Augustine and the Jews

In my discussions of Good News for Anxious Christians, we are looking at a book meant to offer an immediately practical benefit for believers. I think it would be good for my brain, and for the tone of the blog, if I also kept a running discussion with a book of a more academic nature. Because, you know, I’m all about sophistication.

(There will be no method to coordinate which books I’m discussing at the same time nor to explicitly draw any connection of any sort between them. This is also good for my brain. Or at least it feels good.)

Well, the academic book I’m reading now that I’ve decided to discuss (I read many books at a time)  is Paula Fredriksen’s Augustine and the Jews: A Christian Defense of Jews and Judaism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010). I’ve anticipated reading this book for about a year now, and there’s several reasons why I think it will be such an interesting read for me.

One is that I’m a big fan of the author. Fredriksen is the William Goodwin Aurelio Professor of the Appreciation of Scripture Emerita at Boston University. I certainly have significant disagreements with her positions on some topics, but her books, articles, and lectures (at least the ones I have gained access to) continue to provide me with a valuable model for how to engage in respectable scholarship of the Bible and early Christianity. She displays an insatiable interest, brutal honesty, lucid reasoning, fresh readings of the text (albeit informed by the work of previous scholars), a great degree of familiarity with historical/cultural contexts–and does not lose track of the larger and most important question of why we even try to understand early Christianity in the first place.

However, her answer to this question would probably differ from mine. Fredriksen is a Jewish convert from Roman Catholicism. Though I don’t know for sure if this comes as a direct correlation, her most insightful contributions to our knowledge of the New Testament and early Christianity stem from her niche as serving as a sort of conscience for scholars by keeping them on track when they’ve veered off by either misunderstanding or mischaracterizing ancient Judaism.

This is the other reason why I’m excited to learn from this book. The academy has been getting better at this for the past several decades, but the church (even its leaders) still largely lags behind at gaining a proper grasp of ancient Judaism (and modern Judaism, for that matter). I know its title conceals this, but the book actually has a good deal to teach us about ancient Judaism and Christianity and one of its practical outworkings, Jewish-Christian relations.

Augustine and the Jews. It was mainly Fredriksen’s observations of Augustine that spurred my recent interest in him and in turn helped me realize how much the church fathers have to offer us all these centuries later. This book’s potential for teaching us a few things about Augustine actually looks promising.

Augustine. Jews. I can already tell though, that this 380 page book has much more in it than just the bare facts on these two topics. Fredriksen is distinguished by the fact that she can claim expertise in what are essentially two fields: New Testament, and early Christianity through the conversion of Constantine in the 4th century. This book is probably going to be a wide representation of her learning, and I could tell from a glance at the table of contents that she establishes her basic case about Augustine and his value to the Jews with a broad scope. She also wraps up her prologue with the statement that she wanted to recount decades of research “in one sweeping story” (xxiii). Prepare to learn.

As a side note, Fredriksen was also impressively nice to me when I took the opportunity to introduce myself to her at SBL conference about a year ago as a lowly master’s student. Kindness is always a good thing.

Let’s take a look at the prologue (from the Greek preposition pro [before] and the noun logos [word, saying, matter]) to complete this post. Right at the get-go Fredriksen lays out the main point of the book. During the 12th century Crusades, Rabbi Ephraim of Bonn records the contribution of Bernard of Clairvaux, in his eyes a “decent” priest who allowed Christians to battle Muslims, but stated that “‘whoever touches a Jew to take his life is like one who harms Jesus himself …, for in the book of Psalms if is written of them, “Slay them not, lest my people forget.” All the Gentiles regarded this priests as one of their saints. … When our enemies heard his words, many of them ceased plotting to kill us.'”

This instruction from Bernard however, originates not from his own appropriation of this portion of Psalm 59 but came about 7 centuries sooner in the work of Augustine, Bishop of Hippo (xi). In Augustine’s eyes, the Jews were to be respected because their religious practices were authored by the same God the Christians claimed as Father. Not only that, but they aid Christians by serving as witnesses that they have not made up the prophecies concerning Christ. This is why, in Augustine’s understanding, we have the Psalter’s prophecy: “Slay them not, lest they forget your law; scatter them by your might” (City of God 18.46) (xii).

Herein lies Fredriksen’s big conclusion: that this legacy of Augustine’s positive view of the Jews was passed down to the Crusades and helped to prevent violence against Jews at the hands of Christians. “Augustine and the Jews,” Fredriksen writes, “tells the story of how Augustine came to conceive this unique teaching, which was original to him” (xii).

Fredriksen then provides a paragraph about Augustine, and you can hear how much she admires him. After calling his works “brilliant and original,” she says “Augustine’s writing is so vivid, his intellectual energy so fierce, the force of his personality so present, that we can practically hear him thinking” (xiii).

First things first, though. Before we talk about how Augustine helped protect Jewish lives centuries after he lived, we must consider the question of how did the relationship between Christians and Jews become so hostile in the first place? (xiii)

The answer is complicated. For one thing, much of Christianity, though it would quickly become dominated by Gentiles, is “quintessentially Jewish,” such as in its ideas of resurrection of the body, divine judgment, and a messianic age (xiii).

Early Christianity was essentially a Jewish movement, and so this rough relationship seems to begin in the second century, when Christianity and Judaism became distinct movements. In-house arguments between Jews over a potential Messiah then became arguments against Judaism itself (xiv). Unfortunately, this adversus Iudaeos or contra Iudeaos position took considerable root in the form of Christianity’s teachings “against the Jews” (xv).

Fredriksen’s goal is to provide us with a grasp of the history and role of this anti-Jewish rhetoric in Augustine’s time so that we can appreciate with greater clarity how he challenged this tradition. This is why her book covers the expanse of time from Alexander the Great in the 4th century B.C. to the Christian empire of the 5th century A.D.

Part I, “The Legacy of Alexander,” describes the background for approaching the interaction of pagans, Jews, and Christians in the Greco-Roman world (xviii). Part II, “The Prodigal Son,” deals with the context of Augustine’s teachings on Jews, i.e., his own intellectual and spiritual development. Part III, “The God of Israel,” draws the threads together to observe how Augustine arrived at his noteworthy view of Judaism (xix-xx).

The final section of her prologue provides some other preliminary remarks before she begins. One, and I know she takes this position based on her other works, is that she views orthodox Christianity as just one kind of Christianity that won out in the end and became the standard against which all other different forms of Christianity were seen as heretical (xxi). This view is not at all uncommon among scholars, though it is found much more in the thoughts of non-Christian scholars. This reveals my bias when I say I don’t take this position. I don’t think that orthodox Christianity was just as valid as any other group that claimed the name “Christian”; I think that the Christianity that became known as “orthodox” more or less corresponds most directly with the theological and ecclesiastical conclusions we can draw from the records we have from those who experienced Jesus. And, I might add, it is “orthodox” Christianity which in my view coheres with 1st century Judaism and the story of Israel rather than the alternatives such as gnostic Christianity.

But that’s a side note. I think this is going to be great. Next post we begin to look at Part I, “The Legacy of Alexander.”


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