A Friend in Hippo

Amid the bleak history of Christian anti-Judaism, one extraordinary exception is Augustine of Hippo (354-430). His arguments on behalf of the Jews, a position that because of his towering influence on subsequent theology would have a lasting effect, led Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) to warn crusaders that in their zeal to recover the holy places, they must not harm Jews.

Paula Fredriksen, a noted professor of Scripture at Boston University, brings both biblical expertise and her own long-term research on Augustine to this task. She explores two related topics: Why did the tradition of virulent Christian anti-Judaism develop in the first place, especially since Christianity was born in Judaism and was historically dependent on its theology and practice? And how did Augustine develop his views that in the main run in a different direction from the strong adversus Iudaeos tradition of most Christian theologians from the second to fourth centuries?

To answer the first question, Fredriksen reaches back to the origins of Hellenism in the wake of Alexander’s conquests that brought Greek culture and philosophy to the entire Mediterranean world and beyond. One lasting consequence was the creation of strong bonds between ethnicity and religious loyalty, a bond that determined group identity and made it difficult for both Jews and (especially) Christians to be integrated into later Roman society. Another effect was to create a tradition that gave import to the interpretation of texts. This would become a key proving ground for later Christian theology. Also crucial in both Judaism and earliest Christianity was a tradition of polemics, one that at times was coupled with intolerance for diverse internal viewpoints and led to resistance against whatever was seen as dangerous from the outside.

In the New Testament period, the polemic against the Jewish leaders found in the Gospels and Paul’s sharp critique of the Law’s salvific function were made in the context of what was essentially an intra-Jewish debate, one centered on the religious significance of Jesus and on what constituted authentic Judaism. There was a further dimension, evident in Paul’s writings (but also echoed in the Gospels), about the status of gentile believers and what was required of them in terms of Jewish practice. In the post-New Testament period, the Jewish context of these polemics was lost and subsequent rhetoric took on a new and toxic cast. Fired by the conviction that the Jewish people were being punished by God for “killing” Jesus, and that the dispersion of the Jewish people following the destruction of the Second Temple was God-intended, anti-Judaism became a theological ideology that served to demarcate Christian identity, discourage Christians from being attracted to Judaism (apparently still a lingering problem in the early centuries of the church), and provide ammunition for labeling one’s Christian opponents as “Jewish” because of their alleged obstinacy and infidelity.

According to Fredriksen, several influences ultimately entwine to bring Augustine to his creative, novel stance in defense of the Jews. One was his shedding an early attraction to Manichaeism, a sect that held a particularly strong anti-Jewish ideology. It identified the Old Testament and its God, along with Jewish worship and practice, as crude and allied with the realm of evil. Augustine’s defense of the Hebrew Scriptures as the Word of God, and his affirmation of the profound Jewish context of Jesus, Paul, and the early Christians, expressed in his refutation of the Manichean theologian and leader Faustus, was an important milestone in the development of his position. So, too, was his insistence on reading the Bible “literally”—that is, engaging the biblical text on its own terms—and his growing appreciation of Paul’s letters. In particular, Paul’s underscoring the unique role of Israel and God’s irrevocable promises to the Jewish people in Romans 9-11 had a strong influence on Augustine, even though his own interpretation moved in a direction somewhat different from that of the Apostle. For Paul, God would ultimately bring Israel in at the end of time, along with gentile believers. Augustine’s outlook was less optimistic. While the Jews (Israel “according to the flesh”) still have a God-given purpose, only those believing Jews and gentiles predestined for salvation by God’s free choice will be saved.

A key expression of Augustine’s so-called doctrine of Jewish witness is found in his interpretation of Psalm 59:12, “Do not kill them or my people may forget.” Jews were not to be killed, nor their traditions and practices stopped. Such traditions were commanded by God. Furthermore, Augustine observed, Jesus, Paul, and the other apostles remained faithful to these practices. Finally, the dispersal of Jews throughout the world meant that they and their Scriptures give unwitting witness to the truth that the promises of God were fulfilled in Jesus and Christianity. Like Cain, Jews bear the mark of God’s protection, and therefore should not be suppressed or harmed.

Fredriksen’s exposition of Augustine is thorough and rewarding. Some patience is required as the author painstakingly works her way through descriptions of Greco-Roman political, religious, and educational traditions, as well as a discussion of the Jewish context of the Gospels and of Paul—all before getting to Augustine and his theology. Because she draws on her own multiple studies of Augustine and the influences on his thought, there is some repetition (his chief arguments against Faustus, for example, are stated more than once). I also wish that a scholar of Fredriksen’s stature had brought more nuance to the issue of diversity in early Christianity. It is not sufficient to place the emergence of orthodox Christianity in the anachronistic paradigm of “winners” and “losers,” or to see it in the context of a raw power play in which a stodgy, establishment orthodox hierarchy in cahoots with the emperor suppresses the creative, compelling viewpoints of heterodox groups (a myth popularized by such best-selling entertainments as The Da Vinci Code). What about the content of the canonical texts and their profound impact on the Christian communities that appropriated and defended them, long before Constantine? The inherent religious and moral authority of these texts, and their early reception by communities that revered them and used them in their worship and catechesis, were a prime reason for the emergence of so-called orthodox Christianity. Were the early Christians really as averse to diversity as Fredriksen claims? While the rhetoric was heated and there were limits to tolerance, the emergence of a canon of very diverse texts within the New Testament itself seems to indicate a significant degree of theological diversity.

But the main contributions of this book far outweigh any quibbles one might have on these points. Augustine’s defense of the Jews—however limited his appreciation of Judaism remained—stands out in the midst of a terrible legacy. Fredriksen, who has been an exemplary participant in the contemporary Christian-Jewish dialogue, points to the paradox that even in the midst of the anti-Jewish stance of Christianity, actual day-to-day relations among Jews and Christians in Roman society were apparently much less contentious. Further, Christian exposure to both the Old and the New Testaments in liturgy and preaching provided a reservoir of knowledge about Judaism and its essential influence on the emergence of Jesus and Christianity.

These factors—combined with a theological conversion perhaps even more radical than Augustine’s own—have led the Catholic Church in this post-Shoah era to rediscover its essential Jewish roots, to renounce its anti-Jewish heritage, and to view its “Elder Brother” with respect and even esteem.

Published in the 2009-03-27 issue: 

Donald Senior, CP, is president of the Catholic Theological Union at Chicago. He was appointed by Pope John Paul II to the Pontifical Biblical Commission.

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