At the dawn of the formation of Christianity, Church leaders were Jewish followers of Paul and other apostles. They zeroed in on their fellow Jews, urging them to accept Jesus as the oft-prophesied messiah. Claims of his authenticity were based on the teachings found in Jewish biblical sources such as Isaiah.
The Jews, however, rejected their interpretation as a misunderstanding of the ancient Hebrew texts, preferring to remain steadfast to traditional Jewish beliefs. The conventional belief among Jewish thinkers was that some of their fellow Jews had simply “jumped the gun” in accepting that Jesus was the messiah the prophet spoke about. As far as the Jews were concerned, they were content to await the coming of the real Messiah. Church leaders became irate and lashed out at the Jews, saying they were “blind, obdurate, stubborn, hard-hearted—and possibly demonic.”
With time, the political climate changed and Jews were blamed for the crucifixion as well. By the 4th century, this new narrative was gaining traction among the non-Jews. John Chrysostom, an early 4th-century Church leader, called the Jews “…inveterate murderers, destroyers, men possessed by the devil, [whom] debauchery and drunkenness have given … the manners of the pig and the lusty goat.”
Letters of early Church leaders shows that Jews were targeted with either hatred and discrimination or conversion. Sadly, when they refused conversion, they faced even further discrimination and a worsening of their circumstances. This has been the history marking Jewish–Christian relations since the formation of the Church 2,000 years ago.
It is noteworthy that according to Christian theology it didn’t really matter who killed Jesus. According to Christian belief, he died willingly for everyone’s sins and therefore to his messianic status it was the death that mattered. Nevertheless, this was a cudgel the Christians have used for two millennia to persecute the Jew for a different set of beliefs.
Martin Luther, the great reformer of the Roman Church, was sympathetic to Jewish resistance to the Catholic Church at the beginning of his career. He believed that the Catholic Church went about the business of the Jews in the wrong way and that persecution was not the answer to winning them over as converts. He urged a gentler approach, writing:
“…If we really want to help them, we must be guided in our dealings with them not by papal law but by the law of Christian love. We must receive them cordially, and permit them to trade and work with us, hear our Christian teaching, and witness our Christian life.”
Martin Luther felt his “gentle” approach would be more effective in winning them over to conversion.
Years later, however, after spearheading the Reformation, Martin Luther became deeply disappointed by Jewish lack of interest in his revised, more “gentle” version of Christianity. Like other, earlier leaders of the Roman Catholic Church, he, too, became obsessed with destroying the Jewish race. He proposed a series of measures against “this damned, rejected race” outlined in a lengthy manifesto aptly titled: “On the Jews and Their Lies.”
Luther now proposed seven measures of “sharp mercy” that German princes should take against Jews.
(1) Burn their schools and synagogues;
(2) transfer Jews to community settlements;
(3) confiscate all Jewish literature, which was blasphemous;
(4) prohibit rabbis to teach, on pain of death;
(5) deny Jews safe conduct on roads and highways, so as to prevent the spread of Judaism;
(6) appropriate their wealth and use it to support converts and to prevent the lewd practice of usury;
(7) assign Jews to manual labor as a form of penance.
Luther led a vigorous campaign in Saxony, Brandenburg, and Silesia and advised clergy, their congregations, and all government officials to help carry out these measures.
It is not surprising, therefore, that several centuries later, the Nazis would invoke the teachings of Luther to justify their desire to “get rid of the Jews.”
The first Nazi-inspired physical violence against Jews came on November 9–10, the infamous Kristallnacht, when the Nazis killed Jews, shattered glass windows of Jewish homes and business, and destroyed hundreds of synagogues, following the Luther playbook. In Daniel Johah Goldhagen’s book, Hitler’s Willing Executioners, he writes, “One leading Protestant churchman, Bishop Martin Sasse, published a compendium of Martin Luther’s anti-Semitic vitriol shortly after Kristallnacht’s orgy of anti-Jewish violence. In the foreword to the volume, he applauded the burning of the synagogues and the coincidence of the day: ‘On November 10, 1938, on Luther’s birthday, the synagogues are burning in Germany.’ The German people, he urged, ought to heed these words ‘of the greatest anti-Semite of his time, the warner of his people against the Jews.’”
Although Luther’s reformed Church rejected many tenets of Catholicism, they did retain the basic anti-Semitic theology of persecuting the Jews. The Lutherans used the same argument to justify their anti-Semitism: Deicide—“They killed Christ.”
The priests emphasized that due to their rejection and killing of Christ, the Jews forfeited being G-d’s chosen people and were doomed to persecution and wandering the earth forever.
This was the narrative of the Church from earliest times.
These lessons were not lost on the Hungarians, who harbored a bitter and hostile attitude against Jews settling in their land. This demonization of Jews, from the very beginning of Hungarian history, set the stage not only for centuries of Jew-hatred, but also for the slaughter of the entire Jewish community by “good Hungarian Christians” during the Holocaust.
The exhortations against the Jews served Church interests well over the centuries. Such sermons served to keep the communities separate, and fostered the view of the Jew as an evil, untrustworthy foreign enemy.
Despite such attitudes, Jews were frequently invited to settle in Hungary when economic conditions warranted it. And despite previous history of maltreatment, they returned. Those who returned thrived.
In August 29, 1526, a Turkish Army led by Suleiman the Magnificent occupied Hungary after a humiliating and decisive rout of the Hungarian army at the Battle of Mohacs. After a 150-year rule by the Ottoman Empire, the Hapsburgs triumphed and drove the Turks out. Most Jews living in Hungary joined the retreating Turks and left the country.
The country was devastated by the wars and its population decimated. In order to repopulate the area, the Hapsburgs transferred large groups of people, including Jews, from neighboring territories.
Jews crossed from Moravia in the northwest and Poland in the northeast in growing numbers. This resettlement was responsible for the rapid rise of the modern Jewish community in Hungary. At first, Jews remained in towns and communities near the border they crossed, but, eventually, as their numbers rose, they migrated into larger towns, including Budapest.
History shows that the Hungarian Jews consistently exhibited a fierce loyalty to their adopted land. After they participated in the War of Liberation against the Hapsburg Monarchy in 1848, both as soldiers and suppliers, the famous Hungarian writer, Jokai Mor, noted that:
“When the minorities of various races and of various nationalities, who had enjoyed full freedom in our homeland and whom Hungary had released from their fate as vassals, making them masters of their lands—when these minorities launched an armed attack against Hungary, in this very struggle the Hebrew race sacrificed its own blood, its own self, and its very soul upon the altar of the defense of legal freedom. In this way the Hebrew race acted, unique in that only the Jews were not granted equal civil rights among the millions in our homeland.”
Kossuth Lajos, the great leader of this revolution commented, that “twenty thousand Jews fought bravely in our army.”
A grateful Hungarian government proposed granting the Jews of the realm emancipation and equal rights in return for their patriotic sacrifices. Mind you, this still didn’t mean that the Jewish religion was recognized as an equal of Christianity. This emancipation of the Jews aroused a strong anti-Semitic backlash among the population, fueled by priestly sermons and the rise of the first anti-Semitic political party in Hungary. Records obtained from Christian documents, newspapers, as well as from the popular press, attest to the role played by the clergy in leading this wave of Jew-hatred. n
Dr. Alex Sternberg authored the forthcoming book “Recipes from Auschwitz–My Parents’ Story of the Murder of Hungarian Jewry.” He is a lifelong student of Jewish history, focusing on the development of Zionism and the Holocaust. He is presently teaching graduate studies and is active in several pro-Israel organizations. He is a retired research doctor in children’s pulmonary health and a master karate instructor. Read more of Dr. Sternberg’s articles at 5TJT.com.
“Christianity Today,” April 27, 1998
Andrew Tix, instructor of psychology, Normandale Community College, May 4, 2016; thequestforagoodlife.wordpress.com
Mark Allan Powell, “Crucifixion of Jesus and the Jews,” bibleodyssey.org:443/en/passages/related-articles/crucifixion-of-jesus-and-the-jews
http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/issues/issue-39/Martin Luther-The later Years 1993
Moshe Herczl, “Christianity and the Holocaust of Hungarian Jewry,” New York University Press: 1993