The Roots of the Holocaust
In the Church
Junior Honors English
28 March 1994
The Holocaust that engulfed the Jewish people in Europe was the culmination of many centuries of enmity toward Jews. Hitler was able to implement his genocidal program because hatred and persecution of Jews was deeply ingrained in European culture. Historically, much anti-Semitism has had its roots in beliefs promoted by the Christian church, and the basic theology for those views remains influential in the Church today.
Many of the early Church Fathers’ interpretations of Biblical prophecies concerning Israel resulted in suffering for the Israelites (Lindsey 24). Origen, one early Church Father who lived in Alexandria in A.D. 185-254, had a profound impact on the Church with his teachings (Lindsey 7). Origen set up a system of interpreting prophecies that led to the idea that when the Israelites rejected Jesus, they forfeited the covenants made with them by God (Lindsey 8). His teachings led to the beliefs that the Church was the “true Israel,” and the Jews no longer had a future as God’s chosen people (Lindsey 8). Origen’s allegorical method of interpreting Scripture, that is, that Israel symbolized the Church throughout Scriptures, was adopted by the Church; and this idea prevailed during the Middle Ages (Lindsey 7). Augustine, another early Church Father, had a method of interpreting the Bible that was partly rationalistic, partly allegorical and mystical (Lindsey 10). The allegorical interpretation theology, taught by the early fathers of the Church, led to the view that the Jewish people no longer had a reason to exist except to suffer for the death of Messiah (“Christianity” 507). Origen and Augustine had no idea of the implications of their errors in the way they handled Scripture-especially prophecy (Lindsey 17).
The Crusades were military expeditions of European Christendom engaged during the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries. The goal was to retake the Holy Land of Israel from the Muslims and Jews, who were “the enemies of Christianity” (Lindsey 14). The leaders of the Crusades taught to fight to establish the “Kingdom of God on earth.” They believed firmly that they were the “New Israel,” and their divine commission was to drive both the Jews and Muslims from the land of Israel (Lindsey 17). During the first Crusade, there were terrible massacres in every major German city as well as in other parts of central Europe (Lindsey 15). Tens of thousands of Jews were massacred in the name of Christianity (Lindsey 15). One Pope used the Crusades against the Muslims as an occasion to heap blemish on the Jews (Runes 15). During the Second Crusade, a Cistercian monk who preached on the Crusades, while on his way to fight the Muslims, went out and attacked “those who had crucified Jesus” (“Crusades” 15). Soldiers of the Third Crusade immediately began to circulate old anti-Semitic tales about Jews (Lindsey 16). Murderous feelings arose among the lower class of the Crusaders because of the centuries of misguided sermons they had heard, and the images of Jewish people created by the church leadership portraying Jews as being obstinate impostors having no future as a race in God’s plan (Lindsey 14). In 1320 A.D., a group of young men averaging the age of sixteen went on an unauthorized crusade from the north of France to the south, heaping destruction on all the Jewish Communities which they encountered. This shows the effect of home-taught anti-Semitism during this age (Lindsey 16).
During the Crusade period, intense lies were spread about Israel. Jews were accused of plotting against the Christian world (Lindsey 17). One myth that was used as justification for Christian anti-Semitism was that the Jewish dispersion resulted because the Jews rejected Jesus as the Messiah. The truth is that the dispersion occurred several centuries before Jesus lived (Freidman 57). During the Middle Ages the Jews were accused of the Blood-libel, which was the rumor that Jews were murdering Christian children in their acts of ritual worship or in preparation of the unleavened bread which they needed for their Passover Seder (Berenbaum 13). At the same time as the Blood-libel Hoax, the Desecration of the Host accusation was spreading. The host is the consecrated wafer which was believed to be the very body of Jesus. Jews were accused of stealing the cracker, and because they wanted to renew upon Messiah the agonies of the Crucifixion, they supposedly stabbed it, tormented it, and burned it (“Host, Desecration of” 1040-43). It was no coincidence that acts of violence against Jews were often in the spring-the season of Easter and Passover (Berenbaum 13). These deliberate lies, which led to trials and massacres of Jews in the Middle Ages and in early modern times, were revived by the Nazis (“Blood-libel” 534).
The Christian teachings that Jews were evil persisted in the Protestant Reformation and in Martin Luther’s teachings (Berenbaum 14). Of all the fathers of Christianity, Augustine had the most influence on Martin Luther (“Luther, Martin,” The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, 313). During the first period of Luther’s activities, he condemned persecution of the Jews, and he believed that they would accept Christianity after they listened to his teachings. The Jewish people appreciated Luther’s apparent kindliness toward them, but resisted his message. Whether it was because they resisted his messages of “truth” or for some other reason, Luther grew increasingly hostile toward the Jews. He complained that they were stubborn in clinging to their traditional interpretation of Scripture (“Luther, Martin,” Encyclopedia Judaica, 584). He agreed with Augustine and accused them of deliberately failing to understand the Bible (“Augustine” 851). In Luther’s tract written in 1543, he clearly expresses his feelings about the Jews: What then shall we Christians do with this damned rejected race of Jews? Since they live among us and we know about their lying, and blasphemy, and cursing, we cannot tolerate them if we do not wish to share in their lies, curses, and blasphemy. . . Let me give you my honest advice: First, set fire to their synagogues or schools and bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn so that no man will ever again see a stone or cinder of them. This is to be done in honor of our Lord and of Christendom. . . Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed. . . Third, I advise that all their prayer books and Talmudic writings in which such idolatry, lies, cursing, and blasphemy are taught, be taken from them. Fourth, I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach. . . Fifth, I advise that safe-conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews. Sixth, I advise that usury be prohibited to them, and that all cash and treasure of silver and gold be taken from them. . . Seventh, I recommend putting a flail, an ax, a hoe, a spade, a distaff of a spindle into the hand of young, strong Jews and Jewesses, and letting them earn their bread in the sweat of their brow (Lindsey 23). According to the Encyclopedia Judaica, “short of the Auschwitz oven and extermination, the whole Nazi Holocaust is pre-outlined here” (Lindsey 24).
Martin Luther had an immense influence on the Germans and their succeeding history (Shirer 91). Hitler quoted Luther as justification for his acts (Lindsey 24). Luther wanted Germany rid of Jews; Hitler followed his advice (Shirer 236). It was made clear that Hitler agreed with Luther that “this was to be done in the honor of our Lord and of Christendom” when Hitler stated, “I believe I am working in accordance with the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jews, I am fighting for the work of the Lord (Hitler 65).
Support of the religious leaders for Nazism influenced the people towards Hitler (Haynes 30). A Pope during the fourth century said that a mark of perfidy should be on the name and title of every Jew, and a blot should remain upon the children and children’s children of the House of Israel. A Pope during the thirteenth century said a blot should be made visible to all on their clothing. A Pope during the fifteenth century said Jews should be confined to ghettos so they would not soil the Christians around them (Runes 15). When Nazis took German Aryans who were physically or mentally ill and killed them, the ministers spoke out vigorously against it until it was stopped. They never spoke out for the Jews (Haynes 30). The German people claimed they had no knowledge of Hitler’s plans, yet Hitler clearly spelled out his plans for the “annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe” (Lindsey 30). Hitler did not introduce a new idea-he just exploited what was already in the culture. The clergy did not care-not because they were afraid of Hitler-but because anti-Semitism was a deep part of their mentality (Haynes 30).
From Augustine in the fifth century to Luther in the sixteenth century, some of the most persuasive Christian theologians taught that the Jews were rebels against God and murderers of the Lord (Berenbaum 13). The teaching of the Passion narrative and its circumstances with regard to the Jews at the time revived much of the anti-Semitism which had been already present during the past centuries (Freidman 57). The heat of the rage of Christian hatred of the Jews was inspired by one unforgivable crime: the Jews killed Christ. This one “fact” justified whatever was done to them (Berenbaum 13). Enmity towards the people of Israel was expressed in teachings of contempt in churches (Berenbaum 13), and Pope John XXIII (1881-1963) points this out: We realize now that many, many centuries of blindness have dimmed our eyes so that we no longer see the beauty of Thy Chosen People and no longer recognize in their faces the features of our first born brother. We realize now that our brows are branded with the mark of Cain. Centuries has Abel lain in blood and tears, because we have forgotten Thy love. Forgive us the curse which we have unjustly laid on the name of the Jews. Forgive us that, with our curse, we crucified thee a second time (“Traditional Christian Teachings on the Jews” 25).
The view of the Church was that the Jews were clinging to a hope which belonged to the Church. Israel was an impostor, cursed by God (Lindsey 8). The early church fathers taught that God had finished with the Jews whose only purpose was to prepare for the Messiah. The Jews should have left the scene. Their continued survival was an act of stubborn defiance (Berenbaum 13). If the Church was God’s “true Israel” spiritually, then the Jewish people no longer had a reason to exist (“Christianity” 507). Christianity supposedly replaced Judaism, and the teachings of the New Testament “fulfilled” the “Old” Testament. Christians were the New Israel in flesh and spirit, and in their teachings the God of justice was replaced by the God of love (Berenbaum 13). The Church refused to change the way it interpreted Scriptures, which was the true root cause of the problem (Lindsey 17). The Church claimed fulfillment of the promises made to Israel in the Old Testament and placed itself in Israel’s position (“Christianity” 507). Later, this developed into outright anti-Semitism (Lindsey 25).
Today, Dominion Theologists, those who teach that the Church is the “true Israel” and therefore the inheritors of all God’s promises, believe that the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob have no future hope as a distinct people (Lindsey 194). Dominionist interpretation of Bible prophecy is that the Kingdom was taken away from Israel by the New Covenant People (Lindsey 25). Dominion Theologists teach that during the time the Church establishes the Kingdom of God on earth, there will be a number of Israelites converted; however, they do not believe that this will be a national conversion. Their teachings that some Jews will be converted and brought into the Church-the New Israel-eliminates all national distinction for Israel (Lindsey 186). The Biblical prophet Jeremiah prophesied, “Have you noticed that these people are saying, ‘The LORD has rejected the two kingdoms [Israel and Judah] He chose?’ So they despise Thy people and no longer regard them as a nation” (33:24).
Why did all of this persecution come upon Israel? In Deuteronomy, the Lord said that if Israel did not obey His commandments, they would be uprooted from the land they were entering to possess. Jehovah would scatter them among the nations-from one end of the earth to the other. They would find no repose, no resting place for the sole of their foot. And they would live in suspense, filled with dread day and night. They would never be sure of life (Deuteronomy 28:1, 63-66). David Brale gave a summary of the Jewish predicament: From Biblical times to the present day, Jews have wandered the uncertain terrain between power and powerlessness, never quite achieving the power necessary to guarantee long-term security, but equally avoiding, with a number of disastrous exceptions, the abyss of absolute impotence. They developed the consummate skill of living with uncertainty and insecurity (Berenbaum 16). The majority of Israel rejected the light given to them by God and progressively hardened their hearts, so the Lord added to their hardened hearts (Lindsey 172). God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes that could not see, and ears that could not hear to this very day (Deuteronomy 29: 4). Paul asks if they stumbled so far that they could not recover, and replies, “Not at all! Rather, because of Israel’s transgression, salvation has come to the Gentiles to make Israel envious” (Romans 11:11).
According to Berenbaum, Jewish survival is necessary to Christianity. In the end days, a remnant of Israelis is required to affirm Jesus as the Messiah (13). Scripture says that Elijah appealed to God against Israel, saying that they killed His prophets and tore down His altars. Elijah claimed to be the only prophet left, and they were trying to kill him. The Lord answered him and said, “I have reserved for myself seven thousand who have not bowed their knees to Baal.” Paul said that at the present time there is still a remnant chosen by grace (Romans 11:2-5). The true nation of Israel always consisted of physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and the physical believing descendants-the remnant of Israel (Lindsey 165). Jesus said, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the Prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord'” (Matthew 23:37-39).
Nothing that has happened to Israel has taken God by surprise. Israel’s destruction, apostacy as a nation, world-wide dispersion, great persecution, returning to statehood in the land of Israel-he predicted all these long ago. He also predicted just as specifically that He would not forsake the people of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He would restore them as a believing nation to all the things promised to their fathers (Lindsey 192). Paul said, “I say then, did God reject His people? By no means! I am an Israelite myself, a descendant of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin. God did not reject His people whom He fore knew” (Romans 11:1-2). Christian anti-Semitism, then, developed as the result of the view that the Church replaced Israel as God’s Chosen People. The Nation of Israel, the Jewish people, temporarily forfeited the promises made by God that ensured its restoration to the land, though its survival as a race was guaranteed. However, Israel’s unbelief was no surprise to God. He Knew all about it before choosing Israel to be His People. And He has a great purpose for this nation in the future. In Deuteronomy 30:1, 3, and 7, the Lord promises to Israel: “When all these blessings and cursings I have set before you come upon you and you take them to heart, whenever Jehovah your God disperses you among the nations . . . then Jehovah your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you and gather you again from all the nations where He scattered you. And Jehovah your God will put all these curses on your enemies who hate and persecute you.”
- Lindsey, Hal. The Road to Holocaust. New York: Boston Books, 1989.
- Christianity. Encyclopedia Judaica. 1972 ed.
- Runes, Dagobert D. The Jew and the Cross. New York: Philosophical Library, Inc., 1965.
- Crusades. Encyclopedia Judaica. 1972 ed.
- Friedman, Matthew L. The History and Development of Jewish-Christian Relations Internationally Between 1945 and 1964. Unpublished Ordination Thesis to Hebrew Union College. Cincinnati, Ohio. 1991.
- Berenbaum, Michael, Ph.D. The World Must Know. Boston: Litle, Brown and Company, 1993.
- “Host, Desecration of.” Encyclopedia Judaica. 1972 ed.
- “Blood Libel.” Encyclopedia Judaica. 1972 ed.
- “Luther, Martin.” The New Schoff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge. 1910.
- “Luther, Martin.” Encyclopedia Judaica. 1972 ed.
- “Augustine.” Encyclopedia Judaica. 1972 ed.
- Shirer, William L. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1960.
- Hitler, Adolph. Mein Kampf. Trans. Ralph Manheim. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1971.
- Haynes, Brett Katz. Hitler’s Ministers. Case Western Reserve University. Nov. 1993: 27-31.
- “Traditional Christian Teachings on the Jews.” Icebreaker. Jan. 1994: 25.
- Jeremiah 33:24
- Deuteronomy 28:1, 63-66
- Deuteronomy 29:4
- Romans 11:1-11
- Matthew 23:37-39
- Deuteronomy 30:1,3