Because of misinterpretation and/or misuse of biblical texts, anti-Jewish bias, aka anti-Judaism, permeated the writings and sermons of the earliest Christian theologians, the Church Fathers —Polycarp, Justin Martyr, St. Jerome, and Tertullian, to name a few. The Church’s doctrine of supercessionism, i.e. that Christianity fulfilled and replaced Judaism, rendering it insignificant in salvation history, for example, was originally espoused by Justin Martyr and Irenaeus of Lyon in the second century. A primary motivation of these early church leaders was fear that newly baptized, formerly Jewish, Christians would revert to Judaism or that gentile converts would find Judaic practices preferable to Christian ones. To combat this so-called Judaizing of Christianity, the Church Fathers often wrote and preached against Judaism in inflammatory language. When read today, their words are still stark and chilling. Jews, for example, were referred to as “evil, vermin, unclean and unfit to live” — words widely used in Nazi propaganda.
Hitler, in his autobiography and political manifesto, Mein Kampf, advocated for the elimination of Jews from Germany and Europe to prevent defilement of Aryan blood and the corruption of society. Not coincidentally, he referred to them, inter alia, as “vermin, parasites, maggots, polluters and destroyers of Aryan humanity.” Moreover, a provision of the anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws of 1935 authorized forced sterilization of lebensunwertes leben (“life unworthy of life.”). In 1939, the Third Reich went even further, authorizing a euthanasia program codenamed Aktion T4, which resulted in the killing of 70,273 people, children and adults with mental or physical disabilities, at various extermination centers located in psychiatric hospitals. Aktion T4 was a precursor of the Final Solution.
No one railed against Judaism more vehemently (and effectively) than St. John Chrysostom (Greek, “golden-mouthed”) (347–407), Archbishop of Constantinople and Doctor of the Church, who initiated and perfected the Adversus Judaeos (anti-Judaic) sermon genre. Known for his eloquence in preaching and public speaking, he proclaimed:
“The Synagogue is a brothel, a hiding place for unclean beasts… Jews are the most worthless of all men (who) are lecherous, greedy and rapacious…perfidious murderers of Christ and for killing God there is no expiation possible, no indulgence or pardon. Christians may never cease vengeance,… Jews must live in servitude forever… God always hated Jews. It is incumbent upon all Christians to hate Jews”
St. John Chrysostom provided a hint of what shaped his rhetoric when he wrote: “Don’t you realize, if the Jewish rites are holy and venerable, our way of life must be false?”
The Church Fathers, in effect, faced this dilemma — without Judaism, Christianity had no independent meaning. Judaism, therefore, had to be preserved for Christian self-identification, but in a weakened state so as not to undermine the “one true faith.” In short, Judaism and Jews had to be marginalized because the existence of an independently thriving Jewish community, which persisted in denying the validity of Christianity by its refusal to convert, would sabotage the Church’s evangelization efforts. To undermine Judaism’s credibility, they employed a process, termed “value-inversion.” (i.e., turning Jewish values upside-down, a process first employed in response to the crucifixion itself.) Ancient people, Jews and gentiles alike, regarded crucifixion, a widely employed Roman execution method, as a demeaning mode of death. Early theologians, however, transformed the “scandal of the cross” into an act of metaphysical and eschatological (end times) importance. A seemingly meaningless execution in the political life of the Roman Empire and Judean politics became, for believers, the most meaningful act in human history. Jesus’ death (and resurrection) brought eternal life not only to him, but to all who believed in him.
In the second century Marcion, bishop of Sinope (85–160 CE) proclaimed that the God of the Jews was demonic. Marcion even went so far as to propose that the Old Testament be excluded from the Christian canon. He and his followers sought to edit all references to Jews out of the New Testament in order to sever Christianity from its Jewish roots. Despite the Church’s rejection of Marcion’s views, excommunicating and condemning him as a heretic, his brand of anti-Judaism continued to resurface in history, including in Nazi Germany. The Deutsche Christen, for example, were a group of fanatical Nazi Protestants which became a schismatic faction of German Protestantism. Their symbol was a traditional Christian cross with a swastika in the middle and the group’s German initials “D” and “C.” Supportive of Nazi race ideology, their movement advocated de-emphasizing the Old Testament in Protestant theology and removing parts deemed “too Jewish.” Some adherents sought to eliminate the Old Testament from the Bible altogether. Nazi Storm Troopers, in particular, favored getting married in Deutsche Christen churches.
Deicide and Collective Guilt
Also in the second century, 167 CE, Melito, bishop of Sardis, made the first recorded charge of deicide. “The blood of Jesus,” wrote Origen (185– 254), “falls not only on the Jews of that time, but on all generations of Jews up to the end of the world” (the doctrine of collective guilt). St. Eusebius of Caesarea (263–339) taught that Jews forfeited both the promises due them under biblical covenants and their special status as God’s “chosen people.” St. Cyprian wrote in 248 that the Jews “have fallen under the heavy wrath of God because they departed from the Lord and followed idols.” In 367 St. Hilary of Poitiers referred to Jews “as a perverse people who God has cursed forever.”
In 380 St. Gregory of Nyssa referred to them as “Murderers of the Lord, assassins of the prophets, rebels and detesters of God,. . . companions of the devil, a race of vipers, informers, calumniators, darkeners of the mind, pharisaic leaven, Sanhedrin of demons, accursed, detested,. . . enemies of all that is beautiful.”
In 388 a Christian mob, purportedly incited by their bishop, looted and burned the synagogue in Callinicum, a town in modern day Iran. St. Ambrose, bishop of Milan and Doctor of the Church, defended the righteousness of the mob’s action. He reprimanded Emperor Theodosius the Great for ordering the local bishop to pay restitution, even though expropriation was illegal under Roman law. Ambrose, allegedly, offered to burn the synagogue in Milan himself. Theodosius later changed his position on synagogue burning, approving the practice if it served a “religious purpose.” During Kristallnacht, (“Night of Broken Glass,”) November 9–10, 1938, starting point of the Holocaust, hundreds of synagogues were burned throughout Nazi Germany and Occupied Austria.
Rule of Christendom
The teachings of St. Augustine of Hippo (354–430), a Doctor of the Church, on the other hand, provided the theological basis for securing legal recognition and protection for Jews within the Roman Empire. It was this recognition, in part, that enabled Jews to survive under the “rule of Christendom.” For Augustine, Jews witnessed to the truth of Christianity and, therefore, had to be sheltered from harm. Accordingly, various popes like St. Pope Gregory I (590–604) and Pope Gregory X (1271– 76) attempted to protect Jews, including from forcible conversion to Christianity. (Pope Leo VII in 937, for example, encouraged the newly appointed Archbishop of Mainz to expel from his archdiocese any Jew who refused to convert.) Tragically, the Rule of Christendom has been routinely ignored throughout history, most egregiously during the Holocaust when six million, men, women and children lost their lives. And some of Augustine’s own teachings were used to justify the persecution. For example, Augustine wrote that Jews were possessors of the “mark of Cain,” whom God required to wander the earth in “perpetual servitude” until they voluntarily converted to Christianity. Referring to Jews as “slave librarians” who exist “for the salvation of the nation but not for their own (salvation),” Augustine also wrote: “the Church admits and avows the Jewish people to be cursed, because after killing Christ they continue in impiety and unbelief.” Such inflammatory rhetoric induced Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the pre-eminent 20th century Jewish theologian to opine, “The Holocaust did not begin with Auschwitz; the Holocaust began with words.”
Clearly, 1900 plus years of Christian anti-Judaism, as manifested in both word and deed, helped paved the way for twentieth century Nazi anti-Semitism.