For two generations Christian theology has been engaged in a fundamental rethinking of Christianity’s relation to Judaism and to the Jewish people. This work has been carried out by biblical scholars, historians, theologians, educators, and bishops and other leaders of Christian communions. It has dealt with technical points of biblical exegesis, profound questions of dogmatic theology, and, not least, with how words and images and ideas influence the attitudes of the faithful.

Whether one thinks of the decree Nostra Aetate of Vatican Council II and other Catholic statements over the last two decades, the various declarations of the World Council of Churches and Protestant denominations, or more recently the historic meeting of Orthodox Christians and Jews in Athens in 1993, the depth and seriousness of Christian engagement with the Jews is unprecedented in Christian history. Something new and extraordinary has taken place in our lifetimes. Think for example of the historic visit of Pope John Paul II to the Jewish synagogue of Rome in 1986 where he spoke of the Jews as “our dearly beloved brothers,” or his words to the Jews when visiting Germany in 1980 that the covenant with the people of God is “never revoked by God.”

We must not, however, forget that this new movement of the Spirit was born out of Jewish suffering and of the struggles of the Jewish people. The occasion for the Church’s reconsideration of her relation to the Jews was the Holocaust. The first books and articles that laid the foundation for what followed were written in the late 1940s. To be sure there were some earlier voices, Christian thinkers who had begun to write about Christianity’s relation to the Jewish people in the decade before the war, notably John Oesterreicher, Erik Peterson, Jacques Maritain, and Henri de Lubac. But the great outpouring of Christian reflection did not begin until after the destruction of six million Jews.

The other factor that awakened Christian thinking was the establishment of the state of Israel. For the first time since antiquity the Jews were able to reestablish Jewish life and institutions under Jewish rule in the Land of Israel. Jews, as it were, returned to history, and Christians began to look at the Jewish people, as well as the Bible and Christian theology, with fresh eyes. Jacques Maritain, for one, thought it providential that the 1962“1965 Vatican Council II was convened so shortly after the return of the Jews to the Land of Israel in 1948: “They mark, each in its own way, a reorientation of history.”

It is no longer possible to think about Christianity without reference to the Jews. For too long it was assumed that the only form of “Judaism” that was relevant to Christianity was the religion of ancient Israel: the Old Testament and Jewish beliefs and institutions as they existed before the rise of Christianity. But in the twentieth century, Christians can no longer ignore the fact of Jewish existence. Contrary to the expectations of Christians in antiquity, the Jewish way of life did not come to an end, and today, two thousand years after the coming of Christ, there exist Jewish communities that observe the ancient laws of Moses concerning the Sabbath, circumcision, diet, Passover, etc., in much the same way they were observed before the beginning of Christianity. Recognition of this historical and spiritual fact sets us apart from earlier generations of Christians.

The destruction of the city of Jerusalem in a.d. 70, the end of temple worship and the demise of the priesthood, the subjugation of the Land of Israel to the Romans, all of which seemed permanent, led Christians to think that the Jewish way of life had been replaced by Christianity and that the Jews would no longer continue to exist as a distinct people. Most of the writings of the New Testament come from the period immediately after the destruction of the temple. And the earliest interpretations of the New Testament were written during the first three centuries of the common era when the Jewish people faced seemingly insurmountable challenges. They had to reconstitute their communal and religious life without the institutions that had served them for centuries, notably the temple, the priesthood, and the ritual laws that were dependent on the temple and priesthood. To the outsider it appeared that the Jewish way of life was in decline and destined for extinction.

What was written in the New Testament, particularly in the Gospels, and how it was interpreted in the early Church continues to inform and influence Christian attitudes and behavior. There can be no question that words and expressions found in the Bible, as interpreted in the Christian past, have been a factor in shaping hostile and malevolent attitudes and behavior toward the Jews. For that reason one of the ongoing tasks of Christian scholarship is to understand and interpret what the Church fathers had to say about the Jews and about the relation of Christianity to Judaism.

In some circles, the widespread criticism of the Jews in the early Church (and in Christian history) is evidence that Christianity is inherently anti-Jewish. That is, antipathy to Judaism is built into the very structure of Christian thinking and there is no way Christianity can relate positively to Judaism without purging itself of certain attitudes and beliefs inherited from the earliest period in Christian history. On occasion the term “anti-Semitism” is used to refer to this phenomenon, but the preferrred term is “anti-Judaism.” Anti-Judaism accents religious and theological factors, anti-Semitism racial aspects of antipathy to the Jews. In the thought of the early Church, racial factors play no part in Christian understanding of Judaism.

Yet for those familiar with the scholarly literature on the topic, the term anti-Judaism is ill-chosen. In trying to say something true, namely, that Christian thinking was formed in dialogue and debate with Judaism, anti-Judaism accents only one side of the relation of Christianity to the Jews. To call Christianity anti-Jewish is to make it into the thing it struggled valiantly to resist.

One of the first major theological disputes in the early Church centered on the teaching of Marcion. Marcion thought that the Christian Gospel had nothing to do with the revelation of God to the Jewish people in the Old Testament. Christ, he said, had not been announced by the Law and the Prophets. The God of the Old Testament was a vengeful tribal God, whereas the God of the New Testament is a universal God of love and compassion. Marcion collapsed the dialectic that is built into Christianity’s relation to Judaism and made Judaism into something alien. Had Marcion carried the day the Christian Bible would include only the books of the New Testament (and even that trimmed by Marcion’s scissors). All Jewish elements would have been purged from Christian teaching.

One reason early Christian statements about the Jews seem stern is that they were trying both to meet the challenge of Marcion (which meant holding on to the Old Testament) and at the same time to demonstrate that a strictly Jewish reading of the Old Testament was insufficient.

The person who first addressed these issues at length was Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyon in Roman Gaul at the end of the second century. His most famous work was entitled Against Heresies, and was written to help the faithful in his church meet the objections of Marcionites and Gnostics (who also rejected the Old Testament and the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob). Marcion taught that the God of Abraham is a different God from the God of Jesus Christ, and hence Abraham would not share in the salvation offered by Christ. To answer Marcion’s argument Irenaeus launches into a detailed exegesis of a series of texts from the Gospels. All deal in some fashion with whether Jesus transgressed the Law of Moses. One text is Luke 13:15“16, the story of the ruler of the synagogue who was indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath: “Then the Lord answered him, ‘You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his ass from the manger, and lead it away to water it? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath day?’“

For Irenaeus the key question is whether Jesus, by healing on the Sabbath, did something contrary to the Law. The Law, he says, prohibited work on the Sabbath and forbade carrying on any business activities; but it also encouraged people to attend to “matters of the soul,” including actions of benefit to their neighbors. Hence it is permissible to do good for others on the Sabbath by healing. In this way Jesus “fulfilled” the Law “by carrying out the office of the high priest, praying to God on behalf of others, cleansing the lepers, healing the sick.” The point to notice here is that Irenaeus’ exegesis seeks to establish continuity between what Christ did and what was done by the ancient Israelites without reference to actual precepts of the Law, i.e., to legislation found in the Pentateuch. To accomplish this, he appeals to merciful actions that are parallel to what Christ did.

Irenaeus also cites Matthew 12:6, “There is here something greater than the temple.” Irenaeus thinks that the use of the term “greater” is significant, because it puts the emphasis on what two things have in common. The words greater and less are not applied to things dissimilar, opposite, or contradictory, but used for things that have properties in common but differ in number and size. In the present discussion this means that what was given in Christ is similar to what was given by Moses: its source is “one and the same Lord,” but Christ is “greater than the temple, greater than Solomon, greater than Jonah” because the gift that Christ confers is “his own presence and the resurrection from the dead.”

For Irenaeus the Christian confession that “God is one” is not simply a theological assertion that there is one God; it means that what was revealed to ancient Israel and recorded in the Old Testament, and what is revealed in Christ and recorded in the New Testament, are the work of the one God. The oneness of God is a unity that is found in God’s self-disclosure in the course of history, in God’s work of creation, in the calling of Israel, and in the sending of Christ. In response to Marcion and the Gnostics, Irenaeus argued that what was disclosed in Christ completed and perfected what was revealed to Israel.

To his fellow Jews, Jesus appeared to be a transgressor of the Law, but Irenaeus claims that what appeared to be a transgression, e.g., healing on the Sabbath, was in fact a deeper form of obedience, an obedience to the command recorded in Deuteronomy 6:5: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.”

At each point where the question of the Law arises in the Gospels, early Christian writers subordinate the Law to something else, whether “gentleness and mercy,” “healing,” “deliverance,” or “love.” Christianity rejects the Jewish law as a way of ordering Christian life. As Gregory the Great put it centuries later, the gospel teaches us sine lege legaliter vivere ”“to live according to the Law without the Law.”

One reason Christians appear anti-Jewish is that they have a quarrel with the Jews about the Law. Christians thought it was possible to have compassion or love and justice without the Law. It is not that Jews had no place for compassion or justice or love, or that Christians did not develop a system of law to regulate Christian life and behavior, but that each by starting at a different point subordinated the one to the other. Once Christians dispensed with the authority of the Law, it was inevitable that Jews, who continued to live by the Law, would be the object of criticism. By insisting on obedience to the “letter” of the Law, Jews, so Christians claimed, did not discern the deeper meaning of the Law.

Another topic on which the early Church is thought to be “anti-Jewish” is in its interpretation of the death of Christ. The proximity of Jesus’ prediction about the destruction of Jerusalem to the account of his passion and death in the Gospels led Christian thinkers to see a connection between the relation between Jesus’ death and the destruction of the Jewish temple in a.d. 70. With the help of ancient historians, Origen of Alexandria, the third-century biblical commentator, worked out the chronology of Daniel’s prophecy so that it foretold the death of Christ and the destruction of the temple within the same seventy years. The passage in Matthew 24:15 about the desolating sacrifice was thus taken to refer to the death of Christ.

Although Origen is scrupulous in working out the historical details (on the basis of the book of Daniel) that link the death of Jesus and the destruction of the temple, it is just as significant that he was writing two hundred years after the events. As people looked back on the destruction of the temple, the gap between it and the death of Jesus seemed to diminish. From the perspective of two centuries the two events roughly thirty-five to forty years apart came to seem linked, the earlier the “cause” of the other.

For Christian thinking, it was noteworthy that the misfortunes of the Jews in the first century were not reversed in the second century and the years following. After the unsuccessful Bar Kochba revolt, the Romans had plowed over the Jewish city and built a new Roman town in the place where the Jewish city once stood. To non-Jewish observers, the Jewish city was a thing of the past. The historical contiguity of the death of Jesus and the demise of Jewish Jerusalem worked together to forge a new Christian interpretation. Origen writes:

I challenge anyone to prove my statement untrue if I say that the entire Jewish nation was destroyed less than one whole generation later on account of these sufferings which they inflicted upon Jesus. For it was, I believe, forty-two years from the time when they crucified Jesus to the destruction of Jerusalem. Indeed, ever since the Jews existed, it has not been recorded in history that they were ejected for so long a time from their sacred ritual and worship, after they had been conquered by some more powerful people . . . . One of the facts which show that Jesus was some divine and sacred person is just that on his account such great and fearful calamities have now for a long time befallen the Jews. We will go so far as to say that they will not be restored again. [Origen has in mind Jesus’ prophecy that “no stone will be left standing upon another.”] For they committed the most impious crime of all when they conspired against the Savior of mankind in the city where they performed to God the customary rites which were symbols of profound mysteries. Therefore that city where Jesus suffered these indignities had to be utterly destroyed. The Jewish nation had to be overthrown, and God’s invitation to blessedness transferred to others, I mean the Christians, to whom came the teaching about the simple and pure worship of God. And they received new laws which fit in with the order established everywhere. Those which had previously been given were intended for a single nation ruled by men of the same nationality and customs, so that it would be impossible for everyone to keep them now.

I am sometimes grateful that it was Origen (who was never canonized) who wrote these words, not St. Augustine. But what Origen says is not his private opinion. These views took root in Christian thinking and can be found in other more orthodox writers. His interpretation of the death of Jesus is possible only because of events that had taken place since the Bible was written, by what had happened to the Jews during the first and second centuries. Because the temple was destroyed (which made Jewish worship impossible) and the city laid waste (which deprived the Jews of their capital), it appeared not only that the Jewish way of life had came to an end but that the Jewish people would have no continuing existence.

It was customary in the ancient world and in the Bible to link fortune and misfortune with divine favor or vengeance. In the Old Testament the calamities that come upon the Jewish people are never random events without cause. Again and again the Scriptures attribute the misfortunes of the Israelites to their disobedience, their sin, their unbelief. There is nothing pernicious or malevolent as such about what Origen says here. But Origen was not a biblical prophet who was granted a vision of the divine plan. What he says is a deduction from the text based on later events, an interpretation imposed on the Gospels, not one that is rooted in the Scriptures. Nostra Aetate from Vatican II declares: “True, authorities of the Jews and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; still, what happened in his passion cannot be blamed upon all the Jews then living, nor upon the Jews of today. Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as repudiated or cursed by God, as if such views followed from the holy Scriptures .” (Emphasis added.) Origen, uncharacteristically, has abandoned his customary biblicism.

Even though Christian thinkers were critical of the Jewish way of life, they sensed that at the deepest level Christians and Jews belonged together. A good illustration is Origen’s interpretation of John 4:24: “The hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father.” Because of its contrast between worship in a particular place and worship “in spirit and in truth,” this passage was often cited to set Christianity over against Judaism. Jews worship God in a particular place with sacrifices, Christians offer God a spiritual sacrifice not bound to place. Origen, however, argues that the distinction Jesus draws is between pagans on the one hand, and Jews and Christians on the other. The pagans worship material objects, venerating pieces of wood or stones, Jews and Christians a transcendent spiritual God. Even though the Jews worshiped God with material sacrifices, they knew that they were offering their sacrifices to the “Creator of the universe.” Both Jews and Christians are capable of recognizing the higher form of worship in spirit and in truth. The heretics cannot be right, says Origen, to deny “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the fathers of the Jews,” when the Savior says clearly that “salvation comes from the Jews.”

The Jews were unique among ancient peoples, Origen argues, because they were the only society that “displayed a shadow of the heavenly life on earth.” “No other God but the one supreme God was venerated” by the Jews and idol makers were banished from Jewish society. As support for this view Origen cites Deuteronomy’s laws (4:16“18 and 11:19) against making graven images, and he praises the keeping of the Sabbath and the celebration of Jewish festivals because they provided leisure “to listen to the reading of the divine laws.” From childhood Jews were taught to rise above “sensible” things and to think of God “not as existing in the sensible world but to seek him beyond material things.” If one would compare the Jews to any other nation, “he would admire none more, since as far as it is humanly possible they removed everything not of advantage to mankind, and accepted only what is good.”

Origen, of course, also says that there came a time when the Jewish way of life, which was confined to one people and one place, had to give way to a way of life that was adequate to other peoples and other lands. Yet even as he draws a contrast between the Jews and the Christians, he steadfastly maintains that the Jews are not to be placed in the same category as the idolaters, the pagans. In defending the worship of the one God, the chief goal of early Christian apologetics, Christian thinkers consider the Jews allies. This is a point of no little importance, for it suggests that even after the coming of Christ, on the matter of central importance, the spiritual worship of the one God, Jews and Christians are one.

Years ago, when I visited Jerusalem, it was my privilege to go to the synagogue with a friend, Rabbi Pinchas Peli, may he rest in peace. Some time later Peli came to the University of Notre Dame to teach for a semester, and he said that he wanted to visit my church. So one Sunday morning, when his wife Penina was in town visiting him, they joined our family for the Eucharist. It was a beautiful May morning and as we took our places in the pew, with warm spring sunlight streaming in the windows, I was delighted to have Pinchas and Penina sitting next to us, and eager to have them share in our worship.

It happened to be the fifth Sunday of Easter and the first lesson was from the book of Acts, chapter 13. That morning the lector was a talented young woman, an actress, who was a skilled and effective reader. The text was the account of the visit of Paul and Barnabas to the synagogue in Antioch in Pisidia in Asia Minor, and she read the passage with power and enthusiasm. The text says that on the Sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of God, “but when the Jews saw the multitudes, they were filled with jealousy, and contradicted what was spoken by Paul, and reviled him.” When she reached the final sentences of the passage, she raised her voice to highlight the dramatic ending. “And Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly, saying, ‘It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken first to you. Since you thrust it from you, and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we turn to the Gentiles.’“ To which she responded, “This is the Word of the Lord.” And the congregation in return replied, “Thanks be to God.”

It was as though Pinchas and Penina had been hit over the head with a sledgehammer. Penina began to cry and Pinchas was visibly agitated. But they stayed in their places and endured the rest of the service (which went on longer than usual because it was Confirmation).

After the service the Pelis were invited to our home for brunch and of course the chief topic of conversation was the reading from Acts. Penina was outraged and kept saying, “How can you continue to read such a passage after the Holocaust.” Pinchas, with what seemed to me a keener spiritual insight and religious sensibility, had something quite different to say. “It is a hard saying. But it is part of the Bible, and one cannot, after all, take a scissors to the pages of the Scriptures. The only way to deal with such a text is through interpretation.”

Interpretation has always been a matter of relating what is said in one part of the Bible to what one finds in other parts of the Bible, and relating that in turn to the faith of the community that lives out of the Bible, the Church. The Bible is not primarily a book from the past; it is a “carried book,” in the words of Paul van Buren. What any given passage or book meant in its original setting is not the goal of interpretation. The historical task is only one aspect of the work of exegesis, and not the most important. It is introductory, propadeutic, and must be completed by relating the text to the rest of the Bible, to the Church’s faith and life, and to what has taken place since the Bible was written.

If we view interpretation in this light, as a perennial task of the Christian community, we will be in a better position to give meaning to the passages in the Scriptures dealing with the Jews. Biblical exegesis is an art of discovery, of finding what the text discloses, and the best exegetes have always been those who are able to show that what is newly found was always there. What one finds will depend in large measure on what one is looking for. Paradoxical as that may seem, it states a profound truth and one that is known to every good expositor. The interpreter knows beforehand what to look for. What we have discovered in the Scriptures concerning the Jews differs from that of earlier generations, yet what they saw was more nuanced than is often recognized, and, even with its limitations, helps our generation discern the unique relation between Christians and Jews.

Early Christian thinkers knew that what set the Jews apart from others was that they worshiped God by observing the Law of Moses. When everything is stripped away, Christians, though critics of the Jews, understood the Jews in terms the Jews themselves could recognize. Only Christians are capable of this, for they grasp, as others cannot, what makes Judaism distinctive. As David Novak, a contemporary Jewish theologian, has written: “It is the Torah that makes Judaism stand out from anything in the human background.” For Christianity, however, the Law is not the key to the Bible, Christ is, and for that reason Christian thinkers were critical of the central place of the Law in Jewish life. This is the great debate between Christians and Jews, a quarrel within the biblical tradition quite unlike debates with the Greeks and Romans, or later with Islam, or, more far afield, with Buddhism.

Yet, even while saying that there was something better than the Law, Christians recognized that the Law was a gift of God (Romans 9:1), and that the new way revealed in Christ was irrevocably bound to what had been revealed earlier. What St. John called “worship in spirit and in truth” was not simply a new spiritual worship (as Marcion had claimed). It was, in Origen’s phrase, a “spiritual worship of the Law .” Christians did not dispense with the books of the Law, they preserved them and interpreted them anew.

Christianity cannot be indifferent to the people of God who continue to observe the Law, even though their existence is an abiding spiritual challenge to Christianity. For if there is no worship according to the Law, if there is no Jewish community that observes the Law as an act of covenental obedience to the one God, what does it mean to say that there is a “spiritual worship of the Law”? In the most profound sense, this was what was at issue in the rejection of Marcion, as well as in Paul’s words in Romans 11, cited in Nostra Aetate : “If some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in their place to share the richness of the olive tree, do not boast over the branches. If you do boast, remember it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you.”

At Vatican II it would have been easy to transpose Paul’s present tense “support” into the past tense, “supported.” It is thus of some theological significance that when Nostra Aetate paraphrases Paul’s words it retains the present tense. The Church received the revelation of the Old Testament from the Jewish people, and she “cannot forget that she draws sustenance from the root of that good olive tree onto which have been engrafted the wild olive branches of the Gentiles.” One might have expected, two thousand years later, to read, “ drew sustenance” from the Jewish people. But what the decree says is, “draws sustenance from the root of that good olive tree.” This is the mystery that is at the heart of Christian understanding of the Jews.



Robert Louis Wilken is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Virginia.


Articles by Robert Louis Wilken

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