Avoiding Antisemitism in Our Discussion of the New Testament

In my experience there is a deep respect for our Jewish brothers and sisters that permeates LDS culture. But it is also my experience that occasionally LDS members unknowingly fall into antisemitic patterns of language and perspective which have, unfortunately, been connected with Christianity since its earliest times. This year, the LDS church’s course of study has moved out of the Hebrew Bible and is approaching the halfway mark in its study of the New Testament. As we continue to engage the New Testament, it is exceptionally important that we are attentive to, studiously avoid, and actively resist any perpetuation of antisemitic scripts in our worship communities and during our Sunday School discussions.

Here I want to offer a few ways we can do just that. This is not exhaustive but does represent things I’ve experienced at church and other religious settings.

1. “The Jews” – The New Testament tends to cast “the Jews,” (or variously Pharisees, Sadducees, priests, scribes, etc.) in a largely negative light. We need to remember that this is likely attributable to first (or second) century struggles within the early Jewish community as the group of Jesus’s followers began to grow and separate into a distinct sect and/or that it serves as a rhetorical device to build an “us vs them” framework that elevates and brings into stark contrast Jesus’s teachings relative to those who did not follow him.

Suggestion: Just because this is the way it is framed in first (or second) century texts does not mean we need to regurgitate it. At this point, with more than 2,000 years of reflection and scholarship, we modern LDS members should be able to ‘see through’ this rhetoric and be able to understand, and speak in much more nuanced ways about, the characters (and they are just that, in many instances, characters) we encounter in the New Testament so that we can get to the theological point of the story and avoid perpetuating potentially damaging (and untrue) stereotypes.

2. “The Lesser Law” – Supersessionism in its most pernicious form holds that Christians ‘replaced’ the children of Israel as God’s chosen people. Though I have only heard that said out loud at church a few times, I’ve most often heard this viewpoint seep into discussions of the “Lesser Law” (the Law of Moses) and the “Higher Law” (the Gospel of Jesus). The line of argument goes something like this: “’the Jews’ (see my point above) were so unfaithful that God ‘took away’ the higher law and gave them a lesser law, and that with Jesus’s coming and the Restoration we (LDS folks) now have (again) the higher law which is the only path to exaltation and thus we are a chosen people.” I realize that there is some language in the LDS standard works and from General Conference talks that that may (erroneously, in my view) lead some to take this position; yet, it is also true that such language stands alongside scriptures and General Conference talks that also confirm the indisputable realities that during his Earthly ministry Jesus regularly teaches out of the texts that would eventually form the Hebrew Bible,[1] and that many of Jesus’s most radical, transformational teachings can be firmly grounded in identifiable scriptural passages from Ancient Israel (e.g., Matthew 22:37-40 cf. Deuteronomy 6:5, Leviticus 19:17-18). Heck, Jesus even uses verses from the Torah as the basis for not giving into Satan temptations (see Matthew 4:1-11). Further, the New Testament Gospel writers regularly lean on the authority of these ancient texts as a basis for establishing the reality of Jesus’s divine mission (e.g. all the fulfillment citations in Matthew) and as a justification for, and explanation of, Jesus’s Messianic actions. And, finally, scholars—for instance Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler—have shown how, time and time again, Jesus reinforces Torah and earlier prophetic teachings in his sermons rather than dismissing or overriding them (See here and here as a start).[2] Jesus—the Son of God and Savior of the World—was an observant Jew (that is, he lived the Law of Moses) and seemed to have no problem with it—that bears repeating over and over again. In my view, “lesser” and “higher” law language, when used without careful thought, and particularly when we us it in overly broad, sweeping ways, fails to reflect the much more nuanced reality that God works with different people differently.

Suggestion: We modern LDS members need to do the hard work to become attentive to the many ways in which Jesus’s ministry and teachings both supported and got to the core of teachings found in the Hebrew Bible and to avoid unhelpful anachronistic thinking and overgeneralizations. We should expect that there will be differences in how different people, in different times, and different locations worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God works with people in a way that is consistent with their understanding. And rather than looking for how we are different, we should look for the ways in which the Hebrew Bible and New Testament work together to teach us, enlighten us, and ultimately bring us into covenant relationships with God and with each other. This sort of approach should also help us avoid falling into supersessionist language.

3. “Focused on Performances” – One of the key critiques levied against “the Jews” (again see my point above) is that they were overly concerned with the outward ordinances and not with inward commitment. Sometimes, this view is generalized beyond “the Jews” in Jesus’s time to the entire Jewish faith tradition, or even to the entire “lesser law” (see my point above). This view grossly oversimplifies a robust and deeply complex system of belief into caricature of itself that is misleading and untrue. Further, this approach is, at its core, a Straw Man fallacy, that is used to support an unhealthy version of self-congratulatory Christianity that is both arrogant and demonstrates a lack of understanding of the Hebrew Bible. As I have noted elsewhere, ancient prophets like Isaiah, Amos, Hosea, and Micah all state with great force that God requires more than adherence to “specific sacrifices, rituals, feasts, and other religious practices;” God also requires practicing steadfast love, being just, and extending charity to everyone.

Suggestion: If not already clear, I’ll admit that this one makes my blood boil a little. Anyone who says anything like “the lesser law [or Law of Moses] was focused on outward performances,” should be corrected because it is just not true. Throughout the ages following the Lord meant performing ordinances and also learning to have a new heart (see Jeremiah 31:31-34, Ezekiel 36:24-28). Heaven knows that the LDS church has its fair share of ordinances, and it also has a requirement to look beyond those ordinances. That was true in Ancient Israel and it is true today. Sure, it happens sometimes that God’s followers become overly focused on outward performances, but that is true of all of us.

4. “Justice vs Mercy” – As far back the second century, some Christians sought to dismiss the Hebrew Bible as obsolete by asserting that its message of “justice” was “replaced” (see my point above about the dangers of Supersessionism) by Jesus’s message of “mercy.” In fact, one leading early Christian figure, Marcion, even suggested cutting the texts that now comprise the Hebrew Bible out of the Christian scriptural cannon entirely. However, this view only works if one ignores larges sections of the Hebrew Bible. For example, the later chapters of Isaiah (see chapters 56-66), Hosea (see 2:14-23), and Jeremiah (see chapter 36) all contain remarkably moving language about God’s love for, and intention to show mercy toward, the Children of Israel. I use these three examples as the beginning of a wildly incomplete list. The fact is, the Hebrew Bible is full of God’s mercy. Further, as Jeremiah Unterman has shown, the Hebrew Bible is also filled with remarkably progressive social ethics that are expressly concerned with protecting and defending the most vulnerable in our society.[3] Finally, the “justice vs. mercy” framing fundamentally misunderstands some of the ways in which word “justice” (mishpat in Hebrew) is used in the Hebrew Bible (see my brief discussion on this point).

Suggestion: As a faith community that is deeply grounded in the Hebrew Bible, we should not lean on antiquated framing or sloppy overgeneralizations. We need to really read (or re-read if necessary) the Hebrew Bible and pay attention to the many, many ways that God is patient, kind, caring, and merciful to the Children of Israel. And if someone ever says something like, “Jesus came to replace the Old Testament’s focus on justice with a focus on mercy” then correct them. God has always been a God of mercy. Mercy abounds in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament (and, conversely, in the New Testament Jesus delivers some pretty scathing rebukes).

While the above items may seem innocuous to some, in their most extreme forms and most especially when they occur together, they smack of antisemitism. Like I note at the outset, I believe LDS members carry a deep respect for the Jewish community. Yet, we LDS folks also need to be careful about repeating scripts, many of which are millennia old, which have their roots in antisemitic rhetoric and ideologies. Given that the LDS worship community has faced its own challenges with being misunderstood and falsely charged (albeit in a way that pales in comparison to the horrors faced by the Jewish community), we should be sensitive to how important it is to be thoughtful, careful, and respectful when it comes to talking about others or characterizing their beliefs.

[1] In the first century, the Hebrew Bible as we currently know it did not exist. I’m using this language here for brevity. It is clear, however, that the Torah, prophetic teachings, and wisdom sayings (which would eventually be compiled into the Torah, the Nevi’im, and the Kethuvim) were in wide circulation at Jesus’s time and were considered authoritative.

[2] In their analysis of the Sermon on the Mount, and specifically the “antitheses” found in Matthew 5:28-41 (which in my experience is ground zero for this notion of Jesus “replacing” Torah teachings), they show that Jesus was using a known contemporaneous Jewish device for “extending” teachings (not replacing them). See The Bible With and Without Jesus, How Jews and Christians Read the Same Stories Differently, 2020 (Harper One: NY, NY): Pgs. 179-212.

[3] Jeremiah Unterman, Justice for All, How the Jewish Bible Revolutionized Ethics, 2017, (Jewish Publication Society, Univ of Nebraska Press: Lincoln, NE).


  1. A good follow on would be to not get sucked into Evangelical anachronistic takes on the Epistles and to understand the New Perspective on Paul, honor/shame culture, etc.

  2. It is helpful to realize that the story of Barabbas, if it is historical at all, was likely appropriated and retold in the Gospel accounts as an attempt to place the blame for Jesus’ crucifixion firmly on the heads of the Jews. Following the 70 AD sack of Jerusalem, Jews were an anathema in the Roman world. Christians would benefit from some distance from Judaism and would also benefit by providing a sympathetic “milk toast” account of the Roman official who ordered the crucifixion, Pontius Pilate.

    It is important to note that the social and political dynamic within the Jewish world during the life of Jesus was complicated and nuanced. Dualistic thinking can quickly lead us to erroneous conclusions. And within that dynamic we have to factor in the large population of Jews (5+ million) in the broader Roman empire in comparison to the very small segment who had even heard about Jesus (50,000+?). And then there is the extremely small group of temple administrators and a few other leaders who were involved in the conspiracy to murder Jesus of Nazareth. This group was so small that it acted covertly and was fearful of the much larger number Jesus’ devotees.

    It is likely correct that a portion of the conspirators were largely members of the Jewish elite. They utilized the harsh system of Roman “justice” for non-citizens to run their scheme. Pilate is certainly not absolved, regardless of how many times he washes his hands. It is not accurate to conclude that the Jewish people desired the death of Jesus at any time.

  3. I found this post remarkably informative and helpful, not least because of the way you presented the material. I feel that I’ve been called to repentance but not shamed, and that there’s important corrective work to do but that I’ve been shown a productive way forward. Thank you!

  4. Matt McLaughlin says:

    Christianity is profane to Judaism. That’s why you should refer to Christ as post- Judaic once his activities were deemed outside of Judaic practice.

  5. senatorgravett says:

    Great take! I would just add, going the other way, that we also shouldn’t appropriate Jewish culture or religion, which is something I see a lot of. For example, a Seder meal is simply not appropriate as a ward activity. Members should probably not be putting mezuzahs on their door frames. Etc. Etc.

  6. (OP) MDavid says:

    senatorgravett: I couldn’t agree more. My sense is that, generally, folks who do that are likely trying to do so with a sense of respect; but that still doesn’t make it ok.

    Matt: I’m not well-informed enough to speak on behalf of all Christianity or all Judaism–so I can’t respond in total–but I would note that many of the individuals who are Jewish with whom I’ve spoken (or whose books I’ve read) have no problem accepting Jesus as Jewish even if they don’t accepted the Messianic claims associated him. In my view, broad brush strokes rarely reflect the nuance these types of conversations require.

  7. senatorgravett and MDavid,
    I partly disagree with your concerns about appropriation, although I agree that an active Mormon hanging a mezuzah crosses a line. I am acquainted with several Rabbis (one is a close friend) and they would be delighted to lead a discussion/Seder meal at an LDS gathering and have done so in the past. Placing the Seder into cultural context is something they want to see happen. It can be done right, and many Jewish families make real efforts to invite Gentiles to their Seder meals. The Obama’s held Seder Meals in the White House for the staff (there were several Jewish staffers to help keep things in context).

    Matt McLaughlin: Your expression seems extreme. My Jewish friends love breaking down the differences/similarities between the teachings of Jesus and Torah teachings. Much of what Christ said and did makes more sense from a Jewish perspective. Again, the important thing is establishing a respectful and productive dialogue. We should accurately convey the teachings and practices of other faiths.

  8. (OP) MDavid says:

    Anon: Thanks for that important clarification! Certainly, if a Seder is led by/hosted by someone like a Rabbi, Jewish family, Jewish staffer, or other informed individual/group–where the cultural context could be meaningfully and appropriately explained–then that is a horse of of a different color. _More_ of that kind of interaction is needed. Too often, however, it is an entirely Christian group holding the Seder that layers a Christian gloss over the entire affair (thinking here about LDS Seminary classes doing these around Easter, for instance). That’s the kind of thing that I would probably label as improper appropriation (and what I was thinking about in my comment above). Your additional nuance on this point is a welcome addition to this conversation.

    Thank you, also, for your perspectives on Jesus’s connection to Judaism.

  9. senatorgravett says:

    Anon: a rabbi-led Seder would be lovely. I was also thinking of the sort of DIY seders I remember from seminary.

  10. Re point 3: I understand where this claim comes from, and I also understand where the legalistic mindset comes from.

    Unlike many religions, Judaism and Islam are unique in that observationally they are religions that revolve around religious law. (Certain Christian groups can be partially included but can’t be completely included because while they have religious law (usually canon law), it regulates only church issues and doesn’t dictate a person’s entire way of living like Jewish and Islamic religious law.) The law lays down how to live the religion. Furthermore, there’s a strong belief that adhering to the law is fulfillment of obligations and deviating from the law is apostasy. This is because the law is revealed by God and going against the law is going against God. (And this is so entrenched that even Reform Judaism resorts to responsæ on questions related to religion and performance.) Such religious people would turn to those without religious law and consider them lazy, misguided, selfish, self-centered, and even idolatrous (worshiping themselves or ideologies or the world or pleasure rather than subjugating themselves to the strictures of religious law).

    I’m a huge nerd and studying halakhah and shari’ah is a ton of fun.

    Re “The Jews” — goodness. My concentration in college was Judaism and mostly Second Temple Judaism. There were no “The Jews” then. The House of Israel, as it were, was deeply divided into many sects and many factions within the sects. There’s a reason why the New Testament tells us that such-and-such involved a Pharisee or a Sadducee or a Samaritan.

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