The Myth of the Jewish Antichrist: Falwell Stumbles Badly

The upcoming millennium is not just about computers; it’s also about religion and religious extremism. If we obsess about the digit bug and allow the mainstream media to pretend that the religious aspect is confined to the fringes and the tele-evangelical circus, we will be blindsided by the dangerous beliefs and plans of religious millennialism. Some evangelists are already turning up the heat. The “Concerned Christians” expelled from Israel were planning “millennial violence” in an attempt to speed up the Last Days: shades of Waco.

The Rev. Jerry Falwell has recently made a reference to the Antichrist that should strike terror into the hearts of all Americans and Jews in particular. Falwell told an audience in Kingsport, Tenn., that the Antichrist was probably already alive and living among us: “[…]when he appears during the Tribulation period he will be a full-grown counterfeit of Christ. Of course he’ll be Jewish. Of course he’ll pretend to be Christ.”

The Associated Press report of the event explained: “According to the Bible, the Antichrist will spread universal evil before the end of the world but will finally be conquered at the second coming of Christ. Falwell said today in Williamsburg that he did not intend his statement to be anti-Jewish. He said he only meant that the Antichrist must be Jewish because Jesus was a Jew.”

The New Testament says no such thing. Early Christian and medieval theologians tossed together a large number of often enigmatic references in the Book of Revelation to “the Beast” and in other books of the New Testament to “antichrists.” This lengthy process produced a completely non-Biblical figure, “the Antichrist.” He was formed out of a mixture of legend, misquotation and a crude “logic of salvation.” According to this logic, if Jews are awaiting a Messiah, and Christians are awaiting a Beast or an enemy of Christ, then the two must be the same guy; and he must be Jewish.

It is no surprise that Falwell has repeated this myth, since many Christian thinkers, without clear Scriptural proof, have believed that “the Antichrist” would be a Jew. It was widely circulated at the end of the Middle Ages after the invention of the printing press. One of the first books ever printed (around 1450) was “The Book of Antichrist”, a collection of crude wood-cuts with handwritten captions. The “Antichrist Blockbook” drew on a popular story that had already been circulating widely in manuscript.

For centuries, Christian authorities cited the Antichrist myth as a reason not to tolerate Jews “in our midst”, because Jews were often believed to be an apocalyptic “fifth column,” probable traitors to the Christian commonwealth. Influential theologians, dozens of plays and treatises, and early books foretold a Jewish Antichrist whose followers would be Jews. Ideas, especially religious ideas, do have consequences — as Waco finally proved to secular America. The danger in this case is that large number of Christians will believe this hateful myth because Falwell has repeated it.

Falwell might not be entirely aware of it, but the main feature of the “Jewish Antichrist” myth was that he would be a sinful, lascivious, wicked Jew, conceived in sin by a wicked Jewish prostitute and the Devil (some versions say by her father). All the Jews of the world would follow Antichrist to Jerusalem. There they would rebuild the Jewish Temple and rule over the world. They would persecute Christians until Christ returned in glory.

The Jewish Antichrist legend is a prelude to persecution — of Jews. The most infamous piece of anti-Semitic propaganda, the so-called “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, also repeats the medieval fable. The “Protocols,” together with the Antichrist myth, sow the seeds of anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism and endanger religious liberty.

If Christians truly believe Jews are about to welcome Antichrist, imagine the consequences for American society and civil rights. However, most respectable and moderate Christian thinkers have rejected and still reject the Antichrist legend. This path is open to all Christians concerned about the appalling history of Christian-Jewish relations, who would like to put into practice the actual Biblical commandment to “love thy neighbor.”

The mainstream media continue to portray doomsayers according to the conventions of editorial cartoonists: loonies with long white beards, standing on mountaintops with placards proclaiming “the End.” When influential figures such as Falwell fuel the already potent millennial atmosphere with the Antichrist myth, democratic societies ought to take note — and to worry.

Andrew Gow teaches European history at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, and is a writer for the History News Service.