Anti-Jewish Sentiment in Protestant Christianity (Pt. 1 of 4)

Since biblical times, discord between Jews and Gentiles has plagued the Body of Messiah. In his letter to the Romans, Paul wrote extensively on the issue, humbling Jews by telling them that they are not better than Gentiles (3:9), and humbling Gentiles by telling them to not boast over Jews (11:17–21). Gentiles are not even to boast over unbelieving Jews, Paul explained, because “regarding the chosenness, [Jews] are beloved on account of the fathers,” called with an irrevocable call which God will not regret (11:28-29, mjlt). Indeed, though many Jews today reject their Messiah, they can still “be grafted [back] into their own olive tree,” and one day “all Yis’rael will be saved” (11:24–26, mjlt).

Despite Paul’s teaching, however, the same division has grown, such that both anti-Semitism (racist contempt for Jews) and anti-Jewish sentiment (intellectual or theological bias against Jews) have continued to pervade Christianity throughout its history.

Together, these influences led to mass persecutions of the Jewish people, such as during the Catholic crusades and inquisitions, as well as pogroms and expulsions from various regions. Though today’s believers might hope that this appalling treatment of Jews was relegated only to a corrupt Church of times past, the troubling truth is that the same anti-Jewish influences were also passed on to the Protestant Church, remaining ingrained in its teachings from the time of its founding down to the present day.

The aim of this four-part series is to provide a historical overview of Protestant ideologies and prejudices against the Jewish people, and to identify the common patterns of anti-Jewish thought. By examining this tragic past, we can then recognize the theological and practical repercussions of such beliefs, enabling us to understand why this remains such a crucial issue, and to determine how this ancient animosity can finally be resolved.

The anti-Jewish backdrop of Protestantism began with the Ancient Church in the period immediately after recorded biblical history. Believers as early as Justin Martyr (AD 100–165) were already claiming that it is Christians who are “the true Israelitic race,” rather than the physical descendants of Israel, the Jews.1 This is one of the earliest examples of replacement theology—the belief that God has temporarily replaced or permanently rejected the Jews from being His people, setting up the Church as “Israel” in their place. Such replacement—whether temporary or final—goes against Scripture by taking away the Jews’ God-given heritage (Jer 33:24–26; Rom 11:1), and inherently foments anti-Semitism. For example, John Chrysostom (AD 344?–407), an outspoken Church Father, delivered shockingly anti-Semitic teachings, bluntly proclaiming, “I hate the Jews,” deriding them as “assassins of Christ” who have made themselves prime for slaughter.2

Unsurprisingly, these ideologies were disseminated to future generations and took root within the Catholic Church, resulting in the perpetration of many atrocities against Jews during medieval times. But even among those Catholics who advocated for civil treatment of Jews, anti-Semitism remained prevalent. The monk Bernard of Clairvaux (1090?–1153) asserted that Jews are children of the devil, filled with stupidity; and Pope Innocent III (1160?–1216) claimed that Jews are cursed to live as outcasts for crucifying Christ.3 Already, it can be seen that prejudice against Jews is directly linked with theology, including the beliefs that Jews are under a divine curse and have been replaced as God’s people.

The study of Protestantism itself begins with the first Protestant Reformer, Martin Luther (1483–1546), who overflowed with acerbic anti-Semitism. In his book On the Jews and Their Lies, he stated, “Therefore, wherever you see a genuine Jew, you may with a good conscience cross yourself and bluntly say: ‘There goes a devil incarnate.’”4 Luther went so far as to say that the greatest earthly enemy of Christians is a Jew wanting to be Jewish, and he claimed that Jews’ “lineage and circumcision infect them all” to desire to poison wells and abduct children, and they will do so given the chance.5 His advice for Christians was to seize Bibles from Jews, and to hurl swine feces at or imprison any Jew who even spoke God’s name.6 This imagery should deeply disturb any modern Protestant reader, especially coming from a leader of the Reformation.

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Luther’s anti-Semitism also manifested in the form of anti-Jewish theology. He continued the biblically unsupported idea that God rejected the Jews for crucifying Jesus, emphasizing that “the Jews, surely rejected by God, are no longer His people, and neither is He any longer their God.”7 Additionally, he used Esau and Ishmael as examples to claim that lineage has absolutely no bearing on being part of God’s chosen people,8 despite God saying He chose the patriarchs and “their offspring after them” (Deu. 4:37, esv).

As the founder of the Protestant movement, Luther’s words were the seedbed from which all of Protestant history sprouted and grew. Next month, in part two of this series, we will see how these poisonous anti-Semitic teachings bore bitter fruit in the generations to follow.

What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

  1. Brown, Michael L. Our Hands Are Stained with Blood: The Tragic Story of the Church and the Jewish People. 2019 ed., Destiny Image Publishers, 2019, 24 ↩︎
  2. Ibid., 24 ↩︎
  3. Ibid., 29–30 ↩︎
  4. Luther, Martin. “On the Jews and their Lies.” Luther’s Works. Editor Franklin Sherman, Translator Martin H. Bertram. American ed. Vol. 47. The Christian in Society IV. Concordia Publishing House and Fortress Press, 1971. pp. 121–306, 214 ↩︎
  5. Ibid., 217 ↩︎
  6. Ibid., 286 ↩︎
  7. Ibid., 138−139, 226 ↩︎
  8. Ibid., 146 ↩︎
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