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  • "For Fear of the Jews":Origins of Anti-Judaism in Early Christianity

This is a study of the beginnings of a persistent theme in the Christian psyche, sometimes dormant, sometimes flagrant, never absent. The theme has always been known and frequently written about. The writers have usually been theologians unconcerned with psychological issues, apologists aiming at reconciling irreconcilable differences, hostile critics declaiming on one side or the other, or psychologists ignoring historical boundaries. There are, however, embedded in the facts ambiguities and ambivalences that demand acknowledgment and psychological interpretation. The players in this great tragic drama were human-all-too-human, which means that psychoanalytic ideas may contribute to understanding them.

The founding documents of Christianity are those collected as the New Testament, standing from its beginnings as the concluding, but not superseding, addition to the Hebrew Bible, which was given the name of Old Testament. The earliest surviving manuscripts of New Testament books are few and fairly late, dating from the second and third centuries (Brown 1997, 47), and in fragmentary condition. These in turn are based on earlier written compositions, a few of them, the authentic letters of the apostle Paul, being by internal evidence from the forties and fifties of the first century—that is, written within twenty or thirty years after the events narrated in the "gospels," the "good news" of the Jewish preacher, prophet, leader, Jesus of Nazareth, called Christ, meaning the Messiah, or anointed one. The gospels themselves were compiled later, from about 68 to 110.1 There is good reason to believe that they were "redacted" (structured according to individual editorial principles) out of earlier documents that included stories, legends, established convictions, opinions, prayers, collected by the earliest followers of Jesus. Many or most (depending on whom you ask) of the New Testament writings seem to have been done by men—we [End Page 57] have no evidence that there were women writers—of Jewish birth; doubts as well as certainties on this score seem to be tendentious.

No corroborating contemporary documents—or conflicting ones, for that matter—exist with a bearing on the contents of the New Testament. A possible exception would be sections of the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus that make explicit reference to Jesus.2 We have to depend on the gospels and other writings of the New Testament to interpret their content. The variations and contradictions within and between the texts have been for a couple of centuries the source of a critical as well as exegetical literature by specialists and generalists too voluminous for scholars in the field to cover, let alone for interested amateurs, including the present writer, but it is possible to distinguish between more or less legitimate conjectures. All the same, one must bear in mind the compounded difficulty of using for critical investigation texts whose inherent character is at once expository and polemical. The writer takes heart in knowing that many others have entered here where angels might fear to tread.

Since the gospel accounts of the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus appeared at least forty or fifty years after his death, they had to be the product of groups of disciples gathered together in what quite early were called "churches," local assemblies of Jews and "gentiles," formed on the model of the Jewish assemblies or synagogues. I do not mean by this that the gospels were compiled by whole communities or committees of Christians, but they were designed by their writers to convey conviction to their readers, or listeners, in the local communities of believers. A consequence of this, with respect to those contents of the gospels that are of special interest in our context, is that they reveal indirectly the interrelationships of Christians among themselves and with their surrounding environment. In this sense, they are political and psychological documents as well as religious ones, although these categories cannot be entirely discriminated.

With the scarcity of sources, it is never easy and always problematic to define what are trustworthy historical records—in the sense given to this term in critical accounts of modern, or better attested older, history. If we cannot point to many objectively [End...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1085-7931
Print ISSN
0065-860X
Pages
pp. 57-79
Launched on MUSE
2006-04-05
Open Access
No
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