The church fathers are the early Christian teachers who gave their name to the patristic age of church history, which lasted from the end of the first century to the early Middle Ages, and to the patristic literature, the main body of Christian texts from these years.
Their writings on Jews and Judaism illustrate a tension that continues to underlie Jewish–Christian relations today. On the one hand, there was acceptance that Jesus was born, lived and died a Jew; on the other, they wrestled with the problem that Jews did not recognise Jesus as the Messiah. The Jewish rejection was extremely embarrassing for the early Church and raised a number of challenges, notably in the formation of Christian identity and in Christianity's relationship not only with Judaism but also with the ancient traditions commonly called paganism. Pagans were generally sympathetic to older religions and held a revulsion for all things new, for antiquity was equivalent to respectability. Even though Judaism was criticised by ancient writers for many reasons, such as its alleged separateness and unfriendliness, it was admired on the grounds of its history. For example, Numenius of Apamea, who lived in the second century bce, described Plato as an ‘Atticising Moses’.
The arrival of Christianity led to some harsh accusations, especially as the Romans considered new cults as suspicious and dangerous. Pagan critics, such as Celsus (c. 180 ce), were quick to exploit the Jewish rejection of Christianity: as far as Jews were concerned, the Messiah had not appeared.
Since the beginning of the twentieth century, the relationship between Judaism and Christianity has changed dramatically and is one of the few pieces of encouraging news that can be reported today about the encounter between religions. The rapprochement in relations and the development of a new way of thinking were pioneered by a small number of scholars and religious leaders in the first half of the century. However, it was the impact of the Holocaust, the creation of the state of Israel, the development of the ecumenical movement and the work of the Second Vatican Council (1962–5) which in combination made the changes more widespread. As a result, Christianity, so long an instigator of violence against Jews, rediscovered a respect and admiration for Judaism, and the once close relationship, which had become a distant memory, has been to a large extent restored. For Jews, the traditional view that they were on their own and that Christianity was an enemy has been replaced by a realisation that partnership with Christianity is possible.
At the same time as gaining a new appreciation of Judaism, Christians now acknowledge their contribution to antisemitism and the detrimental impact of the legacy of the Adversus Iudaeos (anti-Jewish) literature. Christianity no longer holds that Jewish interpretation of Scripture was false or had been replaced by Christian interpretation.
The eighteenth-century European Age of Enlightenment, also called the Age of Reason, marked the beginning of modernity. It challenged the intellectual assumptions of the traditional religious and political role of the Church and religious authority in general. It witnessed not only the emancipation of Jews and the granting of equal rights, but also the denigration of Jews and Judaism, rooted in a new form of political and social thinking, called antisemitism.
Reaction to the Enlightenment was mixed as both Jews and Christians were struggling to come to terms with it, and in both camps there were radicals and conservatives. Some Jews, like Moses Mendelssohn, the Reformers and the Orthodox leader S. R. Hirsch, welcomed its political and intellectual achievements; others, including the Gaon of Vilna (1720–97) feared the potential of the new ideas to undermine Jewish religious tradition. Engaging in precisely the same battle, conservative Christians such as Pope Pius IX (1846–78) denounced the Enlightenment, condemning freedom of religion and applying the phrase ‘synagogue of Satan’ to describe the enemies of the Church. Pius IX's attitude towards Jews is demonstrated by the Mortara Affair, the forced removal in 1858 of six-year-old Edgardo Mortara (1851–1940) from the home of his Jewish parents because he had allegedly been baptised by a Christian servant as a sick infant. Pius, who took a personal interest in Edgardo, was aware of international outrage but was convinced he had acted in the boy's interests.
For Christians, the Bible consists of two quite separate but interlocking Testaments, the Old and the New. The New Testament, the second part of the Christian Church's canon, marks the beginning of the separation of Christianity and Judaism.
Written primarily in Koine Greek (with occasional Latin and Aramaic expressions) and dating from the mid-first to the early second century ce, the New Testament addresses both Jews and Gentiles. The designation ‘New Testament’ can also be translated ‘new covenant’, which derives in part from Jeremiah 31:31–34. Jeremiah anticipated a ‘new covenant’, distinct from the covenant at Sinai that the Children of Israel often failed to follow. In the Old Testament the term ‘covenant’ (berit) is usually understood as a sacred agreement and expresses the sovereign power of God, who promises in a solemn oath to fulfil his word to his people Israel, who have only to be faithful and obey. In the New Testament the concept is reinterpreted through the experiences of the early Christian community and represents a new phase in the covenant-story of Israel.
The translation from Hebrew into Greek provided a major challenge for the first Christians and had an impact on Christian interpretation of and in the New Testament. See, for example, the cry of dereliction that the Gospels record that Jesus recited in Aramaic on the cross, ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’ (Mark 15:34; Ps. 22:1).
This chapter deals with three interconnected subjects that have been touched on in previous chapters but need more detailed consideration because they have been and continue to be central to the Jewish–Christian encounter. Covenant, mission and dialogue illustrate both the extent of the common ground between Jews and Christians and also many of the difficulties that still need to be addressed. The challenge they bring is demonstrated by Nostra Aetate, perhaps the most influential of the recent church documents on Jewish–Christian relations. On the one hand, the document states that ‘the church is the new people of God’ and, on the other, that ‘the Jews remain most dear to God because of their fathers, for He does not repent of the gifts He makes nor of the calls He issues (cf. Rom. 11:28–29)’. The tension between the two statements is caused by continuing divergence of opinion over the identity of the people of God – both Jews and Christians have claimed to be Verus Israel, the True Israel. This claim is regarded by Jews as the very core of their self-understanding, yet for nearly two millennia the Church also saw itself as the True Israel and the heir of all the biblical promises towards Israel.
Covenant (Hebrew berith), a central concept in both Judaism and Christianity, is a subject that has been receiving serious attention from theologians in recent years.
THE ENCOUNTER WITH ISLAM
In one sense, Islam's influence upon Jewish–Christian relations can be dealt with under the familiar theme of supersessionism, since Muslims believe that Islam was the final religion revealed by God through the Prophet Muhammad (c. 570–632). Islam sees itself as perfecting the two monotheistic religions and the Qur'an calls both Jews and Christians Ahl al-Kitab (People of the Book). One consequence of Islamic supersessionism on Jewish–Christian relations is that it provides Christians with an insight into the difficulties raised by traditional Christian supersessionism of Judaism and what is sometimes called replacement theology.
Muhammad's religious practice at first owed much to Arabian Christians and especially Jews: Muslims faced Jerusalem in prayer and fasted during the Day of Atonement.
Surely those who believe, and those who are Jews, and the Christians, and the Sabians, whoever believes in God and the Last day and does good, they shall have their reward from their Lord, and there is no fear for them, nor shall they grieve.
But after Muhammad failed to gain the support of both other groups, his became a separate religion, claiming to be the fulfilment and reformer of all previous revelations, not just Judaism and Christianity. He expelled two Jewish groups from Medina; finally, a third group was severely treated, the men being killed and the women and children sold into slavery.
Nowhere is the subject of peace and understanding – or, perhaps more realistically, violence and misunderstanding – more evident than in discussions among Christians and Jews about Israel and Palestine, whether they take place in the tea rooms of London and Washington or in the coffee parlours of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, Ramallah and Bethlehem.
The apparently constant instability in Palestinian-controlled areas and anti-Israel attitudes of varying intensity in Arab countries, combined with the murder of Yitzhak Rabin by an Orthodox Jew in 1995 and threats from some Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews against land for peace initiatives, are reminders of what seems to be an intractable conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. A story is told about an Israeli and a Palestinian leader meeting with God and asking whether there will ever be peace in the Middle East in their lifetime. ‘Of course there will be peace,’ God tells them. They look relieved. ‘However,’ God continues, ‘not in My lifetime.’ More than a century after the beginning of modern Zionism, a peaceful solution seems some distance away.
Yet the political and military conflict does not fully explain why Israel is such a controversial topic in Jewish–Christian relations. Any conversation between Jews and Christians on the significance of the Land and state of Israel brims with emotion and passion. Why?
For Jews, the centrality of the land of the Bible, as well as the survival of over a third of world Jewry, is at stake.
Scholars disagree about when the ‘rabbinic period’ in Jewish history really began. Perhaps it started as early as the fifth century bce, with the return to Jerusalem of Nehemiah and Ezra, or as late as the second century during the reign of the Hasmonean dynasty. What is certain is that the rabbinic way of life was a new stage in the development of Judaism. In contrast to the Hasmoneans who concentrated on national issues such as the removal of foreigners (be they Romans or Greeks) from Jewish soil, and the Sadducees who were Temple centred, the rabbis emphasised Torah and halakhah (Jewish law).
The progenitors of the rabbis were the Pharisees, and the success of the Pharisees, and later the rabbis, enabled Judaism to survive without a homeland and without a Temple. Indeed, unlike other Jewish groups it was the rabbis' ability to respond to the catastrophe in 70 ce that enabled them, eventually, to dominate Jewish life. The rabbis replaced sacrifice and pilgrimage to the Temple with study of the Scripture, faith, prayer and deeds, eliminating the need for a sanctuary in Jerusalem and making Judaism a religion capable of fulfilment anywhere. All succeeding Judaism is ultimately derived from the rabbinic movement of the first centuries.
One result of their endeavours is the title given by Muslims to Jews (and Christians), ‘the people of the Book’ (Ahl al-Kitab), although Jews are more likely to describe themselves as ‘people of the books’, for there are many sacred books.
Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this to your organisation's collection.