When people accuse the Fathers of being “anti-Jewish,” I usually ask them to go back and reread both Christian and Jewish polemics from antiquity, and to consider these in their cultural context. It would be many centuries before public religious disputes followed Robert’s Rules of Order — or any rules for that matter. I don’t advocate a return to the old ways of dialogue, but we should cut the ancients a break. Both sides could be nasty. Yes, the Byzantines made life uncomfortable for the Jews. And, yes, in the Persian Empire, where Jews had the upper hand, it’s likely that they returned the favor.
Why do I pull the poptop on this can of worms? A new book, of course: Jesus in the Talmud by Peter Schäfer. Here’s the summary from Princeton University Press:
Scattered throughout the Talmud, the founding document of rabbinic Judaism in late antiquity, can be found quite a few references to Jesus–and they’re not flattering. In this lucid, richly detailed, and accessible book, Peter Schäfer examines how the rabbis of the Talmud read, understood, and used the New Testament Jesus narrative to assert, ultimately, Judaism’s superiority over Christianity.
The Talmudic stories make fun of Jesus’ birth from a virgin, fervently contest his claim to be the Messiah and Son of God, and maintain that he was rightfully executed as a blasphemer and idolater. They subvert the Christian idea of Jesus’ resurrection and insist he got the punishment he deserved in hell–and that a similar fate awaits his followers.
Schäfer contends that these stories betray a remarkable familiarity with the Gospels–especially Matthew and John–and represent a deliberate and sophisticated anti-Christian polemic that parodies the New Testament narratives. He carefully distinguishes between Babylonian and Palestinian sources, arguing that the rabbis’ proud and self-confident countermessage to that of the evangelists was possible only in the unique historical setting of Persian Babylonia, in a Jewish community that lived in relative freedom. The same could not be said of Roman and Byzantine Palestine, where the Christians aggressively consolidated their political power and the Jews therefore suffered.
There have been a number of balanced studies of the subject. I recommend Aphrahat and Judaism by Rabbi Jacob Neusner; John Chrysostom and the Jews: Rhetoric and Reality in the Late 4th Century and Judaism and the Early Christian Mind, both by Robert Louis Wilken; and, as ever, Rodney Stark’s The Rise of Christianity (especially the chapter on the “mission to the Jews”).
A few points to keep in mind when thinking about charges of “anti-Judaism” in the Fathers or “anti-Christianity” in the rabbis:
• These men were living in a hotly competitive religious environment, in which many people were converting from Judaism to Christianity — and vice versa.
• The Fathers were troubled because some Christians were keeping Jewish observances. The rabbis seem equally troubled by Christian influences on Jews.
• Both Jews and Christians knew that they were very close kin. Family disputes are always the nastiest. Ask any cop.
• The insulting rhetoric flowed both ways, usually beginning when one side felt free to get nasty. The nastiness often inspired responses in kind — that is, responses unkind.
It’s important that we know our history. But it’s also important that we learn from it and never repeat these episodes.