Where Did We Get Our Holiday Traditions From? (Christmas, Easter, Halloween, etc.)

It is like myths that never die. A common critique made by a number of skeptics, and oddly enough, some Christians, is that some of the most treasured holidays celebrated by Christians actually have pagan roots to them, ranging from Christmas to Easter, and of course, Halloween.

Over the years that I have been writing this blog, I have posted critiques of these memes, but it seems like every year they keep popping up, again and again and again, on various forms of social media. *SIGH*

I finally decided to dig into one of most authoritative works on this topic, to get a scholarly approach to such holidays, instead of being bothered with it every time a holiday rolls around. Ronald E. Hutton is a professor of history at the University of Bristol, in the U.K., and he specializes in the political and religious history of the British Isles, ranging from Christianity to paganism. His 1996 work, Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, is regarded among historians as perhaps the most thorough work on the history of British folklore, which includes the celebration of various holidays. Since most of the holidays Americans celebrate have historical roots traced back to Great Britain, Stations of the Son is a great place to dive into such interesting history.

Is Christmas a baptized celebration of the ancient Roman Saturnalia festival? Not really. The early Christians had other reasons for dating for the birth of Christ on December 25, though much of that reasoning today is considered speculative by historians.

Was Easter derived from a pagan fertility festival? No, the date of Easter is tied back to near the Jewish Passover.

Was “All Hallows Eve,” what would become Halloween, stolen from the Druids? No, the eve of All Saints Day had other beginnings, and according to Hutton, the connection with the Samhain festival is uncertain, as we have very little evidence to be able to determine the exact nature of the ancient Samhain festival anyway.

But as with many things like this, there are particular grains of truth in all of the “Christmas is Pagan” and “Easter is Pagan” themes, much of it based on a lot of speculation. As Ronald Hutton describes it, the story is actually fairly complicated, and far more interesting than what you read on most social media postings.

Consider Halloween, for example: All Saints Day originally came out of a Germanic tradition, established on November 1, in about the 9th century. The Germanic practice varied from the original celebration of Christian martyrs, who died under Roman pagan emperors, which is first recorded to have happened on the 13th of May, in 373 C.E. This Germanic tradition should put to bed the often repeated claim that the November 1st day came from the Celts. If anything, the evidence shows that influence is the other way around. Celtic Europe followed the Germanic tradition instead.

According to Hutton, why the Northern Europeans shifted the date from May to November remains somewhat of a mystery. The connection with concerns about the status of the dead came into play in about 998 C.E., when “All Souls Day” started to become instituted on November 2, the day after All Saints Day, as a means of encouraging Christians to pray on behalf of dead friends and relatives. So, at best, it is half truths about All Saints and All Souls Days, along with some anti-Roman Catholic polemic that drives the “Halloween is Pagan” story (see Hutton, p. 364).

Supposed “evidence” for Halloween’s connection with pagan practices does not really pick up any significant traction until hundreds of years later in the 19th century, particular when Sir James Frazer popularized the idea in his The Golden Bough, though most scholars today dismiss a great deal of Frazer’s claims. But since Frazer’s work is in the public domain, Internet websites publish Frazer’s work with great enthusiasm. As a result, assured claims of the “pagan roots” of Halloween have become a type of self-fulfilling prophecy: Halloween has become a pagan holiday because we are constantly reminded that it is pagan, despite the lack of sound historical evidence to back up these claims.

It has become pretty much a losing battle, trying to set the record straight here. I am content to stick with the celebration of Reformation Day, and forgo the Halloween controversy altogether.

All of this is thoroughly documented in Stations of the Sun, but a more succinct presentation of Hutton’s research can be found at the HistoryForAtheists website, as well as in an informative YouTube documentary by the HistoryForAtheists maintainer, Tim O’Neill, or read my summary from a blog post I wrote in 2021. Nevertheless, just about every year, CountryLiving magazine runs the same article over and over again, with a subtitles like, “The history of Halloween dates back to a pagan festival called Samhain,” or some other speculative overstatement.  Good grief!

To be frank, Stations of the Son is very detailed and dense, and does not necessarily lend itself to light reading. Hutton’s research is painstaking and precise. I pretty much had to dip in and out of Stations of the Sun, in order to retain some interest over the past year. As an evangelical Protestant, I was disappointed to read Hutton’s description of the nativity stories of Matthew and Luke to be in direct contradiction with one another, right at the beginning of the book, even though a good case can be made to harmonize the differing Gospels’ accounts (Here is my analysis from a previous Veracity blog post).

However, it was fun to learn about the history of the Easter egg. Various anti-Easter memes suggest that Christians were trying to cover up some pagan fertility rite. The more accurate story, that Ronald Hutton describes, goes back to the fact that the Lenten fasts instituted by the medieval church took eggs off the menu for Christians, until the Lenten fast ended at Easter. By then, many Christians had a whole stockpile of eggs, ideally hard-boiled, that could be eaten, but that could be put to use in other ways, such as with Easter egg hunts, and paintings of eggs. Overtime, eggs became less essential foodstuffs for European Christians, but such traditional practices remained, at least among more liturgically oriented Christians.

Now I know a whole lot more about the traditions behind those Easter egg hunts I celebrated as a kid.

Mistletoe. We are often told that the practice of kissing under the mistletoe has ancient, even pagan roots. Actually, the evidence for the practice is pretty murky, prior to Washington Irving’s popularizing of the mistletoe story in the 19th century.

Ah, but Christmas is upon us now. Little did I know but the “Twelve Days of Christmas” has a long history:

The tradition of twelve days of celebration following ‘midwinter’ was firmly established by 877, when the law code of Alfred the Great granted freedom from work to all servants during that span (Stations of the Sun, p. 6).

Twelve days off of work? Now I know why the Puritans had such a difficult time justifying the celebration of Christmas, as a lot of people can get into a lot of trouble when they are not working for twelve straight days in a row!

But if there is one definite link to “paganism,” or more properly-speaking, pre-Christian European religion, it would be the association of “Yule” with the name of Christmas.

In the eleventh century Danish rule over England resulted in the introduction of the colloquial Scandinavian term for Christmas, ‘Yule’, which provided an alternative name for it among the English (Stations of the Sun, p. 6).

There is not much Christian about the “Yule log,” as it mostly has an association with some ancient midwinter festival, recognizing that late December is the darkest time of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. But the popular idea that the majority of today’s Christmas customs were derived from the Yule tradition is just plain bunk, according to most historians today.

Furthermore, the use of mistletoe and dressing up with greens have very little reference to Christian symbolism. But even with mistletoe, its connection with kissing and supposed origins in Druid paganism only became known through the writings of the American author, Washington Irving, in his 1819 short story, “Christmas Day.” Where Washington Irving, more well known today as the author of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” got his information is a mystery, as mistletoe had become a fashionable part of church decorations since the 17th and 18th centuries, with no established record of its supposed connection to pagan religion (see Hutton, p. 37). Again, read a helpful summary of Hutton’s research in Tim O’Neill’s blog at HistoryForAthiests about “Pagan Christmas.

So, if you are interested in reading an authoritative history of where many our holiday traditions come from, particularly as they relate to their origins in the British Isles, Ronald Hutton’s Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain is the “go-to” academic treatment on the subject. I will be referring to this frequently whenever I hear fantastic claims about the supposed “true” or “secret” meaning of Christmas, Easter, and Halloween alike.

For a quick summary of the most popular “Christmas is Pagan” ideas, versus their most likely origins, click on the following JPEG file to view larger on your own device. Print it out and hand it to your friends, or share it with that Christmas-is-Pagan acquaintance who sends you stuff on social media.

 


Paul, the Pagans’ Apostle, by Paula Fredriksen. An Evangelical Review.

When Paul became a Christian, did he cease to be Jewish? What prompted the thinking behind Paul’s Gospel, which sought to include Gentiles among the people of God through having faith in Christ signaled by baptism, and not through circumcision? Such are some of the questions that Paula Fredriksen seeks to answer in her Paul, the Pagans’ Apostle.

(Time for another Bible-nerdy book review…..this book is very rich, but can be very dense, for the average reader)

Paula Fredriksen is one of the most recognized and highly respected scholars of early Christianity today. It took me two years, but I thoroughly enjoyed her monumental study Augustine and the Jews: A Christian Defense of Jews and Judaism, and reviewed it here on Veracity several years ago. She knows her field incredibly well. Until 2009 she researched and taught at Boston University and has since served at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. She hit the media spotlight in 1998 when she acted as the primary consultant for the PBS Frontline program, From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians, which was one of the first mainstream television programs to bring the so-called “third” quest for the historical Jesus, active in academic circles, to the eyes and ears of a popular American audience.

Early Christian historian Paula Fredriksen, though not a professing Christian, argues in her Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle that Paul did not “convert” to Christianity. Rather, Paul saw Christianity as fulfilling the message of the Hebrew Scriptures, and that Paul remained within the fold of Judaism to the very end of his ministry.

 

A Scholarly, Non-Evangelical Look at the Life & Ministry of the Apostle Paul

For Veracity readers, it is important to know that Dr. Fredriksen is not an evangelical in her theological orientation. From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians alarmed conservative Christians in the promotion of “Jesus Seminar” views that were well publicized in the 1990s. But in fairness to Dr. Fredriksen, she does not come across as having an axe to grind, as it is not completely clear to me even what her theological convictions are, though I have been told she is a former Roman Catholic turned Jewish. According to her writings, she seeks to act purely as an historian, putting together what she estimates is a competent reconstruction of the historical record, even where our current sources are not as plentiful as we would all like. Though popular among skeptics, Paula Fredriksen does not appear to be cynically antagonistic, for she acknowledges a set of facts, an “historical bedrock,” that does not explicitly rule out the central Christian claim that Jesus bodily rose from the dead.

To say that Dr. Fredriksen is not an “evangelical” is also to acknowledge that she does not uphold an historically orthodox, Christian view of the New Testament and its inspiration. Instead, she follows the thinking common in secular academia today regarding how the New Testament documents can be viewed as historical sources for reconstructing the life of Jesus and the period of the earliest Christ followers. This would include the topic of Paul, the Pagans’ Apostle, the life of the Apostle Paul. Outside of academia, and certain social media circles, few evangelical Christians know how a certain breed of scholars have a view of the Bible so radically different from their own.

For example, whereas the letters of Paul can be trusted upon as historically reliable, the Book of Acts is only reliable up to a certain point in comparison (Fredriksen,see footnote 1, chapter 3. ). She furthermore dates the writing of the Book of Acts to the early second century, which effectively takes the traditional authorship out of the hands of the historical Luke, who probably died long before the first century ended. She concludes this, despite the fact that the well known British 20th century liberal scholar, John A.T. Robinson, saw no firmly established scholarly reason why the entire New Testament could not be dated before the year 70 C.E.

But even with the “letters of Paul,” a caution is in order, in that of the thirteen letters directly ascribed in the New Testament as being written by Paul, only seven of them are considered to be authentic, whereas the letters 2 Thessalonians, Ephesians, Colossians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus are to be regarded as letters written after Paul’s death, by writers other than Paul, seeking to modify Paul’s theological agenda. None of this would sound strange at all to an atheistic scholar, like a Bart Ehrman, who fully embraces such views.

For those committed to the idea that our received New Testament canon is the final authority for Christian faith and practice (as I do), such views held by academics like Dr. Fredriksen (and Dr. Ehrman) are in direct conflict with an evangelical view of Scripture. As will become evident in this review, a number of conclusions that Dr. Fredriksen makes about early Christianity will stand at odds with more classic understandings of Christian belief. Nevertheless, while I disagree with Dr. Paula Fredriksen regarding her view of the Bible, I still think that historically orthodox Christians can learn a good deal from her, particular from someone as skilled and learned as she is.

As a Christian, Did Paul Remain a Jew? 

With this caveat in mind, there is much to be gained from Paula Fredriksen’s central thesis that Paul remained a Jew, and continued to be thoroughly Jewish, as he became perhaps the single most articulate and influential leader of the early Christian movement, after the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. The question that continues to puzzle such scholars is in explaining how such a committed Jew like Paul came to the conclusion that a way be opened up to include Gentiles among the people of God, along with Israel, without the circumcision requirement that classically identified what it meant to a member of God’s covenant people.

For many Christians today, knowing that Paul has a Jewish background is a “no-brainer.” I mean, is it not obvious?  Paul was Pharisee, was he not? However, Dr. Fredriksen argues in Paul, the Pagans’ Apostle that the importance of Judaism in the life of Paul, after he became a follower of Jesus, and as apostle to the Gentiles, has been greatly misunderstood and under appreciated.

Part of the key in appreciating Paula Fredriksen’s approach comes in perceiving the difference between “Gentiles” (a religiously neutral, ethnic term) and “pagans” (a religiously specific, ethnic term denoting non-Jews and non-Christians). For a non-Jew to follow Jesus, in Paul’s mind, they would remain a Gentile but they would need to give up their pagan idolatry and beliefs.The question of what is a “Gentile” and what is a “pagan” has interested me for years, and Paula Fredriksen thoroughly explores the topic.

Since the 1977 publication of (the late) E.P. Sanders Paul and Palestinian Judaism, a revolution has taken place in the academic study of Paul. Since the days of Martin Luther, in the 16th century, much of Protestant scholarship has insisted on a radical break between the Christian message of Paul and the story of Judaism. But with the advent of this “New Perspective on Paul,” inaugurated by Sanders’ research, a one-time professor at the College of William and Mary, where I currently work on staff, scholars have been working to reassess Paul’s relationship to the Judaism of the first century. Some look upon the “New Perspective on Paul” as a refreshing way of trying to approach the intractable divide between Protestants and Roman Catholics on the thorny issue of justification, whereas others view it as a threat to undermining the classic Reformation view of salvation.

Paula Fredriksen’s Paul, the Pagans’ Apostle attempts to steer a middle course through the debate between the New and Old Perspectives of Paul, which is probably the most sensible path forward. Fredriksen’s research is top notch, as her endnotes are well documented, something that the audiobook version I listened to on Audible sorely lacked, which meant a trip to the library for me! Fredriksen’s description of the Greco-Roman and Jewish worlds that Paul lived in is very insightful, and gives the reader a lot of food for thought. Still, there are other assumptions made in Fredriksen’s work that will frustrate evangelicals who try to read her.

Did the Council of Nicea Get Paul Wrong?

A modest acceptance of at least some of the New Perspective on Paul has even made its way into conservative evangelical circles, notably through the writings of N.T. Wright, perhaps the most well known New Testament scholar living in our day, in the first quarter of the 21st century. Nevertheless, Fredriksen’s approach is colored by a sharp disagreement she has with scholars like Wright, mainly in what undergirded the sense of urgency that Paul had in trying to spread his Gospel far and wide throughout the Roman Empire.

In a stunning statement, most likely directed at scholars like Wright, Paula Fredriksen urges “that we try to interpret both Paul and his Christology in innocence of the imperial church’s later creedal formulas.” This would suggest that Dr. Fredriksen believes that the early church’s move to articulate in the Nicene Creed an affirmation of the Son as being of the same substance as the Father is actually a distortion of the Gospel message being promoted by the historical Paul, as she sees him. Really?

Her analysis comes partly from her reading of Philippians 2:5-11:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (ESV).

Fredriksen notes that our English translations can fool us here, in that the word “God,” capitalized four times in this passage, commonly suggests the one divine being, God the Father. However, in the first two instances (verse 6) the word “God” has no definite article whereas later (verse 9), beginning with “Therefore God,” does have the definite article in the original Greek. In her view, this suggests that the reference to “therefore (the) God” means that it was God the Father who highly exalted Jesus, but those two prior references, which she translates in lower-case merely as “god,” or “a god,” as in “in the form of a god,” is a reference to divine status, but that this divine status is for some other divine being apart from God the Father. “Paul distinguishes between degrees of divinity here. Jesus is not ‘God’” (Fredriksen, p. 138).

I can only imagine Arius, the arch-heretic who debated the other early church fathers gathered at the Council of Nicea, issuing to Dr. Fredriksen a hearty “thank you!,” as Arius believed that Jesus was divine, but not in the same way the Father was divine. Jehovah’s Witnesses today pick up the same type of idea by asserting that Jesus was an angel, a divine being, but surely not of the same substance as God the Father, which was articulated in the creed at Nicea.  For Fredriksen, Arius was simply reading his Greek New Testament to make his case against anything that hinted of a Triune nature of God, in an effort to uphold what he understood to be monotheism.

Dr. Fredriksen then goes onto handling an objection, namely that for Paul to say that “Jesus Christ is Lord,” according to the ordinary Greek of the day, suggests that the meaning of “Lord” (kurios, in the Greek) is a deference to any social superior, and not necessarily divine (Fredriksen, p. 139). However, a careful examination of the passage that Paul is drawing from in the Septuagint (LXX) indicates otherwise. Throughout Isaiah 45, from where Paul gets his “every knee shall bow” and “every tongue confess” (Isaiah 45:23), each reference to the one true God is that Greek word for “Lord;” that is, kurios.  This would indicate that Paul undoubtedly had Jesus’ associated with the one true God in mind, and not merely some lesser divine being.

In other words, while Arius might have had certain good intentions of protecting against some form of polytheism in his reading of Paul, the orthodox church fathers who eventually won the debate at the Council of Nicea were able to read Paul better in his Old Testament context, thus making the case for Trinitarianism, against Arius. Dr. Fredriksen would strongly disagree with my assertion here. Nevertheless, historically orthodox Christian believers have understood Paul this way ever since. The Nicene Creed remains one of most familiar and well-affirmed statements of Christian belief in the history of the Christian movement, a common statement of faith among Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox alike.

A Common Assumption in Academia: Paul Emphatically Expected the Return of Jesus Within His Lifetime

So, given the shortcomings in her argument, why does Dr. Fredriksen urge such a movement away from the conclusions drawn up at the Council of Nicea? Dr. Fredriksen follows the standard consensus view among notably critical New Testament scholars, such as Bart Ehrman, that Paul “lived and worked in history’s final hour” (Fredriksen, p. xi), a well-known thesis popularized by the influential German New Testament scholar of the early 20th century, Albert Schweitzer.  In other words, Paul was absolutely convinced that Jesus would return as the victorious Jewish Messiah, to set the world order aright, sometime during his lifetime. This apocalyptic, eschatological expectation of the Apostle Paul is what drove him to preach far and wide across the greater Mediterranean coastlines and even inland.

As this story goes, when Paul eventually died, probably in the 60’s C.E., and there was no returning Messiah in sight, the Christian church was put into an existential crisis. What we possess in our New Testament today is essentially a combination of those early writings by Paul, along with other writings that came later, like the Gospels, that seek to refashion the message of the early Christian movement. With the failure of Jesus’ imminent return, this modified Christian movement, ultimately defined and regulated by the early church councils, most notably the Council of Nicea, now must endure for the “long haul,” something which has continued to survive and thrive now for 2,000 years.

Pushing Back Against the “Ghost of Albert Schweitzer”

In his multipart review of Paul, the Pagans’ Apostle, evangelical New Testament scholar Ben Witherington, of Asbury Seminary, critiques this presuppositional mindset that scholars like Dr. Fredriksen possesses. Witherington acknowledges that Fredriksen presents her central thesis well, despite the inadequacies of the Ehrman/Schweitzer approach that Fredriksen front loads to her book.

For example, when Paul states in Romans 16:20 that Christ will “soon” crush Satan under the feet of the Roman Christian community, he means that the crushing of Satan will happen “quickly,” a statement about how Satan will be crushed and not exactly when this would happen. For Paul also reminds the Romans in chapter 15 that he must go to Jerusalem, then to Rome, and then hopefully to Spain. So it would be odd for Paul to tell the Romans of his planned future schedule, years out in advance, while simultaneously announcing the coming end of the world, as he knew it, at any moment, as he was writing this letter. After all, Jesus himself acknowledged that he did not know the exact timing of his Second Coming (Mark 13:32). Witherington remarks, “Could we please now let the ghost of Albert Schweitzer rest in peace, and stop allowing his misreading of Paul to continue to haunt the way we evaluate Paul?

Nevertheless, even Witherington largely agrees that Dr. Fredriksen is correct to say that Paul was not a “convert” to Christianity, in the sense that Paul was somehow leaving his Judaism behind to become a Christian. Instead, Paul saw that the Gentiles’ acceptance of the Gospel was part of the new post-Resurrection-of-Christ reality, that had been a part of Israel’s story told for centuries within the Old Testament. In other words, for Witherington, Paul’s “conversion” was an expression of his Jewishness, in light of the coming of the Messiah, albeit a rather radical expression, more radical than what Fredriksen is willing to admit.

Many Christians for centuries have imagined Paul to have “converted away” from Judaism, when he became a follower of Jesus, whereas Fredriksen is an advocate of the “Paul Within Judaism” school of thought. Sadly, this “parting of the ways” between Judaism and Christianity was exacerbated by the severe drop off of Jews entering the Christian movement, and rapid increase of Gentiles joining the movement, particularly after the failure of the Bar Kokhba revolt in the early 130’s C.E.

That being said, Witherington faults Fredriksen for being too dismissive of some of the historical details that Acts offers up to support the narrative found in Paul’s letters about his own life, or to miss the more radical implications of Paul’s message, even in his own letters. For Paul saw that the death and resurrection of Jesus inaugurated a New Covenant, a fulfillment of what Jeremiah 31 says would be the law written on people’s hearts. Yes, Paul remained a Jew throughout his life, but following his road to Damascus experience, he radically reframed his Judaism along the lines that would eventually inform historical, orthodox Christianity (The late New Testament scholar Larry Hurtado shares a similar appreciation of Fredriksen’s approach while offering critiques similar to Witherington’s).

Paul in prison, by Rembrandt (credit: Wikipedia)

True Judaism for the Apostle Paul

With those critiques already in view, it is helpful to consider positively more what Paula Fredriksen is trying to do in her central thesis regarding Paul. The challenge of properly translating a passage like Galatians 1:13-14, when Paul explains his former life before becoming a follower of Jesus, is a case in point:

For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers (ESV).

What does Paul mean by “Judaism” here? Is he implying that by becoming a follower of Jesus that he is leaving one religion to join another? No, says Fredriksen. But if not, what then does Paul mean?

Furthermore, what is one to make of Romans 2:1-29, where Paul suggests that “true circumcision” is a matter of the heart (particularly Romans 2:29)? Being a “true Jew” is a matter of the spirit, of having the law inside of you, and not in one’s flesh. Is Paul redefining Judaism by taking circumcision out of the mix? Or is Paul addressing Gentile Christians here, showing them that circumcision should not be a barrier to their following Jesus?

There were certainly barriers for Gentiles to become Jews in the first century. The “God fearers” of the New Testament were attracted to the message of Judaism, but would not follow with circumcision. You also have the question as to how much proselytizing of Gentiles by traditional (non-Christian) Jews was actively being done in the first century, a practice that Dr. Fredriksen is skeptical about.

Who exactly were the Judaizers that Paul opposed in Galatia, those supposed followers of Christ who opposed Paul’s anti-circumcision efforts among the Gentiles? Did they really come from James’ church in Jerusalem? Were they instead other supposed Christ-followers, unaffiliated with James, who opposed Paul’s missionary tactics as being compromising? Was the conflict in Galatia over the same issue Paul faced in Antioch, or something different? Was the specific Judaizing complaint table fellowship between Gentile and Jewish believers in Jesus, or something else?

Paul vs. Judaism, or Paul vs. Christian Judaizers?

These are the questions that preoccupy Paul, the Pagans’ Apostle. One point that Fredriksen raises deserves highlighting. In Galatians, particularly in Galatians 4, where Paul brings out an allegory comparing the children of Sarah versus the children of Hagar, Fredriksen notes that most interpreters historically have said that Paul is comparing Christianity (children of Sarah) with Judaism (children of Hagar). But Fredriksen claims that this interpretation is incorrect, in that Paul is arguing for the difference between Christ-followers who take his approach to Gentile evangelism (children of Sarah), and those other Christ-following Jews who oppose him, and distort the Gospel (children of Hagar). On this observation, I find Paula Fredriksen’s argument quite persuasive (Fredriksen, p. 99-100).

Scholars, both conservative and liberal, have acknowledged that the preaching ministry of Jesus, prior to the crucifixion, was oriented towards the Jews of Palestine. Jesus rarely ventured outside of Jewish-dominated areas in what we now call the land of Israel. With a handful of exceptions, Jesus’ primary audience was Jewish.

It was not until Paul came along, with his road to Damascus experience with the Risen Jesus, that the early Christian movement began to actively engage outreach among the Gentiles. By emphasizing having faith in Christ, and removing circumcision as the traditional barrier for entry among the people of God, as described in the story of the Bible, Paul revolutionized the Christian movement. At the same time, Dr. Fredriksen argues, the Apostle Paul himself, along with the original members of Jesus’ apostolic circle, remained committed to their own ancient Jewish customs, despite the trend in later Christianity to make Paul appear to be anti-Jewish (Fredriksen, p. 106).

For while Paul vehemently opposed the “Judaizers” who distorted his Gospel in Galatia, Paul still insisted on at least some form of “Judaizing” for Gentile followers of Jesus. He insisted that Gentile believers forsake idolatry, adhere to the Ten Commandments, give up sexual immorality, and uphold “any other commandment” of the Law (Romans 13:9, Fredriksen, p. 119). This raises the question as to why Paul drew the line at circumcision as he did.

Rethinking Old Approaches to Paul

Dr. Fredriksen wades into the debate over the meaning of “faith” (pistis, in Greek), which she sees as having a long history of referring to “psychological inner states concerning authenticity or sincerity or intensity of ‘belief‘.” She corrects this misunderstanding by appealing to a meaning more sensible to Paul’s first century context, that of ‘“steadfastness” or “conviction” or “loyalty”‘(Fredriksen, p. 121). I resonate with her translation of Romans 13:11b: “Salvation is nearer to us now than it was when we first became convinced.”  Compare this with the Common English Bible translation of the same: “Now our salvation is nearer than when we first had faith,” which is much more ambiguous.

From a fresh perspective, Dr. Fredriksen contends that the mysterious “I” of Romans 7:7-22 is a rhetorical device used by Paul, and not a reference to his own spiritual struggles, neither as a non-believer before his encounter with Christ, nor himself as a believer (example v. 15: “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate“). Accordingly, Paul is self-identifying as “the non-Jew who struggles to live according to Jewish ancestral customs,” as they follow Christ (Fredriksen, p.123-124). This reading is quite plausible, though it is quite different from the late-Augustine interpretation of Paul’s struggle with indwelling sin as a believing Christian. Nevertheless, both Fredriksen’s reading and the late-Augustinian reading are not necessarily in conflict with one another.

Fredriksen is convinced that Paul knew his Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament) well enough to know that there would come a day when the nations of the world would turn from their idolatry and embrace of the God of Israel. With the coming of Jesus as the Messiah, Paul knew that this day had come. But this bringing in of the Gentiles into God’s covenant people would not be limited by circumcision, but rather would be conditioned by their response of having faith in Jesus. Paul sees this as being completely consistent with the message of the Hebrew Scriptures, and is therefore adamantly opposed to other Jewish “Christ-followers” who do not read the Old Testament just as he has.

Furthermore, there is no such thing as two different ways of salvation, one for the Jews and another way for the Gentiles. All of the people of God, whether they be Jew or Gentile, are reconciled to God through faith in Christ.

The way Dr. Fredriksen frames her argument has implications on how Christians should read their Bible. For example, many Christians continue to read the Book of Romans without this Pauline mindset in view. As a result, many Christians look at his whole argument for justification/salvation as starting in Romans 1 and culminating in Romans 8, with Romans 12-16 as being about the application of Paul’s theological treatise. Romans 9-11 then sticks out like a sore thumb, as like some sort of appendix bolted onto Paul’s teaching in Romans 1-8. Yes, Romans 8 does end with a glorious promise that no one will separate us from the love of Christ. But there is more to the story. The lesson I take from Dr. Fredriksen is that the Romans 1-8 story only gets us part of the way there to where Paul is going. Rather, Paul wants to show us how “all Israel will be saved” (Romans 11:26). Paul’s theological argument runs from Romans 1-11, where Romans 8 offers a theological crescendo, but Romans 11 is the real climatic conclusion.

As an aside, on a somewhat minor point, Paula Fredriksen is completely right to say that Paul’s allusion to Isaiah 45:23, that “every knee shall bow” to God, in both Philippians 2:10 and Romans 14:11 is about all of the nations coming to the conscious realization that Jesus is the True Messiah, not simply that of Israel, but that of all of the nations of the world, at his final return (footnote 15, chapter on “Christ and the Kingdom”). These New Testament verses have been used either to justify some type of begrudging acceptance of Jesus’ Lordship by the wicked in hell, after the final judgment, or to justify a type of Christian Universalism, implying that every human individual will be saved in the end. However, the reference to “every knee shall bow” by Paul is not about individuals but rather about the nations, with every bowing of the knee referring to each distinct national allegiance, as the context of Isaiah 45 shows.

Rethinking Pauline “Anti-Jewishness” …. (Without Compromising Historically Orthodox Christianity)

Nevertheless, a number of other conclusions made by Dr. Fredriksen are driven by her acceptance of the common academic narrative that the authentic Paul only wrote seven of the thirteen letters we possess, which is further skewed by her adoption of the Ehrman/Schweitzer “imminent end of the world” thesis. In fact, these are fundamental assumptions that she makes without apology (Fredriksen, p. 252).

This is quite evident when you compare Fredriksen’s reading of 1 Thessalonians, an undisputed letter of Paul, which includes the famous passage on the “Rapture” (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18), which she believes teaches the imminent return of Christ within Paul’s lifetime, with her reading of the disputed 2 Thessalonians, which she believes was written by another author claiming to be Paul, which “explained the reasons for the Kingdom’s evident delay, adding a punch-list of necessary further events before the final apocalyptic scenario could unwind (2 Thes. 2:1-11)” (p.169). In other words, in her view, 2 Thessalonians attempts to fix Paul’s erroneous expectation, sometime after Paul’s death of the coming Kingdom with a different message, that emphasizes a more “we-are-in-this-for-the-long-haul” approach to the consummation of world history.

As another example, she appears to favor the position that the “deutero-Pauline author [of Ephesians] collapses the ethnic distinctions that Paul himself upheld” (footnote 35, chapter on “Paul and the Law”) between Jew and Gentile, in contrast with the authentic Paul. Furthermore, she believes that the authentic Paul discouraged the act of having children, as being a distraction from the imminent return of the Messiah (p. 113). She believes that the “Pauline” teaching about parents having authority over their children, as described in Ephesians and Colossians, was a non-Pauline teaching introduced into our New Testament to accommodate the reality of the failure of Jesus to return within Paul’s own lifetime.

Paula Fredriksen asks vital questions about Paul’s precise thinking about the message of the Gospel with his self-understanding of what it meant to be Jewish. Fredriksen rightly reveals the theological wedge driven between Paul the missionary to the Gentiles and Paul the faithful Jew, a trend that eventually dominated a great deal of Christian theology. While the phrase “replacement theology” is often too elusive here, it is correct to say that if there was one particular failure of the early church, particularly from Constantine onwards, it was the tendency to marginalize the Jewishness of the earliest Christian movement to the point of enabling a kind of anti-Judaism that has done tremendous harm throughout Christian history.

While voices like Origen and Augustine resisted such anti-Jewish thinking, by reminding their readers that Paul and other early Jewish Christian leaders maintained many of their ancient Jewish customs, not everyone heeded these voices. This anti-Judaism wedge was even codified into certain aspects of Roman law, in the post-Constantine era (Fredriksen,see footnotes 25, 26, under chapter “Paul and the Law”). Aside from Origen and Jerome, very few of the early church fathers even understood Hebrew, which is the primary language in which the Old Testament was written in!!

But Paula Fredriksen’s attempt to obliterate that wedge is eventually an overcompensation, a product of her historical methodology. For it is evident that her view of the New Testament contrasts sharply with the received view of the church, down through the centuries, which views all of the thirteen letters of Paul as being authentically Pauline. I, on the other hand, believe that the early church got the canon of Scripture right!

Anti-Judaism is not a core feature of historical, orthodox Christianity. For example, you would be hard-pressed to find conservative evangelicals who do not possess profound sympathies with Jewish people today. In other words, you do not have to buy into the full revisionist program of much of critical scholarship today in order to root out “anti-Jewishness” understandings of Paul that have, nevertheless, crept into at least certain interpretations of the New Testament.

There are plenty of resources within historical, orthodox Christianity to tackle the task Paula Fredriksen takes up. She convincingly demonstrates that a traditional view of a Paul who “converted” from Judaism to Christianity is anachronistic and wholly unnecessary. For the language of “conversion” presupposes a modern concept of “religion” which was in many ways foreign to Paul and his world. Paul’s Christianity was not a rejection of Judaism, per se, but rather it was the outworking of his Jewish faith, set within the context of the coming of the Messiah.

In other words, while is it surely correct to say that Paul indeed “converted” to Christ, by embracing Jesus’ mission and following the Risen Lord, it would be wrong to say that Paul “converted” away from Judaism to get to something else, like “Christianity.” As an evangelical, I am thankful to Dr. Fredriksen for pointing this out. However, it is not a prerequisite to accept the whole of Fredriksen’s critical, non-evangelical assumptions about the Bible to get her central thesis.

Rethinking Paul’s Greatest Letter: To the Romans

However, I am not entirely convinced yet by Dr. Fredriksen’s attempt to re-read Romans is correct, though it is a coherent and plausible reading.  She believes that Paul’s audience are Gentile Christians, at least some of whom consider themselves as “Jews” (Romans 2:17). Yet she does not think that Paul is addressing any actual Jewish, bodily-circumcised Christians in Romans. Instead, Pauls uses a rhetorical style, by implicitly addressing a “so-called Jew” as the interlocutor of his argument; that is, a Gentile Christian who is trying to Judaize too much (Fredriksen, pp. 156ff). This goes against the standard reading that the recipients of Paul’s letter to the Romans were a mix of both Gentile AND Jewish Christians, who were not necessarily getting along very well with one another, from the reports Paul had received. So in Romans 2, according to Fredriksen, Paul is addressing a Gentile “who calls himself a Jew,” and not someone who was bodily circumcised, a view consistent with how she interprets Romans 7 (see above).

The problems here are several. First, it is hard to imagine that Paul would go to such great lengths to write such a treatise to a Christian community he had not yet met, and completely ignore the Jewish part of that community in his correspondence. When Phoebe presented Paul’s letter to the church in Rome (Romans 16:1-2), did she ask the Jewish Christians to leave the room while inviting the Gentile Christians to stay and listen? Probably not. But perhaps the believers in Rome, both Jew and Gentile, would have caught onto Paul’s rhetorical style. But then, maybe not.

Secondly, according to Dr. Fredriksen, Paul’s great statements in Romans about justification, particularly in Romans 3, are primarily aimed at Gentile believers, and not all believers as a whole. This does not necessarily mean that Paul’s teaching about justification could not be extended to Jewish Christians as well, as a further application of Paul’s teaching in Romans. But I am not yet persuaded that her reading of Romans will bring about a clear breakthrough in the persistent debates regarding the nature of justification among theologians. Excluding Rome’s Jewish Christians from the intended audience of Paul’s letter to the Romans is a problematic weakness to Dr. Fredriksen’s argument.

I might add that there are a few other places in Paul, the Pagans’ Apostle, where it is hard to connect Dr. Fredriksen’s conclusions with the actual data she cites. For example, in her discussion about the controversial term “righteousness“, (in Greek, dikaiosynē) she ties Paul’s thinking of righteousness quite exclusively to the adherence to the second table of the Ten Commandments, which does not exactly line up with the Scriptural texts she references (Fredriksen, p. 120-121).

In the prior paragraph, she rebukes the RSV translators for rendering Romans 1:4b-5 as “Jesus Christthrough whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about obedience to the faith,” as there is no definite article associated with “faith” in the Greek original. Fredriksen is correct in that the use of “the faith” connotes the idea of faith as a set of propositional statements that one must believe, which is not in view here in Paul’s writings. But the version Fredriksen is quoting dates back to the 1953 printing of the RSV, a reading that was apparently grandfathered in from the KJV. Yet as of 1973, the inclusion of “the” in “the faith” had been removed from the RSV, and I could find no modern, recent translation of the RSV, the ESV that succeeded it, nor the new NRSV with the definite article included. Perhaps Dr. Fredriksen mistakenly had the KJV in mind, but it would seem odd to point out an error in the RSV that was corrected perhaps some 50 years ago. Little head scratchers like these pop up every now and then in Paul, the Pagans’ Apostle.

With all of this in mind, I would not necessarily recommend Paul, the Pagan’s Apostle to Christians who are unfamiliar with Fredriksen’s type of critical biblical scholarship. The landmines you would have to walk over to get to the valuable insights Dr. Fredriksen has regarding a neglected aspect about Paul and his mission might be too distracting and discouraging. But for someone who can read something like a Bart Ehrman book, without throwing it at the wall in utter frustration, Paula Fredriksen’s Paul, the Pagan’s Apostle makes for a provocative and refreshing look at the Apostle Paul.

Rethinking Paul? So What??

Some might respond with a yawn about such questions that come up about Paul and his relationship to Judaism, with a “So what?” But such indifference is woefully mistaken.

The circumcision issue in Paul’s day is not something which has no bearing for Christians today. A lot of people wonder if certain other “quirks” of Judaism still apply for Christians in the 21st century. Some argue that Paul’s dismissal of the circumcision requirement for Gentiles, in order to be Christian, is a model for jettisoning other peculiarities associated with the Old Testament-inspired Jewish tradition for us living 2,000 years later. Others (like myself) disagree, saying that Paul’s “disputable matters” position on eating food sacrificed to idols and his opposition to Gentile circumcision for Christ-followers was more probably unique for those particular issues Paul was thinking about and should not be confused with contemporary concerns, such as with Westernized rethinking concerning gender, sexuality, and marriage, explosive topics for not only non-believers but believers in Jesus today as well.

There were “God-fearers” in the first century Roman Empire, such as the centurion in Luke 7:1-10, who admired the Jews and who were drawn to the God of Israel, and yet they were not prepared to go the full conversion route into Judaism by becoming circumcised.  Perhaps there are “God-fearers” today (or some nearly equivalent category) who admire the Christian faith, but who find certain obstacles to historic orthodox Christian belief and practice that they are unwilling to embrace. This is an area that requires concentrated thought and discussion, in our current post-Christian era where once widely accepted Christian beliefs and practices have now become deeply controversial in recent decades.

Then there is the whole debate about justification, that placed an intractable wedge between Protestants and Roman Catholics in the 16th century, that still haunts the church to this day. The type of reassessment of the Apostle Paul offered by scholars like Paula Fredriksen might go a long way towards opening new paths for dialogue in healing this rift within the Christian movement. I read her Paul, the Pagans’ Apostle, as a prelude to her more popular and accessible work, When Christians Were Jews, which I hope to get to in due time.

 


Dan Jones: Powers and Thrones, a New History of the Middle Ages

In preparation for our 20th wedding anniversary trip to Europe, I knew I had to bone up on some of my Europe Medieval history. The popular British historian, Dan Jones, known for his tattoos on his forearms, had last year published “a New History of the Middle Ages,” as he subtitled it, Powers and Thrones. It did not disappoint.

The Middle Ages are often erroneously called the “Dark Ages,” but that description is not fair. A lot happened during the time span that Dan Jones covers between the sack of Rome in 410, and the later sack of Rome in 1527.

That 1,000+ year period is filled with Romans, Barbarians, Byzantines, Arabs, Franks, Monks, Knights, Crusaders, Mongols, Merchants, Scholars, Builders, Survivors, Renewers, Navigators, and Protestants, as Jones lays out in his chapters. The primary reason the label “Dark Ages” is still hard to shake off is because we have less written sources to work with during the first half of that era, as compared to the previous era of when the Roman Empire was at its greatest.

Yet Dan Jones manages to tell an engrossing story, giving the reader the flow of this immensely important era of European history. I gained a better appreciation of how just brutal the Monguls were, while ironically and simultaneously prefiguring the current age of cultural pluralism. Who knew that many medieval Christians at first mistakenly imagined Genghis Khan to be a new “King David,” who might push back against the scourge of the growth of Islam? But most interestingly, climate change, technological revolution, and pandemics play a significant part in the whole story, topics that sound eerily contemporary post-2020.

Veste Oberhaus, a castle overlooking the city of Passau, Germany, on the Danube River. The current structure was built in the late 15th century, and hosts a marvelous museum today. (photo credit: Clarke Morledge)

During our trip to Europe, I saw plenty of castles and cathedrals, resulting from the great building programs Jones describes from the medieval period. Admittedly, I did see attestation to the darkest sides of this period, as evidences of anti-semitism abounded in nearly every major city my wife and I visited. But the 16th century marks a clear break in Europe’s history, as any visitor to continental Europe can confirm. Beyond the fall of the Roman Empire, it could be fairly stated that the coming of Martin Luther, the age of the printing press, and the exploration of the Americas signaled the end of the Middle Ages.

Alas, as with any sweeping survey of history, I have some complaints with Dan Jones retelling, from my Protestant evangelical perspective. The work of any historian is by the very nature of the field selective, and so how the story is framed tells you a lot about the worldview bent of the historian.

Bernard of Clairvaux, one of the most influential Christian preachers during the early 12th century, and one of the most saintly figures of the age, comes across as wholly hostile to academic freedom in his condemnation of the progressive theology of Peter Abelard. I got the impression that the Christian movement somehow suddenly discovered for the first time the value of women under the reign of the 6th century Byzantine emperor Justinian, through the influence of the empress Theodora. Towards the end of the book, Christopher Columbus initially comes across as an insightful missionary to the American peoples, only to be revealed eventually as a liar and colonialist oppressor, willing to use every underhanded means necessary to gain converts…. and profits. The ultimately secular orientation of Dan Jones implies that just about for every minute advance of Christianity in the medieval world along with it came a devastating catastrophe for at least someone.

To be fair, the doctrinal controversies with the Christian church, in an era when religious commitments were tightly welded to political realities, often had horrific consequences. The fact that Alaric, the Hun who first sacked Rome in 410, the seat of the orthodox papacy, was a professing anti-Nicene-anti-Trinitarian Arian Christian does make one think twice about the theological role Trinitarian thought plays in Christianity today, something that most Christians never even consider. Pair that with the fact that Holy Roman Emperor Charles V employed Lutheran-sympathizing German mercenaries in his 1527 sack of Rome, then you get the sense that the theological conflicts within Christianity even today carry with them great power to indelibly change the lives of many people.

Nevertheless, the advantage of reading such a broad history as found in Powers and Thrones is that it inspires one to dig into some of the stories Dan Jones brings up in greater detail to gain a better understanding of historical context. Consider the story of empress Theodora, noted briefly above, and her efforts to encourage her husband, the 6th century Byzantine emperor Justinian, to uphold the value of women. Though Theodora had the history of being a prostitute, having come from a very lower class background, she became a big advocate of marriage, viewing it as the “holiest of all institutions,” a tip towards her Christian convictions as empress. Roman law was changed to allow marriages between men and women of different social classes. Dowry was described as being “strictly necessary,” in contrast to a more traditional view that made dowry essential to marriage. Justinian’s law stated that “mutual affection is what creates a marriage.” Justinian and Theodora made it more difficult for men to divorce their wives for frivolous reasons. The killing of adulterous wives was strictly forbidden.

These type of legal reforms may seem obvious to us today, but in the 6th century, these ways of elevating the status of women were unheard of in any comparable civilized society. This was a clear indication that far from being anti-woman, the Christian movement that had only gained cultural ascendancy a mere two hundred years earlier had managed to reshape popular Roman views of women, that would have scandalized the earlier cultures of Roman paganism. It would have been more helpful if Dan Jones had given the reader more context here, but I am glad that in reading Powers and Thrones it encouraged me to dig a little deeper into the historical context myself.

But such critique of a general historical survey is to be expected and should not in any way diminish the artful way that Dan Jones tells his “new history.” Powers and Thrones entertains just as well as it educates. This is a fantastic historical survey of an immensely important time period, and a good model for how such sweeping histories should be done. Highly recommended. Dan Jones also narrates the Audible audiobook version, which makes it even better. A good way to spend about 25 hours worth of time, such as I did, including on a long plane flight to Europe!


The Stain of Antisemitism in “Christian” Europe

Our three-week journey across Europe this fall was fantastic. However, there were sobering moments. The most disturbing part that I learned about was the pervasive stain of antisemitism in Europe’s Christian history.

While my wife and I were away from the United States, the celebrity rapper Kanye West made a number of bizarre antisemitic comments , apparently cobbled together from conversations the singer/artist has had with Louis Farrakhan, that led to various corporate sponsors abandoning commercial agreements with Kanye, in an effort to distance themselves from the popular-rapper-turned-born-again Christian (since I originally wrote the rough draft for this post, some apologists are now saying that Kanye has been flirting with the theology of the Black Hebrew Israelites movement. Hear more about it on the Dallas Seminary Table Podcast, or with apologists Mike Winger and Allen Parr).

Christians and traditional Jews do not have the same view of Jesus, and that difference is significant. But Christians owe a tremendous debt to the Jewish people, for Jesus himself was Jewish. Sadly, extreme examples in European church history demonstrate that some have forgotten this simple truth.

Such incidents may seem rare in the 21st century, but in medieval Europe right up through the period of Nazi Germany, antisemitism poked up its ugly head far too many times. On our trip down the Danube River, our first stop was in Regensburg, Germany. We heard from a guide that the persecution of Jews there goes back at least to stories during the Crusade era of the late 11th century, when wandering bands of Crusade enthusiasts ransacked Jewish homes and businesses. Some church bishops thankfully offered sanctuary for their Jewish neighbors, but within centuries, anti-Jewish sentiment was stirred up again.

In the late 15th century, the preaching of a Bavarian Dominican preacher, Peter Nigri, led to the confiscation of Jewish property in Regensburg. But Roman Catholic leaders have not been the only ones to stir up persecution against Jews.

A generation later in 1519, another preacher in Regensburg, Balthasar Hubmaier, called for the expulsion of Jews from the city, an event that led to the destruction of the local Jewish cemetery and the turning of a Jewish synagogue into a church as Jews fled the city. Within a few years, Hubmaier got married, even though he was a medieval priest, and joined up with the Anabaptist cause, having himself re-baptized, actions that not only put him in bad relations with the Roman church, but also with Ulrich Zwingli, the leader of the Swiss Reformation. He and his wife were shortly thereafter martyred for their Anabaptist faith. Whether or not Hubmaier eventually repented of his mistreatment of Jews is unknown to me, but the mark he left on Regensburg’s Jewish community remains to this day.

When the Jewish cemetery in Regensburg was destroyed as a result of Hubmaier’s preaching, various citizens of the city took the gravestones and reused them in various building projects. One gravestone was set underneath the floor of a room used as a toilet, as seen in the following photograph, an obvious insult to a Jewish person.

Jewish gravestone placed underneath a toilet in a Regensburg, Germany home, after Jews were expelled from the city in the early 16th century. Expand the photo to see the Hebrew lettering more clearly (photo credit: Clarke Morledge)

 

Now, why would someone claiming to be a Christian do such a thing?

The great cathedral of St. Peter’s Church, in Regensburg, an otherwise beautiful building, has a strong hint of antisemitism embedded in one of its outward walls. Someone had carved a sculpture of three Jews sucking from a pig, looking in the direction of the old Jewish synagogue.

What an insult. Hardly Christ-honoring. Where was the church’s bishop when this sculpture was placed on the side of this otherwise glorious church building? Why did he not put a stop to such nonsense?

Reminders of Europe’s antisemitic past like these are sprinkled across Europe. For example, in Prague, in the Czech Republic, a Jewish ghetto was formed in the 13th century, when Jews were told to vacate their homes and live in one particular area of the city. While Jews were allowed during the day to traverse the city, at night a curfew was placed on the Jews that kept them inside their Jewish Quarter. Even as Jews were expelled from other areas of Europe, like Spain in the late 15th century, such Jews made their way to more tolerant cities like Prague, but they still had to live in these prescribed areas.

Entrance into the Jewish Quarter in Prague. Note the Jewish town hall clocks, where the top clock is displayed with Roman numerals and the bottom clock is displayed in Hebrew (photo credit: Clarke Morledge).

 

But nothing  compares to the utter brutality experienced by Europe’s Jewry during the Nazi years of World War II. At the beginning of the war, when Hitler’s German army occupied Prague, there were some 92,000 Jews living in this section of the city. But by the end of World War II, nearly 60,000 of those Jews had been killed, many of them in concentration camps, like Auschwitz, in neighboring Poland to the north. Today, less than 5,000 Jews live in Prague, though ironically the Jewish Quarter in Prague is considered to be the “hip” place to live in the city.

Just one more example of antisemitism on display in Prague’s history….. The following photo is one of many statues that populate the sides of the Charles Bridge, one of the most iconic places in all of the Europe, where many thousands of visitors walk across every year. At first glance, you see a picture of the crucified Jesus. As a Christian, I was quite impressed with this… until I looked a bit closer, and learned the whole story behind it. The sculpture itself has  gone through several revisions over the centuries.

Calvary Statue. Charles Bridge, Prague, Czech Republic. Original metal versions, 1657. Sandstone figures off to the sides, 1861. Bronze plaques added in 2000. More information here. (photo credit: Clarke Morledge)

 

If you look closer, the head of Christ is surrounded with Hebrew letters. The rough translation into English is “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of Hosts,” from the Jewish prayer, the Kedushah.

In my ignorance as a Christian, this is a pretty interesting and encouraging thing to see…  until you hear the backstory about it.  In 1696, a Jewish community leader, Elias Backoffen, was forced to pay for the gold-plated lettering, as a punishment for an alleged act of blasphemy, committed by another Jewish businessman. In other words, this was not a voluntary act of devotion to Christ, but rather it was a forced act of humiliation, for which Prague’s Jews had to look at for the next 300 years whenever they crossed the Charles Bridge, over the Vltava River.

In 2000, bronze plaques were affixed below the crucifix (hard to read from the photo), with explanatory text in Czech, English and Hebrew. In English, they roughly say, “‘The addition to the statue of the Hebrew inscription and the explanatory texts from 1696 is the result of improper court proceedings against Elias Backoffen, who was accused of mocking the Holy Cross.’ The addition to the Hebrew inscription, ‘which represents a very important expression of faith in the Jewish tradition, was supposed to humiliate the Jewish Community.’ It is signed ‘The City of Prague.’

Wow.

Some might protest that leaving these reminders of antisemitism up for public display is a bad idea, that they “celebrate” beliefs and behaviors that most everyone in a post-Hitler world would find abhorrent. I disagree. Rather, they should remain available for people to see for the exact opposite reason: that they should remind us that sinful humanity has the awful tendency to forget the sins of previous generations, and thereby end up repeating those same sins later on.

It is difficult to understand how such blatant acts of antisemitism went unanswered for centuries in a land which was so dominated by Christian devotion, along with its impressive church architecture, drawing one’s attention to the Glory of God. Anglican theologian Gerald McDermott has a response to this that I find quite helpful. A lot of our Bible translations have given rise to the wrong ideas about the Jews of Jesus’ day. While we all know that Jesus was indeed a Jew, he received a lot of opposition from the “Jews.”

In one rather unsettling passage, Jesus says to the “Jews” who challenge him:

Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word.You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies (John 8:43-44 ESV).

It is passages like these that were badly misinterpreted, often taken out of context and prompted various church goers in medieval Europe to call out “the Jews” as “Christ-killers,” as they exited their churches to go taunting their Jewish neighbors.

But professor McDermott makes the point that misleading Bible translations have been a big part of the problem. For example, the phrase “the Jews,” as found in many of these passages in various translations comes from the Greek term, “Iudaioi.” That word can also be translated as “Judeans,” that is, in this context, the leaders of the Jewish community in Jerusalem, the capital of Judea.

When Jesus had his earthly ministry, many Jews lived all across the Roman Empire, and not just in “Judea,” proper. Furthermore, to speak of “Judeans” is lot like talking about those in Washington, D.C., who make decisions for Americans. It simply is not true that the American political statespersons in Washington D.C. represent the viewpoints of everyone living in Washington. In the same way, it makes better sense to translate “Iudaioi” as “Jewish leaders,” instead of the overly broad designation as “the Jews.” Besides, nearly all of the earliest followers of Jesus were Jews themselves, in contrast with the Jewish leaders in Judea, who opposed Jesus’ ministry.

Consider therefore, the immediately following passage from John 8, which in the ESV reads:

The Jews answered him, “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?” (John 8:48 ESV).

Professor McDermott’s suggestion is that we modify “the Jews” translation of “Iudaioi” with better clarity as “the Jewish leaders” instead:

The Jewish leaders answered him, “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?” (John 8:48).

Not only does a reading like this avoid the stain of antisemitism, it makes better sense when reading the passage. It avoids the temptation to want to lump all Jews in the same category, when the Gospels make it abundantly clear that many Jews were indeed, not only sympathetic, but also enthusiastic followers of Jesus as their Messiah.

For years, I tended to dismiss complaints from non-Christians that Christianity harbored antisemitic elements in certain elements of the faith. After all, anyone who is truly Christian would never be antisemitic. My reasoning had been that opponents of Christianity will say and do anything to discredit the Gospel, including making false charges of “antisemitism.” There is still some truth to this, as some critics of the Christian faith will tend to focus on antisemitism as a reason for rejecting the Christian faith outright, which is not a fair representation of what most Christians have believed over the centuries.

About four years ago, I read and reviewed several books that touched on this topic, Joel Richardson’s When a Jew Rules the World, and in tandem, Paula Fredriksens’ magisterial Augustine and the Jews, along with a shorter work, Barry Horner’s Future Israel: Why Christian Anti-Judaism Must Be Challenged. I admit that a lot of the points raised in those works about anti-Judaic teachings being promoted at various times in church history seemed fairly suspicious to me. But after this year’s visit to Europe, and seeing quite a bit of this antisemitic history for myself, I find myself more grieved by such occasional teachings by even some of my favorite theological heroes. Such writing and preaching enabled antisemitic thinking, at least among certain segments of the Christian community, more so than I had imagined before.

While it helps to always remind ourselves that Jesus was a Jew, and that his most prominent followers in those early years, like the Apostle Paul, were Jews as well, we should do more than that, and be more vigilant in rooting out anti-Judaic sentiments as Christians. It is quite evident that Jews and Christians have a number of differing beliefs, as genuine Christians believe that Jesus is indeed the promised Messiah of the Jews, and that traditional Jews are still waiting for their Messiah to come, and therefore reject Christian claims about Jesus’ messianic status.

This is obviously a significant theological barrier that simply can not be ignored or waved off as unimportant. We should never trivialize such differences. I still want to engage my Jewish friends with the claims of the Gospel that Jesus is indeed that True Messiah that they have been waiting for these many, many generations. Many “Messianic Jews” and “Completed Jews,” as they are sometimes called, have come to discover that wonderful truth about Jesus.

But this is a far cry from the sad examples from church history, where Jews have been forced to live in segregated communities, expelled from cities, and having their cemeteries destroyed, all in the name of promoting certain extreme preachings popularized in certain segments of the Christian world. Being forced to pay for and sponsoring works of Christian art, that spring not from a voluntary act of worship, but rather as way of humiliating people, is something that we as believers should strongly condemn. Even if a popular rapper spreads lies about Jewish people, we as followers of the True Messiah, should take no part in such coarse and unguarded speech.

Instead, we should lovingly point others to the way of humility in following after Jesus, and giving God all of the honor and the glory and the praise, and not allow our petty agendas to distort how we view others, for whom our Savior and Lord died.

 


Defenestration of Prague & The Thirty Years War

My wife and I had the privilege of traveling in Europe for three weeks. Six countries: Germany, Austria, Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic, and Italy. Seven, if you include an airplane switch in Zurich, Switzerland.

The main event was to see the Passion Play in Oberammergau, in southern Germany. But it was followed by an 8-day cruise down the Danube, from Regensburg, Germany to Budapest, Hungary. But what I want to blog about here is something I saw the next three days after the cruise, while touring in Prague, in the Czech Republic. So, make this the third post, in a multipart series looking at church history in Europe.

The Defenestration Window, at Prague Castle, where the Thirty Years War began. Several Roman Catholic representatives of the royal governorship were pushed out of the top window of this building, in protest over mistreatment of Protestant subjects.

The Prague Castle is a large complex of buildings overlooking the capital city of today’s Czech Republic, Prague. I had to ask our Czech guide where to find this particular spot, but I was interested in learning where the Thirty Years War technically started. I found it and took the snapshot above.

The Thirty Years War (1618-1648) devastated Europe. For nearly a century after Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door at the Wittenberg Church, the Protestant Reformation led to upheaval nearly all over the continent. Europe became divided between Roman Catholic and Protestant areas. The basic way this all happened was that each particular monarch or city-state would essentially declare what form of Christian worship would be permitted within that particular territory.

This was several centuries before the American Founding Fathers enshrined the concept of religious freedom within a governing document, so there was no room for dissension from any government decision. In other words, whatever the government decided the form of worship should be in a particular territory, then people living in that territory must comply…. or else!

But by 1618, the whole solution became unmanageable. For example, let us say that one particular sovereign declared their land or country to be Roman Catholic. There still were wealthy landowners in that country who were persuaded of the Protestant cause. Would they be forced to worship in a Roman Catholic Church? What about church lands that were being stewarded by certain benefactors? Would the right to earn monies from farming being done on those lands be taken away from benefactors with Protestant convictions?  The same type of questions would come up for Roman Catholics living in Protestant areas.

Once one’s personal convictions began to impact the pocketbook, then frustration easily resulted. It did and had serious consequences in 1618, when political power brokers got involved. Some 7% of the land in Central Europe was at one time property of the medieval church, much of it stewarded by church benefactors, which fits in this ambiguous category, which caused all sorts of tension throughout Europe.

The tension came to a head when a group of Protestant landowners met with royal governing authorities representing the Habsburg royal family, who were advocates for the Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation efforts in Bohemia, surrounding Prague. Protestantism had grown greatly in Bohemia, dating back to the days of Jan Hus and his protests in the early 15th century. Instead, the Habsburgs wanted to reinstitute Roman Catholic worship throughout their realm, and Prague was under the domain of the soon-to-be new Habsburg emperor, Ferdinand II. Several Protestant leaders protested against the Habsburg policies and were subsequently arrested. When the Habsburg governors were challenged to release the prisoners, the governors refused to budge.

On May 23, 1618, these Protestant landowners staged a mass demonstration at Prague Castle. They argued with the royal governors, and pushed three Roman Catholic representatives out the third story of window of Prague Castle (above where I am standing in the photo above). This is known as one of the Defenestrations of Prague, in which “defenestrate” means to push someone out of a window.

Depiction of the Defenestration of Prague that precipitated the start of the Thirty Years War.

To the benefit of the victims, they survived the fall. My guide told me one version of the story, that they were saved by landing in a pile of manure at the bottom of the building below the window. That is probably the Protestant version of the story, as another version says that the Virgin Mary miraculously intervened and saved the men from their deaths. Nevertheless, and needless to say, the Roman Catholic governing authorities were not thrilled by this action. Both sides left the meeting intent on building up armies.

Two years later, the Protestant forces were defeated at the Battle of White Mountain, which effectively ended the Protestant revolt in Bohemia. But it was merely the first of many conflicts throughout Central Europe. Eventually, the Thirty Years War evolved from being a Protestant/Catholic conflict to a very complicated affair with alliances that crossed confessional boundaries, intent on settling old scores and exacerbating rivalries. Armies as far as Sweden rushed in across Central Europe, spreading disease with the troop movements, even threatening the small Bavarian village of Oberammergau (the topic of the first blog post in this series).

By the time the Peace of Westphalia was signed in 1648, very little had changed in terms of who controlled what and where. The whole region was exhausted of war. Religious concerns gave way to nationalistic concerns, as the unity of the Holy Roman Empire had effectively crumbled, and different nation/states had formed all across Europe.

Roughly one out of four Europeans had been killed by either disease or battle. Tired of religious disputes, the European world had by then become preoccupied with nationalistic aims and concerns, and the days of European colonialism were in full swing, as new areas across the world, from India to the Americas, gained the attention of Europeans hoping to extend the influence of their native lands and cultures… and take their minds off of intra-European issues. Europe would not experience another major military calamity until Napoleon campaigned across these same lands in the name of Enlightenment nationalism in the early 19th century.

Gone were the days when a united Christian faith, at least under the oversight of the church in Rome, held the glue together for Western society. Denominationalism has since become the defining factor of the Western church.

You can still feel a sense of the Thirty Years War’s impact in the Czech Republic. Another Czech tour guide told me that there is a tragic connection between the religious strife of the Thirty Years War and the loss of Christian faith among most Czech people. For example, according to a 2021 census, for 70 percent of citizens who responded to the question about their religious beliefs, approximately 48 percent held none, 10 percent were Roman Catholic, 13 percent listed no specific religion, and 9 percent identified with a variety of religious faiths, Protestant evangelical being among that last group. For a country which was once the cradle of Gospel-driven Christianity in Europe in the 15th century, that is a sad statistic.

Lessons learned: denominationalism was never intended by God to happen in Christ’s church. But the combination of denominationalism and forced religious observance of a particular denomination is a recipe for disaster. Be thankful for religious freedom!! Nevertheless, we should use that freedom to engage in dialogue with other believers in Jesus, who do not read the Bible exactly the way we do. Better to learn how to have “impossible conversations” than trying to settle theological and worldview issues with weapons that kill!!!

My “postcard” photo of Prague Castle, looking across the river, with the famous Charles Bridge in front. Click on the photo to get the full impact. You can make out the “defenestration” window, just below the middle of where the cathedral is.


%d bloggers like this: