As justification for his vile actions, the white Christian nationalist who viciously attacked Jews celebrating Passover in a synagogue in Poway, California, on April 27 posted a manifesto that has been described as “a frighteningly clear articulation of Christian theology.” Some evangelical leaders have sought to dissociate their theologies from that of the shooter’s Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) or to identify the source of his anti-Semitic theology as deviant smut generated by Calvinist internet trolls. Yet, as Ivan Strenski has laid bare here on RD, this terrorist operationalized a supersessionist theology that is widespread among conservative Christians.
Like his theological anti-Semitism, the synagogue shooter’s white nationalist interpretation of the gospels is more popular than most of us would like to think. In his manifesto, the shooter—whose name I will not award recognition—furnished citations of several of the most notoriously troubling passages on Jews in the New Testament.
We don’t need to turn to the particular theology of the OPC or radical online fora to understand the synagogue shooter’s Bible-based vilification of Jews as avaricious money-grubbers who killed Jesus. He could have reached this conclusion from much more mainstream sources—for instance, from an attentive reading of Bill O’Reilly’s New York Times bestseller, Killing Jesus, picked up at his local bookstore.
The wide appeal of the gospel of white nationalists
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More than the theological mind-sludge of an angsty teenage terrorist in a fringe church, the shooter’s rant reproduces anti-Semitic interpretations of the New Testament that are widespread among American conservatives.
Take, for example, the best-selling book on Jesus in recent years, Killing Jesus: A History by disgraced Fox News pundit Bill O’Reilly and sports writer Martin Dugard, both Roman Catholics. When the book was first published in 2013, the New Testament scholar Candida Moss adeptly critiqued its “historical” methodology and entrenched conservative bias, exposing it as “fan fiction.”
O’Reilly and Dugard’s interpretation of the gospels in Killing Jesus was motivated by the same politics of resentment that Trump inherited from the Tea Party—what Bryan Gervais and Irwin Morris identify in Reactionary Republicanism as a politics of fiscal, ethnic/racial, and religious conservatism. It is hard to overstate this book’s significance. It has sold millions of copies, remains on display at book stores around the country, and was turned into a National Geographic/Fox TV movie produced by Sir Ridley Scott and nominated for a Primetime Emmy.
Killing Jesus pits Jesus against Big Government (i.e., taxation, regulations, social welfare), which is represented by a coalition of the Roman Empire and Jewish aristocracy. According to O’Reilly and Dugard, Jesus was killed for protesting taxes that oppressed working-class fishermen and small businesses like Jesus’s “family business,” carpentry. These taxes supposedly bankrolled the luxurious lifestyles of the Roman emperors and Jewish ruling class—a culture the authors reduce to wanton violence and sexual licentiousness (i.e., homosexuality).
This fake history relies on superimposed class, geographical, and racial dichotomies. Jesus and his bootstrapping disciples are good, working-class Jews whereas all other Jews—and especially the Pharisees, Sadducees, and High Priests—are bad, rich Jews obsessed with gaining profits by exploiting the working class. Jesus and his followers are emphatically described as Galilean (the authors repeatedly call Jesus “the Nazarene” to clarify this distinction) and as practicing a pious communal religion and traditional family values. Jews who don’t follow Jesus are not associated with this conservative religion of the northern region of Galilee, but with the money-obsessed, Temple-based religion of the southern region of Judea (the area surrounding Jerusalem).
In other words, in this book Jews like Jesus and his followers (read: Christians) are good conservatives, whereas Jews like the Herodian kings, priests, and Pharisees (read: Jews) are bad money-loving liberals who control Big Government.
The authors take this geographical distinction even further by describing the bodily appearance of Galileans as different from other Jews. Galileans are sturdy, with thick hands and forearms, and leathery, “tanned” skin. In case there were any question that O’Reilly and Dugard want readers to imagine Galileans as white people who get tans from working outside, the first picture they supply of Jesus in the book is Heinrich Hofmann’s Christ in the Temple (1881). The Christ child in the painting [left] has a glowing white, European face and is teaching Jewish leaders who appear as big-nosed, bearded men in exotic, Oriental robes. Together with the geographical distinction, this deeply anti-Semitic painting primes readers to view Jesus and his followers as different in race and class from other Jews—to view them as white, working-class Europeans.
On the very page of their book that features the painting, O’Reilly and Dugard impose their physiognomics of difference onto the account in Luke 2:41-52 of the young Jesus teaching in the temple:
“If anyone thinks it odd that a smooth-cheeked, simply dressed child from rural Galilee should be sitting alone among these gray-bearded rabbis, with their flowing robes and encyclopedic knowledge of Jewish history, they are not saying. In fact the opposite is true: Jesus’s understanding of complex spiritual concepts has astonished the priests and teachers. They listen to his words as he speaks and treat him like a savant.”
Though distinguished in Killing Jesusby its infusion with class politics, this Galilean/Judean geographical and racial dichotomy has a long legacy among theologians. The nineteenth-century French Catholic philosopher Ernest Renan famously argued in his Life of Jesus(1863) that “The North [i.e., the Galilee] alone has made Christianity: Jerusalem, on the contrary, is the true home of that obstinate Judaism which founded by the Pharisees, and fixed by the Talmud, has traversed the Middle Ages and come down to us.” Renan was one of the first of the European nationalists to argue that the Semitic race was inferior to the Indo-European race. In The Aryan Jesus, Susannah Heschel has identified Renan’s racial turning point: for the French nationalist, Jesus’s protest against the money-changers at the Temple somehow proved that “Jesus was no longer a Jew.”
As Halvor Moxnes has shown in Jesus and the Rise of Nationalism, Renan consistently romanticizes the Galilean north as a verdant paradise while reproaching the area around Jerusalem as barren and stony. O’Reilly and Dugard clearly echo Renan when proclaiming Nazareth “a wondrous place” where “figs and olives grow fat on the trees.
Interestingly, the movie version of Killing Jesus conveys the same conservative politics, but with different racial codes. O’Reilly served as an Executive Producer for the film, which was made by Ridley Scott’s production company as Fox was absorbing National Geographic in 2015. Importantly, this was one of Scott’s first projects after receiving substantial criticism for hiring white actors to play Egyptians in Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014). In response to this criticism, Scott hired actors of Arab, African, and Indian descent for Killing Jesus. The Lebanese-American actor Haaz Sleiman was even cast as Jesus. But here’s the rub: while Scott hired people of color to play Jesus and his disciples, he hired white actors of European descent to portray the Roman elites, Herodian kings (Kelsey Grammer—Frasier himself—is Herod!), Jewish high priests, and the traitor Judas Iscariot.
While Scott’s decision to hire non-white actors for Jesus and his disciples might appear as a liberal, or even radically liberal, reimagining of O’Reilly and Dugard’s book, it’s actually a nefarious decision. Instead of Jesus and his followers representing white conservatives protesting liberal Big Government, in the film it’s people of color who are protesting white, liberal Big Government. In other words, the film uses race as a conservative platform for showing that people of color are opposed to structures of Big Government that white liberals have imposed on them. This is the ultimate conservative fantasy: to have some of the most visible marginalized groups that government programs are intended to help proclaiming that it’s Big Government that’s oppressing them!
The Killing Jesus book and film are symptomatic of a widespread white nationalist framework for biblical interpretation and fake history. Through political allegories that imagine Jesus as a champion of Small Government, anti-Semitic interpretations of the New Testament have enjoyed wide circulation among American conservatives (and not just fundamentalists). Ben Lorber, in his incisive recent piece on RD, has shown that the synagogue shooter’s conflation of “cultural Marxism” with Jews achieves validation through the anti-socialist rhetoric of Trump and his Fox News apparatus. Media like O’Reilly and Dugard’s book represent a current imbrication of this anti-socialism and anti-Semitism on white nationalist biblical interpretation.
Confronting anti-Judaism in the New Testament
In the aftermath of the Poway synagogue shooting, a number of evangelical leaders responded that Christians need to confront and correct Christianity’s legacy of anti-Semitism. But their remarks often suggest that they’d rather explain it away than confront it. The evangelical pastor Chad Woolf, for instance, explains that he replaces “Jews” with “religious leaders” in anti-Jewish biblical passages, because “Saying ‘the Jews’ without any distinction, to me, has too much anti-Semitic baggage.”
This is too easy. By proclaiming that the shooter’s biblical theology was unusual and attempting to whitewash anti-Judaism in the New Testament, conservative Christians validate and perpetuate contemporary anti-Semitism. When we ignore anti-Judaism in the New Testament, we normalize it and give credence to sinister anti-Semitic interpretations like O’Reilly and Dugard’s.
The synagogue shooter provided a catena of New Testament passages in his manifesto as though it amounted to a self-evident justification for murdering Jews. Like other white nationalists, he defended his actions through fake history derived from cherry-picked sources hijacked from their literary and historical contexts. As a professor of Early Christianity, it has never been clearer to me how badly educators and clergy need to work together to contextualize these passages and critically destabilize their violent repercussions from antiquity to today.
The shooter cited five texts: 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16(“Jews who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets”); Matthew 27:24-25 (“the people as a whole answered, ‘His blood be on us and on our children!’”); John 8:37-45 (“Jesus said to them [“the Jews”], … You are from your father the devil”); Revelation 2:9 and 3:9 (“those of the synagogue of Satan who say that they are Jews and are not”).
Each text raises numerous textual, theological, and historical questions, but what matters most for interpreting their perspectives on Jews is that they were all written by Jewish authors before there was a religion known as “Christianity”—during a historical phase that Paula Fredriksen lucidly illuminates in her new monograph, When Christians Were Jews. The only two New Testament books that even use the title “Christian” (Acts 11:26; 26:28; 1 Peter 4:16) present the term as a label applied by outsiders. This is not to deny that the shooter’s proof-texts use anti-Jewish language, but to acknowledge that their authors fit into a broad Jewish matrix and their texts originally addressed specific groups of Jews rather than all Jews.
The apostle Paul spoke to the Thessalonians about an incident involving a group of Jews in Judea; Matthew indicted Jerusalem’s Jews; and the author of Revelation likely condemned certain Christ-following groups who identified as “Jews” as “the synagogue of Satan.” The only one of these texts that seemed to have “all Jews” in mind is John. This gospel has a complex view of those it calls “the Jews.” On the one hand, as the Jewish New Testament scholar Adele Reinhartz observes in her article “The Gospel of John: How the ‘Jews’ Became Part of the Plot,” it has a very Jewish “feel,” with its focus on the Jewish calendar and institutions and on Jesus as the Jewish messiah. On the other, it repeatedly vilifies “the Jews” and their law and accuses them of throwing Jesus’s followers out of synagogues.
As Reinhartz puts it, we cannot let the gospel of John “off the hook” for its anti-Judaism. “It is not possible to explain away the negative presentations of Jews…. Any honest and engaged reading of the Gospel must surely acknowledge, and lament, the presence of these themes.” It is typical for well-intentioned Christians to conclude that John’s anti-Judaism was caused by Jews expelling them from their synagogues, but this is victim-blaming and accepts expulsions that do not have a clear historical basis as factual.
Instead of blaming Jews for the anti-Jewish sentiments in John and these other texts, it’s useful to recognize how their anti-Judaism was facilitated by their broader geopolitical context. According to most scholars, John, like Matthew and Revelation, was written in the decades following the “First Jewish Revolt” against Rome which climaxed with the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE.
Whereas anti-Judaism occurred mainly in isolated incidents prior to 70 CE, after this time, an empire-wide discourse against the Jews emerged. This anti-Jewish discourse was initiated by the administration of the Flavian emperors who sought to inflate their military victory over the Jews as legitimation for their rule. It was spread through literary invectives and iconographic representations, such as a series of coins which depicted dejected Jewish captives surrounded by the words “Judea captured.” On top of facing new waves of anti-Judaism as punishment for a minor provincial revolt involving a fraction of the empire’s Jews, Jews across the empire now had to pay a special tax to Rome just for identifying as Jewish. Traditional paradigms treat the late-first century as a period of Christian persecution, but there is little historical basis for this and it is all literary; the persecution of Jews, however, is documented in literary texts, coins, statues, inscriptions, and tax receipts from the late first century.
This surge of anti-Judaism induced a split between Christ-followers and other Jews. Instead of embracing their Jewish roots, certain communities of Christ-followers started to participate in the imperial discourse against Jews while at the same time exonerating the Romans for killing Jesus. Sociologically, this move enabled Christ-followers to dissociate themselves from an increasingly marginalized people while repressing any anti-Roman sentiments, or the appearance thereof.
The heyday of the white nationalist Bible
In the context of increasing anti-Jewish sentiments across the Roman empire, it was politically expedient for the gospel writers to blame Jews instead of Romans for killing Jesus. Understanding this context is crucial for modern readers because it explains the motives of ancient followers of Christ without validating them and without falsely placing blame on Jews and other oppressed groups. Ironically, white nationalists like the synagogue shooter envision Jews as a rich, greedy people seeking world domination through financial means; yet, in the late-first century CE, Christ-followers sought to distance themselves from Jews precisely because they were marginalized and had to pay extra taxes.
At the same time, focusing on the historical context of anti-Judaism in New Testament texts reminds us that geopolitical shifts are often fueled by prejudicial discourses, which, when left unchecked, provoke hatred and violence. The synagogue shooter may have attended a non-Zionist church and rejected Trump as a Zionist, but this should not lead us to sharply distinguish his anti-Semitism from that of other Christian conservatives (keeping in mind that Christian Zionism is not akin to a favorable view of Jews but is instead predicated on a Christian supremacist scenario in which Israel and Jews will be annihilated at Armageddon). Indeed, the shooter was empowered by broad discourses of thinly-veiled white nationalism and Christian nationalism that have enjoyed more currency than ever among conservatives in the post-truth maelstrom of the age of Trump.
Conservative interpretations of the New Testament like O’Reilly and Dugard’s Killing Jesuspromote white Christian nationalism. The sooner we recognize how prevalent these insidious forms of white nationalist biblical interpretation are in our churches, media, and political discourse, the sooner that we can counter this latest scourge of anti-Semitism.