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Does the Bible contain 'antisemitic texts'?

Is the Bible antisemitic? According to the way a disturbing incident on the London Underground on Friday was reported by the media, yes it is. 

A man has been arrested on suspicion of committing a racially aggravated public order offence after antisemitic abuse was directed at Jewish children on the Northern Line on Friday night. According to The Guardian, the suspect 'allegedly read antisemitic texts from the Bible' to the two boys and 'was filmed reading anti-Jewish Bible passages', a line also used by the BBC.

But are there really any antisemitic texts in the Bible? The short answer is 'No'. The Bible is not anti-Jewish. The Old Testament, which Christians regard as inspired Scripture, is Hebrew from beginning to end. Jesus and all his disciples were Jews. It was, as far as we know, entirely written by Jews. To call any part of it 'antisemitic' is plain wrong; it's to import a category from centuries later into the New Testament.  

However, it's not quite as simple as that. There are parts of the New Testament that have been seized on by antisemites and used to justify their errors. One of these is in Matthew 27.25, when the onlookers to whom Pilate wanted to release Jesus said, 'We and our own families will take the blame for his death!' (CEV). According to the antisemites' bizarre reading, this made all Jews eternally guilty for the death of Christ. 

There are other texts in the New Testament that are problematic, for instance in John's Gospel, and which antisemites also pick out. About half the time John uses the word 'Jews' it does so in a negative sense, often just to refer to the enemies of Jesus where the other Gospels might refer to groups like 'the Pharisees' and 'the Saducees'. For instance, John 20.19 says that after the Resurrection the disciples were hiding behind locked doors 'for fear of the Jews' (ESV); it has often been pointed out that there's an irony here, in that for much of history it's the Jews who have been hiding for fear of the Christians. However, scholars today point out that John's Gospel was written at a time when the distinctions between Judaism and Christianity were still developing, and the author's way of putting it reflected debates that were still taking place in both communities.

Many modern translations seek to capture the sense behind the original Greek, rather than choosing a literal translation. So they might translate 'Jews' as 'Jewish leaders' where that is clearly meant, or 'Judeans' to refer to Jews who actually lived in Judea; both the Contemporary English Version and the New International Version translate 'Jews' in John 20.19 as 'Jewish leaders'. 

So while it is definitely wrong to say that the Bible contains antisemitic passages, Christians cannot be complacent. History shows that the Bible has often been misused to justify antisemitism. We need to read it carefully and humbly – and always to be prepared to challenge antisemitism ourselves, whether inside the Church or outside it. 

Author: Mark Woods, 25 November 2019 (Last updated: 5 December 2019)

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