Preenlightenment polemics between Jews and Christians

What role do sacred writings play in preenlightenment polemics between Jews and Christians?

The litigious topic of hostility between Jews and Christians throughout history can be studied and examined with the use of polemical literature. The extent to which scriptures, in particular, are used within such polemics sheds light on the extremity of the hostility. The fact that polemics used Holy Scriptures at all to argue their contentious thoughts suggests that the scriptures themselves are inherently hostile towards the other religion. By analysing the use of these 'hostile scriptures' in writings by Augustine, John Chrysostom and Martin Luther, an informed judgement of what role they play will emerge. Although many texts use scriptures similarly,[1] these three in particular show a clear exposure of the scriptures in the role as a platform to breed, reinforce and justify negativity towards the other religion.

In order to make a balanced opinion on the effect such scriptures had on the polemics, and subsequently Jewish Christian relations, it is also necessary to examine Jewish anti-Christian views from a similar period. However, it should be noted, as Marcel Simon points out, that 'Jews did not produce any body of literature comparable to the polemic literature of the Christians'[2]. It is important to understand that this was probably due to the fact that Jews were not in power and were, therefore, cautious about criticising the Christian faith openly. Much of their polemical material was for internal consumption only and therefore had a lesser effect on Jewish Christian relations. Possibly the major feature of Judaism in Christian self-identity, which was not paralleled by a Christian feature in Jewish self-identity, is further reasoning for the apparent larger volume of anti-Jewish Christian literature. Conversely to this thought, Simon also states that 'antipathy was, of course, mutual and the rabbinic maledictions are perfectly balanced by the imprecations of Christian anti-Semitism.'[3] Marcel Simon points that 'the fight was fierce in the first century [between Jews and Christians]'[4] and for this reason a study into what led to this hostility is needed. The employment of Holy Scriptures as justification for polemical literature is likely to be a leading factor.

Throughout the discussion it is imperative that the correct terminology is used. When commenting on unfriendly attitudes towards the Jews at the time the scriptures were written it is incorrect and anachronistic to use the racial category of 'anti-semitic'. It is far more appropriate within this theological discussion to use the terms 'anti-judaic' or 'anti-jewish'. The severity of the polemic and, therefore, the extent to which it plays a role in the hostility between relations can be expressed through the use of three categorisations: Prophetic polemic, Subordinating polemic and Abrogating anti-judaism. Two key opposing viewpoints that outline the rationale behind the contention are those of essentialist and functionalist views. Reference to both these viewpoints will provide a comparable foundation of the basic aim of the polemics and, in turn, the role of the scriptures within them.

An opposing position is held by Sandmel in his writings Anti-Semitism in the New Testament? He holds that it is not the intent of writers such as John to be anti-Judaic, but it is, however, a misinterpretation of the text by the reader. He does regard John as the 'most overtly anti-Semitic gospel'[5] but feels this is a mere reflection of the historical circumstances in which it was written rather than an indication of inherent anti-Judaism within Christian scriptures. He indicates that the negative role the scriptures have had on hostility between Jews and Christians is mostly due to misreading and misquotations. In opposition to Sandmel's view is evidence of large amounts of anti-Judaic passages in the Bible. Dagober Rune states 'The New Testament contains 102 references to the Jews of the most degrading malevolent and libellous kind.'[6] Such evidence would suggest the actual texts, and not merely the interpretation of said texts, played a large role in the hostility and polemics. Further to this, Flannery remarks 'future developments would determine how and to what degree these elements of anti-Semitism would be incorporated into the teaching of the adorning church and whether this anti-Judaism would become a source of anti-Semitism.'[7] This shows that scholarly opinion supports the assumption that the use of anti-Judaic scriptures, especially in Christian teaching, is likely to lead to anti-Semitism. Flannery simply postulates to what degree this will occur.

St Augustine of Hippo can be seen as a leading figure within the early Adversus Judaeous tradition. Such thinkers found it necessary to assert Christianity through the negation of Judaism. Key themes can be seen throughout Augustine's writings of how he went about this process. For example the notion of Jews as blind, guardians of scriptures and Witness people. Although Augustine is relatively tolerant towards the Jews in comparison to some of his contemporaries, his main reason for this is that he sees a purpose for them. He still uses a great deal of scripture to uphold his fervent view of Jews as subordinate. Augustine's belief was that one of the purposes behind the Jews existence was to guard the divine scriptures for the Christians. He states that 'these scriptures they were to carry with them, not to help them toward their own salvation, but to give witness to our salvation[8]'. He alludes to the story of Cain in the Old Testament and draws parallels between his story and the Jews. He suggests that the Jews will not be killed, as they are needed for the purpose of protecting the scriptures and acting as a witness to human kind that Christianity is the correct path. But, just like Cain, they have been sent away from God and are carnal. Furthermore they hold a mark upon them (in the form of circumcision). He justifies his theory further with the use of Psalm 59.12 'slay them not, lest at any time they forget your law; scatter them in your might'[9]. Augustine does not see this as God being kind to the Jews as some might read it, but sees it as God using the Jews to promote Christianity, by 'scattering them'. Thus, it can be seen that the roles of the scriptures within Augustine's writings are to give further justification for his subjugation of the Jewish people.

This example of exhorting the scriptures to criticise the Jews can be seen as a major influence on the hostility of Christians towards Jews, since the scriptures are regarded as divine authority. Conversely to this, Marcel Simon suggests a different reason for the rise of adverse relations between the two groups with his functionalist approach. Simon argues that the Jews functioned as a threat towards Christianity by actively proselytising and trying to convert pagans, thereby acting as competition. Supporting evidence that the Christians were trying to convert pagans can be seen in Augustine's work when he remarks about 'pagans whom we wish to win over...'[10] However, this does not prove that the Christians were in competition with the Jews at this point. In fact, it is widely held that in comparison to Christians, Jews rarely proselytised. This, again, leaves room for the assumption that it was, indeed, the hostile scriptures that led to hostile relations.

St John Chrysostom can be regarded as the nadir of the Adversus Judeous tradition. His Homilies against the Jews (387) use a theological explanation for why Jews are inferior. He placed a large emphasis on the deiside accusation and suggested that God would not give forgiveness to the Jews. The fact that Chrysostom was highly regarded within the Christian church at the time did not in any way help relations. Chrysostom uses not only the scriptures but actual events to negate Judaism when he states 'Daniel did, however, predict... that this bondage would hold them in slavery until the end of time...and the years have shown neither trace nor beginning of a change for the better, even though the Jews tried many times to rebuilt their temple'.[11] Chrysostom brings forth the predictions of Daniel in order to support what has gone on in front of him. Thereby, giving him more credibility when suggesting the Jews are awful.

Rosemary R Ruether sees strong views put forward by writers such as St John Chrysostom as a consequence of the high Christology presented by Christians in the Bible. She takes on the opinion that if Jesus was not regarded as divine then Jews would not be charged with deiside and, as a result, Jewish Christian relations would improve. Her essentionalist view of the hostility brings in scriptures such as matt27:25 'his blood be on us and our children'[12] as a 'real culmination of the whole section'[13] of Matthew's Gospel which she regards as giving fuel to the deiside charges and anti-Judaism. It is no wonder then that polemical writers took on the scriptures to use as a defence when putting down the Jewish tradition. To support Ruther's claims further is the 'Revised Directives for the Liturgical Reading of the Passion Narratives in Holy Week'. Developed at the Canadian conference of Catholic Bishops in 1988 and stating 'with regard to liturgical readings, care should be give them a correct interpretation especially when it comes to passages that seem to cast the Jewish People in an unfavourable light' these documents prove that even the Church agrees that some Biblical readings could be interpreted as anti-Semitic.

Interesting to the discussion is the finding that most anti-Christian literature by the Jews also uses the Bible to refute the claims of Christianity. This contradicts the idea that the scriptures are inherently anti-Judaic. Example of this can be seen in the Toledoth Yeshu's disputation against the claim that Jesus was the messiah, the scripture is used to show Jesus as a false prophet: 'and that prophet which shall presume to speak a word in my name, which I have not commanded him to speak or that shall speak in the name of other gods, event than prophet shall die.'[14] A further example of this point can be seen in anti-Christian polemics in Lithuania. In Isaac Troki Hizzuk Emunah the Christian scriptures are used as evidence to show the contradictions and therefore errors within Christianity. Quoting Matt 10:34 'think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace but a sword'[15] Troki shows how Christianity is not the peace loving religion it claims to be. Matthew is again quoted in 27:46 'Jesus cried with a loud voice saying, 'Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani''[16] to argue that Jesus is not divine but 'like other mortals, who invoke God in the day of trouble'[17]

Clearly we can see that scriptures can be used to show various viewpoints if interpreted in differing ways, Dorothy Lee comments that Matthew's Gospel has both pro and anti Jewish elements.[18] Although, Richardson sees the anti-Judaic premises in the Bible as undeniable when he says 'It could not be stated more explicitly than in these addresses in Acts that the Jews killed Jesus'[19] 'Judith Banki comments on the fact that a single Bible passage was shown to be interpreted negatively for Jews of one denomination and positively for another.[20] Even though Banki presents a fair point, this does not disprove the belief that the interpretation of the scriptures as negative towards the other religion led to the composition of polemical literature.

Martin Luther, over a thousand years later, reuses Augustine's theme of the blindness of the Jews to put forward his anti-Jewish sentiments. He uses scripture to show how Jews are blind to the divinity and truth of Jesus Christ. Luther says that Luke 6:39 is applicable to the Jews; 'When a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into the pit.'[21] Further in his refutation of the Jewish people he refers to John 8 'you are of your father the devil.[22]' To know that such harsh claims about the Jews have been directly quoted from the Holy Scriptures leads to an acknowledgment that they will undoubtedly play a large role in the polemic. A negative claim about the Jews proposed by someone, even as highly regarded as Martin Luther, would never have as much reverence as a claim directly lifted from scripture.

It is clear that the role sacred writings play in preenlightenment polemics between Jews and Christians is one of significance. The sacred writings can be seen to act as a higher authority, supporting the claims of the writer. Arguably the most important piece of evidence to support this notion is the extremity and numbers of scriptures used in polemics as seen in Augustine, Chrysostom and Luther. However, it is prudent to mention that some scholars, such as Simon, suggest other reasons for the hostility. Also, much of the Scripture is open to interpretation and it is difficult to know if the authorial intent was, in fact, one of hostility. Although these points contradict the idea that the Scriptures are inherently anti-Jewish they are not sufficient enough claims to disregard the fact that the scriptures have been interpreted as negative towards the Jews, and subsequently used exhaustively to negate Judaism. The evidence from the polemics is sturdy confirmation that the role of the scriptures was chief. The implications of this use this strong use of Scripture was consequently paramount to the succeeding negative relations between Jews and Christians.


  • St. Augustine, 'Sermons for Christmas and Ephiphany', in Ancient Christian Writers (Paulist Press 1978)
  • St. Augustine, City of God (Penguin Group 2003)
  • Judith H Banki, 'The Image of Jews in Christian Teaching' in Naomi Cohen, Essential Papers on Jewish-Christian Relations in the US (New York University Press 1990)
  • John Chrysostom, 'Eight Homilies Against the Jews' ( - accessed on 25/11/2009)
  • Jeremy Cohen, Living Letters of the Law (University of California Press, 1999)
  • Flannery, The Anguish of the Jews: Twenty Three Centuries of anti-Semitism (Paulist Press 1985)
  • Dorothy A Lee, 'Matthew's Gospel and Judaism' ( - accessed on 21/10/2009)
  • Martin Luther, The Jews and Their Lies (Liberty Bell Publications 2004)
  • Jacob Marcus, The Jew in the Medieval World: A Sourcebook 315-1791, (New York: JPS, 1938)
  • Richardson, Antijudaism (Wilfrid Laurier University Press 1986)
  • Rosemary R Ruether, Faith and Fratricide (Search Press London, 1975)
  • Samuel Sandmel, Anti-Semitism in the New Testament? (Fortress Press 1978)
  • Marcel Simon, Versus Israel (Oxford University Press 1986)
  • Toledoth Yeshu ( - accessed on 22-11-09)
  • Revised Directives for the Liturgical Reading of the Passion Narratives in Holy Week' ( - accessed on 26-11-09)
  1. Paris Disputations - Christians used Scriptures from the Talmud to argue that it was heretical and anti-Christian Barcelona Disputations - Talmudic texts used to prove truth of Christianity. See Cohen, Living Letters of the Law for a commentary on the affect these disputations had on Jewish Christian relations. He states 'no historian should deny that the condemnation and persecution of rabbinic literature by the late medieval church marked an important milestone in the history of Christian-Jewish relations'p 317. However, this discussion will be focused more on the use of Biblical Scriptures to negate Judaism.
  2. M. Simon, Versus Israel, p178
  3. M. Simon, Versus Israel, p201
  4. M. Simon, Versus Israel, p135
  5. Sandmel, Anti-Semitism in New Testament?,p101
  6. Sandmel, Anti-Semitism in New Testament?,p155
  7. E.Flannery, The Anguish of the Jews, p29
  8. Augustine, Sermon for Epiphany, II
  9. Augustine, City of God
  10. Augustine, Sermon for Epiphany, II
  11. Chrysostom, Homilies Against the Jews, VI
  12. Ruther, Faith and Fratricide, p94
  13. Ruther, Faith and Fratricide, p94
  14. Toledoth Yeshu
  15. Isacc Troki, Hizzuk Emunah
  16. Isacc Troki, Hizzuk Emunah
  17. Isacc Troki, Hizzuk Emunah
  18. D. Lee 'Matthew's Gospel and Judaism'
  19. Richardson, Antijudaism, p129
  20. Banki, 'The Image of Jews in Christian Teaching'
  21. Luther, The Jews and Their Lies
  22. Luther, The Jews and Their Lies

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