This week the Bible study I lead on Wednesdays at noon is finishing up its study of the Book of Acts. It has been a fascinating journey through a part of the New Testament I’d never really studied in depth
before. The Acts of the Apostles is full of history and geography, with literary references to Plato, Virgil, and Homer, and ancient prayers to Zeus. The study has led to some really wonderful
discussions and I think every one of us participating in the class has had an enriching experience.
But there is a significant problem with the Book of Acts—indeed it is a problem with much of the New Testament—and that is that Acts tells stories that come across as being anti-Semitic. As a result, while reading Acts, I found myself having to confront the history of Christian antisemitism, which historically is among the Christian Church’s greatest sins.
As I read seemingly anti-Semitic stories from the Book of Acts, I tried to be mindful of two things, which I recommend to anyone reading the New Testament. First, it was important for me to read these passages in their literary context. The Book of Acts (like much of the New Testament) recounts stories from the early decades of the Church’s existence, a time when Christianity was separating from the Judaism out of which it was born and becoming a new and distinct religion. That separation was not easy. There were a lot of hard feelings, and we know from reading contemporary Jewish writings that the animosity went both ways.
The author of Acts (like most—if not all—of the New Testament authors) was Jewish. This makes it unlikely that the antisemitic sounding words and stories in Acts were intended to promote a general hatred of all Jews—in fact a close reading of Acts suggests the author’s complaints were against Jewish religious leaders and not against the whole population of Abraham’s children—but there is no question that for centuries the words and stories of Acts have been misappropriated to excuse expressions of hatred toward and violence against Jews generally, particularly in Europe.
This leads me to the second thing about which I tried to be mindful as I read the Book of Acts: I tried to remember how, for nearly two thousand years, Christian anti-Semites have weaponized the Book of Acts (and other parts of the New Testament), using sacred words as texts of violence against Jews. Such a violent reading of Acts is unfaithful to the author’s original intent (I rather suspect Luke would be horrified to know how his words have been twisted), but there is no escaping the fact that Christian anti-Semites—by using the Bible to excuse hatred and violence—have left their mark on the legacy of the Book of Acts and the rest of the New Testament. As a result modern readers of good conscience must be intentional about distancing ourselves from anti-Semitic biblical interpretations when we read the texts.
In the years following the Holocaust every major Christian denomination made an official repudiation of the sin of antisemitism, thanks in large part to the work of the World Council of Churches and the Second Vatican Council. But official repudiations are not enough. Each of us must be responsible to reject antisemitism from our spiritual lives, especially living, as we do, in an era of resurgent antisemitism and white supremacy.
When we read the New Testament understanding its literary context and rejecting the misappropriation of biblical language to fuel hate, we are placing ourselves on the side of angels, the side of those who for thousands of years have understood the power of religion to spread love and to provide hope; and (I dare to think) we are reading the Bible as it was intended to be read.