Luke, Judaism, and Anti-Judaism

Does Christian hostility to Jews have roots in those books which Christians regard as sacred and authoritative, specifically the writings of Luke?

See: Images of Judaism in Luke-Acts (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2010)
and: Old Testament, New Hatreds: The Hebrew Bible and Antisemitism in Nazi Germany

By Joseph B. Tyson
Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies,
Southern Methodist University
August 2010

Scholars of the New Testament (NT) have long given attention to the writings of Luke and his treatment of Jews and Judaism. This is so partly because these writings—the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles—constitute about 25% of the NT itself. A more important reason for this significant attention relates to the facts that early Christianity emerged from Judaism and the book of Acts is a narrative about this “parting of the ways.”

Although there is a long history of scholarship on this topic, attention has significantly increased during the last half-century. There is no question that the Holocaust of 1933-45 had a great deal to do with this increased attention. During World War II, the National Socialist party in Germany was responsible for the murder of six million Jews and about the same number of gypsies, homosexuals, and political dissidents. Although it is popular to think of scholars as living in ivory towers, the fact is that they are rarely isolated from what is going on around them. NT scholars, like most other people, were deeply shocked to learn of this European genocide. They knew that Germany had a long Christian tradition, and so they inevitably asked why Christians allowed the Nazi regime to execute its plan to exterminate European Jews. They did not think that Christians were responsible for the Holocaust, but they nevertheless became aware that major Christian teachings allowed the Nazis to defame Jews and even describe them as vermin. Drawing on these appalling characterizations, Nazis attempted to justify the extermination of Jews.

Christian teachings did not inevitably lead to the extermination of European Jews, but the close connection between these teachings and Nazi policy may be illustrated by an incident that occurred in 1942. Irving Greenberg reports that a Slovakian Rabbi called upon the local archbishop and pleaded for Catholic help in resisting the policy of deporting Jews. Greenberg writes, “Since the rebbe did not yet know of the gas chambers, he stressed the dangers of hunger and disease, especially for women, old people, and children. The archbishop replied: `It is not just a matter of deportation. You will not die there of hunger and disease. They will slaughter all of you there, old and young alike, women and children, at once--it is the punishment that you deserve for the death of our Lord and Redeemer, Jesus Christ--you have only one solution. Come over to our religion and I will work to annul this decree.’”1 As it turned out, however, even conversion to Christianity was not sufficient to save the Jewish victims. Under the circumstances, the offer of conversion may seem generous, but it must not mask the archbishop’s attitude expressed in the claim that Jews deserve to be exterminated because of their complicity in the death of Jesus.

The question I want to raise here is this: does Christian hostility to Jews have roots in those books which Christians regard as sacred and authoritative, specifically the writings of Luke? The same question should be addressed to the other books of the NT, but space only allows me to focus here on Luke and Acts.

The answer is yes and no. Luke and Acts are ambivalent. They are both pro-Jewish and anti-Jewish. Lloyd Gaston once—paradoxically but accurately--characterized Luke-Acts as “one of the most pro-Jewish and one of the most anti-Jewish writings in the New Testament.”2

The most significant pro-Jewish material appears in Luke 1-2, the narratives of the birth and infancy of Jesus. Throughout most of the third gospel the author made abundant use of sources, but the first two chapters are unique to Luke. His sources had nothing like the narratives of Luke 1-2. The Gospel of Matthew, which probably was not a source used by Luke, includes narratives about the birth of Jesus, but they differ from those in Luke in many respects.

The birth and infancy narratives in Luke 1-2 afford the author of the Gospel the opportunity to describe Jewish religious life in what might be called pre-Christian times, and its positive quality comes through clearly. Here we learn of the importance of the Jewish temple, its ritual, priesthood, and sacrifices. Here are angelic messengers, miraculous births, and righteous people living lives of quiet devotion and hopeful expectation. The parents of John the Baptist, Zechariah and Elizabeth, are described as “righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord” (Luke 1:6). Simeon is said to be “righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him” (Luke 2:25). Anna, a prophet, “never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day” (Luke 2:37).

The Lukan infancy narratives stress the relationship of Jesus to Israel, the prophetic anticipation of his coming, and the fulfillment of Jewish expectation. Jesus’ relationship to the Jewish people is made clear in the references to Joseph and Jesus as belonging to the house of David (Luke 1:27; 1:69; 2:4) and to David as Jesus’ father (Luke 1:32). Jesus is even born in the “city of David” (Luke 2:11). The fidelity of the family to Jewish practices is shown in Luke 2:22-24, the stories of the presentation of Jesus and Mary’s purification. The narratives portray Jesus’ parents as pious Jews, who faithfully follow Torah (Luke 2:22), support the Jerusalem temple (Luke 2:22-38, 41-52), engage in sacrificial practices (Luke 2:24), and observe Jewish festivals (Luke 2:41). The author also implies that Jesus himself incorporated these practices, noting that as a child he was obedient to his parents (Luke 2:51). But Jesus’ Jewishness is nowhere more emphatically signified than in the story of his circumcision (Luke 2:21).3 Jacob Jervell is quite right to insist that “Luke 2:21 is scarcely a happenstance; it is not a ‘subordinate clause.’”4 Jervell refers to Jesus as the “circumcised Messiah,” to express Luke’s view.

Little in Luke 1-2 would lead a reader toward a negative view of Jews or their religion. On the contrary, appreciation and admiration would be the appropriate responses.

Unfortunately, this benign attitude does not continue through the rest of Luke and Acts. The dramatic story of the trial and execution of Jesus shows Jews in the worst possible light. It is true that the Gospel of Luke lacks some of the most virulent anti-Jewish statements that appear in the other Gospels. The Jewish people do not shout, “His blood be on us and on our children!” as they do in Matt 27:25. But Luke, like the other evangelists, blames the Jews for the death of Jesus. Although Jesus almost certainly was executed by Romans, Luke portrays the Jewish people and their leaders as those who brought about his death. In the Lukan portrayal, the Roman governor, Pilate, repeatedly declares Jesus to be innocent of the charges brought against him, but the Jewish priests and their associates, as well as the people, insist that he should be put to death (see Luke 23:1-25). As a Roman ruler, Pilate appears to be incredibly weak, but the Jewish leaders are irredeemably unjust and malevolent.

The Acts of the Apostles does little to alleviate this negative picture of Jewish people. To be sure, the book shows that the earliest believers in Jesus were Jews. The twelve apostles listed in Acts 1:13 are all Jews, as are Paul and Barnabas. But the narratives about them stress the opposition they faced from fellow Jews. They were repeatedly imprisoned for preaching about the death and resurrection of Jesus.

The latter half of Acts is all about the mission of Paul, who, in every city he visits, goes first to the synagogue. He meets with limited success but overwhelming opposition among the Jewish listeners. Paul then preaches to Gentiles and achieves great acceptance. The author certainly knows that some Jews accepted Paul’s message and some Gentiles rejected it. But the emphasis is very much on Jewish rejection. Three times over Paul makes a solemn announcement that stresses Gentile acceptance and Jewish rejection: “It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken first to you [Jews]. Since you reject it and judge yourselves to be unworthy of eternal life, we are now turning to the Gentiles” (Acts 13:46; cf. 18:6; 28:28). It should be noted that, after the first two announcements, Paul returns to speak in synagogues, but not after the one in Acts 28:28, which essentially ends the book.

Why is the author of Luke and Acts so profoundly ambivalent about Jewish religion and people? Of course, it is possible that an ancient author had genuinely conflicting beliefs for reasons that are unfathomable to us. In the case of the composition of Luke and Acts, however, we can gain some insight by observing certain aspects of the text. Our author seems to be fairly benign when dealing with the Hebrew Scriptures and with Jews before the time of Jesus. The more malignant sentiments appear when he is dealing with the Jewish people at the time of Jesus and his followers. Can this be explained?

To get a hold on an explanation, it is necessary to have some idea of the historical context in which these books were composed. In my judgment, they were written (in their present forms) in the early second century, c. 120 CE.5 At that time, the believers in Jesus, most of them Gentiles, had largely moved away from the earlier roots in Judaism. They were nevertheless aware of these roots, and they inevitably questioned the absence of Jews from the Christian movement. The explanation that appealed to most of them was that the Jews had rejected Jesus as their Messiah and so opposed his followers and that they did so because they were blind, hard-hearted, and incorrigibly opposed to Christian faith.

But in the early second century, Christians had not yet achieved agreement on a common theology, and many diverse sects competed for the hearts and minds of believers. One of the most successful of these movements was led by Marcion, a Christian from the region around the Black Sea. Marcion and his adherents believed that the revelation of Jesus was something totally new and that the God revealed by Jesus had not been previously known. The Hebrew prophets did not, according to Marcion, predict the coming of Jesus. The result of this conviction was to separate Jesus and his followers totally from the Hebrew Scriptures and from the Jewish people. For Marcion, it was not a question of Jewish rejection of Jesus, for the message of Jesus was not intended for them.

I think that the author of Luke and Acts was acquainted with both of these Christian attitudes. He rejected Marcion’s theology, and, to counteract his influence, he stressed the connection of Jesus and his apostles with Jews and Judaism. The infancy narratives in Luke 1-2 affirm the Jewishness of Jesus in ways that would have startled Marcion and his followers. Marcion could not have accepted a circumcised Jesus, who was born of Torah-observant Jewish parents. In contrast to Marcion, Luke affirms the validity of the Hebrew Scriptures and their application to Jesus and his followers. Thus, in reacting to Marcion, Luke displays a benign attitude toward Jews and Judaism.

But Luke also shares the Christian conviction that Jews rejected Jesus and opposed his followers. He therefore portrays Jews as opponents, pictures them in the role of executioners of Jesus, and describes them as hostile to Paul and the other early believers. Thus, in his portrayal of Jews and Judaism in relation to Jesus and his followers, Luke displays a malignant sentiment.

The narrative of Luke-Acts has a powerful poignancy, so much so that some scholars designate it as a tragedy.6 The author shows that the Christian message is the fulfillment of the Hebrew Scriptures and intended initially for Jews. Despite this, Jews rejected this message and so lived without the salvation that Jesus brought for them and for Gentiles. One response to this set of convictions might be pity for those who missed a great opportunity; another might be hatred toward a people who opposed Jesus and Christians. Readers of Luke and Acts have expressed both responses. To be sure, pity is preferable to hatred, but neither response embodies a positive appreciation for Jews and Judaism.

The pro-Jewish and anti-Jewish sentiments in Luke and Acts do not dictate a single correct response. This shifts a burden to the reader, who, when considering Jews and Judaism, has the responsibility to decide among pity, hatred, appreciation, and other possible responses. In my judgment, both the historical context and the consequences of these writings should be considered in deciding among different interpretations. Knowledge of the historical context facilitates an understanding of a text without lessening an appreciation of it. We can, for example, understand Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice against the background of 16th century anti-Semitic concepts and yet appreciate it as a literary masterpiece. Similarly, to know something of the historical context affecting Luke’s writings should help twenty-first-century readers to understand this complex text in both its negative and positive treatments of the Jewish people and to esteem it as a formative religious text.

Finally, knowledge of the horrifying, if unintended, consequences of anti-Jewish expressions in ancient literature, including sacred literature, should encourage us to avoid and condemn those responses that support negative attitudes toward and actions against Jews and Judaism.


1 Irving Greenberg, “Cloud of Smoke, Pillar of Fire: Judaism, Christianity, and Modernity after the Holocaust,” in Auschwitz: Beginning of a New Era? Reflections on the Holocaust, ed. by Eva Fleishner (New York: KTAV, 1977), 11-12.

2 Lloyd Gaston, “Anti-Judaism and the Passion Narrative in Luke and Acts,” in Anti-Judaism in Early Christianity (ed. by Peter Richardson with David Granskou; Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1986) 1:153.

3 Note also the circumcision of John the Baptist, Luke 1:59, an incident that stresses the parallelism between him and Jesus.

4 Jacob Jervell, The Unknown Paul: Essays on Luke-Acts and Early Christian History (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1984), 145.

5 See my Marcion and Luke-Acts: A Defining Struggle (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2006). See also Richard I. Pervo, Dating Acts: Between the Evangelists and the Apologists (Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge Press, 2006).

6 See, e.g., Robert C. Tannehill, The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts: A Literary Interpretation (2 vols.; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986, 1990).

Add new comment

This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.