Hannan Aslan

Auschwitz & Biblical Studies

What has Auschwitz to do with Jerusalem? . . . or with Cambridge, Chicago, Collegeville, Downers Grove, Grand Rapids, London, Minneapolis, Nashville, New York, Oxford, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Wheaton, or any other city which hosts a major publisher of Jewish or Christian theology? I loosely base this question on a more ancient one by Tertullian of Carthage (c. AD 155–c. 220): "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?" (Presc. Her. 7). Auschwitz is simply the German name for the Polish town of Oświęcim, which began in the twelfth century and today features a population of 40,342 (as of 2011). Yet, we only recall five short years (1940–1945) of its 700+. This is because an estimated 1.1 to 1.5 million people died in the Auschwitz–Birkenau (Polish: OświęcimBrzezinka) concentration camp during this time—90% of them were Jews. This is about 35 times the number of residents there today. Therefore, Auschwitz is a symbol of the Holocaust (Hebrew: ShoahH7724b; "Destruction"), or what Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) and his National Socialist (i.e., Nazi) Party termed the "Final Solution of the Jewish Question" (German: Endlösung der Judenfrage).

Today, many Christians often deny having a capital while others point to Rome or the formerly named Constantinople (now the Turkish city of Istanbul). However, the undisputed center of early Christianity was Jerusalem. This was always the most sacred place in Judaism, too. The disciples of Jesus evangelized most of the Mediterranean world, launching from the Jewish Christian church of Jerusalem. Most importantly, the city is a symbol of where the one true God meets us in our physical world, both in the ancient temple and in the person of Jesus. If Jerusalem proves God's faithfulness to all humankind, it follows that Auschwitz represents our most faithless rebellion against him. It is one thing for elitist Judean priests and imperialistic Roman pagans to crucify Jesus, but it is another for supposed "Christians" to destroy God's image in mass murder. Nevertheless, this article is about the good which came from our deep soul searching that followed World War II. Among them was the shift from a replacement theology that defamed the Jewish people to a historical-grammatical method that respects them. 


Antisemitism in the Early Church


Too often, we Christians dismiss sins—especially major atrocities such as the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, and the Holocaust—committed by other believers by saying, "They are/were not true Christians." However, this sets up a "no true Scotsman" fallacy whereas the identity of a genuine Christian is hard to define given that we all sin. The oldest and most pervasive evil in the church is antisemitism, hatred of the Jews. How can this be if we know that Jesus, Paul of Tarsus, and all twelve of his apostles were Jewish? Perhaps, we too readily use the modern, yet the unscriptural notion of religious conversion to relabel them as "Christian" gentiles? The problem with this is not only historical or theological, but also etymological. Simply put, the words "Christ" and "Christian" both derive from the Greek noun Christos (G5547), which translates the Hebrew word Mashiach (H4899), i.e., "Messiah." To identify as a "Christian" is to also relate with the Jewish theological concept of God anointing kings and priests for ministry. Even the word "Semite" comes from the Bible, referring to Noah's son Shem (cf. Gen. 5:32). Therefore, to be antisemitic is to be "anti-Shem," and to be against the nation of Shem is to also be "anti-Messiah," or antichrist. One cannot serve the King of the Jews—Jesus (cf. Matt. 2:2; John 19:19)—without being a citizen of his Jewish kingdom. Paul repeated this idea in his letter to the Roman church (cf. Rom. 1:16; 2:9-10; 3:2). 

The picture at the beginning of this section features a bas-relief of soldiers carrying the temple's equipment and furniture through the streets of Rome. The most notable is the menorah (H4501), the seven-branched lampstand. This bas-relief is part of the Arch of Titus, which the emperor Domitian (AD 5196) built to honor Titus' (AD 39–81) siege of Jerusalem in AD 70 that included the temple's full destruction. However, this was not an antisemitic hate crime, but an act of war. The persecution of Jews at Roman hands should have ended as the empire grew increasingly Christian—especially with Constantine's (c. AD 280–337) edict that legalized Christianity in AD 313. Sadly, it did not. The leaders of the early church between the second and fifth centuries warned against the dangers of Judaizing, or the requirement for gentiles to follow the Law of Moses. Albeit, a legitimate concern of which Paul chided the Galatian church (cf. Gal. 2:15-21), these church leaders went too far in the direction of outright bigotry. For example, Justin Martyr (c. AD 100–c. 165) wrote in his apologetic text Dialogue with Trypho,


For the circumcision according to the flesh, which is from Abraham, was given for a sign; that you may be separated from other nations, and from us; and that you alone may suffer that which you now justly suffer; and that your land may be desolate, and your cities burned with fire; and that strangers may eat your fruit in your presence, and not one of you may go up to Jerusalem (Dial. 16). 

Writing two centuries later, John Chrysostom (AD 354407) published a series of eight homilies with the title Against the Jews (Greek: kata Ioudaiōn). This was just one of three in a genre of writings called adversus Judæos, the Latin translation for "against the Jews." The other two were attributed to Tertullian and Gregory of Nyssa (c. AD 335–c. 394). Chrusostomos, a nickname given to John meaning "Golden Mouth" (G5552; G4750), preached these choice words in his first homily: 


Jews are dogs, stiff-necked, gluttonous, drunkards. They are beasts unfit for work . . . the Jews had fallen into a condition lower than the vilest animals . . . the synagogue is worse than a brothel and a drinking shop; it is a den of scoundrels, a temple of demons, the cavern of devils, a criminal assembly of the assassins of Christ. . . . I hate the Jews, because they violate the law . . . it is the duty of all Christians to hate the Jews (Against the Jews 1, 2:2, 6, 7; 3:1).


Antisemitism in the Medieval Church

The antisemitism of the early church leaders from the second to the fourth centuries (i.e., the ante-Nicene period) heavily influenced their successors well into the sixteenth century and on into the twentieth. Even today, many Christians refer to men such as Justin Martyr and John Chrysostom as "early church fathers" and label their theological writings as "patristic," i.e. fatherly. While this tradition honors the ante-Nicene clergymen and theologians for their works on Jesus' identity, the definition of the trinity, and the canonization of the New Testament—their antisemitism cannot be ignored. Whereas these men did well to defend the apostolic teaching of the first century into later generations, they developed a heretical doctrine called replacement theology or supersessionism. Both descriptions refer to the mistaken belief that the Christian church replaces or supersedes the Jewish people as God's chosen. The picture before this paragraph illustrates a medieval sub-genre of Christian art known as Ecclesia et Synagoga, Latin for "Church and Synagogue." In such artwork, two women represent the supersession of Christianity over Judaism. Ecclesia wears a crown and holds a processional cross with a chalice alluding to the church's ordained leadership under the new covenant, while a blindfolded Synagoga clutches a broken lance symbolizing the Jews as "Christ-killers" (ironically, it was a Roman soldier who pierced Jesus' side with a spear [cf. John 19:34]). In his letter to the Roman church, Paul had to address this erroneous view among the Christian gentiles even his own time (cf. Rom. 11). However, rather than heeding Paul's warning, most of the ante-Nicene church leaders formed toxic relationships with the Jews of their day. 

However, the antisemitism of the medieval church was not limited to theological concepts. During the First Crusade (1095–96), over five-thousands Jews were murdered. About 1120, this prompted the Roman bishop Calixtus II (c. 1065–1124) to issue a charter known as sicut Judæis (i.e., "Thus to the Jews") to forbid Christians from harming Jews and their property. Nonetheless, this document could not protect the Jews from the Christians very long. In the early Middle Ages, most European nations kept their citizens from charging interest based on a scriptural ban in Deuteronomy (cf. 23:19-20). Ironically, this command was for the Israelites to not charge interest from other Israelites, but only from gentiles. Therefore, the Jews found their money lending and collection of interest did not contradict their scriptures. What began as an economic restriction would ironically become one of the most widespread stereotypes of Jews as greedy—obsessed with money and profits.

The next two mentions of​ antisemitism in the medieval church are ones that influenced the hate crimes of Nazi Germany's Kristallnacht—"crystal night" when SA (Sturmabteilung, i.e., "Storm Detachment") paramilitants destroyed Jewish shops and shipped 30,000 Jews to concentration camps from November 9-10, 1938. Centuries before, the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 established canons 68 and 69 which forced Jews to wear distinctive clothing apart from the Christian population, but also banning them from holding public office. These decrees very quickly escalated antisemitic policies throughout Europe, with Jews eventually having to wear a special yellow or white badge of Jewish identity in addition to their clothes. This council, of which the warlike Roman bishop Innocent III (c. 1160–1216) presided, caused so much antisemitic fear among Europeans that claims of ritualistic child murder (i.e., "blood libel") against Jews were commonplace. They also blamed their Jewish neighbors for desecrating communion wafers believed to be Christ's transubstantiated body—a crime viewed as equal to degrading Jesus himself. All of these accusations were baseless. 


About 300 years later, the Christian church had a great opportunity to change its position on Judaism when it sought to reform so many other false doctrines taught by "Catholic" leaders for many centuries. Men such as the German pastor Martin Luther (1483–1546) began the Protestant Reformation (1517–1648) to oppose the heresies of Roman dogma. At first, he joyfully welcomed the Jews into his new church family. When Luther saw they still did not want to convert to Christianity under new leadership, he started to despise them. He was nine years old when Spanish monarchs Ferdinand II (1452–1516) and Isabella I (1451–1504)—the same ones who dispatched Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) to the Americas in 1492—began to expel the Jews from Spain that same year during the Inquisition (1478–1834). It would be the "Lutheran" church that would eventually dominate Germany, but it would inherit as much as Luther's antisemitism as much as his theology of justification by faith alone (Latin: Sola fide). In 1543, he published a book called On Jews and Their Lies (German: Von den Juden und ihren Lügen). Here is just one excerpt to illustrate Luther's view of the Jewish people:

And so, dear Christian, beware of the Jews . . . you can see how God's wrath has consigned them to the devil, who has robbed them not only of a proper understanding of the scriptures, but also of common human reason, modesty and sense. . . . Thus, when you see a real Jew you may with a good conscience cross yourself, and boldly say, "There goes the devil incarnate."

The connection between Luther and Kristallnacht is neither a literary device nor sensational rhetoric for the sake of this article. In parts 11-13 of On Jews and Their Lies, he wrote some very chilling advice to German believers which very clearly foreshadowed not only Kristallnacht but almost every detail of the Holocaust to a T (see here). In closing this section, consider this 1946 testimony by Julius Streicher (1885–1946)—who founded the Nazi newspaper Der Stürmer (i.e., "The Stormer")—at his Nuremberg trial for genocide:

I did not intend to agitate or inflame but to enlighten. Antisemitic publications have existed in Germany for centuries. . . . In the book On the Jews and Their Lies, Dr. Martin Luther writes that the Jews are a serpent's brood and one should burn down their synagogues and destroy them. Dr. Martin Luther would very probably sit in my place in the defendants' dock today, if this book had been taken into consideration by the prosecution [i.e., the International Military Tribunal].



World War II and the Holocaust could have widened the rift between Jews and Christians well into the twentieth century and beyond. However, beauty arose from the ashes. This is not to downplay the horrors of Auschwitz and the millennia of antisemitism which led up to it. God, as he is inclined to do, took what the Nazis intended for evil and turned it into good to preserve a great nation: Israel (cf. Gen. 50:20). In 1948—three years after the Allies defeated Nazi Germany—the Jewish people transitioned from living in fear to boldly establish a newly independent State of Israel (Hebrew: Medinat Yisrael; H4083; H3479). "Holocaust guilt" inspired nearly all of Western civilization to support this country, whether culturally, financially, militarily, politically, or religiously.  

"Holocaust guilt" also changed the course of biblical studies among Western universities. Before World War II, most of the research into the Bible and its context reflected a supersessionist bias. For example, Jesus was given such gentile labels as "Cynic" or "philosopher." This is not unlike the medieval Christian art which always portrayed Jesus as a European king with a pale complexion. However, biblical scholars gave Jewish sources more weight to both the Old and New Testaments. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls starting in 1946—just one year after World War II ended—all of the sudden presented a Jewish setting of the gospels that scholars once considered Hellenistic. Likewise, theologians began to explore something called the "Jewishness of Jesus" and offered a "new perspective on Paul" which considered both men to be discerning leaders of their communities rather than outside critics. The most surprising phenomenon, however, is the rise of Messianic  Judaism: Torah-observant Jews who acknowledge Jesus as their Messiah. In the latter half of the twentieth century, Christians realized how the Jewish tradition and its commentaries (e.g., the Talmud) were instrumental in unlocking obscure verses and even apparent contradictions. They also came to understand how the Jewish feasts correspond with Jesus' life and teaching. 

In fall 2015, Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia unveiled a new statue called "Ecclesia and Synagoga in Our Time." Unlike the medieval art tradition, both women have crowns and sit down next to each other. They are learning together, sharing information from the Torah scroll of Judaism as well as the book-bound scriptures of Christianity. Today, we are seeing a reversal of what biblical scholars call the "parting of ways," or the time when the Christian gentiles made a clean break from their Jewish forebears in the early church. Theologians and churchgoers alike are using the historical-grammatical method to consider the history of first-century Judea as well as the authors' choice of words and grammar. Christians are discovering the Talmud while Jews reflect on the four gospels. This is to fulfill what God told us through the prophet Zechariah:

In those days ten men from nations of every language shall take hold of a Jew, grasping his garment and saying, "Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you" (8:23).


Blessed are you, LORD our God, King of the universe, you created us in your own image: Grant us grace to contend fearlessly against evil and to make no peace with oppression; and help us to use our freedom rightly in the establishment of justice in our communities and among the nations, to the glory of your holy Name; through Jesus the Messiah our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.


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