An Open Letter to Political Columnist George F. Will of the Washington Post

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 7 January 2004 0 Comments
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Which of the Jewish New Testament authors was the most anti-Semitic?


I doubt if any of them would plead guilty to that charge but many of them have had their words quoted in anti-Semitic ways. You need to recognize that most of the books of the New Testament were written before Christianity ceased to be a part of Judaism. Christianity began as a movement within Judaism whose members were called, "the followers of the Way." They were for the most part revisionist Jews who believed that God had acted in a new way in the person of Jesus. Their opponents in the synagogue were the orthodox party who believed that God had made the Divine revelation complete in the Torah and that no further revelation in Jesus or anyone else was necessary. The two sides, both Jewish, said dreadful things about one another. Since Christianity grew out of the revisionist Jewish camp, we still carry in the New Testament some of the language the revisionist Jews used against orthodox Jews. This means that we have read it in public worship through the centuries and have called those readings the "Word of God!" To the ears of modern people this is heard as Christians saying bad things about the Jews when in fact it was one side of a very tense debate inside Judaism.

Having said that, the worst sources are, in my opinion, Matthew, where Pharisees are characterized as whited sepulchers and where the Jewish crowd at the cross says, "His blood be upon us and upon our children," and the John, the author of the Fourth Gospel, who refers to the orthodox party pejoratively but simply as "the Jews," and even has Jesus suggest that the Jews are the children of the Devil.

The death of Jesus has historically been blamed on the Jews. That is frankly an error of fact that has been terribly detrimental to the Jewish people. The Romans, upon the order of Pontius Pilate who alone could have made the decision to execute, killed Jesus. When the Christian creeds say, "he suffered under Pontius Pilate," the assumption seems to be that Pilate was some kind of innocent bystander. The fact is that he suffered at the hands of Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried.

Anti-Semitism has been a tragedy in Western Christianity. Its venom has been pumped constantly into the blood stream of our civilization. As such it constitutes the darkest chapter in Christian history. It rises, however, primarily from the misunderstanding between rival factions among the Jews before the New Testament was written. One of those factions was destined to become the Christians. Echoes, arising from this internal warfare, constitute what we are hearing when anti-Semitic rhetoric seems to break forth in the New Testament. Though these verses have certainly fed the cause of anti-Semitism, I do not think that was the original intention of their authors.

I will soon, in this column, begin a series of essays that will seek to identify all of the biblical sources of anti-Semitism. In those essays I will address this question far more thoroughly.

-- John Shelby Spong




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