The Jews in Luke-Acts

Written by Jack T. Sanders Reviewed By I. Howard Marshall

The Gospel of Luke was once described (sarcastically) as ‘the most beautiful book in the world’, and many have found it to be marked by a strong humane concern for the poor and the outcast. There was, however, we are told, a kindly side to Hitler that co-existed with his bitter hatred of the Jews. J. T. Sanders argues powerfully—and at times vehemently—in this book that Luke too had ‘a fundamental and systematic hostility’ (the word is not too strong!) towards the Jews in general because they crucified Jesus and opposed the church, and that he must be regarded as a virulent anti-Semite. He makes his case in a detailed scholarly argument that shows him to be thoroughly au fait with modern study of Luke and bold enough to challenge and disagree with many received opinions. Some readers may well be put off from reading it to the end because of its iconoclastic stance and may react sharply against an author who shows no reverence or respect for Luke. Although Sanders is in my opinion liable to occasional excesses of language against Luke, his book must be evaluated in terms of its arguments.

Briefly, the book falls into three parts. First of all, Sanders looks at Luke’s treatment of various groups of people in Luke-Acts. He claims that Luke has sharpened the picture of the hostility of the Jewish leaders to Jesus which he found in his sources; in particular, Luke gives the impression that the Jews themselves crucify Jesus and not the Romans—Pilate hands Jesus over to them … and they lead him away.… Similarly, in Acts, nearly all hostility to the church comes from the Jews. Jerusalem is uniformly hostile to Jesus, and so God’s judgment is declared against it. As for the Jewish people, Sanders makes an interesting distinction between the picture of them in the speeches and in the narrative. In the discourse material there is a blanket rejection of ‘the Jews’ (here Sanders sides with Hanechen against Jervell), but in the narrative there is a development in their attitude to Jesus and the Christians from initial favour to total rejection. Correspondingly, the emphasis is increasingly on the way in which the offer of the gospel is withdrawn from them; it is presented to them only in order that their rejection of it may be registered, until eventually the final rejection of the Jews and the end of any mission to them is signalled in Acts 28. Within this picture the Pharisees occupy a remarkable role. Luke presents them as more friendly to Jesus and the church than do other writers. Yet they are guilty of legalism and hypocrisy. He uses them in the Gospel as a ‘type’ of the Jewish Christians of his own day in the church who were similarly hypocritical in insisting that Gentile Christians should keep the ritual of the law. Luke himself argued that Gentiles should not keep the whole Jewish law but rather only those specific enactments laid down by God for them in Lev. 17–18. Between the Jews and the Gentiles lies a peripheral zone inhabited by outcasts, Samaritans, proselytes and God-fearers whom Luke sees as a kind of transitional group through whom salvation passes from the Jews to the Gentiles.

Second, Sanders gives a running commentary on significant passages in Luke and Acts to show how the story develops and to pick up points not covered in the thematic analysis. There is new material here to support his thesis but inevitably also some repetition of points previously made.

Finally, Sanders asks questions concerning Luke’s motives in presenting the story of the Jews and Christianity in such an admittedly tendentious fashion, making full use of what has been called his ‘gift of invention’ (‘Luke dislikes the Pharisees enough to slander them’). He denies that there was sufficient actual persecution of Christians by Jews to justify Luke’s attacks, and finds the solution in Jewish opposition to Christianity from outside and Jewish-Christian opposition to Gentiles within the church; here he comes close to positions espoused much more temperately by E. Trocmè and R. Maddox.

Although Sanders professes to be carrying out an historical enquiry, he does not consider sufficiently how far the attitudes of which he accuses Luke were already prevalent at an earlier date. He agrees that the Temple leadership was behind the execution of Jesus, but he does not ask how far Luke is simply emphasizing a point already in his sources. For example, he cites various Q sayings in Lk. as evidence of the Evangelist’s position, without taking sufficiently into account that the attitudes he castigates were present in Q and, as I would claim, in Jesus. He is all too ready to regard the picture of the growth of Jewish hostility to Christians as Luke’s literary scheme and to ignore the question whether it is not in fact a reliable historical reflection of the situation. (It is high time that more scholars questioned this assumption that Luke exercised uncontrolled freedom in inventing his material. An important step in the right direction has been taken by G. Lüdemann in Das frühe Christentum nach den Traditionen der Apostelgeschichte [Göttingen, 1987]. For all his critical attitude towards certain elements and features of the story in Acts, he shows that a remarkable amount of the story is based on reliable tradition.) Insufficient consideration is given to the development of strongly nationalist and hence anti-Gentile attitudes during the run-up to the Jewish war. In short, Sanders does not take sufficiently seriously the fact that Luke may well be describing the kind of situation that actually existed in the pre-ad 70 period when there was Jewish hostility to the church and Christians lived in fear of it.

Strong language is not of course unknown among other first-century Christians; Paul can say sharp words against the people he regarded as his opponents—and with specific reference to the Jews in 1 Thes. 2:14–16! The question then becomes one (as Sanders would doubtless agree) of the general Christian attitude in the first century. Were Christians justified in lumping together ‘the Jews’ or ‘the Jewish leaders’ or ‘the Pharisees’ and making blanket statements of condemnation against them? Part of the situation is certainly that Christians did believe that rejection of Jesus as the Messiah cut off the Jews from belonging to the people of God (and prevented Gentiles from entry). They, therefore, saw no future for ‘the Jews’ as God’s people and claimed that they themselves constituted the new Israel. But, as Sanders must agree, the door was never closed to individual Jews to accept the Messiah. Paul, who foresaw the judgment that would come upon the Jews for unbelief, longed passionately for their salvation. Would Luke have shared that feeling or is Sanders correct when he attributes to Luke the opinion that ‘the world will be much better off when “the Jews” get what they deserve and the world is rid of them’? But while Sanders does find a note of sadness in Lk. 13:34, he entirely fails to find any such note in Lk. 19:41–44. One must ask, then, whether Sanders confuses the theological judgment that ‘the Jews’ are no longer the Israel of God with anti-Semitism. If Luke says that Jews who reject the gospel thereby side with the members of the Sanhedrin who condemned Jesus to death, is that ‘hostility’ to the Jews? Is the problems perhaps that Sanders thinks that to affirm that certain people who have rejected Christ stand under divine judgment is to show hostility to them and that Christians should never offer such a verdict? To say that any NT writer is opposed to the Jews as such is unjustified. It is another thing to say that Jews who reject Christ and the church and the admission of Gentiles to the church stand under judgment and to recognize that the majority of the Jews to whom the gospel was presented did reject it. That is not hatred of the Jews. No doubt too, one should take into account the ways in which the Jewish opposition to Christians was expressed; what we may loosely call ‘anti-Gentilism’ existed, and in that context some kind of Christian response was inevitable, possibly expressed more sharply than would be considered appropriate in the twentieth century.

There are, of course, many exegetical points where different judgments are possible and even probable. Sanders has great difficulty with the centurion at the cross (who is clearly a Roman) when he argues that the execution squad consisted of Jewish soldiers. He does not give adequate weight to the way in which Jesus does go to Jewish outcasts and the church does preach the gospel to Jews with considerable positive response. When he accuses Luke of slandering the Pharisees as greedy people, he pays insufficient attention to the evidence that the accusation was justified. Several of his arguments seem to me to be rather artificial and Procrustean, but space does not permit discussion of them.

Although, then, Sanders writes with much learning and ingenuity, so that one cannot read his book without gaining fresh insights, in the end I find this thesis improbable. What is to be commended, however, is his expose of the nature of anti-Semitism. Even if we reject his verdict that Luke is guilty of it, his work implicitly summons us to examine our own attitudes lest we be unconsciously guilty of it.

I. Howard Marshall

I. Howard Marshall
University of Aberdeen
Aberdeen, Scotland, UK