Review – Augustine and the Jews by Paula Fredriksen

Augustine and the Jews is Paula Fredriksen’s story of how the Church’s attitude toward the Jewish people was transformed by the theological reflection of one man. Fredriksen explores inter-religious and inter-ethnic relations and rhetoric in the first few centuries anno domini. After relating the status quo, she painstakingly depicts the evolution of Augustine’s mature views: a Christian defense of Jews and Judaism.

Perhaps the greatest strength of Augustine and the Jews is not its explication of Augustine’s theology, but its investigation into the distance between Jews as they were and Jews as they were perceived. Fredriksen distinguishes between actual Jews and the rhetorical “Jews” of Christian literature. Relations between Christians and Jews were often quite friendly, a fact that perhaps intensified the clergy’s acerbic language. Fredriksen probes the adversus Iudaeos tradition — the stock criticism of Jews employed by Christian polemicists — to determine its causes, origins, and accuracy.

Fredriksen engages the New Testament frequently throughout her work. Evangelicals will likely demur from her higher-critical assumptions about the dating and authorship of several New Testament books, and about the amount of doctrinal ambiguity and heterogeneity assumed between them. In addition, she favors Schweitzer’s “thorough-going eschatology,” presenting the New Testament authors as men who taught that the parousia would happen soon. The task of theology, then, in the early church was to explain the reason for the delay of the second advent. Evangelicals may disagree with Fredriksen’s reading of the New Testament, but they should have no reason to question her reading of Augustine. The major thesis of her book is not impaired by her views on biblical scholarship.

Augustine himself began his Christian life in agreement with the adversus Iudaeos tradition. His views shifted over a long period of time, involving transformations in his exegesis, philosophy of history, and anthropology. A major stimulus for rethinking his posture toward the Jews and their Scripture was the attacks of the Manichean apologist Faustus. Faustus’ arguments cleverly mirrored catholic anti-Jewish rhetoric, causing Augustine to rethink the wisdom of the catholic tradition’s perspective on the Jews.

Earlier Christians had asserted that the Jews had gone astray by obeying the Mosaic Law “carnally” instead of spiritually. Using Pauline dichotomies, they insisted on an exclusively Christological or allegorical reading of the Law and denied any validity to a literal understanding. Justin Martyr, for instance, claimed that the Jews’ observance of the Law was itself a mistake. Augustine’s fourfold philosophy of history (which doubled as stages for individual conversion) — before law, under law, under grace, in peace — provided a new scheme for understanding the Old Testament. The Jews were indeed intended to enact the Law as God commanded it, for that was appropriate to that stage in history. However, they were also supposed to understand its forward-pointing significance; their failure to do so led to their rejection of the Messiah. For Augustine, then, it is not “carnality” as such that discredits the Jews, but their failure to perceive the shift in redemptive history.

Augustine further challenged the adversus Iudaeos tradition through his “witness theology.” Accroding to Augustine, who banked heavily on a prophetic interpretation of Psalm 59:11 (in the modern English numbering) “Slay them not, lest my people forget: scatter them by thy power” and an allegorical extrapolation of the mark of Cain. God, foreknowing the rebellion of the Jews, decided instead of killing them to scatter them among the nations. He has “marked” them, which is both a curse and a seal of his protection. Wherever the Jews go, through their books and through their observance of the Law, they unwittingly and unwillingly testify to the truth of Christianity. Since this is the case, Jews should not be persecuted or forced to give up their ancestral beliefs.

Fredriksen’s exegesis of Augustine’s works is both scrupulous and illuminating. She shows, in much more breadth and depth than I have related here, how integrated the various parts of Augustine’s theology became as he wrestled with the Manichean critique. She excels at close reading; casual readers, though, may find her methodical case-building tedious. Because of the roughly chronological arrangement of the book, there is an unwelcome amount of repetition. Positively, this method ensures that readers grasp the evolutionary character of Augustine’s theology. Because of the level of detail, Augustine and the Jews is really appropriate only for scholars or other very motivated persons. However, those who make the effort to mine this work will garner ample gems.

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Published in: on August 16, 2010 at 9:52 am  Leave a Comment  
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