Antisemitism has been termed the world’s oldest hatred. In considering the serious allegation that the New Testament is antisemitic, let us begin with a more precise definition of the word antisemitism that goes beyond simple Jew-hatred. To put it simply, antisemitism is not based on the hatred of the Jewish religion. It is based on hatred of Jewish people.
The word Semite, used in its modern sense, arose in connection with the emergence of nineteenth- century race theory. It quickly became weaponized as “antisemitism.” In Vienna, to cite only one example, it was deftly wielded by Mayor Karl Lueger to scapegoat that city’s Jewish population. In doing so, he won the admiration of an aspiring young political activist living in Vienna. His name was Adolf Hitler, who never forgot the ideological and political lessons he learned in Vienna at the feet of Karl Lueger.
Therefore, strictly speaking, the question, “Is the New Testament antisemitic?” is based upon a false premise that projects a nineteenth-century historical development back to the first century, when it did not exist. If, then, the Jewish New Testament writers and their contemporaries knew nothing of antisemitism, is the New Testament itself guilty of anti-Judaism? That is the question with which both Jews and Christians must grapple. For there is no doubt that there are statements in the New Testament that have been misconstrued as anti-Jewish and that have been placed in the service of the later, more widespread antisemitism that paved the way to the Holocaust.
For example, we find in the Gospel of John numerous instances where the Jews are depicted as those who opposed Jesus, persecuted him, and sought to kill him. Yet John’s gospel also describes Jews who believed in Jesus and even makes the statement, “Salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22). And to top it off, Jesus himself is Jewish. What we seem to have in John is a controversy between Jews who accepted Jesus as Messiah and Jews who did not.
Therefore, the question that is being tried in the New Testament is not the superiority of one religion—Christianity—over another, Judaism. It is between family members who were arguing over an issue only Jews could have been divided over, and sometimes they spoke with harsh language that offends our twenty-first-century ears.
Now comes the tragic element. As the Gentile followers of what was essentially a Jewish movement later came to outnumber and alienate its original adherents, they misused and lifted this sharp language of disagreement out of its original Jewish context to promote antisemitism. It is impossible to overstate the harm that this untruthful, antisemitic reading of the New Testament has done.
Therefore, we must recover a perspective that aligns with the New Testament’s Jewish context and the Good News it contains for Jews and Gentiles alike.
To go deeper into this important subject, please see our advanced series of articles on our sister site, Chosen People Answers: