Christianity’s Critics: The Romans Meet Jesus (Part Three)

Paul-and-Barnabas
Paul and Barnabas in Lystra anagoria CCO

Christianity is a Jewish heresy.

The Jesus of primitive tradition cares not a whit for Gentiles—“Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go instead to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news: the kingdom of heaven is almost here.”(1) “Jesus traveled through the small, often anonymous towns of Galilee, seemingly avoiding the major cities. Citizens of Sepphoris, Tiberius, the coastal plain and the Decapolis heard none of his sermons. When Jesus did enter the territory of cities in the Decapolis, he remained outside the walls (Mk 5:1; 7:31; 8:27).”(2) “Jesus’ preaching reflects the village”(3) —Jesus’ parables accordingly speak of sowers and fields,(4) shepherds and flocks,(5) and birds and flowers.(6) Before his fateful trip to Jerusalem, it ap-pears Jesus had little to do with any major city.

Jesus’ attitude reflected the history of the region, in particular the aftermath of the Maccabean revolt (167-160 B.C.E.), the “first religious war in the history of humankind” from which the Jewish nation that emerged “was self-conscious and intolerant towards all Gentiles whether friendly or unfriendly.”(7) Romans regarded the Jews “as a people who were true only to each other…[they were] regarded as misanthropes…by the vast majority of Romans, and they had a long history of conflict with the authorities in Rome,”(8) a simmering animosity that exploded into a series of disastrous wars in 66 C.E. Writing to Jewish believers in Rome, Paul said, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you,”(9) possibly in reference to such bias. “The dogma of a ‘chosen people,’ while at least implicit in most faiths, achieved a stridence in Judaism that was unknown in the ancient world. Among cultures that worshipped a plurality of Gods, the later monotheism of the Jews proved indigestible.”(10)

Despite occasional encounters with Gentiles, Jesus’ attitude toward them appears to have been openly antagonistic. Jesus refers to Gentiles as “dogs”—he tells the Canaanite woman whose daughter he eventually heals, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the curs.”(11) Some commentators have interpreted Jesus’ use of kunarion (kunarion), the diminutive of kuwn (kuōn), dog, as ironic or even affectionate,(12) but as corrected by Grant, “the diminutive form rather expresses contempt and distaste.”(13) Jesus intended to draw the strongest possible distinction between the Jews, to whom alone he has been sent—“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”(14) —and the Gentile mongrels—“Do not give what is holy to dogs”(15) —which he generally avoids.(16) “The Jesus movement…did not show any inclination to reach out to Gentiles. The life of Jesus and the history of the Jerusalem church illustrate this.”(17) “It is quite clear from the hesitations of the Apostles in the first chapters of Acts that there was a firm tradition that Jesus had not ordered a mission to the Gentiles.”(18) Jews even regarded the Samaritans, who claimed descent from the Israelite tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, as racially impure “on the grounds that the Samaritans had intermarried with heathen peoples.”(19) Outside the archipelago of fundamentalist Bible colleges this understanding of Jesus’ mission has now become common: “There is no evidence whatsoever, apart from the tendentious writings of the later church, that Jesus ever conceived of himself as anything other than a Jew among Jews, seeking the fulfillment of Judaism—and, likely, the return of Jewish sovereignty in a Roman world.”(20)

Christian scholarship long ago parted company from the Jewish Jesus, establishing “a self-conscious Christian tradition that deliberately distanced itself from the historical Jewish context in which Jesus had lived and died…[Christians] had to explain to themselves, to potential converts, and, should they be so challenged, to skeptical Jews, how it was that the Jewish understanding of Jewish history and religion was false, and why those who had heard this Christian revelation most directly—Jesus’ Jewish audience in Palestine—should have so completely failed to receive it.”(21) Nevertheless, Christianity could never have spread into the Greco-Roman world without the internationally distributed Jewish enclaves—“the Dispersion communities were the magnet which drew [Christian missionaries] beyond the boundaries of Palestine.”(22) As late as the end of the 1st century the Christian communities were still conceived in terms of the Jewish Diaspora—“James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes which are of the Dispersion, greeting.”(23)

As Christianity gained political power, violence against Jews increased. In 388, “zealous Christians” burned down the synagogue in Callinicum “apparently at the instigation of the local bishop.” Initially the civil authorities treated the matter as a breach of law and order and commanded the bishop to pay for the rebuilding of the synagogue. At this point, Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, intervened by asserting that if the Christian emperor, Theodosius, applied the letter of the law he would effectively be siding with the Jews. Theodosius backed down. “Ambrose upended the normal paradigm of law and order and redefined the situation in terms of a new emphasis on religious identity that transcended all other considerations …not only could ‘martyrdom’ now encompass aggressive and provocative violence against non-Christians, but any apology or restitution conceded to the victims would apparently constitute ‘apostasy,’ a denial of Christ”(24) —one need only note the ‘freedom of religion’ ordinances advancing in the neo-Confederate states of America in response to the Obergefell v. Hodges (2015) decision that recognized same-sex marriage to see a modern example of the emphasis on Christian religious identity that transcends all other legal considerations.

The theological divorce between Jews and Christians has translated into real- world horror on numerous occasions but never more so than in Germany in the 1930’s in the setting of die Endlösung der Judenfrage, the “The Final Solu-tion to the Jewish Question.” Gerhard Kittel, the editor of the Theologisches Wörterbuch zum Neuen Testament, the German work translated into English as the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, a work much admired by many scholars,

…produced a body of work between 1933 and 1944 filled with hatred and slander towards Jews and warmly supportive of National Socialist anti-Jewish policies…Kittel admits he was a good Nazi. He had not joined the Party under pressure or for pragmatic reasons; rather he thought, ‘as did countless people in Germany,’ that the Nazi phenomenon was ‘a völkisch renewal movement on a Christian, moral foundation’…[Kittel] set German, Christian, social and völkisch unity against the Enlightenment, modern secularism and liberal democracy …Some scholars, e.g., the liberal theologian, Adolf von Harnack, had maintained that Christianity was totally unique from Judaism and that the Old Testament should be removed from the Bible…the conclusion he reached coincided with the antisemitic prejudice that Judaism was necessarily inferior and unworthy to be considered the source of Christianity…The clinching assurance for [Emanuel] Hirsch in his encouragement of a Volks church was his conviction that Hitler was a heaven-sent Christian leader…[Kittel] created a theological foundation for Nazi oppression of Jews, yet he somehow was able to reconcile his work with his Christian and academic values…Kittel, Althaus and Hirsch were not isolated or eccentric individuals…These three theologians saw themselves and were seen by others as genuine Christians acting upon genuine Christian impulses.(25)

In his magisterial work on the Catholic origins of anti-Semitism, Carroll remarks on the depth of Christianity’s antipathy: “Without this strain in Europe’s past [“the Crusades, the Inquisition…the intermingling of antimodernism and antisemitism”] a fascist movement organized around Jew hatred, would not have occurred…[Hitler] was a much a creature of the racist, secular, colonizing empire builder who preceded him on the world stage as he was of the religion into which he was born, and which he parodied. But in truth, the racist colonizers, before advancing behind the standards of nations and companies, had marched behind the cross… However modern Nazism was, it planted its roots in the soil of age-old Church attitudes and a nearly unbroken chain of Church-sponsored acts of Jew hatred. However pagan Nazism was, it drew its sustenance from groundwater poisoned by the Church’s most solemnly held ideology—its theology.”(26)