Baker Academic

Friday, November 8, 2013

The Antisemitism of Ignorance - Le Donne

In the past few days, this blog has generated some very interesting discussion related to Jewish-Christian dialogue and historical scholarship. Without a doubt, the action is in the comments. I have been especially proud of my friend and colleague Chris Keith who continues to model the tone and honesty that one expects from candid exchanges. Little is gained by walking on eggshells and Chris has never met an eggshell that he didn't fear to dance on. At the same time, care and sensitivity is warranted and Chris is a pro.  Friend of the blog and personal friend, Larry Behrendt (when he isn't playing provocateur) continues to make this blog a source of pride for me.  It has been an honor to learn from both men.

In addition to these two fellows, I have learned from many others.  One such person emailed me a couple days ago with a legitimate concern (s/he has given me permission to relay this anonymously). This person is a a committed Christian and a professional historian/theologian.  Moreover, this person is someone I respect a great deal.  My friend writes:
I want to say something privately and in the context of our friendship because you may be able to help me avoid some error here, if I haven't already committed it.

I simply refuse to believe that you, as a historian, would deny some Jewish role in the death of Jesus.  And thus the tone of this entire discussion really bothers me because, in my opinion, it backs anyone who is willing to acknowledge this fact publicly into a corner and paints him/her as an anti-Semite.  Once the rhetoric has been unleashed, you can't be historically responsible without being made to look like Hitler.  For the life of me, I have no idea why one cannot acknowledge the historical reality of Jewish contribution to the events (without claiming categorical responsibilities for categorically all Jews everywhere) without this affirmation being painted as too close to anti-Semitism.
Dr. Keith makes a similar observation:
Why can it not be a socially, theologically, and historically appropriate position for modern Jews, Christians, and non-believers alike to say, "Anti-Semitism is all its faces should be condemned by all parties concerned as should the usage of any of these traditions to promote it . . . and the most likely historical scenario is that the complex of events that led to Jesus' death was a result of various actions by both first-century Romans (Pilate, etc.) and first-century Jews (Jesus, his disciples, Caiaphas and other leaders)."
I quite appreciate these concerns.  What they bring to the table - that the published surveys of the ADL do not - is historical nuance.  When my friend writes of "some Jewish role in the death of Jesus", I know that s/he is not making the mistakes of viewing "the Jews" as a monolithic-ideological-collective will.  Nor do I worry that s/he might be imagining Jesus as something other than Jewish.  However, when I hear the phrase "Jewish role", I immediately want to correct it.  I want to suggest that the descriptor "Jewish" here fails to adequately describe.  Of course, my friend knows this.  Moreover, Dr. Keith's point is important: first-century Jews include Jesus, his disciples, Caiaphas, etc.  Why is this important?

Here is why:
Tertullian (155 - 225 CE): "…though Israel may wash all its members every day, it is never clean. Its hands . . . are always stained, covered forever with the blood of the prophets and of our Lord himself.” From De Oratione, quoted from David Efroymson, "Tertullian's Anti-Judaism and Its Role in His Theology" (Ph.D. diss., Temple University, 1975) 15. 
Hippolytus (170-236 CE): "Now then, incline thine ear to me and hear my words, and give heed, thou Jew. Many a time does thou boast thyself, in that thou didst condemn Jesus of Nazareth to death, and didst give him vinegar and gall to drink; and thou dost vaunt thyself because of this. Come, therefore, and let us consider together whether perchance thou dost boast unrighteously, O, Israel, and whether thou small portion of vinegar and gall has not brought down this fearful threatening upon thee and whether this is not the cause of thy present condition involved in these myriad of troubles." The Anti-Nicene Fathers, edited by Alexander and James Donaldson (Grand Rapids, MI: W. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1956) Vol. IV, 219. 
Origen (185-254 CE): "On account of their unbelief and other insults which they heaped upon Jesus, the Jews will not only suffer more than others in the judgment which is believed to impend over the world, but have even already endured such sufferings. For what nation is in exile from their own metropolis, and from the place sacred to the worship of their fathers, save the Jews alone? And the calamities they have suffered because they were a most wicked nation, which although guilty of many other sins, yet has been punished so severely for none as for those that were committed against our Jesus." Against Celcus, Ibid., 433.

Ambrose (339-97 CE): In defense of a fellow bishop who burned a synagogue at Callinicum, Ambrose of Milan quipped "who cares if a synagogue - home of insanity and unbelief - is destroyed?" From the 40th and 41st Epistles of St. Ambrose of Milan. 
Constantine (272-337): “[The Jews are] a people who, having imbrued their hands in a most heinous outrage, have thus polluted their souls and are deservedly blind. . . . Therefore we have nothing in common with that most hostile of people the Jews. We have received from the Savior another way . . . our holy religion. . .” Quoted from Robert Wilken, "Insignissima Religio, Certe Licita? Christianity and Judaism in the Fourth and Fifth Centuries," in Jerald Brauer, ed., The Impact of the Church Upon Its Culture (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1968) 58. 
John Chrysostom (344-407 CE): "The Jews sacrifice their children to Satan....they are worse than wild beasts. The synagogue is a brothel, a den of scoundrels, the temple of demons devoted to idolatrous cults, a criminal assembly of Jews, a place of meeting for the assassins of Christ, a house of ill fame, a dwelling of iniquity, a gulf and abyss of perdition." -- "[Because of their] odious assassination of Christ for which crime there is no expiation possible, no indulgence, no pardon, and for which they will always be a people without a nation, enduring a servitude without end... " Quoted from Chrysostom’s eight "Homilies Against the Jews" in Patrologia Graeca (Paris: Garnier, 1857-1866) 843-942.
And this is just a taste and not even the worst of it. This weekend, we will remember Martin Luther's birthday.  No person that I know will celebrate this day the way that previous Christians did.  But there is an even more insidious problem with modern Christians.  We continue to be ignorant of the connections between our texts and traditions and our long history of repugnant behavior.  So when Christians blithely speak of "Jewish" involvement in Jesus' arrest, most do so thinking that this is just a neutral fact.  Without care to nuance the identity in question, no fact has betrayed more bias.

No Christian I know is a Nazi (although their ideological heirs are still out there). My friends and colleagues aren't burning synagogues (although I once lived in a Jewish community house in Davis, CA; a few years ago the same house had a swastika spray-painted on it).  But there is almost a greater sin in willful ignorance and inaction.  We don't know our own theological history.  We don't even really know the history of the Holocaust and this event still survives in living memory! Most Christians haven't even considered the connections between Luther's advice and the actions carried out on Kristallnacht.

We don't even know our history well enough to fact check the false assertions made of us. For example:

(pp.90-91 in Arie Zweip's Christ, the Spirit and the Community of God)

This creates a problem for the historian.  Where do we begin?  Must we explain recent history and Church history before we explain the history of Jesus?  How does any single historian become sufficiently well-versed?

How does the historian speak to the factors that contributed to Jesus' death without importing 2000 years of anti-Judaism and centuries of anti-Semitism?  Moreover, how do we have this conversation when most Christians are lamentably ignorant of the basic problem?  Christianity has been anti-Jewish for a long, long time.  This means that we (here I use the historic "we") couldn't help but misunderstand important aspects of Jesus and his contemporaries for a long, long time.  Without some grounding in our own history of repeated sin, we will continue to state "facts" in ways that mislead.



  1. Anthony, this post is about as good as you get. That’s pretty damn good.

    I want to say something to your anonymous friend, and leave the statement stand alone for a while, before I provide further comment. Friend of Anthony, I apologize if there is anything I’ve done here that backed you into a corner. I do not think I’ve encountered an iota of anti-Semitism on this site, nor for that matter anywhere I’ve traveled in the world of committed Christians. I’ve experienced nothing but warmth, respect, even love, in my efforts to study the historical Jesus and to engage in Jewish-Christian dialog. If I’ve ever given a contrary impression, then I’m truly sorry.

    The idea that something I said might have made you “look like Hitler” is so mind-chillingly sad, I don’t know what to say in response, except that from the glimpse you’ve given me, you don’t look remotely like that to me. You look to me like a friend. You look to me like the image of God.

    What we need to find is a way to talk to each other that does not paint anyone into any corner. I ask for everyone’s help in finding this way.

  2. This might be a minor nuance, but I've seen some use "Judean(s)" rather than "Jew(s)" in order to differentiate modern Jews from their first century ancestors. Of course, more that this is needed lest in trying to be careful we inadvertently deny a people their own history. It needs to be made explicit that it was primarily the elite colluding with their Roman overseers who are responsible, but maybe language such as "Judean rulers" or "Jerusalem elite" can be historically responsible w.out making the mistake of opening the door to an antisemitism we Christians (and even many non-Christians) have promoted over the centuries.

    1. Brian, the move toward sensitivity is important. The two sides of this coin are that:

      (a) Sometimes in moves toward sensitivity we fail to convey the necessary categories. For example why not just translate GJohn's "the Jews" into "the religious leaders"? But in doing so, we might fail to convey a key theme in GJohn.

      flip side:

      (b) We will no doubt contribute unwittingly to damaging stereotypes unless some effort is given to problematize the language.

      I would highly recommend Leonard Greenspoon's fascinating chapter in my "Soundings in the Religion of Jesus" book.


  3. Have you seen this post by Rachel Held Evans?
    you could probably ask a question for Rabbi Rachel - I cited this post in my question.

  4. These quotes are helpful but need to be tidied up (although I don't doubt any of these statements). The Tertullian quote has a large dittography. What is the reference in Eusebius? Same with Constantine. Also, "John of Chrysostom" was not his name. When I see sloppy cut and paste like this, it ends up looking unreliable. Again, I don't doubt the statements, but they need to be tidied up.

  5. The Eusebius citation is still inaccurate. It doesn't seem to be from Eusebius of Caesarea (263-339). It's found in Migne PG 61:733-36 (in both Greek and Latin). From the best I can tell (and I'm not for sure about all of this), it's from a sermon collected among spurious items that were sometimes attributed to Chrysostom, but is also sometimes attributed to Eusebius of Alexandria (not the same as Eusebius of Caesarea, hence the confusion), of whom I know little to nothing. Eusebius of Alexandria doesn't seem to be the bishop there, so I'm not sure who he was or what this sermon was or when or where it came from. It is an example of unfortunate anti-Jewish slander, but it's not from Eusebius of Caesarea.

    1. Thus I have ironically illustrated my own point. Too bad I no longer have that book double check. I have removed Eusebius from post.

      thank you


    2. I hope you know I do appreciate this blog, and I wasn't trying to undermine your work as I sought to verify the sources. You two do a great job with this blog and I greatly appreciate it.

    3. No harm done at all! I'll have to take another look at the Eusebius quotation. Until then, I wouldn't want to forward any misinformation. It's not the first time I've been helped by collective memory on this blog and hopefully not the last.


  6. The Constantine quote is from Socrates Scholasticus in his Church History (ca. 439), book 1, chapter 9 (3rd letter, after the first council of Nicea).