A service was held on Sunday 8th May to mark the 800th anniversary (one day early) of the Synod of Oxford of 9th May 1222 which introduced the first measures against Jews in England, and led to more harsh measures and the eventual expulsion of Jews from England in 1290. This appeared to have encouraged anti-Semitic measures across Europe. It is sobering to note that the Synod was convened by Stephen Langton, former professor of theology in Paris and then Archbishop of Canterbury, who not only likely wrote the Magna Carta, but also added the chapter divisions into the Bible which we use today. Details of the service, together with links to the sermon, and a historical account of the Synod of Oxford, can be found on the diocesan website here.
The Times reported the service with this introduction:
English Christians must repent for their “painful and shameful” history of persecuting Jews, a bishop said at a service of “penitence” at a Church of England cathedral today.
Many of the “lethal” antisemitic myths and stereotypes used over centuries to justify the abuse, oppression, expulsion and murder of Jewish people across Europe can be traced back to Christian teaching, and specifically to anti-Jewish laws enacted at the Synod of Oxford in 1222, church leaders said.
This offers something vital and positive—a rejection of antisemitic ideas and language—but also includes much nonsense. The idea that I, or anyone else, can ‘repent’ for something historic that we did not do—indeed, as the Guardian writer notes, something that happened before the Church of England even came into being—is nonsense. Those who need to repent (change) are long dead, and I do not own their views so cannot repent of them. The event was clearly of significance for the Jewish community, but it would have been no less so if the language of ‘reject’ and ‘renounce’ was used instead.
But this raises the question: what views should we reject which might contribute to an antisemitic outlook? I would suggest these 12 views, which might not all look discriminatory at first, but sow the seeds of an anti-Jewish outlook amongst Christians—and are very common indeed.
1. Jesus rejected the law
It is quite common to hear people comment that Jesus rejected the law and its legalism, and modelled a kind of free-wheeling gospel of grace where the law does not matter; it has even been promoted by some Anglican bishops. I think this originates from a simplistic reading of the ‘you have heard it said, but I say to you…’ language in the Sermon on the Mount in Matt 5–7, from seeing the criticisms by the Pharisees of Jesus’ apparent lax approach to practices they insisted on (such as Sabbath observance and ritual washing), and from Jesus’ association with ‘sinners’.
But, as Andy Angel has pointed out, all the evidence is that Jesus was a Torah-observant Jew, who called his followers to a stricter, not more lax, observance of the law, in demanding that outward observance on its own was not enough. Jesus rejected particular interpretations of the law, rather than the law itself. And he was concerned with purity, but it was a purity he offered people rather than demanded of them. In Matthew’s gospel particularly, Jesus encourages his hearers to treasure the law alongside the good news of the kingdom (Matt 13.52). And his repeated refrain is that he did not come to ‘do away’ with the law, but to ‘fulfil it’.
2. Jesus saves us from ‘religion’
Jesus was not ‘religious’, but hung around with ‘non-religious’ people on the margins—and his main criticisms were reserved for the religious. Or so we are told. If this is so, it is quite hard not to read this as seriously antisemitic, since the only religious people around in the gospels were Jews! But this claims includes at least three mistaken assumptions.
First, the world of the first century was a religious world quite distinct from our contemporary Western culture where we have compartmentalised ‘religion’ into a neat, distinct, category. Essentially, in the ancient world everyone was religious, even those ‘on the margins’! Secondly, the good news is directed towards and appeals to both the observant and the lax, the pious and the marginal. Luke’s gospel, which we are reading in this Lectionary Year C, is particularly explicit here: almost all of the main players in the narrative are pious, observant, devout Jews, and it is to these whom God reveals himself first.
Thirdly, Jesus ‘hung around with the outcasts’ in order to call them to pious holiness, not to leave them as they were. ‘I have not come to call the righteous [since they are well, and do not need my medicine], but sinners to repentance‘ (Luke 5.32).
3. The Pharisees were all bad
The sharpest conflicts in the gospels often appear to be between Jesus and the Pharisees, who were a primarily lay-led purity movement, and who were ambivalent about the power plays of those who were associated with the temple. They are often depicted as amongst those challenging and questioning Jesus, and join in the conspiracy to do away with him, and Jesus appears to reserve his harshest words for them.
Yet Pharisees were also drawn to the ministry of John the Baptist to be baptised (Matt 3.7); many of them come and attend to Jesus’ teaching and want to defend him (Luke 7.36, 13.31). In fact Jesus makes this remarkable comment to his disciples to urge them to attend to the teaching of the Pharisees:
The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach (Matt 23.2–3)
4. The love of God is unconditional and works don’t count
I read online yesterday an animated argument for an ‘inclusive’ church, which was accompanied by a picture of a placard in multicolour: ‘God accepts you as you are’. It is very hard indeed to reconcile that with anything to be found in the New Testament! The message we find there is much more like ‘God loves you and therefore calls you to change; at great cost he deals with your sin, what is wrong in the world, in order that you might live a changed life’.
John Barclay has demonstrated convincingly that in the writings of Paul, God’s grace is unconditioned, in that the gift of new life in Christ does not have any pre-conditions to it, but it is not unconditional, in that it does make demands. If that were not the case, how could Paul (following the example of Jesus) so often warn of the consequences of not living out the obligations of faith? Paul is very clear that we have been saved by grace through faith—in order to live a life of good works (Eph 2.8–10). The apparent contrast between the language of faith and works in James 2.18–24 and Romans 3–4 is just that: apparent. The debate here is precisely around the grounds on which we are saved (grace) and what we are saved for (good works), so that saving faith makes itself seen in a changed life. This is vital to avoid the caricature of ‘works-based Judaism’ contrasted with ‘grace-filled Christianity.’
5. Grace has replaced law
One of the most striking and repeated refrains in the Old Testament is ‘The Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love’ (Ex 34.6, Num 14.18, Ps 86.15, Ps 103.8, Ps 145.8 and so on). So how is it that many people come to read the OT as being about a demanding, law-giving (Jewish) God who is constantly angry, and a loving, meek (Christian) Jesus who loves us and accepts us just as we are? There is no doubt that Jesus came close to those who were far away, and touched them with the healing compassion of God—just as there is no doubt that Jesus talked more about the need for radical change and the danger of eternal destruction than anyone else in the NT.
One source of this mistake is a misreading of John 1.16–17, where the AV implies a contrast between the law given through Moses, and the grace we have received in Jesus: ‘For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.’ However, the word ‘but’ is not there, and the preceding phrase ‘grace upon grace’ or ‘grace received in place of grace already given’ (TNIV) is a pointer to Ex 33.13 ‘if I have found grace…’ The grace of God in Jesus is an even greater outpouring of the grace God and already bestowed on his people Israel, not a contrast to it. God rescued his people first, and only then gave them the Commandments to shape their new life together in response to his saving acts.
6. ‘The Jews’ were opposed to Jesus
In the Fourth Gospel, there are moments where it appears that ‘the Jews’ are the ones who oppose Jesus, and taken out of context (as this language has often, tragically, been) it could be read as contrasting Jewish opponents of Jesus with his ‘Christian’ followers. This is, of course, both historical and narrative nonsense. All the characters in the Fourth Gospel are Jews, including Jesus and his followers, so we need to read this language more carefully. Even a cursory reading of this gospel shows that the term Iudaioi is used in at least three different ways: to refer to Jewish practice and belief (John 2.6); to refer to southern Judeans in contrast with northern Galileans; and to refer to the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem who opposed Jesus. Mark Stibbe also proposes that the term specifically refers to Jews who had believed in Jesus and had then turned against him in John 8.31.
But the Fourth Gospel is very clear: salvation is from the Jews (John 4.22) and those who are outside Jewish belief need to come to the Jewish messiah to receive God’s gift. The whole gospel is structured around the Jewish festivals, and it is only in understanding these that we can know who Jesus is. German critical scholarship of the nineteenth and twentieth century, which put this gospel as a late, Hellenised document from the second century, was profoundly anti-Jewish as well as being unhistorical.
7. Paul thought the law was bad
Protestant reading of Paul has been deeply shaped by the Reformation, and a general outlook of the contrast in Paul between ‘works righteousness’ versus ‘salvation by grace’. This is why it is important to consider the (now not very new) ‘new perspective on Paul‘ which offers a more historically rooted reading of Paul and of first-century Judaism(s), and takes seriously the positive as well as negative things Paul says about the law.
For Paul, the law is good (Rom 7.12, 1 Tim 1.8) in that it tells us the truth about God’s call on our lives, but it cannot deliver that without the defeat of sin through the cross and resurrection of Jesus, and the gift of the Spirit to empower us to live the life of obedience to God. And we fulfil the law by the power of the Spirit so that we live the kind of changed lives that he outlines in his repeated ethical injunctions.
8. The Church is contrasted with Israel
There is a good case for never using the word ‘church’ in English translations, for two reasons. First, we cannot read that word without including with it associations of either institutions (‘the Church of England’) or buildings (‘St Botolph’s Church’) neither of which belong in the New Testament. But, second, we miss a vital point of continuity: the word ekklesia was used of the gathering of citizens (that is, free men over the age of 30) for decision-making within the Greek polis, but it was also the word used in the Greek OT for the ‘congregation of the sons of Israel’, that is, the people of God.
We should therefore read the word ‘church’ as having continuity with, not differentiation from, Israel. Paul is very clear that gentile believers are grafted into the Israel of God, neither replacing it as ‘the Church’ nor being absorbed into it by becoming Jews. And John is clear, in Revelation 7, that the ordered, holy Israel of God (the ‘144,000’ that he hears counted out) is now drawn from every tribe, language, people and nation. The Israel of God is still Israel, but it now includes both ethnic Jews and gentiles from every ethnicity, nation, culture, and language. In this sense, I am an ‘honorary Jew’, a ‘Jew inwardly’ (Rom 2.29), graciously incorporated into the Israel of God.
9. Jesus is not the Jewish Messiah
Evangelism amongst Jewish people is a uniquely sensitive issue, in part because of the history of forced conversion and abuse visited upon Jews in European Christendom. But there is a strange paradox in the idea that a movement, which was entirely a Jewish renewal movement in its earliest days, following a Jewish messiah, and made up entirely of Jewish followers, should not now ever include Jews amongst its numbers.
And the idea that Jews cannot be followers of Jesus is a slap in the face to Jews who already say that they are—who are in danger of being a marginalised group within a marginalised group. We should honour and recognise those ‘messianic’ Jews who remain Jewish followers of Jesus by allowing them to share their faith.
10. Modern Israel is a uniquely evil oppressor
There are many who believe that the existence of the modern state of Israel is a sign of God’s faithfulness and, in particular, fulfilment of his ‘end times’ plan—but I believe they are quite mistaken. One of the many problems with this view is that modern Israel is treated with ethnical exceptionalism, and that to question anything that happens there is to challenge God’s plans. On the other hand, many others think that Israel is an almost unique oppressor of Palestinian Arabs, claiming that Israel is an apartheid state.
Even if modern Israel had a unique place in God’s purposes, it is hard to justify ethical exceptionalism—after all, in the OT Israel is to be a light to the nations, and is called to a higher ethical standard, not to be excepted from ethical accountability. And a deeply awkward aspect of the narrative of exile is precisely that Israel was judged by God for not pursuing justice and righteousness. But modern Israel is the only functioning democracy in the region, and stands out in comparison with neighbouring Arab states on its human rights record—and in fact on just about any other ethical measure. So if we are going to criticise modern Israel, then we need to do so in proportion, and aim our censure even more at other countries in the region.
11. The suffering of the Jews is mere history
On one of my trips to Israel, I was in a group which had the chance to meet political and religious leaders from all sides of the current political dispute. That included meeting with members of the PLO’s negotiating team who had been working with Israeli leaders in the conversations about future peace. I asked one of them: ‘How important do you think the Holocaust is for those you have been negotiating with?’ His reply was shocking: ‘Well, it was unfortunate’. He appeared to have no understanding of how central the Holocaust is in the thinking of those with whom he was negotiating.
We need to understand how important the painful history of antisemitism is for Jewish people, and confront its reality. I have found both my visits to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and museum deeply troubling, and we should all be troubled by this history—not least at a time when antisemitism appears to be on the rise again in the present moment, including in Putin’s Russia, and across the Arab world.
12. Jesus is a non-Jewish everyman.
Jesus relates to all people everywhere, and so has universal significance. But he does so from the particularity of the incarnation, as a first-century Jewish man. All attempts to erase this identity include within them the seeds of anti-Jewish thinking, whether that is making Jesus a white European, making him an ‘inclusive’ hero who affirms all sexualities (something that is historically implausible for Jesus as a first-century Jew), or making him the archetypal black man who suffered involuntary oppression against the ‘Whiteness’ of Roman imperialism.
The best antidote to all this approaches is taking seriously what the gospel say about Jesus the Jewish messiah, whose grace has flowed from this place into all the world. Salvation is of the Jews.
In my own journey of discipleship and scholarship, I have been immensely helped by engaging with Jewish scholars and thinkers, reading Jewish commentaries on the Old Testament, and listening to orthodox Jewish critiques of contemporary culture. These are things every Christian leader—every Christian—ought to be engaged with.