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Jews as children of the devil?

9 May 2024

For years, New Testament texts about Jews have been interpreted in a literal way. This includes, for example, texts where Jews are associated with the devil, or the well-known verse "his blood be on us and on our children" (Mat 27:25). This led to stereotypical depictions of Jews, in writing and images, in which Jews, for example, are said to use blood of Christian children for their rituals, and poison wells. Today, such public depictions and statements are considered unacceptable. However, that doesn’t mean that such stereotypical images have disappeared. Can biblical scholarship help to counter this?

Professor of Jewish Studies

Medieval representations of Jews 

In 1943, Joshua Trachtenberg published the book The Devil and the Jews. The Medieval Conception of the Jew and its Relation to Modern Antisemitism. In his book, Trachtenberg argues that all negative medieval ideas about Jews go back to one basic idea: that Jews are children of the devil. This idea has disastrous consequences. If Jews are children of the devil, or, conversely, if the devil is their father, this means they are fundamentally different and should not be treated as fellow human beings. They are actually humans in disguise. In the Middle Ages, the depiction of Jews as children of the devil was often accompanied by other libels: that Jews would use blood from Christian children for their rituals; that they would poison wells and thus cause diseases; that they would steal and pierce the sacred host to see whether it would bleed, or to kill Jesus anew; and that they are infact animals. 

Jews as devils and animals  

An extreme representation of this is the so-called Judensau (Jewish sow): an image of a sow suckling a group of Jews and more rude representations. Images like these were common on churches and other buildings in German-speaking areas between the 13th and 16th centuries. Many of these Judensäue are still there. The image below, shows a reproduction of such a Judensau with the devil (source: Wikimedia Commons):

Jüdensau engraving from the 18th century, based on a 1475 painting on the Brückenturm (bridge tower) in Frankfurt am Main. Above: the martyrdom of Simon of Trent. Below: a horned devil wearing a Jewish ring watches a Jewish woman riding a ram and a Jewish man riding a sow backwards. Another man places his mouth at the sow's anus while that sow is suckling a Jewish child. The image, along with the tower, is no longer present.

The identification of Jews (or other groups) with animals happens to the present day. Just think of the "popular" conspiracy theory that states that "reptiles" rule the world, often referring indirectly to Jews. 

Jews as children of the devil in the Gospel of John 

Where do such strange ideas come from? According to Trachtenberg, even in the Middle Ages, these were not necessarily based on disturbed relations between Christians and Jews. Rather, they were stereotypical representations, unfortunately often based on biblical texts. The most famous of these texts is John 8:44. According to this gospel, Jesus says that Jews who did not believe in him "belong to their father, the devil." I will quote this verse with some context. 

"Abraham is our father,” they answered. “If you were Abraham’s children,” said Jesus, “then you would do what Abraham did. As it is, you are looking for a way to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. Abraham did not do such things. You are doing the works of your own father.” “We are not illegitimate children,” they protested. “The only Father we have is God himself.” Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I have come here from God. I have not come on my own; God sent me. Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.(Source: John 8:39-44, NIV)

This passage is very dense with information and allows for many interpretations and conclusions. In John, Jesus' criticism seems to be directed specifically at the Pharisees (8:13), or at Jews who do not believe in him (8:30-31). This involves an internal Jewish debate in which harsh language is used. The context also regularly refers to "the Jews" without further nuance (8:22,48). According to 8:39-42, Jews are said not to be children of Abraham or even children of God. Such a reading goes beyond discrediting Jews because of their unbelief in Jesus: it argues that (these) Jews, from the beginning, even before the New Testament, were not the real children of God; and not even the actual children of Abraham. This makes the promises of the Tanakh conditional on belief in Jesus. We find a similar rhetoric in Revelation 2:9 and 3:9. There, the gathering of Jews who do not believe in Jesus is called "synagogue of Satan," and they themselves "not Jews,” i.e., Jews who call themselves Jews but are not true children of Abraham and not true children of God. 

Early and later interpretations of John 8  

In the context of John's Gospel, the words about the children of the devil are rhetorical; they are part of a dispute between different groups of Jews. These words that are attributed to Jesus are exaggerated by the author to make a point. Rhetoric is not the same as truth. However, in a later situation, without the context of this intra-Jewish dispute, it is not difficult to ignore the rhetoric and read in this passage a claim of truth: Jews are not true children of God and of Abraham, as the Hebrew Bible testifies, but children of the devil instead. Because of this, they also cannot help that they are evil, they can’t change.  

What may happen when such texts are taken as facts can already be read in sermons by the fourth-century archbishop Chrysostomus. In his warning to Christians who enjoyed going to Jewish synagogues, Chrysostomus argues that going to the synagogues of the Jews and celebrating holidays with them means celebrating with demons, because whoever kills the son of God can only be a demon. 

Many centuries later, Martin Luther used a similar rhetoric. In his very anti-Jewish writing On the Jews and Their Lies, we find all the medieval anti-Jewish accusations, up to and including poisoning wells and drinking the blood of Christian children. He sees in these stories the confirmation of Jesus' characterisation of the Jews as children of the devil according to John 8:39-44. The Jews should not live among Christians, he writes, "while yet we treat no one so well, and at the same time suffer from no one so much as from those wicked children of the devil, that brood of vipers." 

Dangerous use of biblical texts 

When Rabbi Trachtenberg wrote his book in the United States in 1943, he knew about the persecution of Jews in Europe but did not yet know about its extreme manifestations in the Holocaust. He understood that Christian anti-Jewish expressions were the  result of deep-rooted ideas and stereotypes, many of which unfortunately go back to interpretations of biblical texts. The most harmful of these is the dehumanisation of Jews as children of the devil. More than eighty years after Trachtenberg, and almost eighty years after the end of World War II, the devil is still popular in this context: many conspiracy theories refer to satanic practices that involve drinking blood and sacrificing children: all things Jews were accused of in the Middle Ages. Even today, Jews are often the target of such theories. Recent examples include two cases of anti-Semitic attacks in the United States: at the anti-Semitic rally in Charlotteville in 2017, posters with John 8:31-47 were seen, as well as the text "Jews are children of Satan," and the social media profile of the gunman who killed 11 people in the Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018 also featured John 8:44. 

Can biblical scholarship counter this?  

As biblical scholars, we should be very alert at the use of biblical texts in violent, racist and anti-Semitic contexts. We should not “interpret away” the potentially dangerous connotations of these texts. At the beginning of this blog, I referred to John's gospel as a rhetorical text. The author had a specific intention with his argument: namely, to convince (other) Jews of his time to join the new covenant and accept Jesus as son of God and messiah. By his words he also warned against what would happen if you would not want to follow this path. Therefore, the words the author of the gospel puts in Jesus' mouth are primarily John's rhetoric and may not even go back to the historical Jesus. Later, this gospel, along with the rest of the New Testament books, was canonized as the "word of God." For many, this means that it conveys an eternal, unchanging truth, independent of historical or literary context. This was the case with the Church Fathers, and with Luther, and even today there are still people who use the Bible in this way. Especially when this is done with negative intentions, it can have very harmful consequences. 

Academic Biblical scholarship has developed tools to recognise literary genres in Biblical texts, such as rhetoric, and disputation. We can use these tools to warn against fundamentalist use of Biblical texts, but also of the writings of, for example, Chrysostom and Luther, especially where this has potentially very dangerous effects.  

Lieve Teugels is Marko Feingold fellow at Paris Lodron University in Salzburg, Austria, until the end of this year. Her assignment is to research anti-Semitism in pre-modern times. In that context, she examines Christian anti-Jewish images, iconographically and in texts. One of the connections that often comes up in those images is the connection between Jews and the devil.


  1. Joshua Trachtenberg and Marc Saperstein, The Devil and the Jews: The Medieval Conception of the Jew and Its Relation to Modern Anti-Semitism, 2nd edition. (reprint: Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2002). 
  2. Adele Reinhartz: 
  3. Kathleen Gallagher Elkins, “The Jews as “Children of the Devil” (John 8:44) in Nazi Children’s Literature. Biblical Interpretation, 31/3 (2022), 374-390.