The History of Antisemitism Part 1: The early Church Fathers





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by J van Rooyen

The doctrines and teaching of the Church from its beginnings to the Fourth Lateran Council, laid the initial layer of ‘Jew hatred’ and took the Jewish people all the way to the Holocaust. This first step began with the attempt to drive Jews either into Christianity or into a place of non-identity, as Judaism was no longer recognised as a valid religion. By doing so, the Church clearly defined anti-Semitism’s first characteristic – ‘You have no right to live among us as Jews.’  It was said to the Jew: ‘You have no right to live among us as Jews.’

by J van Rooyen

The following article has been adapted from Luana Fabry’s website in Australia.

For almost a century, the early believers in Jesus the Messiah were culturally and ethnically the same as, and worshipped alongside, mainstream Judaism. The first ‘Christians’ as such, were Jews. The Torah [Genesis to Deuteronomy] was of great importance to them and they kept its laws, keeping the Sabbath and performing circumcision. They did not follow ‘another religion’, but remained within the Torah framework of Judaism. This Messianic movement spread largely among Jews to begin with, and for some time it remained as a sect within Judaism, mostly known as the sect of the Nazarenes. Early in the second century, the Nazarene sect, consisting of both Jews and Gentile believers who converted to Judaism, became subjected to a number of religious and political events.

In 117 CE, The Roman Emperor Hadrian built a temple to Jupiter in Jerusalem en renamed the city Aelia Capitolina, turning Jerusalem in to a Roman city. Demoralised after such a loss of Jewish national and religious life, which had begun with the destruction of the second Temple in 70 AD, the Jewish people looked for a Messiah to save them from the oppression of Rome. In 132 AD, Simon Bar Kochba was endorsed by the leading Jewish intellectual of the time, Rabbi Akiba, to be the promised Messiah and in 135 AD, Bar Kochba led a revolt against Rome.1  The Nazarene Jews, however, refused to join in the revolt as they believed this would go against their belief in Jesus as the Messiah. Although they had fought in the initial revolt against Rome, when Bar Kochba was declared the Messiah, they refused to fight under his banner. This resulted in bloodshed between the Jews on both sides. By the end of the second century AD, a wedge was driven between the Nazarene movement and mainstream Judaism.

However, the Bar Kochba revolt was not the only reason for this separation. As more and more Gentiles joined the new Jewish movement, the actual Jewish presence became progressively less important. Although Christianity didn’t officially take a stance against Judaism until early in the fourth century, division and differences of opinion begin in the first century AD.  As a result of the Apostle Paul’s mission to the Gentiles, the ethnic composition of the Nazarene movement began to rapidly change from a Jewish majority to a Gentile majority. For some time, Gentiles remained within the Nazarene movement. However, by the end of first century, non-Jewish influences affected the structure and beliefs of the now Gentile-dominated movement.

In the second century AD, many of the ‘Early Church Fathers’ or ‘Apostolic Fathers’, began to make statements which further separated gentiles from everything Jewish. Non-Jewish doctrines began to be developed which became the foundational beliefs of Christianity. Although Gentile Christians were not particularly opposed to the Jews and many still converted to Judaism, the formal position of the Church was decisively set against the Synagogue. The Church sought to conquer the Synagogue which in their view continued to cling stubbornly to its ancestral faith. Frustrated and embittered, the Church Fathers set out to prove that Judaism was a legalistic, dead and superseded religion.2  By reversing the Biblical image of the Jews, the Church claimed to be the “New Israel”, the “Jacob”, whereas the Jews were Esau and Cain, the murderers of their brother. Israel was portrayed as blind and divorced by God.  This theology of replacement, which evolved into a theology of displacement, stated that the Jews had forfeited what God had given them and now Christianity was the new “heir” to the promises and blessing of God. The Jews, however could keep the curses. In the Epistle of Barnabas, written around 135 AD, this ‘replacement theology’ is clearly stated. Referring to the Mosaic Covenant, Barnabas, writes:

Indeed it is ours; for Moses had hardly received it when they [the Jews] forfeited it forever.3.

The Church, however, did not claim the Biblical commandments in a literal sense, but rather spiritualized them. They perceived the literal as being only a shadow of what was to come; being that Jesus completed and abolished the law. To continue observing the literal Sabbath, literal circumcision, literal dietary laws etc., was foolishness and nonsense. The Church Father, Tertullian, wrote concerning the Sabbath and circumcision:

It follows, accordingly, that, in so far as the abolition of carnal circumcision and of the old law is demonstrated as having been consummated at its specific times, so also the observance of the Sabbath is demonstrated to have been temporary.4

In a letter to Diognetus, possibly written by Justin Martyr in the second century, similar statements are made concerning Jewish practices:

As for their scruples about meats, and their superstitions about the Sabbath, and their much vaunted circumcision, and their pretentious festivals and new moon observances – all of them too nonsensical to be worth discussing…5

The Apostolic Fathers continued issuing statements which clearly divorced Christianity from anything Jewish. The Mosaic Law, including the Festivals and the Sabbath, circumcision and Israel’s election by God, were all brushed away as things of the past. Also, in order to gain the acceptance of Rome, the now Gentile dominated ‘Church’ made it loud and clear that it had nothing in common with Judaism. In the Epistle of Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, to the Magnesians in 115 AD, Christians were warned of the error of looking to Judaism:

To profess Jesus Christ while continuing to follow Jewish customs is an absurdity. The Christian faith does not look to Judaism, but Judaism looks to Christianity…6

The teaching of the Church Fathers managed to invalidate Judaism in the eyes of the Gentile world. Although up until now the Jewish/Christian debate was not much more than a debate. The real turning point for the Jews in the Roman Christian world was the Council of Nicea, held in 325 AD.  At this Council, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman State and the concepts and claims of the theologians were put into practice and the separation between Christianity and Judaism became official. Constantine, Emperor of Rome and the leader of the Church declared:

You should consider not only that the number of churches in the provinces makes a majority, but also that it is right to demand what our reason approves, and that we should have nothing in common with the Jews.7

As the Church developed into the 4th century and became an international political power, it was confronted with the terrible fact that the Jews, merely by continuing to Jewish, threatened the very legitimacy of the Church. They concluded that if Judaism remained valid, Christianity would then be invalid. Christianity’s idea of redemption was so manifestly in opposition to that of the Jews, that it rendered their mutual coexistence inconceivable.  ARGUMENT?    
The Church fathers had to deal with this Jewish challenge and they did so in a most logical manner:

Judaism was declared an apostate and superseded religion and the Jews had now lost their right to exist. However, the Jews did exist and so the Church needed a reason for their continued existence. If their failure to recognise the Christ resulted in their dispersion and if Christianity had superseded Judaism in being a ‘light to the Gentiles’  then why were the Jews around at all?  ARGUMENT??
The church concluded that the reason Jews survived was to prove the truth of Christianity. They were to be around always, to be persecuted, vulnerable, wanderers on the earth without a home, as proof of God’s wrath upon them. The condition of the Jews was to be a negative witness to their crime of deicide. This was the purpose of their existence. The Jews, therefore, were forever, everywhere, responsible for his, Jesus’s, death collectively because they are a wicked nation. Furthermore, the calamities that befell the Jewry – the destruction of the Temple, and the dispersion – were seen as having Christological import, pointing to what Christians saw as just desserts for killing Christ.

Augustine declared:

The true image of the Hebrew is Judas Iscariot, who sells the Master for silver. The Jew can never understand the Scriptures and forever will bear the guilt for the death of Jesus.8

Concerning the accusation of ‘deicide’ – killing of God – Justin Martyr in his dialogue with Trypho, the Jew, stated that the Jews should ‘rightly suffer’, for they had “slain the Just One’.9.  If the Church believed that the Jews had in fact killed God, then it would stand to reason that “God is dead”.

The stereotype of the ‘deicide people’ was transmitted through theological writings, sermons and in following centuries, through Passion plays, folklore and the arts. Christian theologians condemned Jews, accusing them of being idolaters, torturers, spiritually deaf, blasphemers, gluttons, adulterers, cannibals, Christ-killers, and beyond God’s forgiveness. John Chrysostom, known as the ‘golden mouthed’ due to his eloquence in speech, unleashed a series of homilies against the Jews. In the late 4th century he falsely wrote:

They sacrificed their sons and daughters to devils; they outraged nature and overthrew their foundations of the laws of relationship. They are become worse than the wild beasts, and for no reason at all, with their own hands, they murder their offspring, to worship the avenging devils who are foes of our life… They know only one thing, to satisfy their gullets, get drunk, to kill and maim one another… The Jews are the most worthless of all men. They are lecherous, greedy, rapacious. They are perfidious murderers of Christ. 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 the Jews must live in servitude forever. God always hated the Jews. Is in incumbent upon all Christians to hate the Jews.10

Chrysostom argues that Jews will be crucified throughout history because they crucified Christ:

It is because you shed the precious blood, that there is now no restoration, no mercy anymore, and no defence.11

Persecution and violence toward the Jews became common due to heavy restrictive measures imposed by the Church against the Jewish people. In the three centuries from 300 to 600 AD., a host of rules were passed containing discriminatory provisions against the Jews in the Christian Roman Empire. These were summed up in four major rules contained in the Laws of Constantine the Great (315 AD); the Laws of Constaninus (399) the Laws of Theodosius II (439 AD) and the Laws of Justinian (531 AD). Under Emperor Justinian, Roman Law was systematised and codified as Corpus Iuris Civilis, or ‘the Justinian Code’. Church Law and doctrine now became state policy.

The total of these laws declared that Jews were no longer allowed to hold high offices or have military careers. It became a capital offence to convert to Judaism and intermarriage between Christians and Jews was punishable by death. The Torah was forbidden to be read exclusively in Hebrew and Jews were allowed only a prescribed version of Scripture in their synagogues and were also prohibited to use prayers that were seen as anti-Trinitarian. The keeping of the Sabbath, Jewish Festivals and performing circumcision were banned and Jewish property was confiscated. Rabbinical jurisdiction was curtailed; all former religious and governing privileges were removed and Jews were not permitted to testify against Christians. With the Christianisation of the Roman Empire in east and west throughout the 4th, 5th and 6th centuries, the increase in anti-Jewish legislation and teaching reduced Judaism to a position of permanent, legal inferiority. In all respects, the Jew had to remain subservient to the Christian, and Christianity soon began to enjoy a position of superiority over Judaism which caused serious consequences for the Jews.12

In 418 AD, Bishop Severus of Majorca forced Jews to convert. Violent street fighting broke out with a mob incited by the bishop. The synagogue was burnt. Finally the leaders of the Jewish community gave in and 540 Jews were converted. St Jerome, who had studied with Jewish scholars in Palestine and translated the Bible into Latin wrote about the synagogue: ‘If  you call it a brothel, a den of vice, the Devil’s refuge, Satan’s fortress, a place to deprave the soul, an abyss of every conceivable disaster or whatever you will, you are still saying less than it deserves.’13

In 489 AD, a Christian mob set fire to the synagogues in Antioch and threw the bodies of slain Jews into the fire. Jews could exercise no position of authority and Christianity had to be rigidly protected from ‘contamination’ through living, eating or engaging in sexual relation with them.14

The status of the Jew was thus no more than that of an animal, as Peter the Venerable, Abbot of Cluny, declared to the faithful:

Truly I doubt whether a Jew can be really human… I lead out from its den a monstrous animal and show it as a laughing stock in the amphitheatre of the world. I bring thee forward, thou Jews, thou brute beast, in the sight of all men’.15

Under the stigma of this image, the Jews were gradually excluded from every sphere of political influence and their political and civil rights were increasingly denied them, until eventually such rights were almost entirely a thing of the past. Church teaching, such as that of Chrysostom, paved the way for the slaughter of countless numbers of Jews throughout history.

Such statements as these were constantly made by Church leaders. The image of the Jew progressively evolved from that of ‘apostate’ to the total representation of evil – the very incarnation of the devil himself. The ‘Church Triumphant’ saw herself as bearing  the task of making the Holy Land (and other lands along the way) Judenrein. The leader of the First Crusade, Godfroi Bouillon, in 1096 AD, swore to avenge the blood of Christ in Israel and to leave to single member of the Jewish race alive. When the Crusaders arrived in Israel, then called Palestine, they rounded up the Jews in Jerusalem, herded them into the synagogue and burned the building to the ground. Marching triumphantly around the inferno, they sang a hymn – ‘Christ we adore thee’. Inside the burning synagogue, no doubt the Jews heard these strains of ‘Christian’ worship as they perished.

Soon before the Church’s Fourth Lateran Council, held in 1215 AD, Pope Innocent III condemned the Jews to eternal slavery by decreeing:

‘The Jews, against whom the blood of Jesus Christ calls out, although they ought not to be killed, lest the Christian people forget the Divine Law, yet as wanderers ought they remain upon the earth, until their countenance be filled with shame’.16

With this statement, the Church settled the destiny of the Jewish people for many centuries.

Church doctrine ultimately legitimised the torture and murder of Jews in Christendom for nearly 2000 years. They were to live as wanderers on the earth, having no home, rights or privileges. The Jews were treated as pariahs, and became the scapegoats for all the ills of society. People everywhere, in all classes, were eager to exterminate the Jews. These people were not born with an instinctive hatred in their hearts toward the Jewish people; their hatred was the product of clerical propaganda.17

The doctrines and teaching of the Church from its beginnings to the Fourth Lateran Council, laid the initial layer of ‘Jew hatred’ and took the Jewish people all the way to the Holocaust. This first step began with the attempt to drive Jews either into Christianity or into a place of non-identity, as Judaism was no longer recognised as a valid religion. By doing so, the Church clearly defined anti-Semitism’s first characteristic – ‘You have no right to live among us as Jews.’


1.  M. Dimont, Jews, God & History, New York, 1962, p 106-108
2.  Wilson, M. Our Father Abraham, Wm.B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Michigan, 1989, p 92
3.  Epistle of Barnabas
4.  Tertullian: An Answer to the Jews
5.  Epistle to Diognetus
6.  Ignatius to the Magnesians
7.  Dixon, M. The Rebirth and Restoration of Israel.  Chichester, Sovereign World, 1988, p 88
8.  Calendar of Jewish Persecution
9.  Wilson, M. Op. cit. p 93
10. Chrysostom’s Sermons, quoted in Dixon, M. p 80
11.  Cohn, S.D. The Crucified Jew. Harper Collins. London, 1992, p 33
12. Wistrich, R. 1991. Antisemitism: The Longest Hatred. New York: Pantheon Books. P 19&25.
13. Ibid.
14. Wistrich, R. Op.cit., p 45
15. Hay, M. Thy Brother’s Blood, Hart Publishing C. 1975, p 57
16. Brown, M. Our Hands Are Stained With Blood, Shippensburg, Destiny Image, 1993, p 13
17. Hay, M. Op. cit. p 35