Thursday, February 11, 2010

Jewish Bloggers Discuss Augustine

Last fall I read Paula Frederiksen's book Augustine and the Jews. One of the reasons Augustine stands out in early church history is because we have so much of his writing, much of which was highly introspective. Because of this, we can actually trace the development of Augustine's thinking on a particular subject over the course of his life. In Augustine and the Jews, Paula Frederiksen does just that, as she attempts to show that Augustine developed an innovative Christian theology of the Jewish people which, though it would certainly be judged anti-Semitic by today's standards, was actually far better than the existing theologies of the Jewish people (developed by John Chrysostom, for example).

I really enjoyed Frederiksen's book; her close reading of Augustine really opened up the exciting possibilities in studying primary sources from the early church period for me.

So I was interested to discover that several of my favorite Jewish bloggers were talking about Augustine and Frederiksen's book. Here are a few quotes:

From Kvetching Editor:
Should Jews thank the church?

. . . Augustine's philosophy, although really, incredibly backhanded, was that Jews survive and should survive throughout all time until the End of Days in order that they serve as evidence to Christianity's truth. By Jewish survival, Jewish books survive, and, according to Augustine, it is Jews and their books that provide a walking, talking, breathing witness to the truth of Christianity -- that the church fathers didn't just "make it up." Jews and Judaism were not a challenge to Christianity, insisted Augustine, but a witness to it!

. . . Is it Augustine's (REALLY BACKHANDED) doctrine that has allowed the world to not completely destroy Jews and Judaism?
From Dovbear:
John Chrysostom, was from the "kill them all "school. During his remarkable career as a preacher of violence against the Jews, he put it this way: "When animals are unfit for work they are marked for slaughter, and this is the very thing which the Jews have experienced. By making themselves unfit for work, they have become ready for slaughter."

Augustine, disagreed, and lucky for us, his view won the day. Basing himself on a proof-text found in Psalm 59.11, he argued that the Jews should be kept alive, in a demoralized and decrepit state, to serve as proof that God had rejected them. His model was Cain, a type for the Jews, who had murdered Able, a type for Jesus, and was likewise made into a despised wanderer as punishment.
Check out the full discussions!


Joseph said...

Great post Yahnatan, could I cross-post this with a link to your site on RPP?

Otherwise I'll just link here whatever you prefer :)

Yahnatan Lasko said...

Sure, Joseph--go ahead!

Stuart said...

Fascinating and insightful, thank you. said...


Thank you for posting this. Augustine is a guilty pleasure of mine, especially since I am not into determinism (I think Augustine saw both sides) and since I loathe supersessionism. Nonetheless, I can't help but adore the Confessions and Augustine's writing on the Psalms.

We should keep in mind parallel examples of prejudice from Jewish sages. Rashi, understandably, was anti-Gentile. His comments are sometimes damnable in this regard. So, if we can appreciate Rashi, I hope we can also appreciate Augustine.

Derek Leman

Yahnatan Lasko said...

Great comment, Derek--I agree with you.

Joseph said...

Agreed Derek, nicely put.

Joseph said...

Well, wouldn't agree it's understandable on Rashi's part though!

This is a great book dealing with Augustine:

Monique said...

Interesting post, but still disturbing to me.

This is eerily similar to Mizrachi Jews expressing 'gratitude' for living as second-class citizens in the Ottoman Empire. Surely in the short-term you get to keep your head, but over the course of several generations, what is the result? Positions like this eventually drive a people into the type of poverty that is unique to highly educated and skilled refugees. (Ahem.) I have real difficulty with Augustine. In my view, he, Chrysostom, and Luther are three shades of the same gray.

Here's my current theory: the destruction of the Temple made Jewish covenant fidelity much more complicated. This paved the way for the idea that Jewish covenant fidelity should give way in favor of a more globalized Yeshua faith. And if there's no need for the Jews to keep Torah, then eventually it's acceptable to say that there's no need for the Jews!

(I think this is why we're warned not to forget Jerusalem.)

Augustine bought into this line of thinking just as much as Chrysostom ... he just slapped a disclaimer on it.

Gene Shlomovich said...

Great analysis, Monique! Kol HaKavod!

Anonymous said...

Interesting article.

While I agree with Derek that we should still be willing to appreciate certain aspects of the works of Christian theologians despite their anti-Judaism, I think comparing that Patristic anti-Semitism that directly produced suffering for the Jewish people to Rashi's Gentile prejudice in response to that suffering is a stretch.

Also, Monique, ditto.

Joseph said...

"And if there's no need for the Jews to keep Torah, then eventually it's acceptable to say that there's no need for the Jews!"

Well, I don't think Jews need to keep Torah, especially as no-one apart from Yeshua could keep Torah - if anything, Torah keeps us.

However, I do think there is a need for Jews to exist: if I didn't it would be bad news for me and my friends & family!

Yahnatan Lasko said...


Sorry for the delayed response. You wrote:

"Well, I don't think Jews need to keep Torah, especially as no-one apart from Yeshua could keep Torah - if anything, Torah keeps us."

I'm not really clear on how Torah can keep us without us attempting to keep it. I'd love to see an RPP post spelling out more clearly how you believe this works.

I'd also like to point out that those of us who do believe that "Jews need to keep Torah" see a distinction between "keeping Torah" and "living a sinless life." The Torah itself includes provisions for sin--anticipating the fact that we would all fall short of all the Torah's requirements. Yet that didn't excuse Israel from keeping the commandments (1 Sam. 15:12).

I personally see Scriptural support for the idea that "keeping Torah" != "living sinlessly" in a number of places. I particularly like Luke's way of putting it, when he describes Zechariah and Elizabeth as

"upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord's commandments and regulations blamelessly." (Luke 1:6)

Even the apostle Paul called himself blameless under the law:

as to righteousness under the law, blameless. (Phil. 3:6)

Of course, these verses by themselves don't prove that we need to keep the Torah today. They only show that in the Scriptures "keeping Torah" is not the same thing as "living a sinless life." (At least, in the way I read them.)

Yahnatan Lasko said...

A useful survey of relevant passages to this question of Torah observance in the early Yeshua movement is Dr. David Friedman's They Loved the Torah: What Yeshua's First Followers Really Thought About the Law.

Of course, to really dig into this question, it would be best to investigate what Biblical scholars are saying about it. My entryway into the world of New Testament scholarship was It was N.T. Wright who put Paul (and the rest of the Scriptures) in an entirely new light for me, and though I don't agree with all of his views, I feel indebted to him (and to merry old England!) for this.

Derek's Yeshua in Context podcasts are also chock full of scholarly references on these issues. I'm sure Derek would echo me when I say: don't take his word for it! If you can study scholarly works for yourself, then do it! I regularly find that the easiest way for me to change my opinion about something is to be presented with new evidence...

Shabbat shalom!

Joseph said...

Sorry Yahnatan, just seen this! Will have a read and get back to you, thanks :)