St. Augustine's Defense of Judaism

October 2009By Arthur C. Sippo

Arthur C. Sippo is a physician and specialist in aerospace medicine who has written and lectured as a Catholic apologist for over 30 years. He writes from southern Illinois.

Augustine and the Jews: A Christian Defense of Jews and Judaism.  By Paula Fredriksen. Double­day. 512 pages. $35.



The relationship between Christianity and Judaism has had a long and controversial history. Christianity originated as a dissident Jewish sect but eventually evolved into an independent religion with only the most tenuous ties to its Jewish past. Jews refused to acknowledge Christians as part of their tradition in Apostolic times, and Christians were very quick thereafter to divorce themselves from any link to contemporary Judaism. But the historic link between the two faiths could not be ignored. Soon both Jews and Christians advanced apologetic arguments to attack the credibility of the others' faith.

When Christianity succeeded in becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century, Christians wielded political power for the first time. It became necessary to develop not only an apologetic but also a politically viable strategy for dealing with the Jews, who were found in large numbers throughout the empire. The new paradigm for Jewish-Christian relations was developed by the man who is without doubt the greatest theological mind of the first Christian millennium: St. Augustine, bishop of Hippo in the early fifth century.

In Augustine and the Jews, Prof. Paula Fredriksen of Boston University describes the development of St. Augustine's views concerning the Jews and how they contrasted with the Christian views of the first four centuries. But this book is so much more. Fredriksen has given us a magisterial tome that consolidates the best of modern historical and patristic scholarship; moreover, she gives us a unique and comprehensive view of how the original Christian Adversus Iudaeos apologetic developed. She then shows in detail how St. Augustine came to some very different conclusions and arrived at a rationale that saw Judaism in a much more positive light.

Along the way, Fredriksen illuminates the irenic cultural religiosity of the Roman Empire in a way that will surprise most modern readers. Many modern Christians have a simplistic view of early Christianity in which Jews and Christians remained separate from one another and did not intermix. This attitude is based on paradigms derived from the 19th-century patristic revival. More modern historical studies have shown that Jews, Christians, and pagans often interacted during one another's feast days and celebrations. This type of behavior is more like that of the modern ecumenical movement than it is like the starkly intolerant periods from the Middle Ages through the Enlightenment.

Jews and Christians did not usually participate in formal pagan worship services, but it appears that they did sometimes participate in the others' religious services and would celebrate the non-religious aspects of pagan festivals. Christians might attend the synagogue on Passover, and Jews may have come to hear great Christian preachers like St. John Chry­sostom, St. Ambrose, and St. Augustine. Many pagans likewise attended Jewish and Christian services. Fredriksen documents that Christians and Jews contributed funds for the building of each other's places of worship, and that pagan patrons contributed to them as well. This indicates that the anti-Jewish writings of the Church Fathers were directed less against actual threats to the faith from Jewish encroachment than against a perceived indifferentism in which a kind of “civil religion” was seen to be a threat to distinctive Christian beliefs and practices. They were less concerned with losing the flock than they were with confusing the flock.

Fredriksen goes on to show that the ambivalence toward Judaism that developed in the earliest Christian Adversus Iudaeos traditions walked a fine line between the rabid anti-Judaism of the heretics Marcion and Manes and the more tempered anti-Judaism of St. Justin Martyr and Tertullian. There was a strong attitude of dualism inherent in the pagan Roman culture of that period in which matter was seen to be evil while spiritual things were seen to be good. The preoccupation of the Jewish law with matters of this world was seen by pagans as being overly carnal. This carried over into the thought of many who came to believe in Jesus, and we had the beginning of the Gnostic movements.

The Gnostic heretic Marcion believed that the Jewish God was an evil deity trying to drag men down into the evil world of matter. He taught that the Father of Jesus could not be the God of the Jews and he consequently jettisoned the entire Old Testament and rejected all the New Testament books except certain epistles of St. Paul and the Gospel of Luke, which he edited to fit his tastes. Manes had a similar attitude toward the Jews but went further in identifying two principles at work in the creation of the world -- one good and one evil -- both of which needed to be placated. Like Marcion he wanted to expurgate Jewish ideas from Christianity entirely since he considered them to be too concerned with the material world.

Catholic Christianity opposed these extreme views but similarly wanted to distance itself from Judaism. The typical apologetic they developed saw Judaism as a religion that pointed to its own culmination in Jesus Christ. The Old Testament prophecies foretold the coming of Christ and had no benefit thereafter. Everything the Jews did in their rituals -- especially the blood sacrifices -- was seen as pointing to Christ. Even the moral precepts of the law were seen as mere pedagogy for the “Law of Love” that Jesus instituted. For them, to perpetuate Jewish practices now that Jesus had come was an explicit denial of His Messiahship. To participate in the Passover Seder was seen as ridiculous because it was a mere type of the Lord's Supper. Likewise, the repletion of blood sacrifices was an offense to Christ, whose once-for-all blood sacrifice made them obsolete.

The view of Judaism in Catholic Christianity was almost entirely negative in the first four centuries of the Christian Era, and many orthodox Fathers supported the notion that St. Paul frankly opposed Judaism and flatly rejected everything about it. The general idea was that Judaism was too carnal with its concerns for conduct under the Mosaic Law and its gross blood sacrifices. It did not seem spiritual enough. It was only because of their stiff-necked refusal to read their own prophetic books that the Jews failed to recognize Christ in them. As such, continuing to profess Judaism was seen to be a direct attack on Christ. The New Testament had claimed that the Jews in Jerusalem had been responsible for Jesus' death.

Fredriksen then introduces us to St. Augustine and gives us a brief yet well-developed portrait of his rise to ecclesiastical prominence. Augustine was classically trained in the rhetorical tradition before his conversion and naturally gravitated into debates with non-Catholic religious controversialists. Fredriksen brilliantly shows how Augustine's debates -- especially with the Manichean Faustus -- led him to re-examine the Christian relationship to Judaism. He realized that as long as the Church assumed the Gnostic attitude of dismissing Judaism as carnal, she undermined the goodness of creation and opened the door to dualistic arguments from the New Testament Scriptures. What was at stake here was nothing less than the integrity of the Old Testament revelations in themselves and the Jewish religion that was based on them.

Augustine surmised that the Old Testament and the Mosaic Law were good, not evil, that they were intended to lead us to Christ and to help us to understand the meaning of Christ's teachings. He was a particular champion for the inclusion of the post-exilic Jewish Wisdom literature in the Christian canon of the Old Testament, particularly the books of Sirach and The Wisdom of Solomon.

St. Augustine agreed with the older Christian tradition that the Old Testament prophesies bore witness to Christ and that the Jews should have recognized Him. But he developed the idea that God Himself was deliberately blinding the Jews from seeing this. He saw this as providential. Jews existed in large numbers throughout the Roman Empire and even outside of it. Their religion was ancient and respected even by pagans. Wherever they went, they brought Scriptures with them. When Christian missionaries began preaching the Gospel, they could then point to the books of the Jews as an independent witness to Jesus Christ.

Augustine also likened Jesus to Abel and the Jews to Cain, Abel's elder brother who murdered him out of jealousy. In Genesis, Cain fears for his life because he has killed his brother, so God puts a mark on him that basically protects him. It warns anyone who might find Cain that he is not to be harmed or God Himself will seek vengeance on that man. St. Augustine identified circumcision as the analogue among the Jews to the mark of Cain. In his view, the Jews were not to be harmed and were under God's special protection. In doing so, God could use them as independent witnesses to the truth of Christianity.

St. Augustine also began to think more deeply about the meaning of St. Paul's concept of “grace” and the ideas of election and predestination. It is at this point that Fredriksen gives us an unexpected benefit: In the midst of delineating St. Augustine's new ideas concerning Judaism, she gives us a detailed look at his thoughts on nature and grace. She shows clearly why St. Augustine was and always will be a Catholic and can never be made complicit with the errors of the Protestants 1,100 years later. Luther and Calvin both spoke of God's absolute sovereignty and His alleged right to save or damn whomever He willed. In their heretical view, God did so in an arbitrary fashion since all men were likewise totally depraved and there was no difference to be found among them. As such, predestination has been seen by many Protestant thinkers as an exercise of raw sovereign power in which the will of God alone makes something good with no reference to any moral standard. Many Protestant thinkers have tried to claim that they were merely following St. Augustine.

Fredriksen, though, shows clearly that St. Augustine did not agree with this. In his view, God could not act arbitrarily because to do so would be unjust. St. Augustine made it clear that God had good reasons for saving some and damning others, even if these reasons were not discernible by human beings. The hidden judgments of God were, in St. Augus­tine's view, wholly just, but God is under no obligation to tell us why He does what He does. Nevertheless, He has His reasons. (St. Thomas Aquinas says something very similar in the Summa Theologiae.) Whatever God does is directed toward the ultimate goodness of the created order but always with justice toward each of His creatures. No merely voluntaristic, positivistic, or utilitarian exercise of raw power can in itself morally justify God's actions. In the end, no one will have cause to complain that he has been treated unfairly. St. Augustine himself recognized this as part of the Catholic faith, and we have remained faithful to his vision.

St. Augustine's apologetic for Judaism was indeed a milestone in Christian thinking and helped lay the groundwork for a more positive Christian approach toward the Jews. It preserved the integrity of the Old Testament revelation while finding a justification for tolerance of the sizable Jewish minority in Roman society. But it cannot be considered the ultimate position of the Catholic Church. In modern times, Christians have begun to appreciate the Jews and their continuing efforts to be faithful to the revelations received by their ancestors. In the highest circles of the Catholic Church it has been recognized that the Old Covenant from Sinai was never revoked, even though the advent of Christ has superseded it. Christians in recent decades have begun to appreciate the religious symbolism of Jewish practices and feast days, and it is not uncommon for parishes to hold Seder meals during Holy Week to delve more deeply into the meaning of the Mass. Ironically, sooner than provide an independent witness to pagans for the truth of Christ, our encounters with observant Jews today bear witness to our own heritage in Judaism. There is much we can learn from Judaism that illumines the Gospels and the origins of Christianity.

Fredriksen's book was written to reveal how St. Augustine developed a more positive view of Judaism and to try to show that the horrible anti-Semitic views and actions especially of the past two centuries are neither necessary nor inevitable. St. Augustine was able to move beyond the prejudices of his immediate forebears.



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