Christian Persecution of Jews over the Centuries
There was a continuing rationale for the indefensible Christian conduct of the Middle Ages.
By Dr. Gerard S. Sloyan
Late Professor Emeritus of Religion
Many of today’s Jews are convinced that the horror of Hitler’s days was simply the culmination of centuries of Judenhass (“Jew Hate”). But is this what happened? Were the baptized Christians of Europe ripe for the pagan nationalism of Hitler, Rosenberg, Göring, Himmler, and the rest?
The Earliest Christians
The claim of Jesus’ followers that their Master was the sole authentic interpreter of Mosaic Law was not unusual. What set his followers apart was the claim that God had raised him up from the dead. Most Jews could hear this with amusement and, in the early days, without any violent reaction. As Pharisee-oriented Jews knew, the resurrection of the just would occur on the Last Day once it was heralded by Elijah’s return. There was no mention of the resurrection of one individual well before Elijah’s announcement. The Jesus Jews were convinced that their people’s scriptures had foretold it. Most Jews were not.
The sole written testimonies to the tensions over Jesus in various Jewish communities are the writings in Greek by ethnic Jews compiled around 135, later called the New Testament. They were written at a time when the language of the gentiles that had produced so much Jewish post-biblical writing was being disavowed by the newly authoritative Rabbis. The Christian writings were produced roughly between 50 and 125, and came to be called by what they were believed to have given witness to: namely, a “new” or, better, “renewed” covenant (in Latin, but a not quite accurate translation of B’rith: Novum Testamentum).
In two of his letters, Paul accuses his fellow Jews of substituting their own “justness,” resulting from Mosaic observance, for the only true justness: the one that comes from faith in what God had done in Christ. By “faith” he means perfect trust in God as the One who raised Jesus from the dead. Paul in effect accuses of bad faith any Jews who have heard his message and not accepted it.
Similar and even harsher language is directed at “the Jews” in the Gospel according to John. This late first-century writing features bitter internal Jewish argumentation. Hard fighting and harsh words were no strangers to religious strife among post-70 Jews. There was about this exchange, however, one tragic detail. Within a century one of the two litigants ceased to be ethnically Jewish. That changed everything. The fact was that many Judean Jews knew little of Jesus; and most Jews in the diaspora never heard of the movement until more than one hundred years had passed. This did not keep the new, largely gentile proclaimers of the Gospel from assuming that they understood the Jewish lack of response as a failure to acknowledge what they should have known from their scriptures.
The drastic change came in 380. At this time Theodosius I decreed Christianity to be the official state religion. By then, the earlier imbalance of population of Jews over Christians was a matter of distant memory, even if pagans in the empire still far outnumbered the favored newcomer. But the Jewish position became precarious with this declaration. Political measures against the Jews did not immediately follow, but the circumstance did not bode well for Judaism or any religion other than Christianity.
The popularly elected Ambrose, bishop of Mediolanum, opposed the efforts of Theodosius to acknowledge the civil rights of Jews, pagans, and heretics as equal to those of Christians. In a public confrontation in his cathedral, Ambrose made the emperor back down. He asked rhetorically in one of his epistles (40): “Whom do [the Jews] have to avenge the synagogue? Christ whom they have killed, whom they have denied? Or will God the Father avenge them, whom they do not acknowledge as Father since they do not acknowledge the Son?” This kind of writing typifies the shape the Christian argument had taken over the course of two centuries.
Peaceful Coexistence and Papal Intervention
There is no popular writing extant to tell us how the ordinary Christians of Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa thought of Jews and acted toward them in Christianity’s first six hundred years. It must have fixed in the popular mind the conviction that the Jews had crucified Jesus and that their descendents bore hereditary guilt for the deed because they had never repudiated it. A fair presumption is that Jews and Christians got on fairly peacefully at the neighborhood level, knowing that pagan idolatry was the common enemy.
The correspondence of Gregory I tells us something about attempts at the forced conversion of the Jews. He favors their becoming Christians, unsurprisingly, but demands justice in their regard under the terms of Roman Law. From his letters we learn a few things about Jews in the empire toward the year 600: that some were deeply involved in the slave trade; that Jews lived untroubled lives among Christians in certain regions and were dealt with cruelly in others; and that close living brought irritations in its wake because of over-vigorous chanting in adjacent synagogues and churches. The papal correspondence was, by and large, protective of Jewish rights, while continuing to assume their subordinate position in society.
Such was not the case in the century that followed Gregory’s papacy. At the same time, the expulsion of Jews was beginning in Europe; from France under King Dagobert (626) and under the Spanish monarchy—with church collusion—when in 694 the Jews were required to choose between baptism and slavery. These moves appear to be based on religion, but history has shown that all such expulsions and persecutions are dependent on other factors such as politics, xenophobia, and scapegoating. The unique factor was that the Christians arrived early at the erroneous conclusion that the Jews were being divinely punished for not having come over to their way of belief. Even when religious difference had little or nothing to do with specific Christian antagonisms to Jews, it could always be alleged as the root rationale for Christian behavior.
In the years 500-1500 the Jews, as a religious and a cultural minority, were often preyed upon by the Christian majority in a familiar sociological pattern. The papal record is consistently mixed. Harsh infringements of Jewish rights are censured at the same time that restrictions are imposed on their full participation in society. The vocabulary of guilt for Jesus’ crucifixion and charges of stubbornness and blindness recur.
Still, as many historians of Judaism have observed, these infringements of civil and social liberty never approached the point of the elimination of the Jewish people entirely—a terrifying first from the Nazi era.
The Medieval Era
After a few centuries of freedom from harassment during the Carolingian period (800-1000), the Jews of western Europe began to suffer new indignities as the crusades came on. The Muslims were the “infidel” targets in the attempted recapture of the holy places in Palestine. However, the pillage and slaughter committed by Christian mobs against Jews on the way linger long in Jewish memory.
The Jews of Germany were subjected to many indignities after the crusades, including accusations of poisoning of the wells and ritual murder. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, these slanderous charges often led to massacres. Many German Jews fled eastward, bringing with them a particular dialect (Jüdisch, hence Yiddish), possibly of Bavarian origin.
Several Polish noblemen of the Middle Ages showed special favor to Jews who immigrated because of persecution in Germany, coupled with a Polish desire for Jewish expertise in commerce. Autonomous systems of Jewish community government (the kahal) flourished in Poland, while the lower or grade school (heder) and Talmudic academy (yeshiva) were found everywhere. A deterioration of Jewish life set in during the long reign of Sigismund III (at the turn of the seventeenth century), partly as a result of measures taken in the Catholic Counter-Reformation. The previous centuries were certainly the high point of Jewish intellectual life in Europe, a fact that made more recent Polish anti-Judaism the more tragic.
The long reign of German-born empress Catherine the Great (d. 1796) saw the influx of perhaps a million Jews into Russia, and was marked by her giving them their first political rights in Europe. She settled them on land, however, as a device to keep them out of economic occupations and the professions. The Orthodox Church subjected them to conversionary sermons, leading to riots and slaughter later in the century. Many an older U.S. Jew has heard vivid tales from grandparents of repressive measures in the old country, including the need to lock oneself in one’s house on Good Friday against marauding ruffians.
Returning to Germany, we find Martin Luther in his early days naively imagining that the Jews, to whom he was attracted by his studies, would flock to the Church in his reformed version. When nothing of the sort happened, he denounced them in a set of pamphlets written in vituperative fury. He had produced the early, favorable “That Christ Was Born a Jew” in 1523, but after he turned on this so-called “damned, rejected race,” he wrote Against the Sabbatarians (1538) and On the Jews and Their Lies (1543).
European Antisemitism after 1800
The antipathies of Poles, Germans, Russians and others against Jews are often explained as if they were religiously based in the patristic and medieval manner. From the early 19th century on, however, anti-Jewish sentiment of Catholic and Protestant Europe, itself increasingly secularized, had other roots no less mythical. The proper term for it is anti-Semitism. Its target was Jewish ethnicity. It was primarily politically and economically motivated. Demagogues, however, were only too happy to put the ancient Christian rhetoric of anti-Judaism in its service.
Germany was populated with more Jews than any country in Western Europe when Hitler came to power. It also had the same ugly heritage of anti-Jewish sentiment as all Christian Europe. The short-lived Weimar Republic could not deliver Germany from the severe economic hardships it experienced after World War I. Jews had been the Republic’s strong supporters and a few of them were the architects of its constitution, a fact that Hitler capitalized upon. Huge inflation in 1923 and the depression of 1929 increased Germany’s problems. Some leading capitalist families, gentile and Jewish, managed to escape these problems, but the eyes of the angry populace were trained on the Jews rather than the gentiles.
Was there a direct line from the anti-Jewish passages in the New Testament to the gas chambers at Auschwitz, as some have alleged? Probably not. The line was indirect, beginning around 150 with gentile misreadings of the bitter intra-Jewish polemic contained in those writings. The theological anti-Judaism of the Church fathers, repeated endlessly in medieval and Renaissance-Reformation preaching, was the far greater culprit. It was the continuing rationale for the indefensible Christian conduct of the Middle Ages onward that was xenophobic and angry at Jewish resistance to absorption into the cultural mainstream. But because the Church’s preaching and its catechizing had long shaped the popular mind, a new phenomenon was able to come to birth: modern anti-Semitism.
Can the mischief of eighteen and one half centuries be reversed? Catholics point to statements like section 4 of the Vatican II statement on non-Christian religions (Nostra Aetate, October, 1965) which exculpated the Jews of all time of the charge of deicide (“killing God”), and warned Catholics against thinking that anything in their scriptures taught that Jews were a people accursed or rejected. Numerous statements have come from Protestant bodies in the U.S. and Europe deploring Christian anti-Semitism.
Documentation of this sort is important, but it is ineffective unless it is implemented from the pulpit and in church publications and educational materials. Christians need to become aware of their almost total ignorance of postbiblical Judaism, the hatred some have for Jews, and the violence perpetrated against Jews by their fellow Christians.
Originally published by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, republished with permission for educational, non-commercial purposes.