Christian Insecurity and the Jewish Problem: Quest for Identity

“By their own Scriptures [Jewish survival is] a testimony to us that we have not forged the prophecies about Christ.” (St. Augustine)

Most religion is faith-based, and faith is security. When I refer to “Christian insecurity” I am not talking about personal angst, but about a structural phenomenon within the religion itself, something that occasionally surfaces in the writings of theologians, of Christian historians of Christianity. Its survival in the 21st century are present in stereotype describing “the Jews” as somehow a threat to Christendom. The 19thcentury fabrication, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is an example of the threat as described: the Holocaust an example of threat addressed.

Christian insecurity begins with Paul’s break with Jerusalem over Jewish conversion, circumcision and dietary laws. And while this explanation may be true as far as it goes, issues of practice seem insufficient as explanation for the intensity of anti-Jewish polemic present in the later four canonical gospels. Assuming the gospels were not redacted, say in the fourth century, as response to the problem of Jewish survival among Christians, the explanation most generally suggested is the sect’s first century struggle for survival. And survival meant, first of all, attracting converts.
How intense, how challenging Judaism remained in the competition for converts even after the calamity of the fall of Jerusalem is reflected in the following passage from Matthew:

"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’s monotheism, its “day of rest,” the mystery of its invisible god, and particularly its ancient history were attractive to many pagans. Whatever truly led to Paul’s break with the Jerusalem leadership, it was materially represented by his abandonment of traditional Jewish conversion. And coincidentally or by design, it was this that would provide the potential edge in attracting converts. But Paul still had to convince that his mission was, in fact, Judaism. This he achieved by his representing Judaism as “completed” through Christ Jesus, his New Israel as having replaced the “old.” And by having “replaced” Judean Judaism his “new” Israel by fiat also inherited Judaism’s covenant with God, and that ancient history so appealing to the pagans.

But the sect had another problem of identity; how to separate itself from “old” Judaism as enemy of Rome. Rome dominated Judea. Jesus would have been tried and executed under Roman law, something that would not promote the sect in the eyes of Rome. So the gospels reversed the roles of Rome and Jew in the trial and crucifixion.

Tittus Triumph over Judea, Roman frieze, Wikipedia

Matthew, most dramatic of gospel documents regarding Jesus’ trial, most graphically accomplishes this rewrite. Pontius Pilate is universally described in the historical record as a misanthrope, hostile to Judea and the Jews (“incurred the enmity of the Jews by insulting their religious sensibilities,” Encyclopedia Britannica). He was dismissed by the emperor in 36 for stoking the fires of rebellion.

Which of the two will ye that I release unto you? And they said, Barabbas. Pilate saith unto them, What then shall I do unto Jesus who is called Christ? They all say, Let him be crucified. And he said, Why, what evil hath he done? But they cried out exceedingly, saying, Let him be crucified. So when Pilate saw that he prevailed nothing, but rather that a tumult was arising, he took water, and washed his hands [a Jewish, not Roman tradition] before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this righteous man; see ye to it. And all the people answered and said, His blood be on us, and on our children."

A person described as “beast” in the historical record is magically transformed into a humane and forgiving “Christian” while “the Jews,” defeated by Rome and dispersed appear as enemy of God and Christianity, eternally condemned as the murderers of Jesus. Except that which served well the purpose of appeasing Rome was inconsistent with historical possibility, something that any objective reading would make obvious, would raise questions of authenticity, would feed “insecurity.”


Folio from Papyrus 46, containing 2 Corinthians 11:33-12:9, Wikipedia

As in most things promoting his mission Paul provided the winning formula in attracting pagan converts: “To the Jews I became like a Jew… I have become all things to all people.” And as Paul, so would that most successful of second century missionaries, Justin Martyr, (103–165), follow his example. In 1 Apol. 21 he uses Jesus’ resurrection as a bridge to his pagan audience:

“[W]hen 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.”

For more than a thousand years resurrection of man-gods was common in pagan Mystery religions. This commonality with paganism, a serious departure from Judaism, represents another source of “Christian insecurity.”

Nor did the fear of Jewish competition end with Christianity’s adoption as the Empire’s state religion in 325. Well into the fourth century Christians and Jews continued to share holidays, exchanged gifts and even intermarried. Christian bishops determined to put an end to “Judaizing.” St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan (374 CE):

"The Jews are the most worthless of all men. They are lecherous, greedy, rapacious. They are perfidious murderers of Christ (Matthew). They worship the Devil (John). 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.”

Twelve year later Antioch presbyter St. John Chrysostom exceeded even Ambrose in a series of sermons (homilies), described by James Parkes as, “the most horrible and violent denunciations of Judaism to be found in the writings of a Christian theologian (Fr. Parkes may not have been familiar with Martin Luther)”:

“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.”


In Augustine’s The City of God (410) an uncertain and emotional Christian “triumphalism” begins to give way to the logic of Supersessionism as explanation for Judaism’s replacement by Christianity. That God allowed Jews and Judaism to survive, to live beside Christians represented a mystery demanding explanation, a problem demanding explanation. Augustine’s explanation described Jewish survival as homeless, destitute and forced to witness God’s favoring the New Israel as God’s punishment for killing His son. And their terrible fallen survival served another and important purpose for Christianity: Jewish survival was God’s example to Christians of the punishment for unbelief.

But Augustine also wrote,

“By their own Scriptures [Jewish survival is] a testimony to us that we have not forged the prophecies about Christ.”

A word pregnant with doubt, insecurity: “forged.”

Which reminds of Nicholls’ observation in explaining the source of two thousand years of anti-Jewish persecution inspiring 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... hostility [my emphases]."

Postscript: Googling for a better link to the introductory quote I came upon this explanation of Augustine’s position regarding Jewish survival:

During Augustine''s time, the existence of the Jews and Judaism posed an apologetic problem for the church. If the church was the new Israel, for what purpose did national Israel exist?“Augustine offered an answer for this perceived dilemma. For him, the Jews functioned primarily as witnesses. They were witnesses to the faith preached by the prophets, witnesses of divine judgment, and witnesses of the validity of Christianity. He wrote, “But the Jews who slew Him . . . are thus by their own Scriptures a testimony to us that we have not forged the prophecies about Christ.”[viii] The Jews, according to Augustine, shielded Christians from accusations that Christians invented Old Testament prophecies that pointed to Jesus. Thus, the existence of non-Christian Jews was not a problem but an essential testimony to the truth of Christianity.”

I provide this external affirmation as “testimony” that I have not forged my description of Augustine’s position. Nor my suggestion that the above quote points to the same structural problem of insecurity that would centuries later be termed the Jewish Problem, inspiration for the Holocaust.

Recent writings in this Series:
1. Christian Insecurity and the Jewish Problem: The Introduction
2. Foundations of the Holocaust: Matin Luther, Theologian of Hate
3. Foundations of the Holocaust: From Inquisition to "Purity of Blood"
4. Foundations of the Holocaust: The Crusades, 1086 - 1272