Saint Ambrose and the Ruined Synagogue

 We often think of opponents of the Jews in history as a rabble and mob eager to steal Jewish loot, indoctrinated in churches and mosques to hate Jews, and easily manipulated by clergy bent on defaming the Jewish people in their theology. Often, however, that has not been the case. Just as intellectuals and professors attack Israel on campus and in the media today, pagan, Christian and Muslim thinkers in the past have targeted Jews with their venom. I would like to explore the case of Ambrose, Bishop of Milan in the 4th century, and the Christian arson of a synagogue in the town of Callinicum in Mesopotamia in 388 of the modern calendar.

Ambrose, one of the most prominent Church Fathers, was educated and cultured and a zealous defender of Christianity. When a bishop in Mesopotamia fomented hatred against the Jews, the synagogue in Callinincum was burned to the ground. Emperor Theodosius the Great ordered that the house of worship be rebuilt. Often Jews in their history could depend on the political authorities to defend their interests, partly because of the Jewish economic benefits for an empire and partly because secular rulers liked to keep a semblance of law and order in their realm. But Bishop Ambrose was adamant that the synagogue not be rebuilt. He was an influential voice in the court of the Emperor. He composed a letter to Theodosius but this did not result in the rescinding of the order to rebuild the Mesopotamian synagogue. Ambrose argued that “the buildings of our churches were burnt by Jews, and nothing was restored, nothing was asked back, nothing demanded.” Whether this was true or not is a matter of debate. He continued, “Will you give this triumph over the Church of God to the Jews? This victory over Christ’s people? This exultation, O  Emperor, to the unbelievers? This rejoicing to the Synagogue, this sorrow to the Church?”

The Emperor initially ignored Bishop Ambrose’s plea to let the synagogue remain in ruins. Only when Ambrose appealed in person to the ruler, did Theodosius give in to the future saint’s arguments that a victory should not be given to the Jews by forcing the rioters and the local bishop to rebuild the synagogue. But the story does not end there. Five years later, in 393, Theodosius issued an order that any Christian in his realm who attacked and destroyed Jewish houses of worship would be punished for the crime. It remains a fascinating aspect of Jewish history that although Christian theology condemned the Jews as killers of Christ, historical reality was one of Jewish success in the economic, religious and cultural realms that was supported by secular rulers who often ignored the dictates of the Church. The sad fact is that Bishop Ambrose was an educated and brilliant man but, nevertheless, refused to condemn an act of hate. I often wonder how the intellectuals of our own day differ from St. Ambrose.