How do we define “anti-semitism” so that we can use it for testing Matthew 27:25?

I’ve written now a series of posts on the use of Matthew 27:25 – “His blood be upon us and upon our children” – in Christian writers up to the 6th century.  This was provoked by the question of whether this verse was the cause of, or contributory to, anti-semitism.

In order to examine that question at all, it is  fairly obvious that you have to have some working definition of “anti-semitism” to use.  The term is very vaguely used in our day.  I am having genuine difficulty in separating something measurable from the noise of our unhappy time.  So I have been thinking about this, and trying to come up with something useful.  I don’t feel that I have succeeded, but I offer my thoughts for what they are worth.  If anyone can come up with something better, then I am all ears.

My first thought was to google for a definition.  I found nothing useful, because the definitions used were so extreme.  Indeed I found evidence that Jewish groups are lobbying in the US and EU to create formal, legally binding definitions, which define as “antisemitism” any criticism or opposition to the policies of the state of Israel.

It’s hard not to laugh at such arrogance. Just imagine if we had a crime of “antiamericanism” in England, punishable in the same manner, or a crime of “antienglishism” in the US, where the expression of any opposition to the policies of David Cameron risked fines and expulsion from your job?  One can only shake one’s head at the folly of those responsible.

Here’s another deeply daft example of over-extension of the term which I came across on Twitter today:

That is, a  bunch of pro-Israeli Americans expressing a hope for the conversion of the Jews is “anti-semitism” to this fool.   But to use the word in this manner renders it empty of meaning.

I quickly found, therefore, that definitions on Google were worthless.  We need merely change them to refer to Americans, or Britons, to see how extreme they are.

Meaningless usage need not be so crude.  Let me give a passage from Sax Rohmer, The Devil Doctor.  This Fu Manchu novel was published before the first world war, and has great charm in its way, and would appeal most likely to anyone who enjoys the gaslight era stories of Sherlock Holmes.  Here is how Rohmer begins chapter 11, “The White Peacock”:

Nayland Smith wasted no time in pursuing the plan of campaign which he had mentioned to Inspector Weymouth. Less than forty-eight hours after quitting the house of the murdered Slattin I found myself bound along Whitechapel Road upon strange enough business.

A very fine rain was falling, which rendered it difficult to see clearly from the windows; but the weather apparently had little effect upon the commercial activities of the district. The cab was threading a hazardous way through the cosmopolitan throng crowding the Street. On either side of me extended a row of stalls, seemingly established in opposition to the more legitimate shops upon the inner side of the pavement.

Jewish hawkers, many of them in their shirt-sleeves, acclaimed the rarity of the bargains which they had to offer; and, allowing for the difference of costume, these tireless Israelites, heedless of climatic conditions, sweating at their mongery, might well have stood, not in a squalid London thoroughfare, but in an equally squalid market-street of the Orient.

They offered linen and fine raiment; from foot-gear to hair-oil their wares ranged. They enlivened their auctioneering with conjuring tricks and witty stories, selling watches by the aid of legerdemain, and fancy vests by grace of a seasonable anecdote.

Poles, Russians, Serbs, Roumanians, Jews of Hungary, and Italians of Whitechapel mingled in the throng. Near East and Far East rubbed shoulders. Pidgin English contested with Yiddish for the ownership of some tawdry article offered by an auctioneer whose nationality defied conjecture, save that always some branch of his ancestry had drawn nourishment from the soil of Eternal Judaea.

Some wearing men’s caps, some with shawls thrown over their oily locks, and some, more true to primitive instincts, defying, bare-headed, the unkindly elements, bedraggled women – more often than not burdened with muffled infants – crowded the pavements and the roadway, thronged about the stalls like white ants about some choicer carrion.

Vivid stuff indeed.  This depicts a bunch of Jewish street traders in the East End of London, and a grubby and mercenary bunch they are (and probably are still, for the breed is not extinct).

Is this passage “anti-semitic”?  In the wild, woolly, political usage of today, it is undoubtedly anti-semitic.  It depicts Jews in a negative light, and that is more than enough for today’s thought police.  Favoured groups may not be depicted in any way that they dislike, and few Jews would probably care to be identified in this way, whether fairly or not.  Indeed few people of any group would like to be; but some groups have the power to enforce their will.

If we changed a few words, to describe Moslem traders, it would instantly become “islamophobic”.   Another change of scene, making the traders Negros, and it is unlikely that we would be allowed to retain our jobs, or to feed our families.

But change it again, to refer to English people in an American novel, or Americans in a British novel, and all would be well.  You may sneer at “rednecks” as you choose.  Make the mistake of then making them into Red Indians, and all hell would break loose.

These remarks are not intended to make a political statement, but to clarify what a useful definition will not be.  The examples above show that these definitions have no meaning other than to tell us which identity groups are currently in favour with those who control the media agenda in our day.  They are equivalent to “shut up, peasant”.

We may, I think, safely disregard any definition that fits into a scenario of this kind.  There is, after all, no rational or moral reason why one particular ethnico-religious group should enjoy the privilege of being above negative comment.

There is another reason to disregard this kind of definition. Is there any point whatsoever in reading through the fathers to determine whether they conform to Political Correctness as it is in 2015?  The Fathers cannot be politically correct, for they lived before it was invented.  Nor can anybody else in that period, other than accidentally.  In fact, the standard of these modern definitions keeps shifting.  There can be few more politically correct than US President Obama.  In 2008 he dismissed “gay marriage”.  The words he used in 2008, expressed in 2015 by others are now grounds for dismissal from office.  To conduct a test based on definitions derived from such shifting sources is to waste our time; and in any event every writer of antiquity – or of a period before 2010 – would fail the test.  It’s not worth doing.

Perhaps the answer is to go back 50 years.  In those happier days we did not ruin a man, or sentence his family to beggary, merely for expressing an opinion, unless that opinion was provably untrue and defamatory.  It is characteristic of modern politics that words are proof of guilt, and that the truth of those words is not a defense.  This again provides a fingerprint for what we want to avoid.

Faced with this endless nonsense, I started looking in older sources for definitions.  My search led me to a really interesting statement in Bernard Lazare, Antisemitism: Its history and causes.  The book is pre-WW2 in origin.  From p.157-8:

… the antisemitism of the Christian conservatives, says: “If modem society is so different from the old regime; if religious faith has diminished; if the political system has been entirely changed; if stock-gambling, if speculation, if capital in its industrial and financial forms, knowing no spirit of nationality dominates now and is to dominate in the future, the fault rests with the Jew.”

Let us clearly examine this point. The Jew has been living for centuries in the midst of those nations which, so it is said, are now perishing on account of his presence. Why, it may be asked, has the poison taken such a long time to work?

The usual answer is, because formerly the Jew was outside of society; because he was carefully kept apart. Now that the Jew has entered into society, he has become a source of disorder, and, like the mole, he is busily engaged in undermining the ancient foundations upon which rests the Christian state. And this accounts for the decline of nations, and their intellectual and moral decadence: they are like a human body which suffers from the intrusion of some foreign element which it cannot assimilate and the presence of which brings on convulsions and lasting disease. By his very presence the Jew acts as a solvent; he produces disorders, he destroys, he brings on the most fearful catastrophcs. The admission of the Jew into the body of the nations has proved fatal to them; they are doomed for having received him. Such is the very simple explanation which the antisemites advance to account for the changes which society is undergoing.

The accusation has not been limited to this alonc. The Jew, it is said, is not only a destroyer, but also an up-builder; arrogant, ambitious and domineering, he seeks to subject everything to himself. He is not content merely to destroy Christianity, but he preaches the gospel of Judaism; he not only assails the Catholic or the Protestant faith, but he incites to unbelief, and then imposes on those whose faith he has undermined his own conception of the world, of morality and of life.

Now this has the right sound about it.  Classically anti-semitism wasn’t about negative depictions in novels, but about plots, conspiracies, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the Enemy Within, the Merchants of Death, and so on.  It was about the perception of a conspiracy by Jews to do down everyone else, in their own selfish interest.  Nor is it a perception without elements of truth, which had led to its rise in the first place.

Violence against Jews, as Jews, was also comprehended in the definition.  Pogroms against Jews in Tsarist Russia were certainly an example of anti-semitism, and seen as such.

But not all violence counted.  A boy who thumped another boy “because the latter was a Jew” was not anti-semitic, but a quarrelsome boy; a gang of men who preyed on Jews undoubtedly was.

How then do we distill this, far more genuine sentiment, into something that can be used for our examination of the Fathers?

What we may do, I think, is to ask this: does what the Fathers write intentionally tend to encourage the reader to consider Jews as a group apart, in a way that no other group is; to consider them as a sinister group, most likely plotting against the rest of us; to think of them as somehow less human, less like “real people”?  Does it tend to demonise, to marginalise?

That, it seems to me, is a testable definition of whether a given writer is, or is not, anti-semitic.

One problem with this is that we must normalise for the climate of the times.  Some of the trends in antiquity themselves may have had this effect.  Does a writer reflect his times, or shape them?


10 thoughts on “How do we define “anti-semitism” so that we can use it for testing Matthew 27:25?

  1. You could use
    The fathers seem to be more against the practice of Judasim moreso than anything (or unrepent Judeans who are persisting to continue in Judasim).

  2. However, though, I suppose that it not the best either, since a Judean or Judahite (‘Jew’ should never actually be used) has at least three different meanings in the New Testament times:

    #1 – Someone of the province of Judah (Judaea), either racially or residency
    #2 – Someone of the tribe of Judah racially
    #3 – Someone of the religion of Judaism (not restricted to the particular country).
    #4 – any combination of any of the three

    However, to call all Israelites ‘Judeans/Judahites/Jews’ is actually inaccurate, since the reason most of them were called that, is because the primary tribe which returned after the Babel captivity was Judah.

    It is interesting to note, that most of the apostles refer to “the Judeans” and usually not themselves. Though it’s hard to know if this is because most of them were from Galilee, or because they no longer associated themselves with that group after they become followers of the Christ.

  3. Yes, I’m not going to go very far into this. The terminology is intentionally vague, I fear. It looks to me as if those who profit from it do this deliberately. First they define it narrowly to refer to gas chambers in order to get lawmakers to pass laws against it; and then define it as widely as possible, in order to silence their political foes.

  4. Perhaps one should draw a line between several phenomena.
    1. The Fathers could NOT be politically correct in a time when abuse and derogatory remarks associated with a high degree of verbal violence were current and acceptable. When communications were poor, no echo was possible without exaggeration. (What about our times?)
    2. A forgotten element is not anymore in the picture: Judaism and Christianity were COMPETING as MISSIONARY religions towards an audience mostly pagan. In turn that enhanced ideological assertiveness (“I’m definitely better than you scoundrel”), but also practices aimed at gaining the rivals’ (plural) sheep as trophies. Read Chrysostom with this in mind! (It is not just sociological, pace Wilken, but, since it happens within a society, it follows ALSO sociological patterns).
    3. When Christians took the upper hand in the 4th c., they successfully ERASED most antichristian writings (both pagan and Jew). Jewish antichristian polemics was mostly confined to the (linguistically impervious) Talmudic tradition. The documentary picture is hopelessly unbalanced.
    4. The very idea and ideology of antisemitism (i.e. persecuting Jews AS Jews) is at best late antique (Justinian’s laws with their admixture of politics and religion) and on. Looking for it when it could not have existed is a waste of time.
    5. Texts as Mt 27:25 were used as weapons in new contexts. The NT posits Jesus’ disciples / Church as the true accomplishment of the promises to Israel. Therefore, traditional Judaism was deemed obsolete (at best), and its role forgotten (see Marcionism, Gnosticism, time and time again), and also Paul’s affirmation that they will revert in the final times went to the dustbin (i.e. WE should wait until then and THEY should still exist and not be suppressed, since all is in God’s hands). Have we Christians been playing God?

  5. One of the stranger manifestations of this tendency is that people think the writer Georgette Heyer (a Christian lady of secular Jewish family) was anti-Semitic. This is largely because she has a scene in one of her novels where she totally takes apart the English stereotype of the wicked Jewish moneylender, while showing that a moneylender could be wicked and of Jewish ancestry without being a stereotype.

    But nowadays, a comedic scene like that is not understood unless one labels it explicitly, and sometimes not then.

  6. On the other hand, there are some patristic writers who really do say objectionable things about Jews, and it really does look like the result of feuding in their geographical area. Many (not all) Spanish Christian writers had a problem with Spain’s relatively large Jewish population. Some of this was exacerbated (I think) because Jewish and Visigothic Arian theology could be made to work together a lot easier than Jewish and Trinitarian Catholic theology. I don’t know whether there was much conversion to Judaism going on, but there may have been.

    But anyway, it seems almost as if a lot of animus against Visigothic Arians (who were the lords in charge, and thus couldn’t be preached against too nastily) got projected onto Spanish Jews, and then it stayed there after the Visigothic nobility converted to Catholicism again.

    The really weird one was Julian of Toledo, a guy from a Jewish family who was raised Christian and who became Archbishop of Toledo and Spain’s first primate. He seems to have been very defensive about his heritage, and actually apologizes to his correspondent for sending a book by a Jewish messenger because he was the only guy traveling to his buddy’s city. He also seems to have been behind some fairly harsh laws against Jews.

    Anyway, then when the Muslims invaded, even though Spanish Jews didn’t really get that great a deal (despite what writers today like to claim), they were still not going to face the exact same religious challenges as Trinitarian Catholics in Muslim-occupied areas. Catholics may have been unaware of the full extent of how Jews were harassed under dhimmi laws, because it may not have been visible to them. So criticism of Muslims often seems to have been veiled as talk about “Gentiles,” but Jews were an openly available target; and anything from Spanish patristics that wasn’t nice seems to have been used by those looking for excuses to be nasty. And again, the transferred resentment and prejudice of Christians seems to have stuck on Spanish Jews after the obvious “reasons” went away.

    But Spain isn’t a normal country.

    The main problem with anti-Semitism in Europe seems to have been the same thing that caused the Templar Order to get destroyed, and the Cistercian Order to have its forests and ironworks taken away – envy and greed. If you shunt a minority group into being the only ones who do certain trades, or if the minority group is the only one which develops and invents certain trades, and then the minority group makes money, they are a target. (And if you have a society that tends to blame witchcraft and poisons and plots whenever anything goes wrong, and you stop having an opposed social structure of religion and government that slaps down that nonsense whenever it shows up, you blame the minority group even in preference to blaming nasty old ladies without protective relatives, or that guy down the road whom you don’t like.)

    Anti-Semitic use of patristics or Bible quotes as “justification” usually seems to be a case of slapping paint on something that the perpetrators already wanted to do.

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