There is a dark side to church history—a past that is not often revisited. Believers are generally shocked to hear that their theological heroes supported violence against the Jewish people. Consider the following quotations from significant church leaders:
Jerome, Letter 84, 400 AD: “If it is expedient to hate any men and to loath any race, I have a strange dislike to those of the circumcision. For up to the present day they persecute our Lord Jesus Christ in the synagogues of Satan.”8
Ambrose of Milan, writing to Emperor Theodosius I, 388 AD: “A report was made by the military Count of the East that a synagogue had been burnt, and that this was done at the instigation of the bishop. You [Theodosius] gave command that the others should be punished, and the synagogue be rebuilt by the bishop himself…. Shall, then, a place be made for the unbelief of the Jews out of the spoils of the Church, and shall the patrimony, which by the favour of Christ has been gained for Christians, be transferred to the treasuries of unbelievers?… Shall the Jews write this inscription on the front of their synagogue: ‘The temple of impiety, erected from the plunder of Christians’?”9
We are often unaware that church leaders advocated hatred of Jews, the destruction of synagogues, and the violent expulsion of the chosen people from “Christian” society. However, in Jewish circles these stories are well known. In fact, most Jewish people see Christianity through a lens of antisemitism, and they characterize Christianity based on an anti-Jewish medieval expression that emerged after centuries in Europe. Jewish people today look back and view those who persecuted their ancestors as representatives of the Christian faith.
A recent podcast by Orthodox Rabbi Yaakov Wolbe shared this sentiment: “Jew-hatred is a fundamental, theological principle of the Christian faith.”10
This is why your Jewish friend might have a negative response when you share your faith with them!
Fortunately, Rabbi Wolbe is wrong about the true heart of the Christian faith. Still, centuries of anti-Jewish actions by Christians have cast a long shadow and hurt the cause of Jewish evangelism today.
Jewish people generally believe the connection between Christianity and antisemitism is unbreakable. They see this trend continuing, especially among those who are anti-Israel. For the Jewish person today, an anti-Israel perspective merges with the long history of Christian antisemitism and only further supports the negative way most Jewish people view Christianity.
A major debate among modern evangelicals today is whether or not those who held these views of the Jewish people were “real Christians.” Yet, deciding if they were “real” believers is God’s job, and His alone.
The only antidotes to centuries of bad behavior by Christians are love and authenticity of faith. When Jewish people meet Christians who express their love of Israel and the Jewish people because of their love for the Jewish Messiah, then the gospel is elevated, and Jewish people are introduced to the truth about Jesus. Hopefully, they will see there is a big difference between historical Christianity and the true nature of His grace and love toward all people—especially to the Jew first (Romans 1:16)!
We pray and hope Jewish people will meet followers of the Jewish Messiah who love Him, behave as true believers, and love the Jewish people. This is the light that will dispel centuries of darkness.
8 Jerome, “The Letters of St. Jerome,” in St. Jerome: Letters and Select Works, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. W. H. Fremantle, G. Lewis, and W. G. Martley, vol. 6, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1893), 176.
9 James Stevenson and B. J. Kidd, eds., Creeds, Councils, and Controversies: Documents Illustrative of the History of the Church A.D. 337-461 (New York: Seabury Press, 1966), 135.
10 The Jewish History Podcast by Rabbi Yaakov Wolbe, Episode 25: A History of Christian Anti-Semitism Part 1. Starting circa 11:20. https://rabbiwolbe.com/history-christian-antisemitism-part-one/.