Friday, March 13, 2009

Augustine And The Jews

In her book Augustine and the Jews: A Christian Defense of Jews and Judaism, BU's Paula Fredriksen credits Augustine of Hippo (354-430) with being enlightened enough about Jews that he may have saved Jewish lives.

The fourth and fifth centuries witnessed vicious anti-semitism. Bishop John Chrysostom of Constantinople, patron of the church I serve, compared Jews to animals who were unfit for work and ready for slaughter, while Augustine's contemporary Ambrose defended priests who burned down a synagogue. In contrast, Augustine's relatively enlightened view was that Jews should be protected so that their existence would affirm the validity of the Hebrew testament while their tenuous lives in the diaspora continuously demonstrated the perils of failing to come to Christ.

That doesn't sound very enlightened, of course. While Augustine is given due credit by Fredriksen's reviewer in the "New Republic," David Nirenberg, his catalog of of anti-Jewish polemic from the church's ancient, medieval, and modern eras is uniformly discouraging (an echo of Constantine's Sword by James Carroll). Only in the 1960s did the Vatican stop requiring congregations to pray each Sunday for the salvation of the poor Jews. With anti-anti-semitism having such a weak hold on the institutional church, Benedict XVI's equivocation or inattentiveness about a Holocaust-denying priest was especially discouraging.

No doubt mindful of the Benedict-Williamson episode, Nirenberg writes, "Are Christian teachings essentially anti-Jewish?" without offering a direct answer. He does fault Fredricksen for failing to try to document how many lives Augustine's "slay them not" directive (invoking Psalm 59) may actually have saved. As for how many died at the hands of a Nazi regime which, Nirenberg writes, worked carefully "to establish a resonance between its own anti-Semitic ideology and the religious teachings of the Christian confessions" -- that number, we know.

Most faithful people, except for those in denominations or sects explicitly rooted in some kind of universal salvation, must grapple with whether their confessions and creeds spell doom for anyone who doesn't believe them. For us Abrahamic people -- Jews, Christians, and Muslims -- the mystery began early, when God gave to Abram's band the land over Jordan that already belonged to someone else and called one group Chosen, the other Canaanite.

Reading scripture literally, some Jews (though not many) say that means no Palestinian state. Reading scripture literally, some Christians (how many? I'm not sure) say no salvation for Jews. If one then says that reading scripture literally is the problem, what's left of the faith? For Christians, at least for me, it's in the perfectly loving mind of Christ itself. We seek it continually.

1 comment:

John Whittaker said...

Fr. John,

Sounds like an interesting work, I will have to take a look at it. On Chrysostom, not every historian is convinced that his anti-semitic stance was so clear cut, as points out:

No time today to treat the question of jewish conversion or scriptural primacy with any of the detail they deserve, but I'm certain an opportunity will come up to pipe in a few words soon.

I hope you are well and I am very much looking forward to our next chat.

God bless,