In our first post on Zionism, we briefly defined what Zionism is, and gave a broad sketch of history. Here we dig deeper and look at what happened between the early Christian and Jewish communities after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 A.D.
The early Christian church was primarily Jewish and mainly worshipped in the synagogues. However, Christians mostly did not support Jewish efforts to rebel against the Roman authorities during the conflict leading up to and after 70 A.D., as the Temple was no longer central to the life of the Christians. Instead of fighting alongside their other Jewish brethren to repel the Romans, the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem and the surrounding area fled the city to escape the coming bloodbath, when the Romans began to take seige of the ancient, holy city. This, along with the rejection of many Jewish practices, created resentment by traditional Jews against their Jewish Christian brethren.
The increasingly predominant Gentile Christian movement eventually overwhelmed Judaism in terms of numerical growth, and then Christianity became the official religion of the old Roman empire, further marginalizing Judaism. Over time, Jewish and Christian communities had parted ways from each other.
The Parting of the Ways
This “parting of the ways” between Jewish Christians and traditional Judaism has proven a difficult breach to mend. What a terrible tragedy. Over time, traditional Jews inserted a “curse,” in their synagogue liturgies, against “heretical Jews,” which would include those Jews who would claim Jesus of Nazareth as their Messiah. On the other side, the increasingly Gentile Christian movement often looked upon Jews with great suspicion. The destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple became viewed as a prophetic sign of God’s judgment against a people who had rejected their own Messiah, thus nullifying God’s promises to national Israel, and instead transferring such promises to the Christian church.
The early church father, John Chrysostom, was a beloved Bible teacher among Christians. But he was also known for preaching sermons that have come across to people, particularly modern readers, as being anti-Judaistic, or against Jews as a people:
The very idea of [a Christian] going from a church to a synagogue is blasphemous; and to attend the Jewish Passover is to insult Christ. To be with the Jews on the very day they murdered Jesus is to ensure that on the Day of Judgment He will say ‘ Depart from Me: for you have had intercourse with my murderers’.
Many Christians today are rightly embarrassed by the anti-Judaistic tendencies found among some writings of the early church fathers, like Chrysostom. Critics of these writings label this type of rhetoric as being examples of “replacement theology,” whereby the Christian church effectively replaces the Jewish nation in God’s redemptive plan, and fueling the flames of anti-Semitism.
There is ample, legitimate justification for such a complaint. Moreover, when the Christian movement moved from being a persecuted sect, within the first few hundred years of church history, to being associated with the political powers that be, the situation got worse. No longer were Christians and Jews in theological conflict with one another. Handing political power to people, many of whom did not adequately understand the Bible that well, became a recipe for the persecution of Jews.1
But the Story is Not So Simple
However, recent research has challenged the overall negative assessment of this period of Christian history.2 For example, the 4th and 5th century intellectual, Saint Augustine of Hippo, perhaps the most influential Western Christian thinker in the early church, is widely believed to have held to rather anti-Judaistic views all of his life. Nevertheless, there is now evidence that this prominent bishop changed his mind about God’s purpose for the Jews as he matured in his Christian journey.3 Upon his reading of the Bible, he urged his fellow Christians to have patience with the Jews. The Christian Old Testament, the very Scriptural treasure of the Jews, was to be studied and applied, in contrast to those heretics who only accepted the New Testament. Prior to the Second Coming of Christ, the Jews were to continue to serve as a type of witness to Biblical faith. Therefore, the distinctive religious life of the Jews is not to be looked down upon by Christians. Some scholars even argue that Augustine actually adopted the view that there would be a great turning of the Jewish people towards faith in Jesus as the Messiah in the “Last Days” before the return of Christ. This view would serve as a hallmark of so-called “Covenant Theology“, the dominant form of Christian teaching throughout church history on this topic until the last two centuries.
Nevertheless, despite efforts of church leaders like Saint Augustine to change popular sentiments against Jewish people, relations between the Jewish and the larger, neighboring Christian communities were at times strained, sometimes leading to tragedy in later European history. The history of relations between Jewish and Christian communities remains complex, as we shall examine in our next post.
1. Pro-Zionist theologian, Barry Horner, documents the tragic history of anti-Judaistic thinking among the early church fathers in his Future Israel: Why Christian Anti-Judaism Must Be Challenged (New American Commentary Studies in Bible and Theology). Horner, who sponsors a website promoting the book, believes Saint Augustine to be the most influential culprit who theologically cultivated a spirit of anti-Judaism in the Christian church. Here is a brief positive review of Horner’s book, and here is a negative, review of Horner’s book by Sam Waldron defending the Augustinian tradition, who critically addresses Horner’s thesis extensively, point by point. Horner is a fine exegete of the Bible, and he raises some very good and sobering points as to how a number of Bible teachers in church history have possibly misread Israel’s role in future prophecy. However, I am also concerned that in making a number of sweeping statements, Horner is borrowing from a secularized critique of church history, that distorts his view and thereby misunderstands Augustine.↩
2. Lutheran sociologist Rodney Stark examines many of the charges of antisemitism as directed towards the history of Christianity in Bearing False Witness: Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History, p. 9-38. Without avoiding the excesses of antisemitic sentiment and actions throughout the history of Christendom, Stark demonstrates that the full story is much more complicated, relying extensively on research done by Jewish historian Peter Schäfer, at Princeton University. For Stark, antisemitism began, not with Christianity, but rather with pagan religions that preceded the arrival of Jesus Christ by centuries. But even with Stark’s balance, the picture is still clear: Many Jews have good reason to be suspicious of Christian intentions.↩
3. Paula Fredriksen, a Bible scholar at Boston University, and herself a convert to Orthodox Judaism and vocal opponent of anti-Judaism, documents Augustine’s change in perspective in her 2010 Augustine and the Jews: A Christian Defense of Jews and Judaism, a scholarly book on my summer reading list. A review of Fredriksen’s book is given here by a Catholic apologist. An interesting comparative assessment of both Horner’s and Fredriksen’s books is given by this messianic Jewish reviewer. Horner’s viewpoint, which I believe Fredriksen helps to correct, makes it seem like Augustine was singling out the Jews for mistreatment, though Augustine was nicer about it than other church fathers. What Horner neglects to tell you is that Augustine took in the common perspective of his day that allowed for no religious freedom for anyone other than orthodox Christians. Dr. Horner: What about the Donatists?! In our modern day of accepting religious freedom at a default, it is very tempting to read anachronistically back into history. A defense of Augustine still stands: though still faulty from a modern perspective, Augustine was still way ahead of his time… I hope to write a dedicated review of Fredriksen’s important book once I have finished reading all of it.↩