Antisemitism: Its History and Causes. Bernard Lazare 1894


THE Church is the daughter of the Synagogue; she owes her early development to the Synagogue; she grew in the shade of the Temple, and from her first infant cry she opposed her mother, which was quite natural, for they were divided by a wide divergence of opinion.

In the first centuries of the Christian era, during the apostolic age, Christian communities sprang forth from Jewish communities, like a swarm of bees escaping from a beehive; they settled on the same soil.

Jesus was not yet born when the Jews had built their prayer-houses in the cities of the Orient and the Occident; their expansion to Asia Minor, Egypt, Cyrenaica, Rome, Greece and Spain has already been noted. By their unceasing proselytism, by their preaching, by the moral influence they exercised over the nations amidst whom they lived, they paved the way for Christianity.

This immense class of proselytes won over by the Jews, this God-fearing multitude, was ready to receive the broader and more humanitarian teachings of Jesus, those teachings which the universal Church, from its very inception, undertook to adulterate and to turn away from their true meaning. These converts whose numbers steadily increased during the first century before Christ, were free from the national prejudices of Israel; they Judaized, but their eyes were not turned toward Jerusalem, and, one may say, the fervid patriotism of the Jews rather checked the conversions. The Apostles, or at least some of them, completely separated the precepts of the Jewish faith from the narrow idea of nationality; they built upon the foundation of Jewish work accomplished before and thus won for themselves the souls of those who had received the Jewish seed. The Apostles preached in the synagogues. In the cities, where they arrived, they went straight to the prayer-houses and there made their propaganda and found their first helpers; later a Christian community was founded, side by side with the Jewish community, and the original Jewish nucleus was increased by all those whom they had convinced among the Gentiles.

Without the existence of Jewish colonies Christianity would have encountered much greater obstacles; it would have had greater difficulties in establishing itself. As has been stated, the Jews in ancient society enjoyed considerable privileges; they had protective charters assuring them an independent political and judicial organization and freedom of worship. These privileges facilitated the development of the Christian churches. For a long time the associations of the Christians were not distinguished by the authorities from Jewish associations, the Roman government taking no cognizance of the division between the two religions. Christianity was treated as a Jewish sect, thus benefiting by the same advantages; it was not only tolerated, but, in an indirect way, protected by the imperial governors.

Thus, on the one hand, unwillingly, the Jews were unconscious auxiliaries of Christianity while, on the other hand, they were its enemies, for which there were numerous reasons. It is known that Jesus and his teachings enlisted their first following among the Galilean provincials who were despised by the Jerusalemites for having yielded more than others to foreign influences. “Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth?” they said. These humble folks of Galilee, though much attached to the Judaic rites and customs, in which respect they were perhaps stricter than the Jerusalemites, were ignorant of the Law and were therefore despised by the haughty doctors of Judea. This scorn likewise followed the first disciples of Jesus, some of whom, besides, belonged to the disreputable classes, such as e.g., the publicans.

Nevertheless, while the origin of the primitive Christians brought upon them the scorn of the Jews, it was not enough to excite their hatred; graver reasons were required for that, foremost among them was Jewish patriotism.

The birth and early development of Christianity coincided with the time when the Jewish nation attempted to shake off the yoke of Rome. Offended in their religious feelings, ill- treated by the Roman administration, the Jews felt a yearning for liberty, which grew with their hatred of Rome. Bands of zealots and assassins traversed the mountains of Judea, entering the villages and wreaking vengeance upon Rome by striking those of their brethren who bowed to the imperial authority. Plainly, these zealots and assassins who attacked the Sadducees for mere complacency towards the Roman procura tors, could not spare the disciples of Him to whom the words were attributed, “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s.”

Absorbed in the expectation of the coming Messianic reign, the Jewish Christians of those days were “men without a country”; the thought of free Judea no longer made their hearts throb, though some, like the seer of the Apocalypse, had a horror of Rome, still they had no passion for captive Jerusalem, which the zealots strove to liberate; they were unpatriotic.

When all Galilee rose in response to the appeal of John of Gischala, they held aloof, and when the Jerusalemites triumphed over Cestius Gallus, the Jewish Christians, indifferent to the outcome of this supreme struggle, fled from Jerusalem, crossed the Jordan and sought refuge at Pella. In the last battles which Bar Giora, John of Gischala and their faithful gave to the Roman power, to the trained legions of Vespasian and Titus, the disciples of Jesus took no part; and when Zion was reduced to ashes, burying under its ruins the nation of Israel, no Christian met his death amidst the destruction.

One may well understand what could have been the treatment accorded, in those days of exaltation, before, during and after the insurrection, to the Jewish and Gentile Christians, who, with St. Paul, counseled submission to the power of Rome. The patriotic indignation roused by the nascent Church was seconded by the wrath of the rabbis against Christian proselytism.

Originally the relations between the Jewish Christians and the Jews were fairly cordial. The followers of the Apostles, as well as the Apostles themselves, recognized the sanctity of the ancient law; they observed the rites of Judaism and as yet had not placed the worship of Jesus side by side with that of the one God. The development of the dogma of the divinity of Christ made a breach between the Church and the Synagogue. Judaism could not admit of the deification of a man; to recognize any one as the son of God was blasphemy; and as the Jewish Christians had not severed their connections with the Jewish community, they were disciplined. This accounts for the flagellation of the Apostles and the new con- verts, the stoning of Stephen and the beheading of the Apostle James.

After the capture of Jerusalem, after that storm which left Judea depopulated, the best of her sons having perished in battle, or in the circus where they were delivered to the beasts, or in the lead mines of Egypt, during this third captivity called by the Jews the Roman exile, the relations between the Jews and Jewish Christians became still more strained. Their country being dead, Israel gathered around their doctors. Jabne, where the Sanhedrin reconvened, replaced Zion without extinguishing its memory, and the conquered attached themselves still more closely to the Law which the sages commented upon.

Thenceforth, those who assailed that Law, which had become the most cherished heritage of the Jew, were to be treated as enemies worse than the Romans. The doctors accordingly fought the Christian doctrine which was making proselytes amidst their flock. “The Gospels must be burnedsays Rabbi Tarphonfor paganism is not as dangerous to the Jewish faith as the Jewish Christian sects. I should rather seek refuge in a pagan temple than in an assembly of Jewish Christians.” He was not the only one who thought so, and all the rabbis comprehended the danger threatening Judaism from Jewish Christianity.

Some modern interpreters of the Talmud have gone to the rabbinical discussions and decisions of that epoch for weapons against the Jews, accusing them of blind hatred against anything that did not bear the mark of Israel; they do not seem, however, to have carried into their researches the requisite scientific spirit and good faith.

Originally, all Talmudical inhibitions contemplated the Jewish Christians alone. The Tanaim wanted to preserve the faithful from Christian contamination; for this purpose the Gospels were likened to books on witchcraft, and Samuel Junior, by order of the patriarch Gamaliel, inserted in the daily prayers a curse against the Jewish Christians, Birkat Haminim, which has furnished the foundation for the charge that the Jews curse Jesus thrice a day.

While the Jews thus sought to separate themselves from the Christians, the Church, swayed by a great religious movement, was forced to cast away Judaism. To conquer the world, to become a universal creed, Christianity had to rid itself of Jewish

particularism, to break the narrow chains of the ancient law, so as to be able to spread the new one. This was the work of St. Paul, the true founder of the Church, who opposed to the exclusiveness of the Jewish-Christian doctrine the principle of catholicity.

As is well known, the struggle between these two tendencies in the nascent Christianity, which were symbolized by Peter and Paul, was long and bitter. The whole apostolic service of Paul was a long battle against the Judaizing. On the day when the Apostle declared that in order to come to Jesus one need not pass through the Synagogue nor accept the sign of the old covenant, the circumcision, on that very day all ties which bound the Christian Church to its mother were torn and the nations of the world were won over by Jesus.

The resistance of the Judaizing who wanted to belong to Jesus and at the same time to observe the Sabbath and the Passover, was in vain; their prejudice against the conversion of the Gentiles was of no avail. After Paul’s journey to Asia Minor the cause of Catholicism was won. The Apostle was braced up by an army, and that army arrayed against the Jewish spirit the Hellenic, Antioch against Jerusalem.

The great bulk of the Jewish Christians tore themselves away from the narrow doctrine of the little community of Jerusalem; the ruin of the holy city led them to doubt the efficacy of the ancient law. It was good for the further development of the Church. Ebionism met its death. If Christianity had followed the Jerusalemites it would have remained a small Jewish sect. Having rid itself of the Ebionites and the Jewish Christians and cut loose from its mother, Christianity allowed the nations to come to it without forfeiting their individuality.

To safeguard its supremacy, the Church had to fight the Jewish spirit in two forms. The first was that noted above, the Judaic positivism, hostile to anthropomorphism and deification of heroes. Nevertheless this positivism has maintained its existence throughout the ages so that a history of the Jewish current in the Christian Church could be written, beginning with early Ebionism down to Protestantism, including among others the Unitarians and Arians.

The second form is the mystic form represented by the Alexandria and Asiatic gnosis. The Alexandrian Jews, as known, were influenced by Platonism and Pythagorism; Philo himself was the forerunner of Plotinus and Porphyry in this renovation of the meta- physical spirit. Aided by Hellenic doctrines the Jews interpreted the Bible and scrutinized the mysteries contained therein, construing them into allegories and further developing them.

Proceeding from monotheism and the conception of a personal God as their religious point of departure, the Jews of Alexandria were bound to come metaphysically to pantheism, to the idea of a divine substance, to the doctrine of intermediaries between man and the Absolute, i.e., to emanations, to the Eons of Valentinus and the Sephiroths of Kabbala. To this Jewish fund were superadded the contributions of Chaldean, Persian and Egyptian religions, which coexisted at Alexandria; at that time were elaborated those extraordinary Gnostic theogonies, so multifarious, so varied, so madly mystical.

When Christianity was born, the gnosis was already in existence; the Gospels brought new elements into it; it speculated on the life and words of Jesus, as it had speculated on the Old Testament, and when the Apostles, in their early preaching, addressed themselves to the Gentiles, they were confronted with the Gnostics, and primarily the Jewish Gnostics. Peter met them at Samaria in the person of Simon the Magician; Paul faced them at Colosse, at Ephesus, at Antioch, wherever he came with his Gospel, and possibly he fought Cerinthus; John himself fought them, and, in the Epistles of the Apocalypse he opposed the Nicolaites who were “of the Synagogue of Satan.”

After having escaped the danger of crystallizing into a barren Jewish community, the Church was thus exposed to the new danger of Gnosticism, which, if triumphant, would have resulted in splitting it up into small sects and breaking its unity.

All preachers of the Christian religion had to contend against this gnosis; traces of that fight are found in the Epistles of Paul to the Colossians and Ephesians, in the pastoral letters, in the second Epistle of Peter, in the Epistle of Jude and in the Apocalypse. They did not confine themselves to persecuting the Jewish spirit in the gnosis; as soon as the Pauline spirit had triumphed over Peter, they declared war to the Judaizing tendencies within the Church, as well as to the Jews themselves.

We find all these sentiments reflected in the writings of the Apostle Fathers, with a growing desire to separate Christianity from Judaism; and with the development of the dogma of the divinity of Jesus, the Jews became the abominable people of Deicides, which they had not been originally. The Pauline traditions resound in the beginning of the second century in the seven letters of Ignatius of Antioch addressed to the churches of Rome, Magnesia, Philadel phia, Ephesus, Smyrna and Tralles and to the Bishop Polycarp.

Still in face of these hostile demonstrations the Jews were not inactive and proved very dangerous adversaries. It was under the fire of their criticism that the dogma was constructed; it was they who, by their subtle exegetics, by their firm logic, forced the teachers of Christianity to give precision to their arguments. Their hostility worried the theologians; though having severed themselves from Judaism, they wanted to win over the Jews to their side; they believed that the triumph of Jesus would only be assured on the day when Israel would recognize the power of the Son of God; indeed, this belief has survived under different forms throughout the ages. It would seem as though the Church were not satisfied of the legitimacy of its faith until the day when the people of whom its God had come were converted to the Galilean.

This work was taken up by the apologists of Christianity, and their apologetic prepossession was mixed with violent enmity. Thus the Letter to Diognetus, which has been preserved for us in the work of St. Justin, and was written to refute the errors of the adversaries of the Christians, may be considered as one of the first anti-Jewish writings. The unknown author of this brief epistle, in his vigorous attack upon the Millenarian ideas, speaks of the Jewish rites as superstitions. The motives are not the same as those which actuated the unknown author of the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, for he wanted, and so he declared, to convert the Jews and convince them of the excellence of the word of Christ.

The most thorough of the apologists of that epoch is assuredly Justin, the philosopher. His Dialogue with Tryphon will remain a model of this kind of dialogical polemics, of which we have another sample from the same epoch in the Altercation of Jason and Papiscus, from the pen of the Greek Ariston of Pella; the latter dialogue was reproduced in the fifth century by Evagrius, in his Altercation of Simon and Theophilus. Justin, a native of Samaria, and well acquainted with the Judeans, puts all the objections of the Jewish exegetes into the mouth of Tryphon, meant to represent Rabbi Tarphon, who vigorously fought against the apostolic evan gelization. The author attempts to persuade him that the New Testament is in accord with the Old, and to reconcile monotheism with the theory of Messiah as the Word incarnate. At the same time, replying to Tryphon’s reproach that the Christians have abandoned the Mosaic law, he maintains that it was merely a preparatory law. Justin attacked the Judaizing tendencies in both forms, viz., Jewish Christianity on the one hand, and, on the other, Alexandrinism, which would admit the Word only as a temporary irradiation of the One Being. He closes with the warning: “Blaspheme not the Son of God; listen not to the Pharisees; ridicule not the King of Israel, as you are doing daily.” The irony of the Jews he met with sarcasm directed against the rabbis: “Instead of expounding the meaning of the prophecies your teachers indulge in tomfoolery; they are anxious to ascertain why male camels are referred to in this or that passage, or why a certain quantity of flour is required for your oblations. They are worried to know why an alpha is added to the original name of Abraham. This is the subject of their studies. As to things essential, worthy of meditation, they dare not speak of them to you, they do not attempt to explain them, and they prohibit you from listening to our interpretation.”

The last complaint is important, it indicates the character of the struggle for the conquest of souls in which Judaism was defeated. The second century is one of the most momentous epochs in the history of the Church. The dogma, still uncertain in the first century, is then formulated and defined; Jesus advances toward divinity and attains it, and his metaphysics, his worship, his conception, are blended with Judeo-Alexandrian doctrines, with Philo’s theories of the Word of God, the Chaldean memra and the Greek logos. The Word is born, it becomes identified with the Galilean; in Justin’s apologetics and the fourth Gospel, we see the work completed. Christianity has become Alexandrian, and its most ardent upholders, its defenders, even its orators, are at that hour the Christian philosophers of the Alexandrian school: Justin, the author of the fourth Gospel, and Clement.

While this dogmatic transformation was going on, the idea of a universal church gained strength. Bonds of union were formed between the small Christian communities, detached from Jewish congregations; the more their numbers increased the stronger became the ties, and this conception of unity and catholicity kept pace with the growing expansion of Christianity.

This expansion could not proceed undisturbed. Christian preaching addressed itself to all the Jewries of Asia Minor, Egypt, Cyrenaica and Italy, wherever there was an unorthodox element among them, the Hellenized Jews whom the Christian teachers sought to win over to their side. The propagandists likewise spoke to the anxious masses who had already lent their ears to the Jewish word. The Jews witnessed the failure of their influence and, perhaps, of their hopes; at all events, they saw their beliefs, their faith, attacked by the neophytes; the feeling of the Jews against the Christians was as bitter as that of the Christians when they saw the obstacles which the Jewish preachers put in their way. Furious hatred was mutual, and the parties were not content with Platonic hatred. The Christian congregations, unlike the Jewish communities, were not recognized by the law; they were considered enemies of law and a danger to the Empire. From this there was but one step to violence; this accounts for the periods of suffering the Church had to go through. The Church, in those evil days, could not count upon its rival, the Synagogue, for assistance; in some places where the struggle between the Jews and the Christians had reached an acute stage the Jews, recognized by Roman legislation and possessed of vested rights, would join the citizens of the towns in dragging the Christians before the court. In Antioch, for example, where the enmity between those two sects was most bitter, in all probability, the Jews, like the pagans, demanded the trial and execution of Polycarp. They are said to have fed with great eagerness the stake upon which the bishop was burned.

Still, not everywhere was the strife marked with such bloody manifestations. The controversy was always very lively, yet it must be said it was not conducted with equal weapons. The Bible was their common arsenal, but the Christian teachers had but a scant knowledge of it. They did not know Hebrew and used the Septuagint version, which they interpreted very freely, often relying, in support of their dogma, upon passages interpolated into the Septuagint by falsifiers for the good of the cause. The Greek speaking Jews did not hesitate to do the same, so that the Septuagint, a bad translation as it was, full of absurdities, became available for any purpose.

These controversies, which continued through long centuries, were not always courteous. Simultaneously with touching legends concerning Jesus, scandalous stories were invented. To humiliate their enemies, the Jews attacked him of whom the former made their God, and to the deification of Jesus they opposed the stories of the soldier Pantherus, of abandoned Mary; these were taken up by philosophers hostile to Christianity, and Origen refuted them in his Contra Celsum, meeting abuse with abuse.

Amidst these battles was born a theological anti-Judaism, purely ideological, which consisted in rejecting as bad or worthless anything coming from Israel. This sentiment is evidenced by Tertullian’s De Adversus ludaeos. In that work the fiery African attacked circumcision, which, he said, brought no salvation, but was a simple sign for distinguishing Israel; when Messiah would come he would substitute spiritual for bodily circumcision; he attacked the Sabbath, the temporal Sabbath, to which he opposed the eternal Sabbath.

But this special anti-Judaism, which we find again in Octavius, by Minucius Felix; in De Catholicae Ecclesiae Unitate, by Cyprian of Carthage; in Instructiones Adrersus Gentium Deos, by the poet Commodian, and in Divinae Institutiones, by Lactantius, was mixed with the desire to convince the Jews of the truth of the Christian religion, of the soundness of its beliefs, its dogmas and principles; hence the ambition to make proselytes among them. This anti- Judaism crossed with the efforts which the Church was making to arrive at universality, and during the first three centuries remained purely theoretical. We shall further see how, since Constantine and the triumph of the Church, this anti-Judaism was transformed and more precisely defined.