Frederiksen, Paula. Augustine and the Jews: A Christian Defense of Jews and Judaism. New York: Doubleday, 2008.

Frederiksen, Paula. Augustine and the Jews: A Christian Defense of Jews and Judaism. New York: Doubleday, 2008.

Horner, Barry. Future Israel: Why Christian Anti-Judaism Must Be Challenged. Nashville: B & H Academic, 2007.

The subtitle of Paula Frederiksen’s recent book Augustine and the Jews caught my eye before anything else: A Christian Defense of Jews and Judaism. I had just finished reading Barry Horner’s Future Israel: Why Christian Anti-Judaism Must Be Challenged, which traces Christian anti-Judaism back to the great Church fathers, who wrote in the fourth and fifth centuries. After all, as both Horner and Frederiksen make clear, it was Augustine who established the idea of Israel as a witness people, whose exile throughout history testifies to the truth of God’s word. Israel’s exile demonstrated throughout the Roman world of Augustine’s day the consequences of rejecting Messiah, even as Scripture foretold. Augustine’s defense of the Jews, then, is his insistence “that Jews were not a challenge to Christianity but a witness to it. In their allegiance to their ancestral practices, he asserted, the Jews unknowingly confirmed the church’s claim to their scriptures.”2

Augustine expressed this understanding of Israel in what Horner calls his “famous, yet obviously mistaken, interpretation of Ps 59:12 (59:11 in Christian Bibles), ‘Do not kill them [the Jews]; otherwise, my people will forget. / By Your power, make them homeless wanderers.’”3 This interpretation eventually led the Church to ensure that the Jewish people were not destroyed, but also that they did not prosper or increase. Frederiksen, however, doubts that Augustine himself would have intended such an application of his words. Just as the rhetoric of some passages of the Gospels, particularly in John, has been misapplied to fuel anti-Semitic attitudes and actions in the Christian world, which John himself, and surely Yeshua, would never have intended, so Augustine’s rhetoric fueled the idea that Jews should “survive but not thrive” in the Christian world.4

Augustine himself, however, interpreted the phrase, “Do not kill them,” to mean “Do not cause, or even encourage, them to be separated from their laws and traditions, for that would kill them as a people.” Jewish survival was not in question in Augustine’s day; Jews were citizens of the Roman Empire, protected by its laws, even though these were administered in many cases by the Church. Thus, Frederiksen describes Augustine’s support of one Licinius, a Jewish landholder, in his grievance against a bishop named Victor,5 and Augustine’s apparent rejection of the coercive tactics of another bishop, Severus, against the Jews of Minorca.6 In short, Frederiksen finds no evidence that Augustine objected to the relative prosperity and security that Jews still enjoyed in the recently Christianized Roman Empire of his day.

Before he developed the Psalm 59 interpretation, Augustine had employed a striking midrash on the story of Cain and Abel to explain the unique position of the Jewish people. Like Cain, the Jews have killed their brother, Yeshua, because he is the favored one of God. But, “God protects the Jews as he had protected Cain. He has placed his mark upon them, protecting their special identity by protecting their ancestral practices; and these ancestral practices are themselves God’s ‘mark.’”7 This protective mark, of course, is also a stigma. Augustine sees the Jews as the perpetual outsiders in the Christianized Roman world, but he does not invalidate Jewish religious thought and practice as do so many Hellenistic thinkers of his day. Their anti-Jewishness did not generally translate into practice, but was a rhetorical position that defended “spiritual” Christianity or Neo-Platonism by contrasting it with “fleshly” Judaism. They complained that the Jews followed their Scriptures literally, refraining from work one day a week, practicing circumcision upon their infant boys, avoiding various foods, and so on. The Hellenistic perspective—whether Christian or pagan—saw such practices as meaningless in themselves, as having value only as symbols of spiritual truth. The Jews’ literal application only revealed their unspiritual outlook. Augustine,

“from the period of his own early schooling through to his productive years as a mature intellectual and a powerful bishop . . . moved entirely within a philosophical culture that valued the spiritual over the material, the eternal over the historical. Throughout his life, he thought within a range of theological cultures that . . . associated the Christian message with ‘the spirit’ and the Christian construction of Judaism with ‘the flesh.’”8

Frederiksen portrays this culture with great lucidity and insight, so that her book could serve as an introduction to Augustine and late classical Christianity. In this context Augustine is a defender of Jews and Judaism.

Against the grain of late Roman Neoplatonic philosophy, he emphasized the value, even the necessity, of seeing history as vital to revelation and of seeing flesh as vital to spirit . . . Praxis, the “traditions of the fathers” as Paul calls it (Galatians 1:14), is where Judaism is at its most emphatically, distinctly, carnally, ethnically Jewish. Without this, said Augustine, you cannot have Christianity; because without this you cannot have the incarnate Christ . . . Christ is God at his most emphatically, distinctly, carnally, ethnically Jewish.9

In other words, Judaism in its distinctiveness prepares the way for the distinctive historical event of the incarnation, in which God comes as a Jew among the Jews, who have been prepared for his coming through their writings and traditions. Thus Augustine asserted that “Jews as Jews . . . were not a challenge to Christian identity but a witness to it and a support for it, confirming in their allegiance to their scriptures the validity of the Christian claim.”10

Horner, on the other hand, considers not the historical Augustine, but the theological Augustine, whose “teaching concerning the future of the Jews . . . both saved them from total decimation and preserved them for intentional humiliation.”11 Under Augustine’s theological influence western Christianity came to see Jews and their practice as meaningful only in a negative sense, as evidence of the consequences of rejecting the Lordship of Yeshua.

Augustine’s thought is one of the pillars of supersessionism, as expressed in his Expositions on the Book of Psalms:

Let therefore no Christian consider himself alien to the name of Israel . . . The Christian people then is rather Israel . . . But that multitude of Jews, which was deservedly reprobated for its perfidy, for the pleasures of the flesh sold their birthright, so that they belonged not to Jacob, but rather to Esau.12

Augustine’s eschatology has no place for a millennial kingdom, in which all the prophecies concerning Israel will be fulfilled. Instead he interprets such prophecies “spiritually,” as applying to the Church and to its eventual transfer from earth to heaven. Israel as a distinctive people has no real future in God’s plan. This eschatology, which came to be known as amillennialism, is generally linked with supersessionism. If God is through with Israel, then what need is there for a future, earthly kingdom, with Messiah ruling over it from Jerusalem? Of course, the prophets all speak of just such a kingdom, so amillennialism must find an alternate way of interpreting their words.

Horner acknowledges that there may be different interpretations of Scripture, but urges his readers to assess an interpretation in part by its fruit.

If a Christian’s eschatology produces an indifference, detachment, or even antagonism towards things Jewish . . . there is most likely something fundamentally wrong with that eschatological expression. True doctrine, rightly comprehended, does not produce bad attitudes.13

In other words, we can argue that supersessionism is wrong not only because it seems to ignore the plain sense of so many biblical passages, or rather to favor a strained interpretation over a straightforward interpretation of so many passages, but also because it has led to contempt and oppression of the Jewish people over the centuries.

Such an argument is particularly potent coming from Horner because he strongly identifies with Reformed theology, particularly of the Calvinist strain, which is normally amillennial and supersessionist. Nonetheless, he argues that bad behavior among Christians and Christian institutions may be evidence of bad underlying theology. If amillennialism has supported anti-Semitism, it might just be the wrong approach to eschatology, even if it sounds more spiritual than other viewpoints, like premillennialism (the belief in a literal, earthly kingdom of God to come).

In Postmissionary Messianic Judaism, Mark Kinzer cites other Christian authors who make a similar point, based on Yeshua’s teaching that Torah and the Prophets depend entirely on the two commandments to love God and love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:40). Ironically, Kinzer’s list of Christian references on this point includes (albeit in a footnote) Augustine himself, who once wrote:

So what all that has been said amounts to . . . is that the fulfillment and end of the law and of all the divine scriptures is love (Rom 13:8; 1 Tim 1:5) . . . So if it seems to you that you have understood the divine scriptures, or any part of them, in such a way that by this understanding you do not build up this twin love of God and neighbor, then you have not yet understood them.14

Augustine, however, did not seem to apply this truth to his Jewish neighbors—or perhaps could not conceive of them as neighbors at all—but only as “homeless wanderers,” who got what they deserved.

In contrast, writes Kinzer,

If Christians believe that anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism are incompatible with the character of God, then they must question the theological assertions that have given these attitudes and actions such powerful impetus. Furthermore, when Christians seek to take responsibility for the sins of their forbears, they must also take responsibility for the interpretive judgments that made these sins possible.15

One lasting aspect of Augustine’s legacy is his fusion of Hellenistic philosophy with biblical doctrine. To this day, many Christians prefer to think of biblical truth in abstract and disembodied terms. Horner, like Kinzer and the authors that he cites, is suggesting an approach to biblical truth that looks more like the Bible itself, which tends to convey doctrine through story and precept and to follow up its more theoretical passages with behavioral instruction. In short, the Bible handles truth in Jewish fashion, not as abstraction, but as a way of life, particularly evident in our treatment of other human beings, for “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen” (1 John 4:20). That most followers of Jesus throughout the centuries, unlike Paul (Acts 22:1, 28:17; Rom 9:3), would not recognize Jews as their brothers or sisters may be evidence of Augustine’s influence.

Horner points out the great irony that Reformed theology—which expresses great confidence in the sovereignty of God and great hope in salvation as a free gift of God apart from human merit—remains firmly supersessionist in its view of Israel. It speaks of the irresistible grace of God and the eternal security of the redeemed but maintains at the same time that the Jewish people lost their standing with God irretrievably because of disobedience. And he deals at length with a corollary to this troubling position: If the Jewish people no longer have any claim to be God’s chosen, they therefore have no special claim on the land of Israel today. Thus, for example, Horner quotes seminary professor Gary Burge, who “erroneously proposes, ‘Possession of the land is tied to obedience to the covenant.’” Horner responds, “In other words, Israel lost its inheritance because of disobedience while Christians gain this inheritance, spiritually speaking, strictly by grace through faith alone in Jesus Christ.”16 In place of this inconsistent theology, Horner calls for “the acknowledgement that while grace has blessed the Gentiles in a grand manner, so too will that same grace of God, according to the same sovereign purpose, ultimately bless the Jewish people in a most climactic and triumphant sense.”17

The land of Israel, Horner argues, is part of God’s gracious gift to the people of Israel. The Mosaic covenant makes clear that disobedience will lead to exile from the Land but not to loss of entitlement to the Land. The same passages in Torah that threaten exile also promise an ultimate return (see Leviticus 26, esp. vv. 40–46; Deut. 30:1–10; these passages seem to be conditional upon Israel’s repentance, but the Prophets, esp. Ezekiel 36–37, make it clear that Israel will both return and repent). Through nearly two millennia of exile, Israel recognized that Torah still provided its title deed to the Land and continued in prayer and longing for it. Or, to say the same thing in Reformed terms, Jews recognized that God’s sovereign choice of Israel as his people and his free gift of the Land still held, despite their sins and despite their continuing exile.

It is encouraging to see Horner marshal the resources of Reformed theology to the side of Israel and Jewish continuity, and equally encouraging to hear his citations of historic Christian voices in support of Israel and Jewish continuity. At the same time, one of the pillars of his argument might be problematic from a Messianic Jewish perspective. Horner supports Israel’s ongoing claim to the Land because it is based on the Abrahamic covenant, which the later Mosaic covenant cannot abrogate. The Abrahamic covenant, according to Horner, is unilateral and unconditional, whereas the Mosaic covenant is bilateral—involving a response both from God and from Israel—and conditional upon Israel’s obedience. The implication is that if the Land had been granted only as part of the Mosaic covenant, it would have been lost. Thus, despite Horner’s clear words in support of Israel and Jewish identity, he seems at times to reflect the familiar Christian denigration of the Law of Moses. Thus, he writes that God’s promise to Abraham that his heirs will inherit the Land “was in no way abrogated when, 430 years later, the temporary, intervening, foreshadowing administration of Moses ‘was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise had been made would come’ (Gal 3:19).”18

Here is another irony: Augustine, who sees Israel as superseded, argues that loyalty to Torah is essential to Jewish identity. Horner, who believes the covenant with Israel still stands, sees Torah loyalty as secondary. But this position seems inconsistent within his own book:

Paul acknowledged that the unbelieving Jew has present authenticity with regard to the full meaning of Jewishness. He clearly upheld this vital truth, not merely for the cause of secular convenience, but because of his bona fide identification as a fellow Israelite with “the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the temple service, and the promises” (Rom 9:4). This is not the language of superseded Judaism.19

But how can Horner say this, if he believes the entire Mosaic ordinance has been set-aside in Messiah? Would not such setting aside in itself create a “superseded Judaism?” Despite these questions, I remain appreciative of Horner’s work and hopeful that he may be able to answer them in a satisfactory way in future writings.

Horner argues that supersessionism not only has borne bad fruit throughout most of its history but also impugns the character of God. This is precisely where Reformed theology is most attractive—in emphasizing God’s sovereignty, his freedom to act apart from human merit or claim, solely on the basis of his own love and goodness. Horner insists that this love and goodness govern God’s dealings with Israel, past, present and future.

But never let perish the biblical indications of God’s sovereign grace that will supremely triumph in the salvation of Israel as a nation through the mediation of its Messiah, Jesus, the Son of God, and His consummate reign from Jerusalem. Israel’s original election was according to the purest grace, and so will be the climactic salvation of national Israel unto holiness as God’s people.20

Augustine denies this climactic salvation of the Jewish people. In his view, the practice of Torah provides divine protection for the Jews and, since he cannot countenance the idea of Torah-practicing Jews in the Church (at least after the New Testament period), he must leave the great majority of Jews outside it. Or, to turn this thought around, God has placed the ancestral Jewish practices as a mark of Cain upon the Jewish people, and since Augustine finds no place for such practices within the community of the redeemed, the Jews will never come into that community in great numbers. Hence, Augustine would certainly condemn our Messianic Jewish vision of faith in Yeshua and loyalty to Jewish tradition and practice. His understanding of Romans 11:26 epitomizes this position.

“[A]ll Israel” that is saved does not and cannot mean all of “Israel according to the flesh”—that is, the Jews. What does Paul mean then? “Israel according to the spirit,” Augustine concludes; verus Israel, “true Israel,” the Israel of God. This “Israel” designates the community of the redeemed, which is composed of those particular Jews and those designated Gentiles whom God, in his inscrutable wisdom, chose to save.21

In the end, Augustine’s “defense of Jews and Judaism” gives us a continuing place in God’s eschatological purposes, but still insists that that place remain one of exile and exclusion. What he terms Israel according to the flesh has been superseded by the spiritual Israel, which is the Church. In his own day, Augustine was a defender of the Jewish people, perhaps, but his rhetoric gave rise to Christian attitudes far more negative than his in the following centuries.

  1. Portions of this review appeared earlier in “Rabbi Russ’s Blog” at
  2. Frederiksen, Augustine and the Jews, 351.
  3. Horner, Future Israel, 3.
  4. Ibid., 4; citing James Carroll, Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews—A History (New York: Houghton-Mifflin, 2001).
  5. Frederiksen, Augustine and the Jews, 312ff.
  6. Ibid., 357ff.
  7. Ibid., 319.
  8. Ibid., 101–2.
  9. Ibid., 317 (Frederiksen’s emphasis).
  10. Ibid., 319.
  11. Horner, Future Israel, 3.
  12. Citied in ibid., 5.
  13. Ibid., xix.
  14. Mark S. Kinzer, Postmissionary Messianic Judaism: Redefining Christian Engagement with the Jewish People (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2005), 34–35 fn. 10.
  15. Ibid., 36.
  16. Horner, Future Israel, 53–54.
  17. Ibid., 11.
  18. Ibid., 226.
  19. Ibid., 309.
  20. Ibid., 321.
  21. Frederiksen, Augustine and the Jews, 328.
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