And, even more bizarre, why do so many atheists defend their anti-Semitism on supposedly Christian grounds?
Back in Russia, I used to hear fervent communists refer to Jews as Christ-killers. So you believe in Christ? I’d ask innocently. Since in those days that sounded like a ringing denunciation, they invariably replied “Of course not, he’s a figment of bourgeois imagination.”
With my characteristic pedantry, I’d then wonder why they hated Jews for having killed Christ. You can’t be charged with killing a figment, can you?
Yet what interests me here isn’t anti-Semitism in general, but specifically Christian anti-Semitism, which is flagrantly incongruous in a religion of love. The principal genres of Jew-hatred in the West are currently racial and ethnic, but these too may be legitimately traced back to Christian roots.
Post-Christian hatred of Jews is largely rooted in Christian hatred of Judaism, which sentiment represents a tragic historical accident. The history is ancient, going back to Jesus’s earthly lifespan, when, according to popular mythology, the Jews rejected Christ and killed him judicially. This is indeed a myth.
The Jews as a whole didn’t reject Christ; only a few hundred Jews in Jerusalem, led by the Sanhedrin, did. The rest couldn’t possibly have rejected Christ simply because they were unaware of his existence.
Hence even at that time hatred of all Jews went contrary not only to Christ’s teaching of love but also to basic arithmetic. Those early anti-Semites should have remembered that even God was willing to spare Sodom if there was a single righteous man found among its denizens.
And by Christian standards, Jews had many not just righteous but saintly men at the time. It was they who first heard and recorded Christ’s message, followed him, mourned his death, rejoiced in his resurrection and died for their faith.
Some disciples carried the message outside Palestine, and Paul in particular was known as Apostle to the Gentiles. Yet at first the word mostly meant Hellenised Jewish communities around the Mediterranean, and much of Paul’s mission was trying to reconcile their old beliefs with the new faith.
It’s only when Paul began to strike farther afield, all the way to Rome, that Christ’s message reached communities with no Jewish background. Hence Paul’s teaching on justification by faith, not by following the Mosaic law and its rituals, particularly circumcision.
It was then that Paul began to preach Christian universalism, rising above ethnicity, social status and sex: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.”
However, it was also the time when Christians became hostile to Jews and, by way of reciprocity, vice versa. The reasons for that animosity are rooted in human psychology activated by a theological error on the part of the early Christians and the contemporaneous Jews.
Any religion claims exclusive rights to the ultimate truth, which is integral to the very definition of religion. Similar claims of other creeds are usually regarded with indifference and perhaps mild condescension. Hatred is rare, and it’s typically caused not by the theology of an alien creed but by its hostile actions.
Hence I’ve never observed any Christian hostility to, say, Buddhism, Hinduism, animism, Taoism or pantheism. Many Christians do dislike Islam, but mostly in response to objectionable acts perpetrated by Muslims.
Purely religious, if you will theological, hatred does exist, but it’s almost exclusively reserved for heretics and apostates: none so hostile as divergent proponents of the same creed. It follows that, the closer two creeds are perceived to be to each other, the more likely they will be to treat each other as implacable enemies.
The relationship between the Jews and early Christians could have followed the principle that sociologists call “both… and…”. Instead, tragically, it was “either… or…” that conquered.
Both parties overemphasised the undeniable fact of Jesus’s Jewishness. In his earthly life he was indeed a Palestinian Jew, who delivered his sermons in an Aramaic replete with references to the Pentateuch and other holy books of the Jews.
Even his dying words, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”, are a quote from Psalm 22:1. And Jesus’s living words were couched in Jewish scriptural terms.
The Book of Daniel in particular is a regular thesaurus of Jesus’s divine claims, oblique and recondite to outsiders, but instantly understandable to his audience, weaned as it was on metaphorical expression. To them, Jesus stated his divine nature as clearly as he would have done with a straightforward message along the lines of “I am God thy Lord”.
Jesus used a roundabout idiom because no communication can be effective unless put in a language the audience can understand. It’s for that reason that Jesus often referred to himself as Son of Man, a phrase his listeners associated with the Messiah.
Yet the Messiah isn’t God. In Judaism he is a human king from the Davidic line anointed by God to rule the Jewish people and ease their path to the kingdom of God. Had Jesus been nothing but that, no Christian universalism would have been possible, no Hellenised Christian theology and philosophy would have appeared.
However, they did appear, which shows that Jesus’s Jewishness, while important to his earthly life, isn’t essential to Christianity. Had both parties to the argument realised that at the time, they could have seen their way clear to theological peace and even friendship.
The Jews were chosen by God, but that didn’t preclude the possibility that God could have also chosen another group within their ranks and destined it for a different mission. In their turn, Christians could have gratefully acknowledged the virtue and wisdom of Judaism, borrowing many of its key tenets.
They could have adopted, for example, the Jewish cosmology, the Ten Commandments, the teaching on the soul, and the concept of a single, merciful God – all without claiming that Christianity had absorbed Judaism, thereby making it redundant.
Since that claim amounted not to adaptation but to usurpation, an historic opportunity was missed. Instead of seeing the Jews as adherents of another, strictly discrete religion with a parallel claim to unique status, the early Christians began to regard them as heretics and apostates, whose claims were inherently subversive.
The Jews committed the same tragic error. Rather than acknowledging the Christians as another Chosen People related to the Jews but following an entirely different fideistic and theological path, they treated them as traitors to Judaism.
That bilateral intransigence activated the psychological mechanism I mentioned earlier. People may forgive faithfulness to another religion, but not apostasy to their own.
Since, unlike Judaism, Christianity has no biological obstacles to its spread, it went on to become the religion of the West, with the Jews dispersed throughout the Roman Empire and then Christendom. The original enmity grew in scale and intensity, eventually acquiring a life of its own even after the West severed its Christian roots.
This hatred has hurt the Jews physically, the Christians morally, and both sides theologically. Hence neither religion found itself at peak strength to resist the onslaught of ruinous secularism, otherwise known as modernity.