Common Misconceptions

Christians are not idolators--nor are they inherently anti-Semitic.

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In two previous essays, the author described common Jewish misconceptions about Christianity and explained the historical and cultural context that gave rise to Christianity. In the following article, Levine offers her opinions concerning some of the most controversial Jewish beliefs about Christianity. These essays first appeared in Moment magazine, and were also published in Best Spiritual Writing 2003 (Jossey-Bass). Reprinted with permission of the author.

Christians are not idolators. Statues and icons are like prayer tools: They are the means to the end, which is the worship of God. We may compare this to the kissing of a Torah scroll during a Jewish worship service; the scroll is not divine, but it is honored, and even "dressed" in such a way that an outsider might see it as an idol.non-jews 

Body & Blood

Speaking of errors outsiders sometimes make, consider the matter of what Christians call either the "Eucharist" (Greek for "thanksgiving") or "communion" or "the Lord's Supper." Ask Christians if they believe they are eating the body and blood of Jesus when they take communion. Iron­ically, just as Christians from the Middle Ages until the early 20th century accused Jews of using the blood of Christian children to bake matzah (a charge made by the notorious Nazi anti-Semite Julius Streicher and recently promulgated by some within the Islamic world), so in the early years of the church, Christians were accused by pagans of using blood in their worship services. Christians did not use blood, but they did use the language of blood.

While the idea of consuming blood is considered anathema in Judaism--it is forbidden throughout Jewish tradition--that Jesus might have spo­ken about bread and wine served at his last supper as being his body and blood is not completely odd, when seen in historical context. In the first century, animal sacrifice was a major part of religious culture. Both Jews and gentiles believed in the power of blood to cleanse sin, to honor or ap­pease heaven. Thus--in what is clearly a hyperbolic, extreme statement--Jesus, knowing he was to die, may well have spoken of his body in sacri­ficial terms.

During the Middle Ages, Christian Europeans told stories of Jews steal­ing the sacred bread (called the "host") and sticking pins into it--at which point the bread would bleed real blood. Concurrently, when government-sponsored disputations between Christians and Jews were popular (dispu­tations in which the Jew was inevitably going to lose; when Jews appeared to have gained the audience's sympathy, cartloads of Talmuds were binned), the notion that the "real presence" of Jesus was in the bread and wine eaten during the Christian worship service was a target of Jewish polemic. As one rabbi put it: If Jesus descended to earth to inhabit the bread each time it was consecrated and served, heaven would be full of holes, like cheese.

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Amy-Jill Levine

Amy-Jill Levine is a professor of New Testament studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School, where she also directs the Carpenter Program in Religion, Gender, and Sexuality.