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The Church and Anti-Semitism..

 by Mark Robinson 

     The arrival of the first day of Passover in the year 1096 was eagerly anticipated. The Jews of Trier had celebrated the night before in their homes with a Seder. Trier was a city on the Moselle River in Germany. What had been a joyous event in the Jewish community soon took on dark overtones of discouragement, fear, and mourning.

     Peter the prelate, a priest from France, led thousands of crusaders on their journey to Jerusalem,  through Trier. In his hand was a letter from the Jews of France instructing all Jewish communities to provide provisions for his journey and all would be okay.

     The Jews of Trier paid the tribute, but it didn’t matter. The crusaders attacked, broke into their houses, destroyed their Torah scrolls, and turned the Jewish community upside down.

     In panic for their lives the Jews fled to the bishop’s palace, a short distance from where they lived. Initially, the bishop provided protection from the thousands with mayhem in their hearts, hatred on their lips, and sharp swords in their hands.

     It wasn’t long before the bishop’s military officers and ministers entered the palace and said to the Jews, “Thus said our lord the bishop: Convert or leave his palace.” This demand was unacceptable to the Jewish residents of Trier. The subsequent unfolding of events took place over the next days and weeks, but eventually the bishop’s military abandoned the palace, and it was overrun by the Crusaders.

     The Crusaders took two of the leaders of the Jews and forced them to bow before an “image,” the cross. The Jewish leaders mocked the cross and were killed. An attractive young Jewish girl ran from the palace and threw herself in the Moselle River and drowned instead of submitting to the Crusaders. There were some forced baptisms, but the great majority of the Jewish community were resolute in their faith and resisted. In time, the Crusaders lost interest and moved on.1

     The above incident might not sound like much in light of some of the horrific acts done against the Jewish people throughout history, but it is important because it marked an important turning point in the relationship between the “church” and the “synagogue.” Although the Church2 had denied Jewish people and communities some basic religious and civil rights in previous centuries, the actions at Trier opened the door to violent persecutions against the Jewish people in the name of Christianity.  

Beginning of Christian Anti-Semitism

     How does one justify any act of anti-Semitism, let alone violent anti-Semitism, by those professing to follow the teachings of Jesus? Did He not tell His followers: “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” (John 13:35); “This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you” (John 14:12); and “But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you… (Matthew 5:44).”

     One of the things the history of Christian anti-Semitism teaches us is theology does matter. What we believe, will affect how we act. It was the development of an aberrant theology of Israel and the church in the second through the fifth century that paved the way for the later violent acts perpetrated against the Jewish people in the name of Christianity. The door of violent anti-Semitism in the name of Christianity may have been opened at Trier, but earlier teachings by church leaders espousing a “replacement theology” undoubtedly paved the way for the actions at Trier and in later years.

     The individual probably most responsible for laying the ground work for Christian anti-Semitism is one of the Church fathers, Origen. Born in Alexandria, Egypt, he lived from A.D. 185 – ca. 254. Expelled from Alexandria in A.D. 232, he moved to the area of Caesarea, capital of the Roman province of Palestine, where he would die. Nicholas De Lange states, “Origen was the founder of the science of hermeneutics in the Church. His work became the basis for subsequent Greek Christian exegesis and…its impact was felt in the Latin West as well.” 3

     Hermeneutics, the science of interpreting the Bible, is extremely important in understanding the Bible. Different hermeneutics explains why, for example, a Baptist can look at a passage of Scripture and come to a completely different understanding of what that passage says than a Presbyterian. Two born again, evangelical believers can hold opposite understandings of a biblical subject because of differing hermeneutics. It is primarily in the area of prophecy that differing hermeneutics bring about different conclusions. Origen introduced a Christian hermeneutic that left the basic foundational understanding of biblical interpretation of the Jewish authors of Scripture. He established a hermeneutic that would be anything but biblical in the area of prophetic understanding.  

Origen’s Hermeneutic

     Origen’s hermeneutics can be summarized in the word allegorical. Allegory is symbolic representation. The text is only symbolic of the real meaning. It should be obvious that when this type of interpretive scheme is used, the understanding of many Scripture passages is at the complete whim of the interpreter.

     Lange’s book gives us some helpful insights on Origen and his biblical approach and thinking.  

It is no exaggeration to say that, for Origen, the whole of the debate between the Church and the Synagogue can be reduced to the one question of interpretation of scripture…The difference between Judaism and Christianity is that Christians perceive the mysteries which are only hinted at in the Bible, whereas Jews are only capable of a strictly literal reading of the text. 4   

It is characteristic of Christianity to interpret the law spiritually: it is in this that the originality of the Christian message consists, and anyone, Jew or Christian, who persists in literalism fails to guard against the ‘leaven of the Pharisees.’5 

     One can see from these quotes that Origen rejected what we would refer to as the natural or the literal interpretation of Scripture. One of the places this hermeneutic became very pronounced was in the understanding of Israel. Origen would see in almost any story passage, such as Jacob and Esau, the symbolic meaning that Israel is rejected by God and the Church has replaced her in God’s blessing and providence. Again, consider some thoughts from Lange. 

The figure of Jacob is thus completely reidentified, with dramatic consequences for the traditional biblical exegesis…Since Jacob now stands for the Church, Esau, the older brother, will represent the Jews. 6         

Thus, using a technique derived ultimately from the commentators on Homer and from Jewish allegorists such as Philo, Origen sets out to demonstrate that the Old Testament belongs not to the Jews but to the Church, that it is, in fact, when properly understood, a text-book of Christianity, and that it is essentially at one with the New Testament and the whole of Christian teaching. The arguments based on the non-literal interpretation can be used against the unbelief of the Jews, but they are also useful in replying to attacks on the Old Testament from various sources, and in silencing those within the Church who favour a literal interpretation. 7 

     Origen’s interpretive style would make him no friend of the Jews. He, more than likely, neither anticipated, nor would have condoned, what developed over the next 1,800 years in the Churches treatment of the Jews. Nevertheless, as Lange summarized, “He [Origen] lost no opportunity, in his sermons, to attack Jewish literalism, and his powerful invective no doubt made its contribution to the later tragic persecution of Jews by Christians.” 8

Allegorical fruit

     The result of the introduction of allegorical interpretation would result in some rotten fruit. Statements were made by some of the Church fathers that have no basis in sound biblical exegesis or biblical love.

      Justin Martyr wrote in the second century, “For the prophetical gifts remain with us, even to the present time. And hence you ought to understand that [the gifts] formerly among your nation have been transferred to us.”9

     The Epistle of Barnabus, which circulated around the beginning of the second century, stated that Christians, not Jews, were actually the heirs of God’s Covenant with Abraham.  To those who believed the Jewish people still had a future through the Covenant, the epistle harshly stated, “Take heed now to yourselves, and not to be like some adding largely to your sins, and saying, ‘The covenant is both theirs and ours.’ But they [the Jews] thus finally lost it.”10

     The belief that the Church had replaced Israel became common among the professing Church. Through the centuries the polemic against Jews became more and more strident. One of the renowned orators of the early church, Chrysostom, patriarch of Constantinople, preached seven invective filled sermons against the Jews in Antioch in A.D. 387. Here are a couple of excerpts.

The Jews are the most worthless of all men. They are perfidious murderers of Christ.  They worship the devil, their religion is a sickness. The Jews are the odious assassin of Christ and for killing God there is no expiation possible, no indulgence or pardon. Christians may never cease vengeance, and the Jew must live in servitude forever.  God always hated the Jews. It is incumbent upon all Christians to hate the Jews.11 

Chrysostom in his seventh sermon began, “Have you had enough of the fight against the Jews?  Or do you wish me to take up the same topic today?  Even if I have already had much to say on it, I still think you want to hear the same thing again. The man who does not have enough of loving Christ will never have enough of fighting those who hate Christ [the Jews].12 

     Martin Luther in 1543 wrote a treatise titled “On the Jews and their lies.” Here is some excerpts. 

What shall we Christians do with this rejected and condemned people, the Jews?…I shall give you my sincere advice. First, to set fire to their synagogues or schools and to bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn, so that no man will ever again see a stone or cinder of them. This is to be done in honor of our Lord and of Christendom…Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed…Third, I advise that all their prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing, and blasphemy are taught, be taken from them. Fourth, I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb… Fifth, I advise that safe-conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews. For they have no business in the country-side since they are not lords, officials, tradesmen or the like. Let them stay at home… Sixth, I advise that usury be prohibited to them, and that all cash and treasure of silver and gold be taken from them and put aside for safekeeping…Seventh, I recommend putting a flail, an ax, a hoe, a spade, a distaff, or a spindle into the hands of young, strong Jews and Jewesses and letting them earn their bread in the sweat of their brow.13 

     Quote after quote could be marshaled to show how the Church has viewed the Jew and spewed forth hate, instead of Christian love and compassion. From Origen, through Augustine, continuing with Martin Luther, and into today the venom of an allegorical based “replacement theology” has caused many in the name of Christ to despise Jewish people and at times embrace violent anti-Semitism.

     Unfortunately, things are not a lot better today. Many in the Christian world still hold to the view of Origen. Their hermeneutic comes from Origen and is as flawed now as it was 1,800 years ago.  

Final Considerations

      Replacement theology influences each of us either directly or indirectly. Melanie Philips, a Jewish columnist with the London Daily Mail reported on attending a discussion group of Jews and Christians in 2002 concerning the hostility of churches toward Israel. 

…the Churches hostilityhad nothing to do with Israel’s behavior towards the Palestinians. This was merely an excuse. The real reason for the growing antipathy, according to the Christians at that meeting, was the ancient hatred of Jews rooted deep in Christian theology and now on widespread display once again. A doctrine going back to the early Church fathers, suppressed after the Holocaust, had been revived under the influence of the Middle East conflict. This doctrine is called replacement theology. In essence, it says that the Jews have been replaced by the Christians in God’s favor, and so all God’s promises to the Jews, including the land of Israel, have been inherited by Christianity. 14 

     There is a growing tide of animosity against Israel and ultimately, as history has shown, Jewish people by Christians who hold to a replacement theology view of Scripture. This is inexcusable for anyone who calls himself a Christian.

     Jewish people have a difficult time embracing Jesus as their Messiah. There are many reasons for this, but in no small part, replacement theology has produced some rotten fruit that to Jewish people, as well as Christians who recognize God’s love and promises to national Israel, stinks.

     If we want to have an effective audience with Jewish people about Jesus being their Messiah and Savior, we first must make certain we have a biblical love and position on Israel and Jewish people. Replacement theology fails this initial requirement. Where does your belief system and church line up? Is it with the truth of the Scriptures or an allegorical understanding of the Church and Israel? If the answer is allegorical understanding, isn’t it time for a change? 

Endnotes: 

1.     Account adapted from James Carroll’s, Constantine’s Sword, Houghton Mifflin Company, pg. 246-247.

2.     The use of church in this article does not refer to the biblical “ecclesia,” erroneously translated church in our Bibles, but primarily to the Roman Catholic Church.

3.     Nicholas De Lange, Origen and the Jews, Cambridge University Press, page 34

4.     Ibid. Pg. 82-83

5.     Ibid. Pg. 87

6.     Ibid. Pg. 80

7.     Ibid. Pg. 79

8.     Ibid. Pg. 135

9.     http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/justinmartyr-dialoguetrypho.html; CHAPTER LXXXII

10.    http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/barnabas-roberts.html; Chapter IV

11.    Paul E. Grosser & Edwin G. Halperin, Anti-Semitism: The Causes and Effects of a Prejudice, Citadel Press, pg. 78

12.    http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/chrysostom-jews6.html; Homily VII

13     Luther’s Works, Volume 47: The Christian in Society IV, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971). pp 268-293

14.    Melanie Phillips, “Christians Who Hate Jews,” The Spectator (Feb. 16, 2002) quoted from Barry Horner’s book, Future Israel: Why Christian Anti-Judaism Must Be Challenged, page 35-36.

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