Why did so many of the Jewish leaders hate Jesus Christ and persecute the apostolic church?
Some people have the impression that Jewish hostility for Christianity began only after Jews experienced persecution by Christians. Actually, Jewish hostility toward Jesus Christ and His church began long before Jews experienced persecution by Christians. Biblical scholar N. T. Wright summarized the reason for Jewish rejection of Jesus and the church:
What evokes persecution is precisely that which challenges a worldview, that which up-ends a symbolic universe. (N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, Fortress Press, p. 451) 1
Jesus taught that Jewish nationalism and commitment to the “oral law” (“traditions of men”) distorted the purpose of the written law (Torah) (Mark 7:1-20). He declared that Israel’s dominant religious leaders were not in the tradition of Moses, David, and the prophets, but were servants of Satan (John 8:37-44). Their “Judaism” depended on legal righteousness based in “oral law” (the “traditions of men”; see Mark 7:1-23) and “works” that artificially distinguished them from the Gentiles whom they regarded as ritualistically unclean. Adherents of this perspective believed that their legal righteousness would assure them of the future Messiah’s approval when he appeared on the scene to cast off the Roman yoke and institute worldwide Jewish rule.
John the Baptist proclaimed the worthlessness of legalistic righteousness (Matthew 3:1-12), and Jesus declared that the legalistic righteousness of the Pharisees was pitted against the genuine law of God He had come to uphold.
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:17-20 NIV).
Instead of leading them toward fulfillment of the promises God had given Israel, their legalistically based self-righteousness motivated them to reject and kill the Messiah and His followers (Matthew 21:23-46; John 8:42-59; Acts 4-5; 7-9; 12:1f; 13:42-51; 14:2-5; 14:19; 17-18; 24:5; 26:9-11; Galatians 1:11-16; 4:29; Philippians 3:5-7; 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16).
Jesus called into question the meaning of the primary Jewish symbols—Sabbath, food taboos, ethnic identity, ancestral lands, and ultimately the Temple itself.2
The quotation below is by a modern Jewish man who, like the religious leaders of the first century, misunderstands what Jesus came to offer His people. It vividly illustrates the radical effect Jesus’ teaching must have had on His contemporaries.
John’s Gospel abolishes what is sacred for Judaism and replaces it with “Christ”. Everything that was held to be important by “the Jews” is dismissed in John as insignificant. Christ replaces or supersedes Judaism. The Church expresses this idea today by claiming to be the “New Israel.” According to John, Christ replaces the Temple (John 2:18-22); the Law (John 5:39-40) and Israel itself (John 15:1-17)—the “vine” being a symbol of Israel (Psalm 80:8; Ezekiel 15:1-6 and Hosea 10:1). There is no room left for Judaism as an expression of God’s will. This has led to what one author has called “a theological vendetta” against the Jews. Too often in history those who have concluded that Judaism is obsolete, have also concluded that the Jews are equally obsolete, with tragic results. Christology is the study of the nature of “Christ.” In Johannine Christology, Christ is portrayed as a divine man who fulfills prophecy and reveals God in his own flesh. This was and still remains, pure anathema to Jews. From a Jewish perspective the Johannine god-man vision of Christ is a repulsive paganism. By virtue of their innate inability to accept such a vision of the Messiah, Jews are automatically condemned by Johannine Christology. It is inherently antisemitic (“Anti-Semitism and John’s Gospel,” by Tom Macabi from Web site “Holocaust Understanding and Prevention”).
A Jewish scholar and Bar-Ilan University academic makes it clear that in some Jewish minds today, orthodox Christianity is “the root cause of 1500 years of the Christian idolatrous anti-Semitism which led to the holocaust.” He declared that Christians have a choice:
Either retain their present belief system and be anti-Semitic or form a partnership with the Jewish people. . . . As long as Christians keep Jesus as God, they will be anti-Semitic because that belief must lead them to believe that those who reject Jesus reject God. (Rabbi Dr. Pinchas Hayman, Australian Jewish News, Melbourne Edition, Vol. 62, no. 43, p. 9)
Obviously most Christians wouldn’t agree with this rabbi’s conclusion that faith in Christ is anti-Semitic. However, the fact that he sees the issue in these terms demonstrates that some Jews today still have the mindset of Jesus’ enemies in the first century, and to those with this mindset the challenge of Jesus Christ and the gospel remain a call to war (Matthew 10:32-42).
- Jesus was claiming to be speaking for Israel’s god, her scriptures, and her true vocation. Israel was trusting in her ancestral religious symbols; Jesus was claiming to speak for the reality to which those symbols pointed, and to show that, by her concentration on them, Israel had turned inwards upon herself and was being not only disobedient, but dangerously disobedient, to her god’s vision for her, his vocation that she should be the light of the world. Jesus’ contemporaries, however, could not but regard someone doing and saying these things as a deceiver. His agenda clashed at every point with theirs. In symbol, as in praxis and story, his way of being Israel, his way of loyalty to Israel’s god, was radically different from theirs. (N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, Fortress Press, p. 442) Back To Article
- The clash between Jesus and his Jewish contemporaries, especially the Pharisees, must be seen in terms of alternative political agendas generated by alternative eschatological beliefs and expectations. Jesus was announcing the kingdom in a way which did not reinforce but rather called into question, the agenda of revolutionary zeal which dominated the horizon of, especially, the dominant group within Pharisaism. It is not to be wondered at, therefore, that he called into question the great emphases on those symbols which had become the focal points of that zeal: Sabbath, food taboos, ethnic identity, ancestral lands, and ultimately the Temple itself. The symbols had become enacted codes for the aspirations of his contemporaries. Jesus, in challenging them, was not ‘speaking against the Torah’ per se. He was certainly not ‘speaking against’ the idea of Israel as the chosen people of the one true god. Rather, he was offering an alternative construal of Israel’s destiny and god-given vocation, an alternative way of telling Israel’s true story, and alternative to the piety which expressed itself in nationalistic symbols. He was affirming Israel’s election even as he redefined it. (N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, Fortress Press, p. 390) Back To Article