Augustine and the Jews: A Christian Defense of Jews and Judaism

by Paula Fredriksen

Doubleday, 512 pages, $35

At the time of the Second Crusade, Bernard of Clairvaux wrote: “It is good to go against the Ishmaelites [Muslims]. But whoever touches a Jew to take his life is like one who harms Jesus himself . . . for in the book of Psalms it is written of them: ‘Slay them not, lest my people ­forget.’”

St. Bernard was citing Psalm 59, and his interpretation comes from St. Augustine”in whose Latin version the verse reads: “Do not slay them, lest at some time they forget your Law; scatter them by your might.” In the City of God , Augustine quotes the psalm to explain why the Jews, who had been conquered and oppressed by the Romans, did not come to an end as a people. Their continuing existence, Augustine explains, was providential, for in God’s wisdom it is the unique mission of the Jewish people to bear witness to the truth of the events that happened at the time of Christ. Hence the Psalmist says, “forget not your law” and “scatter abroad,” for, had they lived only in their own land, the Law would not have been known among the nations.

Elsewhere Augustine gives a concrete example of how the Jews bear witness to Christ. In debates with pagan critics, he says, Christians point to the prophecies of Isaiah, Daniel, Jeremiah, and other prophets. Those critics reply that Christians forged these prophecies, writing down what was to happen after the events had taken place. To which Augustine replies: “Let Isaiah be produced by the Jews,” so the pagans can see that what Christians claim is written there.

In a way that it is difficult for moderns to understand, Christians in the early centuries were keenly aware that the books they had made their own, what Christians call the Old Testament, belonged to the Jews. In the cities of the Roman Empire, Christians lived side by side with Jews in whose synagogues could be found the Jewish Scriptures in their original Hebrew and Aramaic. Christians possessed only the Greek version, the Septuagint, or a Latin translation based on the Greek, and they were dependent on the Jews for the accuracy of the biblical versions used in the churches.

Augustine was not alone in rec­ognizing the dependence. John Chrysostom, for example, says that when we bring forth testimonies to Christ we must draw on books that have been “preserved” by the Jews. Eusebius even referred to the books as “their scriptures.” But Augustine stands apart from other early Christian writers in discerning theological significance in the continuing existence of the Jewish people. And it is this aspect of Augustine’s thinking that is the subject of Augustine and the Jews , a fine new book by Paula Fredriksen, a professor at Boston University.

As every reader of the Confessions knows, Augustine was a Manichee for nine years. Augustine turned away from the sect after meeting Faustus, a leader of the Manichees who was unable to answer his questions about Manichaean teaching. A few years later, Faustus wrote a work criticizing Catholic Christianity and, in particular, its use of the Old Testament. In response, Augustine prepared a massive defense of Catholic teaching and the Christian interpretation of the Old Testament.

The Manichees had much in common with Marcion, the second-century heretic, who had rejected the Old Testament and sought to purge Christianity of its Jewish elements, including the God of the Old Testament. Drawing on Marcion and other strands of anti-Jewish polemic, Faust mounted a vigorous critique of ancient Israelite practices”animal sacrifice, circumcision, and the like”together with the “shocking calumnies of God himself” in the Scriptures: Abraham passing off his wife as his sister, Judah sleeping with his own daughter-in-law, Tamar.

Augustine’s Against Faustus is a devastating and detailed refutation of Manichaean exegesis and a rebuttal of Faustus’ willful claim that New Testament passages in conflict with Manichaean beliefs are interpolations. But because so much of Faustus’ argument is directed against Jewish practices, Augustine also defended the Jewish Law as good and given by God. He observes, for example, that, in speaking of the Jews in Romans 9:4, Paul specifically mentions the Law. Why, asks Augustine, would St. Paul have praised the Jews for the Law if it were not given by God: “If the Law had been evil, he would not have commended the Jews for having it.”

Fredriksen argues that Augustine’s defense of Catholic teaching against the Manichees led him to think more deeply about the Law and to “re­imagine” the relation of the Church to the Jewish people. For example, he interprets the “sign of Cain” (Gen. 4:15) to refer to the “sign of the Law,” which by its “observance” distinguishes the Jews from other nations. Because of the Law, their experience as a people was different from that of other peoples. Though they practiced animal sacrifice, their sacrifices, unlike pagan sacrifices, were offered to the one God. In a biting retort to Faustus, Augustine says that the Manichees and pagans belong together, while Christians “should be included with the Jews.”

Fredriksen calls Augustine’s understanding of the Law “revolutionary.” There is no doubt that Augustine thought more deeply about the Jews than other writers in the early Church, but some aspects of Augustine’s thinking had been anticipated by Origen of Alexandria in the third century. Though she discusses Origen at several places in the book, Fredriksen overlooks what he has to say about the “election” of the Jewish people and the role of the Law in creating a unique society devoted to the worship of the one God.

Celsus, the pagan philosopher who had written a critique of Christianity in the mid-second century, had nothing but disdain for the Jews. In his view, they were “runaway slaves” from Egypt, of no significance whatsoever. There is nothing about their history in Greek writers, he sneers. In his response seventy years later, Against Celsus , Origen comes to the defense of the Jews. If one studies Jewish history, he writes, one will learn that because they were “given the Law” their society was a shadow of the heavenly life on earth. The Jews were a “chosen race and a royal priesthood,” an “elect portion,” a “holy people” set apart from other nations by God. They possess a “deeper wisdom” and from childhood are taught to live virtuous lives. They set aside one day each week, the Sabbath, to hear the “divine laws.” They celebrate feasts instituted by God. In observing “their own law” they show that they do not follow the principles of other nations. Jewish circumcision, for example, is different from circumcision practiced by other peoples.

Jews, says Origen, have the same regard for the stories in the Bible as do Christians. The principal difference between Jews and Christians has to do with interpretation. Christians do not live like Jews because they think “the literal interpretation of the laws does not contain the meaning of the legislation.” Furthermore, the Law was never intended to apply to all mankind; it was given for a particular people. There came a time, however, when what was once suitable only for “God’s portion” would be made available to all peoples scattered throughout the world. That was the work of Jesus and the Church.

Augustine knew some of the writings of Origen, but it is unlikely he had read these passages from Against Celsus . Nevertheless, two centuries earlier, Origen, prompted by criticism of the Jewishness of Christianity, was thinking along lines ­similar to those Augustine would follow in response to the Manichaean critique. Christian thinking about the Jews was most constructive in writings that were prompted by the polemical works of non-Jews, not in writings directed to Jews. Still, Origen did not draw any theological conclusions from his depiction of the Law and the Jewish way of life. In that regard Fredriksen is correct to emphasize Augustine’s unique contribution.

In responding to Faustus, Augustine’s first task was to demonstrate that the Law, as made known in the Old Testament and practiced by the ancient Israelites, was God-pleasing in its own time. Fredriksen shows, however, that Augustine took a further step to defend the legitimacy of the Law for Jews after the coming of Christ. Not only had Jesus observed the Law, even after the Resurrection”so, too, the apostles, including St. Paul, kept the commandments sincerely. Only gradually was the Law given up, lest it appear to gentile Christians that its observance, like pagan practice, was condemned.

But what about later generations, asks Fredriksen, and the Jews of Augustine’s own time? Earlier the Jews had done the things of the Law rightly, but with the coming of Christ matters changed. Augustine believed the Jewish people are unique because of their ethnic and national identity and their unwillingness to give up their ancestral practices even though scattered abroad. Of course, for Augustine, these ideas are advanced within a theological framework that viewed the Jews as “cursed” for their unbelief. Their way of life, in Fredriksen’s words, is “out of joint with the times.”

Yet, in choosing to remain under the Law, the Jews bear witness to the new reality that came into being with the coming of Christ. And it is at this point that Psalm 59 comes into play. For the psalm says explicitly that the Jews are not to “forget the law.” The Law is the divine safeguard, the mark of Cain, a sign to the rest of the world of God’s continuing relation to the Jewish people. The Jews are to be treated differently from others in society: Augustine was willing to call on the power of the state to suppress the Donatists, but at no point did he ever move in that direction in dealing with the Jews.

Augustine’s writings are filled with anti-Jewish invective as harsh as anything in other early Christian writers. Yet there flows a deeper stream of thought that offers rich theological resources for Christian understanding of the Jews. Because of God’s ongoing connection to the Jews through the observance of the Law, the Church has an abiding relation to the Jewish people. In an arresting passage late in Against Faustus , Augustine put it this way: “We are no longer commanded to do those things, but we read about them in order to understand them.”

In actual practice, most early Christians had no access to the original version of the Old Testament. In the third century, however, Origen prepared the Hexapla, an edition of the Old Testament with the Hebrew version and several Greek versions copied out in columns side by side. And early in the fifth century, Jerome translated the Old Testament directly from Hebrew. Through the labors of their own scholars, Christians would come to have access to the Hebrew version of the Old Testament.

In his correspondence with Jerome over the translation of the Old Testament into Latin, Augustine was certainly aware that Christians did not need any longer to turn to the Jews for an accurate version of the Bible. That does not seem to be the point of his doctrine of the witness of the Jews. It is noteworthy that Psalm 59 does not mention the Scriptures, but the Law. That would suggest that the unique witness of the Jews is not possessing the texts of the Old Testament but living according to the Law. For had they forgotten the Law and embraced “gentile rites and sacrifices,” says Augustine, they would “not have retained the name of their own religion.”

Of course for Augustine the term law signified the books as well as the legislation in the Old Testament. Yet in linking the term law so closely to practices, Augustine suggests that Jewish observance of the Law”a law Christians do not observe”is what allows Christians to understand what they read in the Jewish Scriptures. As the council fathers at Vatican II put it, the Church is “nourished from the root of the good olive tree onto which the branches of the wild olive tree of the gentiles has been grafted.”

Augustine and the Jews stays close to the historical sources and only hints at the larger significance of his witness doctrine. But it is to Fredriksen’s credit that she is sensitive to the theological implications and highlights those features of his thought that have the potential to bear fruit in contemporary discussions.

Though she does not shy away from Augustine’s biting reproaches of the Jews for not embracing Christ, she is unfailingly generous in bringing out the positive aspects of his ­thinking.

In her conclusion, Fredriksen points to the historical significance of Augustine’s use of Psalm 59. Although Augustine and the Jews is a study of the relation of Christianity to Judaism in the ancient world, she looks ahead to medieval Europe. In the society in which Augustine lived, the Jews were full citizens whose rights were protected. The Jews suffered no “servitude,” nor “does Augustine say that they should.” In medieval Western society, as she concludes, when the social situation of the Jews was quite different, “Augustine’s invocation of Psalm 59, interpreted literally, ultimately would safeguard Jewish lives.”

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