Augustine’s Jewish Problem, Revisited

It is likely that were it not for Augustine Jews would not have survived the fourth century. For the two centuries following the appearance of “John,” the last of the four canonical gospels the Church Fathers, following the lead of scripture, engaged in a continuing polemic against Jews and Judaism, the adversus judeaos, “Against the Jews.” Among these were some of the most famous early church theologians, Jerome, Irenaeus and Eusebius. And, in the late fourth century, John Chrysostum and Augustine of Hippo.

Augustine is considered the most influential theologian and philosopher of the Middle Ages. His role in making possible Jewish survival aside his view on “the Jews” differed little from that of his predecessors. Such writings as his Sermon Against the Jews and Kingdom of God do not themselves reflect concern for the survival of Jews as such. What then might explain his Witness Doctrine, the key to Jewish survival adopted as Church doctrine?

The fourth century marked the adoption of Catholic Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire. A period of new-found power and self-confidence it also witnessed an intensification of anti-Judaism. The adversus continues to reflect scriptural polemic, but more focused and more intense.

St. Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335 – c. 395) – bishop of Nyssa:

Jews are slayers of the Lord, murderers of the prophets, enemies and haters of God, adversaries of grace, enemies of their fathers’ faith, advocates of the devil, a brood of vipers, slanderers, scoffers, men of darkened minds, the leaven of Pharisees, a congregation of demons, sinners, wicked men, haters of goodness!”

But it was John Chrysostum, considered “the greatest preacher in the early church, whose polemics would echo down the centuries. In a collection of eight homilies (sermons) Chrysostum provided a drumbeat that Fr. James Parkes, in 1934, described as worthy inspiration to Hitler:

Are they not inveterate murderers, destroyers, men possessed by the devil? Jews are impure and impious, and their synagogue is a house of prostitution, a lair of beasts, a place of shame and ridicule, the domicile of the devil, as is the soul of the Jew… As a matter of fact, Jews worship the devil; their rites are criminal and unchaste; their religion a disease; their synagogue an assembly of crooks, a den of thieves, a cavern of devils, an abyss of perdition!” (Homily 4:1)

Next to Jerome and Chrysostum his contemporary Church Fathers Augustine speaks in a subdued and rational voice. Still, I hesitate to describe him as “heroic” in defense of Jews as seems Moses Mendelssohn, rabbi and philosopher of the 18th century: “But for Augustine’s lovely brainwave we would have been exterminated long ago.” Brainwave or no, the father of Haskalah was no seer into the future. Still, Augustine did provide a doorway for Jewish survival and we no turn to his motives for doing so.

In his City of God Augustine often refers to Matthew 27:25 and its eternal curse on “the Jews.” All gospels describe Jews as deicides deserving punishment by God and Christians. But “Matthew”, as described earlier, extends the deicide charge on all Jews, everywhere and forever: “His blood upon ourselves, and our children.” If Chrysostum is a forerunner of Hitler, Matthew 27:25 is described as the eternal curse providing for centuries of anti-Jewish persecution and rationale for the Holocaust itself. And Augustine, while not anticipating “punishment” extending to exterminating all Jews everywhere, repeatedly agrees that for the crime of deicide “the Jews” warrant punishment by God and Christians.

The key to understanding Augustine’s Witness Doctrine and its adoption by the Church; the purpose assigned Jews in the unfolding history of Christianity, is contained in nine words in City of God: “that we have not forged the prophecies about Christ.” Throughout my discussion of Christian origins in Antisemitism and Jewish Survival I always assumed Augustine meant Jewish survival’s “gift” was as living example to Christians and Christianity of their eternal suffering described by “Matthew”, proscribed by the Church (destitute, homeless, etc) and affirmed by Augustine. More recently I am understanding Augustine’s Witness Doctrine as addressing a deeper, more primal need for Church and theologian. “[We] have not forged the prophecies about Christ…” Why “forged,” why doubt regarding Christian reading of “prophesy” relating to the future messiah in Jewish scripture? I suggest the reason is the inspiration for the emotionalism characterizing the adversus judaeus (see Jerome and Chrysostum, above) is awareness that those prophesies are based not on Jewish scripture, but on the Greek translation of those scriptures, and so were open to errors inherent in translation.

The Christian canon is based on the Greek translation of Jewish scripture, the Septuagint. Even if he was not literate in Aramaic/Hebrew Augustine would certainly have been aware that in the end comparing the Greek translation with the “original” would always leave doubt regarding the translation, a question mark over Christian scripture and claims.

The most obvious and theologically important example of the translation problem is already evident in the Church’s 4th century description of Jesus’ mother as “virgin.” This may be consistent with Isaiah translated into Greek, where ”parthenos” refers to “virgin.” But in Aramaic the “parthenos” reads “alma,” or “maiden.” The Aramaic represents a far weaker case for life-long virginity.

The parthenos/alma example is but one such. But its significance is difficult to miss and points to a fundamental insecurity regarding Christian claims beginning with Paul; places a significant burden on Christian reading of Jewish scripture and its claims to having replaced Judaism.

It would have been this awareness by Augustine and the Church Fathers back two centuries, the problem not of “replacement” but authenticity, that they were struggling with in their adversus literature. Sometimes expressed emotionally (Chrysostum), sometimes rationally (Augustine) the Fathers were aware of and responding to this fundamental threat to Christianity. The new religion, as generally acknowledged today, was an amalgam of Greek Mystery Religion with a patina of Judaism via the Septuagint.

The above is not meant as the final word in my re-framing of a source of the Jewish Problem. It is a brief approach and outline. Something I will return to in more detail in the future.


About the Author
David made aliya in 1960 and has been active in Jewish issues since. He was a regional director for JNF in New York, created JUDAC, Jews United to Defend the Auschwitz Cemetery during that controversy; at the request of Jonathan Pollard created and led Justice for the Pollards in 1989.