Friday, March 4, 2011

Reasons for Church hostility to Jews and Judaism

Pope Benedict has made it clear that the Jews bear no collective responsibility for the death of Christ. But it is hard to give the Church much credence for backing away from an accusation that it was overwhelmingly responsible for in the first place. Given that, according to the Gospel reports, Jesus was killed by a Roman method of execution by Roman soldiers under the authority of a Roman official, the lack of collective Jewish responsibility even at the time is perfectly clear. It is underwhelming that almost two millennia later that it is news that a Pope wishes to make it clear that Jews have no enduring moral responsibility.

Not that the Deicide accusation was ever the only issue. The early Christian Church, particularly after the alliance with Constantine, had a range of reasons for hostility to Jews and Judaism.

Competition: rabbis and priests competed for believers. We forget that within the Roman Empire, Judaism was an evangelising religion: it was only pressure from the Christianised Roman state (later reinforced by Islam as a ruling religion) that turned Judaism inward.

Preserving Jesus’s status as Messiah: if Jews were God’s Chosen People, yet failed to follow Christ, then either Christ was not Messiah or the Jews were betraying their role as the Chosen People. Holding Judaism and Jews to be at fault protected Jesus’s status as Messiah.

Allying with a Deicide state: if the Romans killed Jesus, then in accepting the alliance with Constantine, the Church was allying with a Deicide state. But, if the Jews killed Jesus, that protected Christian alliance with the Roman state, emphasized their “betrayal” of their role as Chosen People and improved priestly rhetoric against their rabbinical competitors. The accusation of Jews as a Deicide people was extremely useful for the Church and was kept going for as long as it was so useful.

Defusing Christ’s critique of priestly power: According to the Gospels, Jesus spent a great deal of time criticising priests and clerics. If that was identified as purely a rejection of Jewish priests and rabbis, then the Church was protected from having Jesus’ critique of priestly power being applied to it. So emphasizing how wrong specifically Jewish teaching was provided a shield against Christ’s critiques of misuse of priestly power being taken as having general (and so potentially embarrassing) application.

Subverting love thy neighbour: Critiquing Judaism and Jews created a category of person that the authority of God could be used against, further establishing the power of priests to invoke God to unilaterally strip people of moral rights and protections, and so giving them great authority as ‘gatekeepers of righteousness’. This is particularly clear in the preaching of St John Chrysostom.

While notionally these are generally attacks on Judaism, they naturally became attacks on Jews: for rejecting the true preaching, for rejecting Christ, for being Christ-killers, for following false teachers. In the case of subverting love thy neighbour, it had to be an attack on Jews, to create the category of those outside the full moral community as defined by priests.

This is why Philo of Alexandria’s adoption of natural law theory to justify a homicidal intolerance of queers was so dangerous (particularly, it turned out, for Jews) for it created a category of human beings who were in “metaphysical revolt” and (implicitly, a claim later made explicitly) metaphysically deformed who “put themselves” outside the moral community to the extent that they should be killed. (The accusation of being metaphysically deformed also being made against the Jews.)

The bigger the gulf between the anathematised and “proper” people, the more the effect of creating categories of morally rejected people to be unilaterally stripped of moral protections becomes both accepted and invisible. This move is very clear in the preaching of St John Chrysostom, when he goes from utilising Philo’s metaphors in preaching on a passage from St Paul which itself fairly clearly shows Philo’s influence to his preaching against those who fraternise with Jews.

The process of exclusion, of unilaterally stripping people of moral protections on the basis of metaphysical sins or claims, never just stops with the queers.


  1. Fascinating post, Lorenzo. I also think there's a kind of sibling rivalry - a jealousy of the elder sibling and a desire to differentiate from the elder sibling. So it's precisely because so many of the traditions have a common origin and there is an overlap that such a sharp dividing line has to be drawn.

  2. Thanks.

    Yes, Basically, the Christians and the Muslims have the same problem. They appropriate the Jewish prophetic tradition and sacred history and then claim sole ownership of said tradition and history. (The Muslim claim -- which is that Allah always had the same revelation, the Jews and Christians just wilfully distorted it -- is actually more hostilely dismissive of Jews than the Christian "successive covenants" theology.) The persistence of the Jews in failing to accept said appropriation then become a permanent accusation of theft which Christians and Muslims deal with by scapegoating the Jews.

  3. It's actually even more complex than that. Jews in the first century AD did not attempt (or at least, not very much) to convince Greeks and Romans to become Jews. That process involved chopping one's sexual organs about, which if one was a Roman (of either sex) was anathema, and which was particularly anathema to a Greek male (although the Greeks did not practice FGM).

    What the Jews did instead was to encourage pagan coverts to adopt the 'Noahide Laws', which did not demand male circumcision. They demanded male monogamy (not unknown among Roman men, at least among Stoics), an end to eating meat sacrificed to idols and a rejection of male homosexuality. This was not too hard a trial for many people, and importantly did not prevent Noahides from serving in the Roman army, which Christianity did -- big time.

    The 'Noahide Laws' were a better, more 'Stoic like' system that Romans in particular could grasp. Noahides were called 'Prosylites at the Gate', because they would often stand at the back of the synagogue.

    The Noahides were a real challenge to Christianity, because one got all the benefits of Christianity with none of the detriments. The early Christians had to eliminate the appeal of the Noahides, which meant standing on the Jews.

  4. Converts and Proselytes at the Gate. I am having a bad spelling day. Gah.

  5. Always good to have further and better particulars :). There is a Noahide movement nowadays, the old strictures against evangelising having been abolished. One can Google it. I referred to it in this post.

  6. Skepticlawyer says that Jews in 1st C AD demanded that pagans adopting the Noahide covenant adopt "male monogamy." Unless I misunderstand what you mean by "male monogamy," how could this be so? In the first century, Judaism approved of polygamy; it was not until about 1000 years later that European Jews (and only European Jews) ceased practicing polygamy pursuant to a decree of the leading European rabbi of the time (Rabbenu Gershom). Polygamy was not completed abolished among all branches of Judaism until the State of Israel was established, when the rabbis of the remaining polygamy-practicing communities (e.g. Yemen) were forced to abolish it by the Israeli government.

  7. My understanding (from Martin Goodman, 'Rome and Jerusalem: the Ancient Clash of Civilisations') is that only very few Jews (many of them the rather dodgy Idumeans, which included King Herod's family, and who were not considered proper Jews) could have more than one wife, although this was extremely rare (even Herod murdered his one after the other, for example, rather than following Solomon and having multiples). Most Jews who married had only one wife, and the men were expected to be monogamous (whether they were, of course...)

    Romans could never have more than one wife, although in pagan times rich men could have both a wife and a concubine. However, Roman men with one wife were not expected to be monogamous, and the Stoic belief that both men and women should be monogamous was the subject of comment both by others and among Stoics themselves. The Stoics even argued that Romans (of either sex) had to stop bonking their slaves. Quel horreur for most middle and upper-class Romans! The Stoics did not disapprove of concubinage -- at one point, even Marcus Aurelius had a concubine!

    The distinction may seem silly to modern eyes, but under Roman law, a concubine had significant legal rights. I'm assuming that a second wife had significant rights in Jewish law. Men who could afford to dole out those sort of rights got to bend the monogamy rule, but for Jews, 'regular Joes' didn't. Roman 'regular Joes' did.

    Goodman's work doesn't address Jews under Islam (mainly because his history stops before Islam comes on the scene), and I would be completely unsurprised if Jews in Yemen followed different practices. In any case, the Noahides had long since ceased to exist -- Christianity supplanted them, and not in a good way.

  8. With all due respect, skepticlawyer, I think your source is wrong about polygamy being extraordinay among Jews in ancient times (i.e., before Islam). No doubt, given the expense, most Jews had only one wife (as do most Muslims today), but that doesn't mean that polygamy was rare or considered deviant. Polygamy is obviously permitted by the Bible, and was recognized in all rabbinic sources of Jewish law (e.g., the Talmud, which has an entire tractate on marriage and another on divorce) until about 1000 years ago, and then was abolished only in Europe. The Yemenite Jews (and Jews of other Middle Eastern lands) did not pick up polygamy from the Muslims.

    I am especially baffled by your saying that Jewish men, in particular, were expected to be monogamous; are you implying that women could have more than one husband? If so, that's plain wrong. Women were never permitted to have more than one husband under Jewish law.

    I would suggest that you or your source may be confusing monogamy with the rules of sexual morality generally, specifically the ban on incest and adultery. Noahides were required to give up those behaviors.

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