Some remarks about John Chrysostom’s homilies against the Jews

A. L. Williams useful book Adversus Judaeos was composed in 1935, well before modern political correctness or post-WW2 guilt.  It is written to be of use to Christians considering missionary work among the Jews, and to advise them of older apologetic, which he suggests is mostly useless today. 

Nearly a hundred writers are summarised, and the book is still of great value.  Williams states plainly enough that his collection of writers cannot be comprehensive, since it omits works in manuscript only, and to which he had no access.  But it has never been superseded.

When we read modern opinions about Chrysostom’s sermons against the Jews, we are always uncomfortably aware that those writing may not feel able to sound “anti-semitic”.  Works held dear but which violate political correctness are liable to be misdescribed; works hated may get the same misdescription in the opposite direction.

Williams’ comments are therefore refreshingly interesting.  As a man with no interest in the politics of our day, what does he think Chrysostom was doing and meant? —

Chrysostom’s Homilies against the Jews are glorious reading for those who love eloquence, and zeal untempered by knowledge. The Golden-mouthed knew little of Judaism, but he was shocked that his Christian people were frequenting Jewish synagogues [2], were attracted to the synagogal Fasts and Feasts, sometimes by the claims to superior sanctity made by the followers of the earlier religion, so that an oath taken in a synagogue was more binding than in a church,  and and sometimes by the offer of charms and amulets in which Jews of the lower class dealt freely. We cannot blame Chrysostom therefore for doing his utmost to prevent apostasy, partial or complete, and we cannot but praise him for the straightness of his speech, and his passionate desire that every one of his hearers should not only refrain from religious intercourse with Jews, but also do his utmost to keep his brethren in the same Christian path.[4] Sometimes also there are direct appeals to Jews  to turn to the true faith.

But that is all that can be said. Chrysostom’s sermons were intended almost entirely for his Christian listeners, and only exceptionally for Jews. How could it be otherwise? We gather from these Homilies that the Jews were a great social, and even a great religious, power in Antioch, but that Chrysostom himself had had no direct intercourse with them worth mentioning, and knew nothing of their real reasons for refusing to become Christians. Far more serious still than his ignorance is his lack of a real evangelistic spirit in his relation to them. There is no sign that he felt the slightest sympathy with them, much less a burning love for the people of whom His Saviour came in the flesh, or, indeed, that he regarded them in any other way than as having been rightly and permanently punished for their treatment of Christ, and as still being emissaries of Satan in their temptation of Christians. But that is not the way to present Christ to the Jews, or even to speak of them when preaching to Christians [2].

The notes are also interesting:

2. The tendency of professing Christians to frequent synagogues is not peculiar to Chrysostom’s time and place. M. Isidore Loeb in his illuminating essay on La Controverse religieuse entre les Juifs au moyen age en France et en Espagne tells us that in the Middle Ages the semi-Christianised peoples found it difficult to distinguish between Judaism and Christianity, or, at least, to see where one left off and the other began. They knew that Christianity had its roots in Judaism, and that the weekly day of rest, Easter, and Pentecost, were taken from the Jews, and the mother religion had fascination for them. At Lyon they used to go to the synagogue, pretending that the sermons were better than those of the Christian priests. In 1290 in Provence and the neighbouring countries Christians made offerings in the synagogue, and paid solemn respect to the roll of the Law (Revue de l’histoire des religions, 1888, xvii. 324 sq.).

4. This is the key-note of each of the Homilies.

2. Chrysostom’s hatred of the Jews is not confined to these eight Homilies, as may be seen from the countless references to them scattered throughout his works, covering more than seven columns in Montfaucon’s Index.

This is plain speaking.  Williams has no hesitation in describing “Chrysostom’s hatred of the Jews”, nor in describing the sermons as “glorious reading for those who love eloquence”, feeling no need for apology.  But his judgement is “Chrysostom’s sermons were intended almost entirely for his Christian listeners, and only exceptionally for Jews.”

We may, I think, agree with him safely on this, then.  As with so much else in the later Roman Empire, Christianity had become a badge of a community, rather than the means of salvation.  Chrysostom was merely defending the “turf” of the group who had elected him their bishop.


5 thoughts on “Some remarks about John Chrysostom’s homilies against the Jews

  1. Interestingly John does show evangelistic concern among the Goths, Arians and pagans alike, when in Constantinople. Perhaps there is a difference in his attitude to insiders/outsiders of the Empire. Also, the Jews existed as an established entity in Antioch, and were perhaps for this reason not seen as a ‘target’ for evangelism.

  2. If he really thought the Jews were being punished by God, he might have thought that they were predestined to it forever. In which case, he might even take the gloomy view that it would be presumptuous to try to evangelize Jews, because he’d be interfering with God’s punishment.

    Evangelizing everybody else would be different, because God said to go evangelize all Gentiles, right?

    Shrug. Don’t know. Don’t know if I want to know. Maybe it was all just his perpetually bad digestion.

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