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Was St. John Chrysostom Anti-Semitic?

What follows is the major portion of a letter written by an Orthodox scholar who will remain anonymous to someone asking for information about how to answer the title question. I came across the text and was given permission to post it.

Anti-Semitism is a complex issue in the Fathers, since the position of the Jews, over the centuries, has changed from that of a sometimes violently anti-Christian religious and social force to that of a victimized people. The same Jews who mistreated and victimized the early Christians, something often overlooked in contemporary historical sources, have in our times been the victims of mistreatment themselves. This observation must be seen, of course, through the prism of the Zionist policies pursued in the establishment of the Israeli State and the subsequent violence against the Palestinian people, many of them Orthodox; but certainly, as civilized people, we must recognize and loudly decry the atrocities visited on the Jews (and many other peoples, of course) during WW II. Ultimately, then, as I shall emphasize below, we should not glorify or vilify the Jewish people, but understand them in historical context: sometimes as persecutors themselves, sometimes as the persecuted. A controversial but, I think, very fair book by Bernard Lazare, Antisemitism: Its History and Causes (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1995), makes precisely my point: that to call anti-Semitism a single thing and to discuss it outside of historical context is to deal wrongly with the historical record. He also rightly points out that anti-Semitism often stems from intolerance within Judaism itself.

As well, it must be remembered that the Fathers of the Church view Jews as the adherents of a religion, as a spiritual entity, not merely as a race. And even when they use the word race, they also mean it in a spiritual way, not simply as we use it today. (Thus "Judaizers" was an accusation made against non-Jews as well as Jews. And sinners are sometimes called a "race.") These distinctions are lost on contemporary dilettantes, who think that the curse on the Jewish race applies exclusively to people of a single blood line, rather than to any person who, like the hypocrites of the Jewish establishment of Christ's time, perpetuate anti-Christian sentiments. A "Jew" can, once more, be a Gentile who makes a mockery of Christianity within the Christian Church. It is obvious, then, that the term "Jew" is used in a number of very special ways in Patristic literature. (We True Christians, in fact, are called, by the Fathers, the "New Israel" and "Israelites," in the sense of remaining loyal to the whole Covenant of God's Providence which the Jewish religious leaders violated and defiled.)

(One can perhaps compare the use of the term "Jew" by the Fathers to references to "Ethiopians" in the desert Fathers. This term is frequently used to describe dark spirits and demons. That the Ethiopians as a race were, at the same time, Orthodox, and that their race was adorned with Saints [prior to Chalcedon], this was a recognized fact in the Early Church. The word is used in a way that transcends race alone.)

Calling any Church Father anti-Semitic on the basis of ostensibly denigrating references to Jews, therefore, is to fall to intellectual and historiographical simple-mindedness. Applying modern sensitivities and terms regarding race to ancient times, as though there were a direct parallel between modern and ancient circumstances, is inane. This abuse of history is usually advocated by unthinking observers who simply cannot function outside the cognitive dimensions of modernity. My remarks in this regard apply not only to those who find literal anti-Semitism in the Fathers, but also to women, in our times, who, deviating from a true vision of femininity and a Christian understanding of the lofty place of the female in the Church, are quick to characterize statements in the Fathers about the FALLEN nature of women (which are often quite harsh) as symptomatic of a general denigration of females (as though fallen males are not also brutally portrayed in the Fathers). Post-Lapsarian and unrestored nature, whatever the gender of the individual, is corrupt and cannot be described in positive ways. (Restored men and women are another matter, and here equality in Christ prevails, whether as regards race or gender.) A clinical diagnosis of human spiritual ills is not the same thing as prescriptive racism or intolerance. To suggest this is unfair. It is not so much that the Fathers were misogynists or racists as it that those who find misogyny and racism in their writings are possessed by small minds, perplexed spirits, and the whimsical concerns of our age. I am loath to loathe anything; however, such smallness is something that I abhor!

With regard to St. John Chrysostomos, there are certainly very harsh condemnations of the Jews in his writings. In the most commonly cited of these, he calls the Jews "pigs" and associates them with drunkenness. I would never use such language today, at a time when Christian-Jewish relations and the course of history have brought about a different reality than that which St. John confronted. (Who in America, today, for example, would refer to "Japs" when speaking of the Japanese? Nonetheless, during WW II this was a perfectly acceptable public expression, on account of the reality of the hostilities which existed, then, between the U.S. and Japan.) As I have said, these things must be put in the context of the hostility which Jews themselves had against Christians and the fact that the Christian Fathers found abhorrent the rejection of the Messiah by the Jews. St. John's statements are expressions of theological and "ideological" (if I may use this somewhat inappropriate modern term) outrage, not of racism. It speaks for itself that he also praised the Jewish Prophets, those Jews (including the Apostles) who accepted Christianity, and even preached, like all of the Church Fathers, against the wrong or violent treatment of Jews. These things, of course, are seldom mentioned by those who want to make a racist of him. One exception, by the way, is an April 27, 1998, editorial in "Christianity Today" (Vol. XL, No. 5, p. 12), which makes some of the same points that I do in defending Christians against a film presented at the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, a documentary that holds Christianity responsible for Nazism (an outrage which even some Jews have decried). Finally, the Divine Chrysostomos was a great rhetorician. Much of his language reflects the rhetorical devices of his time, not the personal antipathy which a reader jaundiced by the "nicety" of modern discourse might attribute to him. This must be remembered at all times when reading him and other Church Fathers.

There is an excellent study by Robert L. Welken, John Chrysostom and the Jews: Rhetoric and Reality in the Late Fourth Century. It is an essential work. It very convincingly demonstrates not only that St. John Chrysostomos was not an anti-Semite, but that his supposed writings against the Jews are actually against the "Judaizers," a terrible mistranslation which convicts him unfairly of racism, when in fact his words are addressed to a theological element in the Christian Church. This work was published in 1983 and is a "must" for anyone wishing to understand the issue at hand.

I would also direct you to a study, History, Religion, and Antisemitism (I could be wrong about the title, but it is close to this), by Stanford Professor Gavin Langmuir, a prominent historian of anti-Semitism, which was published in Berkeley, in 1990, by the University of California Press. This work approaches the history of anti-Semitism with a sophistication, based on good historical research, that puts an end to that unenlightened and artless theory, first put forth in the last century by eccentric (though admittedly trained) scholars and passed about today by coffee shop "scholars" whose greatest skills lie in classifying toilet tissue by gradations of softness; namely, that there is a chain of thought connecting St. John Chrysostomos, Luther, and Hitler, and that its links are cemented together by anti-Semitism. In so doing, he offers peripheral support (amidst some ideas about Christian thought that I would question) for many of the points that I have made about our contemporary ignorance of the historical image of Jews in the ancient world, their anti-Christian sentiments and their violence against Christians, and the many ways that the Fathers of the Church used the word "Jew" in their writings and the diverse images that this usage entailed. It is important not only that you understand the context in which charges of anti-Semitism are usually raised against the Fathers (the Chrysostomos-Luther-Hitler link), but that you reply to such ignorance by pointing out the complex nature of anti-Semitism, its enigmatic history, and its various forms in Christian writings (for example, early Christian anti-Jewish polemics are something quite different from Medieval Western anti-Semitism, the latter more often than not the product of actual racism).

If you are confronting someone who has accused St. John Chrysostomos of anti-Semitism, enlightening such a person may be a difficult thing. You will face endless citations from his writings that most simply refuse to put in context. Moreover, there are people who simply refuse to relinquish the idea that anti-Semitism links Christianity, the Reformation, and The Third Reich. This comfortable view of history helps them to avoid that complexity that characterizes the true course of human experience. It also allows them to attribute to the Fathers of the Church a meanness of spirit by which they can separate themselves from the Patristic witness and thus the compelling force of Orthodox Christianity. The only thing that one can say about such tenacious anti-Patristic polemicists is that there is a definite link, in them, between the hippocampi and the glutei maximi, and this link is cemented in place by utter stupidity. Forgive my harshness and strong language, but blasphemy which is supported by ignorance, and which gains social acceptance, is one of the most destructive forces in society.

It must never be tolerated, however vogue it becomes.

I do not deny, by the way, that there is much naive, unthinking, and un-Christian anti-Semitism among some Orthodox Christians, whose wrong views are, nonetheless, supported by certain truthful memories, embedded as they are in the historical consciousness of our Church, of the harsh and undeniable mistreatment of Christians in the Early Church by the Jews: a consciousness which we do not hold in common with Western Christians, who are separated from the Apostolic Church and their original Christian roots and who therefore lack such memories. The naked anti-Semitism of some Orthodox people (which I do not endorse, and for which reason I have been ridiculed), however, pales, as I said above, before the putrid bigotry of those who, steeped in the hypocrisy of the modern world and its widespread historiographical disdain for the beauty of the age of the ancient Fathers, attribute to the Patristic witness the filthy racism and human denigration of human beings that belong as much, if not more, to our times and to the heterodox than to the ancient world and our Orthodox forefathers. And whereas modern man lays claim to supposed enlightenment, yet still practices racial genocide and is beset by the worst forms of bigotry, at least ancient man had his alleged social "primitiveness" to justify whatever injustices he may or may not have in fact embraced.

I would avoid people who like to dismiss the Patristic witness because of flaws in the character of the Fathers, whether real or imagined. I befriended at Princeton a brilliant philosopher (Rose Rand), then an old woman, who was one of Wittgenstein's few female students. She was a rabid anti-Semite. But this did not make her philosophy inadequate. It did not invalidate her brilliant insight into some very intricate theories about human thought and language. The same could be said of the Fathers. If perchance some were anti-Semitic (and again, to say this unreservedly and without a clear definition of terms is to nullify the meaning of intellectual history and to use language wrongly), does this mean that the Truth which they taught was tainted by their anti-Semitism? I think not. To say so is, again, simple-mindedness and ultimately constitutes an anti-intellectual stand. And anti-intellectualism, despite its moldy and revolting presence in some Orthodox circles, is inimical to the Patristic spirit.

The matter at hand is, once more, complex. It should not be discussed with people who lack an appreciation for that intelligent shade of gray that lies between the antipodes of white naivete and lack ignorance. As a case in point, Dr. Rand, my aformentioned, virulently anti-Semitic friend, was a Polish Jew!