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Augustine and the Jews, By Paula Fredriksen: Book Review

Augustine and Jews, by Paula Fredriksen, is a scholarly attempt to appreciate how Saint Augustine sought to reformulate a Christian theology that would guard against anti-Jewish sentiment. Are there lessons here that we can learn from today?

Augustine and Jews, by Paula Fredriksen, is a scholarly work showing how Saint Augustine sought to reformulate a Christian theology that would guard against anti-Jewish sentiment. Are there lessons here that we can learn from today?

An extended book(s) review…..

When Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ hit the movie theaters in 2003, I was intrigued, even thrilled, by the response. It had been a long time since a major figure in Hollywood would put his reputation on the line and produce a film that was so positive towards the Christian faith. Hollywood’s relentless attack on the Gospel had seemingly been broken. A large outpouring of Christian-friendly films have since hit the silver screen, albeit varying in quality, ranging from Gibson’s 2017, well-received Hacksaw Ridge, and other movies frowned upon by mainstream critics, like God’s Not Dead and War Room.

Nevertheless, I was at first puzzled when I read that Paula Fredriksen, a professor of religious history at Boston University, became one of the most outspoken critics of The Passion of the Christ, expressing grave concerns over the anti-Jewish tendencies of the film script. Fredriksen, who was raised a Catholic, and later married an Orthodox Jew, eventually becoming one herself, was disturbed by Gibson’s plan to supposedly retell the story of Jesus’ final hours approaching Good Friday. In her conclusion, from her essay in the New Republic, “I shudder to think how The Passion will play once its subtitles shift from English to Polish, or Spanish, or French, or Russian. When violence breaks out, Mel Gibson will have a much higher authority than professors and bishops to answer to.

Antisemitic violence, inspired by a Mel Gibson movie? To my knowledge, unless I have been living in some isolated, American bubble, the mass rioting envisioned by professor Fredriksen never materialized, upon the worldwide release of The Passion of the Christ.

But was the professor still right? Was Mel Gibson smuggling in an antisemitic message? Well, Gibson did seem to pile on the Jewish religious leadership, but was that not just for some type of dramatic effect?

In my readings of the Gospels, I have never had the sense that the New Testament unduly put the blame for Jesus’ death squarely on the Jewish leaders. True, the pagan Pontius Pilate washed his hands of his guilt. Nevertheless, it sure seems like Pilate had a major role in condemning Jesus to die. He could have intervened, if he really believed Jesus to be innocent, but he did not. The Jewish Sanhedrin rigged the outcome of Jesus’ trial, but nobody gets off easy when it comes to nailing Jesus to the cross. My evangelical mentors have always been clear about this: whether Pilate or High Priest, we would all have been complicit in the death of Jesus, had we been there in the shoes of either the Romans or the Sanhedrin.

Yet, there is that verse in Matthew 27:35, where the Jewish people answer Pilate, “His blood be on us and on our children!” That does sound pretty rough, taken at face value. But surely a more profound theological message stands behind Matthew’s stated quotation. Any responsible reader of the Bible would conclude that this symbolically represents the guilty verdict that all people, down through the ages, share with respect to rebelling against God. No Christians “literally” place the blame specifically on those Jews present, and their descendants…..

Or do they?  Continue reading

Botticelli and the Search for the Divine

Sandro Botticelli, Sant’ Agostino nello studio (Saint Augustine in the studio), Fresco, Chiesa di San Salvatore in Ognissanti, Florence.

It is worth your time, if you are in the Williamsburg, Virginia area, to consider viewing the Sandro Botticelli exhibit at the Muscarelle Museum and the College of William and Mary, on tour in the United States, but only at the Muscarelle until April 5.

As an Italian renaissance painter, who counted Michangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci as contemporaries, my favorite painting is that of Saint Augustine, in his study. Augustine is in the process of writing to St. Jerome, who had recently died, though Augustine was not aware of this, when he began his letter. As the story goes, the scene anticipates Augustine’s reaction to a vision of hearing St. Jerome’s voice, rebuking him for trying to understand the mysteries of Heaven, with Augustine’s earthbound reason.

Many of Botticelli’s works were lost when an exuberant 15th century Dominican priest, Girolamo Savonarola, sought to rid Florence, Italy of objects that might tempt one to sin, on the Mardi Gras festival. Thankfully, not all of Botticelli’s works were destroyed during the Bonfire of the Vanities, so be sure to catch a glimpse of them at this, the first traveling exhibit of Botticelli’s work, to the United States.


Gloria In Excelsis Deo…and Standing Up Against Heresy

Hilary of Poitiers (about 300 - 367 AD), otherwise known as the "Hammer of the Arians," for his efforts to defend the doctrine of the Trinity

Hilary of Poitiers (about 300 – 367 AD), otherwise known as the “Hammer of the Arians,” for his efforts to defend the doctrine of the Trinity

Unlike the previous posts in this series about the “Gospel in Song,” regarding the Magnificat and the Benedictus, the popular Christmas song inspired by Luke 2:14 does not derive its name from Saint Jerome’s Vulgate translation of the Bible from the late 4th century AD. Jerome’s phrasing is gloria in altissimis Deo, where altissimis is one Latin variation meaning “highest.”  Instead, Gloria in Excelsis Deoor “Glory to God in the highest,” actually has its roots in an “old Latin” hymn from the early 4th century. Tradition suggests that it was Saint Hilary of Poiters (c.300-367 AD), a famous Western bishop of the church, who popularized the text for use in Christian worship.

Hilary of Poitiers grew up in a pagan home, receiving a thoroughly pagan education, before coming to Christ. When Hilary eventually became a leader in the church, he was embroiled in the Arian controversy, a theological movement that swept through Hilary’s Christian community. The Arians did not believe that Jesus, as the Son of God, was truly divine, so they rejected the doctrine of the Trinity, not too much unlike what Jehovah’s Witnesses today believe. When pressure came from the government for Hilary to reject the Trinity as well, Hilary refused to comply and was soon banished. Hilary believed that a denial of the biblical doctrine of the Trinity would trivialize the “glory to God in the highest” that is proclaimed in this old Christian hymn. Hilary’s stand to defend the truth of the Bible encouraged the faithful, and eventually the heresy of Arianism was rooted out of the church. Though Hilary of Poitiers is often forgotten by Christians today, the great hymn Gloria in Excelsis Deo, that is associated with his legacy, continues to be remembered all over the world.

The first movement of Antonia Vivaldi’s Gloria in Excelsis Deo, with a Latin/English translation here, performed in the National Auditorium of Music in Madrid:

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