Chrysostom the Anti-Semite?
Saturday October 06th 2007, 9:49 pm
Filed under: Patristics

Roger Pearse has sane things to say about John Chrysostom and the Jews. (Thank you, Roger!)

So does Robert Louis Wilken.

Chrysostom suffered enough injustices in his life. I think he’s been subjected to this modern one for far too long.


10 Comments so far
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Mike, I don’t know why it’s not acceptable to say the entirely human man was very right on some things and very wrong on others.

His 8 sermons – even with the new section to translate – are a prime example of Christian anti-semitism. Pure and simple – and mind you, I’ve read some pretty twisted justifications on the part of Orthodox for why that is not so.

As the common Orthodox saying goes – 100% of the fathers are 85% Orthodox. We don’t need to curse all of J.C.’s work – of course! But we needn’t justify all of it either

Comment by Huw Raphael 10.06.07 @ 11:57 pm

It is really necessary to understand the context. Today, people are not aware of how attractive Judaism was in that time. Chrysostom interrupted a series of sermons on another topic in order to deliver these — as the High Holiday season was approaching. Many Christians apparently went off to join the synagogue services, and Chrysostom was calling them to order — either Christianity is true, or Judaism is, so stop sitting on the fence, taking part in both religions. Our notions of religious tolerance, let alone an acceptance of “cafeteria” religious practice, didn’t apply. Sadly, the historical Antioch context of the sermons was lost, and when the sermons were re-read centuries later, only the vile anti-Judaism was apparent.
It’s really hard to try to explain something of the context to Jews today — I work for the Center for the Study of Antisemitism at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and it is surprising how often this subject comes up.
Even though I wouldn’t expect John Chrysostom to be PC by today’s standards, I still find his words extremely harsh, and unfortunately, a contribution to historical Jew-hatred and anti-Judaism.
It’s really a pity, because so much of his other writings reveal a deeply spiritual, sensitive pastor.

Comment by Alifa 10.07.07 @ 2:13 am

It is certainly “acceptable to say the entirely human man was very right on some things and very wrong on others.” I say this quite often, about many of the Fathers. But I do think it’s unfair to call Chrysostom an anti-Semite “pure and simple.” Wilken is the most brilliant and responsible scholar of the period alive today. He’s not Orthodox. He was Lutheran when he wrote the book; he’s Catholic now. And he’s always been active in interfaith dialogue, especially with Jews. His book deserves to be read in its entirety. After acknowledging that “the sermons on the Jews have been a factor in forming Christian attitudes in times and places far removed from ancient Antioch,” he argues that we have to appreciate just how far removed those times and places were from ancient Antioch.

“The Roman Empire in the fourth century was not the world of Byzantium or medieval Europe … The Jews were a vital and visible presence in Antioch and elsewhere in the Roman Empire and they continued to be a formidable rival to the Christians. Judaizing Christians were widespread. Christianity was still in the process of establishing its place within the society and was undermined by internal strife and apathetic adherents. Without an appreciation of this setting, we cannot understand why John preached the homiles and why he responds to the Judaizers with such passion and fervor. The medieval image of the Jew should not be imposed on antiquity … When I began to study John Chrysostom’s writings on the Jews, I was inclined to judge what he said in light of the unhappy history of Jewish-Christian relations and the sad events in Jewish history in modern times. As much as I feel a deep sense of moral responsibility for the attitudes and actions of Christians toward the Jews, I am no longer ready to project these later attitudes onto the events of the fourth century. No matter how outraged Christians feel over the Christian record of dealings with the Jews, we have no license to judge the distant past on the basis of our present perceptions of events of more recent times.”

Wilken points out that “Every act of historical understanding is an act of empathy.” His book John Chrysostom and the Jews: Rhetoric and Reality in the Late 4th Century is an heroic act of empathy. It deserves a full read before we convict John, post-mortem, of anti-Semitism “pure and simple.”

Comment by Mike Aquilina 10.07.07 @ 8:52 am

I *think* you both make my point (I could be misreading your words).

Church history can be read in a different light:

Christianity, of course, was only a Jewish sect at first. We worshipped in synagogues and held our house agapes at the end of Sabbath. From the second century to post-Constantine, parts of the Christian community were trying to distance themselves from our Jewish roots and trying to inculcate that distance in other people by ending what had been traditional Christian practices.

The “Judaizers” of JC’s era were not the same as of Paul’s era. No one was preaching circumcision – or worse, preaching that such was *required* of Christians. Those on JC’s list were doing what their forbears had always done – using more or less traditional Jewish practice in a new, Messianic understanding. JC was trying to stop that, making everyone conform the official line… and he was doing so by saying some really nasty things. The historical context doesn’t quite make up for those nasty things.

The context rather makes those nasty things all the more nasty. IE: “I don’t want you going to synagogue therefore I will call the synagogue smelly, dark and evil instead of a house of God” – which last is what some Christians had always considered it.

Comment by Huw Raphael 10.07.07 @ 1:40 pm

Huw,

Since the pharisaic Judaism of Paul’s day was transformed with the fall of Jerusalem, any application of NT texts against “Judaizing” had to be, to some extent, analogous. Still, you’re wrong when you say that the first-century brand of Judaizing was not an issue in the fourth, because it certainly was. I think you’ll find a scholarly (and patristic) consensus that there was a surge of it right around the time of Chrysostom. In any event, it’s not much of a stretch to apply Colossians 2:16 to the situation of Chrysostom’s time. And it seems to me that Irenaeus and Origen were concerned with the same practices, in the same degree and kind.

Certainly there were “Jewish Christians” here and there who followed the traditions of their ancestors. But they’re not the main target of Chrysostom’s polemic. He’s concerned more about gentile Christians who are drawn to the antiquity and charm of the synagogue, who go to the rabbis for “healing” or “magic,” and who use the rites of Judaism superstitiously. He’s concerned about a very real danger of apostasy, as Jews denied the central claim of Christianity, that Jesus is the messiah, and that He is God. It’s no small matter to let oneself be drawn in that direction; nor is it a small matter for a Jew to let himself be drawn to the Christian claims.

John was living in a time shortly after the emperor Julian did all he could to inflame Jewish-Christian animosity. It’s likely that the polemics flew both ways, though only one set has survived so extensively. It seems that the traffic in conversions also went both ways — though, again, it’s mainly the Christian record that’s survived.

If the claims of Christ are true, then the Church is hardly a “Jewish sect.” If salvation is for the gentiles, too, then there is bound to be a perennial tension between loyalty to our Jewish roots and the inculturation of the faith down through history. Jews in the dispersion also have to face this problem. It’s fair to say that the Fathers learned a bit about it from Philo and his school.

Yes, John’s rhetoric seems extreme by modern standards, but it was fairly standard for his time. Subtlety was not a virtue much practiced in the second sophistic.

Comment by Mike Aquilina 10.07.07 @ 2:19 pm

Mike -

You wrote Still, you’re wrong when you say that the first-century brand of Judaizing was not an issue in the fourth, because it certainly was.

I’m not familiar with any sources on this. I welcome pointing in that direction.

He’s concerned more about gentile Christians who are drawn to the antiquity and charm of the synagogue, who go to the rabbis for “healing” or “magic,” and who use the rites of Judaism superstitiously.

I’ll agree to that because we still suffer from that – be the “antiquity and charm” related to any more-ancient religion, or just ancient and out-dated rites of the churches… and I agree with you on the extremity of the rhetoric being normal. Btw, I think some of the reverse polemic survives even in some of the Synagogue prayers (based on the reading of those prayers by some modern Messianic Jews). That it was normal for its day does not mean we can’t critique it now, however. It think we’d be wrong – as some have – to *hide* the sermons for fear of reaction. But I think we’d also be wrong not to say maybe (just maybe) we’ve learned a little bit since then.

The inculturation issue is one that I’m greatly interested in, as you know. Thanks for the dialogue!

Comment by Huw Raphael 10.07.07 @ 2:50 pm

The best sources, primary and secondary, are noted in Wilken’s book, especially Chapter III: “The Attraction of Judaism.” After pages detailing the sources, Wilken concludes: “The abundance of information in the later fourth century suggests that a resurgence of judaizing Christianity took place at that time.”

Comment by Mike Aquilina 10.07.07 @ 3:27 pm

Cool.

Comment by Huw Raphael 10.07.07 @ 6:28 pm

I’ll only add to the above that reading St John Chrysostom as an antisemite is as worthy of ridicule as reading the Apocalypse for tomorrow’s world news headlines. Both such readings would be excercises in anachronism. Antisemitism, the belief that Jews themselves are by nature inferior in root and branch, is entirely absent in Patristic and other ancient writing. It is likewise anathema to Christianity, as it is suggesting that somehow there are different images of God walking about, some of better quality than others.

Otherwise, criticism of Jewish behavior and beliefs are common, of course. Typically, this criticism is linked to the kinds of criticism found in the New Testament and in liturgical hymnography: Israel was given a magnificent patrimony, and continually killed the prophets and made a botch of it all the way up to whichever given example is being written of, in St John’s case, the strong Jewish support for Julian the Apostate, and his cynical reciprocation. The vehemence of the criticism is directly proportional to the understanding of the great potential and ability of the Jews themselves. In a very real sense, the vituperation is instead a sign of Jewish superiority, their having been given so much, being such a special nation under God’s blessing, but still screwing up, a theme that is common to Jewish writings as well, by the way.

It is not even of the same quality as racism, as the Patristic criticism of Jews consistently refers to historical acts, rather than generalized proclivities or supposed national traits, as racism does. And as these acts tend to be related to issues in the religious realm, and particularly affected interreligious rivalry, they’re clearly neither an expression of racism or antisemitism.

Even aside from the fact that these are apologetic sermons, and therefore no-holds-barred in a period of extremely florid rhetoric by a master of the art, probably the most negative and yet applicable label to give the more excessive elements would be religious bigotry, which is not the same as either racism or antisemitism.

Comment by Kevin P. Edgecomb 10.07.07 @ 9:20 pm

You have a point, Kevin. The Prophets of Israel also practiced that kind of “antisemitism.” They reminded the nation of its calling, how much God had given Israel, and how grievously the people had sinned. If we’ve been given more and still sin, we’re under still greater judgment.

Comment by Mike Aquilina 10.07.07 @ 9:39 pm



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