Commentary Magazine


Augustine and the Jews by Paula Fredriksen

The purpose of this book is to chart the way in which Augustine of Hippo (354-430), among the most influential thinkers in the history of the Christian Church, arrived at a “unique” and even “revolutionary” doctrine of “Jewish witness”—witness, that is, to the truth of Christianity. The author, Paula Fredriksen, is the Aurelio Professor of Scripture at Boston University; her previous books include From Jesus to Christ and Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. For what it is worth, she is also a convert to Orthodox Judaism.

Augustine’s theology of Jewish witness can be briefly summarized. Following a well-established Christian tradition, Augustine identified Cain as a symbol of the Jews and his slain brother Abel as a prefiguration of Jesus. For their guilt in the murder of Jesus, the Jews (like Cain) had been exiled from their land, and in exile they would continue to live—in sorrow, anxiety, and servitude—until the end of time. But they were indeed to be permitted to live; this was God’s will, mandated (Augustine says) by Psalm 59:12, “Slay them not, lest at any time they forget Your law; scatter them in Your might.”

How was the survival of the Jews, along with the continued practice of Judaism, intended to bear witness to the truth of Christianity? First of all, their dispersion and subjugation would serve to authenticate the triumph and truth of Christianity and the displacement of the synagogue by the Church. Second, in preserving their Scriptures the Jews would unintentionally also preserve the prophecies contained within them concerning the advent of Christ, in this way proving to pagan critics or recent converts that the Church had not fabricated those prophecies. By thus serving as custodians of the books that both proved the messiahship of Christ and attested prophetically to their own blindness, the Jews had a continuing place in the drama of divine salvation.

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This is the background to Fredriksen’s book, whose thesis is that Augustine’s formulation of the doctrine of Jewish witness actually departs from traditional Christian understandings in wholly novel ways—so much so that it deserves to be seen as, in the words of her subtitle, a defense of Jews and Judaism. According to Fredriksen, we can trace Augustine’s evolving break with tradition in the many works he wrote between the years 386 and 398. Among the better-known are On Christian Teaching, a manual on reading the Bible, and the Confessions, the great autobiographical record, addressed to God, of his journey from cultured despiser of Christianity to theologian-philosopher. But above all it is the lesser-known Against Faustus, a long, polemical treatise directed at the leader of the Manichees (a Christian heretical sect of which Augustine himself had once been an adherent and proselyte) that is the main focus of Fredriksen’s attention, for here Augustine speaks at length about Jews, Judaism, the Hebrew Bible, and the Law.

Augustine and the Jews is organized into three parts. The first, “The Legacy of Alexander,” explores the early spread of Christianity into the social and cultural world of Roman antiquity, and the multiple ways in which pagans, Jews, and Christians interacted within that world. And interact they did: even after baptism, Fredriksen emphasizes, many new Christians continued to participate in Jewish and pagan public processions, meals, and feast days.

One of the byproducts of this continued religious intercourse was a body of writing, called by the shorthand name “Against the Jews” (adversus Iudaeos), in which prelates of the Church condemned such Christian “Judaizing” by virulently attacking Judaism itself. This is the context in which, Fredriksen argues, the novelty of Augustine’s doctrine of witness can best be understood—a task she begins to address in the second part of the book, “The Prodigal Son.”

Here she traces Augustine’s psychological and religious development from his days as a student in Carthage to the composition of the Confessions. The rich biographical material in this section is of interest to Fredriksen mainly for its relation to his thinking about Jews and Judaism. She zeroes in especially on the issues that drove him into the arms of the Manichees and then, finally, into the Church. In her view, the “axial point” was the perennially troubling issue of divine justice versus human moral freedom, and it was in pondering this issue that Augustine came to conceptualize for himself the relationship of God and the Jews.

This brings us to the third section, “God and Israel,” which opens with an analysis of Faustus’s attack on Catholic Christianity. Drawing heavily on adversus Iudaeos rhetoric, Faustus argued (as had Marcion, a 2nd-century gnostic Christian) that the Jewish god was ignorant, jealous, vengeful, immoral, and, indeed, evil; that the Law of the Jews was “fleshly” or “carnal”; that this Law had nothing to do with Christian revelation; and that therefore the Hebrew Bible should not be read by Christians.

As Fredriksen points out, “What made Faustus so dangerous was the way that he built his case by appealing to so many of the anti-Jewish attitudes and traditions of interpretation that the Manichees held in common with Augustine’s own church.” But Augustine resisted the temptation to accept the script handed to him. His close reading of the two Testaments had supplied him with many texts—including by the apostle Paul—praising and rejoicing in the giving of the Law and pronouncing it good (even if, for Paul, it was no longer necessary for salvation). Law and Gospel, according to Augustine, were not antinomies but, in Fredriksen’s paraphrase, “two historically specific modes of a single divine initiative of redemption”; the sources of both lay in the divine will.

If the Law was good, the Jewish understanding of the Law and its enactment by Israel were also good. Temple sacrifices were good and appropriate. So was circumcision. Therefore, in Augustine’s judgment, political authorities should not prevent Jews from practicing their religion. This, incidentally, stood in stark contrast to Augustine’s position on the heretical North African Donatists, against whom he condoned harsh imperial repression.
All of this, Fredriksen concludes, turned the longstanding “polemical tradition” of adversus Iudaeos “on its head,” and does indeed merit being described as a defense of Jews and Judaism.

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It is refreshing to pick up a book that does not set out to hold Augustine responsible for the sundry ills of Western civilization. Rightly or wrongly, the bishop of Hippo has been blamed for, among other things, promulgating a view of humanity as a depraved lump of sin and of God as a moral monster, and for constructing a stark division between the body and the spirit,  associating goodness, light, and Christianity with the latter and wickedness, darkness, and Judaism with the former. Fredriksen not only argues effectively against such wholesale characterizations but, in doing so, presents a model of learning and graciousness.

But is she right? Already in 1998, when she first put forward the core elements of her thesis, the historian Jeremy Cohen posed questions to which, so far as I can see, Fredriksen has not yet responded. Among these questions is whether, in fact, Augustine’s doctrine of Jewish witness found its fullest expression in Against Faustus or, rather, in later works like The City of God or his harsh sermon from 428-29 titled, significantly, Against the Jews.  Another is whether Augustine’s ideas about human freedom and divine justice do indeed rest on deep reflection concerning the Jews and Judaism.

The latter may seem a side issue, but in this connection it is worth recalling something that the rabbinic scholar Louis Ginzberg wrote in an article on Augustine in the 1906 Jewish Encylopedia—namely, that Augustine’s writings on the Jews “belong to the weakest and least important production of his pen.” Although Ginzberg may have slightly overstated the matter, it does sometimes seem that Fredriksen is determined to link almost every major turn in Augustine’s thinking to his views on Jews and Judaism. But the fact is that however large the Jews loom in Augustine’s writings, they do not loom nearly so large as do such other, more pressing problems as the one presented by Christian heretics. In his capacity as bishop, Augustine could hardly have had Jews and Judaism consistently on his mind, or even close to the top of his agenda.

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More worrisome than any of this, however, is that much of the literary evidence adduced by Fredriksen actually seems to undermine her portrait of Augustine as a defender of Jewish practice and theology. This is especially true of the chapter in which she lays out the many good things he says about the Law and the rituals it prescribes—and where she is also too honest a scholar to omit the offensive things he says: that after the coming of Jesus the Law is no longer necessary for salvation; that Christ removed the “veil” obscuring the truest meaning of the Law; that the Hebrew patriarchs and prophets themselves, enlightened as they were by divine revelation, perceived the ultimate (Christological) significance of the Law; and that the reason Temple sacrifices were commanded as a central ritual in ancient Israel is that they foretold the sacrifice on the cross of God’s incarnate son.

Fredriksen is surely right to assert that Augustine justifies the commandment of Temple sacrifice in the Hebrew Bible. But she is no less right that he does so in order “to defend the incarnation”—in my view, only to defend the incarnation. And that is not to speak of the many other traditional elements of Christian teaching concerning Jews and Judaism that Augustine preserves in his own doctrine and that can only be regarded as downright hostile or insulting. Thus, Augustine assumes that Jesus was murdered by the Jews and that for this reason they did and should live in subservience and misery, displaced from their homeland. No longer God’s beloved people, they exist solely to vindicate the truth of the new religion that has replaced them.

For Augustine, as Fredriksen herself concedes, “Israel, all unknowing,” has become “the servant of the Church.” It is very hard to square this with the notion that the bishop of Hippo was a defender of the Jews.

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In her prologue, Fredriksen asserts that in stipulating the continued value of the Jewish “witness,” Augustine’s doctrine may well have been responsible for saving Jewish lives in the Second Crusade. About this, she is almost certainly correct—although one is immediately compelled to add that the same doctrine had failed to save Jewish lives in earlier times. To cite just one example: Agobard, bishop of Lyon in the 9th century, very likely tried to baptize Jewish children by force, thus violating one of Augustine’s central teachings as well as a royal edict against the practice. Apparently unimpressed by or perhaps unaware of the influence of the Augustinian theology of witness, Agobard claimed that the edict was “contrary to the teaching of the Church.”

Taking a longer view, one might even speculate that the doctrine of Jewish witness, instead of having had a beneficial effect, made Judaism more subservient, and Jews more vulnerable, than Augustine himself intended. In secularized form, it might even be seen as exercising its prejudicial, not to say lethal, influence as late as the 19th and 20th centuries. For was not the rise of modern anti-Semitism connected in part to Gentile resentment of the fact that Jews seemed to be flourishing in European societies, in flagrant contradiction of the centuries-old understanding that they should be failing and miserable?

It is a tribute to Paula Fredriksen’s impressive and thought-provoking book that it elicits such difficult and still-sensitive lines of speculation. For this alone, we owe her appreciation and gratitude.

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