Classical and Christian Anti-Semitism

|| Return to The Holocaust–A Guide for Pennsylvania Teachers ||

Classical and Christian Anti-Semitism


The differences Jews had with their non-Jewish neighbors led to separate social and religious lives. Intolerance and suspicion of these differences led to fear and hatred. Classical anti-Semitism, Christian anti-Semitism and Modern anti-Semitism each have their own basis. In order for the Holocaust to have occurred, it required the perpetrators to have developed and spread the most virulent strain of anti-Semitism, whose roots can be traced back to ancient times.


Students will learn that

1. There were differences between Classical (pagan) anti-Semitism, Christian anti-Semitism and Modern anti-Semitism, although many of the roots of this hate were similar.

2. Anti-Semitism developed in the ancient world because of intolerance of the religious differences between pagan peoples and the Jews.

3. Jews were the subject of anti-Semitism by Christians because Jews were viewed as evil and responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

4. Despite being outcasts, Jews had their niche in both the ancient and Christian worlds.

5. Jews resisted the persecutions they were subjected to, but were the targets of massacres, forced conversions, segregation in ghettos, expulsions and humiliating degradations.


This chapter follows a natural sequence in detailing the consequences of being different, which stemmed from the prejudice of the majority toward the Jewish minority.

Anti-Semitism is the hatred of the Jewish people. The term was first used by a German in 1879, William Marr, who founded the “League for Anti-Semitism.” Marr advanced the view that Jews constituted a distinct racial group which was both physically and morally inferior. According to Marr, there was indisputable scientific evidence that the Jews were predisposed to be a “slave race” while the “Aryans” which included the Teutonic and Nordic peoples, were the “Master Race.”

Although the term “anti-Semitism” is thus relatively modern, documented prejudice, social and economic isolation, persecution and violence against the Jews predates Marr and his supporters by more than 2,300 years. In what is acknowledged to be the first historical reference to an anti-Semitic act, the Biblical account of the Purim story (the Book of Esther) recounts how the Jewish people narrowly escaped destruction in Persia in the 5th century B.C.E. All Jews in the kingdom were targeted for annihilation because one Jewish official refused to bow to the top aide of the king. Only as a result of the intervention of the queen, a Jew, who pleaded for saving her people, were the Jews saved from mass murder.

Classical anti-Semitism in the pre-Christian world followed along the same lines as the Purim story. For most of recorded history, the Jewish people had been the subjects of conquerors, such as the Persians, Greeks, Babylonians, Assyrians, and Romans. Most Jews refused to convert to the religion of their hosts and instead maintained their own religion, rituals and customs, often at great personal sacrifice.

The Jewish religion forbids Jews to bow down to any person or god other than the Creator. In the story of Purim, the failure of Mordecai, the Jewish, Persian official, to bow down to Haman, the top aide to the king, created conflict. This conflict between observing the Jewish religion and being sensitive to local customs was the basis for much of the anti-Semitism the Jewish people endured.

Examples are the following:

  • Jews observed strict dietary laws. Thus they could not, according to their law, share a meal in their neighbors’ homes.
  • Jews also could not, according to their law, work on the seventh day. Christians observed Sunday as their Sabbath, and Moslems observed Friday as their Sabbath. As a result, Jews were often “out of step.”
  • People who observed minority religions were, for the most part, quite willing to make sacrifices to the gods of their host countries, even as they worshipped their own gods. With only few exceptions, Jews refused to do so.
  • Also according to their law, Jews were not supposed to marry outside their faith, and most did not. Intergroup marriages often served as a bond in ancient times to promote intergroup harmony. This refusal also retarded any assimilation which would have narrowed the differences between the Jews and their host communities.
  • Enlightened ancient political leaders often granted privileges and exemptions to Jews because of knowledge about their religious conflicts. Those who were not granted these privileges and exemptions often resented this special treatment.
  • Jews maintained their traditional dress and continued to wear beards and earlocks even when styles changed among their hosts. The result was that Jews became more easily identified as a stereotyped culture which had ramifications beyond religious differences.

Evidence of anti-Semitism has been found in the writings of those who lived in Alexandria, Egypt, in the 4th century, B.C.E. In the first century C.E., Apion, a writer from Alexandria, wrote the “History of Egypt” which was the source for many of the false accusations about Jewish religious rituals which have plagued Jews throughout later history.

Isolated incidents of persecution against the Jews were recorded in the first century. As many as 4,000 Jews were deported to the island of Sardinia during the reign of the Roman Emperor Tiberius. The first recorded pogrom took place during the reign of the Roman Emperor Caligula in 38 C.E.

Classical Roman writers such as Cicero and Ovid wrote about the differences between Jewish observances and those of the Romans in less than flattering terms.

Christian Anti-Semitism

Jesus of Nazareth was a Jew. His childhood was typical of young Jewish boys of his time. He was circumcised on the eighth day after his birth, received a religious education, learned a trade, kept the law of Moses, and spoke both Hebrew and Aramaic, the languages of the Jews of his day. Upon reaching the age of 30, he began to preach and teach about the kingdom of God, calling people to repentance, and ministering to the sick. Many people began to follow him. His inner circle of disciples, who after Jesus’ death became the leaders of the first century church, were also Jews. For a number of years the early believers in Jesus as the Messiah were culturally and ethnically similar to, and even at times worshipping alongside, their mainstream counterparts. But a number of religious and political events in the latter half of the first century and the early part of the second began to drive a wedge between church and synagogue.

A record of one of the earliest conflicts is recorded in a book of the New Testament called The Acts of the Apostles, chapter 15. A question arose in the church whether Gentile (non-Jewish) believers in Jesus as the Messiah would be required to follow Jewish practices before being accepted as Christians. The church leaders ruled that they would not have to observe the entire Jewish law, only certain practices. As a result of the ruling on this issue, and the large-scale missionary efforts of the Apostle Paul to the Gentiles, the ethnic composition of the first century church began to rapidly change from a Jewish majority to a Gentile majority. To mainstream Jews, this change appeared as a willingness on the part of the early church to be a lawless society. They also feared this would allow pagan influences into the Jewish-Christian circles and eventually, Israel.

The destruction of the Second Temple (see “Who Are The Jews”) contributed both to the growth of the early church and rabbinic Judaism. Demoralized after such a loss of Jewish national and religious life, people were grasping for something to believe in. Hope in a Messiah to save the people from the oppression of Rome began to grow. In 132 C.E., Simon Bar Kochba (“Son of the Star’), previously known as Simon Ben Cosiba, was endorsed by the leading Jewish intellectual of the time, Rabbi Akiba, to be the promised Messiah. Many people were skeptical, but the rabbis followed Akiba’s precedent and hailed him as the Messiah. Bar Kochba led a revolt against Rome in 135 C.E. One segment of the population, however, refused to join in the revolt and wage war under the banner of Bar Kochba _ the Jews who had believed in Jesus as the Messiah. Bar Kochba killed a number of them, seeing them as enemies, heretics and traitors to the national cause.

Outraged at this, the growing Mediterranean church began to harbor bitterness against the Jewish people. The surviving Jewish believers in Jesus, who felt both a loyalty to Israel as well as to the Western church, were being alienated by both groups _ by the church because they were Jewish, and by Israel because of their obvious lack of support for Bar Kochba. As a result, two Messianic sects formed, the Ebionites and the Nazarenes, seeking to establish congregations which were more culturally Jewish. Embarrassed by the growing bitter anti-Semitism of the Western church, these sects disassociated themselves from the Western church in the second century. By 450 C.E., these groups had disappeared, and Christianity was becoming less and less tolerant of anything having to do with its Jewish roots. All things Jewish were suspect. The idea of a Jewish Christian maintaining a Jewish lifestyle became increasingly incomprehensible.

In the second century, theologians and church fathers became more concerned with “making the break” with anything Jewish, beginning to take an uncompromising posture of theological and political opposition. Blanket policies condemning Jews began to color New Testament interpretation. Some examples are:

  • the promises of blessing to Israel in the Hebrew scriptures are now the exclusive property of the Church (Parkes, p. 98);
  • God has cursed and rejected Israel, and now the Church is the “true” or “new” Israel; and
  • the Jews killed Jesus; all Jews everywhere forever are responsible for his death.

Within the writings of the church fathers (called “patristic” writings) were three main types which proved to be damaging to Jewish-Christian relations not only at the time they were composed (and sometimes read aloud to Christian congregations) but also in centuries following, as they were often used as a justification for anti-Jewish sentiment and, in the case of John Chrysostom’s virulent anti-Jewish sermons, even anti-Jewish legislation (Parkes, p. 71):

  • Dialogue _ Served to propagate Christian teaching. One of the earliest (mid-second century) and most important sources is the Dialogue of the church father Justin Martyr with Trypho the Jew. In this dialogue, Trypho is portrayed as being very impressed by Justin Martyr’s arguments and nearly coming to accept them.
  • Testimony _ Collections of Old Testament texts the purpose of which was to prove different claims connected with the person of Christ and the call of the Gentiles. Served as a “handy compendium of arguments for possible controversies” with Jews (Parkes, p. 99). An example is that of the third century African church father, Cyprian, The Testimonies against the Jews.
  • sermons or homilies _ A group of writings which was “especially directed against the Jews” (Parkes, 71). They served to warn Christians of the dangers of associating with the Jewish people and were developed as an absolute condemnation of the Jewish people, religion, and cultural practices. Example: Church Father John Chrysostom _ Adversus Judaeos, eight sermons preached at Antioch in 386-388 (Parkes, 119).

By the second century C.E., both Judaism and Christianity were trying to distinguish each from the other in the eyes of Rome, as both had unique political concerns. Judaism by then had attained legal status in the Roman world as a religion and did not want Christianity, with its loyalty to a King other than Caesar, to be associated with it. The church, now largely Gentile, also wanted to obtain legal status in the eyes of Rome so that it would not be identified with the Jews, who had rebelled against Rome under Bar Kochba. Once it was clear to Rome that Christianity was not a sect of Judaism, Christianity was regarded as an illegal sect and was no longer under the protective umbrella of the legal status of Judaism. With the establishment of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire by Constantine in the fourth century, however, Christianity soon began to enjoy a position of superiority over Judaism which caused serious consequences for Judaism. The new “Christian” empire began to enact such changes as:

  • The removal of former religious and governing privileges
  • The curtailment of Rabbinical jurisdiction
  • Prohibition of missionary work
  • Jews were no longer allowed to hold high offices or have military careers (e.g. legislation in 537 C.E. which prohibited local Jewish people from serving on municipal bodies).

Negative theological attitudes began to abound, such as the idea that Jews had lost their right to exist; Jews only exist as a testimony to the truth of Christianity; Jews are suffering justly at the hands of the Gentiles because God is angry with them, etc. Various church councils drew up damaging anti-Jewish legislation such as:

  • banning contact with Jews
  • the forbidding of the reading of the Torah exclusively in Hebrew (553 C.E.) (see Parkes, 251ff, 392).
  • confiscation of Jewish property and the prohibition of the sale of Christian property to Jews (545 C.E.).

Subsequent writings by church fathers (and church leaders throughout church history) condemned Jews, accusing them of being idolaters, torturers, spiritually deaf, blasphemers, gluttons, adulterers, canibals, Christ-killers, and beyond God’s forgiveness. Church Father John Chrysostom in particular pushed the idea of Jewish sensuality, gluttony, stubbornness and rejection by God.

With the rise of the Church-State, certain religio-political attitudes such as Jesus ruling the world through the Roman Christian government became evident in the Church. This attitude of superiority, flamed by the ever-increasing integration of the Church into Roman government, continued on into the Middle Ages and was translated into repeated actual restrictions on Jews, as is evidenced by the following examples.

The Justinian Code

The Justinian Code was an edict of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian (527-564). A section of the code negated civil rights for Jews. Once the code was enforced, Jews in the Empire could not build synagogues, read the Bible in Hebrew, gather in public places, celebrate Passover before Easter, or give evidence in a judicial case in which a Christian was a party. Decrees by the early Catholic Church (partial list)

  • Synod of Elvira (306)_prohibited intermarriage and sexual intercourse between Christians and Jews, and prohibited them from eating together.
  • Councils of Orleans (533-541)_prohibited marriages between Christians and Jews and forbade the conversion to Judaism by Christians.
  • Trulanic Synod (692)_prohibited Christians from being treated by Jewish doctors.
  • Synod of Narbonne (1050)_prohibited Christians from living in Jewish homes.
  • Synod of Gerona (1078)_required Jews to pay taxes to support the Church.
  • Third Lateran Council (1179)_prohibited certain medical care to be provided by Christians to Jews.
  • Fourth Lateran Council (1215)_required Jews to wear special clothing to distinguish them from Christians.
  • Council of Basel (1431-1443)_forbade Jews to attend universities, them from acting as agents in the conclusion of contracts between Christians, and required that they attend church sermons.


The Catholic Church launched a series of nine holy wars from 1096-1272. The purpose of these wars was to march to the Holy Land of Palestine and liberate it from Moslem “infidels.” Along the way, the crusaders massacred all “infidels” in their path who refused to be baptized on the spot to Christianity. Thousands of Jews were massacred in Germany and France.

Blood Libel and the Black Death

In the Middle Ages, Jews were accused of all kinds of slanders and were scapegoats for the problems of the day.

  • Blood Libel _ In 1144, a myth began in England that Jews murdered Christian children. This myth was expanded to become an accusation which persisted for centuries that the Jews used the blood of Christian children in the preparation of their Passover unleavened bread (matzohs). This “blood libel” was ironic in that the consumption of any blood is expressly prohibited by Jewish law.
  • Black Death_ the bubonic plague, the cause of the Black Death that liquidated a quarter of the population of Europe in the 14th century, was blamed on the Jews in Europe and Asia. The Pope issued a bull declaring that Jews were not responsible for the plague, but not before many Jews were burned alive or hanged by enraged mobs.

During this period, Jews were permitted to be moneylenders and act as financiers, only because this activity, while necessary for a prosperous economy, was viewed by the Church as sinful. Because Jews enjoyed a monopoly over an activity viewed as sinful, a Jewish stereotype was perpetuated.

The Inquisition

The Inquisition was a tribunal established in the Middle Ages (13th Cent.) by the Catholic Church in Rome designed to suppress heresy. In 1233, Pope Gregory IX formally established the papal Inquisition and sent Dominican friars to South France and Northern Italy to conduct inquests. The Dominican order had set as one of their goals the conversion of Jews to Christianity. This aim, backed by the power of the Inquisition, brought on a wave of persecution.

Torture was not an approved method of extracting confessions of guilt from heretics, yet it was practiced and finally approved by Pope Innocent IV. The goal of the Inquisition was not the destruction of the heretics but rather their repentance. Burning at the stake was not common. The ordinary penalties were penance, fines and imprisonment. Penalties were often carried out by the local government, especially the death penalty. Because the fines extracted and the property of the accused were turned over to the local government which often returned a portion to the Church, graft, bribery and blackmail were common.

The church rulers were often satisfied with assurances of goodwill. The secular rulers, however, used the persecution of heresy as a weapon to further their own designs.

Unlike the Medieval Inquisition, the Spanish Inquisition was established in 1478 by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella with only the reluctant approval of Pope Sixtus IV. The Roman Church’s only hold over the Spanish Inquisition was the appointment of the inquisitor general, the first of which was Tom_s de Torquemada. The popes never reconciled themselves to the practices of that inquisition. Attempts by Sixtus IV to interfere with an inquisition that had become too severe were thwarted by Ferdinand and Isabella who now had a potent tool to subvert the population of Spain.

“The purpose of the Spanish Inquisition was to discover and punish converted Jews (and later Muslims) who were insincere. However, all Spaniards began to fear its prying eyes. The death penalty was used more often than in the Roman Inquisition, and rules that condemned one for heresy were far stricter, often outlawing things the Roman Church approved.

“For centuries, the Jewish community in Spain had flourished and grown in numbers and influence, though anti-Semitism had from time to time made itself felt and pressure to convert was brought to bear on the Jews. Nominal converts from Judaism were called Marranos (Jews who had been baptized under duress, but were believed to be still surreptitiously practicing Judaism). After… the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella (1469), the Marranos were denounced as a danger to the existence of Christian Spain.” Suspected Marranos were tortured until they confessed to practicing Judaism, and then were burned to death en masse at an auto-da-fe.

After some fourteen years of torture and death by burning, in 1492, by edict, the Spanish Jews were given the choice of exile or baptism. Almost all Jews chose to leave at this time.

The Protestant Reformation

Martin Luther (1483-1546) founded a new Christian faith, Protestantism, in the 16th century. He had been an ordained priest, but disputed Church policy with respect to the sale of indulgences (a partial remission of the punishment for a sin). Once a supporter of the Jews, he was frustrated by their unwillingness to embrace his own religion. Martin Luther became one of the most intensely bitter anti-Semites in history. His writings described Jews as the anti-Christ, worse than devils. Jews were poisoners, ritual murderers, and parasites, he preached, and they should be expelled from Germany. His view was that synagogues should all be burned to the ground, and all Jewish books should be seized.



_ Hatred of the Jewish people.


_ The public ceremony at which sentences were pronounced against those who had been tried and found guilty by the Inquisition. This was followed by execution of the sentence by the secular authorities. The sentence was usually death by burning at the stake. (From the Portuguese, meaning, “act of faith”).


_ To accept the culture of another group while giving up one’s own.


_ Words written or spoken which express contempt or irreverence about God.

blood libel

_ The accusation that Jews used the blood of non-Jewish children to bake matzah, their Passover bread.


_ A formal document issued by the Pope.

The Black Death

_ A pandemic of the bubonic plague which killed about a quarter of the people of Europe between 1347 and 1350.

The Crusades

_ Nine wars waged by European Christian rulers between 1096 and 1291 to win the Holy Land from the Moslems.


_ A formal decree or proclamation issued by an authority which has the force of law.


_ The act of forcing or driving out people from a city or country.

forced baptism

_ The act of converting people to Christianity against their will. Jews and Moslems who were forced to become Christians and who secretly practiced their old religion could be executed as heretics.


_ A section or a quarter of a city where members of a minority group live because of legal, social or economic pressure.


_ A belief or opinion which differs from accepted doctrine.

The Inquisition

_ A religious court instituted by Pope Gregory IX in 1233 to investigate and punish heresy among Christians. It was officially called Congregation of the Holy Office.


_ The baptized Jews of Spain and Portugal who were accused of secretly practicing Judaism. (In Spanish, “marrano” literally means “pig” or “hog”).

Middle Ages

_ The historical period between the fall of Rome at the end of the 5th century and the start of the Renaissance in the 14th century.


_ A follower of a polytheistic religion (i.e., believes in more than one god).


_ an organized massacre, often sanctioned or condoned by the government, which also involves the destruction of property.


_ The bishop of Rome and head of the Roman Catholic Church.

The Reformation

_ The effort in the 16th century to reconstitute the life and teaching of Western Christendom, resulting in the separation of the Protestant churches from the Roman Catholic Church.


_ A council or assembly of churches or church officials.


  • Research how animals are slaughtered under Jewish law, and compare this to conventional slaughtering methods.
  • Meet with your clergyman, if you have one, and discuss your (church’s/synagogue’s/ mosque’s) relationship with the (Christian/Jewish/Moslem) community. Find out how this relationship developed over the years.
  • Research statements made by various Popes (e.g. Innocent IV, Gregory X, Martin V, Nicholas V and Paul III) which refuted charges that the Jews were ritually murdering Christians.
  • Trace the routes of the first Crusaders on a map of the ancient world as well as a map of the modern world, and research what happened to the Jews in the course of that Crusade.
  • Investigate the caricatures of Jews that were used during the Middle Ages.


  • What incidents can you identify of people you know in which one who held a minority belief was forced to choose between honoring that belief and paying the consequences, or acceding to the wishes of the majority? What are the results of choosing either alternative?
  • How would you have challenged the “blood libel” had you been the rabbi of the synagogue of a community in the Roman Empire?
  • The Crusades was a chapter in history in which religious zeal resulted in the persecution and massacre of thousands of innocent human beings. What other examples in history can you find in which heinous crimes were committed in the name of religious zeal? Were those actions consistent with the precepts of that religion? If not, how could they have occurred?


1. Define the following:

  1. blood libel
  2. anti-Semitism
  3. ghetto
  4. Black Death
  5. heresy
  6. auto-da-fe
  7. synod

2. Why did the Christian Church begin to persecute the Jews after the third century C.E.?

3. Name four aspects of Jewish life which slowed their assimilation?

4. What was the Justinian Code, and what were two of its provisions?

5. What economic activities were denied to Jews during the Middle Ages?

6. What were the Crusades, and what were their purpose?

7. Why did the treatment of Jews worsen as a result of the Protestant Reformation?

8. What was the Spanish Inquisition, and how were Jews affected by it? Include in your answer information about the Marranos.

9. Why were Jews permitted to be money-lenders in the Middle Ages?

10. How did the Jews escape from a plot to destroy them in Persia in the 5th century B.C.E.?


  • Although the chapter content on “Christian anti-Semitism” is historically accurate, some students (and some teachers as well) may have difficulty accepting the injustices which have occurred during the centuries in the name of religion, particularly if that religion is their own. Chapter 3 of the curriculum guide Facing History and Ourselves _ Holocaust and Human Behavior (Intentional Educations, 51 Spring Street, Watertown, Massachusetts 02172) provides background and student readings which sensitively permit teachers to explore and fee comfortable with this controversial topic. The chapter also includes material on critical listening by students, and how they may react when confronted with new ideas.
  • Begin the discussion of Christian anti-Semitism by sensitively explaining that much of the Church-sanctioned persecution of the Jews occurred hundreds of years ago, and the relationships between Christians and Jews has improved considerably since ancient times.
  • Consider bringing in a speaker from the National Conference of Christians and Jews to discuss both the past and present relationships between these two communities.
  • Maps of the ancient and modern world make constructive illustrations and teach valuable interdisciplinary lessons. Students can be asked to make their own maps, or to trace out the routes of the Crusaders, for example, on existing ancient maps.
  • Adopt relevant chapters from the Anti-Defamation League’s “World of Difference” Curriculum Guide for use in teaching the history and consequences of anti-Semitism (Anti-Defamation League, 230 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia, PA 19102).

Copyright 1990 Gary M. Grobman

|| Return to The Holocaust–A Guide for Pennsylvania Teachers ||