By David P. Efroymson
Expositions: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Humanities, Vol 3, No 2 (2009)
Introduction: Beyond the decision to keep what Christians call the Old Testament, probably the only positive Christian contribution to Jewish-Christian relations from the patristic era was Augustine’s “witness doctrine.” Its claim was that the dispersion of the Jews after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE was not simply punishment for their “rejection” of Jesus, but also had a more positive role in God’s plan. Bearing their (biblical) books wherever they were forced to wander, they bore witness to the nations of the truth of Christianity by the prophetic content of the books (which they failed to understand), while the Jewishness of the books proved that Christians had not fabricated them. Augustine could then read Psalm 58:12 (59:12 in our modern bibles), “Slay them not…,” as God’s or Christ’s command not to harm Jews physically and to let them live as Jews; their continuing existence as Jews (until their ultimate conversion at the end of time) fulfilled a divine purpose. Bolstered by the inherited precedent of Roman law, and with the authority of Augustine behind it, the teaching helped to preserve Jewish lives and Judaism itself for centuries. Anyone who knows the precarious situation of Jews and Judaism in medieval Europe knows what might well have happened otherwise. We cannot but be grateful that worse was avoided.
Paula Fredriksen’s contribution in the book under discussion is to show when and how Augustine arrived at his position. But her achievement goes beyond this. She situates Augustine’s thinking on this matter in the context of early Christian history and Christian anti-Judaism prior to him. Further, she is rightly insistent that anti-Judaism was not the whole story: there were individual friendships, urban social mingling, Christians visiting Jewish synagogues and joining in Jewish celebrations, all contrary to the wishes—indeed the legislation—of the leadership on both sides. She reinforces her case for Augustine’s contribution with an astute discussion of his correspondence with the far less accommodating Jerome (on the legitimacy of the Jewish practices of the earliest followers of Jesus) and with a cogent presentation of what the bishop does not say on the use of force against Jews (as compared to his approval of it against Donatists). Nor, as she points out, does he say a word about the forced conversion of the Jews on Minorca in 418—an event he had to have known about and which certain of his Christian colleagues celebrated. Finally, she makes no effort to hide Augustine’s own anti-Jewish rhetoric.