Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Does the Bible provide justification for the persecution of the Jews?

This entry continues a critique of Christian Morality written by Dean Dowling. You can read the first part of this critique here.


Dowling claims that the Bible provides ‘complete biblical justification in the Gospels and Paul’ for the persecution of the Jews. He believes this justification is a necessary condition of the 1600 year persecution, ie, it could not have happened without this justification. He provides six biblical references as proof that ‘Christians blame the Jews for the death of their Messiah.’ These are:

  • Matthew 27:25
  • Mark 2:6, 16; 3:6; 15:10
  • Luke 23:4, 14, 20, 22, 25
  • John 8:44
  • 1 Thessalonians 2:15ff

The gospel texts

Anyone who cares to read the verses from the gospels themselves will discover that, in these texts, the following people and/or groups are identified as being responsible for the death of Jesus:

  • The Pharisees
  • Scribes of the Pharisees
  • Herod and the Herodians
  • The Chief Priests
  • The religious leaders
  • Pilate
  • The crowds

None of these verses suggest that the whole Jewish nation is responsible for Jesus’ death and none of them promote the idea that Jews should be persecuted. Dowling is clutching at straws here and reading into the text what he clearly wants to see. The texts are so clear, in fact, one wonders whether he has actually studied them with a sceptical view!

The Pauline text

Dowling has only offered one text from Paul’s writings – 1 Thessalonians 2:15ff. The whole paragraph reads:

We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers. For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea, for you suffered the same things from your own compatriots as they did from the Jews, who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out; they displease God and oppose everyone by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. Thus they have constantly been filling up the measure of their sins; but God’s wrath has overtaken them at last. (1 Th 2:13-16, NRSV)

Paul is referring to the Jews who killed Jesus and the prophets. In reading the rest of the New Testament, it is clear that these people are not the whole of Israel, but the specific group of those who were involved in the treatment described. To read into this text the idea that Paul wants all Jews to be blamed or persecuted is, once again, to see in the text what Dowling wants to see.

Paul’s attitude to the Jews, of whom he is one, can be found by reading other sections of his writings also contained in the New Testament. For example, he writes, in Romans 11:

I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew… (Ro 11:1-2a, NRSV)

Paul goes on to use himself, a converted persecutor, as evidence that God has not rejected Israel. What Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians ‘falls within the range of self-criticism of his own people, as is found in the writings of contemporary Jewish authors such as Philo and Josephus.’ (Collins 2003)

So there is nothing remotely promoting persecution of the Jews in the New Testament. For Dowling to suggest that the Jews could not have been persecuted if there wasn’t complete justification in the Gospels and Paul is utter nonsense.

The truth is that the Jews have been persecuted despite there being nothing in the Gospels and Paul to justify it. The persecution of the Jews is described in the Old Testament long before there were any Gospels or Pauline writings. For example, Nehemiah 1:1-3 describes how,

In late autumn, in the month of Kislev, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes’ reign, I [Nehemiah] was at the fortress of Susa. Hanani, one of my brothers, came to visit me with some other men who had just arrived from Judah. I asked them about the Jews who had returned there from captivity and about how things were going in Jerusalem.

They said to me, “Things are not going well for those who returned to the province of Judah. They are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem has been torn down, and the gates have been destroyed by fire.” (Ne 1:1-3, NLT)

In Esther 3:1-6, Haman hatches a plot to get rid of the Jews. And the (in)famous persecutions of Antiochus IV Epiphanes during 175-163 bc are well known. Clearly, these persecutions of the Jews were before the New Testament time, so to suggest that the Gospels and the writings of Paul are necessary conditions for persecution of the Jews is just not true.

Tan (1996) documents a profusion of Jewish persecution, even in New Testament times and the period of the early church, perpetrated by non-Christians such as Syrians or threatened by Caligula, Claudius, and Nero. In AD 70 the Romans killed 1,300,000 Jews under Titus when they entered Jerusalem as well as many being taken captive. When Mohammed founded Islam in 622, Jews in Arabia who refused to join the new religion were killed. These are only a few examples demonstrating that the Gospels and the writings of Paul are not a necessary condition for Jewish persecution.

The Persecution of the Jews

Although Dowling’s argument is completely flawed, it is true to say that the Bible has been used by those who wish to promote persecution of the Jews. But this is not the fault of the Bible. It is the result of distorted readings of the text. Unfortunately, ‘the history of the church is about as long as the history of anti-Semitism—if not in the overt acts of Christians, certainly in their guilty silence.’ (Wilson 1984) So the Christian Church has certainly been guilty of perpetuating anti-Semitism by commission or omission. But the actions of the Church must not be equated with the teachings of Scripture.

My point here is not that the Christian Church is not guilty of anti-Semitism—it has been. But Dowling’s assertion that it could not have happened without the justification of the Gospels and Pauline literature is entirely false. The presence of anti-Semitism in any form is absolutely evil. But the evil is not the result of the justifications found in the Bible. It is the result of evil humans distorting and abusing the Bible in support of their own evil justifications for persecuting God’s people. So Dowling’s accusations are misdirected. A cursory look at the Bible and at history demonstrates clearly that the Bible does not offer complete justification for the persecution of the Jews.


Collins, RF 2003, 'Special Note on 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16', in WJ Harrelson (ed.), The New Interpreter's Study Bible, Abingdon, Nashville, p. 2118.

Tan, P 1996, Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations: A treasury of illustrations, anecdotes, facts and quotations for pastors, teachers and Christian workers, Bible Communications, Garland, TX. tom 2004, 15.

Wilson, M 1984, 'Anti-Semitism', in WA Elwell (ed.), Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, Michigan, p. 60.

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