The Origins of Anti-Semitism: Attitudes Toward Judaism in Pagan and Christian Antiquity

The Origins of Anti-Semitism: Attitudes Toward Judaism in Pagan and Christian Antiquity

by John G. Gager

This revisionist reading of early anti-Judaism offers a richer and more varied picture of the Jews and Christians of antiquity.

  • Language: English
  • Category: Religion
  • Rating: 3.47
  • Publish Date: October 1st 1983 by Oxford University Press, USA
  • Isbn10: 0195036077
  • Isbn13: 9780195036077

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With her help I began to hear the anti-Jewish subtext in the traditional Christian message. What Gager accomplishes in this book is nothing less than sharpening the focus on the historical events and debates that led Christianity to develop and sacralize the anti-Jewish message. Nevertheless, it comes as a shock that Gager begins with the historical criticism of Christianity as an anti-Jewish and even anti-Semitic religion. Adding to the condemnation, he also quotes supporting sociological evidence from Charles Glock and Rodney Stark in Christian Beliefs and Anti-Semitism (1969): . There are five general areas of criticism but Gager only shines the historical spotlight on the fifth one: the presence of pre-Christian anti-Semitism. For if Christianity can deflect the blame to the pagan culture, then it is absolved for the origin of anti-Semitism if not for the ongoing support of it. Although Judea did not become a Roman Provence until 63 BCE, Jews had lived throughout the Empire since ancient times. Both Egyptians and Judeans living in Egypt attempted to do this but Rome objected, of course. The visit was ill-timed at best because the people of Alexandria were preparing an appeal to Rome over the political issues between Jews and Egyptians in Alexandria. The social-political pattern of citizenship change occurs as a significant issue over and over in Gagers book. . From a Roman point of view, it was the region populated by the Celtic "counternation," that is, a peculiar species of "universal barbarians" who, after centuries of struggle, had at last been forced into compliance with the "world-saving" power of Roman victory, at the threshold of the era of Jesus and Paul. In the middle part of Gagers book, the issue of status change or citizenship change occurs over and over, whether with Romans or with Christians. Clearly, the destruction of the Judean Temple in 70 CE was important to Christian leaders who used it a proof of Gods disfavor with the Jews. But just because Rome appeared to solve its Judean problem by renaming the province Syria Palestina does not mean that the Roman propaganda during the conflicts did not have significant impact on the attitudes of pagans. Martin Goodman makes just this argument in Rome and Jerusalem (2007) by associating the rise of Christian anti-Judaism with the Roman propaganda against the Jews during this period. Other than this point about the source of anti-Judaism, Goodmans book largely supports Gagers analysis of the relationship between Jews and pagans prior to the revolts. Perhaps the most formative of the Christian debates that led to anti-Jewish polemic was the decades-long struggle with Marcionism. Given the contentious debates over Judaizing and the relationship between Jews and Christians, Gager asks a fundamental question: why not cut the tie to Judaism completely? Essentially, Tertullian salvaged the Old Testament God by providing a new myth for Christians that God had abandoned the Jews. This so-called gnostic view severed the claimed connection to Judaisms ancient traditions and hence nullified the argument before Roman authorities that Christianity was the rightful inheritor of those traditions and benefits. Finally Gager turns to the problem of Paul in the last third of the book. Beginning with Tertullians attack on Marcion and his recasting of the Jews as historys perennial villain, the story of Paul has been retold as a story of Pauls conversion to Christianity from unworthy Judaism. In this new telling, Pauls problem with Judaism was the law, or Torah, as readers of the Greek Old Testament (Septuagint) would have known. Judaism was portrayed as a religion of works righteousness which was an attempt by Jews to get close to God by fulfilling minute details of the Torah. This approach has been anchored in a new consensus about the nature of second Temple Judaism and the nature of Pauls domestication by the nascent Christian Church. Neither ancient Jews not modern Jews believe that fulfilling details of the Torah, by itself, leads one to God. Second, the realization that the Christian interpretation of Paul was incoherent has led to a profound conundrum. A second aspect of the new approach is to read Pauls objections as objections to Gentile Judaizing and not to Judaism as such. This is consistent with what Gager has pointed out repeatedly in the first part of the book: the main issue is a change of status or citizenship change. Paul thinks that is unnecessary since the main point of his gospel is that such a change was not needed to bring Gentiles into a true relationship with God. A citizenship change might improve ones worldly condition, but why worry about that when the end of the age is approaching? However, Pauls understanding of the new age was very different than what history has provided and that has left us moderns with deep puzzles about ancient writings. Gager has provided a necessary step toward a new understanding of Paul. In conclusion, the Christian Church cannot escape responsibility for either the origins of anti-Semitism or for the ongoing teachings about Judaism as an inferior faith.