Did Jews Kill Prophets? – OpEd


Gabriel Said Reynolds, a Professor of Islamic Studies and Theology at Notre Dame University, wrote an article “On the Description of the Jews as ‘Killers of the Prophets’ in the Qurʾān,” in the Journal al-Bayān 10 (2012), ps 9-34 stating “A prominent element of the Qur’ān’s material on the Jews is its report that the Israelites killed prophets sent to them. 

“The Qur’an does not describe the killing of any particular prophet, nor does it attempt to prove in any other way that the Jews have killed the prophets. Instead the Qur’an seems to consider it common knowledge that the Jews have done so as it makes certain inter-religious arguments in this light. However, on the basis of the Hebrew Bible the prominence of this theme in the Qur’an hardly makes sense. None of the great prophets in the Hebrew Bible are killed by the Israelites. 

“This theme emerges from the post-biblical traditions which describe how some Jews killed the prophets whom God sent to them. These traditions are found already in Jewish texts, and they lead Christian authors-including New Testament authors – to connect the Jewish persecution of Christian believers with their earlier persecution of the prophets who predicted the coming of Jesus. This connection is prominent in the anti-Jewish literature of many Syriac Christian authors. The manner in which the Qur’an employs the theme of Jews as killers of the prophets is closely related to that literature.”

As a Rabbi I ask What does the accusation that in the past “The Jews Killed The Prophets” really mean? Actually, Jewish priests originated the accusation, the Essenes sect elevated martyrdom of prophets, Orthodox Rabbis and Christian polemicists often used the incident of the golden calf in place of it, and Muslim polemicists returned to the Jewish priests original view of it. 

A wonderful insight provided by the Islamic tradition is the statement found in the Hadith collections of Musnad Ahmad and Tabarani that God sent 124,000 prophets to humanity. Even more amazing, this very large number comes from the Islamic tradition; which is based on only one man, Prophet Muhammad, who transmitted only one Sacred Scripture, the Qur’an. 

The “124.000 prophets” number flows from the Qur’an’s teaching that God sent one or more prophets to every human society in the world, from smallest to largest, to teach them in their own language: “We have not sent any Messenger except with the language of his people so he can make things clear to them. (Qur’an 14:4)

Since there are over 7,000 languages currently spoken, (over-1,000 Native North American languages (comprising over 100 language families alone); and another 10,000+ that were spoken over the previous 6,000-10,000 years and are now extinct, all human societies have been taught the way God wants each of them to conduct their Divine worship (Qur’an 21:25), and the moral behavioral rules they should observe (Qur’an 16:90-92). 

Yet only a few on-going monotheistic religions are known to us. Thus, the vast majority of Allah’s prophets were either ignored, rejected or killed by their own people. Tragically, most of Allah’s Prophets were ignored, rejected, persecuted or, as was the case with the Rass; killed. (Qur’an 25:38) As Al-Thalabi states:”There were many prophets in their midst (the Rass), but they slew every prophet who rose among them.” (Al-Thalabi p.248)

The Talmud (Megillah 14a) states there were 48 male and 7 female Jewish Prophets plus many unnamed prophets Quran 40:78: “We did send Prophets before you (O Mohamed) of them there are some whose story We related to you, and some whose story We have not related to you”.) so we should not be surprised that the Qur’an states nine times that even the Jews killed prophets. 

For example “And when it is said to them (Jews), “Believe in what Allah has sent down,” they say, “We believe in what was sent down to us [the Torah].” And they disbelieve in that which came after it [Gospel and Qur’an], while it [the Qur’an] is the truth confirming what is with them [the Torah]. Say (to them Muhammad): “Why then have you killed the Prophets of Allah previously, if you indeed were [faithful] believers?” (2:9, also see 2:61, 3:112, 3:31 and 3:183)

The statement that Jews killed the prophets also appears three times in the New Testament: Jesus  said “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you.” (Luke 13:34); Paul writes that the Jews “killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets…” (1 Thessalonians 2:14-15); and the Book of Acts reports Stephen as declaring, just before his martyrdom: “Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One [Jesus].” (Acts 7:52)

 And of course there was the actual example in the Gospels of the Jewish King Herod as a killer. The Herodians had already done away with Jesus’ cousin John when he criticized their personal family affairs (Mark 6:17-29). Now “King Herod heard [reports about Jesus’ healing and teaching] for Jesus’ name had become [well] known. Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers work in him [Jesus].” But others said, “It is Elijah.”  And others said, “It is a prophet like one of the prophets of old.” But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has returned to life.” (Mark 6:14-16)

So while Herod killed Prophet John, and a high priest sent Prophet Jesus to be executed by the Romans;  and two Biblical Jewish kings killed one prophet each; the overwhelming majority of Jews were inspired by, and have preserved their prophet’s words for the whole world’s benefit to this very day. The truth is that only two Jewish Kings did kill a Prophet; but the great majority of the Jewish People respected the prophets even when the prophets were chastising them. 

Yet over the centuries these exaggerated claims of killing the prophets have been used, by many Christians and occasionally by some Muslims who hated Jews, to incite and justify attacks on the local Jewish communities of their own days. So it is important to explain both the Christian and the Islamic verses. I will also explain three additional verses that make a similar charge that come from the Hebrew Bible itself and a second century BCE text about Prophet Isaiah’s fallacious martyrdom.  

There are two narratives in the Hebrew Bible relating how a Jewish king killed a specific prophet: The first is in 2 Chronicles and involves Zechariah son of Jehoiada the high priest, who lived in the days of King Joash of Judah (ruled 835-796): “The spirit of God then invested Zechariah son of Jehoiada the priest. He stood up before the people and said, ‘God says this, “Why transgress God’s commands to your certain ruin? For if you abandon God, he will abandon you.” They then plotted against him and, at the king’s order, stoned him in the courtyard of the Temple of God.” (2 Chronicles 24:20-21). 

The second narrative appears in the Book of Prophet Jeremiah, during the reign of King Jehoiakim (ruled 609-598): “There was another man, who used to prophesy in God’s name, Uriah son of Shemaiah, from Kiriath-Jearim. He prophesied exactly the same things against this city and this country as Jeremiah. 

When King Jehoiakim with all his officers and all the chief men heard what he [Uriah] said, the king determined to put him to death. “On hearing this, Uriah took flight and escaped to Egypt. King Jehoiakim, however, sent Elnathan son of Achbor to Egypt with others, who brought Uriah back from Egypt and took him to King Jehoiakim, who had him put to the sword and his body thrown into the common burial ground.” (Jeremiah 26:20- 23).

Then there is the actual source of the exaggerated slander that ‘the Jews killed prophets’; instead of the truth—that a few Jewish rulers killed a few critical Jewish prophets—found in the Biblical Book of Nehemiah which tells the story of Nehemiah’s role in the rebuilding of Jerusalem after the return of the Babylonian exiles. 

After rebuilding the city’s walls, Nehemiah gathers the Israelites  together and commands them to obey the Torah law. A group of Levites [priests] then leads the people in a public confession. In describing the past sins of Israel. the Levites declare among other things: “They grew disobedient, rebelled against you [God] and thrust your Torah behind their backs; and they slaughtered your prophets who had reprove them to bring them back to you, and committed monstrous impieties” (Nehemiah 5:26). 

Thus, these Jewish Levite priests dramatically and slanderously blamed Jews in general, for the specific sins of two previous Jewish Kings and their advisors and agents. Many religious leaders in various different religions are outraged by the sins and evils that powerful people can do; and in their anguish spread the blame much too broadly. 

But the text that had the most direct impact on the ‘Jews killed the Prophets’ slander was ‘The Martyrdom of Isaiah’, a second century BCE text which two or three centuries later was included as the opening of a larger Christian text called ‘The Ascension of Isaiah’.

The Martyrdom of Isaiah’ expands on events in 2 Kings chapter 21. Prophet Isaiah warns the dying King Hezekiah that his heir, Manasseh, will do great evil. Manasseh takes over, and Isaiah’s warning proves true. Isaiah and some fellow prophets flee to the desert and a false prophet accuses Isaiah of treason. The evil King Manasseh condemns Isaiah to death. Isaiah hides in a tree crevasse, is found, and dies as a glorified martyr. 

While Jewish martyrdom had already been included in the second and fourth Books of the Maccabees, the perpetrators then were not Jewish and the victims were ordinary Jews. In future centuries monotheistic religious leaders were often persecuted and martyred by their own polytheistic rulers. So the mixture of ‘The Martyrdom of Isaiah’ and ‘Jews Kill Prophets’ stereotypes became a popular trope. 

Almost all Rabbis, Priests, and Imams would agree with this expressed aspirational judgement from the Talmud: “Whoever is able to protest against the wrongdoings of his family and fails to do so is punished for the family’s wrongdoings.  Whoever is able to protest against the wrongdoings of fellow citizens and does not do so is punished for the wrongdoings of the people of the city. Whoever is able to protest against the wrongdoings of the [whole] world and does not do so is punished for the wrongdoings of the [whole] world.” (Talmud Shabbat 54b) 

But this principle should not be taken literally; or applied to other religious communities while not being applied to our own community. Also in non-democratic societies it is slander to blame the masses of the people for not openly opposing the actions of people of great wealth and power. 

The Bible’s history books (Samuel and Kings) are filled with sharp criticism of most of the kings of Israel and Judah. Almost all of the 15 biblical books of the Prophets are filled with denunciations of both Kings and Priests, as well as those among the people of Israel who transgressed the commandments of the Torah and were disloyal to the Holy One of Israel. 

Indeed, many of the prophets themselves predicted military defeats, exiles and even the destruction of the Holy Temple, if the Jewish people and its leaders, both spiritual and political, did not repent and change their ways. 

Although the prophets sharply condemned the corruption they saw all around them, and repeatedly predicted disasters to come in the absence of repentance, they always would include references to God’s willingness to show mercy, and to redeem the nation, after the people and its leaders had learned the hard way, what the consequences of disloyalty to the covenant ideals of the Torah led to. 

Thus, in the centuries following the second destruction of Jerusalem and its Holy Temple, the Rabbis produced numerous teachings, drawing lessons from what had happened, frequently in connection with the reading of the Biblical book of Lamentations on Tisha B’Av, the day commiserating both the first destruction of Jerusalem and its holy Temple in 586 BCE, and then the second destruction 656 years later. These lessons were meant to teach us how to interpret our own historic past so we can learn to avoid new tragedies in the future.

The truth is that the Jewish People never killed a single prophet but a few Jewish Kings did.

Finally, when we experience depression and hopelessness during dark days of political and religious despair we need to continuously remind ourselves not of Prophet Isaiah’s fictional martyrdom; but of Isaiah’s words of hope and faith: “In that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria. The Assyrians will go to Egypt, and the Egyptians to Assyria. The Egyptians and Assyrians will worship together. 

“On that day Israel will join a three-party alliance with Egypt and Assyria— a blessing upon the heart. The LORD of Hosts will bless them saying, “Blessed be Egypt My people, Assyria My handiwork, and Israel My inheritance.”…(Isaiah 19:23-5)

Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Allen Maller retired in 2006 after 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, Calif. He is the author of an introduction to Jewish mysticism. God. Sex and Kabbalah and editor of the Tikun series of High Holy Day prayerbooks.

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