But Augustine also wrote: “By their own Scriptures [Jewish survival is] a testimony to us that we have not forged the prophecies about Christ.” Forged? Why would such doubt even arise unless already present in the heart of Christian faith?
Last week I discussed the problem of differences between Jewish and Christian expectations of messiah, and why Paul’s description, his own “Jewishness” notwithstanding, would have failed the Jewish test. “Rejection” of Jesus was a foregone conclusion since the messianic mission described by Paul and the gospels did not conform, was inappropriate to the messianic need of the day, a military leader to expel the Romans.
This week we turn to a different problem, Christian identity insecurity. From our vantage of the 21st century, to speak of Christian insecurity sounds strange. But during the first century the messianic sect was tiny, their gospel, “the good news,” out of sync to a people recently defeated, their capital destroyed. The Jews, according to Josephus, having lost more than a million lives in its century-long war against Rome would understandably be in no mood to hear of a “messiah” whose promise was post-disaster salvation! And so, rejected both in Judea and, for the most part by Diaspora Jewry, the sectarians sought a more receptive audience among the pagans.
Christian animus towards Jews and Judaism is commonly explained in theological terms, beginning with Paul’s break with the mainstream Jewish “Jerusalem church” over circumcision and dietary laws. And while this is true as far as it goes, such issues of practice would not explain the intensity of anti-Jewish polemic present in the four canonical gospels. Matthew’s portrays “the Jews” before Pilate as not only demanding the death of Jesus, but inviting condemnation upon themselves and all future generations as deicides (Matthew 27:25); and John repeatedly identifying “the Jews” with Satan: "You are of your father, the devil" (John 8:44). Dietary issues required the Jews living in the Diaspora to live apart from the pagans; and circumcision was a barrier, at least for men, to full conversion. But despite such hurdles Judaism was still highly attractive to the pagan elite and some converted and many others, the so-called God-fearers, chose to live a Jewish lifestyle minus full conversion.
To begin to understand the “why” of gospel animus, it is first important to remember that all four canonicals were written in the late first and early second centuries (John), following Rome’s destruction of Jerusalem. Paul’s communities of converts were all outside of Judea. The authors of the gospels in their desire to placate Rome even managed to turn Pilate, a monster by historical accounts into a humanist fighting the injustice of Jewish demands to crucify an innocent man!
But beyond the need to mollify Rome two issues stand out as explanation of the sect’s angry break with Judaism: competition for converts (most favored after the “theological” explanation; and the need to develop an identity both distinct from Jewish practice, yet successor to the Jewish history so attractive to the pagans. The first, “competition” is expressed in the gospel, "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert,” (Matthew 23:15). Judaism had always been open to converts, and Paul would understandably have been frustrated in his competition with normative Judaism, and even with his own “messianic” Jewish sect, for converts.
But the major problem for the emerging sect, one that remains even today, is the character and identity of Christianity in opposition to Judaism.
In order to survive and grow, in order to appeal to pagan converts already attracted to Jewish monotheism and ancient history, Christianity could not be just a new offshoot of the ancient religion, it would have to be the Judaism’s successor, its replacement. The task was to create itself as Judaism brought to completion by Jesus. It is this competition that provides context to the polemic tone and gospel demonization of Jews and Judaism.
Paul provided the basic formula for success: “To the Jews I became like a Jew… To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people…” Justin Martyr, (103–165), the second century missionary, exemplifies its application. Asked to explain resurrection to his pagan audience he responded, “when we say … Jesus Christ, our teacher, was crucified and died, and rose again, and ascended into heaven, we propose nothing different from what you believe regarding those whom you consider sons of Zeus.” (1 Apol. 21). Resurrection of man-gods was common to the pagan religions.
Although competition between mother and daughter religions ended with Constantine’s declaration of Christianity as the official religion of the Empire in 325 some Christians, called Judaizers, continued to identify with the Jewish community. Even in its new place of political power and social authority any hint of backsliding (heresy) among its flock represented a threat to the church demanding a theological and social response. St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, came out forcefully against Christian-Jewish fraternizing in 374: “The Jews are the most worthless of all men. They are lecherous, greedy, rapacious. They are perfidious murderers of Christ. They worship the Devil. Their religion is a sickness. The Jews are odious assassins of Christ and for killing God there is no expiation possible, no indulgence, no pardon. Christians may never cease vengeance, and the Jew must live in servitude forever. God always hated the Jews. It is essential that all Christians hate them.”
During his first two years as a presbyter in Antioch (386-387), St. John Chrysostom denounced Jews and Judaizing Christians in a series of sermons described by Fr. James Parkes, author of Conflict of the Church and the Synagogue as, “the most horrible and violent denunciations of Judaism to be found in the writings of a Christian theologian:”
“Consider, then, with whom they [Judaizers] are sharing their fasts. It is with those who shouted: ‘Crucify him, Crucify him,’ with those who said: ‘His blood be upon us and upon our children.’”
“Where Christ-killers gather, the cross is ridiculed, God blasphemed… If the Jewish rites are holy and venerable, our way of life must be false,”
“You did slay Christ, you did lift violent hands against the Master, you did spill his precious blood. This is why you have no chance for atonement, excuse, or defense.”
“The synagogue is not only a brothel and a theater, it is also a den of robbers and lodging place for wild beasts.”
A perhaps greater degree of confidence in identity and message begins to emerge with St. Augustine. In his The City of God (410) an uncertain and emotional Christian “triumphalism” begins to give way to the logic of Supersessionism in explaining Judaism’s replacement by Christianity. Of course there was still the troubling fact that following its “replacement,” that Judaism continued to survive alongside Christianity. But Augustine explained this as God’s punishment for killing His son, the Jews forced to live homeless and destitute, witness to Christianity’s success. Augustine also explained that the example served also as warning against Christian unbelief.
But he also wrote: “By their own Scriptures [Jewish survival is] a testimony to us that we have not forged the prophecies about Christ.” Forged? Why would such doubt even arise unless already present in the heart of Christian faith?Which reminds of Nicholls’ observation in explaining the source of two thousand years of anti-Jewish persecution, of the Holocaust: "...the very presence of the Jewish people in the world ... puts a great question against Christian belief in a new covenant made through Christ. The presence of this question, often buried deep in the Christian mind, could not fail to cause profound and gnawing anxiety... to hostility."