Anti-Jewish structures in Patristic theology

To explore the roots of theological anti-Semitism is an important project, far from finished. In a comment to an earlier blogpost, Kevin Edgecomb has made some important comments not so much to my own writing, as to David Robles’ comment (see Anti-Semitism in Eastern and Western theology). I have no special insights into the question of Orthodox saints or theologians being anti-Semitic or not.

This is the belt buckle of the National Socialist soldiers: God with us. And this was what the Jews that were killed had to see on their way to the gas chambers.

This is the belt buckle of the National Socialist soldiers: God with us. And this was what the Jews that were killed had to see on their way to the gas chambers.

But I think it is a key concern for anyone regarding classical Christianity important or even normative to deal with the role of the Fathers.

There is a long and tragic tradition of negative views on Jews, and even a negative hermeneutical tradition among many fathers. Let me begin by saying, that I do not belong to those Christians who disregard everything said by the Church Fathers, just because they have negative statements on the Jews. Such an attitude is to my mind brainless, or, perhaps even, heartless; what would we have done without Tertullian’s inventive theology, or Gregory’s? On the other hand, I think we must discern what is silver, gold, and precious stone, and what is straw. The anti-Jewish statements certainly belong to the latter.

Having always enjoyed the majestic worship of the liturgy bearing the name of Chrysostom, I, for example, was shocked when I began to read his vehement words about the Jews. I quote from a hitherto unpublished text of mine about this:

Tertullian is influential since he writes a tract with the title Adversos Judaeos, which would become the name of the entire tradition,  the so-called Adversos Judaeos tradition. This contained of  an allegorical anti-Jewish exposition of Old Testament texts. In this tradition the Old Testament promises pertain to Christians, whereas judgements pertain to Jews. Tertullian repeats (from earlier Fathers) that circumcision is a mark so that they may be punished, referring to texts like Is 1:2, 4, 7, 15; they will not enter into Jerusalem (Tert. Adv. Jud. 3). Cyprian’s influence mainly lies  in his extensive list of Scriptural arguments against the Jews, the so-called Testimonia, gaining great influence in the theology of the coming centuries. Later, the eastern church fathers also wrote strongly Anti-Jewish tracts. Gregory of Nyssa: “God-murderers, prophet-murderers, fighters against God, God-haters, they who transgress the Law, they who fights grace, they who have another faith than the fathers, advocates of the devil, brood of vipers, slanderers , those who have darkened minds, the leaven of the Pharisees, the sunedrion of the devil, Destroyers, thouroughly evil ones, the stoners, the haters of good. ”(Greg. Nyss. Or. in Christi Resurrect. 5). The beloved John Chrysostom is vehement in his assault against Jews.” (see his eight Orations against the Jews). Admittedly, this could be qualified even if not possible to make undone by saying that he in later texts he can acknowledge that God has not rejected his people (Homilies on Romans 18). In sum, these few examples show that this is no small problem in Patristic theology.

As anyone, who has studies the Fathers in this area knows,  these examples could be multiplied. This raises the question of how structural these views on Jews are in those Fathers who laid the foundation for the Christian faith? Is such an attitude to Jews and Judaism intrinsic to classical Christianity. Having done that, I think it is time to follow the further development of the faith. This would be a major research project, where scholars from many different fields would need to cooperate. I will come back to some clues to why the development went in such a negative direction. But please remember: whoever says that I hereby have rejected these Fathers altogether has misread me.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

4 thoughts on “Anti-Jewish structures in Patristic theology

  1. That’s a very interesting idea!

    I sympathize with you on the too hasty rejection of a writer for an objectionable statement or position, even in this regard. As I mentioned earlier, there’s more going on than simply an irrational hatred based in an imaginary grievance (which is not to excuse some of the language used, but only to account for its vehemence). Even in the Eastern Orthodox theological tradition (my own, too, like David), there is no single Church Father (or “Writing Saint” if one prefers) recognized as having written without error. We are all, after all, human, even the Saints.

    It’s certainly the case in the Fathers and Synods that there is a construction of theology, or at least a tradition of defining it more tightly, in response to avrious heresies. Such is almost banal to mention. And the Jews are certainly classically viewed as amongst heretics (not pagans) amongst the Fathers, as seen in the first heresies in the Panarion of St Epiphanius, which relate the various sects of the Jews known to early Christian writers. The key, I think, lies in which line of continuation of Israel, for both the Church and Synagogue sprang from that root. A stream focusing on Davidic Messianism grew into Christianity, while a more Law-focused stream grew into Rabbinic Judaism, and other streams withered and failed completely. The former adopted into its Israel so many Gentiles as to become a primarily Gentile phenomenon, while such is not the case with the latter, of course. So we are presented, at least initially, with two remnants of Israel, both historically and religiously linked to Israel, but with different focuses. Their self-differentiation began even in the first century, as witnessed in the pages of the NT. St Paul, the Apostle par excellence, shows a keen awareness of Israel being found in the Church, but also shows an ameliorating deep concern for his kinsmen, the non-Christian Israelites.

    So, both claim to be Israel: how does one get around that? Paul defines two groups, Israel (which is defined as those who obey God) and a group calling itself Israel because of physical descent, a distinction found in the Gospels, too. The Jews simply (probably) include the Christians amongst the minim, the unacceptable sects or heretics, though the evidence for the date of this is equivocal (first or second century?). But there is enough evidence to suggest that the lines were already mutually drawn even before 70 AD already, if Acts and Paul’s letters can be trusted, which I think they can be.

    In that sense, I think the animosity expressed in such florid manner–itself a form of rhetoric no longer in fashion–is merely a symptom and not a primary characteristic itself. It is expressive of the separation, which separation is driven by other substantive concerns. But the expressive language is not in itself substantive or structural. It is an artifact of the rhetoric.

  2. I’m very glad to see this conversation happening here, and to see one of my favorite bloggers (Kevin E) and one of my good friends all of a sudden ‘meeting’ and having a dialogue is just great. I will start by eavesdropping to the exegetes, and maybe join soon…

    I’d just like to make a reading suggestion for those interested in these topics, esp Orthodox reflection on Church and Israel. This is a paper written by Fr. Alexander Golitzin for WCC/Faith and Order, with ample patristic quotations and interesting reflections:

    pax et bonum.


  3. I agree with Kevin. My suspicion is that the lines of separation between the followers of Judaism and the Christians were sharply drawn even before the destruction of the temple in 70A.D. Afterwards, what was a theological dispute, became a cultural divide and an expression of ethnic intolerance.
    The problem is (in this I disagree with Kevin) that harsh words are followed by harsh actions. Ideas become actualized in history. The expulsion of the Jews from Spain and Europe, the Holocaust, in general, the plight of the Jews to this day, is a terrifying example of the destructive power of words.

  4. Dear Kevin and David! Let me first say that I am so glad to have two Orthodox brethren to talk to about these important matters. I have always been patristically oriented and ealy met fine Orthodox Christians. So you are extra welcome! I do discuss the Fathers not to criticise, but because we simply have to deal with our roots. Firstly we must do it constructively, since everything God has done in history belongs to the Body of Christ. But also looking for the roots to our current problems, and partly these are to be found in our common ancient church history.
    As to out discussions I wil continue blogging in this area for a while, I think. So some remarks wil be found in the blogs.
    @ Kevin and David: Even though there might be some work to clarify St Nikolai and Fr Justin Popovich – I am not competent to do it, since some languages, which I do not master, are involved. But I certainly would love to cooperate with people who do.
    @ Kevin: First: I do agree with what you are saying, that Church Fathers are human, too. And of course the Fathers deserve a contextual reading as much as anyone else. For examle, as New Testament scholars, which is my profession, we often stay up long in the night to try to explain what Paul or John is saying. This must be done for each text. I have seen some such work on John Chrysostom’s Orations about the Jews. And a part of wat is said certainly CAN be justified as reactions in a struggle against a successful mission by the Synagogue. However, parts cannot, and we need to be careful to discern the difference between a justified interreligious conflict between early Christianity and Judaism, and sayings which are not honouring to God.

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