How Fake News Launched the Persecution of Jews for Two Thousand Years
The Holocaust did not begin with Hitler and Nazi Germany. It can be traced to the beginnings of Christianity, with the fake news reported in the Gospels, the first four books of the New Testament. The “news” claimed that the Jewish people condemned Jesus for blasphemy, implying that he had defected from Judaism and started a new religion. This theme was later promoted to authenticate that the new religion, Christianity, was separate and distinct from Judaism.
To support this claim, Jews had to be considered the villains in the death of Jesus. So according to the Gospel of Matthew (27:24), the good guy Romans didn’t order Jesus’ death. Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, tells the Jews, “I am innocent of this man’s blood. It is your responsibility!” Unfortunately, at that time in history, there were no reliable news sources to challenge these assertions. The fake news, that Jesus opposed Judaism and preached a new religion, was so powerful that it persists today.
In interviews with Christians and Jews, I heard the popular belief that Jesus was a Christian. Yes, he was born Jewish, they acknowledged, but he soon became a Christian. Cinema and other media have picked up this theme. In one of the early blockbuster bible films, “Salome” (1953), featuring superstar Rita Hayworth, the Jewish and Roman authorities repeatedly refer to the dangerous nuisances John the Baptist and Jesus, who are “preaching a new faith.” It’s remarkable that although the story of Salome, John the Baptist, and Jesus is all about Jews and Judaism, the word “Jew” is never mentioned. The film assumes that the “new religion” — Christianity — had taken root, even though it didn’t yet exist. In another instance, Bill O’Reilly, author of the 2013 bestseller Killing Jesus, ridiculed my view backed by noted Biblical scholars and insisted that Jesus launched Christianity.
Yet the fake news that Jesus rejected Judaism and was responsible for starting a new religion contradicts a broad consensus established by modern biblical scholars with access to more reliable information. They confirm that Jesus lived and died a dedicated practicing Jew, and did not start or even propose a new religion. Jesus’ problem was with the Jewish leadership, whom he criticized for ignoring the spiritual core of Judaism. Supporting this conclusion is Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s groundbreaking book, Kosher Jesus, which shows that virtually all of Jesus’ teachings are derived from the Torah. Add to that the comments by Episcopal priest Bruce Chilton in his book Rabbi Jesus: “Everything Jesus did was as a Jew, for Jews, and about Jews.”
Why did the Gospel writers promulgate this fake news when all of the details of Jesus life reported in the Gospels, from his birth to his death, are steeped in Judaism? Although the early converts to Christianity were Jews, by the time the Gospels were written 40 to 65 years after the crucifixion, converts were increasingly and eventually predominantly Roman pagans. For the Romanized church, there was no currency in blaming Pontius Pilate and the Romans for the suffering and death of Jesus. But there was lots of recruiting value in demonizing the Jews. Blaming Jews collectively for the crucifixion also served the difficult challenge of establishing Christianity as separate from Judaism.
The fake news about the crucifixion was reinforced by other fabricated details surrounding the arrest and trial of Jesus. According to the Gospels, when Jesus was brought to Pontius Pilate the morning after his arrest, Pilate turned Jesus’ fate over to an angry mob of Jews that had assembled outside his palace (Mark 15:15, John 19:10). The mob roared “Crucify him.” This preposterous event couldn’t have happened, making it additional fake news.
The arrest of Jesus in Gethsemane Garden the night before was a clandestine operation. How could a mob have assembled early the next morning at Pontius Pilate’s palace to demand that Jesus be crucified? Also, this occurred during Passover, and the entire Roman military was on duty to stop riots against the Roman presence that frequently occurred during the celebration. The Roman military would not have allowed multitudes of Jews to march on Pilate’s palace. And as biblical scholar Candida Moss has noted, “Flash mobs of thousands of people do not miraculously assemble and offer complicated answers in unison without the assistance of smartphones.” Pope Benedict XVI agreed: “How could the whole people have been present at that moment to clamor for Jesus’s death?”
In Greek tragedies, when an event that makes no sense is needed to advance a plot, it is sometimes pulled out of thin air (deus ex machina). In this instance, the fake news about the angry Jewish mob was pulled out of thin air in order to extract Jesus from Judaism, portray him as an enemy of Judaism, and thus support the notion at the time this story was planted that Christianity was emerging as a separate religion. In doing so, it also created a springboard for persecuting Jews by establishing them as “the others.”
Persecution of Jews was stepped up in the fourth century CE after the Eastern Roman Emperor Constantine convened the Council of Nicaea (325 CE) in order to establish a single organized Catholic Church. Constantine’s goal was to bring order to a fragmented emerging Christianity represented by several leading sects and numerous others with conflicting beliefs and no universally sanctioned scriptures or practices.
Once established, the official Catholic Church set out to enforce its hegemony by squashing opposition, absorbing competing sects, and destroying scriptures that conflicted with its doctrines. Those who continued to preach contrary dogmas and challenge the authority of the newly sanctioned Church were killed or excommunicated.
Despite these harsh measures, Constantine’s Christianity still faced formidable challenges to its legitimacy as a separate religion rather than a Jewish sect. This problem plagued Christianity from the outset, since it was founded on the Jewish messianic prophecies and Jesus’ Jewish lineage. The Gospel of Matthew (1:1-23) traces Jesus’s lineage to Abraham. The Gospel of Luke (3:23-38) goes further back in the Torah to Adam. Adding to this challenge was the fact that Jesus, his 12 disciples representing the 12 tribes of Israel (Matthew 19:28), and all his followers were dedicated practicing Jews, as described in the Gospels. Interestingly, the word “Christian” doesn’t appear in the Gospels, which spans Jesus’ spiritual mission and wouldn’t appear until at least 15 years after the crucifixion (Acts 11:26). But the word “Jew” is mentioned 82 times in the Gospels.
In these Gospels, Jesus is circumcised, participates in all the important Torah-sanctioned Jewish holidays at the Temple in Jerusalem, follows Jewish dietary laws, and every Sabbath throughout his life attends synagogue services, where he worships, preaches, and reads from the Torah. His followers call him “Rabbi.”
As for starting a new religion, Jesus’s life and practices hardly point to his embarking on that path. And if he had, why didn’t his disciples know that? As described in Acts, the fourth book in the New Testament, the disciples continued to practice Judaism in the Temple in Jerusalem after the crucifixion. Even 30 years later, when Paul (the persecutor of Christians who became the leading proponent of Jesus) visits the disciples in the Temple in Jerusalem, James, the brother of Jesus, still resisted Paul’s efforts to drop orthodox Jewish practices for the conversion of Gentiles to Jewish Christianity (Acts 21:17-32).
The task for Christianity was clear: Jesus must be wrenched from Judaism and transformed into a Christian. No small task, given Jesus’s fervent attachment to Judaism.
Separation from Judaism was confounded by the fact that, as late as the fourth century, many Christians practiced Christianity as a Jewish sect. That explains why a number of the vicious Homilies Against the Jews by St. John of Chrysostom (386-387CE), the Archbishop of Constantinople, castigated Christians who still attended synagogue services and celebrated Jewish holidays — clearly a widespread practice if it aroused the attention and ire of one of the highest officials in Christendom. That may be why the charge “Christ killers” was stepped up to add power to the vilification of Jews and generate a final break between the two faiths.
As Christianity struggled to accomplish its goal of separation, a phenomenon was quietly emerging in a surprising domain that ultimately would play a decisive role in reinforcing the fake news that Jesus, his family, and followers were Christians with no connection to Judaism. And it would accomplish it not by acts of commission — attacks on or persecution of Jews — but by a powerful act of omission. This fake news would reach a pinnacle during the Renaissance era. It was during this time that artists invented the Christian Jesus by erasing his Semitic appearance, his heritage in a rural Jewish community in Galilee, and his Jewish identity,
Search through the vast archives or Medieval and Renaissance artworks and you will be hard pressed to find any indication that Jesus, his family, and close followers had any connection to Judaism. What you will see almost exclusively is a blond, blue-eyed, northern European Jesus surrounded by anachronisms that didn’t appear until long after his death. Even dark-skinned representations of Jesus transform him into a latter-day Christian with no hint of his Semitic heritage. In the view of European society, these false representations firmly established that Jews were the “others” — the others who Christians were told killed their lord Jesus Christ. Under the cloud of this fake news, it’s not surprising that Jews became fair game for atrocities that have darkened the course of history for centuries.
As I confronted art historians with my discovery I heard the same rationalization over and over: These omissions were ‘just’ a reflection of the Renaissance style of contemporizing figures along with the revitalization of Greek idealism and the introduction of realism in art.
If this fake news, which falsifies biblical history, was due to “the Renaissance style,” why does the same fake news appear for hundreds of years in Byzantine art, which preceded the Renaissance? And why didn’t “realism” lead to conveying who Jesus really was? As for “idealism,” you will find none of that in the depiction of Jewish scholars in Albrecht Durer’s dramatic 16th-century painting of Christ Among the Doctors. Instead, you will see the idealized fair-haired ethereal-looking Jesus among “the others”: the dark menacing Jewish scholars, one of whom appears almost sub-human.
With thousands of artists working throughout Europe during this period, why doesn’t a single painting depict the real Jewish Jesus? Isn’t it odd that not one artist would ask: “Why is this Jew and rabbi holding a cross-staff in Christ in a Landscape (ca.1530) — when there was no Christianity during his lifetime and the only cross Jesus held was the one he was nailed to in his brutal crucifixion.” In fact, the cross was a hated symbol of the crucifixion of countless numbers of Jews, and would not become a popular devotional Christian symbol until the fourth century.
Why would a 13-year-old Jewish girl betrothed to a Jewish carpenter in Galilee be pictured in a Christian ceremony in a palatial Renaissance setting? And why is this Jewish family in a 15th century painting by Michael Pacher, traveling to Egypt to escape King Herod’s order to kill all Jewish boys under the age of two, displaying a cross?
These and thousands of other artworks powerfully convey the idea that Jesus and his family may have been born Jewish but they were really Christians. And this fake message in artworks was everywhere in European settings — in churches, homes, and public places. And again, no sources for facts, as we have today with a free press.
The truth is that antisemitism was so deeply entrenched in European society that no artist would dare picture a Jewish Jesus. Even if so inclined, artists had little say in the content of their paintings, which was determined by the patrons who commissioned their artworks. And patrons demanded totally Christian depictions to impress church officials and the public, with their pious devotion and celebration of Christianity. Most puzzling is why art historians, art critics, and curators continue to ignore or rationalize the flagrant fake news that falsifies biblical history in religious artworks. Telling the truth would take nothing away from the works’ artistic magnificence and their contribution to the development of art.
It’s sad that art-world professionals believe they have to defend fake news in order to preserve the beauty of Renaissance art and its valuable contribution. Avoiding the truth is a missed educational opportunity for enriching the experience of viewing these artworks with an understanding of their historical context.
We can’t change history, but we can profit from preserving and understanding it. Acknowledging the fake news in artworks would be especially valuable today in view of current efforts toward a rapprochement between Christianity and Judaism to honor the historical common foundation of the two faiths — a view that has been expressed by Pope Francis: “Inside every Christian is Jew.”
Bernard Starr, PhD, is professor emeritus at the City University of New York, Brooklyn College. His latest book is Jesus, Jews, and Anti-Semitism in Art.