From Anti-Judaism to Anti-Semisim

Ancient and Medieval Christian Constructions of Jewish History

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Robert Chazan
  • New York, NY: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , December
     270 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


From Anti-Judaism to Anti-Semitism’s breadth of application is narrower than might be assumed. But it is also broader. It is narrow in the sense that it restricts itself to the treatment of eight authors. It is broad in its compelling account of 1500 years of progression: from Paul’s nuanced anti-Judaism to the trenchant anti-Jewish vitriol that characterized the end of Martin Luther’s career. And while one could argue that the authors treated herein are not necessarily the most important voices in this intellectual history, they are prominent enough to lend credibility to author Robert Chazan’s account.

Chapter 1 casts the Synoptic Gospels as texts where ambiguity exists. On the one hand, each Gospel portrays Jesus’s Jewish contemporaries as at odds with him, culminating in their major cosmic blunder of complicity in Jesus’s crucifixion; yet, on the other hand, each Gospel presents some Jews accepting Jesus’s message, and has some positive things to say about the Jewish past. Chazan argues for complexity in these Gospels’ presentations of Jewish past, present, and future. It is not one clear thesis, but a potential for multiple valence with which the Synoptics imbue their intellectual inheritors. Chapter 2 treats Paul who, for Chazan, is an even more complex voice on Jewish history. Chazan shows that Paul’s interpretation of the Abraham-Isaac-Ishmael and Jacob-Esau narratives allows him to divide humanity into four groups: the faithful/believing (Jews and Gentiles), and the unbelieving (Jews and Gentiles). Jesus-rejecting Judaism stands outside of God’s covenant, but this is not permanent (Romans 11:25–27). Increasingly diverse interpretations of Jewish history in the following Christian centuries owe much to Paul.

Chapter 3 treats Eusebius, the great early voice of Christian history. Eusebius, Chazan argues, “deepened the sense of the extremely positive features of the Jewish past,” and highlighted “Jewish failures by emphasizing the dire post-Jesus fate of the Jews” (73). For all this, Eusebius effectively ignores, perhaps pointedly, any real Jewish present or future. Chapter 4, the last of section 1, introduces Augustine, for whom historical Jews had an august past, though colored with failure; a bleak present owing to their spiritual bankruptcy; and a bright future when they will be included in the “heavenly city.” The occasions Augustine had to formulate these ideas come from contexts of argument and rhetoric: Christian apology and heresiology. In these contexts Augustine’s biblical hermeneutic, a two-fold reading combining literalism and allegory, remains central, leading to his Old Testament-based policy for the Christian treatment of Jews that will influence attitudes and policies for over a millennium. Christians must sympathetically preach to “blind” Jews—to “save” them, even if they are “utterly reprehensible”—looking forward to their eventual re-grafting into the people of God (84).

Chapter 5 begins section 2, which moves the discussion to the medieval period, where we first encounter Bernard of Clairvaux. Pope Urban II’s campaign call for the First Crusade was reinterpreted to justify anti-Jewish violence in the Rhineland in 1096. During the Second Crusade’s organization in the 1140s, Bernard sent letters throughout Western Christendom arguing against such action, citing Jewish docility, and the hope of eventual Jewish salvation. Alternatively, Peter the Venerable portrayed the Jews as perennially stubborn and hostile to Christian truth, concluding that “the battle against the Jews must be vigorously waged” (133). Gone is any understanding that the New Testament [NT] or Church Fathers had for the Jews, and Chazan shows that such negativity only expands in later centuries. Chapter 6 illustrates one avenue of increased negativity toward Jews: familiarity with and use of their scriptures. Nicholas Donin caricatured Talmudic doctrine as highly offensive. Friar Raymond, in his Pugio Fidei, used the Talmud as a sourcebook for Jewish history, painting an unrelentingly negative picture of the Jewish past—a far cry from Eusebius or Augustine—to make contemporary Jews recognize the sins of their ancestors. Raymond represents a missionary effort that painted the Jews as a “hopelessly misguided, deeply malevolent anti-Christian grouping in society” (166).

Chapter 7 discusses Friar Alphonso’s Fortalitium fidei, the most negative anti-Jewish text yet encountered. Alphonso describes Christian society in mid-fifteenth-century Spain, and the Jews figure as society’s leading malady. Yet rather than reading such increased vilification as an inevitable progression presaging the Holocaust, Chazan maintains this trend’s contingent nature following upon the Islamic conquest of Constantinople. In an uncertain environment, Jews were the easy targets: weak, and more familiar than Muslims. Chapter 8 treats Martin Luther, an exemplar illustrating how malleable Christian perceptions of Jews could be. Between 1523 and 1543 Luther moved from a veneration of Jewish antiquity and hope for the Jewish future, to pronounced dislike for the Jews, portraying them as stubborn, hopeless, and dangerous. Again, such negativity grew in an uneasy environment of Islamic and Catholic opposition. A short epilogue challenges the concept of simply equating anti-Judaism with Christian theology. Circumstances surrounding medieval Christianity allowed for “Christian” constructions of Jews as dangerous and hateful, while ancient sources are much more nuanced in their treatment of Jewish past, present, and history.

Chazan’s book is a pleasure to read. His treatment of NT texts is insightful and free of obvious ideological baggage. His readings of Eusebius and Augustine are fair and precise. In later chapters one recognizes the nuance, situating medieval and later Christian anti-Judaism in their socio-historical context. The Jews’ conspicuous minority position in society appears often as one explanatory factor for their vilification, which comports with known ancient anti-Judaism as well. The book’s argument is easy to follow, although connections between particular texts or ideas are usually assumed; this is fair given the vast readership of authors such as Paul, Eusebius, and Augustine, but illustrating definite influence would have been helpful. Helpful as well would have been a bibliography considering that endnotes contain the only bibliographic information. I wonder whether the purported readability which endnotes supposedly facilitate outweigh the convenience of a usable text. Nevertheless, Chazan’s prose is readable for non-specialists and thus accessibility is among this book’s advantages. Chazan’s book is recommended as an overview; in fewer than 250 pages it describes, in order, what are arguably the major voices in the history of Christian anti-Judaism. Moreover, Chazan’s nuance, condensed in his epilogue, makes this book particularly valuable. Specialists and beginners will find expert treatment of ideas, developed over a 1500-year period, which do indeed provide cogent evidence of how ancient anti-Judaism could grow into anti-Semitism.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Carson Bay is a doctoral candidate in religions of Western antiquity at Florida State University and a Fullbright Graduate Fellow at Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster.

Date of Review: 
August 22, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Robert Chazan is Scheuer Professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University, where he was the founding chair of the Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies. He has published many books on medieval Jewish history and numerous articles in American and foreign academic journals. His two recent books are The Jews of Medieval Western Christendom (2006) and Reassessing Jewish Life in Medieval Europe (2010), both published by Cambridge University Press. He is a Fellow of the Medieval Academy of America and the American Academy of Jewish Research.



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