A Surprise from Saint Augustine

Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni, Venice
Vittore Carpaccio: Saint Augustine in His Study, circa 1502–1507

It is a pleasure to write on a book that derives from a modern scholar’s brain wave about the fateful insight of a thinker over a millennium and a half ago. Paula Frederiksen’s sudden inspiration occurred in an altogether appropriate place—Jerusalem:

I remember staring out the window of the Mishkenot Sha’ananim at daybreak, watching the walls of the Old City glow gold.

She realized that, between 394–395 and 399–400, Augustine, bishop of Hippo in Roman North Africa (modern Bône/Annaba in Algeria), had his own brain wave—or rather, a series of brain waves. As a result,

Augustine had come to a view of Jews and of Judaism that differed dramatically not only from his own prior teachings but also from the prevailing traditions of his church.

This was nothing less than “a Christian affirmation of Jews and Judaism.” It is the thrill of this book that we are encouraged, by Frederiksen, to “witness…the birth of an idea.”

But we have to wait for this to happen. Before Frederiksen turns to Augustine’s thought, she describes at great length the attitudes toward Jews and Judaism that emerged in the first three centuries of Christianity. This was the accepted wisdom that Augustine confronted and rethought. In the best tradition of the Religious Studies world from which this book emerges, Frederiksen is, when need be, didactic. There are many idées reçues about the relations between Christians, Jews, and pagans in the Roman world of the first centuries that readers are urged not even to think of thinking.

Thus, Frederiksen urges readers not to think that Saint Paul intended to replace Judaism outright with brand-new Christianity. Rather, she argues, “Paul was always an excellent Jew in both phases of his life.” He converted pagans not to make them Christian, but because he saw them as Jews of the Last Days. They would be gathered by Christ into a rejuvenated Israel, as all nations turned to face the true God, who had waited, silent and barely known, for their return.

As for the denunciations of Jews and Jewish leaders in the Gospels, Frederiksen advises the reader to take them for what they were—“fraternal name calling” between factions within Judaism itself. Fierce rhetoric of this kind was “one of the most unmistakably Jewish things about the Jesus movement…. The gospels are no more intrinsically ‘anti-Jewish’ than is the Bible itself.”

Her main point in this long introduction to Augustine is that the parting of the ways between Christianity and Judaism was by no means inevitable. It cannot be seen as the result of a supposed “monotheistic” closure of Judaism to the outside, gentile world. Nor can it be said to have grown, fatefully, from the preaching of Paul, and still less from the remembered sayings of Jesus…

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