Our three-week journey across Europe this fall was fantastic. However, there were sobering moments. The most disturbing part that I learned about was the pervasive stain of antisemitism in Europe’s Christian history.
While my wife and I were away from the United States, the celebrity rapper Kanye West made a number of bizarre antisemitic comments , apparently cobbled together from conversations the singer/artist has had with Louis Farrakhan, that led to various corporate sponsors abandoning commercial agreements with Kanye, in an effort to distance themselves from the popular-rapper-turned-born-again Christian (since I originally wrote the rough draft for this post, some apologists are now saying that Kanye has been flirting with the theology of the Black Hebrew Israelites movement. Hear more about it on the Dallas Seminary Table Podcast, or with apologists Mike Winger and Allen Parr).
Such incidents may seem rare in the 21st century, but in medieval Europe right up through the period of Nazi Germany, antisemitism poked up its ugly head far too many times. On our trip down the Danube River, our first stop was in Regensburg, Germany. We heard from a guide that the persecution of Jews there goes back at least to stories during the Crusade era of the late 11th century, when wandering bands of Crusade enthusiasts ransacked Jewish homes and businesses. Some church bishops thankfully offered sanctuary for their Jewish neighbors, but within centuries, anti-Jewish sentiment was stirred up again.
In the late 15th century, the preaching of a Bavarian Dominican preacher, Peter Nigri, led to the confiscation of Jewish property in Regensburg. But Roman Catholic leaders have not been the only ones to stir up persecution against Jews.
A generation later in 1519, another preacher in Regensburg, Balthasar Hubmaier, called for the expulsion of Jews from the city, an event that led to the destruction of the local Jewish cemetery and the turning of a Jewish synagogue into a church as Jews fled the city. Within a few years, Hubmaier got married, even though he was a medieval priest, and joined up with the Anabaptist cause, having himself re-baptized, actions that not only put him in bad relations with the Roman church, but also with Ulrich Zwingli, the leader of the Swiss Reformation. He and his wife were shortly thereafter martyred for their Anabaptist faith. Whether or not Hubmaier eventually repented of his mistreatment of Jews is unknown to me, but the mark he left on Regensburg’s Jewish community remains to this day.
When the Jewish cemetery in Regensburg was destroyed as a result of Hubmaier’s preaching, various citizens of the city took the gravestones and reused them in various building projects. One gravestone was set underneath the floor of a room used as a toilet, as seen in the following photograph, an obvious insult to a Jewish person.
Now, why would someone claiming to be a Christian do such a thing?
The great cathedral of St. Peter’s Church, in Regensburg, an otherwise beautiful building, has a strong hint of antisemitism embedded in one of its outward walls. Someone had carved a sculpture of three Jews sucking from a pig, looking in the direction of the old Jewish synagogue.
What an insult. Hardly Christ-honoring. Where was the church’s bishop when this sculpture was placed on the side of this otherwise glorious church building? Why did he not put a stop to such nonsense?
Reminders of Europe’s antisemitic past like these are sprinkled across Europe. For example, in Prague, in the Czech Republic, a Jewish ghetto was formed in the 13th century, when Jews were told to vacate their homes and live in one particular area of the city. While Jews were allowed during the day to traverse the city, at night a curfew was placed on the Jews that kept them inside their Jewish Quarter. Even as Jews were expelled from other areas of Europe, like Spain in the late 15th century, such Jews made their way to more tolerant cities like Prague, but they still had to live in these prescribed areas.
But nothing compares to the utter brutality experienced by Europe’s Jewry during the Nazi years of World War II. At the beginning of the war, when Hitler’s German army occupied Prague, there were some 92,000 Jews living in this section of the city. But by the end of World War II, nearly 60,000 of those Jews had been killed, many of them in concentration camps, like Auschwitz, in neighboring Poland to the north. Today, less than 5,000 Jews live in Prague, though ironically the Jewish Quarter in Prague is considered to be the “hip” place to live in the city.
Just one more example of antisemitism on display in Prague’s history….. The following photo is one of many statues that populate the sides of the Charles Bridge, one of the most iconic places in all of the Europe, where many thousands of visitors walk across every year. At first glance, you see a picture of the crucified Jesus. As a Christian, I was quite impressed with this… until I looked a bit closer, and learned the whole story behind it. The sculpture itself has gone through several revisions over the centuries.
If you look closer, the head of Christ is surrounded with Hebrew letters. The rough translation into English is “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of Hosts,” from the Jewish prayer, the Kedushah.
In my ignorance as a Christian, this is a pretty interesting and encouraging thing to see… until you hear the backstory about it. In 1696, a Jewish community leader, Elias Backoffen, was forced to pay for the gold-plated lettering, as a punishment for an alleged act of blasphemy, committed by another Jewish businessman. In other words, this was not a voluntary act of devotion to Christ, but rather it was a forced act of humiliation, for which Prague’s Jews had to look at for the next 300 years whenever they crossed the Charles Bridge, over the Vltava River.
In 2000, bronze plaques were affixed below the crucifix (hard to read from the photo), with explanatory text in Czech, English and Hebrew. In English, they roughly say, “‘The addition to the statue of the Hebrew inscription and the explanatory texts from 1696 is the result of improper court proceedings against Elias Backoffen, who was accused of mocking the Holy Cross.’ The addition to the Hebrew inscription, ‘which represents a very important expression of faith in the Jewish tradition, was supposed to humiliate the Jewish Community.’ It is signed ‘The City of Prague.’
Some might protest that leaving these reminders of antisemitism up for public display is a bad idea, that they “celebrate” beliefs and behaviors that most everyone in a post-Hitler world would find abhorrent. I disagree. Rather, they should remain available for people to see for the exact opposite reason: that they should remind us that sinful humanity has the awful tendency to forget the sins of previous generations, and thereby end up repeating those same sins later on.
It is difficult to understand how such blatant acts of antisemitism went unanswered for centuries in a land which was so dominated by Christian devotion, along with its impressive church architecture, drawing one’s attention to the Glory of God. Anglican theologian Gerald McDermott has a response to this that I find quite helpful. A lot of our Bible translations have given rise to the wrong ideas about the Jews of Jesus’ day. While we all know that Jesus was indeed a Jew, he received a lot of opposition from the “Jews.”
In one rather unsettling passage, Jesus says to the “Jews” who challenge him:
Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word.You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies (John 8:43-44 ESV).
It is passages like these that were badly misinterpreted, often taken out of context and prompted various church goers in medieval Europe to call out “the Jews” as “Christ-killers,” as they exited their churches to go taunting their Jewish neighbors.
But professor McDermott makes the point that misleading Bible translations have been a big part of the problem. For example, the phrase “the Jews,” as found in many of these passages in various translations comes from the Greek term, “Iudaioi.” That word can also be translated as “Judeans,” that is, in this context, the leaders of the Jewish community in Jerusalem, the capital of Judea.
When Jesus had his earthly ministry, many Jews lived all across the Roman Empire, and not just in “Judea,” proper. Furthermore, to speak of “Judeans” is lot like talking about those in Washington, D.C., who make decisions for Americans. It simply is not true that the American political statespersons in Washington D.C. represent the viewpoints of everyone living in Washington. In the same way, it makes better sense to translate “Iudaioi” as “Jewish leaders,” instead of the overly broad designation as “the Jews.” Besides, nearly all of the earliest followers of Jesus were Jews themselves, in contrast with the Jewish leaders in Judea, who opposed Jesus’ ministry.
Consider therefore, the immediately following passage from John 8, which in the ESV reads:
The Jews answered him, “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?” (John 8:48 ESV).
Professor McDermott’s suggestion is that we modify “the Jews” translation of “Iudaioi” with better clarity as “the Jewish leaders” instead:
The Jewish leaders answered him, “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?” (John 8:48).
Not only does a reading like this avoid the stain of antisemitism, it makes better sense when reading the passage. It avoids the temptation to want to lump all Jews in the same category, when the Gospels make it abundantly clear that many Jews were indeed, not only sympathetic, but also enthusiastic followers of Jesus as their Messiah.
For years, I tended to dismiss complaints from non-Christians that Christianity harbored antisemitic elements in certain elements of the faith. After all, anyone who is truly Christian would never be antisemitic. My reasoning had been that opponents of Christianity will say and do anything to discredit the Gospel, including making false charges of “antisemitism.” There is still some truth to this, as some critics of the Christian faith will tend to focus on antisemitism as a reason for rejecting the Christian faith outright, which is not a fair representation of what most Christians have believed over the centuries.
About four years ago, I read and reviewed several books that touched on this topic, Joel Richardson’s When a Jew Rules the World, and in tandem, Paula Fredriksens’ magisterial Augustine and the Jews, along with a shorter work, Barry Horner’s Future Israel: Why Christian Anti-Judaism Must Be Challenged. I admit that a lot of the points raised in those works about anti-Judaic teachings being promoted at various times in church history seemed fairly suspicious to me. But after this year’s visit to Europe, and seeing quite a bit of this antisemitic history for myself, I find myself more grieved by such occasional teachings by even some of my favorite theological heroes. Such writing and preaching enabled antisemitic thinking, at least among certain segments of the Christian community, more so than I had imagined before.
While it helps to always remind ourselves that Jesus was a Jew, and that his most prominent followers in those early years, like the Apostle Paul, were Jews as well, we should do more than that, and be more vigilant in rooting out anti-Judaic sentiments as Christians. It is quite evident that Jews and Christians have a number of differing beliefs, as genuine Christians believe that Jesus is indeed the promised Messiah of the Jews, and that traditional Jews are still waiting for their Messiah to come, and therefore reject Christian claims about Jesus’ messianic status.
This is obviously a significant theological barrier that simply can not be ignored or waved off as unimportant. We should never trivialize such differences. I still want to engage my Jewish friends with the claims of the Gospel that Jesus is indeed that True Messiah that they have been waiting for these many, many generations. Many “Messianic Jews” and “Completed Jews,” as they are sometimes called, have come to discover that wonderful truth about Jesus.
But this is a far cry from the sad examples from church history, where Jews have been forced to live in segregated communities, expelled from cities, and having their cemeteries destroyed, all in the name of promoting certain extreme preachings popularized in certain segments of the Christian world. Being forced to pay for and sponsoring works of Christian art, that spring not from a voluntary act of worship, but rather as way of humiliating people, is something that we as believers should strongly condemn. Even if a popular rapper spreads lies about Jewish people, we as followers of the True Messiah, should take no part in such coarse and unguarded speech.
Instead, we should lovingly point others to the way of humility in following after Jesus, and giving God all of the honor and the glory and the praise, and not allow our petty agendas to distort how we view others, for whom our Savior and Lord died.