One of the criticisms most frequently levelled at St. Cyril of Alexandria it bulks large in the film Agora) is that he led anti-Semitic mobs which sacked Jewish synagogues and was generally an anti-Semite. In the post-holocaust era, few charges could be more damaging. Yet if we are to understand St. Cyril, this topic must be dealt with.

It is best to start up front with the comment from Robert Wilken’s comment (Judaism and the early Christian Mind  (p. x) that: ‘The patristic attitude towards Jews borders on the the irrational. This is true of most of the fathers and particularly true of Cyril.’ Take, for example, this comment, which is not atypical:

The Jews are the most deranged of all men. They have carried impiety to the limit and their mania exceeds even that of the Greeks. They read the Scriptures and they do not understand what they read. Although they had heavenly light from above they preferred to walk in darkness. They are like people who had neither their mind nor their thinking faculty. Accordingly they were seized by the darkness and live as in the night.

For Cyril of Alexandria, as for most of the Fathers, the Jews were those who had ignored the Light, and had sought to extinguish it, first by crucifying the Messiah (whom they had not recognised) and then by persecuting the early Christians. The early Church had been engaged in a life and death struggle with other Jews, and its claim to be the new Israel was called into question by the existence of the old one.

St. Cyril’s attitude was not simply a product of his theological preoccupations, even if they informed them.  There were large numbers of Jews in Cyril’s Alexandria, they were the most numerous of the ethnic minorities there, and they viewed Christianity with just the same hostility that it viewed them. McGuckin suggests in his book on St. Cyril that much of the animosity grew from fact that they were the two largest political and religious corporate bodies:

The opposition was focussed by religion bit flowed out in all other areas of life, and was an indication of the great power that both religious systems could hold over their respective peoples. Like the Jews, the Christians’ religion constituted them as a ‘genos’. a particular people, and in the Theodosian renewal that race of the Greeks (the Christians) was felt to have come into its full inheritance of the earth. (St. Cyril of Alexandria p. 8)

In fifth century Alexandria the only vigorous challenge to the new Christian ascendancy came from Judaism; theologically and morally, the Jewish community was a much greater challenge than the waning Pagan culture. Cyril’s own early homilies reveal his worries that Christians would be assimilated back into Jewish culture. We might note that St. John Chrysostom’s equally anti-Jewish homilies (380s) were delivered in Antioch where there was the same problem of Christians starting to observe Jewish customs. Violence between the two communities was common, and neither side can be exonerated from the charge of instigating it in Alexandria.

For St. Cyril it was the St. Paul of the ‘two covenants’ and the ‘true Israel’, the Paul of Romans 5, 1 Corinthians 15, 2 Corinthians 4-5, who interested him, the Paul who got rid of the Law to gain Christ and who wrote that ‘the lsw condemns to death, but the Spirit gives life’ who inspired him. If, as he believed, the new covenant was now operative, that meant the old one was not; the Jews were therefore both a fossil and a standing blasphemy – hence Cyril’s attitude towards them.

His attitude was typical of the Fathers, whose antagonism was rooted not in race but religion, and not in distance, but in proximity; it was the closeness between the two religions which had nurtured mutual hostility; no one could know then where this would lead.

It is, perhaps at this point that the Vatican’s own more recent comments on ‘religious relations with Jews’ should be cited:

Religious teaching, catechesis and preaching should be a preparation not only for objectivity, justice, tolerance but also for understanding and dialogue. Our two traditions are so related that they cannot ignore each other. Mutual knowledge must be encouraged at every level. There is evident in particular a painful ignorance of the history and traditions of Judaism, of which only negative aspects and often caricature seem to form part of the stock ideas of many Christians

The attitudes of both Christians and Jews in St. Cyril’s Alexandria were very different from this ideal, and in calling us to this ideal. the Church acknowledges its part in the long history of animosity, as well as pointing the way to a better future. To be a Christian is to be called to repentance and amendment of life; in this area, the Vatican’s lead is an example to us all.