Reconciling the Antisemitism of the Church Fathers with Their Devotion to Messiah
Throughout history, those who have presented themselves to society as devout Christians have taken some very undevout positions. Many slave owners in America were not only born-again Christians but held services for their slaves. And after slavery, many white Christians continued to harbor racist sentiments against blacks. In the Middle Ages, the bishops forbade the people from reading the Bible.1 Many in the Roman Empire assumed that Rome was the eternal city and equated it with the kingdom of God—until it was sacked by the Visigoths in 410 CE. But what about how the Church viewed Israel? It is a fact that sometimes Christians justify the unbiblical with the Bible—like overturning an election through prayer.
There are two things we know about most of the Church Fathers. 1) They were very deeply devoted to Jesus and theology—even willing to die for him, and 2) they were extremely harsh in their theology and rhetoric towards the Jewish people. In this paper, I will seek to reconcile these two realities. Can you love Jesus and hate his people? Can you seek to save souls while demanding others be damned to death? Not all of the rhetoric went so far as hate or calling for death, but even mild anti-Jewish sentiment out of the mouths of those who are considered heroes of the faith is shocking—particularly when Paul argues that the Jewish people are to be loved for bringing the gospel to the nations (Romans 1:16, 11:28). We have to ask, will the Messiah return for an antisemitic Bride?
Disgracefully “for nearly two thousand years . . . the Christian world relentlessly dehumanized the Jew, enabling the Holocaust, the ultimate consequence of this dehumanization, to take place.”2
Abraham a Sancta Clara, the populist seventeenth-century Viennese Catholic preacher . . . claimed, “After Satan, Christians have no greater enemies than the Jews. . . . They pray many times each day that God may destroy us through pestilence, famine and war, aye, that all beings and creatures may rise up with them against the Christians. . . . Abraham a Sancta Clara believed that Jews had changed God into the devil and were themselves devils. Thus, at
the intellectual heights of European Christendom, as in its lower depths, Jews ceased to be living human beings.3
We can find such feelings in the writings of Luther, and they begin with the Church Fathers. “Origen, St. Jerome, Chrysostom, and others argued that God was punishing the Jews with perpetual slavery for their murder of Jesus.”4
How Scholarship Has Dealt with this Problem
Many of the books that deal with this subject simply demonize the Church Fathers. It is understandable that Jewish scholars are tough on them. As Dr. Michael Brown notes in his book, Our Hands are Stained with Blood, the history between the Church and the Jewish people is indeed bloody. “It is the Christian Church—in name, though not in spirit—that has actually written much of Israel’s unbearably painful history, using Jewish blood instead of ink.”5
While negative Jewish reaction to 2,000 years of antisemitism from Christian theologians is understandable, what is not is how many books on church history completely whitewash any references to this embarrassing truth. In 1985, as a Bible school student, I read about the men we will examine here, and not one word was written about their antagonistic feelings toward the Jewish people and religion. Recently I completed a graduate-level course on church history and even in the books for this course there was not a hint of the anti-Jewish rhetoric of the Church Fathers.
For example, in Charles McGrath’s tome, Christian History (a powerfully insightful work, despite this example), he explains in the most benign way Justin’s argument about why God supposedly moved Sabbath to Sunday: “Justin explains that the community gathers on Sunday, or the first day of the week, both because it was the day of creation and because this was the day on which Jesus rose from the dead.”6 Sounds innocent enough until you read Justin’s actual words, addressed to the Jews of his time.
The custom of circumcising the flesh, handed down from Abraham, was given to you as a distinguishing mark, to set you off from other nations and from us Christians. The purpose of this was that you and only you might suffer the afflictions that are now justly yours; that only your land be desolated, and your cities ruined by fire, that the fruits of your land be eaten by strangers before your very eyes; that not one of you be permitted to enter your city of Jerusalem. Your circumcision of the flesh is the only mark by which you can certainly be distinguished from other men. . . . As I stated before, it was by reason of your sins and the sins of your fathers that, among other precepts, God imposed upon you the observance of the Sabbath as a mark.7
In reality, Justin saw the Jewish Sabbath and circumcision much like the “Jewish Badge”8 (the yellow armband with the Star of David) that Nazis, and the French and British before them, forced Jews to wear. People could distinguish Jews from non-Jews to persecute them. And why was this distinguishing mark given to the Jewish people? “Because of your sins,” says Justin.
McGrath does not mention the murdering of Jewish communities by Catholic crusaders or the torching of the Great Synagogue in Jerusalem:
It is even reported that, when the Crusaders captured Jerusalem in 1099, the Jews fled to the Great Synagogue, which the Crusaders then set on fire, burning the Jews alive. David Rausch provides a vivid account: “They burned the Jews alive in the chief synagogue [of Jerusalem], circling the screaming, flame-tortured humanity singing ‘Christ We Adore Thee!’ with their Crusader crosses held high.”9
This was during the First Crusade when many of the Crusaders were actually devoted, zealous Catholics, not mercenaries.
Why are such scenes left out of church history? In the same class we read both McGrath and The Holy Spirit: Medieval Roman Catholic and Reformation Traditions, by Stanley Burgess. Both deal extensively with Martin Luther, yet neither one mentions the virulent anti-Semitism of his later years or his book entitled, The Jews and their Lies. Here is one of more well-known quotes from the book:
First, their synagogues should be set on fire. . . . Secondly, their homes should likewise be broken down and destroyed. . . . Thirdly, they should be deprived of their prayer-books and Talmuds. . . . Fourthly, their rabbis must be forbidden under threat of death to teach any more. . . . Fifthly, passport and traveling privileges should be absolutely for bidden to
the Jewe. . . . Sixthly, they ought to be stopped from usury [charging interest on loans]. . . . Seventhly, let the young and strong Jews and Jewesses be given the flail, the ax, the hoe, the spade, the distaff, and spindle, and let them earn their bread by the sweat of their noses. . . . We ought to drive the rascally lazy bones out of our system. . . . Therefore away with them. . . .
To sum up, dear princes and nobles who have Jews in your domains, if this advice of mine does not suit you, then find a better one so that you and we may all be free of this insufferable devilish burden—the Jews.10
For whatever reason, academia has often ignored the anti-Jewish sentiment, not only in the Church Fathers, but also in church history.
Antisemitism versus Anti-Judaism
Let me make a brief note here about the term antisemitism. It was a term that was coined only in 1879 by Wilhelm Marr,11 and I see it as slightly different from anti-Judaism.
Wilhelm Marr, a German journalist who was a Jew-hater, popularized the term in the late nineteenth century. He contended that Jews, including those who had converted to Christianity, were incapable of assimilating. Once a Jew, always a Jew. According to Marr, Jews were dangerous because their goal was “to harm Germanic identity” and to destroy “the Germanic.” Nothing could alter their foreign-ness, including changing their religion. Consequently, Marr rejected the term Judenhass, Jew-hatred, because even Jews who now considered themselves Christians were still objects of his hatred. Seeking a word that had a racial and “scientific” connotation rather than a religious one, he chose Antisemitismus (capitalized because all nouns are capitalized in German). For him and the legions of people who adopted this word, it meant one thing and one thing only: hating members of the Jewish “race.”12
In other words, Marr didn’t want to merely hate Jews for their religion but for their existence. The Church Fathers did not believe that Jews were irredeemable. They wanted the Jews to convert and find peace with God. By definition, antisemitism is more connected to race than religion; it believes there’s something defective genetically with the Jew. Hence, Hitler was deeply worried that his grandfather might have been Jewish. If true, it was something irreparable. Hitler referred to it as “blood poisoning.”13 While Encyclopedia Britannica does say that antisemitism is about religion as well as race, it goes on to say that antisemitism “targeted Jews because of their supposed biological characteristics.”14 It would be unfair to accuse all the Church Fathers of being antisemitic, but most were very much anti-Jewish/Judaism.
The Devotion of the Fathers
We will begin by showing that the Fathers had a genuine relationship with God—at least their rhetoric would lead us to conclude that. Next, we will view comments by the same men regarding the Jewish people. Lastly, we will ask ourselves and others how to reconcile what seem to be polar opposites. Jacob, the brother of Yeshua, asks, “Can both fresh water and saltwater flow from the same spring?” (Jam 3:11). We will limit our survey to the words of Justin Martyr, Origen, John Chrysostom, and Augustine. I chose Justin for his effective apologetic skills and Origen because of his contributions to theology, apologetics, and the development of the canon of Scripture. I selected Chrysostom for the sheer ferocity with which he attacked Jews and the vile hatred in his anti-Jewish rhetoric, and Augustine because many consider him one of the greatest theologians in history.
One of the great early apologists of the Christian faith was Flavia Neopolis, known to most by his Christian name, Justin Martyr (100–165 CE). He “described himself as a philosopher seeking the truth who became convinced that Christianity was the true philosophy.”15 He was “[a] pagan reared in a Jewish environment,”16 in ancient Judaea, before the second revolt. He eventually left paganism and became a Christian in 132 CE.17 He “became known as a debater for the faith, most notably through a disputation with the Jew Trypho.”18 Some believe that he invented “Trypho” in order to debate a Jewish person regarding the faith. Others claim he was a real person.19
In his two apologies, Justin pulls no punches in his assessment of Roman paganism: “Christianity promotes a better morality than Roman religion. Pagans desert their unwanted infants, who either die and make their parents murderers or are picked up by a passer-by and raised to become prostitutes in a temple. Christians, on the other hand, are commanded to care for all their children as an act of piety and justice.”20
Of course, such attacks on the Roman religion did not go unnoticed. One of the things that had attracted Justin to Christianity was the courage of believers in the face of death. “When I myself took delight in the teachings of Plato, I heard the Christians slandered and saw that they were fearless in the face of death and everything thought fearful,”21 explains Justin in his second apologetic. Now it was his turn. “[A]fter debating with the cynic Crescens, Justin was denounced to the Roman prefect as subversive and condemned to death with six companions. Authentic records of his martyrdom, by beheading, survive.”22
Origen of Alexandria
Origen of Alexandria (185–254) has been termed “undoubtedly the greatest genius the early Church ever produced.”23 Britannica calls him “the most important theologian and biblical scholar of the early Greek church.”24 From an early age, his faith was tested. His father was beheaded as a Christian in the early part of the third century. Origen wanted to join his father in prison, to boldly confess faith in Jesus, but as the eldest of seven children, he had to now take care of his family.25 In order to give his all to service for the Lord, Origen embraced celibacy.26
Origen became a prolific writer and educator. “A stream of treatises and commentaries began to pour from Origen’s pen. At Alexandria, he wrote Miscellanies (Stromateis), On the Resurrection (Peri anastaseos), and On First Principles (De principiis). He also began his immense commentary on St. John, written to refute the commentary of the Gnostic follower of Valentinus, Heracleon.”27 His life’s work was the Hexpula, a parallel edition of six translations of the Hebrew Bible, including the Hebrew itself. The goal was to assist those who would debate rabbis, who only trusted the original Hebrew.28
While Origin did not die a martyr, he withstood torture for his faith, the type of torture that might make one long for martyrdom.
Origin was a marked man. He had evaded previous persecutions by hiding in the houses of the faithful. This time he was deliberately sought out as the leading Christian intellectual of the age and was arrested. His treatment was specially designed to bring him to a public recantation of the faith. To this end he was tortured with special care, so that he would not die under the stress of his pain. He was chained, set in the infamous iron collar, and stretched on the rack—four spaces no less, as Eusebius tells his readers, who knew exactly what degree of pain that involved, and how many dislocations of bones and rippings of sinews it brought with it.29
The next two Fathers came to be influential at a vastly different time than Justin and Origen. Christianity was not only legal; it had become the official religion of Rome in 380 by order of Emperor Theodosius. As a result, bishops no longer had to live in the shadows. There seems to have been a sharp increase in political involvement among the clergy. Often they would have access to the emperor himself to lobby for their cause, such as the case of Arius and Eusebius with Emperor Constantine.30 Soon, the Pope would wield temporal power over municipalities as well as spiritual authority.31
There are not many heroics in the life of Chrysostom (347–407). He is mostly known for his oratory skills. “The zeal and clarity of his preaching, which appealed especially to the common people, earned him the Greek surname [Chrysostom] meaning ‘golden-mouthed.’”32 Despite this, he was not known as a great theologian. While he became the bishop of Constantinople, “[i]t was in Antioch (where he served as bishop for 12 years) where Chrysostom’s preaching began to be noticed.”33
Chrysostom was known to challenge the wealthy to be generous. “Not to share our own wealth with the poor is theft from the poor and deprivation of their means of life; we do not possess our own wealth, but theirs,”34 exhorted Goldenmouth. “The rich man is not one who is in possession of much, but one who gives much.”35 He spoke out against abuse as well:
Do you wish to honour the body of Christ? Do not ignore him when he is naked. Do not pay him homage in the temple clad in silk, only then to neglect him outside where he is cold and ill-clad. He who said: “This is my body” is the same who said: “You saw me hungry and you gave me no food,” and “Whatever you did to the least of my brothers you did also to me.” … What good is it if the Eucharistic table is overloaded with golden chalices when your brother is dying of hunger? Start by satisfying his hunger and then with what is left you may adorn the altar as well.36
“It is foolishness and a public madness to fill the cupboards with clothing,” John of Antioch exhorted the congregation, “and allow men who are created in God’s image and likeness to stand naked and trembling with the cold so that they can hardly hold themselves upright.”37
Chrysostom died an unspectacular death due mostly to the self-inflicted damage he did to himself when he lived an ascetic life as a hermit monk.38
Augustine of Hippo
Many consider Augustine the most influential theologian and thinker of the Church Fathers. His greatest works were The City of God, On Christian Doctrine, and Confessions.
In The City of God, he brings some context to the sacking of Rome. Many Christians considered Rome the Kingdom of God. The empire would spread Christianity to the rest of the world. How could it fall? And many pagans saw it as a sign that Christianity was not true. “Augustine set out a very different position, avoiding any suggestion that any human political system or structure was to be regarded as possessing divine sanction or ultimate authority.”39 Rome’s sustainability, or lack thereof, was a sign neither to Christians nor pagans. “For so has God snatched us from the powers of darkness, and brought us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, that kingdom of which he said: My kingdom is not of this world; my kingly power does not come from here.”40
On the Jews
Now that we have established that all of these men, to greater and lesser degrees, display passion and conviction for the gospel, let’s look at their comments regarding the Jews.
We’ve already read Justin’s words regarding the Sabbath and circumcision. He did not see them as distinguishing marks of God’s covenant with Abraham but rather as a result of Israel’s sin. But God makes a covenant with Abraham through circumcision (Gen 17:9ff) and gives him wonderful promises of blessing long before Israel was even a nation or even had the chance to sin. The first time we hear about the Sabbath is in Exodus 16, where it is “a holy sabbath to the Lord” (Exod 16:23(.
Justin is guilty of sloppy exegesis of God’s dealings with Abraham, whom God called his friend. To take the view that circumcision was given so that the nations could single out Israel for persecution is to mock God as a covenant-keeper. God promised the land of Israel through circumcision, but Justin says it was so “that only your land be desolated, and your cities ruined by fire, that the fruits of your land be eaten by strangers before your very eyes; that not one of you be permitted to enter your city of Jerusalem.” Of course, he said this against the backdrop of the expulsion of Jews from land in 70 CE and 132 CE. What would he say now that Jews have returned to Israel from all over the world and worship at the Western Wall?
Justin views the laws of Israel as symbolic and not to be understood literally.
This is the symbolic meaning of unleavened bread, that you do not commit the old deeds of the bad leaven. You, however, understand everything in a carnal way, and you deem yourselves pious if you perform such deeds, even when your souls are filled with deceit and every other kind of sin.41
But Justin fails to remember that Yeshua himself celebrated Passover yearly and participated in the traditions of the Passover Seder during the last supper, including blessing the unleavened bread in the wine, showing that they were symbolic of his body and blood.
According to Justin, Sabbath was not only a marker that would help our persecutors identity us, it was given also because we would not be able to remember God without it. Mark Kinzer gives us insight to Justin.
God gave these commandments to Israel because of its uniquely sinful orientation. Thus the Sabbath commandment was necessary because Israel was incapable of remembering God daily ([Dialogue] Chap. 19). Observance of the Sabbath ensured that they would at least remember God weekly!42
Justin also explains to the Jew Trypho that he is actually no longer an Israelite: “The true spiritual Israel, and descendants of Judah, Jacob, Isaac, and Abraham . . . are we who have been led to God through this crucified Christ.”43 “We who are . . . of Christ are the true Israelite race.”44 This is classic replacement theology, and Tim Horner considers this “one of the central texts of second-century Christianity,”45 thus shaping theology on Israel for generations. Justin concludes: “the Jewish people are no longer the beloved heirs of the divine promises. The church, the ‘true spiritual Israel,’ supersedes the Jewish people, unfaithful carnal Israel.”46
Origen of Alexandria
Origen echoes Justin, believing that “the old economy is surpassed in the new,”47 meaning supersessionism; Israel has been replaced by the Church.
We may thus assert in utter confidence that the Jews will not return to their earlier situation, for they have committed the most abominable of crimes, in forming this conspiracy against the Savior of the human race . . . hence the city where Jesus suffered was necessarily destroyed, the Jewish nation was driven from its country, and another people was called by God to the blessed election.48
Origen blames the entire Jewish race for the death of Jesus, though Jesus says, “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (John 10:18). And while we will not argue that the destruction of Jerusalem was not prophesied as a judgment by the Messiah himself, Origen ignores the prophecies that speak of the Jewish people returning to God before the end (Zech 12:10, 13:1; Ezek 36:25ff; Matt 23:39; Rom 11:23–26). Origen “formulates a negative judgment against the Jews of his time, who are, he says, ‘entirely abandoned, having nothing of what they formerly held sacred, not even a sign that there is anything divine among them’ and are ‘punished more than others’ for their failure to recognize the one their prophets had foretold.”49
The most vicious rhetoric, however, comes from the Golden-Mouth himself. Christians from his congregation in Antioch were attending synagogue. “Christians would often celebrate Jewish holidays in the company of members of the Jewish community and, reciprocally, Jews were invited to participate in the celebrations of the Christian community.”50 One would hope that such good relations between Jews and gentiles would lead some Jews to be “provoked to jealousy” but the faith these non-lovers of a Jewish Messiah. But Chrysostom felt threatened. It is understandable that a preacher might be concerned that his congregants are going to the temple of another religion—they could be swayed. However, the rhetoric that Chrysostom employs goes far beyond the supposed crime.
The synagogue is worse than a brothel, it is the den of scoundrels and the repair of wild beasts . . . the temple of demons devoted to idolatrous cults . . . the refuge of brigands and debauchees, and the cavern of devils. It is a criminal assembly of Jews . . . a place of meeting for the assassins of Christ, a house worse than a drinking shop . . . a den of thieves, a house of ill fame, a dwelling of iniquity, the refuge of devils, a gulf, an abyss of perdition. . . . I would say the same things about their souls. . . . As for me, I hate the synagogue. . . . I hate the Jews for the same reason.51
Chrysostom delivers a series of homilies “Against the Jews.” Of the homilies, James Parkes writes that Chrysostom preaches that “God hates [the Jews], and indeed has always hated them. But since their murder of Jesus, he allows them no time for repentance.”52 Here are some direct quotes:
- God hates the Jews, and on Judgement Day He will say to those who sympathise with them: “Depart from me, for you have had doings with My murderers!” (Sermon VI)
- How dare Christians have the slightest doings with Jews, those most miserable of all men! They are lustful, rapacious, greedy, perfidious bandits, pests of the universe. (Sermon VI)
- Why are the Jews degenerate? Because of their hateful assassination of Christ. (Sermon VI)
- I hate the synagogue and abhor it. (Sermon I)
- We must hate both them and their synagogue. (Sermon I)
The effects of Augustine on Christian anti-Judaism were massive. He used theology to shape “the Jew.” Jeremy Cohen calls this the hermeneutical Jew. “The Christian idea of Jewish identity crystallized around the theological purpose the Jew served in Christendom.”53
Augustine and many of the other Christian theologians who will increasingly build upon a Christian theology of Judaism, or more properly: anti-Judaism, never encountered actual Jews. They were responding to an image, a hermeneutical Jew, a Jew that was conjured up in their minds based upon primarily their reading of Scripture.54
By the evidence of their own scriptures, they bear witness for us that we have not fabricated the prophecies about Christ. . . . It follows that when the Jews do not believe in our scriptures, their scriptures are fulfilled in them while they read them with blind eyes. . . . It is in order to give this testimony which, in spite of themselves, they supply for our benefit by their possession and preservation of those books [of the Old Testament] that they are themselves dispersed among all nations, wherever the Christian Church spreads.55
In short, Augustine sees the Jews as a “witness people” who, through their wretchedness, testify to the truth of Scripture. Augustine implores the Church not to harm the Jews (such a thought never entered the mind of New Testament writers), but it is not from love. Augustine scholar Paula Fredriksen explains how, for Augustine, the survival of the Jews testifies for the Church. Kevin J. Madigan presents a summary of her thoughts in his book review.
First of all, their dispersion and subjugation would serve to authenticate the triumph and truth of Christianity and the displacement of the synagogue by the Church. Second, in preserving their Scriptures the Jews would unintentionally also preserve the prophecies contained within them concerning the advent of Christ, in this way proving to pagan critics or recent converts that the Church had not fabricated those prophecies. By thus serving as custodians of the books that both proved the messiahship of Christ and attested prophetically to their own blindness, the Jews had a continuing place in the drama of divine salvation.56
David Reagan puts it this way, “[Augustine] asserted that the Jews deserved death but were destined to wander the earth to witness the victory of the Church over the synagogue.”57 And all this was based on the growing idea of collective punishment for the Jewish rejection and even murdering of the Messiah. It was the aforementioned Chrysostom “who first coined the term ‘deicide’ (theoktonian in Greek), which means ‘killing God.’ This is because when the Jews killed Jesus, they were literally killing God.”58 Of course any student of soteriology understands the primary purpose of Messiah’s first coming was indeed to die. As stated above, Yeshua was clear on who would chose when and how he would die.
The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father (John 10:17–18).
Furthermore, it was only a small group of Jews who demanded his death, not the Jewish nation. The Jewish leadership stirred up a zealous crowd with false accusations. It is clear from Scripture that the common man was captivated by Yeshua. The Pharisees lament, “Look how the whole world has gone after him!” (John 12:19). Clearly, “the whole world” is hyperbole, referring to Judeans in Jerusalem at the time—a very large number of the Jews loved Jesus! If he was not having a deep impact, why resist him? If he was hated by the people, he would have been rejected and the Jewish leadership would have had nothing to fear. But we see crowds of up to 5,000 following him—and they are all Jewish.
Lastly, if we are going to blame an entire race of people for the crucifixion of Jesus, we need to start with Rome, not Israel. Crucifixion was Roman and it was carried out by Roman soldiers. Of course, that is not the point; we are not seeking to blame any one group for his death, but as the Bible says, all humanity is responsible for his gracious death on our behalf.
Augustine does not take up the ideas of Justin and other Church Fathers, that ceremonial laws were an identity marker for punishment—aiding their persecutors to identify them. He also doesn’t agree with the book of Barnabas (early second century), which spiritualizes the law. “[Barnabas] sees the commandment of circumcision as a directive to hear the divine word and believe (9:1–3), the dietary laws as instructions on the kind of people one should avoid (10:1–11), and the Sabbath commandment as requiring the total sanctification of life that will only be attainable in the world to come (15:1–9).” Barnabas believed that the laws “were never intended to be observed in a literal manner. When Israel began circumcising their sons, restricting their diets, and setting apart the seventh day of the week, they showed that they had failed to understand the commandments they had received.”59
In contrast, Augustine sees the validity in all of these symbolic or ceremonial commands in the law of Moses. However, he believes that they were fulfilled in Messiah’s coming and therefore no longer binding on the Christian. Etienne Jodar writes that “Augustine’s setting aside a literal observance of the ceremonial law does not mean that he rejects its value. He recognizes that each ceremony contains a timeless principle.”60 Jodar suggests that
Augustine then explains that the symbolic precepts of the Tanakh prefigured what Christ had accomplished at his coming. Because they were only “shadows of future things,” Christians were not bound to obey them. Concerning the moral commandments, Augustine asserts that neither Christ nor Christians “destroy” or “abolish” them. Rather, Christians fulfill the moral commandments by Christ’s help “by the newness of the Spirit.”61
But how did Augustine view the Jewish believer in Yeshua who continues to live according to the law of Moses, while putting his trust in the salvific work of Messiah? Kinzer goes through Augustine’s correspondence with Jerome regarding the subject in great detail. We won’t take time here to go in-depth into their back-and-forth dialogue, but present Augustine’s conclusion. Augustine is firm that the apostles continue to live a Jewish life. Jerome believes they merely feigned law-observance for the sake of evangelism.62
Augustine’s second letter insists that even Paul continued to live as an observant Jew. “He [Paul] was, after all, a Jew, but having become a Christian, he had not abandoned the sacraments of the Jews, which that people had suitably and legitimately received at the time when they were necessary.”63
But when pressed, Augustine is firm that while Jewish Torah observance was tolerated for the first generation, to continue to do so afterwards was a mortal sin.64 “I do not . . . force or allow a Jew who has become a Christian to practice [Torah observance] in a sincere manner,” responds Augustine.65
We would be remiss to not mention Jerome’s final conclusion on the matter in referring to the closest thing to Messianic Jews in his day, the Nazarene movement: “But insofar as they want to be both Jews and Christians, they are neither Jews nor Christians.”66 This sentiment would become church dogma and adopted by the second Nicaea council which “issued a declaration that prohibited Jewish Christians from observing any aspect of the Mosaic law.”67
But if any of them [the Jews], out of a sincere heart and in faith, is converted and makes profession with his whole heart, setting at naught their customs and observances, and so that others may be convinced and converted, such an one is to be received and baptized, and his children likewise; and let them be taught to take care to hold aloof from the ordinances of the Hebrews [e.g., Sabbath observance]. But if they will not do this, let them in no wise be received.68
The Jew who wanted to follow his Messiah at this time would have to read a public confession denouncing Judaism. Here is just a small taste: “I do here and now renounce every rite and observance of the Jewish religion, detesting all its most solemn ceremonies and tenets that in former days I kept and held . . .”69
Seeking to Reconcile
How can we reconcile such clearly anti-Jewish and, in the case of Chrysostom, antisemitic statements with the reputations of these fathers as men of great devotion to the Church? It would be simplistic to just condemn them as unbelievers masquerading as theologians.
Origen,70 Justin,71 and Augustine all held out hope that the Jewish people would embrace Jesus—albeit their version of Christianity required severing all ties with Jewishness, as the Jewish religion had been superseded by Christianity. But at least they had a heart for the Jewish people to be saved. They continued to honor the Hebrew scriptures. Kinzer points out that the “Christian response to Marcion” (who rejected the Hebrew Bible) “proved to be a crucial event in the history of the church. It produced an unequivocal affirmation of the Jewish Bible as Christian scripture.”72
Saint Augustine and later Pope Gregory the Great enunciated a rationale for Christian protection of Jews, based loosely on Romans 11:29 (and we should include v. 28), that stressed the historical importance of Jews as living witnesses to the Old Testament prophecies that confirmed Jesus’ messiahship and that foresaw the Jews’ eventual conversion to Christianity as a harbinger of the end of days.73
Justin wants Trypho and his companions to embrace Jesus. “I can wish you no greater blessing than this . . . that realizing that wisdom is given to every person through this Way, you also may one day come to believe entirely as we do that Jesus is the Messiah of God.”74
And something that really is quite obvious is often overlooked. The Church Fathers gave more than a little time to dealing with Israel and Torah. These renowned apologists were not arguing for the sake of arguing. We know that Chrysostom’s Sermons against the Jews was motivated by his concern for the good relations between Christians and Jews (see above). There must have been a strong pro-Jewish voice within the ekklesia. Judith Lieu writes:
For Ignatius, Judaism and Christianity share no common ground and it is inconceivable that anyone should partake in both. Yet the very force of his argument demonstrates that this was precisely what was happening, or perhaps what was happening was that his clear definition of Judaism and Christianity did not match the life of the churches.75
While many scholars have dated the “Parting of the Ways” as early as 70 CE, James Dunn thinks such talk is “distinctly premature.”76 Kinzer claims there were many followers of Jesus in the second century who believed that “Yeshua-faith was a variety of Judaism, and adherence to that faith required a living relationship to the wider Jewish community.”77 In other words, the hardcore supersessionism of the second to fourth centuries suggests that many Christians did not embrace the idea of God’s complete rejection of Israel, and needed to be “corrected” by their leaders.
I asked several Messianic Jewish colleagues how they reconcile this conflict—How can you love Messiah and reject his people? There seemed to be a consensus that Chrysostom was the worst of the lot. He was not merely anti-Jewish, but antisemitic. Pauline scholar David Rudolph shares:
If we go by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition, Chrystostom was antisemitic. The IHRA working definition states, “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews.” Chrystostom preached to his congregation that “we must hate both them [the Jews] and their synagogue” (Discourses Against Judaizing Christians 1.5.4). The IHRA definition also states that “demonizing” Jews is a form of antisemitism. Chrysostom preached that “the Jews themselves are demons” (Discourses 1.6.3) and “demons dwell in the synagogue, not only in the place itself but also in the souls of the Jews” (Discourses 1.6.6.). By both counts, Chrysostom was antisemitic.78
Dr. Daniel Juster says, “the vile speech of Chrysostom is some of the worst in history.”79
But there was also consensus that we mustn’t judge too harshly. Dr. Michael Brown points out that the great evangelist George Whitefield owned slaves.80 Juster explains that we can be loyal to Yeshua but possess bad theology. “A person is saved when they pledge allegiance, but that allegiance can be combined with great error. Other writings of this Church Father show amazing loyalty to Yeshua.”81
Professor Jennifer Rosner says we need to look at the “historical context. There are numerous historical factors that went into patristic anti-Judaism, and what was quickly becoming dominant gentile Christianity read these factors as some kind of divine condemnation and rejection of the Jews.”82 I assume she has in mind the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE and in 132 CE, amongst other influences. Brown agrees. They must have been thinking: “After all, didn’t God repeatedly speak against Israel in the OT, calling His own people stiff-necked and hardhearted and rebellious? Didn’t Jesus and Stephen and others continue in this tradition, even calling their leaders a brood of vipers? Didn’t they show their guilt by crucifying the Messiah? And didn’t they receive the just punishment for their ways by being scattered around the world with their own Temple destroyed?”83 We have the benefit of living in the era of the Jewish people’s return to the land of Israel. All the Church Fathers saw were signs of God’s judgment, and they missed the promises of reconciliation. We are living in the time where these promises are coming to pass—promises that we were told were “fulfilled in Christ.”
Let me expound further. From 70 CE until 1948, it might appear that God had rejected the Jewish people. For many, the destructions of Jerusalem in 70 CE and 132 CE were clear signs of God’s rejection of the Jewish people. Add to that, only small numbers of Jews believed in Yeshua (though large enough to be identified even in the fourth century84) and the leadership clearly rejected Yeshua as Messiah. While the Messianic Jewish leaders in Jerusalem played a crucial role (see Acts 15) up until 70 CE, “[t]he Jewish war against Rome and its brutal conclusion (66–74 CE) undermined the unique and central role of the Jerusalem community within the ekklesia. . . . In the wake of these conflicts between Jews and Roman authority, anti-Jewish sentiment increased throughout the empire. This was not an easy time to be a Jew or a friend of Jews.”85
Dr. Seth Postell remarked, while clearly not justifying the rhetoric of the Fathers, “We live in a politically correct age of respect for those with whom we don’t agree. The Church Fathers lived in very different times than our own.”86 Rudolph points out that even such a respected figure as Billy Graham made some horribly antisemitic comments,87 and we must constantly “renew our minds” to protect ourselves from bad doctrine. “We learn a ton, not just from good theology,” said Postell, “but also from bad theology. How can we ever refute replacement theology and antisemitism if we don’t understand its own inherent (albeit twisted) logic?”88
Many of the Fathers did not have social intercourse with Jews. “And when there is little social contact between groups (in the case of Luther, it has been argued that he knew almost no Jews personally, so they became the personified enemies of the faith), it is all too easy to demonize them in the name of God. This is what often happened with these church leaders, especially when the contact they did have was largely negative.”89 Certainly, Origen and Justin knew Jews, but as Rosner argued above, Augustine developed his theology on Jews without having met any Jews.
There can be no mistake that much of the rhetoric in theology regarding the Jewish people amongst the Church Fathers bordered on hate speech, and in the case of Chrysostom was absolutely racist and antisemitic. But Christians can have blind spots. Many German Christians were absolutely convinced that it was not their place to enter the realm of politics and confront Nazism. We must appreciate the Church Fathers for defending the faith at a time when there was no agreed-upon canon. They contributed to the formation of the Nicene Creed, which affirmed the deity of Messiah.90 Many of them, particularly before Constantine, willingly and joyfully died for their faith. And yet, at that same council of Nicaea they replaced Passover with Easter, for the primary purpose of “not [having] any thing in common with the Jews.”91
I am by no means seeking to whitewash the anti-Jewish theology of the Church Fathers. We cannot ignore it or the damage that it caused in the centuries that followed. There can be no doubt that it helped pave the way for the Crusades and the Inquisition. And it has been suggested by many that without the foundation of anti-Jewish theology in the Church, the Holocaust could not have happened. Luther was not a Nazi, but he was a hero to the Nazis. Without the theology of Chrysostom, Augustine, Jerome, Justin, Ignatius, Barnabas and the like, it is unlikely that the Holocaust would have had fertile ground to blossom.
Since the fourth century after Christ there have been three anti-Jewish policies: [forced] conversion, expulsion, annihilation. The second appeared as an alternative to the first, and the third emerged as an alternative to the second. . . . The missionaries of Christianity had said in effect: You have no right to live among us as Jews. The secular rulers who followed proclaimed: You have no right to live among us. The Nazis at last decreed: You have no right to live.
The process began with the attempt to drive the Jews into Christianity. The development was continued in order to force the victims into exile. It was finished when the Jews were driven to their deaths. The German Nazis, then, did not discard the past; they built upon it. They did not begin a development; they completed it.92
There have been times when I wondered if I could even consider someone who believes replacement theology as a brother in Messiah. Paul’s words in Romans 11 are harsh to those who would judge Israel. Yet, Ariel Blumenthal points out that when Paul is rebuking the Romans for embracing a form of replacement theology, he still refers to them as “brothers,” even as he warns them that such harsh treatment of the Jewish people could result in their being broken off (Rom 11:21–22, 25).93 It appears that just as the Jewish people have been blinded to Yeshua, many in the Church have been blinded to God’s plan for the Jewish people. This was exactly what Paul predicted would happen, if they did not discern God’s heart for Israel. Paul is deeply concerned and cries out, “I don’t want you to be ignorant of this mystery regarding God’s plan for the Jewish people, because to do so could cause both you and my people great harm” (paraphrase of v. 25). But that is exactly what happened. Paul had explained that one result of salvation coming to the gentiles would be Israel being provoked to jealousy (v. 11), even has he was trying to do through his own ministry (v. 13–14), but it seems that the Roman believers had adopted an attitude towards Israel that was anything but inviting. And the result of rejecting Israel would be that they too could be cut off (v. 22); he says, “he will not spare you either” (v. 21). Sober words for sure! We, too, must not judge the Church Fathers too harshly, but show kindness and mercy while unashamedly and zealously correcting the deadly theology.
Russell Resnik warns, “If men of such deep conviction and commitment as the Church Fathers could have such a profound blind spot, so can we. How do we guard against this?”94 We must continue to do theology with humility, and while we deal honestly with the mistakes of the Church Fathers, we must appreciate their contributions in other areas. Paul’s point in Romans 11 is that pride in conceit leads to spiritual blindness (v. 25).
In apologetics you do not argue against nothing, but something. Those of us in Messianic Jewish ministry spend more than a little time understanding the prophecies about the Messiah. We want to be able to answer Jewish objections to our faith. Why? Because there are so many Jewish objections to our faith! If there were none, we would not spend so much time honing our ability to confront these objections.
In other words, if the Church Fathers spent so much time speaking about the Jewish people, and on how Christians should (or should not) interact with the Jewish people, on calling the Jewish people Christ killers, forbidding fellowship with them, demanding that Jewish believers in Yeshua forsake Jewish life and culture, and so on, then that can only mean that there was a view on the other side that was much more friendly to the Jewish people. Remember, Chrysostom was responding to the fact that people in his congregation were going to the Jewish synagogue. Regarding the words of another Church Father, Judith Lieu make the same point.
For Ignatius, Judaism and Christianity share no common ground and it is inconceivable that anyone should partake in both. Yet the very force of his argument demonstrates that this was precisely what was happening, or perhaps what was happening was that his clear definition of Judaism and Christianity did not match the life of the churches.95
James Dunn sees positive Jewish and Christian relations past the destruction of the Temple. “Talk of a clear-cut or final parting of the ways at 70 CE is distinctly premature.”96 There can be no doubt that the forceful arguments of the Church Fathers were directed against the arguments of others. We can take heart in the fact that there were gentile Christians who heeded Paul’s words in Romans 11 to not become arrogant against the natural branches—seeing that is a key to bringing them back into the olive tree.
And as we draw closer to the Parousia, we can also take heart in the post-Holocaust theological enlightenment regarding the irrevocable call on Israel. Replacement theology is alive and well, but for the first time in millennia serious theologians are reexamining the calling of Israel and the messianic Jew. Nostra Aetate was an earthquake to the kingdom of darkness. The Catholic Church’s owning its past antisemitism and acknowledging God’s hand on the Jewish people compares in significance with Acts 15 and the Nicene Creed. Kinzer reports, “The Roman Catholic Church has officially renounced supersessionism, acknowledging the teaching of the apostle Paul that ‘the Jews remain very dear to God, for the sake of the patriarchs, since God does not take back the gifts he bestowed or the choice he made.’ ”97
One key to Israel’s salvation is the expression of God’s love for the Jewish people through his body. That includes Jewish members of the ekklesia, like Paul, who longed for Israel’s salvation (Rom 9:1–5, 10:1) and gentile believers who have benefited greatly from Israel’s rejection. May we continue to move in that direction. As a Jewish young man, I came to faith because my best friend, an Irish Catholic, now born again, provoked me to jealousy.
Ron Cantor is the president of Shelanu.tv, the first Hebrew-language Messianic TV channel. Ron has written over 10 books, including his historical fantasy novel on the Jewishness of the NT, Identity Theft. He is currently finishing his master’s in theology at The King’s University. Ron served as the pastor of Tiferet Yeshua in Tel Aviv, Israel, as well as the CEO of Tikkun Global. Ron and his wife, Elana, live in Tel Aviv. He blogs at roncantor.com.
1 “At this stage, (contrary to the popes and bishops) Luther clearly believed that the Bible is sufficiently clear for ordinary Christians to be able to read and understand it.” For centuries the Bible was accessible only in the Greek New Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures and the Latin Vulgate. If you could not speak those languages, you could not read the Bible and the Church forbade translation. “Although a number of vernacular translations of the Bible were produced during the Middle Ages, these were often unreliable, and occasionally even illegal.” Alister McGrath, Christian History (Hoboken: Wiley and Blackwell, 2013), 160, 164.
2 Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin, Why the Jews? The Reason for Antisemitism (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1983), 108.
3 Robert Wistrich, A Lethal Obsession (New York: Random House, 2010), 215–216.
4 Robert Michael, A History of Catholic Antisemitism, (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2008), 47.
5 Michael Brown, Our Hand are Stained with Blood, (Shippensburg: Destiny Image, 2019), 6.
6 McGrath, 24.
7 Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, The Fathers of the Church, Volume 6, ed. Thomas Falls (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2010), 172.
8 “Jewish Badge during the Nazi Era,” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/jewish-badge-during-the-nazi-era.
9 Brown, 136.
10 Martin Luther, Concerning the Jews and Their Lies, cited in Talmage, Disputation and Dialogue (New York: KTAV, 1975), 34–36.
11 David Crowe, The Holocaust (New York: Taylor and Francis, 2018), 54.
12 Deborah Lipstadt, Antisemitism (New York: Knopf Doubleday, 2019), 24.
13 Crowe, 81.
14 Michael Berenbaum, “anti-Semitism,” Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/anti-Semitism.
15 Robert Winn, Christianity in the Roman Empire: Key Figures, Beliefs, and Practices of the Early Church (AD 100 –300) (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2018), 57.
16 “St. Justin Martyr—Christian apologist,” Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Justin-Martyr.
17 “St. Justin Martyr.”
18 Christopher Kavin Rowe, One True Life: The Stoics and Early Christians as Rival Traditions (London: Yale University Press, 2016), 143.
19 Claudia Setzer, Jewish Responses to Early Christians (Minneapolis, Fortress, 1994), 215, fn. 5 and 6.
20 Winn, 60.
21 Rowe, 163.
22 “St. Justin Martyr.”
23 John McGuckin, The Westminster Handbook to Origen (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004), 25.
24 Henry Chadwick, “Origen—Christian Theologian,” Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Origen.
25 McGuckin, 3.
26 McGuckin, 7.
27 Chadwick, “Origen.”
28 Chadwick, “Origen.”
29 McGuckin, 22.
30 Frances A. Forbes, Saint Athanasius, The Father of Orthodoxy (CreateSpace: Scott’s Valley, 2016), 7.
31 “[T]he Christian church gradually began to develop a political and temporal role that placed it at the heart of western culture.” McGrath, 71.
32 Donald Attwater, “Saint John Chrysostom—Archbishop of Constantinople,” Encyclopedia Britannica, accessed on June 17, 2022, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-John-Chrysostom.
33 “John Chrysostom, Early church’s greatest preacher,” Christianity Today, accessed September 20, 2022, https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/pastorsandpreachers/john-chrysostom.html.
34 John Chrysostom, On Wealth and Poverty, trans. Catharine P. Roth (Yonkers: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1984), 55.
35 Philip Schaff, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers First Series: St. Chrysostom, On the Priesthood, Ascetic Treatises, Select Homilies and Letters, Homilies on the Statues (New York: Cosmo Classics, 2007), 349.
36 John Chrysostom, In Evangelium S. Matthaei, homily 50:3–4.
37 “John Chrysostom,” Christianity Today.
38 Pauline Allen, Wendy Mayer, John Chrysostom (New York: Routledge, 2000), 6.
39 McGrath, 47.
40 Thomas Oden, John 11–21 (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2014), 290.
41 Dialogue with Trypho, ch. 14, cited in Mark S. Kinzer, Postmissionary Messianic Judaism (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), 192.
42 Kinzer, 192,
43 Justin Martyr, “Dialogue with Trypho, Chapter XI—The Law Abrogated; The New Testament Promised and given by God.” Early Christian Writings, http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/justinmartyr-dialoguetrypho.html.
44 Justin Martyr, “Dialogue with Trypho, Chapter CXXXV—Christ is King of Israel and Christians are the Israelite Race.” Early Christian Writings, http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/justinmartyr-dialoguetrypho.html.
45 Tim Horner, “Dialogue with Trypho,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 12, no. 2, (2004): 245–246, https://www.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/dialogue-with-trypho/docview/215202564/se-2?accountid=40702.
46 Kinzer, 191–192.
47 McGuckin, 27.
48 “Anti-Semitism of the ‘Church Fathers’,” Yashanet, http://www.yashanet.com/library/fathers.htm.
49 McGuckin, 27.
50 Rabbi Leo Michel Abrami, “The Roots of Antisemitism,” Academia, https://www.academia.edu/34036868/The_Roots_of_Antisemitism.
51 Quoted from Chrysostom’s Homilies against the Jews, in Malcolm Hay, The Roots of Christian Anti-Semitism (New York: Liberty, 1981), 27–28.
52 James Parkes, The Conflict of the Church and the Synagogue: A Study in the Origins of Antisemitism (New York: Atheneum, 1985), 163–66.
53 Jeremy Cohen, Living Letters of the Law (Berkley: University of California Press, 1999), 2.
54 Jennifer Rosner, “Antisemitism, Week 2,” YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9jj0AkpIQ0Q.
55 Christine Chism, Alliterative Revivals (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), 158.
56 Kevin J. Madigan, “Augustine and the Jews by Paula Fredriksen,” Commentary, November 2008, https://www.commentary.org/articles/kevin-madigan/augustine-and-the-jews-by-paula-fredriksen.
57 David R. Reagan, “Anti-Semitism—Its Roots and Perseverance,” Lamb and Lion Ministries, https://christinprophecy.org/articles/anti-semitism.
58 Brown, 26.
59 Kinzer, 190.
60 Etienne Jodar, “Law-Observance among Jewish Christians: Benefiting from Augustine’s View,” Kesher, Issue 41 (Summer/Fall 2022): 84–85.
61 Jodar, “Law-Observance,” 83.
62 Kinzer, 204.
63 Kinzer, 202, quoting Letter 40 in Works of St. Augustine, 149.
64 Kinzer, 208.
65 Letter 75 in Works of St. Augustine, 322–23.
66 Letter 75 in Works of St. Augustine, 288–89.
67 Jodar, “Law-Observance,” 82.
68 Henry R. Percival, The Seven Ecumenical Councils of the Undivided Church (New York: Christian Literature, 1898), 561.
69 Parkes, 395.
70 McGuckin, 138. Origen sees Romans 11:26 being fulfilled in the Jewish people.
71 Jon Olson, “Reflections on Michael Wyschogrod’s Critique of Jewish Christianity,” Kesher, Issue 18, (Winter/Spring 2005). “Justin Martyr . . . held to the visible and material character of Israel’s redemptive hopes. Thus the kingdom was awaited in the future. The kingdom was visible but not present.”
72 Kinzer, 185.
73 Robert C. Stacey, “The Conversion of Jews to Christianity in Thirteenth-Century England,” Speculum, vol. 67, no. 2 (April 1992): 263.
74 Rowe, 169–170.
75 Judith Lieu, Image and Reality: The Jews in the World of the Christians in the Second Century (London: T&T Clark, 2003), 40.
76 James D. G. Dunn, The Partings of the Ways (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1991), 237–38.
77 Kinzer, 197.
78 David Rudolph, email to author, June 13, 2022.
79 Daniel Juster, email to author, June 13, 2022.
80 Michael Brown, email to author, June 14, 2022.
81 Juster, email.
82 Jennifer Rosner, email to author, June 13, 2022.
83 Brown, email.
84 See Ray A. Pritz, Nazarene Jewish Christianity (Leiden: Brill, 1988).
85 Kinzer, 183–84.
86 Seth Postell, email to author, June 12, 2022.
87 Debbie Lord, “Billy Graham-Richard Nixon tapes: The one-time Graham’s image was tarnished,” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. https://www.ajc.com/news/national/billy-graham-richard-nixon-tapes-the-one-time-graham-image-was-tarnished/DCj06gfORZJLYa30cLawWL.
88 Postell, email.
89 Brown, email.
90 Ironically at the same counsel, they outlawed the Jewish Passover as a means of celebrating the resurrection.
91 Emperor Constantine, “Constantine I: On the Keeping of Easter,” https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/source/const1-easter.asp.
92 Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1985), 7–8.
93 Ariel Blumenthal, email to author, June 12, 2022.
94 Russell Resnik, private correspondence with the author, September 19, 2022.
95 Judith Lieu, Image and Reality (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996), 40.
96 Dunn, 237–38.
97 Kinzer, 181–82.