Sunday, February 14, 2016

Feud Becomes Bias (Sins of the Medieval Church I)

St. Isidore’s medieval sin, you may have guessed, was a religiously based prejudice against Jews that led him to approve of measures against them. He was not the first nor, unfortunately, the last. This is a wrong that goes against the essential grain of faith in Jesus the Christ, who was Jewish himself.

Christian anti-Judaism rests on a misreading of the New Testament that conveniently supports Gentile biases against Jews that existed before Jesus came along. In the true and correct Christian teaching, Jews are still the Chosen People of God; the rest of us are adoptive children.

A Family Feud


Misunderstandings on these matters stem from the equivalent of a family feud overheard by outsiders who lack sufficient understanding of the context of what these people are saying about their relatives. Yes, there are many New Testament verses that in isolation might be used to justify unchristian thoughts, words and deeds against Jews. What’s missing is their context.

The faith laid out in the gospel was spoken and written down by Jews for Jews. There may have been the odd Gentile camp follower among the crowds around Jesus. However, the principal figures who knew him—even his adversaries—were all Palestinian Jews.

At that time, Judaism was a bazaar of wild ideas. There were Sadducees, Pharisees and many other religious “parties,” somewhat similar to Christian denominations, but without the brick and mortar and written constitutions. The Sadducees didn’t even believe in life after death (mnemonic: they were “sad, you see”).

The Pharisees were good and observant Jews, not bad people at all. Modern Talmudic Judaism descends from the Pharisees, with whom Jesus sparred. Even this may have been a bit of intramural mind wrestling, as suggested by scholarship that argues that Jesus was himself a Pharisee.

So keep in mind that when they “curse” one another they are employing classic Middle Eastern emotionalism. They are not stating that the person attacked is devoid of divine favor; it’s merely a vague equivalent of the modern “WTF” exclaimed in response to the absurd.

Similarly, when John in his gospel, frequently the source of anti-Jewish tirades, says “the Jews” did X, he is not talking about some other, alien evil people. John was a Jew. He was speaking to Kristianoi, the majority of whom were still Jewish, about the Jews with whom Jesus locked horns.

The insults Kristianoi and rabbinical Jews lobbed at each other were fierce, as occurs with close relatives. Some rabbis argued that Jesus’ mother was a whore and that Jesus was the illegitimate son of a Roman soldier. This was an insult, not a statement of theology.

So John, or conceivably some of his scribes, shot back, “Oh, yeah, well Jesus cursed all of you from the cross, you heathens!” Again, this is not a theological statement; it’s just a polemical riff that got stuck in the Bible.

How the Medieval Sin Arose


Misunderstanding arose when those who believed in Jesus the Christ were mostly Gentile. The Romans hated the Jews before Christianity. There is document after document referring to the Jews as what Romans regarded as an unruly, stubborn and backward people.

When heated street arguments broke out between Pharisaic and Christian Jews in Rome, soldiers couldn’t tell the difference, and at least once the emperor temporarily expelled the whole lot. Thus, the early persecution of Christians may actually have been anti-Jewish persecution by Romans.

However, Judaism was a legally recognized religion under Roman law. Jews were allowed to refuse the oath to Caesar. When serious division between Christian and Pharisaic Jews arose, the latter chose to make clear to the authorities that the Christians were not proper Jews.

Indeed, by then a large number were Gentile, and they responded in kind. Then the Roman emperor not merely recognized Christianity but made it the official religion of the state. Now the Jews (and pagans and others) were on the outs.

By that point Christian leaders were no longer Jewish fishermen whose entire frame of reference was Judaic law and traditions, but highly educated philosophers obsessed with defining orthodoxy and heresy. Misread rabbinical Judaism after Christ came in for a drubbing as almost the original heresy.

This is the point at which Isidore shamefully comes in, completely ignoring Jesus’ words, writing a heinous polemic, De fide catholica contra Iudaeos (On the Catholic Faith against the Jews). The bishop read the gospel as blaming the Jews for the crucifixion and cited Matthew 27:25 as proof that “the Jews sinning against Christ cursed their own posterity.”

Jesus himself, in another gospel, makes it clear that he blames no one: “I lay down my life that I may take it again. No one has taken it away from Me, but l lay it down on My own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again” (John 10:17-18).

Isidore’s misreading is part and parcel of the Hellenization of Christianity and the loss of the Hebraic thinking at its original core. He would have remained just one more anti-Jewish polemicist had he not exerted such powerful influence on early medieval canon law and had the Church not exerted considerable sway on the ordinary civil law of the arising Barbarian kingdoms.

In fact, Isidore’s sway at the Council of Toledo led to decrees that applied to all of Spain, urging that converted Jews break contact with their brethren, that the children of converted Jews be removed from parents who were found to be teaching them Judaism and that Jews be barred from public office.

It was the first step in Church-supported discrimination and persecution, which led to many others and was not confined to pre-Reformation days. Martin Luther in 1542 authored Against the Jews and Their Lies, a work that calls Jews children of the Devil. Luther declared: “If we are to remain unsullied by the blasphemy of the Jews and do not wish to take part in it, we must be separated from them, and they must be driven out of the country.”

Invective of this type convinced one mediocre Austrian painter, Adolf Hitler, to infamously declare: “I believe that I am today acting according to the purposes of the Almighty Creator. In resisting the Jew, I am fighting the Lord’s battle.”

How do we as Christians pull back, repent and acknowledge such grievous sin in our midst? Pope Francis recently pointed the way. In an open letter in the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, he recently wrote:

“God has never stopped believing in the alliance made with Israel and that, through the terrible trials of these past centuries, the Jews have kept their faith in God. And for this, we will never be grateful enough to them, as the Church, but also as humanity at large … [the Jews] persevering in their faith in God … remind everyone, even us as Christians, that we are always awaiting the return of the Lord and that therefore we must remain open to Him and never take refuge in what we have already achieved.”

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