Antisemitism in the Ancient Church

A brief look into the earlier Church, its treatment of outsiders of the faith, and Jews.

If anyone begins to read ecclesiastical writings with keen interest, it will be inevitable that one has to struggle with the antisemitic remarks in ancient Christian literature. As the researcher looks further into the issue, one finds a problematic and complex genre that requires untangling.

Antisemitism was a small part of a much larger problem. This fervor was not directly a problem with Jews but anyone or anything outside the Christian realm. The Church viewed anyone outside of the Christian community as less-than-human. One of the more obvious discriminatory references in ancient Christian literature and regular Greek ones was against the Scythians (ancient Russian people). Christianity’s political and military aspirations in some epochs sought to annihilate any person or population that did not embrace its message. They sometimes spared Jews due to their theological history. Although they often were exempted from the sword, they were second-class citizens.

At least they could tell their story of oppression. The many other pagans and whole unclassified communities who refused to convert have stories that will permanently remain unknown.

The narrative explained above is the dark side of our Christian heritage that forces any Christian theologian or leader to grapple with at some juncture.

The Antisemitism of John Chrysostom

Many familiar with Patristics typically first go to the thoughts of John Chrysostom. The reader will find that he held the Jewish people with contempt. Canadian Law would not allow, and he would horrify the general public if he spoke today and wrote contemporary pieces on the Church and Jews. The following coverage and the racist overtones espoused by Chrysostom are not endorsed by the author but referenced only for historical investigation.

There is an alternate view about Chrysostom’s Antisemitism that may treat him in a little better light but remains in a bad category, but no so bad as before. His intentions were more defensive than offensive because Judaism was a competing religion for his adherents. There existed at that time a warm relationship between Christianity and Judaism. The amelioration allowed both parties to intermingle on many points freely. The conditions created a strong attraction by many of his adherents to Judaism. This situation proved a great challenge for Chrysostom to address. It was not a case of the stereotyped lowly Jew versus the Graeco-Roman Christian religion’s Goliath. It was a match of equals.

Antioch had a history of good community and Jewish relations, which undermined Chrysostom’s and the Church’s influence. The following is a demonstration of how he reacted, and it is, at least in modern Canadian vocabulary, racist and discriminatory:

But the synagogue is not only a brothel and a theater; it also is a den of robbers and a lodging for wild beasts. Jeremiah said: “Your house has become for me the den of a hyena.” He does not simply say “of wild beast”, but “of a filthy wild beast”, and again: “ have abandoned my house, I have cast off my inheritance”. But when God forsakes a people, what hope of salvation is left? When God forsakes a place, that place becomes the dwelling of demons.1

Chrysostom vehemently wanted to break the relationship for his political purposes:

Many, I know, respect the Jews and think that their present way of life is a venerable one. This is why I hasten to uproot and tear out this deadly opinion. I said that the synagogue is no better than a theater and I bring forward a prophet as my witness. Surely the Jews are not more deserving of belief than their prophets. “You had a harlot’s brow; you became shameless before all”. Where a harlot has set herself up, that place is a brothel.”2

Another clue that motivated Chrysostom’s posture was a third group called the Anomoeans:

And so it is that I hasten to anticipate this danger and prevent it. This is what physicians do. They first check the diseases which are most urgent and acute. But the danger from this sickness is very closely related to the danger from the other; since the Anomoeans’ impiety is akin to that of the Jews, my present conflict is akin to my former one. And there is a kinship because the Jews and the Anomoeans make the same accusation. And what charges do the Jews make? That He called God His own Father and so made Himself equal to God. The Anomoeans also make this charge—I should not say they make this a charge; they even blot out the phrase “equal to God” and what it connotes, by their resolve to reject it even if they do not physically erase it.3

This group appears to be a popular quasi-Christian group that integrated both Christian and Jewish elements and re-defined the Trinity.

One must also understand that Chrysostom had no patience or mercy for anyone or any faith outside the Christian message.4 His message against the Jews contradicts the positive and warm relationship with the Jewish community espoused by Origen – a Church leader whom he respected.5

Chrysostom was also known to have a brazen tongue and little tolerance for those even within the Church. His benefactor, the Empress Eudoxia banished him to Armenia for virulent language against her. He took contest against her because she erected a grand statue of herself. The following words in a speech followed in writing caught Eudoxia’s attention; “Again Herodias raves; again she is troubled; she dances again; and again desires to receive John’s head in a charger.” 6 7 Eudoxia was keen enough to see the underhanded reference to her.

The over-zealousness of his rhetoric labeled him an extremist by his peers. This person is not a definitive example of Jewish-Christian or any other Church relation. Neither can he be held as a representative of the official Church position during his time or any other.

The Rise of Antisemitism in the Fourth Century

The Jewish based Encyclopedia Judaica also believes there were both adverse and favorable relations between the Jewish and Christian communities in the third and fourth centuries. It was not a scene pictured as black and white Antisemitism.

This did change over time. The complete separation of Greek Christianity from its Jewish foundation is from the emperor Constantine, who issued a decree over the celebration of Easter:

Under the 79th header, which is the first Council of Antioch itself, this is expressed with these words; “If anyone would be bold enough to change the definition of the holy and great council which was by the Nicean gathering, in the present devout and reverenced leader Constantine, regarding the solemn healing of the Passover, we assess those to be excommunicated and banished of the Church, if then they should remain unmoved, obstinately against that which they have decreed as good. And this also was decried to the laity. If then those who are presiding over the Church, either episcopates, presbyters, deacons, should attempt to alter this definition, through the subversion of people and disturbance of the Church, to separately gather, and to celebrate the Passover with the Jews, this holy synod declares this (person) a stranger from the Church. Not only himself but any who should proceed to cause with manifold corruption and agitation. Not only are such kind removed by a minister, but also those who should attempt to communicate afterward with the damned, they are damned.8

This was the official beginning of legal ostracization of the Jews from the Christian realm and the loss of any Jewish identity within the movement — a movement initially founded by them.
Why such a strong statement? If the Church held the Jewish people as the people of God and holders of the oracles of God, then two possibilities could occur:

  • The power of religion, which was the base of any governmental authority in ancient times, would shift from Rome to Jerusalem. The Jewish leaders would be the ones establishing law, spiritual piety and directing the national social conscience. This situation would undermine the Roman governmental system.
  • The Romans and the Greek populace with such pride in their own identity could not be forced to adapt to a foreign religion belonging to a minor territory. They would naturally overthrow any monarchy or leadership that proposed such a thing.

The only option the Roman leadership had to retain their power and integrate the originating Jewish faith into their system was to scrub out the Jewish element and make it into a Greek identity.

The scrubbing out motivated Constantine starting with the decree.

Neither Chrysostom nor Constantine can be declared official icons of fourth-century Jewish-Christian dialogue. Other powerful voices within the Church promoted a different position.

Epiphanius, the fourth-century Bishop of Salamis, wrote a book called the Panarion, which was a polemic against certain groups that contested or challenged the institutional Church teachings. He wrote in a condemning tone, almost a street-level vernacular against these groups. On the other hand, there are numerous references to Jews and movements within Judaism, but Epiphanius refrains from any severe attack on standard Judaism.

Epiphanius’ exclusion of Jews from the condemnation of any other non– or semi– Christian entity was probably not the standard.

For example, the Ambrosiaster document, first written in the fourth century and emended up to the 13th, illustrated Jews as antithetical to the Christian message. The Ambrosiaster writer(s) used the Jews as an abstract illustration of what one must not be. I have not come upon more examples than this one. There is an assumption that many existed unless proven otherwise. It is not a topic a Christian researcher eagerly likes to find while reading or translating an ancient text.

The Perception of Antisemitism in the New Testament Writings

Some go as far as to say that the New Testament has an antisemitic bias to it, especially from the book of John onwards. The late Rabbi Dr. Pesach Schindler, while a professor at the Hebrew University, directed another approach. He specifically addressed our Introductory Talmud class on the subject of Antisemitism in the Bible, “You have to realize this was an in-house fight.” My take on these words by him is the following. The discussions in the New Testament are, for the most part, hostile tensions between various Jewish groups and individuals. They were shooting fiery barbs at each other over Jewish legal issues. Third parties who are not Jewish that read these accounts can easily take it out of context.

This conclusion may be too simplistic, as the Book of John does appear in places to be written from a non-Jewish perspective and for a non-Jewish audience. It could easily infer a critical view of the Jewish race. One passage, in particular, John 8:44 where Jesus stated, “You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire,” has given an exclusive license to many Christian leaders, movements, and peoples over the centuries to treat Jewish people maliciously. Prof. Van der Horst, a member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, cites this as one of the most destructive passages:

In later Christian literature, that expression is picked up. This fatal short remark has had lethal consequences over two millennia. It cost tens of thousands of Jewish lives in later history, especially in the Middle Ages. This verse was taken by Christian Jew-haters as a license to murder Jews. These murderers thought: ‘If Jesus says that Jews have the devil as their father, we should eradicate them as best as we can.’

…I once argued before an audience of Christian ministers that if we were to confront John with the consequences of what he wrote, he would deeply apologize and say, ‘Please, delete it from my Gospel.’ Until the present day these words have their influence, because the average Bible reader cannot contextualize them in the first century when they were written.”9

It is not the actual problem of the Johannine writing, but the selective interpretation of it.

One must realize as well the writing style of the New Testament, which utilizes the Jews in manifold ways within the texts, was not written to mean from a non-Jewish standpoint. All the authors of the New Testament, with perhaps the exception of Luke, are Jewish. However, then why is it written in such a third-party form? The Jewish historian Josephus utilized the same term, the Jews in a similar context as if he appeared to be a historian above Jewish bias, though his whole intention was to defend the Jewish people against Antisemitism. This writing style is also found in the Talmud, though the frequency of usage is unknown,10 The New Testament writers were merely following the writing conventions of that time. They did not mean the references as a slight against the Jewish people.

Antisemitism in the Later Church

The great eighth-century European ruler, Charlemagne, forced conversions on all his defeated territories. If they refused, they would kill them, regardless if they were Jews or otherwise. This practice brought on the ire of Alcuin of York, who entreated Charlemagne that “that faith is a free act which cannot be enforced; that instruction, persuasion, love and self-denial are the only proper means for converting the heathen.”11

Some would also want to single out the Jews as the object of Church oppression. This thought is an overgeneralization. The Church had no respect for anyone who were unbelievers, whether it was a Barbarian German, Gaul, Spaniard, or pagan. Those who were unconverted were considered less-than-human and did not have the same rights as those who were.

This attitude is evident in the Spanish conquest of the Incas. Spain, lighted upon the great riches found within the Inca empire, began a destructive campaign against the Incas. Upon seizing their leader, Atahuallpa, they first tried to convert him. Atahuallpa was unfamiliar with Western literature, Latin or Spanish, and was illiterate about their writing and print systems. Neither was he aware of the reverence associated with the Bible. At the Bible’s presentation before Atahuallpa, he leafed through a few pages and threw it to the ground. This action gave evidence that the Incas were indeed heathens and gave Spain the right to conquest, seize goods, and control.12

In the transition of Christianity from a Jewish religion to a universal Greek one, the problem was not of Antisemitism but an issue of accepting a religion that did not have Greek or Roman origins, especially something as obscure as the Hebrew religion.

The Romans and Greeks considered the Hebrew religion unknown, foreign and non-Greek — everybody knew that the Greeks or, to a lesser extent Romans, were superior in every way. Nothing could originate outside of Greece or Rome that could be the center of their religion. The only way to make it universal within their world was to strip it of its Jewish identity, or any other nationality, and make it Graeco-Roman.

For a long time, the Church combined its Graeco-Roman identity with its message. They considered anyone outside of this identity inferior, especially a Scythian. Scythians were nomadic semi-connected groups ranging from Romania to the Ukraine. They were considered lawless and outside the bounds of civilized living.

Conversion is a big subject, and its effects on history are massive. One estimate places 23% of all Latin Americans as descendants forced to convert to Christianity.13

Final Thoughts on the Church and Antisemitism

What is one to make out of this? It is a human trait to want to lord over the vulnerable, the minorities, the poor, the widow, the orphan, and rival groups. History is full of such examples of human nature, whether Communism, Socialism, Western Democratic Capitalism or Islam. The Church has not been exempt. It is not merely a case against the Jews, but the Church’s stance against any group different than them. Other ethnic groups could also make a historical claim of discrimination, but they were annihilated, and the dead cannot tell any stories.

The Jews escaped this pogrom because of their historic religious identity as People of the Book. They did not wholly avoid great wrath. They subsequently endured discrimination and were treated with lesser rights.

This is a dark part of our Christian heritage that many do not know or do not want to know. It is antithetic to the message Love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:38). Unfortunately, the historic Church writings on the subject cannot be erased or rewritten. The only option is to use these as historical examples in what not to do in building a better world.

  1. Chrysostom. Against the Jews. Homily 1, 3:1.
  2. IBID. Chrysostom. Against the Jews. Homily 1, 3:1.
  3. IBID Chrysostom. Against the Jews. Homily1, 1:6
  4. Chrysostom. Homilies Against the Jews. Homily 1, 4:9
  5. The Jews in the Writings of Origen
  6. Schaff, Philip ed. NPNF2-02. Socrates and Sozomenus Ecclesiastical Histories by Salaminius Hermias Sozomen and Socrates of Constantinople. Pg. 150
  8. My own translation taken from, Liber de Paschate: Praefatio
  10. Talmud Yerushalmi, Berakhot ix:1 as found in Ephraim E. Urbach. The Sages: Their Concepts and Beliefs. Trans. by Israel Abrahams. Jerusalem: Magnes Press. 1979. Pg. 81. Note here that R. Tanhuma was attempting to demonstrate the superiority of the Jewish religion over the Greek one. He recognized these two influences conflicted.
  11. History of the Christian Church, Volume IV: Mediaeval Christianity. A.D. 590-1073.
  12. Jared Diamond. Guns, Germs, and Steel. New York: W. W. Norton and Sons. 1999. Pg. 71ff
  13. A Surprising Number of Latin Americans Have Jewish Roots Study Finds

1 thought on “Antisemitism in the Ancient Church”

  1. I think there is a huge difference between the feelings of the early Church and what went on when Christianity became the main religion.

    I mean in the early first centuries you did have two different rival religions stepping up. One religion that preached Jesus Christ as the Son of God the other did not. So yes there must be a separation.

    And then what happened later on which is when one religion became the dominant one overwhelmingly and attacked the other.

    For example Chrysostom said in one of his sermons the only reason he ways Saying anything was because his flock was being attacked if his flock wasn’t he would leave it alone. That and the rhetoric of the team reading ancient Jewish texts at the time aren’t kind to Christianity.


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