Thursday, April 21, 2011

Are the Gospels Anti-Semitic as Ehrman Alleges?

Bart Ehrman is a man with a mission – to deconstruct the Bible. In his most recent book, Forged, he sets about to show that a number of NT books are forgeries, deceptively purporting to have been written by Apostles. However, en route to his “noble” goal, he can’t resist being side-tracked to a secondary target – that the Gospels reflect a growing anti-Jewish sentiment, especially manifested after the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70 AD:

• Our earliest Gospel, Mark, seems to suggest that the decision to have Jesus killed is shared is shared by the Jewish leaders and the Roman governor Pilate (although even here Pilate’s hand seems to be forced). When we come to the Gospel of Luke written later, Pilate actually declares Jesus innocent three times—so that the fault for his death falls on the Jewish leaders who demand it. The Gospel of Matthew, written about the same time as Luke, has Pilate wash his hands to declare that he is innocent in the shedding of Jesus’ blood. Somewhat notoriously the Jewish people (this is only in Matthew) cry out, “His blood be upon us and our children” (27:25)…The Gospel of John, the last of our canonical Gospels, goes a step farther. Here we are told that the Jewish people rejected Jesus as their king and declared that “we have no king but Caesar”…And then John says that Pilate “handed Jesus over to them to be crucified” (19:16). In this distortion of historical reality, it is the Jews themselves who actually kill Jesus (55-56).

However, Ehrman carefully omits mention of the rest of the verse – “Finally Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified. So THE SOLDIERS took charge of Jesus” (John 19:16) – hardly an exclusively Jewish indictment!

It is easy to cherry pick the evidence in order to line it up to say what Ehrman wants it to say. Is the Gospel of John really anti-Jewish, at least more than the other Gospels? John is the only Gospel that gratuitously mentions the Jewish Nicodemus’ helping Joseph in the burial of Jesus. He had been part of the Jewish establishment – nothing you’d want to mention if you are trying to build an anti-Jewish case.

Furthermore, John doesn’t include other teachings that could be construed as anti-Jewish. He doesn’t commend Gentiles for their faith as do the two earliest Gospels (Mark 7:29; Mat. 8:10; 15:28). John doesn’t talk about the inclusion of the Gentiles as do both Matthew (12:18, 21) and Luke (2:32). Nor does John mention Jesus’ words that “the subjects of the kingdom [the Jews] will be thrown outside, into the darkness...” (Matthew 8:12). Ehrman argues that John should be the most anti-Jewish gospel. However, it doesn’t include the most “anti-Jewish” sayings.

Similarly, the very evidence Ehrman adduces can be interpreted differently. The most damning statement comes from Matthew (27:25) and not from the last Gospel. Also, we encounter essentially the same Pilate in each of the four Gospels, with only minor variations. Besides, Ehrman’s case is predicated on the disputed assumption of a certain chronological ordering of the Gospels along with their post-70 AD dating.

Perhaps most problematic is his assumption that negative messages about the unbelieving Jews represents some form of anti-Semitism. When we examine the Hebrew Scriptures, especially the Hebrew prophets, it becomes very evident that the negative prophetic messages regarding Israel have nothing to do with anti-Semitism. If anything, these harsh prophetic warnings represent God’s love for His Jewish people, not anti-Semitism. Why then should we believe that the NT negative messages – far less extreme than what we find in the prophets – represent anti-Jewishness?

One last consideration: The Book of Revelation is thought by many to be the final book of the Bible, written around 95 AD. If this is so, according to Ehrman’s thinking it should contain the most evidences of anti-Jewish sentiment. However, instead we find many gratuitously positive references to Israel:

1. Jesus is referred to as “the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David” (Rev. 5:5). If John was trying to communicate anti-Jewish sentiment, he could easily have referred to Jesus without the positive Jewish associations.

2. Instead of the disenfranchisement of Israel, we find the inclusion: “Then I heard the number of those who were sealed: 144,000 from all the tribes of Israel” (Rev. 7:4). Likewise, the two references to “Israel” are both positive (Rev. 7:4; 21:12).

3. The only references to “Jerusalem” are positive ones (Rev. 3:12; 21:2, 10). Although Revelation makes much mention of plagues, none are directed against Jews or Jerusalem.

4. Although there are two negative references to “Jews” (Rev. 2:9; 3:9), these are no more outstanding than those found in the rest of the Bible.

5. Israel is strongly associated with the Church. The “woman” [Israel] is the one who gives birth to the Christ-child, and they both are equally persecuted by Satanic forces (Rev. 12).

Consequently, we find no meaningful evidence of insipient anti-Semitism within the NT writings, as Ehrman alleges. Often, problems exist only in the eye of the beholder, and Ehrman beholds many. “Forged” might not be a pleasant read – I can think of many things I’d rather read – but perhaps a necessary one.

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