In my last two posts I have lambasted some journalists for their attempts to claim that the Catholic Church has been the unique source of various evils, arguing that their approach is ill-researched and badly lacking in balance. This is a great shame in its own right, but even worse is that it gives comfort to those who try to claim that anti-semitism has not marked the history of the Christian faith.
Where Carroll blunders into seeing the New Testament, written by Jews, as anti-semitic, a better historical approach is to see it reflecting intra-Jewish quarrels, with the sort of bitterness such disputes take on; to see it as anti-semitic is to read into it what later generations put there. It was only as the ramifications of the claim that Jesus was God sank in that relations between the Jewish communities reached the stage of fracturing. It was only later, when Christianity was mainly Gentile, that some Christians began to read the NT in a way which could properly be described as anti-semitic. Two saints of the fourth/fifth centuries often cited in this context are St Cyril of Alexandria and St John Chrysostom.
In the case of St Cyril, as Professor Fr John McGuckin has commented:
The overall struggle against the power of the Jewish communities in Alexandria, however, ought never to be overlooked. It was this community which Cyril perceived as the more dominant ‘threat’ to the claim of the Christians to be the ascendant element in Alexandrian intellectual life.
Cyril’s comments are to be read in this context, where Judaism and Christianity were still struggling for ascendancy and the Christian triumph far from assured.
Writing of John Chysostom, James Parkes condemns him for:
eight sermons covering more than a hundred pages of closely printed text, has left us the most complete monument of the public expression of the Christian attitude to the Jews in the century of the victory of the Church. In these discourses there is no sneer too mean, no gibe too bitter for him to fling at the Jewish people. No text is too remote to be able to be twisted to their confusion, no argument is too casuistical, no blasphemy too startling for him to employ; and, most astonishing of all, at the end he turns to the Christians, and in words full of sympathy and toleration he urges them not to be too hard on those who have erred in following Jewish practices or in visiting Jewish synagogues. Dealing with the Christians, no text which urges forgiveness is forgotten: dealing with the Jews only one verse of the New Testament is omitted: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’
That seems pretty damning, but again, shows the dangers of relying on older scholarship. If we look at R.L. Wilkins’ John Chrysostom and the Jews: Rhetoric and Reality in the Late 4th Century, we see a different picture. Like Paul, St John is railing against the ‘Judaisers’, and it is these whom he calls ‘Jews’. The context is not that different to that faced by Cyril (about whom Wilkins has also written) – a Christian community threatened still by Paganism and Judaism, and those within its own ranks who were arguing for a sort of syncretism.
So, in both cases, there is certainly plenty of textual evidence to suggest extreme hostility to ‘the Jews’, and viewed through the history of the last century, more than enough cause for horror; but neither man was writing in that context, and neither should either of them be taken to account for the use later generations of Christians made of their writings. We are here, in the presence of documents composed as polemic, so it is not surprising that other polemicists took them out of context to prosecute a case which neither Saint could have imagined.
So, yes, here we can certainly see extreme hostility to the threat which Judaism and Judaisers posed to Christianity; but to trace the roots of the holocaust there is to take at face value the claims of real anti-semites. It is there we must now turn.