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If you are a Christian and this title bothers you, I’m here to explain some things we should know about world history. The statement that Christians bear this blame may disturb you, but it’s true. Much of what’s in this post I didn’t know until I began research for my book, In Search of Christian Origins: A Timeline of the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. This particular topic can be categorized under the heading “ugly”.
The history of Judea
Since well before Jews coalesced into a society, conquering armies had invaded and subjugated the region of the Eastern Mediterranean coast. This was a unique part of the ancient world—the crossroads between the only known continents of Africa, Europe, and Asia. The region went by many names such as Judea, Greater Syria, Palestine, the Levant, the Holy Land, or Israel.
After Jews established their society in that region, the attacks continued, but these were the armies of great empires. Sometimes those armies kidnapped large segments of the Jewish population and transported them to whatever part of their empire the captives would be the most useful. At other times, the conquerors just scattered the population in order to dilute its influence. But whatever happened to them, the Jews always dreamed of a sacred homeland to which they could return. If the time was right and their god allowed them, they would return.
After two disastrous Jewish revolts against their Roman oppresors in AD 66 and again in AD 132, the Romans also did their best to remove Jews from Jerusalem and Judea and disperse them.
The Romans of that time were pagans, but by AD 380, Roman emperors had converted to Christianity and outlawed paganism. Whereas the pagans had mostly tolerated the Jews as a respectable religion, Christians claimed the Jewish god and covenant for themselves.
Christian attitudes toward Jews
Over the centuries, Christians seemed to always see Jews as their inferiors, if not embodiments of pure evil. They made life for Jews on a scale from ignored to barely tolerated to humiliated to treated with utter cruelty.
In the fourth and fifth centuries, Christians didn’t seem to treat the Jews quite as badly as they treated the pagans. That was probably because both religions worshipped the same god. But as said, Christians almost never seemed to respect Jews or attempt to give them equal rights. In all my research I never learned of Jews anywhere in Europe being allowed the same rights as Christians until around 1791 during the French Revolution.
There were periods in certain realms when Jews were protected by charters, but those periods never lasted long. Neither did the equal rights era in France last long. There were no effective attempts to emancipate the Jews until well into the 1800s.
Throughout nineteen centuries Jews found little acceptance in the Christian world. However, they were often welcomed and valued in the Muslim regions outside the Roman Empire. Jewish and Muslim scholars collaborated to make great advancements in the sciences and mathematics while the Christian world had rejected scholasticism. [As an aside, Christian and Muslim scholars also worked together to translate ancient Greek writings into Arabic, setting the stage for the European Renaissance.] So it appears that if the collaboration concerned scholarship, people seemed to set aside ignore religious differences.
In 1492, when Christopher Columbus was about to sail across the Atlantic Ocean, his ships would normally have left from the port of Cadiz. They couldn’t because at that time Cadiz was occupied with the ships carrying expelled Jews. The Muslim Ottoman Empire, based in Constantinople, was one of the few places that would accept them.
In spite of occasional acceptance, the Jewish population in the Muslim world would also experience periods of bloody persecution.
Influence of the Christian clergy
Christian clergy couldn’t seem to resist reminding their followers that the Jews were guilty of the worst crime imaginable—deicide, or “killing their God”. They were referring to Jesus. Some cleverly worded biblical passages written by Christians made it appear that the Jews agreed to not only accept the guilt for killing Jesus but to pass that guilt on to their descendants. Matthew 27:25 (written by an anonymous writer) states that after Pilate had washed his hands of any blame for the death of Jesus, the Jews yelled, “His blood is on us and on our children”. How very convenient for Christian clergy to be able to refer to that verse to justify their unimaginable treatment of Jews for centuries.
This persecution of Jews was not “God’s will”, as Christians said. It was the will of every Christian who wanted to disparage Jews. The clergy, using this convenient fuel could fire up a mob very quickly and lead them on rampages against the Jews. That must have appealed to the most sadistic members of the Christian religion.
Influence of Christianity’s founding fathers
In my book I included numerous significant examples of Christian antisemitism—hostility and prejudice against Jews. I documented those events because I didn’t want us to forget how heartlessly Christians acted toward the Jews. Relations with Jews seemed to bring out the worst in Christianity, either due to their rivalry to claim the covenant of the same god, or because the Christians blamed Jews for killing Jesus. Most likely it was both reasons and also others.
Christianity’s founding fathers didn’t have much in common when it came to theology or philosophy, but when it came to Jews, they found agreement in their contempt for them.
Chrysostom and Augustine
John Chrysostom, the fourth-century Archbishop of Constantinople, and leading Christian orator had this to say:
“The Jews sacrifice their children to Satan… They are worse than wild beasts. The synagogue is a brothel, a den of scoundrels, the temple of demons devoted to idolatrous cults, a criminal assembly of Jews, a place of meeting for the assassins of Christ, a house of ill fame, a dwelling of iniquity, a gulf and abyss of perdition…”
In its article on antisemitism in Christianity, Wikipedia states this about Augustine, possibly the most influential Christian theologian in history:
“Patristic bishops of the patristic era such as Augustine of Hippo argued that the Jews should be left alive and suffering as a perpetual reminder of their murder of Christ. Like his anti-Jewish teacher, Ambrose of Milan,he defined Jews as a special subset of those damned to hell. As “Witness People”, he sanctified collective punishment for the Jewish deicide and enslavement of Jews to Catholics: “Not by bodily death, shall the ungodly race of carnal Jews perish … ‘Scatter them abroad, take away their strength. And bring them down ‘O Lord’“. Augustine claimed to “love” the Jews but as a means to convert them to Christianity. Sometimes he identified all Jews with the evil Judas and developed the doctrine (together with Cyprian) that there was “no salvation outside the Church”.
Examples of Antisemitism in Germany
In 1095, on their way to the Holy Land for the First Crusade, crusaders massacred Jews in the Rhine Valley if they didn’t convert to Christianity.
Five centuries later, Martin Luther poured on the type of antisemitic rhetoric that another German leader, Adolph Hitler, would echo another four centuries later.
“What shall we Christians do with this rejected and condemned people, the Jews? Since they live among us, we dare not tolerate their conduct now that we are aware of their lying and reviling and blaspheming. If we do, we become sharers in their lies, cursing and blasphemy. Thus, we cannot extinguish the unquenchable fire of divine wrath, of which the prophets speak, nor can we convert the Jews. With prayer and the fear of God we must practice a sharp mercy to see whether we might save at least a few from the glowing flames. We dare not avenge ourselves. Vengeance a thousand times worse than we could wish them already has them by the throat. I shall give you my sincere advice:
First to set fire to their synagogues or schools and to bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn, so that no man will ever again see a stone or cinder of them. This is to be done in honor of our Lord and of Christendom, so that God might see that we are Christians, and do not condone or knowingly tolerate such public lying, cursing, and blaspheming of his Son and of his Christians.
For whatever we tolerated in the past unknowingly and I myself was unaware of it will be pardoned by God. But if we, now that we are informed, were to protect and shield such a house for the Jews, existing right before our very nose, in which they lie about, blaspheme, curse, vilify, and defame Christ and us (as was heard above), it would be the same as if we were doing all this and even worse ourselves, as we very well know.”
What happened with Luther?
Luther was reportedly furious with the Jews for not converting to his new religion that we know as Lutheranism. But he made the same mistake that other Christian leaders made. He saw them as rejecting his god, Jesus Christ instead of being ultra-loyal to their own god.
The Jews took their covenant with their God so seriously that they mostly refused to integrate into the Christian work and so they maintained their cultural identity. I’m sure they could appreciate Christians worshipping the same god as them–Jehovah, but couldn’t accept the man known as Jesus as their messiah. He didn’t fit their image of what a messiah was. Beside, that entire scenario of a man-god who died on a cross may have been a Roman creation that Jews rejected because of its unbelievability.
The results of centuries of antisemitism
As a result of their influence, these leaders and many others left no doubt in the minds of Christians that they were far superior to Jews. They should not associate with them or allow them the same rights. This mindset led to horrors beyond imagining. In the Middle Ages, Christians blamed Jews for the fictitious crimes of blood libel, ritual murder, and desecrating the host. Christians also blamed Jews for causing the plague that devastated Europe in the fourteenth century. The Spanish Inquisition specifically targeted Jews who had been forced to convert to Christianity but were accused of secretly drifting back to Judaism.
Jew have certain stereotypes, but they didn’t necessarily choose to be bankers and moneylenders. Christians forced Jews into those occupations because they didn’t want to be accused of the sin of usury. Then, sometimes when Christians owed Jewish lenders too much money and didn’t care to repay it, they would drive the local Jewish population out of their territory and confiscate their possessions. For this and other reasons, Jews were expelled from one European country, kingdom, or principality after another for centuries. The stigma was unalterable.
When passion plays were introduced in Europe, they often portrayed Jews as hideous looking and always portrayed them as evil. Christians frequently warned Jews to keep a very low profile during the times of those plays and other Easter celebrations because those depictions of the death of Christ could easily inspire crowds to attack Jews. The results of those mob attacks ranged from beating Jews, destroying their property, expelling them from the region, and even rape and murder. All because of those anonymous verses in the Gospels written to assure Christians that it was God’s will to mistreat Jews.
Christians bear the blame for all of this.
Roman versus Christian persecutions
There is one thing I’ve learned conclusively during my twenty years of research into these subjects. It’s that any comparison between Roman persecution of early Christians and Christian persecution of Jews is absolutely ridiculous. How can anyone compare the thousands or maybe tens of thousands of Christian victims of Roman persecutions to the millions of Jews that the Christians killed over the centuries?
The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was a manifesto for how the Jews planned to dominate the world. This book was published in Russian around 1903 and then translated into many other European languages. This book provided Europeans another opportunity to transform their hatred of Jews into a sense of paranoia.
Let’s be practical. Just how many Jews were there in Europe, and how could anyone possibly think they could control the world with all the forces of Christian-ity opposing them? This was nothing more than a return to the Medieval mentality that blamed Jews for missing children and poisoning Christian wells to cause a plague.
The Protocols said exactly what people needed to hear to justify their antisemitism. By 1933, German schoolchildren were reading excepts from the book. That was a full decade after it had been exposed as a forgery. It’s now believed to have been written by the Russian government to justify planned pogroms, or attacks of the Jews.
The Jews had been dispersed throughout Europe, Asia, and Africa by Babylonians and Assyrians. Then the Romans expelled them from their homeland. For close to two thousand years they had no homeland, mostly refused to integrate into Christian society, and were lucky if they had any place to live in peace. Then came the Medieval persecutions, the pogroms, the inquisitions, and the Nazis. Hitler claimed he was only carrying out Martin Luther’s intentions with the Jews. He did his best to eliminated them but even he failed to put an end to those resilient, courageous, and determined people.
Returning to the land of their origin
Even before the 1800’s, the magnetic attraction of the Holy Land was having an effect. Jewish settlers began to return. After World War II, most Jews who survived the Holocaust realized that European Christians would never welcome them. What were their choices? The United States accepted millions of Jewish immigrants and many European countries became more sympathetic to their plight. But there were immigration quotas and continuing antisemitism to contend with no matter where they went. Their most desired destination became Palestine. In the past, Muslims had welcomed them, and Arab Muslims comprised Palestine’s population.
Following World War II, the trickle into Palestine became a flood. But for the Jews to coexist with Arabs, they would have to able to compromise. That may have been possible if the human species was a peaceful one. But radicals on both side pushed aside the moderates. Only three years after World War II ended, Jews and Palestinian Arabs were involved in full scale war. Both sides claimed the land. The Arabs claimed it because it was their home and had been for centuries. The Jews thought it belonged to them because it was their original homeland and their cultural myths tied them to the place.
No concept of peaceful coexistance?
As we know, those hostilities have continued for the last seventy-six years with nothing more than brief periods of peace. Now, the next round of this war has begun in Gaza. Of course present-day Israelis and Arabs share the blame for what is happening, but let’s not forget the history behind it. It was without doubt the Christian subjugation and mistreatment of Jews that made them leave Europe and try to reinvent a homeland in Palestine.
It was a domino effect. European Christians made life intolerable for the Jewish people. Jews migrated to Palestine. Radical Jews sought to take the land from the Arabs instead of coexisting or intermixing with them. Warfare began and still continues.
Not in my lifetime
I was born a few months before the nation of Israel came into being. Now it’s now looking like I will never see an end to the hostilities there. What happens there depends on the Jews and Arabs and their abilities to reconcile. But Christians need to be aware of their ancestors’ roles in the two-thousand-year-long persecution of Jews. That was what drove the Jews out of Europe and to Israel. Studying history is often nothing more than learning from bad decisions people made in the past.
That’s even true for some popes. At the Second Vatican Council (1962 to 1965), Pope Paul VI issued a declaration known as Nostra aerate. This document finally repudiated the Church’s policy of a “collective, multigenerational Jewish guilt for the crucifixion of Jesus”. Obviously, it was impossible to negate what Christians had done to the Jewish people over the previous two thousand years. But the pope at least had the courage to reverse official Catholic Church policy. As far as Protestant antisemitism, there is no single authority to reverse that.