Sunday, March 23, 2008

St. John Chrysostom (344-407 C.E.)

The early Church Father, St. John Chrysostom (344-407 C.E.), apparently concerned that the his community was losing adherents to Judaism attacked ruthlessly the older religion and the Jewish people. In his Orations Against The Jews he wrote, "The Jews are the odious assassins of Christ and for killing God there is no expiation possible, no indulgence or pardon. Christians may never cease vengeance..." and later, “the Synagogue is a brothel, a den of scoundrels." While not originating with Chrysostom (the charge of deicide first appears in the gospels and is repeated throughout early Church writings, for example, Eusibius and Augustine), Chrysostom's language is both more eloquent and more violent. Propagandists and Nazi sympathizers quoted Chrysostom and Luther for historical justification in the persecution of the Jews. But allow Chrysostom to speak for himself:

"It is because you killed Christ. It is because you stretched out your hand against the Lord. It is because you shed the precious blood, that there is now no restoration, no mercy anymore and no defense. Long ago your audacity was directed against [God’s] servants, against Moses, Isaiah and Jeremiah. If there was wickedness then, as yet the worst of all crimes had not been dared. But now you have eclipsed everything in the past and through your madness against Christ you have committed the ultimate transgression. This is why you are being punished worse now than in the past. . . if this were not the case God would not have turned his back on you so completely. . . . But if it appears that he has utterly abandoned you, it is evident from this anger and abandonment that He is showing even to the most shameless that the One who was murdered was not a common lawbreaker, but was the very lawgiver Himself, and the Cause, present among us, of innumerable blessings. Thus you who have sinned against Him are in a state of dishonor and disgrace, while we who worship Him, though we once were less honored than any of you [that is, as gentile pagans], are now established through the grace of God in a more respected position."

A millennium-old Byzantine mosaic of Saint John Chrysostom, Hagia Sophia

Pre-Constantine Rome

Modern antisemitism traces its origins back two thousand years to the gospels story of the trial and execution of Jesus. Once the gospels attributed his accusation and trial before the Sanhedrin, allowing the Roman governor of Judea to "wash his hands" of the conviction and sentence; once Matthew described "the Jews" as accepting responsibility for themselves and their children for the death of Jesus, the persecution of Judaism and Jews was assured.

During the reign of Herod there was increasing pressure from the Roman government for Jews to conform to Roman culture while Jews sought ways to maintain their own identity. Some Jews advocated rebellion against the Roman authorities. According to the gospels Jesus and his followers pressed for Jews to reform their practices and atone for their sins. Jews developed their arguments on both sides of the debate, but in all cases their arguments were described as within the context of Judaism. The gospels describe growing opposition to Jesus from the Romans and some Jewish religious leaders who did not accept Jesus’ interpretation of Jewish law. Jesus is described as being arrested in Jerusalem, tried and condemned to the common Roman method of executing rebels, crucifixion. His execution took place under the rule of Pontius Pilate , Roman Governor of Judea from 26-36 C.E. According to Paul and the gospels, God raised Jesus from the dead.

See also PBS' Frontline series, From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians. The separation between Jesus and his followers on the one hand, and Jews on the other hand, sharpened when the followers of Jesus claimed that he was the Messiah of Israel. This led to the foundation of communities of Jews not conforming to the Laws of Moses. Within a short time the non-conforming Jews formed a majority, and by the year 70 C.E., the schism was more marked.

Arch of Titus in Rome. This detail depicts the destruction of the second Beit HaMikdash (Temple) in 70 (C.E.), Common Era; Judaism divides into Rabbinic (mostly Palestinian) and Messianic (mostly Diasporic and partly converted "God Fearers") groups.

Mosaic: Jesus in His Glory about 400 C.E. Santa Pudernziana, Rome. In traditional Judaism a messiah is a Jew inspired by God to lead his people in times of need. The Roman Period saw a pagan power ruling the acred Land of Israel. It was a period of unrest and revolt and the Romans crucified thousands of insurectionists, several of whom either self-proclaimed or were considered by their followers to have been sent by God to eject the pagans from their holy land.

Judgment of Pilate, detail of 5th [far R.] panel, mid-4th Century C.E. (probably from the Catacomb of Domitilla). Of interest here is that Pilate, represented as finding Jesus innocent, washes his hands, a Jewish tradion. During the early centuries of the seperation, in defining itself seperate from "Judaism" Christianity as the "New Israel" coopted traditional Jewish customs and rites and denied them to traditional Judaism.

Christ with Roman guard before Pilate, detail of 4th [RC.] panel, mid-4th Century C.E. (probably from the Catacomb of Domitilla) The personage of Jesus emerging from the gospels is an insurectionist, capturing the Temple, the symbol of Israeli independence, and holding it for many days. As such he would have been condemned to death and crucified under Roman law. That Pilate is represented as not responsible is a reversal of historical precedent, and clearly meant to shift blame on to the Jews in an effort to appease Rome.

Early 5th Century A.D. British Museum, London. One of four ivory panels from a casket depicting religious themes. One of the earliest known illustrations of the Crucifixion. By shifting blame for the crucifixion onto the Jews, early Christianity laid the foundation for future persecutions in the lands of Jewish dispersion.