attributed to the Jewish community of Norwich. It is the first known medieval accusation of blood libel against Jews.
William of Norwich (c. 1132 – March 22, 1144) who was a boy whose death was, at the time, attributed to the Jewish community of Norwich. It is the first known medieval accusation of blood libel against Jews. Image: Wikimedia Commons public domain.

In 1095 the Pope launched the first Crusade to conquer the Holy Land for Christianity from Islam.

This encouraged many Christians in Europe to feel that it was right to fight against, and destroy, the enemies of Christianity. The most visible non-Christian minority in Europe was the Jews. Crusader enthusiasm led to increased oppression and persecution. In 1144 in Norwich, England, a priest accused the Jews of using the blood of a Christian child for ritual purposes. This vicious lie has become known as the ‘blood libel’. It spread throughout the Christian world. It was particularly prominent at Easter time, when the story of the crucifixion (Jesus’ execution) is told.

The ’blood libel’ has continued into the 21st century. In addition, religious dramas started to be performed which told the stories in the Bible and showed the Jews as the enemies of Jesus, almost like pantomime villains.

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