Are the Passion and Easter Stories Really Anti-Semitic?

In their original context, troubling verses are seen to reflect a vigorous intra-Jewish debate, not first-century anti-Semitism.

It's not uncommon today to hear accusations that at least some of the Gospels--the first and fourth in particular--are anti-Semitic. With sayings like "May his blood be on us and on our children" (Matthew 27:25) or "The Jews shouted, 'crucify him'" (cf. John 19:6,14,15), one might well be led to think along these lines. But it is the soundbyting and misuse of this material that has led to anti-Semitism even in our own day. It's time to set the record straight: In their original historical, social, and literary contexts, the verses were part of a vigorous intra-Jewish debate which was certainly not anti-Semitic at all.

First, let us be clear about what anti-Semitism is. By definition, anti-Semitism is a form of racism or racial hatred. It involves the stigmatization of a particular racial or ethnic group. It may also be combined with anti-Judaism, but not necessarily (the latter has to do with a prejudice against the Jewish religion).

When we are discussing first-century A.D. Judaism, we need to bear in mind that there was no one orthodoxy by which all forms of Judaism could be measured. As the great Jewish scholar Jacob Neusner has said, there were various forms of early Judaism (he has even spoken of 'Judaisms'). The fact that there was vigorous debate, polemics, and propaganda fired across the battle lines between first-century Jews should not be taken to reflect anti-Semitism. One could be opposed to a particular form of early Judaism--for instance, as the Qumranites were opposed to the religion as practiced in the temple built by Herod the Great--and not be in the least anti-Semitic. (Though the Qumranites were themselves only a small portion of the Jewish population, like the Pharisees who made up perhaps 5% of the population, they seem to have had impact and influence on the nation far beyond what one might expect.) Opposition to a particular form of early Judaism should not be taken to indicate anti-Semitism.


Secondly, the Gospel writers, with the possible exception of Luke, (who in my view was a Gentile God-fearer or synagogue adherent before he became a follower of Jesus), were all Jews. They would be very surprised to hear someone call them anti-Semitic, since they were Semites themselves. Some other early Jews may well have seen them as bad or even apostate Jews, but they would not likely have accused them of being anti-Semitic. We must view the polemical remarks we find in the Gospels' Passion and Easter narratives within the context of the larger intra-Jewish debate in that era about what true Judaism should look like.

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