Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Was John Chrysostom an Anti-Semite?

The Protection of Christians from Judaism

By Stylianos Papadopoulos

Like almost all ecclesiastical writers, Chrysostom also wrote about the Jews. Those who wrote against the Jews before Chrysostom were primarily the apologist Apelles (whose text was lost), Justin (Dialogue With Trypho), Tertullian and Pseudo-Cyprian. Later Philastrius of Brescia wrote about them and more occasionally by Eusebius of Caesarea, Athanasius the Great and the Cappadocian Fathers. The other writers, his predecessors and his contemporaries, only occasionally referred to the Jews with judgments.

Chrysostom has eight short texts, which record his homilies to the flock of Antioch in the years 386 or 387. Often these texts contain harsh expressions about the Jews and, above all, a critique of their ceremonies and customs, and of their religious behavior during the days of the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Church. Of course, his criticism is not more severe than that of the Prophets and Christ himself against the Jews. But his own criticism has prompted a fierce reaction from older and contemporary writers, many of whom attribute to Chrysostom a harsh anti-Semitism, which allegedly influenced Christian writers from the fifth century onward.

The truth is that Chrysostom generally formulated, in bold terms, even in the context of tolerable rhetoric exaggerations, the perceptions that other ecclesiastical writers had of the Jews and their religion. But its wider relevance has a pastoral cause, and it is always done with biblical, historical, and theological sources. A cause was the religious situation in Antioch, where the climate impeded the self-consciousness of Christians, large groups of whom did not distinguish between Christianity and Judaism, and therefore participated in religious festivals, rituals, and fastings of the Jews. Christians sought miracles from the rabbis with their amulets and the ceremonies they performed. These things were of tremendous salvific and theological significance to Chrysostom, who saw it as a dangerous wound, since salvation necessarily presupposed a conscious correct faith and genuine worship. So he decided to speak about the Jews, even interrupting his speeches "On the Incomprehensibility of God" and "On the Anomians," not because of an ideological stance, but to heal the wound, the "disease", of the Christians, and to protect them from religious practices endangering their salvation. He felt it was absolutely necessary for the Christians to be convinced that they, and not the Jews, understood correctly and fully the Old Testament. Only in this way would Christians cease to participate in the religious life of the Jews.

"Another very serious illness calls for any cure my words can bring, an illness which has become implanted in the body of the Church... What is this disease? The festivals of the pitiful and miserable Jews are soon to march upon us one after the other and in quick succession: the feast of Trumpets, the feast of Tabernacles, the fasts. There are many in our ranks who say they think as we do. Yet some of these are going to watch the festivals and others will join the Jews in keeping their feasts and observing their fasts. I wish to drive this perverse custom from the Church right now" (Against the Jews, Homily 1, 1,4-5: PG 48, 844).

Many Christians who were uncatechized in Antioch would attend the Jewish festivals of the New Year, Trumpets, Tabernacles and they fasted with them. They celebrated Easter on the 14th of the month Nisan, which had been prohibited by the First Ecumenical Synod at Nicaea in 325. Chrysostom intervened to enlighten and protect Christians precisely on the eve of these festivals. So he speaks and writes not because he has a programmatic ideological opposition to the Jews, but as soon as the pastoral problem would arise, which shows that the reason for his homilies is not anti-Semitism. He even explains why he did not speak of the Jews earlier: because the Jews were not encircling Christians earlier in order to attract them to their feasts. Now that proselytism had grown and the magnitude of the theological ignorance of Christians had increased, he changed his words into being "militant".

"Again the Jews, the most miserable and wretched of all men, are going to fast, and again we must make secure the flock of Christ. As long as no wild beast disturbs the flock, shepherds, as they stretch out under an oak or pine tree and play their flutes, let their sheep go off to graze with full freedom. But when the shepherds feel that the wolves will raid, they are quick to throw down the flute and pick up their slingshots; they cast aside the pipe of reeds and arm themselves with clubs and stones... I, too, in the past, frolicked about in explicating the Scriptures, as if I were sporting in some meadow; I took no part in polemics because there was no one causing me concern. But today the Jews, who are more dangerous than any wolves, are bent on surrounding my sheep; so I must spar with them and fight with them so that no sheep of mine may fall victim to those wolves" (Against the Jews, Homily 4, 1,1-2: PG 48, 871).

Observing the relevant texts of Chrysostom, the researcher must come to the conclusion that they are mainly not "against" the Jews but "protective" of the Christians [Chrysostom did not name these homilies "Against the Jews", but this name came from later copyists]. He describes the Jews as "abominable," "foolish," "rapacious," "greedy," and the like, but he never advised Christians not to trade with or salute the Jews. Much more, he did not recommend hating or persecuting them. What he was only asking and recommending was not to share in their religious life. Since Chrysostom did not recommend hatred and personal disgust, he was not inspired by any kind of anti-Semitism, as he is accused of being. The use of heavy characterizations, such as the above, was common to that time, and is mainly due to Chrysostom's perception of Judaism as a religion, and is directly related to the attitude of the Jews towards Jesus Christ and his gospel, and above all to the moral and social behavior of the Jews of Antioch at that time.

To understand the climate within which Chrysostom wrote about the Jews, we must remember the relevant historical facts about Antioch at that time.

In Antioch, the cosmopolitan metropolis of the wider Hellenistic Greek-speaking and Syriac-speaking land of Syria, the Jewish people were very present. Since the founding of the city by Seleucus, there had been privileged Jews who organized there their socio-religious life with complete freedom and seem to have dominated the economic life of the place, which is also responsible for the great freedom in their morals. Centered mainly around two impressive synagogues, one in Kerateios, in the center of the city, and one in Daphne, in the "suburb", as Chrysostom notes, they exercised a diverse and influential influence on society, leading to proselytism. This was not too difficult, nor did it require suspicious intrigue, because the climate was favorable due to the phenomenon of Judaism (which in the region was formerly flourishing but still surviving), the Emperor Julian showing favor to the Jews, and there was an affinity between Jewish monotheism and Antiochian Arianism.

Julian gave the Jews new wings and even promised them that he would build the Temple of Solomon, which did not come to pass because of the emperor's death in 364.

He particularly favored the participation of Christians in the religious affairs of the Jews and the fact that the former often resorted to the Jewish judges, since the latter retained the privilege of rendering justice in the Synagogue, while Christians faced the dilemma of choosing between pagan or Jewish judges. And it is a rule of sociology that the body that regulates people's social relationships can influence them in all aspects of their lives, and therefore in religion, which is something that Chrysostom knew and feared.

Finally, another negative factor in the attitude of the Jews against Christians was the willingness of the Jews, for all the first centuries of the Church's life, to subjugate to persecution Christian subjects of the Romans.

Then Arianism from about 320 and Neo-Arianism from at least 360 with Eunomius, whose followers were called Anomians, exacerbated the Christian sentiment, so as not to discern the radical difference between the Church and Judaism. It was not difficult for Chrysostom to point out something that Athanasius the Great and the Cappadocians had shown: that since the Arians of various shades and even the Anomians deny the homoousios of the Son, considering him a creature, they are very close to the Jews who denied that the Lord was the true Son of God the Father. The Christians of Antioch, recipients of the simplistic and popular doctrines of the Arians and Anomians, felt comfortable with the monotheism of the Jews. And Chrysostom feared that if this continued, Christians would lose any opportunity to distinguish between the Church and Judaism.

"Since the Anomians impiety is akin to that of the Jews, my present conflict is akin to my former one. And there is a kingship because the Jews and the Anomians make the same accusation. And what charges do the Jews make? That He called God His own Father and so made Himself equal to God. The Anomians also make this charge - I should not say they make this a charge; they even blot out the phrase 'equal to God' and what it connotes, by their resolve to reject it even if they do not physically erase it" (Against the Jews, Homily 1, 1,6: PG 48, 845).

It must also be said that Chrysostom did not speak strictly against the Jews only. In the same and more rigorous manner he spoke against the Anomians, and the heretics in general, and the Gnostics as well as Pagans. This was because the reason for his anti-heretical and anti-Jewish homilies was to protect the faithful from false teachings.

At the beginning of the first homily, Chrysostom says his homilies against the Jews interrupted his homilies against the Anomians, and explains that his conflict against the Jews is related to the Anomians which he addressed previously.

So this is not some kind of anti-Semitism, since there are other times that he expresses sympathy and positive interest towards the Jews.

Researchers are all asurprised at the Chrysostomian characteristics of the Jews, and everyone draws their own conclusions. Particularly those who denounce Chrysostom for being anti-Judaic and anti-Semite will avoid studying the theological foundation of his views on the Jews and the rigor he shows in the opposition. It is enough for them to just to follow the passages in order to understand his views and true feelings.

"But do not be surprised that I called the Jews pitiable. They really are pitiable and miserable. When so many blessings from heaven came into their hands, they thrust them aside and were at great pains to reject them. The morning Sun of Justice arose for them, but they thrust aside its rays and still sit in darkness. We, who were nurtured by darkness, drew the light to ourselves and were freed from the gloom of their error. They were the branches of that holy root, but those branches were broken. We had no share in the root, but we did reap the fruit of godliness. From their childhood they read the prophets, but they crucified him whom the prophets had foretold. We did not hear the divine prophecies but we did worship him of whom they prophesied. And so they are pitiful because they rejected the blessings which were sent to them, while others seized hold of these blessing and drew them to themselves. Although those Jews had been called to the adoption of sons, they fell to kinship with dogs; we who were dogs received the strength, through God's grace, to put aside the irrational nature which was ours and to rise to the honor of sons. How do I prove this? Christ said: 'It is not fair to take the children's bread and to cast it to the dogs.' Christ was speaking to the Canaanite woman when He called the Jews children and the Gentiles dogs. But see how thereafter the order was changed about: they became dogs, and we became the children. Paul said of the Jews: 'Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of the mutilation. For we are the circumcision.' Do you see how those who at first were children became dogs? Do you wish to find out how we, who at first were dogs, became children? 'But to as many as received him, he gave the power of becoming sons of God.' Nothing is more miserable than those people who never failed to attack their own salvation. When there was need to observe the Law, they trampled it under foot. Now that the Law has ceased to bind, they obstinately strive to observe it. What could be more pitiable that those who provoke God not only by transgressing the Law but also by keeping it? On this account Stephen said: 'You stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart, you always resist the Holy Spirit,' not only by transgressing the Law but also by wishing to observe it at the wrong time" (Against the Jews, Homily 1, 2,1-3: PG 48, 845-846).

In the above passage we have a critique, which is an interpretation of the course of the divine economy. Chrysostom does not judge the Jews for their financial prosperity or for their commitment to the customs of their race, nor for their legitimacy or education and social standing, as did for example the famous orator and sophist Libanius. He judges as a man who is sure that he is moving in the course of the divine economy. He judges as a faithful practitioner of the divine will, which is a measure of judgment for any human being and any action. And for the Jews it has the same measure of judgment as to whether or not they accepted the divine economy, God's plan, for themselves and for humanity as a whole.

On this basis he analyzes and explains in a vivid and lively way the attitude of the Jews towards the divine plan. And these are in reference to the Christians, who are both Jews and Gentiles who have received the divine economy.

The Jews, then, were benefited by heavenly good things, but these were rejected by them. It is mainly because of the revelations and the teachings of the Prophets, that they were the first to receive the "sun of justice", but despite this they are now in the dark because they have lost the "radiance", the light. In contrast, Christians, who in their majority - other than Judean Christians - lived in darkness, ignorant of the divine revelations in the context of the Old Testament, received the light, the divine truth, and were freed from the darkness. The Jews succeeded in being "branches" of "the holy root", the chosen people. However, they were voluntarily cut off and therefore do not constitute the continuation of the holy root. On the contrary, Christians, who before as pagans had no connection with the holy root, were humbled, accepted the will of God, and worshiped God. So for Chrysostom the true continuation of the chosen people is the Christians, the Church.

He highlights this by referencing the crucifixion of Christ, prophesied by those whom the Jews read. On the contrary, the Christians, who did not listen as pagans to the prophets, accepted the "prophesied" Christ, the highest good. Thus, this good, offered to the Jews by God, was repulsed by them and taken by others. What more terrible thing could they do to be considered "wretched" and "miserable", as Chrysostom describes them, explaining the reasons for these insults. It is not his hatred that drives him to qualifications, but their sad attitude toward God. Chrysostom becomes more intense, but remains biblical. The Jews were called by God into adoption, which they rejected and was accepted by the present Christians, who, being outside of Israel, were described as "dogs" (Matt. 15:26). However, in this situation those who refused adoption, the divine will, were seduced. The "children of God" and the chosen people are those who accepted Christ (Jn. 1:12), the one who was prophesied by the Prophets. How, then, can the Jews, who thus expelled their salvation, not be unfortunate?

Chrysostom, considering and judging the tactics of the Jews from the beginning to his days, sees their continuously opposite course, which is divided into two phases. In the time of the Old Testament, when they had to obey the Law, they were trampling on it, as the Prophets testify. In the time of the Church, after Christ's coming, when they were required to leave the Law, which was only preparatory, they insisted on living with it. Now that the Law has been overcome, they are struggling to keep it. This tactic, radically catalytic of the divine will, proves them to be "pitiful", since they angered God by failing to abide by the Law, and angered Him by observing it now. That is why the Evangelist Luke (Acts 7:51), following the Prophet Isaiah (63:10) and other Old Testament texts, characterizes the Jews as "stiff-necked" and "uncircumcised" in their hearts, thus always opposing the Holy Spirit, and therefore the will of God. This is what Chrysostom adopts and nothing more.

"But at any rate the Jews say that they, too, adore God. God forbid that I say that. No Jew adores God! Who says so? The Son of God says so. For he said: 'If you were to know my Father, you would also know me. But you neither know me nor do you know my Father.' Could I produce a witness more trustworthy than the Son of God?" (Against the Jews, Homily 1, 3,2: PG 48, 847).

Summarizing his criticism as a biblical theologian of the Church, he highlights three fundamental errors of the Jews: they are ignorant of the Father (if they deny the Son), crucify the Son, and refuse the help of the Holy Spirit. If this is true, one can regard the place of worship of the Jews as "a dwelling-place of demons", a pagan place. But this area is considered by some to be "revered" and they "care for" it, which forces Chrysostom to make those judgments.

"If, then, the Jews fail to know the Father, if they crucified the Son, if they thrust off the help of the Spirit, who should not be bold to declare plainly that the synagogue is a dwelling-place of demons? God is not worshiped there. Heaven forbid! From now on it remains a place of idolatry. But still some people revere it as a place they care for" (Against the Jews, Homily 1, 3,3: PG 48, 847).

The faithful Christian cannot really justify that, while they are properly taught and enjoy the Church's "awesome and mysterious mysteries", they also seek out the joys and pleasures of the Jews and Greeks. All the more so, that this will offend and mislead the simple-minded, as Paul also fears (1 Cor. 10:32), to which Chrysostom refers elsewhere (Catechism 4).

What Chrysostom says and writes about the Jews, especially with regard to their old and new infidelity, their denial of the divine will and divine economy, but also of their misconduct, is directly exported from the Prophets of God; who raged against the chosen people of God more than Chrysostom. And he does so consciously, knowing the reactions of the powerful who were then in Antioch of the Jewish community and anticipating the future accusation against him as a great anti-Semite.

"But if the words I speak are the words of the prophet, then accept his decision" (Against the Jews, Homily 1, 2,7: PG 48, 847).

And he quotes what Jeremiah says about the Israelites, that they have broken the "bond" with God, that they have a "harlot's eye," that the "house" of God, the Synagogue, has become "a cave of hyenas," that God "abandoned his house" (2:20; 3:3; 12:7) and the like. He refers to Isaiah (1:11) and Amos (5:21) to emphasize that God denies the sacrifices and hates the festivities which the Jews are celebrating, and which many Christians insist on participating in. He recalls that the Jews worshiped idols (Num. 25), slaughtered and sacrificed "sons and daughters" "to demons" (Ps. 105:37). All this and many more, according to the Prophet Daniel, caused God's "curse" against the chosen people (9:11; 3:32).

The divine curse, which Daniel speaks of, has an extensive and timeless significance, due to the fact of the crucifixion of Christ. The Jews knew punishments in the days of the Old Testament because they behaved hostile to the Prophets, persecuting or even killing them. But the Prophets were all people ("slaves"). Now the crucified one is God, the Christ. Therefore the deed of the Jews constitutes the highest evil, the "capital of evils". They have committed such a terrible sin that there is no "correction" and no "forgiveness". They do not correct themselves, they are not forgiven and they cannot present an "apology" for their act. Therefore, the punishments of the Jews after the New Testament events are due to their non-correction. After all, theologically the only unforgivable sin, the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit, lies precisely in this, in non-repentance, in non-correction.

"You did slay Christ, you did lift violent hands against the Master, you did spill his precious blood. This is why you have no chance for apology, excuse, or defense. In the old days your reckless deeds were aimed against his servants, against Moses, Isaiah, and Jeremiah. Even if there was ungodliness in your acts then, your boldness had not yet dared the crowning crime. But now you have put all the sins of your fathers into the shade. Your mad rage against Christ, the Anointed One, left no way for anyone to surpass your sin. This is why the penalty you now pay is greater than that paid by your fathers. If this is not the reason for your present disgrace, why is it that God put up with you in the old days when you sacrificed your children to idols, but turns himself away from you now when you are not so bold as to commit such a crime? Is it not clear that you dared a deed much worse and much greater than any sacrifice of children or transgression of the Law when you slew Christ?" (Against the Jews, Homily 6, 2,10: PG 48, 907)

Source: From the book Saint John Chrysostom (in Greek), vol. 2, ch. 12. Translated by John Sanidopoulos.