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The Ugly Faces of Theological Antisemitism

by
John Gill

Is the damage caused by words issued from the mouth of theological authorities less impactful than the actions of ISIS?

Perhaps we have become so desensitized by bright, graphic depictions of violence and death, with which we are bombarded daily, that other paler and more subtle forms of hate and antisemitism go unnoticed.

These questions emerged in my mind when I stumbled upon the case of an almost invisible form of antisemitism or more precisely, what I call poisoning by ideas, and murdering by words.

It began when I suggested that my research proposal for the quadrennial International Conference on Patristic Studies in Oxford, in 2019, would discuss the departure of Christian theology from Hebraic exegesis. I had no idea that this path would lead me to an unexpected encounter with the ugly face of theological antisemitism. Perhaps, it was symbolic that the focus of my research was the comparative analysis of the portrait of Satan in Jewish and Christian traditions.

The encounter with theological antisemitism is particularly troubling because the religious world, by default, is the expression of the utmost human values of love, forgiveness and kindness. I was not prepared to see how the ugliest form of antisemitism had penetrated the commentaries of sacred biblical texts and had a negative influence on the minds of unaccountable generations of students of theology.

I encountered lurking theological antisemitism in biblical commentaries when I decided to explore the theological soundness of a certain New Testament narrative concerning the figure of Satan vis-à-vis Hebraic interpretation. I suggested in my paper, ‘Exegetical (Ex)change: Satan Between the Sages and the Fathers’, that the Christian tradition of demons has been influenced by Hellenistic culture, prompting a diversion from Jewish demonology. And since in Christian sources Satan makes his first appearance in the narrative of the Temptation of Jesus in the Wilderness, I decided to study its interpretation by Christian scholars. Particularly, I focused on the Temptation Narrative according to the Gospel of Mark, because it significantly differs from Matthew and Luke’s description of the same event.

The Gospel of Mark describes the Temptation of Jesus in Judean desert by using a peculiar phrase: ‘he [Jesus] was with wild animals’ (Mark. 1:13). This reference is striking because of two reasons. Firstly, it is unique to Mark, i.e. the phrase does not appear elsewhere in the Gospels and secondly, it is sparse and ambiguous.

I was intrigued by the presence of wild animals in the Judean desert during Jesus’ Temptation, and began exploring Christian commentaries to seek an exegesis of this phrase from antiquity to the modern age.

I discuss the theological implications of this narrative elsewhere (Satan between the Sages and the Fathers, Studia Patristica, Peeters, 2021), but here I would like to point to an old form of antisemitism which still continues to poison the young minds of students of theology.

When I stumbled upon Exposition of the Bible by John Gill, an 18th century English theologian and Doctor of Divinity, I thought it was a typographical error, which had slipped through the publishing process. I had to check several editions before I could take it seriously.

Gill convinces the reader that Jesus’ encounter with Jews was more dangerous than with wild beasts. He states in his commentary on Mark 1:13 that, these creatures [wild beasts] were more gentle to Christ, and used him [Jesus] better than the wicked Jews among whom he [Jesus] dwelt.

According to Gill, the author of the Gospel of Mark implies that wild beasts possess better ‘human’ qualities than Jews do. To make this theologically unsound argument sound credible, Gill goes as far as quoting the Hebrew Scripture, and in particular Psalm 22.  Gill’s theological antisemitism is striking. But this is not an isolated case of scriptural interpretation targeting the Jews.  Gill’s exposition did not die with him, neither was this hate-filled commentary purely his own invention. Further investigation confirms that Gill was relying on much greater theological authority, Matthew Henry.

Matthew Henry is a household name in the biblical world, and his monumental work, Matthew Henry’s biblical commentary, which had already been published in 25 different editions by 1855, continues to be widely used even today in print and online versions. To say that its influence is vast is an understatement . . .

This highly acclaimed biblical commentary provides fertile ground for antisemitism to flourish. Henry, unlike Gill, does not actually mention Jews, but he speaks of ‘the inhumanity of the men of that generation, whom he [Jesus] was to live among—no better than wild beasts in the wilderness, nay abundantly worse’.

Henry’s comparison of the wild beasts to ‘Jesus’ generation’, begins a nuanced suggestion – as if throwing a grey mantle over the Hebrew Scripture – that the Jews are worse creatures than the wild beasts. However, building upon this initial interpretation, in Gill’s hands this reading acquires more alarming black and red tones.

After recovering from the initial shock of my ‘discovery’ of such venomous biblical commentaries, I decided to research the current state of biblical scholarship.

I was hoping to find a strong condemnation of Gill’s and Henry’s views by modern-day biblical scholars and Church authorities. I did not know that I was about to face more disappointments on this road.

The evidence suggests that this poisonous information has completely escaped the attention of high calibre experts.

2014 marked the 300th anniversary of the death of Matthew Henry. One might suggest that it is time to lay the ghosts of Gill and Henry to rest . . . If only that were the case.

Chester Cathedral dedicated a special exhibition to the commemoration of the tercentenary celebration of the great Bible commentator, Matthew Henry of Chester. To mark the occasion, Chester Cathedral library produced a guide to the exhibition titled A Prince among Preachers: Matthew Henry and the Interpretation of Holy Scripture’. The author of this guide is the most prominent biblical scholar of current generation, Prof. Philip Alexander, FBA, of the Centre for Biblical Studies, University of Manchester.

Prof. Alexander, in this guide, describes the impact of Henry’s scholarship on theologians. For example, George Whitefield claimed ‘to have read the massive tomes through four times, the final time on his knees’. William Orme described that ‘few books of such extent on the Bible contain so much writing to the purpose, or are so well fitted to promote the general good of men’, and C.H. Spurgeon prefaced Gill’s commentary by the following: ‘Gill has no superior. He is always worth consulting’.

Chester Cathedral’s exhibition was only one of several events honouring Henry’s biblical scholarship, such as a series of six Bible talks, with reference to Henry, exploring various problems of interpreting the Bible, as well as Canon Loveday Alexander’s Cathedral Lecture.

The crowning event of Henry’s commemoration was a major interdisciplinary conference organised by the University of Chester in collaboration with the University of Manchester, in July 2014. This special event brought together notable historians, biblical scholars, and theologians to explore the work, context, and legacy of Matthew Henry. The output of the conference was published in a volume entitled, ‘Matthew Henry: The Bible, Prayer, and Piety, A Tercentenary Celebration’, available at the formidable price of £85 (hardcover) from T&T Clark Theology, in 2019.

The involvement of highly acclaimed biblical scholars of the Hebrew Bible, Prof. Philip Alexander and Prof. George Brooke (the Centre for Biblical Studies, University of Manchester) in Henry’s tercentenary celebration speaks volumes about Henry’s influence on modern biblical scholarship.

According to the conference organisers, ‘this conference offers a fresh opportunity to appreciate Henry’s ministry within the local context of Chester, evaluates Henry in a wider historical context, and considers his contribution to the interpretation of the Bible in the early 18th century and its legacy up to the present day’.

Reluctance to denounce the antisemitic views of the biblical ‘Princes’, John Gill and Matthew Henry, as the troubling part of Christian interpretation of the Bible, continues to colour the theological perception of the Biblical scholars and clergy up to today.

This small episode has been part of a continuous chain of antisemitic biblical interpretation, which is, I suggest, symptomatic of a broader tradition of antisemitism in the religious world. The particularity and subtlety of these issues, which are found in the pages of classic biblical commentaries, has meant that their antisemitic shades have not been appropriately recognised and addressed. Nevertheless, despite the greying of tradition, these issues remain as problematic as any other forms of blood-red violence. Therefore, I wonder if we were to live in a world devoid of the faculty of speech, and if we, like artists, had only one medium – a colour and brush for expressing our views – what colour would ‘theological antisemitism’ be?

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Dr Thea Gomelauri is a Research Fellow at the Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities, and a former Chevening Fellow at the University of Oxford.  She is the member of the British Association of Jewish Studies, and serves on the Board of the Oxford Council of Christians and Jews.
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Dan Rickman
2 months ago

I think this is fascinating and covers ground I wasn’t familiar with

Having said that, thee are deep waters

First, where do we draw the bounds of this theological antisemitism? You could say that the stories of the Pharisees, which have impacted wider society far more than these comments, have introduced antiSemitic stereotypes into wider society. Not to mention Judas and even Melenchon in France still accusing Jews of killing Jesus

Second, I have some awareness of Prof Alexander’s work re the Talmud which is another area of his expertise. No doubt he has studied tractate Avoda Zarah, which has analogous negative stereotypes of non Jews. He may well take the same view of scholarship in this area as he does Mathew Herbert, whose scholarship is still influential no doubt because of its breadth, depth and originality, not because of these negative stereotypes

For clarity, I am not denying that there is an issue, just trying to see context, and thanks for a very interesting read

Thea Gomelauri
Thea Gomelauri
Reply to  Dan Rickman
2 months ago

Dear Dan,

Thank you very much for taking the time to read and comment on my article. It is my honor that it covered ground you weren’t familiar with.
I agree that the subject matter is deep water. Given the current rise of Antisemitism, we need to expose and tackle every shade of its manifestation.
Theological aspect of Antisemitism and its impact on religious educations seems to be overlooked. I have not raised the issue with Prof. Alexander, or with anyone else. I, like yourself, wonder what their response might be.
My purpose was to bring the issue to the table. If my article initiates a wider discussion on this crucial topic, that would be very beneficial indeed.
Thank you again for your positive feedback.

Dan Rickman
Reply to  Thea Gomelauri
2 months ago

Thanks Thea

If you have the opportunity to do so, I would discuss this with Prof Alexander

On these issues generally, I have seen discussion of succesonism, and also discussion of antisemitic prejudice in higher biblical criticism

The basic cultural idea of the OT as the God of vengeance and the NT as the God of love is pretty pervasive

And don’t forget the xenophobia in Jewish texts (including some modern halakhic works)

ATB

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