In the aftermath of Saturday’s tragic mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue, much attention has been given to the gunman’s social media presence and virulent anti-Semitic statements. Robert Bowers reportedly yelled “All Jews must die” as he opened fire. His Gab profile appalled many with its use of the biblical verse John 8:44 – “Jews are the children of Satan” – as a sort of slogan and introduction to his account. But is there really such anti-Semitic sentiment in the Bible? Or was the line twisted and taken out of context?
“Uses of that passage and other passages that we find in the New Testament that give evidence of tensions that were there between religious communities in the first century, take them out of that historical context and use them in ways that they were never intended to be used,” explains Harold Attridge, Sterling Professor of Divinity at the Yale Divinity School.
“The Gospel of John does not support or encourage persecution of Jews. It doesn’t support or encourage persecution of anybody.”
Rather, the passage in question is a somewhat heated dialogue between Jesus and the crowds in Jerusalem. According to the story in John, people have been plotting against Jesus for some time, trying to arrest him and stone him to death. So Jesus reacts rather strongly and calls them children of the devil. According to biblical scholars, however, this statement was never meant to be showcased in isolation.
“The Gospel of John is, in some ways, the most Jewish of the gospels. And at the same time, it is the one that displays some of the most polemical lines,” says Attridge. “Those who cite John, saying that ‘Jews are children of the devil,’ ignore statements in John, like ‘Salvation comes from the Jews.'”
Those that utilize John 8:44 for anti-Semitic purposes are also likely overlooking the fact that Jesus himself was a Jew. And while we may never know the precise identity of the author of the Gospel of John, he is most often identified as John, the son of Zebedee, who is a Jew, as well.
“All of the immediate followers of Jesus were Jews,” explains Attridge. “And one of the major controversies in the first generation after the death of Jesus was whether non-Jews could even be part of the movement.”
Still – despite the fact that Jesus was himself a member of the Jewish people – there are many examples throughout history of passages in the New Testament being wielded for anti-Semitic purposes.
Anti-Semitism in the New Testament
“The passage that was probably most widely cited in the persecution of Jews, especially in German anti-Semitism with Nazis and the like, was Matthew 27:25,” explains Attridge: “May his blood be upon us and upon our children.”
That passage occurs in the Gospel of Matthew, when the Jewish crowds in Jerusalem are given the option of releasing either Jesus or the prisoner Barabbas – and they choose to release Barabbas.
“That line was, I think, originally meant by Matthew to say, look, we can explain something about what has happened in our lives with the destruction of Jerusalem by what happened to Jesus,” explains Attridge. “But it was taken out of that context and used as a way of saying Jews are responsible for the death of Jesus from the get-go.”
That sentiment, whether inadvertently or as part of a deliberate strategy by early Christians to rationalize their connection to Judaism, laid the groundwork for centuries of anti-Semitism. Stories about the death of Jesus sparked violence by Christians against their Jewish neighbors, often abetted or actively instigated by local authorities across Europe. In fact, long before the Nazis devised racial theories to push for the annihilation of the Jewish people, leaders of the Christian church itself painted the Jews as a “despised people” meant to wander the Earth in misery and marginality.
Though the Catholic Church came out against such teachings in the mid-twentieth century, centuries of damage had already been done. The seeds of animosity were sown long ago for those seeking a biblical justification for their modern white supremacist and anti-Semitic views.
Another passage sometimes used for such purposes is First Thessalonians 2:15, where Paul refers to the people in Jerusalem as being responsible for Jesus’s death. But according to Attridge, that passage is controversial as well, because historically speaking, the crucifixion of Jesus was not primarily a Jewish decision.
“Jesus was executed as a Roman political criminal. There’s no doubt about that,” the Yale biblical scholar explains. “The person responsible for making that decision was Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor. And the method of execution was a Roman method of execution: crucifixion. There was probably collaboration between the priestly authorities in Jerusalem and Pilate, but it’s mainly a Roman decision, based on the judgment that Jesus was probably a political revolutionary.”
Racism and homophobia
The wielding of biblical passages for hate-fueled ends is sadly nothing new to the Jewish community. It is also all too familiar to black Americans and to members of the LGBTQ community, as well.
There are numerous examples of Bible verses which have been used through the course of history to justify the institution of slavery, with all its racial connotations in this country, and that are still being heralded by white supremacists today. First Corinthians 7:21, First Timothy, Second Timothy, Ephesians, Colossians, an entire letter that Paul writes about a fugitive slave… the list goes on and on, with several biblical examples in which the same advice is given to slaves: “Obey your masters.”
“They are there in the Bible and we now recognize that they are not moral guides to what we should do or be,” explains Attridge. “But you know, 150 years ago, people were quoting the Bible to support the institution of slavery. That heritage has lasted in terms of some of the racialism we see on the streets today.”
In addition, some of those who condemn homosexuality point to biblical passages like Leviticus and Romans 1:24-27 as proof that the Bible agrees. But in this case, too, Attridge argues that these passages are being taken out of their proper historical context.
“Paul talks about men having sexual relations with men and women exchanging the natural for the unnatural,” says Attridge. “They’re probably reacting not in general to homosexual activity, but to specifically the forms it was taking in the Greco-Roman world, reacting to the ways in which people were exploiting people of the same sex, as well as people of other sexes, for various personal reasons. This has to be, I think, understood in the same way as a lot of stuff in the Bible that simply reflects the cultural assumptions of the period, which have long since proven to be problematic – that the world is flat, that lending money at interest is evil, etc.
“Lots of things in the Bible that were assumed to be correct at the time without a careful analysis, human experience has corrected over the course of the last couple millennia,” he said.
So, as the world reels from yet another hate crime at the hands of a man justifying his actions with a misinterpreted biblical verse, scholars are emphasizing the importance of understanding the full context and deeper meaning of the text.
“I think any serious engagement with the Bible has to take it, not in terms of the particularities of an individual verse, but in terms of the whole of the witness,” says Attridge. “And the whole of the witness of the Bible is God’s relationship with humankind and God’s call to do justice and live rightly and walk humbly before your God. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people who don’t recognize those as the governing principles that should be used in engaging any particular text. But I think all passages need to be read within, first of all, a historical context and what the assumptions were governing that historical context, and then critically evaluated on the basis of what we now know about life.”