Why the Jews: the Reason for Antisemitism
May 12, 2019 (Last updated: October 17, 2023)
Why the Jews: the Reasons for Antisemitism is a great book which is highly informative and necessary to explain the reasons for antisemitism (i.e. Jew-hatred), many of which are not well-understood even today. However, I wanted to address some things that I felt were askew in the book concerning Christian faith and doctrine. I do not believe that Messrs. Prager and Telushkin intended to be inaccurate, but rather that their understanding of Christian theology may be erroneous in certain respects.
The focus of this article will be Chapter 8, "Christian anti-semitism", although similar comments apply where these themes occur elsewhere in the text. In this article I will comment on a few passages which I find to be problematic. I am using the 3rd Edition of the book, printed in 2016. So without further ado, let's get into it.
The Church adopted Paul's position, as articulated in Romans 3:28, that now that Christ had come all God demanded was proper faith, and this faith ensured eternal salvation. (pp. 74-75, italics mine)Romans 3:28 reads, "Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law" (KJV). Notice that St. Paul does not say "faith alone." The notion that faith alone saves does not have foundation in Christian Scripture. Protestants will try to argue this from Ephesians 2, verses 8-9: "For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: [it is] the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast." But again, the word alone is absent. Martin Luther added "alone" in his sola fides; he rejected the principle that "faith without works is dead." Luther also rejected St. James' epistle and other passages of the Bible that didn't agree with his view of salvation. The notion that faith alone saves originated with Martin Luther in the 1500s, not with the early Christian fathers.
If we say that we believe in some Christian dogma and not others, we're presupposing the principle that we can change whatever religious teachings we find unacceptable, which is perfectly right in philosophy, where everything has to come under the bar of human reason, but if we extend that principle to religion, then we don't have revealed religion anymore; we don't have faith as distinct from reason. If there is a divine revelation, as Christianity claims, then that divine revelation must tell us some things that we couldn't discover or prove by our own reason — otherwise it makes no sense to call those things divine revelation.1
If "works," by which we mean doing good, were unimportant or irrelevant, there would be no reason for Christ's discourse on the sheep and the goats (Matthew 24-25), the Sermon on the Mount, or many other of His sayings. While Christians believe that we cannot add to the salvific work of the Savior by keeping the Jewish law, we also believe, like most Jews, that God ultimately rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked.
Yet it was the Jews who rejected Jesus' claims. (p. 75)Some Jews did reject Jesus' claims. In fact, the authors of the Gospels write, to their great credit, that some Jews doubted (Matthew 28:17) and some Jews even "walked no more with him" (John 6:66). But many did believe (John 2:23, John 8:30, John 12:42, etc.). So, it is not altogether accurate to say simply, "Jews rejected Jesus' claims." Some Jews did. Others Jews did not. Context is needed.
Jews who believed at the time of Christ seemed to regard themselves as Jews who also believed in him. The Judaizers were a group of early believers in Jesus at the time of St. Paul. The Judaizers believed that observance of Jewish law was necessary to be a Christian. Not all early believers were Judaizers. If the Judaizers, as a consequence of believing in Jesus, no longer saw themselves as Jewish, they would have instead concluded that they were not bound at all to the Jewish law — they wouldn't be Judaizers — and the controversy recorded in Acts 15 would not have occurred.
The founders of Christianity felt that...the Jews, merely by continuing to be Jews, threatened the very legitimacy of the Church. If Judaism remained valid, then Christianity was invalid. (p.75)Does Mr. Prager have an Apostolic source for this statement? The legitimacy of the Christian Church is not founded or undermined by the validity of Judaism; the legitimacy of the Church rests on the historical fact of the Resurrection of Christ. St. Paul states in his letter to the Corinthians chapter 15 that, "If Christ be not raised, your faith is in vain;" Paul does not say, "If Judaism continues, your faith is in vain." The Resurrection of Christ, not the existence of Judaism, is the cornerstone of Christianity. Now, Christ does say "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life," (John 14:6) but this is a universal invitation to all of mankind — not only his disciples. Christ doesn't opine on the "validity" of Judaism as a religion and He doesn't condemn Judaism; after all he was, as Mr. Prager admits in his other work, a believing, practicing Jew. Why would he condemn his own faith? Speaking of Jewish law, he says, "Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil" (Matthew 5:17). Elsewhere he says, "till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled" (Matthew 5:18). The teaching that "if Judaism remains valid, Christianity becomes invalid" doesn't occur in mainstream Christian thought. While Christians claim that Jesus is the only way to the Father, we don't question the validity of Judaism as a religion or religious faith.
The Church would now be Israel, and the other Israel would be discredited. (p. 75)The notion that the Christian Church is now Israel, and the "other Israel" would be discredited, is known as "replacement theology" (or supersessionism). Replacement theology is not Christian dogma and not all Christians believe in replacement theology; in fact many, including this author, do not. Rather we see Christ's salvation offered to the Jews first, then to Gentiles (i.e. non-Jews, Romans 1:16). Again, while some Jews did not believe in him, many did believe in him.
Jews are still God's chosen people, but precisely what that means in the light of Christ and His universal offer of salvation will not be fully understood until he comes again in His glory to judge the living and the dead. God may have plans for the Jews that we do not know about. Whether Jews are chosen or not, or whether God has plans for them or not, is secondary: each of us — Jew and Gentile alike — must answer Christ's life-defining question: "Who do you say that I am?" (Mark 8:29). In the words of C.S. Lewis, each one of us has to decide whether he is Lord, liar, or lunatic. We have to decide what Christ means to us. Whether Jews happen to be chosen by God or not is of no consequence to the choice Christ puts before us. As a Roman Catholic priest said to a Christian caller on the subject of Jewish chosenness on Dennis Prager's radio show of many years ago, Religion on the Line, "God chose the Jews — now get a life." Replacement theology leads to the denigration of Jews and ultimately to antisemitism. To be God's chosen is, anyway, no easy task. Jews carry a colossal burden — just look at the Old Testament: it's a tough life being God's chosen people.
The New Testament did not depict the Crucifixion as the Roman execution it was... (p. 76)In John 19, the Roman governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate says, "Shall I crucify your king?" (19:15). Only the Romans had the authority to put a man to death, the authority to crucify. John 19:19 also shows that the Crucifixion was from first to last a Roman execution: Pontius Pilate writes, "Jesus of Nazareth the King of the Jews." Those Jews who wanted him crucified asked Pilate to change the writing to "He said, I am King of the Jews." Pilate answered, "What I have written I have written" (John 19:22). So Pilate not only orders the Crucifixion of Christ, Pilate also hangs the sign above Christ's head saying, "Jesus of Nazareth the King of the Jews," Pilate sets him on public display for all to see, and Pilate refuses the Jews who request that the sign be changed! The Crufixion was, from first to last, a Roman act — even if it were encouraged in part by some Jews. Romans alone had the power to crucify. The Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, ordered Christ crucified.
The Jews, not just their arguments, were discredited. Thus, it is the Jews who are depicted as having had Jesus killed. And Jews forever are to bear responsibility for that crime: "Let his blood be upon our heads and the heads of our children. (p. 76)Christians do not generally hold that Jews of today — or of any age other than those specific Jews who egged on Pilate to crucify Jesus in 33 A.D. — are morally culpable in the death of Christ. Mr. Prager attempts to argue that "many Christians regard the Jews who are negatively depicted in the New Testament as symbolizing all of sinning humanity" (p. 76). However, Christian teaching does not regard any Jews in this way. For example, Jews — to their own and Judaism's great credit — are often negatively depicted in the Old Testament, yet Christians do not argue from the Old Testament that Jews symbolize all of sinning humanity, and Christianity claims both Testaments as its Bible. Therefore, the argument that Jews represent sinning humanity isn't very compelling, though some early individual Christians may have regarded first-century Jews as representing sinning humanity.
As touching those Jews who said, "Let his blood be upon our heads and the heads of our children," that was a pronouncement by those specific Jews; it is not endorsed in Christian dogma and it's not clear that God honored that oath. The New Testament records that pronouncement but it does not mean that the Biblical writers approved of or condoned that pronouncement. Indeed, one of the core values of the Old Testament is that the son shall not be held to answer for the sins of his father (Deuteronomy 24:16, Ezekiel 18:19-20). So specific Jews who wanted Christ crucified — not all of Jewry — seemed to have misunderstood, in their pronouncement, basic Jewish teaching regarding justice.
Finally, one could argue, what about Numbers 14:18 and Exodus 34:7? If we look at those verses in context they seem to deal with collective sin by the Jewish nation rather than acts by individual Jews. The Old Testament is very clear that God does not hold the son personally responsible for the sins of the father, and it could hardly be argued that those relatively few Jews who shouted, "Let his blood be upon our heads and the heads of our children" represented the entirety of first-century Jewish nation.
The portrayal of the Jews' eternal responsibility for the Crucifixion gave rise to the most oft-repeated Christian accusation against Jews and the greatest source of Christian Jew-hatred: Every Jew in every age is a "Christ-killer." (p. 76)There is absolutely nothing in Christian doctrine that states this. Mr. Prager is mistaken in his understanding of Christian dogma: just because individual Christians make statements doesn't mean those statements are believed by all. Whoever falsely accuses any Jew of being a "Christ-killer" will have to account for that libelous smear either in this life or the next. The notion that "every Jew in every age" could possibly be held to be responsible for the death of Christ is grossly repugnant and is unfit for the discourse of civilized people, much less Christians.
More to this, Mr. Prager quotes John 8:43-44, 47 where Jesus tells the Jews that "You are of your father, the Devil" (verse 44) to attempt to make the point that "with these charges of deicide and collusion with the Devil, the early church put the Jews on the theological...moral, and physical defensive." But Jesus is speaking directly to the Pharisees and clearly addressing the spiritual obstinancy of Jewish leadership, and even this leadership was divided. Powerful Jews believed in Christ, including members of the Sanhedrin such as Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimethea. Most importantly, there has been no Jew to whom Christ ever foreclosed salvation, except Judas Iscariot. The notion that all Jews, past, present and future, are "of the Devil" is Scripturally unsupportable, an antisemitic smear, and has no place in Christian theology or in a Christian worldview.
One could even go further to say that in another sense, no Jew, even those living during the time of Christ, is guilty of the death of Christ, for the Evangelist John quotes our Lord as having said,
Therefore doth my Father love me, because I lay down my life, that I might take it again. No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. — John 10:17-18I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. No mortal is able to deprive life from the Author of Life unless this is allowed by Christ. But if it was Christ's will that he be put to death by Romans then who are we to condemn Jews? Christ himself allowed his death at the hands of Pilate and Christ rose again on the third day — by his death he destroyed death's grip on humanity so that we might have life forever with him (John 3:16 etc.). Therefore, from a Christian holistic eschatological, eternal perspective, the acts of some individual first-century Jews fade into irrelevancy.
In my view Mr. Prager and Rabbi Telushkin make the fundamental mistake of ascribing to Christian dogma (that which is "believed everywhere, at all times, and by all") some individual Christians' demonstrably uncharitable attitudes toward Jews. That individual Christians, priests, or even bishops (who of course should know or should have known better), twisted Christian doctrine in order to dehumanize Jews — while regrettable — is a moral defect of individual persons who, in their hatred of Jews, perverted the Christian faith to suit their own selfish or evil ends.
A note on canon law: some argue that Church canon law is "antisemitic" because it contains seemingly antisemitic canons, such as a Christian cannot see a Jewish doctor. It should be remembered that some of these canons, while indefensible today, were written centuries ago at a particular time, in a particular place, to address a local need, usually in response to some long-forgotten event about which we have scant, if any knowledge. While I was at St. Stephen's seminary in 2011, I asked Fr. Patrick Viscuso, professor of canon law and noted Byzantine canonist, whether the canons of the Church need to be updated to remove seemingly antisemitic canons. He explained that while the Church does not change the canons, canons may be regarded as no longer operable, and this late 7th-century canon forbidding the Christian to have a Jewish doctor is one of them.
In the modern era, Christians — especially evangelical Christians — are Jews' greatest friends and the state of Israel's most ardent supporters. Mr. Prager and Rabbi Telushkin correctly and to their great credit point out that Christian antisemitism is on the decline; rather, the unholy alliance between the Left and Islam is the single greatest purveyor of Jew-hatred in the world today. "The time has come," they write,
"for Jews to recognize that there have been many changes to Christianity, that there are forces...that are very open to the Jews. In the United States today, religious Christians are among those most supportive of Israel's attempts to defend itself against those bent on its destruction."I hope that in their next edition of their otherwise superb book, they will consider correcting some of the errors I have noted here.