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I want to apologize ahead if my questions sound disrespectful to anybody. This isn't my intent. I grew up in East Asia which has very few Christians, but I have been very interested in the history of Christianity and the content of Bible.

I have trouble understanding the persecution of Jews by Christians in Middle Ages. According to the Old Testament, Hebrews/Israelites are the "Chosen People" of God. The whole Old Testament is about how Jews struggled to find their land of promised. Isn't it against God's will, to persecute Jews? How did Middle Age Christians manage to explain these from theological point of view?

Another related question is, Old Testament was written in Hebrew. It didn't make a lot of sense to me, that Middle Age Christians would treat texts written in the language used by people they didn't like.

I am not trying to offend anybody. I have no doubt that modern Christians don't hate Jews. I just have trouble understanding how Middle Age Christians explained what they did in theological point of view.

English is not my native language, and I have been self-studying Bible. My knowledge could have serious defects and my terminologies could be way off. I would appreciate if you guys can bear with me, and help me understand the history and the Bible better.

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Welcome to Christianity.SE. You have come to the right place. We are always happy to have sincere questions. Your question is good, however, the body has a bit of unnecessary stuff. The Third paragraph can be completely removed because it hints on a very different topic. The faq is a good place to start on how we like questions to look and what we expect their scope to be. The next step it to read highly voted questions on the site to get a good idea of the format that is expected. BTW, I think it is rather hard to offend most of us. –  fredsbend Mar 29 '13 at 4:23
It's late so I don't want to get into a full answer right now, but one of the things to grasp is that God sometimes allows bad things to happen to his chosen people. Whether to test and strengthen them, or to punish them or simply because it brings him glory, sometimes things don't go like we want them to –  SSumner Mar 29 '13 at 4:35
I think you are asking how people defend the idea of the crusades. That was basically Roman Catholic history, so Catholics and Protestants might not have the same view on it. A Catholic has to try and defend it to some degree because the crusades were led by Popes (but I do not know if persecution of Jews were intended, as I do not know the history well). Protestants do not have to defend any Christian history as they do not see its leaders as incorruptible. Biblically, anyone who hates someone is not a Christian by default. You need to ask for a Catholic, Protestant or Biblical basis answer. –  Mike Mar 29 '13 at 5:58
@Mike The crusades were largely about taking the Holy Land from the Muslims. Reasons for this still elude me. As far as persecution of the Jews, I think that is different entirely because the Jews of Europe have suffered quite a few persecutions over the centuries. –  fredsbend Mar 29 '13 at 18:07
@fredsbend - Crusades were principally against Muslims but also Jews. For example en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pogroms_of_1096. –  Mike Mar 30 '13 at 1:42

1 Answer 1

up vote 4 down vote accepted

This is an important question. While we today decisively reject the terrible things that people in the past thought and did, we should not shy away from recognizing what they did and why. And as Christians we must be honest about the role of religion and the church.

The "Middle Ages" covers a thousand years and the whole of Europe - and Jewish life varied considerably in different times and places - so this is going to be a bit general. If there are specific things you'd like to know more about, please do ask more questions.

Among the arguments used to justify anti-semitism at the time are the following:

  • Supersession. The mantle of 'the chosen people' passed to Christians, and the old covenant has been superseded by the new.
  • Christ-killing. The Jews were held collectively responsible for the death of Jesus: his blood was on their heads. This is related to supersession, because it shows the covenant being broken.
  • General heresy. Anyone who did not share the Christian faith was not truly part of the community. This was used to justify various restrictions on holding public office, receiving university education, entering into mixed marriage, owning property, testifying in court, entering into contracts, etc. In addition it was common to think that Jewish people were particularly devious and untrustworthy, more so than regular Christian heretics.
  • Usury. New Testament prohibitions on usury were invoked as a sign of Jews being evil (exploitative of "honest Christian folk").
  • Evil magic. Again related to Christ-killing and general mistrust, some thought that Jewish people were in league with the devil, who granted them magical powers which they used to the ruin of the local community - especially by spreading disease. The infamous blood libel (that they murdered and ate Christian babies) was seen as a Satanic parody of the Eucharist.

As you can see, the basic theological root is the idea that by rejecting Jesus, the old covenant was abrogated and the Jews were no longer the chosen people. However, medieval anti-semitism is not just about theology: it also has a lot to do with not liking people who are different. There is also a tremendously important political and economic angle. It would be too simplistic to say that the religious or political establishment was solely responsible, or that it was all about popular prejudice. These aspects all strengthened and supported each other.

Meanwhile, you also wanted to know about the Old Testament being written in Hebrew. This is true. But there was a long period when knowledge of the language was pretty scanty - certainly among everyday clergy. The standard circulating text was in Latin, which was also the language of liturgy, scholarship, law, and public administration. The Greek "Septuagint" was also important - again, though, a bit more specialised. Most people would not have encountered any Hebrew text. But even for those who did, the idea of succession of covenants allowed them to receive the Old Testament scripture as part of Christian patrimony. They could praise the great virtue of Abraham, Moses, or David, even speaking in glowing terms of the magnificence of the Temple and the detail of Jewish religious life, while still rejecting Jewish people who were born in years AD instead of BC.

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The last sentence of the third point became a very big motivator especially shortly after the close of the Middle Ages. The persecutions in 19th Century Russia and Nazi Germany come to mind. The fourth is a bit on the same level. The fifth is superstition (Middle Ages Europe was very superstitious) derived from the third. +1 Good answer. –  fredsbend Mar 29 '13 at 18:15

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