TXR2912: The Church and the Jews

‘A fateful century for Jewish Christian relations.’  Account for this description of the Fourth Christian Century.



The fourth century is important in Christian history because it is considered by many Church historians as the period in which the Church finally came of age.  It was a period in which Christians emerged from centuries of persecution, intellectual ridicule and social marginalisation to be the dominant group within the social and religious life of the Roman Empire.  Flannery describes the new Church as the ‘Church of the State…it exerted a dominant influence on the political and social as well as religious life’[1]


It is within this context that this essay examines how the Jew:

“...at the close of the previous century…was no more than a special type of unbeliever;  at the end of the fourth, a semi-satanic figure, cursed by God, and marked off by the State.”[2]


It will be shown that theological anti-Judaism necessary to address the attractiveness of Judaism to the Christian laity progressively gave rise to a Christian anti-Semitism and ultimately to ‘hatred and stereotype’[3].


The theological tension between Judaism and Christianity is not a phenomenon of the 4th century but is readily traceable to a particular style of exegesis and interpretation of the Old Testament that has its roots in a particular reading of the earliest of writings that were to form part of the New Testament canon.  The book of Galatians is often cited as addressing the activity of Judaizers within the Church in the strongest of terms and the book of Hebrews as a detailed exposition of the superiority of the New Covenant in Christ to the Old one of the Law.  Ruether maintains that the essential theological themes ‘remained quite constant…the inferiority and spiritual fulfilment of the Jewish law.’[4]   The theological efforts were given fresh impetus by the failure of Emperor Julian to rebuild the temple with a seemingly supernatural intervention showing that the Jew had passed from grace to judgement.  This was seen as a fulfilment of the prophecy of Jesus and the triumph of the Church over the Synagogue[5]


This “two peoples”[6] approach to exegesis of the Old Testament scripture operated by splitting prophecy so that judgement was assigned to the Jews whereas the positive promises were seen as being fulfilled not in the natural Israel but the true, spiritual Israel of the Church.  Although Ruether lists most church fathers as guilty in this regard[7], this was given its final and most masterful interpretation in the work of Augustine at the end of the fourth century.  Augustine fully expresses “replacement” or “displacement” theology that separated the “real” spiritual Israel from the natural, temporal Israel.  He, more than any other theologian, overhauled hermeneutics with a Platonic categories so that any dependence on natural prophetic fulfilment by Israel was removed and fulfilment was now spiritual and assigned to the Church.  Augustine sought to assert not only the theological superiority of the Church but also the on-going problem of a thriving Jewry 400 years after the Crucifixion that was still causing massive problems for Christian leaders dealing with the attractiveness of the synagogue to their congregations.


Augustine’s measured theological analysis was in marked contrast to the vicious invective of Chrysostom but carried the same fundamental tenet, ‘the complete illegitimacy of the synagogue as an ongoing vehicle of relationship to God.’[8]  Augustine established the theological respectability of where ‘violence in defence of an endangered neighbour…in sorting out heresy…could be seen as an act of love’[9].  This concept, underpinning that of a ‘just war’ was ceased on in future centuries far beyond the limited scope Augustine foresaw as legitimate violence with much harm to Jews and non-Catholics. With this new theological confidence, there was a concerted effort by the Christian leaders particularly in Antioch and Laodicea to ‘isolate the Jews from the Church’[10] both theologically and socially: the passing of explicit canons outlawing attendance at Jewish festivals or the synagogue, the observance of a different Sabbath day, to work on Sundays and the use of Gospel texts in addition to the Hebrew scriptures.  Chrysostom is quoted as urging his congregation to use ‘every means possible, including force…to save a brother from the trap of the devil…to separate him from the fellowship of the Christ-killers.’[11] 


However, the invective and theological model is not sufficient to explain the dramatic shift in the balance of power during the 4th century.  The key is in the organisational and cultural shifts within the empire.  Carroll strongly asserts that the nature of the Church at the end of the 3rd century in cities such as Antioch and Alexandria was decentralised with localised, diverse leadership.  Hellenised Jews were likely to have much in common with their Christian neighbours, speaking the same language, using a Greek version of the scriptures (LXX) and may well have been mixing socially[12].  In some senses, although no longer considered a sect of Judaism, the young, persecuted Church, at least at the level of the laity, found it expedient to maintain an association with Judaism, an official, protected religion of the Empire enjoying patronage and power.  It was still in the interest of Christian leaders to be on good terms with powerful Jews regardless of differences in theology.


It was with the conversion of Constantine and the progressive legal assault on the position of Jews within the Empire at the behest and benefit to Christians that caused a:

‘polarisation of the position of Christians and Jews [causing a] rejection of the middle group of believers who sought to honour the religion of Jesus and the religion of the Jews…Both Christians and Jews changed their religious practices so that it was mutually impossible to continue with common observances.’[13] 


The case of Antioch is studied in detail by Horst and is pertinent here.  He makes the case that there was a ‘strong influence of Judaism upon Christianity’ in the city had led to a ‘blurring of the distinction between the religions in the minds of a great many believers’[14].  With the fundamental shift in political power and the subsequent fast-tracking of Christians into powerful positions within city governments at the expense of Jews that had historically enjoyed such patronage, political power was available to legitimise the extreme action called for by Chrysostom, ‘what had previously been theology and biblical hermeneutics now was to become law and social policy’[15].  Persecution and the first Jewish pogroms took place at Antioch.   The response of rabbinic Judaism was to find a new spiritual home in Babylonia making it culturally isolated from both the Hellenistic and Palestinian traditions that were historically closer to Christianity.  What dialogue there was and appreciation of the common theological heritage is lost:

“…There is little attempt in the patristic tradition to maintain the idea of a Jewish remnant into which the Gentiles are ‘ingrafted’…the Jews assume the status of a people on probation that fail all tests and finally are flunked out…”[16]


“…It is axiomatic…Jewish reprobation is permanent and irrevocable.”[17]


The positions became increasingly isolated and entrenched.  Rabbis reinterpreted the scriptures from the Hebrew Torah giving the new Rabbinic Judaism a new sense of identity separate from Temple Judaism.  Dubious interpretations of the Greek rendering of the Hebrew Scriptures were used by the Church polemicists to exclude Judaism from any further role in salvation history.  Judaism had redefined itself outside the Christian theology that pointed to the destruction of the Temple as a validating claim to their succession and Gentile election.  Christians and Jews ‘had positions that were mutually exclusive, each claiming to be the sole legitimate heir of the biblical faith….Jews were no more tolerant of Christians than Christians were of Jews…’[18].


The 4th century is certainly seen as a fateful century for Jewish-Christian relations.  Although the theological tension had been seen in previous centuries as heavyweight Gentile theologians such as Origen and Tertullian had written tracts against Judaism, their aim was very much to combat Judaizing factions within the Church rather than the attack on the Jews themselves.  Horst highlights that there was within Antioch an alternative, accommodating strategy amongst some leaders that Christianised Jewish prayers and practices[19].  These would have been culturally aware local leaders rather than the culturally foreign rhetorical approach imported into Antioch by Chrysostom.  Schism and separation were not inevitable.  


The replacement theology of Augustine and the merging of Church and State in the time of Constantine, led to the systematic isolation, disenfranchisement, demonisation of the Jews and the eventual withdrawal of the patriarchate of Israel by his successor.  The distraction of the church with using political power rather than spiritual power had far reaching consequences not just for Jewish-Christian relations but coloured the whole development of the Church until the Reformation.


The Church lost its awareness of the continuing theological importance of the Jews to its own mission and the on-going prophetic destination for Israel alongside the Church.  The re-emergence of Israel as a nation and God’s continuing providence towards and defence of them should be a testimony to the theological errors of replacement theology and the necessity to re-examine the place of Jews alongside Christians.


1532 words.


Carroll, James, Constantine’s Sword – The Church and the Jews:  A History, New York:2001.

Flannery, E., The Anguish of the Jews, New York:1985.

Horst, W van der, Pieter, ‘Jews and Christians in Antioch at the End of the 4th Century’, Christian Jewish Relations through the Centuries, Porter, Stanley E., Brook, W.R. (Eds), Sheffield:2000.

Ruether, Rosemary Radford, Faith and Fratricide, New York:1974.

Wilken, R.L. and Meeks, W.A., Jews and Christians at Antioch in the first four centuries of the common era, Missoula:1978.

[1] Flannery, E., The Anguish of the Jews, p47, New York:1985.

[2] Ibid., p48.

[3] Ibid., p62.

[4] Ruether, Rosemary Radford, Faith and Fratricide, p123, New York:1974.

[5] Wilken, R.L. and Meeks, W.A., Jews and Christians at Antioch in the first four centuries of the common era, pp30-31, Missoula:1978.

[6] Ruether, op.cit., p131.

[7] Ruether, op.cit., p118.

[8] Ruether, op.cit., p174.

[9] Carroll, James, Constantine’s Sword – The Church and the Jews:  A History, p212, New York:2001.

[10] Wilken, R.L. and Meeks, W.A., Jews and Christians at Antioch in the first four centuries of the common era, p33, Missoula:1978.

[11] Wilken, op.cit, p31.

[12] Carroll, James, Constantine’s Sword – The Church and the Jews:  A History, p145, New York:2001.

[13] Carroll, op.cit., p145-147.

[14] Horst, W van der, Pieter, ‘Jews and Christians in Antioch at the End of the 4th Century’, p228, Christian Jewish Relations through the Centuries, Porter, Stanley E. , Brook, W.R. (Eds), Sheffield:2000.

[15] Ruether, op.cit, p181.

[16] Ruether, op.cit, p137.

[17] Ruether, op.cit, p144.

[18] Ruether, op.cit, p180.

[19] Horst, op.cit, p233.