Anti-Semitism in Christian History

Many Christians involved in support of Israel fail to recognize the amazing moment in history that we are privileged to be a part of today. Only those who know a little about the sad history of Jewish-Christian relations can appreciate the miraculous turnaround that has occurred, and understand the importance of recognizing and eradicating all forms of modern anti-Semitism seeking to divide us again.

Persecution and animosity toward the Jews began early in their history, long before Christianity. Pharaoh, Haman, and Antiochus IV Epiphanes are only a few examples of evil men who tried to destroy God’s chosen people. But, while the Jews have had many enemies throughout history, we who are Christians should be concerned about the part some of our forbearers played in this disturbing drama. That persecution of the Jews arose from within our ranks is a tragedy and a shame with which our community must deal.


Jews and Christians had a very rocky relationship in the first one hundred years after the life and death of Jesus. At first it was an internal squabble between Jews who believed in His Messiahship and Jews who did not. But beliefs in the Roman Empire had political ramifications. The Jewish religion was legal, as was Christianity when it was seen as a sect of Judaism. But, Christianity brought troubles on the Jewish community due to its allegiance to a King other than Caesar so it was shunned and sometimes persecuted.

During the Roman siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD, the Jews who believed in Jesus fled the city and escaped it all, because Jesus had warned them to do so, as recorded in Matthew 24. When they later returned to Jerusalem, they were resented and accused of being traitors.

Then in 132 AD, when the mainstream Jewish community looked for someone to lead a rebellion against the Romans, many joined with Simon Bar Kokba proclaiming him as Messiah. The Jews who believed in Jesus as Messiah refused to join this rebellion. As a result, some were slaughtered as traitors during the fighting. This schism during the Bar Kokba revolt tore the two communities apart and marks the official split between the Church and the Synagogue.

At the same time, the Church was becoming predominantly Gentile and made up of pagans who had converted to Christianity with no knowledge of, nor appreciation for, the Jewish roots of the faith, nor of the Jewish people themselves. A number of Gentile Church fathers began to distinguish Christianity by preaching against Judaism and warning their followers away from it.

This is how the teaching of Supersessionism, or replacement theology, took root. Replacement theology taught that the Jews had been cursed by God for their rejection of Jesus’ Messianic credentials and had been therefore replaced by the Church in the plans and purposes of God. This theology lead to a teaching of contempt for the Jews as “Christ Killers” and gave sanction to their maltreatment.

Once Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire, the Church became a tool of the monarch and lost its spiritual integrity. Anti-Jewish theology then paved the way for anti-Jewish legislation by the ruling powers. This included discrimination, persecution, forced conversions, ghettos and expulsions.

Centuries of this type of religiously motivated and state empowered anti-Semitism prepared the way for the Nazi Holocaust. To paraphrase Raul Hillberg in The Destruction of the European Jews, the early church declared: “You have no right to live amongst us as Jews.” The secular rulers who followed that era expelled Jews from their lands or confined them to ghettos as though to say: “You have no right to live amongst us.” Then Hitler later decreed “You have no right to live.”

This is the deadly progression of anti-Semitism down through the ages. The fact that the Christian church had a central role to play in this tragedy is a shame and something we all must come to terms with as Christians.[1]

The Shift

Today we are privileged to be part of a tectonic shift among Christians away from that anti-Semitic past. The roots of this great turnaround lie in something that happened some five hundred years ago: the translation of the Bible into the common languages and its widespread availability thanks to the printing press. For most of Church history, ordinary Christians did not have access to the Bible to even know what it taught. Only those who knew Hebrew, Greek or Latin were able to read it. As a result there were teachings about the Jewish people that simply were not grounded in Scripture and produced centuries of anti-Semitism in the heart of Christian Europe. Replacement theology and the teaching of contempt for the Jewish people were the fertile ground for anti-Semitism which led to their persecution, expulsion, and murder.

As soon as Christians were able to read the scriptures for themselves, however, many discovered the error of their ways. They realized that Jesus was Jewish and that Christianity had been born out of Judaism. They also read the many promises of God to one day regather the Jewish people back to their ancient homeland. Preachers began to teach about that return, and they prayed for and supported it as an act of justice for a people who had suffered persecution for centuries.

Some of the greatest and most respected Evangelicals in history were what we would call Christian Zionists today: John and Charles Wesley, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Bishop Ryle of Liverpool, Professor Jacob Janeway of the Scottish National Church, and many others.[2] The only difference between them and today’s Christian Zionists is that they looked forward in hope to a future event, while today’s Christian Zionists have witnessed the return of the Jews to their homeland and actively support a current reality.

While replacement theology does still exist, and is usually the dividing line in the Christian world regarding those who support Israel and those who do not, the Church as a whole has come a very long way in its relations with the Jewish people.

In addition to the wide availability of the Scriptures, the Christian world also has been profoundly affected by two events over the last century which have brought about a major change in their relations with the Jewish people. The first was the Holocaust, which shook the historic churches predominant in Europe. The Catholic and Lutheran churches in particular re-evaluated their theology and liturgy. In fact, some of the most beautiful words of Christian repentance towards the Jewish people ever written are by the Catholic Bishops of Europe.

A second event that has had an even greater impact on the Evangelical world was the birth of the State of Israel. Over the last forty years, millions of Christians have visited Israel to “walk where Jesus walked” and for the first time met a Jewish person. It is no coincidence that over the past four decades as Christian tourism to Israel has mushroomed so has Jewish-Christian relations.

More importantly, Evangelicals are reading the Bible with a new worldview. The Jewish people have been gathered from the north, south, east, and west, returning to their homeland in fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham. Christians are no longer looking down on the Jewish people and heaping condemnation on them. Instead, they are loving, comforting, and blessing them.

Churches are also honoring and exploring the Jewish roots of Christianity to learn more about our own faith. The fact that God is faithful and is fulfilling His promises to the Jewish people is an encouragement to Christians that we serve a faithful God who is true to His Word. Now, as a result, the fastest growing segment of Christianity, which is Bible-based and Evangelical, is largely pro-Israel.

The ICEJ Making History

With this history in mind one can understand why the birth of the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem (ICEJ) in 1980 was such an historic, ground-breaking moment. It was the first time in history that Christians had voiced support for Israel on such an international scale and from the heart of the newborn State of Israel. It is also understandable that some segments of the Jewish community were, and still are, skeptical.

We cannot change two thousand years of history overnight. But, the ICEJ has had the privilege of confronting this history and establishing a new relationship with the Jewish people for over forty years now.

Susan M. Michael is USA Director of the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem.



[1] For further study see: The Anguish of the Jews by Father Edward Flannery, a classic history of anti-Semitism written by a Catholic Priest in 1964. Or Our Hands are Stained with Blood written for laity by Dr. Michael Brown

[2] For a history of Christian Zionism and quotes from some 50 Christian leaders over the last 500 years who supported the re-establishment of Israel based on their reading of scripture see: