The Church Fathers and the Jews - Part 1

Posted by Olivier Melnick on February 5, 2021

To understand the relationship between Christians and Jews, it is crucial to survey some of the Church Fathers to understand how their early exegetical deviation paved the way for modern anti-Semitism. As many of them performed allegorical interpretations of God’s word, the early Church Fathers developed a warped view of Israel and the Jews. They had a distorted understanding of biblical Judaism. The perceived monstrosity of the children of Israel was their main concern. As they saw it, Israel had been a continual disappointment to God who had done so much for them. They needed to separate the “evil” from the “righteous,” or the “sinful” from the “holy,” so they started to demonized and ostracize the Jewish people.

Christianity would soon claim all the virtuous actions in the Old Testament for some kind of pre-existent Church. Replacement Theology was emerging as a new doctrine, even though it would be named, structured and codified centuries later. All these views influenced the tragic enactments made against the Jews early on. The unconditional and eternal covenants that God made with ethnic Israel only, were arbitrarily transferred to the Church against God's will and in essence, making God a liar and a covenant breaker.

The vast majority of the Church Fathers have left a negative legacy as it pertains to their understanding and treatment of the Jewish people. It becomes clear that they often misunderstood the loving Gospel message of the Messiah. By promoting flawed doctrine, the early Church Fathers introduced a major source of hatred into the founding of the Church.

While the unfortunate result of their exegetical faux pas led to much persecution and the unnecessary deaths of millions, we still need to refrain from painting with broad strokes; not all Church Fathers were guilty of antisemitism, and even those who were, also happened to be great contributors to the growth and preservation of orthodox Christianity. Nevertheless, history is our witness; and Jewish history, in particular, has been punctuated by acts derived from this early departure from the truth. Albeit only theologically driven, anti-Semitic hatred, and the basis for tolerating hatred towards others, emerged from the least likely of all places:  The Church itself.

I want to look at the negative impact of several key theologians among the early Church Fathers who helped to shape the Church as it went from a humble, underground, persecuted base of believers to an organized body that eventually was even aligned with and protected by the State.

It goes without saying that they represent quite a departure from a balanced, literal and contextual interpretation of the Bible. While most of the Church Fathers would not have condoned the systematic killing of Jewish people, their words carried more weight and their negative effects have lasted longer than they could have imagined. They became the foundation of a much more aggressive form of Jew-hatred that kept growing and morphing over the centuries. This hatred towards the Jewish people and Israel still persists today.

Briefly, Ignatius, relying on Greek philosophy, introduced the mystical idea that the Church was pre-existent to Israel and the Jewish people as God’s chosen people. Therefore, all the promises made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were always meant for the Church and not the Jewish people. Justin Martyr introduced the error of Replacement Theology, using an allegorical approach. For him, the existence of Jacob was simply a parable that really pointed to the Church and not the Jewish people.

Tertullian, in addition to being a founder of Western Christian theology, including the doctrine of the trinity, made a wrong turn in the road with his work “Against the Jews.” Origen of Alexandria, likewise made important contributions to Church theology; but also injected a special brand of unforgiveness that targeted Jewish people as “Christ-killers.” That term is one that almost every Jewish person alive has heard at one time or another, not to mention that many Jewish men, women and children have been persecuted and killed after being called Christ-killers by none other than Christians. John Chrysostom placed an additional stumbling block for many to trip over; vicious teachings to turn Gentile believers away from the very Jewish culture God used to convey His salvation message in His Word. Let's look at the first three on the list.

Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch (AD 35 or 50 – 98 or 117)
Ignatius of Antioch was an Apostolic Father, the third Bishop of Antioch, and was also a contemporary and student of the Apostle John. He said: For if we are still practicing Judaism, we admit that we have not received God’s favor…It is wrong to talk about Jesus Christ and live like Jews. For Christianity did not believe in Judaism, but Judaism in Christianity.

The anti-Semitism might not be as obvious in this statement by Ignatius as it is in the later examples, but the progression in intensity and abrasiveness shouldn’t be missed. Here, the reader is simply told that it is wrong to practice Judaism since it has apparently been replaced by Christianity. The suggestion is planted that Christianity preceded Judaism; although, of course, history shows that Christianity was a Jewish movement that Gentiles joined. Yeshua, Himself, was a Jew; and all the writers of the New Testament (except Luke) were Jewish. It would take willful acts to theologically cut off the Jewish roots of the faith from the theology and culture of the first-century Church as founded by Yeshua, the Jewish rabbi who became the Savior of the world. Yet, we actually see people who today are cutting all the Jewish roots of the Bible to go as far as attaching it back to a Palestinian narrative.

Justin Martyr (AD 103-165) - Dialogue with Trypho.
Justin Martyr was an early Christian apologist who is still revered in Church circles today. He is the author of the most important and most complete Christian tract against Jewish people in the second century, if not in all of the early Church Fathers’ writings, entitled Dialogue with Trypho in which he attempts to prove that Christianity has supplanted Judaism. Justin Martyr might also have been the first to erroneously claim that the Church was true Israel (making him possibly the father of Replacement Theology).

He first quotes Isaiah 42:1-4 and then introduces his reasoning for how the Church replaces Abraham’s descendants in God’s covenants: "Jacob is my servant, I will uphold Him; Israel is my elect, I will put my Spirit upon Him, and He shall bring forth judgment to the Gentiles. He shall not strive, nor cry, neither shall anyone hear His voice in the street: a bruised reed He shall not break, and smoking flax He shall not quench, but He shall bring forth judgment to truth: He shall shine, and shall not be broken till He have set judgment on the earth. And in His name shall the Gentiles trust." (Isaiah 42:1-4)

"Again in Isaiah, if you have ears to hear it, God, speaking of Christ in parable, calls Him Jacob and Israel. As, therefore, from the one man Jacob, who was surnamed Israel, all your nation has been called Jacob and Israel; so we from Christ, who begot us unto God, like Jacob, and Israel, and Judah, and Joseph, and David, are called and are the true sons of God, and keep the commandments of Christ." (Justin Martyr's commentary.)

In this instance, Justin Martyr used the allegorical approach to change a literal teaching into a subjective one, yielding a conclusion not supported by the Word of God. We can always prove our own points using an allegorical approach, but is God convinced?

Tertullian (AD 160-220)
Tertullian was a Christian author who produced a large body of literature in Latin. He was also an apologist who taught against heresy. Tertullian has been called “the father of Latin Christianity” and “the founder of Western theology.” He was one of the first Church Fathers to formulate Trinitarian terminology.

In his work “De Adversus Judaeos,” “Against the Jews,” Tertullian’s theological anti-Judaism is purely ideological. He might have gotten some of his inspiration from earlier works by Justin Martyr. He uses the Hebrew Scriptures to methodically disprove the relevancy of the Mosaic Law, and then goes on to prove that all blessings to ethnic Israel are now passed on to the “other nation” of God:  The Christians.

Writer David Efroymson, in his work on Tertullian, his influence and legacy, stated that many followed after Tertullian with their anti-Jewish diatribes and added this profound statement, alluding to the distant, but destructive, impact that Tertullian’s teachings had: "The road from here to Auschwitz is long and may not be direct, but one can get there from here." And indeed the road to Auschwitz was slowly but steadily being traced by this and other early Christian pioneers of anti-Semitism.

We have only covered the first two centuries after the closing of the biblical record. The trend will continue and even pick up more momentum and become quite abrasive and lethal as we progress through history. For a Jewish believer like myself, it is quite a challenge to balance the good and the bad. The valuable contributions that all Church Fathers have made to the faith and how it has helped to protect Christianity from many heresies cannot be ignored. We owe a great debt of gratitude to these pioneers of the faith who wrote so many volumes to erect theological and doctrinal protective fences around a young Christianity. But, we must also recognize that these men were human and that their writings were not inspired like the Bible was (2 Timothy 3:16-17.)

In the midst of a positive legacy, people are still remembered for some damaging contributions they made. I have found that most students and teachers of the Church Fathers, in their praise of these men, are quick to ignore the damaging legacy they left as it pertains to the Jewish people. I don't expect anybody to dismiss the works of these theologians simply on the basis of their faulty/allegorical view of Israel and the Jews in the Bible, but at the very least, their exegetical faux pas must be mentioned, if only to let our Jewish friends know that we are not turning a blind eye on what led to a lot of lethal anti-Jewish sentiment.

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