This is said about Christ, whom you, in your parents, led to death

(Augustine, Against the Jews 7.10) 

"It is not too much to say that, at this juncture, Christianity 'permitted' Judaism to endure because of Augustine." (Carroll, Constantine’s Sword) 


Moses Mendelssohn is said to have quipped, “But for Augustine’s lovely brainwave we would have been exterminated long ago.” Prescient for the attempted and failed “final” solution only decades in the rabbi’s future.  In fact were it not for Augustine Jews likely would not have survived the fourth century. The perpetual poverty and persecution imposed on Jews by the church provides the backdrop to Augustine’s “witness doctrine,” survival as punishment. For “the Jews” a reprieve from the fate meted out to “Christians" deemed by the church “heretical.” William Nicholls finds it strange that the Witness Doctrine even took hold since, 

the survival of Jews and Judaism threatened the very legitimacy of “catholic Christianity.” 

I suggest the key to understanding why an “Augustine” was needed to provide a “Witness Doctrine,” the reason that the Vatican adopted it is, as Dr. Nicholls describes above, the threat of Judaism as “living religion.” A surviving and practicing Jewish People calls into question basic Christian claims as successor to the parent religion; its claim as the “New Israel.” Augustine, in nine brief words in City of God describes the threat: “that we have not forged the prophecies about Christ.” God’s reason for Jewish survival, according to Augustine, is punishment. “The Jews,” he writes, are condemned as was Cain to wander the world without home and in poverty. And the church, overseer of that punishment, proscribed Jews to a life of poverty, homeless in dispersion. 

But Augustine’s Witness Doctrine addressed a much deeper and more primal need facing Christianity. Why concern regarding Christian reading of “prophesy” in Jewish scriptures foretelling Jesus as future messiah? Certainly Jewish rejection of Jesus as their messiah represents a red flag demanding explanation. Might hesitation regarding interpreting Jewish scripture have led to Augustine’s concern that, “we have not forged the prophecies about Christ”?  Augustine would have been aware of the danger of misunderstanding between the Hebrew of the Jewish homeland and the Greek translation, the Septuagint of the Greek speaking Diaspora. The gospels, representing Christian communities outside Judea, would were based on the Greek, not the Hebrew. Even if Augustine was not literate in the Hebrew version he would certainly have been aware that translations always involve problems in language and meaning. In itself this would represent a shadow over Christian claims based on the Septuagint. We will return to the problems resulting from translation and meaning shortly.


While Augustine did succeed in removing the immediate threat hanging over Jewish survival by Christendom, I suggest he was less successful in overcoming his doubts, a possible cloud hanging over the church, regarding its reading of Jewish scripture and particularly those “prophesies” relating the future messiah. 

i. “Jews as Witness” 

It is in order to give this testimony [to the truth of Christianity] that they are themselves dispersed among all nations, wherever the Christian Church spreads.” 

Augustine’ approach to “the Jews” was little different from that of John Chrysostum: they killed Jesus and punishment is justified. But unlike other Church Fathers, Augustine described Jewish survival as justifying Christian claims. Condemned to live alongside Christians as homeless, miserable and debased, Jews provide living witness to Christian Truth, to having been replaced in God’s favor. For scriptural justification for Jewish survival Augustine enlisted Psalm 59:12, “Slay them not, lest your people forget; [instead] scatter them with your might.” In Augustine: 

not by bodily death shall the ungodly race of carnal Jews perish. For whoever destroys them in this way shall… bring upon himself the sevenfold penalty under which the Jews lie for the crucifixion of Christ. So to the end of the seven days of time, the continued preservation of the Jews will be a proof to believing Christians of the subjection merited by those who… put the Lord to death.” 


The Problem of Translation 

“Behold, a virgin shall conceive in the womb, and bring forth a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel, which, being interpreted, is God with us.” 

Was Augustine’s concern for forged prophesies based on awareness of the inferiority of the Septuagint as basis for Christian claims? Likely literate in Hebrew and Aramaic, was reading Jewish scripture in the Judean Tanakh the source for his doubts? The most obvious and theologically important example of “translation” is already evident in the assertion by the fourth century Church of life-long virginity for Jesus mother. In the Septuagint “virginity” may be translate from Isaiah where the Greek parthenos can be read as “virgin.” But in Aramaic the word is alma, meaning “maiden.” A far weaker case for life-long virginity! 

The parthenos/alma example is but one such but its significance is difficult to miss. And it may be that Augustine’s reputation as the most important theologian and philosopher of the Middle Ages is yet insufficient. It would take psychoanalysis to recognize not just this source of Christian insecurity but to suggest its “solution.” God allowing the “the Jews” to survive despite gospel representation as rejecting and murdering His son was unacceptable and demanded explanation. It took Augustine to arrive at the Witness Doctrine as justification.   

II. Replacement Doctrine (Supersessionism) 

“The very presence of the Jewish people in the world... puts a great question against Christian belief… cause[s] profound and gnawing anxiety.” (Nicholls, Christian Antisemitism: A History of Hate) 

Church claims to having replaced Judaism in God’s favor is at the very foundation and evolution of the Christian religion. Although Augustine established a reasoned justification for the doctrine, Paul had already described Jewish guilt as deicides in 1 Corinthians. Two examples of early Church Fathers provide a bridge between Paul and Augustine. In Justin Martyr's (+/- 150) Dialogue with Trypho (an imaginary rabbi): 

"For the true spiritual Israel [are we] who have been led to God through this crucified Christ.” 

And Tertullian, a contemporary of Justin: 

“Who else, therefore, are understood but we, who, fully taught by the new law, observe these practices,—the old law being obliterated.” (emphasis added) 

Augustine’s writings fall generally within the Adversus tradition in blaming “the Jews” for Jesus’ death and supporting eternal punishment for “their crimes.” Where he seems to depart the traditional polemic is in framing it within his Witness Doctrine, justified by Psalm 59:11, “Slay them not, lest my people forget: scatter them by thy power and bring them down,” where them refers to “the Jews” and my people to Christians!  

Augustine set out to provide a response to what, for two centuries, had been a source of insecurity regarding Church claims: the enigma of continuing Jewish existence. The Church adopted his explanation, a doctrine that would provide for limited Jewish survival to this day. 


Nostre Aetate, the document produced by the1965 Vatican Council II, “absolves” present day Jews of guilt for the death of Jesus. It also reminds that the Church "is the new people of God.” This claim to having replaced Judaism was reaffirmed thirty-five years later in the closing summary of the 2010 Vatican Special Synod of Bishops for the Middle-East: 

“We Christians cannot speak of the ‘promised land’ as an exclusive right for a privileged Jewish people. This promise was nullified by Christ... In the kingdom of God… there is no longer a chosen people.

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