"...the very presence of the Jewish people in the world ... puts a great question against Christian belief in a new covenant made through Christ.”
For a thousand years and more the Church remorselessly searched out Christian beliefs considered heresies, hunted down, tortured and murdered their adherents. So how explain the survival of Jews? Not until the twentieth century were the Jews subject to extermination as a group, and that by secular forces in the Christian West. Under religious authorities the Jews were persecuted, expelled, murdered; the Crusades saw whole communities put to the sword en route to “liberate” Jerusalem from the infidels. Spain forced its Jews to convert or be expelled. Later, and even after generations, those forced to convert and their descendents were suspected of being “insincere” in their Catholicism, tortured until the “confessed,” then burned at the stake. Yet heresies from Gnosticism and Montanism in the first and second centuries to Catharism in the eleventh were all ruthlessly suppressed. The emergence of Protestantism in the sixteenth century, the most serious heretical challenge to the Church proved too widespread to be suppressed. Europe’s Thirty Year’s War began as a religious conflict.
La Pendaison (The Hanging), Protestants executed during the Thirty Year’s War. (Wikipedia)
[For a visual history of antisemitism from the 4th to the 21st century visit David Turner’s Antisemitism in Art]
The Church’s problem with the survival of Judaism grew increasingly difficult beginning in the 4th century. Judaism was not, of course, a “heresy.” But the survival of Jews and Judaism in a post-messianic era posed a question of the legitimacy of Christian claims to be the “new” Israel; questioned even the role of Jesus as messiah.
St. Augustine of Hippo (354–430): For the new Church the continuing existence of the Jews demanded explanation. If the Jews exist it must be part of God’s plan, but how understand that plan? Augustine attempted to provide these answers in his City of God.
And while we may agree with the 18th century philosopher, Moses Mendelssohn’s pithy observation that, “but for Augustine''s ‘lovely brainwave,we would have been exterminated long ago,” Catholic theologian Rosemary Reuther finds very little difference between Augustine’s basic beliefs and that of Chrysostom (Constantine’s Sword (p.219) discussed last week.
According to Augustine,
“Judaism, since Christ, is a corruption; indeed, Judas is the image of the Jewish people: their understanding of Scripture is carnal; they bear the guilt for the death of the Savior, for through their fathers they have killed Christ.”
If Augustine provided the theological rationale for preserving some Jews he also maintained that Christianity superseded Judaism, inherited Jewish scripture, history and most importantly, the Covenant with God. This was Augustine’s, “‘theory of substitution’ whereby the New Israel of the church became a substitute of ancient Israel…”
“the house of Israel which [God] has cast off… are themselves the builders of destruction and rejecters of the cornerstone [Jesus]… the Lord Christ distinguished between His faithful ones and His Jewish enemies [my emphasis, also below].”
Supersessionism was not, of course, an invention of Augustine. It likely originated with Paul’s assertion that circumcision of the heart substituted for the physical act. Tertullian, an early Church Father wrote, “Who else, therefore, are understood but we, who, fully taught by the new law, observe these practices,—the old law being obliterated…” Justin Martyr in his Dialogue with Trypho wrote, “…law placed against law has abrogated that which is before it, and a covenant which comes after in like manner has put an end to the previous one.”
“The approach among many early Protestants that predominates today in Lutheran churches and some Reformed churches emphasizes the discontinuity between the old covenant and the new and sees the Mosaic Law primarily as negative. Most of the early advocates of this approach, such as Martin Luther (1483–1546), rejected the Jews as having a continuing positive relationship with God.”
In 1965 Vatican Council II, which also produced the “reformist” Nostre Aetate, described, "the Church [as] the new people of God." This was reaffirmed in the October, 2010 closing statement of the Special Synod of Bishops for the Middle-East:
At the mass following the Synod (Photo by Reuters)
“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”
Augustine and a Jewish remnant: So the question before Augustine was, “If the church was the “spiritual,” the “new Israel,” for what purpose did “national,” the ancient Israel exist?” The answer, God allows the Jews to survive “debased,” “destitute” and “in dispersion,” as a warning to Christians. “The Jews who slew Him, and would not believe in Him,” were punished by God, their temple destroyed, Jerusalem leveled. God has allowed them to survive as a continuing punishment because they “bear the guilt for the death of the Savior, for through their fathers they have killed Christ.” Three centuries after the Matthew gospel the sentences that would haunt the Jews through the millennia, justification for continuing persecution, is affirmed and developed by perhaps Christianity’s greatest thinker and theologian!
Justifying Jewish survival as a living lesson for God’s gifts to his New Israel; the withholding of those gifts from His unforgiven and previous “chosen” people: in the end it appears Augustine was not yet himself convinced because, he went on,
“By their own Scriptures [Jewish survival is] a testimony to us that we have not forged the prophecies about Christ.”
Who is the ‘us’ he is referring to; why would he even suggest that the traditional Christian reading of the Jewish scripture might not only be incorrect, but forged?
But the problem of historicity, has continued to dog Christian thinkers through the millennia, gnawing somewhere in Christianity’s “subconscious,” and with the dawn of the Age of Reason the search for evidence supporting Jesus place in history turned serious. I will discuss the Quest for the Historical Jesus at a future date.
In Christian Antisemitism: A History of Hate Episcopal minister William Nicholls places Augustine’s approach to the question of Jewish survival in modern and socio-psychological terms:
"...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. Anxiety usually leads to hostility."
Recent writings in this Series: