The Roots Of Christian Anti-Semitism In The Apostolic Fathers

Among the more serious issues that the Apostolic Fathers bring up is the matter of Christian anti-Semitism.  There is no doubt that the New Testament has some harshly critical things to say about some Jews.  For example, repeatedly in Acts, Paul has to deal with hostile Jews who stir up crowds against him that lead him to be imprisoned, beaten, and at one point nearly stoned to death.  Likewise, the Gospels are critical of Jewish leaders who sought to entrap Jesus or plotted His death on the Sabbath, or at one point even called for the bloodguilt of His death to be on themselves and their children [1].  Given that Jesus Christ and the early members and leadership of the Church of God were all practicing Jews, and even the first deacons were Hellenistic Jews as opposed to Palestinian Jews, it is clear that the polemical discussion that is within the Bible itself concerning Jews is an internal debate between hostile and rival groups that nonetheless share a great deal in common, such as a respect for the law, an observance of the Sabbath, and a high regard for the Hebrew scriptures, even if the two groups interpret these matters very differently.

This is not the picture we get when we look at the Apostolic Fathers.  For Paul, his close rhetoric in Romans 9-11 demonstrates his own awareness of his identity, and his hostility to those who he viewed as Judaizers in Galatians does not negate his own pride in his own ethnicity as a Jew of the tribe of Benjamin, circumcised on the eighth day, and so on and so forth.  For the vast majority of the writers of the Apostolic Fathers, the Jews were “them” rather than “us.”  The transition of the quarrel between Jews and Christians from an internal quarrel over Jesus Christ as a Messiah in fulfillment of biblical prophecies into a quarrel between two groups with a shared but fraught history that did not view the other as being one of them was a fateful one, and that quarrel has continued more or less down to the present day.  Let us spend at least a bit of time looking at how the Apostolic Fathers show the roots of Christian anti-Semitism [2] in ways that are relevant to contemporary relations between the two faiths.

In general, the Apostolic Fathers reveal the first century or so of Christianity to be a time of increasing hostility between Christians and Jews in general.  For example, the Matyrdom of Polycarp refers to Jews being among the most enthusiastic supporters of the death of that old and venerable bishop, even though the death occurred on a high Sabbath of the Jews, not a time when they should have delighted in the murder of anyone.  The Didache urges days for fasting so as not to mimic “the hypocrites,” which appears to be a clear reference to the Pharisees.  It should be noted as well that this reference demonstrates the close connection between Pharisees and hypocrisy that remains the default Christian view of that ancient sect, notwithstanding that Paul and numerous other early Christians had themselves been Pharisees, or that Jesus Christ Himself participated in disputes concerning halakha with Pharisees with considerable aplomb.  Additionally, the Epistle of Diognetus contains some intensely anti-Jewish discussion that seeks to triangulate a Christian appeal to philosophical Greeks by insulting both Jewish devotion to the law as well as heathen superstitions.  It is perhaps inevitable that there would be some conflict between Jews and Christians over differences of faith and religious practice, but it was not inevitable that it took the shape it did.

And, to be sure, some of the blame lies on both sides.  Jews and Christians were both marginal populations during the period of the Apostolic Fathers.  During this time, repeated Jewish rebellions (including the Bar Kosiba revolt) led to a decline in the Jewish standing with the Romans and a restriction of their rights.  Yet at the same time, Judaism was a licit religion which, although disliked by the Romans, was tolerated because it was ancient.  While this had been of some protection to Paul and the early Christians who were quite evidently also Jews, the apostasy from Apostolic Christianity and the rising hostility of Hellenistic Christians to the laws of God as defined in the Bible (and not only the manmade laws of no divine standing that one finds in the talmudic literature) meant that Christians were no longer able to claim themselves as a protected faith.  True Christians, as has been the case throughout history, were caught in the middle between a Judaism that was becoming more hostile to Christians to the point of betraying them to the Roman government and cheering their murder at the hand of the state and even seeking to flush them out through a “blessing” that required blaspheming Christ and a Hellenistic Christianity that was becoming more hostile to the law and Sabbath and that viewed in the light of anti-Semitic Greek philosophy and culture.

This is something that we can see within the pages of the Apostolic Fathers.  The apologetic text the Epistle to Diognetus shows a self-conscious desire to appeal to Gentiles and a distinct disinterest in the Jewish heritage of Christianity.  The Epistle of Barnabas has an allegorical approach to the law that is very obviously not the approach of the biblical writers themselves.  Ignatius views any similarity between the ritual and practice of Christianity and Judaism to be something to attack with a great deal of hostility.  It is only the early writers like Polycarp and especially Clement that have any degree of fondness for the biblical heritage of Judaism.  Even those writers like 2 Clement whose writing is not polemical show a distinct ignorance of the Hebrew scriptures and a total failure to understand that being a Christian required being grated into God’s people as spiritual Israel even if one was not physically Israelite through genetics or circumcision.  The end result was somewhat predictable–those Christian leaders like 2 Clement who wanted to encourage godly living on the part of believers resorted to vague calls for godliness in the absence of a firm knowledge of biblical standards of virtue in the law, prophets, and writings.  More philosophical writers, on the other hand, tended to view the law only in terms of what sort of deeper or esoteric meaning they could get out of it with a disinterest in its surface meaning and application.  Still others viewed God’s laws only as something obsolete and not worthy of interest for someone who lives in Christ, another attitude that has continued to this day.

While nothing can be done about the past, it is worthwhile for us to come to an understanding of the fraught relationships between Christians and Jews.  To some extent, the conflict has come as a result of both sides denying some aspect of their roots.  For one, the Jews have denied their Lord and Savior, by and large, and this has clearly had repercussions, especially given the difference between internal Jewish conversation about Christ and Paul in the Talmud and the way that this hatred is denied in interfaith communications.  Similarly, Hellenistic Christianity for far too long has been unmoored from its apostolic beginnings because of the hostility of many Christians to the requirement of obedience to God’s ways and Sabbath observance that is a clear biblical expectation for believers.  Recognizing that original Christianity is part of a larger conversation about the law and prophets within Judaism does not mean that the two faiths will suddenly be at peace with each other.  We can neither expect most who profess Christianity to embrace God’s law or for most Jews to embrace their Savior when they have held to a fallacious view of salvation by works.  Nor can we expect centuries of bad blood to vanish quickly, if at all, in the way each side has viewed each other.  But in looking at the Apostolic Fathers, we can at least get a sense for how an internal conflict over the interpretation of shared texts became an external conflict where Jews and Christians stopped viewing the other as fellow insiders and only saw each other as hostile enemies, a shift that continues to haunt our world.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Bible, Biblical History, Christianity, Church of God, History, Musings and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to The Roots Of Christian Anti-Semitism In The Apostolic Fathers

  1. Pingback: An Introduction To The Apostolic Fathers Series | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: Thirteen Reasons Why You Should Read The Apostolic Fathers | Edge Induced Cohesion

  3. Pingback: Book Review: A Student’s Guide To Philosophy | Edge Induced Cohesion

  4. Pingback: Book Review: Words And Witnesses | Edge Induced Cohesion

  5. Pingback: Woe To The Scribes And Pharisees: Part Three | Edge Induced Cohesion

  6. Pingback: Book Review: Conan Doyle For The Defense | Edge Induced Cohesion

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s