Tag Archives: Anti-Semitism

Antisemitism in the Ancient Church

Trying to make sense out of the antisemitism found in a large corpus of Christian literature.

If anyone begins to read ecclesiastical writings with keen interest, it will be inevitable that one has to struggle with the anti-semitic remarks in ancient Christian literature. Anti-semitism is an over-simplification. This was a small part of a much larger problem. The church viewed anyone outside of the christian community as less-than-human especially Scythians (Russian type of peoples). The political and military aspirations of Christianity in some epochs sought to annihilate any person or communities that that did not embrace its message. Jews were lucky, due to their theological history, and were often spared. Although they got to live, 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 never be told.

Many familiar with Patristics will normally go first to the thoughts of John Chrysostom and will surprisingly find that he held the Jewish people with contempt. If he spoke today and wrote contemporary pieces on the Church and Jews, he would be charged with a hate crime under Canadian law.

It may be fairer to treat him in a little better light, but not much more. His intentions were defensive more than offensive because Judaism was a competing religion for his adherents. There existed at that time a warm relationship between Christianity and Judaism that allowed both parties to freely intermingle on many points, and there was a strong attraction by many of his adherents to Judaism. This proved to be a great challenge to Chrysostom to address. It was not a case of the stereotyped lowly Jew versus the Goliath of the Graeco-Roman Christian religion. 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 ugly:

“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 own 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 together and re-defined the Trinity.

One must understand also that Chrysostom had no patience or mercy for anyone or any faith outside of the Christian message.4

Chrysostom’s 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. He was banished for virulent language against a benefactor and leader, the Empress Eudoxia. He took contest against her because she erected a lavish statue of herself. He made some scathing remarks in regards to this6 and was banished to Armenia for this protestation.7

The over-zealousness of his rhetoric inside and outside the Church and his subsequent banishment labeled him an extremist by his own peers. This person cannot be held as the 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 Jewish based The Encyclopedia Judaica also believes there were both negative and favourable relations between the Jewish and Christian communities in the third and fourth centuries. It wasn’t a scene that can be pictured as black and white antisemitism.

This did change over time. The complete separation of Greek Christianity from its Jewish foundation can be traced back to 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 afterwards 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 originally founded by them.

Why such a strong statement? If the Jewish people were recognized 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 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 own power and integrate the originating Jewish faith into their own system was to scrub out the Jewish element and make it into a Greek identity.

And that is what Constantine started with the decree.

Neither Chrysostom nor Constantine can be declared official icons of fourth century Jewish-Christian dialogue. There were other powerful voices within the Church which 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. This writing is at times written in a condemning tone, almost a street-level vernacular. There are numerous references to Jews and movements within Judaism, but Epiphanius refrains from any serious attack on standard Judaism.

This isn’t always the case.

For example the Ambrosiaster document, first written in the fourth century and emendated 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.

Some go as far to say that the New Testament has an anti-semitic bias to it, especially from the book of John onwards. This may be taking it too far. Rabbi Dr. Pesach Schindler, 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 in-house fight.” The discussions in the New Testament are for the most part hostile tensions between various Jewish groups and individuals who 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 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 be interpreted as critical 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 special license to many ignorant 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 Johanine writing, but the selective interpretation of it.

The great eighth century European ruler, Charlemagne, forced conversions on all his defeated territories. If they refused, they would be killed, regardless if they were Jews or otherwise. This 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.”10

Some would also want to single out the Jews as the object of Church oppression. This too is an overgeneralization. The Church had no respect for anyone who was not converted, whether it was a Barbarian German, Gaul, Spaniard, or a pagan. This was also extended to those within the Church realm too – Donatists, Montantists, Arianists, Marcionists, and the list goes on, were not treated much better. Those who were unconverted were considered less-than-human and did not have the same rights as those who were.

Chrysostom also reflected the spirit of the times. In this period 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.

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. But 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 himself 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,11 The New Testament writers were simply following the writing conventions of that time and it was not meant as a slight against the Jewish people.

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. The Church has not been exempt. It is not simply 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 that they were discriminated against, but they were annihilated. The Jews escaping this pogrom because of their historic religious identity, still endured discrimination and were treated with lesser rights, but unlike the others, have lived to tell the story.

This is a dark part of our Christian heritage that many don’t know, or don’t want to know about. It is antithetic to the message Love your neighbour 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 examples in the past as lessons in what not to do in building a better world.