Good Question... is 1 Thess 2 a seriously anti-Semitic passage?!
Date: December 23/2003
I received this question a while back:
“ Hi, I am a middle-aged, South American Jew seriously thinking about the messiahship of Jesus. But I have just read 1 Thessalonians in the New Testament and came across a passage in the first chapter that sounds really, really bad. I think that a lot of “christian” antisemitism can be traced back to that passage. What are YOUR thoughts on this?”
I replied (back then):
Thanks for your question, friend... (I assume you meant chapter TWO in 1 Thess, btw--I couldn't find anything in 1 Thess 1 that might be a problem).
Here's the passage, 2.14ff:
“For you, brothers, became imitators of God’s churches in Judea, which are in Christ Jesus: You suffered from your own countrymen the same things those churches suffered from the Jews, 15 who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out. They displease God and are hostile to all men 16 in their effort to keep us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. In this way they always heap up their sins to the limit. The wrath of God has come upon them at last. “
I don't know much about church history (i.e., how this passage was used AFTER the New Testament/early church), but I would be surprised if it was NOT "used" anti-semitically by at least SOME idiots in Christian history.
I'll try put together more data about the passage for you soon, but the PASSAGE ITSELF is CERTAINLY not 'anti-semitic'!:
First, it is written by a Jew (Paul/Saul), who loved his people dearly (cf. Roman 9.1ff). and who HIMSELF had participated in persecuting Jewish believers in the Messiah! Compare his words in Romans 9:
“ I am telling the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh, who are Israelites, to whom belongs the adoption as sons and the glory and the covenants and the giving of the Law and the temple service and the promises, whose are the fathers, and from whom is the Christ according to the flesh, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen. ”
Second, it points out that Gentile opposition to the Gospel is JUST LIKE Judean opposition to the Gospel (i.e., Gentiles are guilty of the same persecution of believers as are the Judean opponents)--hardly a justification for anti-semitism (unless it also justifies anti-thessalonianism, smile)
Third, the really strong condemnation by Paul is about a VERY SMALL SUBSET of Jewry--the Judean/Jerusalem LEADERSHIP who were part of the Jewish-Roman condemnation/crucifixion process. This would exclude all the Jewish leadership which was NOT supportive of the crucifixion (e.g., Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea, etc), the common Jewish people of Jerusalem, ALL the other Jewish people in Judea/Galilee, all the thousands of Levitical priests who became believers, and ALL the dispersed Jews. None of these groups had ANYTHING TO DO with the crucifixion. (And, obviously, any 'anti-semitism' THEORETICALLY based on this passage should be confined to ONLY THAT TINY group of 1st century Jerusalem leadership!)
Fourth, the Jewish writers before Saul/Paul already admitted that the First-Temple Jewish leadership 'killed the prophets' (Jesus was just the 'next in line'): Nehemiah 9.5,26 has the Levites confessing:
“(5) Then the Levites, Jeshua, Kadmiel, Bani, Hashabneiah, Sherebiah, Hodiah, Shebaniah, and Pethahiah, said, “Arise, bless the Lord your God forever and ever!...(26)But they became disobedient and rebelled against Thee, and cast Thy law behind their backs and killed Thy prophets who had admonished them so that they might return to Thee, and they committed great blasphemies.” (NASB)
Fifth, David Stern's Jewish New Testament Commentary actually argues that this passage is to COUNTER POSSIBLE ANTI-SEMITISM (i.e., that God would do any 'judging' HIMSELF):
"But God's fury will catch up with them in the end. I don't consider this or Shu'al's lengthier discussion at 2 Th 1:6-9. to be vindictiveness. On the contrary, I take it to be a way of countering the possible vindictiveness of his readers toward their persecutors, along the lines of Romans 12:19, where, quoting the Tanakh on the subject, he advises believers not to exercise vengeance themselves but to leave such matters to God. "
Sixth, I have to agree with Stern here: there is absolutely NOTHING in this text that authorizes ANYONE to treat Jewish people other than with love! There is no command to judge them, to abuse them, to do ANYTHING to them--the passage is simply explaining the cause of a historical persecution. To move from this text to ANYTHING like persecution, anti-semitism, or vengeance is (a) out of step with the instructions of Jesus and Paul toward adversaries ("bless those who curse you, do good to those who persecute you"!!!!); and (b) totally unwarranted by the text.
Seventh, the 'opposing all mankind' by hindering the gospel is in line with Yeshua's condemnation of hypocritical Torah-teachers: "You are shutting the Kingdom of Heaven in people's faces, neither entering yourselves nor allowing those who wish to enter to do so", Matthew 23:13...this is also a very historically short-lived issue. The Jerusalem elite stopped fighting the mission to the Gentiles shortly after the two groups diverged, in the late first century. This accusation could ONLY apply to a small subset of Jewish people, and not to the ethnicity as a whole.
There's more to be said about this passage, but I need to crash now... I'll get the rest of the data together for you, hopefully soon, friend...but the above should be adequate to demonstrate that the passage is NOT anti-Semitic ITSELF (and indeed, may be anti-anti-Semitic in its intent)...that it might have been used to 'justify' the persecution the Jews of post-NT history would not be a reflection of the text ITSELF, but of the corrupt and malice-ful hearts of those who would treat the Jews so...Paul said specifically that they were BELOVED OF GOD in Romans 11.28: "From the standpoint of the gospel they (the Jews) are enemies for your sake (the theme of hindering the Pauline evangelism), but from the standpoint of God’s choice they are beloved for the sake of the fathers; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. For just as you once were disobedient to God, but now have been shown mercy because of their disobedience, so these also now have been disobedient, in order that because of the mercy shown to you they also may now be shown mercy. For God has shut up all in disobedience that He might show mercy to all."
I hope this helps get you started in your thinking...and I'll be back soon with a more complete write-up...thanks for the question,
Now, sometime later, I can fill out the data a bit more, and make a few more observations:
That Israel killed her prophets (the last of which was Jesus) was not a Christian-only belief, but was one held by other Jewish groups within the variegated Judaism of the day.
“The charge that the Jewish people were responsible for the death of the prophets is certainly not novel in the NT (cf. Mt 23:29-37 par. Lk. 11:47-51 and 13:34; Acts 7.52) nor in Jewish literature from the period (cf. Martyrdom of Isaiah 5:1-14). In fact the charge goes back to the OT itself, as 1 Ki. 1910-14, a passage quoted by Paul in Romans 11:3 shows (cf. 2 Ch. 36.15f)...This indictment implies that Paul saw a continuity in the pattern of Jewish rejection of God's agents from OT times to his own.” [NIGTC, in loc.]
“The Jewish people nurtured the tradition that their ancestors had killed the prophets, intensifying the Old Testament account.[BBC]
Commentators are fairly uniform in agreeing that Paul is NOT talking about 'all Jews', but only a very select group of first-century opponents:
“The reference to persecution leads on to a denunciation of the Jews more severe than anything else in the Pauline writings, and some interpreters, finding a contradiction with apostle's attitude, for example in Romans 9-11, hold that these verse were added by a later hand. But Paul is not here writing about all Jews, but only those involved in the activities he names; Marshall takes up W. Marxsen's suggestion that 'Paul is writing here about particular Jews, those who have shown hostility to God's messengers, and not about the Jews in general'” [NICNT, in loc.]
“Although the language is admittedly harsh, it stems from Paul's frustration with fellow Jews whose behavior has threatened the Gentile mission. The apostle does not have in view all Jews but only those who in some way were involved in the events mentioned in verses 15-16. Furthermore, Paul speaks here somewhat hyperbolically as he also does elsewhere in his writings.” [Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, in loc.]
“As for the suggestion that 1 Thess 2:14-16 is a non-Pauline anti-Jewish interpolation, there is no manuscript support for this claim. Of course, some scholars think the expression “oppose everyone” (v. 15) reflects a typical slur made against Jewish people in the first century. Yet, whether Paul and the Thessalonians knew the negative ancient stereotype of the Jews as haters of non-Jewish people, a stereotype noted in Tacitus and in Josephus, hardly matters because 1 Thess 2:14-16 is not directed toward all Jews—just some. Obviously, Paul does not include himself in the lot. The prophets to whom he refers would themselves have been Jewish, but they, too, are not a part of the group against which Paul directs his polemic. According to Frank Gilliard the inclusion of a comma after “the Jews” in most English Bibles fails to indicate the way the rest of the Greek sentence restricts what is said about them. Paul's use of a participial phrase after “the Jews” reflects his customary use of a restrictive participial expression to qualify the meaning of the noun that precedes it. Thus Paul is not talking about all the Jews, just some Jews—those who opposed Jesus and his movement.” [NIB]
Accordingly, any understanding of 'wrath' could NOT be extrapolated to 'all Jews':
“If the passage is not directed against all the Jews, then any attempt to pinpoint “God's wrath” (v. 16) as being directed against all the Jews seems both speculative and misguided (although some interpreters still link God's wrath to the later destruction of the Temple or to the expulsion of the Jews from Rome in 49 CE or to the massacre of Jews in the temple court in 49 CE or to something else). And, if the passage is not directed against all the Jews, then it is also not in conflict with Romans 11:1, “where far from suggesting the final judgment of the Jews, [Paul] speaks concerning the continuing validity of God's covenant with them and indeed of their eventual salvation.” [NIB]
And the attitude of Paul in the passage is NOT understood to be a rejection/hatred or even once-for-all-condemnation of Jewry. It is variously understood as frustration, grief, and sometimes understood as being standard-form, “internecine warfare” (common within first-century Judaism), with some of these accusations being elsewhere raised by other Jews about other Jews:
“At the same time we should notice that Paul's anger is the anger of a man with his own nation, his own people. He is very much part of them, and he sorrows at their fate. He is not gleefully invoking dire disasters on them, but grieving over the effects of their misdeeds.... It is the anguish so poignantly expressed in Romans 9.” [NICNT, in loc.]
“Although the language is admittedly harsh, it stems from Paul's frustration with fellow Jews whose behavior has threatened the Gentile mission... Furthermore, Paul speaks here somewhat hyperbolically as he also does elsewhere in his writings.” [Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, in loc.]
“Exactly what provoked this sudden outburst cannot be known with certainty. An accumulation of hostile acts probably played a part. The writer had been chased out of Damascus (Acts 9:23-25) and Jerusalem (Acts 9:29, 30) by his own people not very long after his conversion. His message was rejected and his party driven out of Pisidian Antioch by them (Acts 13:45, 46, 50). At Iconium the Jews poisoned people's minds against Paul and Barnabas and ultimately forced them out (Acts 14:2, 5, 6). They made a special journey to Lystra to instigate an uprising that produced Paul's stoning and being left for dead (Acts 14:19). Jewish opposition continued to hound the missionary band into the second journey, specifically at Thessalonica, again producing Paul's exit (Acts 17:5, 10). Even now as Paul pens these words from Corinth, a united attack has been mounted against him by the city's Jewish residents (Acts 18:6, 12, 13). Couple with this the present plight of the Thessalonian Christians (1Thess 3:3), ultimately traceable to Jewish opponents, and it is no wonder that Paul uses the occasion to recount their consistent opposition to the Lord Jesus.” [EBC]
“Moreover, “in-house” Jewish debate was both active and vigorous in ancient times. And Paul's expression “filling up the measure of their sins” is a typical lament “with which [some] Jews express[ed] their outrage at the faithlessness of other Jews.” [NIB]
“Some of these complaints are similar to those articulated even by some Jews (cf. Luke 11:49; 1QS `:21-26; 1QH 4:30; CD 20.29)” [New Jerome Biblical Commentary, in loc.]
There is also a possibility that Paul's 'hostile to all men' phrase is making a word-play upon common Gentile disparagement of Jews. It was a common theme in Gentile authors, to comment upon alleged/perceived Jewish animosity toward non-Jews. Samples of this can be found in the literature of the day:
Tacitus, Histories, 5.5 (55-120 AD): “...again, the Jews are extremely loyal toward one another, and always ready to show compassion, but toward every other people they feel only hate and enmity.” [Of course, Christians were also accused of the same thing! Annals 15.44.5)
Philostratus, Life of Apollonius, 5.33 “For the Jews have long been in revolt not only against the Romans, but against humanity...”
Josephus has to refute this charge in Apion 2.121, 148, that Jews are hostile to the rest of humanity.
Since the NT word used here by Paul for 'hostile' is nowhere else in the NT used about persons, it could be that Paul is making a sardonic remark, something to this effect:
“The Gentiles mistakenly accuse all of us Jews of being hostile to them. They are certainly wrong, but in the case of these anti-Gospel-for-the-Gentile Jerusalem leaders, the charge is appropriate! By hindering our mission and message of reconciliation for the Gentiles, they demonstrate that they ARE what the 'enemy' thinks of them—hostile to others!” (They give us a bad name!)
[I would also like to (a) point the reader to the article on John's Gospel, relative to passages in the NT in which it looks like it is 'anti-Gentile', instead of 'anti-Semitic'; as well as (b) make the obvious point that the principle of 'children are not to be put to death for the sins of the fathers' should have limited any “theologically-motivated” (but still bogus) first-century anti-Semitism to just that one generation...]
Now, I gather that this passage WAS used anti-semitically in Church History, but as this commentator indicates, this is a tragedy and a sin—and cause for shame and repentance. It is NOT a legitimate and God-honoring usage of this verse:
“Their (i.e., NT authors) anti-Jewish statements (note: the commentator actually prefers a different term: “anti-Judaism...a term more accurate in this context than the more common 'anti-semitism' which would imply racial hatred on Paul's part”), based on a situation of competition with the mother religion when they felt the very survival of their faith was endangered by the dominant position of Judaism, have been used for justifying everything from the pograms against Jews in the Middle Ages and the inquisitions of the early modern period to the holocaust itself. Such vituperation lost its rationale once Christianity became an equal competitor with Judaism and later became the more dominant of the two religions. That many Christians persisted in anti-Judaism on theological grounds and still persist in it today can only be a cause for shame and repentance on the part of contemporary Christians.” [NIGTC, in loc]
So, I think the understanding and points I made in my first email are still appropriate, and warranted by the data/consensus. The passage itself is not anti-Semitic in the least, but we cannot fault the passage itself, based upon the abuses of it by later twisted souls.......................................
Now, on a personal note, I have one additional observation.
I have pondered over how one could move from some imprecise popular 'belief' that “the Jews killed Christ” to an emotional stance of “I therefore will hate the Jews forever”. As I reflected on this, the emotional response of 'hatred/anger/repugnance' would be solely dependent on one's emotional attachment to the person of Jesus. No theological doctrine could generate such visceral intensity BY ITSELF. I can easily get radically upset over someone mistreating my kids, but I cannot get so upset over some historically 'detached' event in distant history. I can imagine all kinds of unfair executions of innocent men and women during evil times in the past, for example, but I cannot get really 'outraged' by single cases—the emotional attachment to a single victim of a capricious French monarchy, or of a Stalinist purge, or of a Torquemadan Inquest is just too flimsy to generate something with the intensity of historical anti-Semitism. Mass victimizations and large-scale atrocities can affect me deeply, as can crimes against the weak, disadvantaged, the young. But it's hard to get really, deeply, and forever-transformed-thereby 'upset' over the unfair execution of a single righteous adult male in the ancient past. [Reality check: consider the beheading of John the Baptist by Herod. Could anybody get pogrom-level upset against Herod's family/descendants about that single case, even with JtB being the most righteous man ever born? See what I mean?]
I realized that the emotional intensity of outrage and/or anger at a single case was directly proportionate, and solely correlated with, the emotional attachment with the lone victim.
And the implication was quite forceful: the people who would have been the most anti-Semitic would also have had to have been the most 'in love with Jesus' (for any remotely legitimate link to be there). Not the most doctrinally correct (no emotional intensity or grief generated there—only 'zeal' at best); not the most obedient to the church (no emotional outrage generated there, at least not about Jesus); not the person who admired/respected the victim the most (these attitudes don't generate the same level intensity, relative to victimization of our closest loved ones).
And, once this was clear to me, the next step was obvious: The more one truly loves Jesus, the more one will love what HE loves—including His covenant people (“He was a servant to the Jews”--Paul said). The more one truly loves Jesus, the more one will obey Him when He says “But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. “ (Luke 6.28; repeated by Paul in Romans 12:14: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and curse not” ). The more one truly loves Jesus, the more one cannot participate in (or excuse) anti-Semitism (or racial bigotry, or elitism, or vengeance, or oppression, etc.).
And the final corollary: anti-semitism is indicative of a lack of love for Jesus, a lack of understanding of what He loves (and what He still intends to do for Jacob in the future), and a lack of a close relationship with Israel's Future Shepherd...
One doesn't have to agree with/support the anti-Gentile actions of the first-century Jerusalem leadership(!) to love them... just as one doesn't have to agree with any of the policies or actions of the nation of Israel in the past or present to love them...
I hope this additional data and observations helps some, friend...
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