Skip to 0 minutes and 1 second As the Roman Empire adopted Christianity, the religion spread further across the Mediterranean region and Europe. Christianity brought with it its charged history with Judaism and its complex relationship with the Jews. The development of the Christian “Adversus Judaeos” tradition entered a new phase in the late fourth and early fifth centuries CE, when the most prominent of the Latin Church Fathers, Augustine of Hippo, laid the groundwork for what would become the guiding Christian approach to the role of the Jews in medieval Christian society. In his “doctrine of Jewish witness”, Augustine prescribed a positive role for the Jews in Christendom, giving them, in Prof.
Skip to 0 minutes and 38 seconds Paula Fredriksen’s words “an air bubble of safety,” and linking his ideas to an innovative reading of a passage from the Psalms.
Skip to 0 minutes and 49 seconds In his exposition of the verse from Psalm 59, in which God says about his enemies: “Slay them not”, and Augustine applied this to the Jews - one should not inflict physical harm on the Jews and one should not try to do away with their practice of Judaism. But the verse goes on.
Skip to 1 minute and 10 seconds In that same verse the psalmist said: “Slay them not, lest my people forget: scatter them by thy might; and bring them down.” And the Augustinian interpretation of this verse was very much a part of his teaching concerning the proper place of the Jews in Christian society. Jews had a place.
Skip to 1 minute and 29 seconds They had a purpose: “lest my people [lest God’s Christian people] forget where they came from.” Jews were meant to survive. They, and their books, and their traditions, especially their books, which Augustine believed they didn’t, the Jews themselves didn’t understand properly. But those books validated the claims of Christianity to have fulfilled biblical prophecy if one would read those prophecies correctly. So one needed to scatter the Jews, bring them down, subordinate them, enslave them, but to preserve them as kinds of fossils of antiquity. They were stuck in useless antiquity. It’s as if they’re waiting on the platform of a train station for the salvation express to arrive and take them to salvation.
Skip to 2 minutes and 14 seconds But that train will never come because they missed the train. They refused to get on the train to declare their belief in Jesus and the superiority of the New Testament to the Old. But as such they serve a vital function in the Christian order of things. They are witnesses. They’re kinds of librarians. They’re slaves who carry books on their backs for the benefit of those who understand the true meaning of the books. Augustine’s most powerful metaphor for explaining this role of the Jew in a properly ordered Christian society was that of the blind man in the mirror. The Jew can’t see but the Christian does.
Skip to 2 minutes and 56 seconds The Jew looks in the mirror in a metaphorical way of trying to understand his scripture and does not understand. He is blind. But the Christian looks into the mirror with him, reads the scripture of the Jew, sees that the Jew is blind, sees that he, the Christian, really understands what those scriptures mean. And you can’t get that benefit of Jewish scripture without the Jew, who later Christian theologians in the wake of Augustine called “the living letter of the law.” You can’t get that benefit from Jewish scripture without having the Jew in your midst.
The Augustinian Perception
Prof. Jeremy Cohen
The development of the Christian Adversus Judaeos tradition entered a new phase in the late fourth and early fifth centuries CE, when the most prominent of the Latin Church fathers, Augustine of Hippo, laid the groundwork for what would become the guiding Christian approach to the role of the Jews in medieval Christian society.
What was St. Augustine’s perception of the Jews and how did it affect their treatment?
Cohen, Jeremy, Living Letters of the Law: Ideas of the Jew in Medieval Christianity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999).
Fredriksen, Paula, Augustine and the Jews: A Christian Defense of Jews and Judaism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010).
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