On Saturday, October 27, 2018, a gunman entered the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and murdered at least eleven people in what is being called the worst anti-Jewish attack in US history. The victims were observing the biblical commandments of Shabbat and a new baby’s brit milah (covenant of circumcision) when they were slaughtered. The murderer had reportedly published many antisemitic online posts, including this one claiming to quote the Bible: “jews are the children of satan. (john 8:44) – –- the lord jesus christ is come in the flesh.”
Anti-Jewish hatred and murder of this type are by no means new in history. As Joshua Trachtenberg wrote in a classic study, Christian literature of the Middle Ages expresses anti-Jewish hatred “so vast and abysmal, so intense, that it leaves one gasping for comprehension…. all [of Christian popular literature] painted the Jew as the fount of evil, deliberately guilty of unspeakable crimes.” He goes on to explain that, already in ancient times, Christian preachers insisted that “the Jews do not worship God but devils”; later preachers, writers, and artists portrayed Satan and the Jews as virtually identical, interchangeable, eternal enemies of the Church and Christianity. “New Testament” texts these medieval Christians cited to justify their anti-Judaism often included John 8:44 and Revelation 2:9 and 3:9 (The Devil and the Jews: The Medieval Conception of the Jew and Its Relation to Modern Anti-Semitism, 12, 20-21).
Such anti-Jewish hatred frequently led to horrific persecutions and murders in the Middle Ages as well as later. To give just one example among a myriad, in 1453 “Saint” John of Capistrano ordered dozens of Jews in his town stripped naked, tied to boards, and (according to a contemporary witness) “then at his command four executioners ripped out pieces of their flesh with atrocious iron spikes and threw the pieces into the cauldrons to burn there.”
In the Bible, the people of Israel are the children of God and his chosen nation (see, e.g., Exod 19:5; Deut 14:1-2; Jer 31:20; Hos 11:1; Amos 3:2). So how did we Jews come to be portrayed as “the children of Satan” in Christian preaching, teaching, literature, and art? Many books have been written on this topic, but the answer can be summarized in two words: translation and theology. Flawed and sometimes malicious translations and interpretations of the Bible described all Jews as “the synagogue of Satan” and “the children of Satan.” The original texts don’t actually say those things at all when understood in their proper linguistic and historical contexts, but to this day masses of people are still strongly influenced by those same mistranslations and misinterpretations.
These things represent one very sobering reason why we at the Israel Bible Center take issues of translation and interpretation seriously, devoting time and resources in an attempt to help remedy some of the errors of the past. Though often perceived as “quibbling over semantics,” in reality these are vital issues with fateful and often tragic real-world effects. Yet if we can somehow penetrate through all the accumulated mistranslation and misinterpretation of centuries, perhaps we can also find that ancient wisdom for which the Pittsburgh synagogue itself is named: “a tree of life to those who take hold of her” (Prov 3:18).