Pixelated Pretension usually has a standard format. I make a claim, I present evidence to support said claim, then I explain the significance of my interpretation to the work or medium as a whole. It’s a great formula, but I wanted to do something a little different this time. This week I just have a query and some details that led me to it.
The question is simple: Is Halo antisemitic?
To even begin to tackle this issue, we must first all agree on one key fact: Master Chief is Jesus. This isn’t a new interpretation, but it’s the foundation for everything that follows in this line of logic. Whether he is sacrificing himself for the greater good or literally being crucified, Master Chief has always been a pretty obvious Christ figure. After all, Halo is a series in which a threat known as The Flood is stopped by The Ark. Biblical allegory has always been the backbone of the franchise, although subtlety has not.
It’s this overt Judeo-Christian symbolism and nomenclature that leads us to the next issue: The Covenant. In the world of Halo, The Covenant are a theocratic empire which serves as the source of troops for a good majority of firefights. There are morally ambiguous Covenant members, the Arbiter is the most infamous example, but the majority of them are hypocritical and genocidal. Of course, the name “Covenant” can be seen as a reference to the fact that the different races included in the empire are joined by a literal covenant. However, combined with the other biblical references throughout the series, I am forced to consider the possibility that they are in some way representative of the many covenants that define the Jewish faith (Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic).
The idea that the bad guys of Halo could possibly represent Judaism as a whole seems ludicrous, even to me. I’m sure no one at Bungie, Microsoft, or 343 Industries is personally antisemitic. Just using a name that is evocative of certain ideas does not automatically mean that the work of fiction is intended to symbolize those connotations. It’s just a name, right?
Well, it would be a lot easier to dismiss this one seemingly aberrant bit of symbolism if the rest of the lore didn’t seem to support it. For instance, consider Master Chief, the man gunning down all of these sentient creatures. The iconic green soldier actually has a name: John-117. A quick trip to your local King James will reveal that John 1:17 reads, “For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.” In other words, out with the old Jewish order and in with the new Christian one.
It’s a bit difficult to present the full implications of that verse without boring you with things like the Four Document Hypothesis, but it essentially comes down to this: The Gospel of John is antisemitic. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill,” (5:17). This bespeaks a respect for Jewish heritage and a desire for the New Testament to be an extension of the old ways of life. John blames “the Jews” for the death of Jesus Christ, planting the seeds for centuries of Christian antisemitism. I think you can see why naming your main character John-117 and your evil aliens The Covenant is problematic at best.
The parallels don’t stop there. As someone who has spent a good part of my life studying the Bible, I was immediately struck by the way the expanded universe emphasizes The Covenant’s propensity for “glassing” planets. It’s not unheard of for an evil tyranny to salt the ground beneath them during a conquest, but the science fiction act is eerily similar to the Old testament idea of herem. To cut a long story short, God demands that Jewish armies not only kill their enemies, but commit genocide and burn the civilization to the ground. If the connection is unintentional, it’s an uncanny coincidence.
As much as I love Halo’s art, music, and multiplayer, I’ve always been a little uncomfortable with its elements of religious propaganda. For example, one of the main villains of the original trilogy was the “Prophet of Truth.” While this could easily be explained as Orwellian irony, the unfortunate reality is that the Islamic prophet Muhammad is often known by that epithet. Hence you get a story which is essentially about Jesus running around and murdering adherents of other Abrahamic faiths. Even the character of The Arbiter was originally going to be named “The Dervish”, a title from the Sufi sect of Islam.
The point of this article isn’t to “call out” Halo or to accuse it of being something it is not. This is just an issue that has been rolling around in my head for some time, so I wanted to share it with other people in order to get some feedback and generate discussion. Is Halo really antisemitic? Are these problems just unfortunate implications of a simple pro-Christian allegory? Am I reading too much into a game about aliens?
Let me know. It’s been bothering me.
Pixelated Pretension is a biweekly column by Austin Yorski dedicated to discussing the literary conventions of video games, including themes, rhetoric, and symbolism. Tune in every other week for more analysis. Feel free to disagree with, add to, or question everything. I welcome your feedback. Also, follow me on Twitter @austinyorski (please).