Common Misconceptions

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

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Since the so-called Protestant Reformation, started by Martin Luther in the 16th century, churches have disagreed on the question of the real presence in the Eucharist. This is where the concepts of "transubtantiation" and "consubstantiation" come in. The former, which is associated primarily with the Roman Catholic Church, is the belief that indeed the bread and wine used in the Eucharist are actually converted into the body and blood of Christ. The latter belief, developed by Luther in opposition to Roman Catholic teaching, states that the wine and bread are not actu­ally transformed, but exist together in union with the body and blood.

Although the theology underlying this practice is alien to Judaism, the origin of this meal is not. The meal in memory of Jesus' death originally was a full meal, not just a piece of bread and a sip of wine (or in some of the newer traditions, grape juice). It finds its origins both in the seder meal celebrated at Passover and in fellowship meals celebrated by first-century Jews.

Christian Anti-Semitism

Finally, is Christianity necessarily anti-Jewish and, if so, does it lead in­exorably to Auschwitz?

No, and no. That the New Testament has anti-Jewish material I do not doubt, but it is equally true that not all Christians read the material as anti-Jewish. Similarly, I do not read the Exodus story as casting a negative shadow on Egyptians today. To limit "Christianity" to the New Testament is no more appropriate than to limit Judaism to our earliest texts.

What about the relationship of Christianity to Germany's Nazi beliefs? In September of 2000, about 170 rabbis and Jewish academics signed a statement called Dabru Emet (Speak Truth ), subtitled, "A Jewish Statement on Christians and Christianity." Among the eight assertions the signatories supported was that Nazism was not a Christian phenomenon. This plank continues to be the subject of often heated discussion.

It is certainly true that the various Christian movements and machers have more than had their anti-Jewish moments, as a flip through the recent bestseller Constantine's Sword powerfully demonstrates And newspaper stories on the recently disclosed Nixon tapes have revealed that even Billy Graham [the influential Protestant evangelist] believed Jews controlled the U.S. media and were a danger to U.S. society.

But for much of history these anti-Jewish voices simply sought to convert Jews. Not so for the Nazis.

The baptized nun was just as Jewish--and therefore just as expendable--as the Hasidic rebbe. The Nazi focus was not Judaism as a belief or practice, it was Jews as a race. Did the various anti-Jewish attitudes inculcated through centuries of Christian preaching, art, and teaching facilitate National Socialism's program? Of course. But was the church a cause of National Socialism? That is a much more difficult claim to make. Indeed, if one were to make this claim, then the numerous righteous gentiles--Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox--who because of their religious beliefs sheltered Jews at the risk of their own lives, become inexplicable.

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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.