John Knox on the Jews

John Knox on the Jews

John Knox - the founding father of Scottish Protestantism - is one of the better known of the many different characters thrown up by the Reformation in the sixteenth century. Knox as a man was something of a religious zealot known for his fiery zeal and fanaticism as well as his insubordination to secular and religious authority. That said you cannot but admire Knox’s extraordinary commitment to his cause as well as his sheer hard work as both an author and an orator.

Knox produced and delivered numerous sermons - some of which have survived in print - and several historical, theological and devotional works that are still widely used today in the theological formation of budding Calvinist clergy and interested laymen. What has not frequently been remarked on and more pointedly simply covered up in many cases especially in the early twentieth century (when this heritage was regarded by the Scottish Kirk as being highly embarrassing) was Knox’s attitude towards the jews.

While Knox’s friend and mentor John Calvin was certainly anti-Semitic according to many authorities - (1) although some still argue that he merely mirrored the prejudices of the society in which he lived - (2) Knox’s own attitudes have not come in for the same level of scrutiny.

When we turn to Knox’s works we find negative comments about the jews in significant quantities - albeit often in allusions more than direct attacks - such as when we read in his first public debate in 1547 that:

‘John Knox answered, "Before we hold ourselves, or that you can prove us sufficiently convicted, we must define the church, by the right notes given to us, in God's scriptures, of the true church. We must discern the immaculate spouse of Jesus Christ from the mother of confusion, spiritual Babylon; lest that imprudently we embrace a harlot, instead of the chaste spouse; yea, to speak in plain words, lest that we submit ourselves to Satan, thinking that we submit ourselves to Jesus Christ. For, as for your Roman kirk, as it is now corrupted, and the authority thereof, wherein stands the hope of your victory, I no more doubt but that it is the synagogue of Satan; and the head thereof, called the pope, to be that man of sin, of whom the apostle speaks, than that I doubt that Jesus Christ suffered by the procurement [contrivance] of the visible kirk of Jerusalem. Yea, I offer myself, by word or writing, to prove the Roman church this day farther degenerated from the purity which was in the days of the apostles, than was the church of the Jews from the ordinances given by Moses, when they consented to the innocent death of Jesus Christ."’ (3)

In the above I draw the attention of the reader to the fact that Knox is using the common Christian designation for the jews as the ‘Synagogue of Satan’ in reference to the Roman Catholic Church, which is predictable enough, but then notice that Knox draws the deliberate parallel between the behaviour of the jews towards Jesus in Jerusalem and the behaviour of the Roman Catholic Church in his own day. In addition to asserting that the Roman Catholic Church is like the ‘Church of the Jews’ (i.e., the Pharisees) and like the jews in relation to the time of Moses to Jesus has degenerated from doctrinal and godly purity to a state of evil and ungodliness.

We should further notice what Knox co-wrote in the ‘Scottish Confession of Faith’ along the same lines in relation to the jews. To wit:

‘Because that Satan from the beginning has laboured to deck his pestilent synagogue with the title of the kirk of God, and has inflamed the hearts of cruel murderers to persecute, trouble, and molest the true kirk and members thereof* as Cain did Abel; Ishmael, Isaac; Esau, Jacob; and the whole priesthood of the Jews, Christ Jesus himself, and his apostles after him; it is a thing most requisite that the true kirk be discerned from the filthy synagogue, by clear and perfect notes, lest we, being deceived, receive and embrace to our own condemnation the one for the other. The notes, signs, and assured tokens whereby the immaculate spouse of Christ Jesus is known from that horrible harlot, the kirk malignant; we affirm are neither antiquity, title usurped, lineal descent, place appointed, nor multitude of men approving an error for Cain in age and title was preferred to Abel and Seth; Jerusalem had prerogative above all places of the earth, where also were the priests lineally descended from Aaron; and greater multitude followed the scribes, Pharisees, and priests, than unfeignedly believed and approved Christ Jesus and his doctrine; and yet, as we suppose, no man (of whole judgment) will grant that any of the forenamed were the kirk of God.’ (4)

Here again we can clearly see that Knox associates the jews as the historical precursor of the Roman Catholic Church and that the jews - the ‘filthy synagogue’ - were a fallen evil people who had shunned the word of God and thus eventually become no longer suitable to receive God’s grace at all (except through unreservedly accepting Christ as their saviour).

In essence Knox is saying in both these passages that the jews are the enemies of God and thus are also the enemies of all true Christians.

Further we should note that Knox held the jews responsible for the death of Jesus (Deicide) and argued that it was the jews who the principal persecutors of Christians and that the Roman Catholic Church had somewhat succeeded the jews of Saint Paul’s time (much as the gentiles had superseded the jews as the chosen of God) in taking on this mantle. (5)

That Knox regarded referring to someone as a jew as a term of abuse is made clear in his infamous 1558 book against Elizabeth I of England ‘The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women’ when he declares that:

‘As the odious nation of Spaniards does manifestly declare, who for very despite which they do bear against Christ Jesus, whom their forefathers did crucify (for Jews they are, as histories do witness, and they themselves confess), do this day make plain war against all true professors of his holy gospel.’ (6)

Here Knox is referring to the Marrano in Spanish civilization, which had by then long been a concern among the Spanish Church for Marranos (jews outwarding pretending to be Catholics but still being jews in secret [for example one of the founders of the Jesuit order was such a creature]) (7) were often (and not unreasonably) believed to be en hoc with the Turks. That Knox also associated jews with the Turks (i.e., the Ottoman Empire) is clear from his 1553 treatise on prayer where he castigates both of them as unbelievers, perpetual enemies of Christ and foes to be shown no mercy to as one would show no mercy to the devil’s own legions. (8)

Knox is arguing in ‘The First Blast of the Trumpet’ that Spaniards are both the spiritual (i.e., successors to the jews who persecuted Jesus, the Apostles and Saint Paul) and literal (i.e. the descendants) of the jews. Thus, he declares that it is no surprise that the Spaniards were persecuting Protestants as they had been the enemies of Christ since time immemorial.

This gives us some idea that while Knox, like Martin Luther, could not believe that all jews were obdurate and that some jews might become true believers in Christ: most jews - like most Catholics - were completely incapable and unwilling to see the truth of Protestant Christianity. This is why Knox - like Luther and Calvin - left the door open to the ‘true jewish convert’ (as he was intellectually obligated to do) (9) but believed that the jews were a nation of lineal descent not just a religious confession (hence his reference to the Spanish as such) who were congenitally opposed to Christianity and were the origin of fanatic opposition to it (i.e. Roman Catholicism and the Turks) as befitted the proverbial spawn of the devil that he regarded them as.

Since Knox used a biological definition of jewishness and believed that lineage to be the cause of anti-Protestant persecution and hatred: then it is clear that Knox - like Luther and Calvin - was anti-Semitic and also wanted to exterminate jews and Judaism from the world.


(1) Stephen Sizer, 2004, ‘Christian Zionism: Road-Map to Armageddon?’, 1st Edition, Inter-Varsity Press: Nottingham, p. 27-28
(2) See Bruce Gordon, 2009, ‘Calvin’, 1st Edition, Yale University Press: New Haven, pp. 116-117
(3) John Knox, 1547, ‘Call to the Ministry’
(4) The Scottish Confession of Faith, 18
(5) Ibid 16; John Knox, 1558, ‘The Appellation from the Sentence pronounced by the Bishops and Clergy'
(6) John Knox, 1558, ‘The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women’
(7) John O’Malley, 1993, ‘The First Jesuits’, 1st Edition, Harvard University Press: Cambridge, p. 10
(8) John Knox, 1553, ‘A Treatise on Prayer’
(9) See Knox’s ‘The First Blast of the Trumpet’; The Scottish Confession of Faith 16