The Gospel’s Aren’t Anti-Semitic: Let’s Talk About It

By John W. Morehead

On July 11 Pagan leader Aidan Kelly published an essay on his blog Including Paganism titled “The Gospels Are Inherently Anti-Semitic. Deal With It.” After posting a brief comment, Kelly contacted me and invited me to write a response, and I was happy to do so given the particular significance of the issues for Jewish-Christian relations. I am also pleased to be able to respond as a way of facilitating Pagan-Christian dialogue.

I begin where Kelly concludes in his essay, with a statement on anti-Semitism. This is an ugly practice, and it has been an unfortunate part of Christian history for which, I believe, members of my tribe should offer apologies on behalf of members of our religious community in the past. Sadly, anti-Semitism is currently on the rise in some quarters, and it is the duty of those opposed to various forms of bigotry, whether anti-Semitism, anti-Pagan sentiments, Islamophobia, the persecution of Christians, or bigotry of any stripe, to work toward the elimination of these biases. I offer activism and academic work in religious diplomacy as a meager contribution to these efforts.

In the beginning of Kelly’s essay he says that “[p]robably any objection to my argument you can think of was thoroughly discussed and shot down a long time ago.” In what follows I will demonstrate that this is not the case. In my response below I will:  discuss a proper understanding of the literary form of gospel; I will comment on the relationship of scholarship to conservative religious convictions; I will argue for the basic reliability and historicity of the Gospel of Mark; and provide considerations related to the thesis that the Christian gospels are not anti-Semitic. Along the way it will become evident that Kelly’s perspective does not represent the consensus of mainstream New Testament scholarship.

Kelly’s essay give special attention to Mark’s Gospel. For him, the best of scholarship shows “that the gospels are works of theology, not history.” In this Kelly posits a false dichotomy between the two. Gospel is best understood as a unique literary genre that brings together theological storytelling, proclamation, an invitation to faith, and biography. This involves historical figures, with Jesus at the center, and includes historical events, but these are shaped by the evangelists for their theological and evangelistic purposes. This understanding of gospel looks at the texts from their ancient cultural and religious context, the perspective from which they should be understood, rather than modern historical or biographical standards. It is also worth noting that the Christian claim has always been that God did something in history through Jesus. The self-understanding of Christianity involves a blending of theology and history, rather than the dichotomy Kelly sets forth.

I should say a few words about the importance of the place of scholarship in connection with religious convictions, in this case the Christian faith and consideration of its central sacred texts. For Kelly, summarizing what he sees as the essence of 250 years of New Testament scholarship, “The history of that scholarship is one of liberals beating the literalists back step by step with a wand of reason…” The idea of scholarship loving liberals versus naïve biblical literalists is a stereotype. It is unfortunately true that many conservative Christian clergy and laypeople, particularly Protestant fundamentalists and evangelicals, separate their faith from scholarly inquiry. But this is not always the case. Then there are Christian academics. Many Christian scholars contribute to the body of academic work on the New Testament and historical Jesus studies. For an example of this see the exchange between Marcus Borg and N.T. Wright in The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions. As a conservative Christian bringing my religious convictions into dialogue with scholarship, I now turn my attention to how this helps us understand the New Testament materials.

In making his case that the Gospels are anti-Semitic, Kelly focuses largely on Mark’s Gospel. This is curious since the gospels of Matthew and John are usually the ones cited by critics as anti-Semitic. For example, in Anti-Judaism and the Gospels there are chapters that address Matthew, Luke and John, but none that specifically address Mark.

For Kelly, Mark’s Gospel is anti-Semitic in a variety of ways, most virulently in the events described after Gethsemane. The “’Passion’ story is propaganda, intended to shift blame for Jesus’ death from the Romans to the Jewish people.” In addition, the empty tomb is said to be legendary, and Jesus’ crucified body was cast into a gulch for criminals after his death, hence no miraculous bodily resurrection.

The problem here is that Kelley’s skepticism of the reliability and historicity of Mark does not arise from the consensus of mainstream scholarship. Consider the work of the late Maurice Casey. Casey considered himself an independent scholar, a former Christian, but one who sought balance in his historical analysis, self-consciously trying to avoid the biases often associated with religious and anti-religious perspectives. In his book Jesus of Nazareth: An Independent Historian’s Account of his Life and Teaching, Casey makes a case for the general reliability of the gospels, including Mark’s. He says that the New Testament manuscripts compare very well with other literary works of antiquity, and he mentions that the gospels drew upon a variety of sources, including those in Aramaic, Casey’s area of expertise. Casey comments on the sources behind the Gospels and says that “[t]hese sources, though abbreviated, were literally accurate accounts of incidents and sayings from the life of Jesus. We do not know who wrote these sources, but they were certainly in close touch with the ministry of Jesus, so this is just one short step away from eyewitness testimony.” After his analysis, Casey concludes that Mark’s Gospel was written prior to 70 CE, probably as early as 40 CE, and that it is the “oldest and most reliable of the Gospels.” One need not agree with this very early date for Mark, but he makes the case well that the New Testament, including the gospels and Mark’s, are trustworthy historical sources related to the life of Christ. In his work Casey provides us with an example of a historian sifting through the data and various interpretations of it in order to present the thinking of mainstream scholarship.

The careful evaluation of scholarship is crucial. As Kelly makes his case for the problematic nature of Mark he cites the work of Robert M. Price. Here it should be noted that Price is a mythicist, believing that Jesus was a mythological figure. Jesus mythicism is a perspective held on by a handful of individuals on the fringe of the academy, and largely promoted on the Internet by those without the historical expertise to properly assess the data. It is rejected by the majority of scholars. Given that Price holds these extreme views we should be very cautious in taking his criticism of Mark’s Gospel at face value. We might also go further and consider that if this is the type of scholarship marshalled by Kelly and considered acceptable, what else in his summary of New Testament scholarship might be suspect and in need of critical re-examination? (For those wanting to explore mythicism see Casey’s Jesus: Evidence and Argument or Mythicist Myths.)

Since the gospels are historically reliable, this means that Kelly’s assumption about the fictitious nature of Mark’s story after Gethsemane, created as a means of shifting blame for the execution of Christ from the Romans to the Jews, is false. Mark, and the other gospel writers after him, wrote about the Passion story because it was an important part of what actually happened.

It’s also worth mentioning briefly in regards to questions of historicity and anti-Semitism that Kelly speaks positively about Gnosticism. For him Jesus may have been “the first Gnostic,” and if so then “the new information about him in the Gnostic gospels is historically valuable.” This is curious in light of Kelly’s strong criticism of the reliability of the New Testament Gospels. We have already discussed their dating and reliability above. By contrast, the Gnostic gospels are dated late (usually between 150-250 CE), and they do not include the historical setting and context of Second Temple Judaism, so on the grounds of historicity they are problematic. Some have even charged ancient Gnosticism with anti-Semitism given its rejection of Judaism and its God as evil. The Gnostic gospels are interesting historically, but before they are embraced they should be subject to the same scrutiny as the orthodox Gospels of Christianity. Philip Jenkins takes just such an approach in Hidden Gospels: How the Search for Jesus Lost Its Way.

Having considered the basic historical reliability of Mark (as well as the gospels and the New Testament in general), and its implications for the charge of anti-Semitism, more can be said about this topic. As stated previously, I readily acknowledge that many Christians have been anti-Semitic at various times in our history. But this is not because these Christians have seized upon texts found in inherently anti-Semitic gospels. Human beings tend toward tribalization and the demonization of “the other,” and use a variety of elements to justify such actions, including the citation of religious texts. In the case of Christianity, certain texts in the New Testament were conveniently appropriated to justify anti-Semitism. But this does not mean that the texts must necessarily be understood as anti-Semitic.

In my view another perspective makes far better sense of the data. First, we need to remember that the early Christians were largely Jewish. In Anti-Judaism and the Gospels E.P. Sanders provides a historical perspective in which to understand the tensions and conflict between early Christianity and the broader Jewish community of the first century. He notes that early Christianity was a Jewish movement. It was only later that Gentiles began to come into the early Christian community in larger numbers. This fledgling messianic Jewish sect, through its written scriptures, explored its identity within and yet distinct from the expressions of Judaism of the time. And even as early Christian wrestled with its identity it retained a positive appreciation for Israel. Christianity’s first major theologian, the Apostle Paul, says in his one of his major epistles that God has not cast away his people (Romans 11:1).  So the first consideration is that it is strange to argue that the gospels are anti-Semitic when they were written for a largely Jewish audience, and a major theological treatise in the New Testament speaks positively of Israel. So it seems to me that at worst there’s a tension to be explained rather than a bigotry to be acknowldged.

But what about the critique of Judaism and “the Jews” that is found in the pages of the New Testament? Does this justify the anti-Semitic charge? Not necessarily. Another process may be at play. Sanders argues that [c]riticism of Judaism or aspects of Judaism is not, however, necessarily ‘anti-Judaism…Judaism has always included a lot of internal polemic and debate…” In light of this phenomenon a good argument can be made that the gospels reflect this internal polemic within Judaism, but this need not be understood as anti-Semitic. (For further exploration of this see Anti-Judaism and the Gospels, edited by William Farmer, and Anti-Semitism and Early Christianity, edited by Don Hagner and Craig Evans.)

In conclusion, I don’t believe that Kelly has made his case. By drawing upon mainstream New Testament scholarship there are good reasons to believe that the gospels are reliable historical documents presenting an evangelistic and theological message, and that they don’t have to be interpreted as being anti-Semitic. People of faith, whether Pagan or Christian, must interact with the best of scholarship in dialogue with their religious traditions. As this is done we must all account for our biases and presuppositions in the analysis of the evidence, and consider a range of scholarly opinions. When we do that we may find that our stereotypes break down and must be discarded, including the educated liberals versus the un-educated biblical literalists myth. Once stereotypes and misunderstandings disappear, we will be better equipped to work together through our differences in order to fight problems like anti-Semitism.

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John W. Morehead is the Custodian of the Evangelical Chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy. He is the editor of Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and Christian in Dialogue (Lion Hudson, 2009), and for many years he has been involved in multifaith relationships and conversations in the contexts of Mormonism, Islam, and Paganism.

[Photo Credit: Bachmont]