(Note: In this format, I am unable to include the 100-plus footnotes in this essay. If you want a copy of the essay with the footnotes, e-mail me and I'll send you a pdf copy.)
(Second note: For a good video lecture covering a lot of this, click here. It will connect you to an October 2023 talk sponsored by the Center for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism at Indiana University.)
Is it even possible to describe the source of modern antisemitism, the hatred that was the foundation of the Holocaust? Are there, in other words, explanations that are more explicit and enlightening than simply pointing to the divisions of social identity — the cantankerous “us” versus “them” fragmentations — that have plagued and in some ways defined human social relationships from the beginning?
Modern racist antisemitism differs from historical Christian anti-Judaism, and modern antisemitism’s roots are many and varied. But clearly those roots have connections — almost in the manner of an umbilical cord — to the long, shameful, lamentable strain of theological anti-Judaism that has plagued Christianity almost since its beginning. It is important to talk about those connections, especially in light of the book I've co-authored about Jews in Poland who survived the Holocaust with non-Jewish help, if for no other reason than, as historian Saul Friedlander points out, “Anti-Semitism’s deepest roots in Poland were religious. In this profoundly Catholic country, the great majority of whose population still lived on the land or in small towns, the most basic Christian anti-Jewish themes remained a constant presence.”
In Poland, Friedlander concludes, “the role of the church was decisive.” And scholars Robert P. Ericksen and Susannah Heschel draw a similar conclusion on an even broader scale: “…the major reason for the murder of Jews during the course of Western history has been Christian anti-Judaism.” What happened, writes Professor Micha Brumlik, was that Christians assumed “that God’s wrath had been provoked because Jews were unwilling to accept Jesus’ gospel of love and freedom and preferred to continue to submit to the fatal and pharisaic law, but precisely these assumptions had allowed Christian hostility to Jews and helped make their massacre possible.”
There was not, of course, a single cause for the Holocaust. Besides modern antisemitism, other sources include what Steve Hochstadt describes as “the development among Germans of a vicious and public hatred for Jews during the 19th century, and the rapid escalation of attacks on political and biological enemies by the Nazi state after 1933.” To which could be added German racism (based on theories of blood purity), Social Darwinism, “Volkish nationalism,” and other causes, each of which could be explored in depth in separate books.
It is, however, anti-Judaism in Christian history that bears much of the responsibility for laying the groundwork for modern antisemitism. Historian Robert Michael has it right: “…two millennia of Christian ideas and prejudices, (with) their impact on Christians’ behavior, appear to be the major basis of antisemitism and of the apex of antisemitism, the Holocaust.” And historian Robert S. Wistrich agrees: “Without the irrational beliefs inculcated by centuries of Christian dogma…Hitler’s anti-Semitism and the echo which it found throughout Europe would have been inconceivable.” Even Mohandas K. Gandhi recognized this reality when, in 1938, he wrote this of the Jews: “They have been the untouchables of Christianity.” More to the point, Adolf Hitler himself recognized the connection between Christian anti-Judaism and his “Final Solution.” As he once noted, “The Catholic Church considered the Jews pestilent for fifteen hundred years, put them in ghettos, etc., because it recognized the Jews for what they were. …I am moving back toward the time in which a fifteen-hundred-year-long tradition was implemented. I do not set race over religion, but I recognize the representatives of this race as pestilent for the state and for the church and perhaps I am thereby doing Christianity a great service by pushing them out of schools and public functions.”
If it is true, as historians Marvin Perry and Frederick Schweitzer write, “that antisemitism, which seethes with hate, was spawned and nourished by Christianity,” what was the result in World War II? Again, Michael: “…a miniscule minority of authentic Christians, acting on Jesus’ moral teachings, helped the Jews, often at great risk to themselves. On the other hand, a much larger minority of Christians attempted to kill all the Jews of Europe. Most other Christians either actively collaborated in this murderous endeavor or tacitly permitted it to happen. Their behavior reflected Christian anti-Jewish principles elaborated over nearly two millennia.”
And yet this misbegotten anti-Jewish “Christian theology has disseminated ideas which not only depart from historical truth,” writes French scholar Jules Isaac, “but which often distort and contract it in such a way that they may justly be termed myths…”
But to begin to explain the sources of the poisonous antisemitic atmosphere in which the Holocaust could and did grow, it is necessary to back up to the start of the two millennia of Christian history. Unless we do that, the context of the stories we will tell in our new book will be lost, though it will be impossible in this essay to tell this story in the fullness it deserves. And yet it also is important to say that by the time the Holocaust happened, few of those responsible for it would have listed religious reasons for their hatred of Jews, nor would religion be a direct primary motivator for every person who acted to save Jews from the conflagration. It is, nonetheless, crucial to understand the role Christian animosity toward Jews played in creating the conditions in which the Holocaust could happen.
At the dawn of the Common Era, Judaism shaped much of life in the Holy Land. However, the religion was forced to live within the sometimes-harsh constraints imposed by the region’s Roman rulers, and Judaism was not without internal conflict. It clearly was a monotheistic religion — indeed, a good case can be made that monotheism was one of Judaism’s major gifts to the world — but it was far from monolithic in theology. The Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes, Zealots, and other Jewish subgroups bumped up against each other in ways that created a dynamic that was both vibrant and divisive. The boiling intellectual cauldron can be seen quite clearly in the Dead Sea Scrolls, which date from about 250 BCE to about 70 CE.
Given Judaism’s highly local and non-uniform existence under Rome’s oppressive political rule, no one could predict with certainty how it might react to any internal movement of dissent, reform or even heresy that might arise, though as historian Paul Johnson notes, Judaism regularly “produced fanatics and outsiders, but then accommodated them within a framework of tolerance.”
Nevertheless, after a messiah-focused movement appeared under the leadership of John the Baptist and later the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, Judaism eventually failed to hold the movement within itself, despite the fact that, as Johnson writes, there seemed to be at least the possibility that the Jesus movement could remain under Judaism’s umbrella, perhaps forever. But any prediction about that matter would have been little more than a guess. As it turned out, this Jesus movement eventually created a storm within Judaism before separating and becoming a distinct religion, Christianity.
Prior to that final separation, however, decades passed — in some places even more time than that. And even after the split, when elements of Christianity were displaying their worst anti-Jewish sentiments, adherents usually would acknowledge their Jewish roots because the man they proclaimed to be the universal savior was a Jew, said to be of the house and lineage of the great King David, who had reigned about 1,000 years earlier.
For centuries, Jews had longed for a messiah. The Roman occupation of their land, which began about 63 BCE, brought new urgency to this hope, in part because the imperial pax Romana created conditions under which Jewish leaders became vassals of the occupiers. Rome allowed the religion to exist and its adherents to practice their faith, but only within the context of the presence of a competing (or at least overarching) Roman civic religion that viewed the emperor as divine and required sacrifices and other actions to honor the Roman gods. It was an unfriendly fit and Jews strained under it.
As Craig Evans, professor of biblical studies at Trinity Western University in British Columbia, has written, “The land seemed to be at peace, but it was a Pax Romana, a peace vigilantly guarded by legions of Roman soldiers charged with squelching any hint of rebellion.” At the same time, Evans notes, “Jews were as diverse in their opinions as they were in their languages: Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, Latin, and (to the east) Nabataean. And this diversity led to inevitable conflict.”
Into this unsettled dynamic came an electrifying prophet, John the Baptist. He called on Jews to repent as the first step toward preparing the way for the coming of their Messiah — an anointed one John said not only would come but was, in fact, already here, even if not yet revealed. John’s astonishing message and the effect it had on his followers became so threatening to political stability that Herod Antipas, the king, had John murdered to silence him.
If the Baptist stirred up a revolt, it no doubt would result in Rome crushing Herod, and the king wanted none of that. With John’s removal, the ministry of his follower, Jesus, became more prominent, as Jesus gathered disciples and began to preach that what he called the Kingdom of God was already dawning. His brief ministry — no more than three years — added to Judaism’s internal turmoil, as the ministry of prophets always seemed to do in Jewish history.
Johnson argues — against the historical evidence — that Jesus “had effectively, and quite dramatically, broken with the Jewish faith, at least as conceived by the prevailing opinion in Jerusalem.” The evidence, however, suggests not that leaders of the Sadducees and Pharisees thought Jesus had broken with Judaism but, rather that he was wrong about his understanding of Judaism. They also feared that if Jesus were to succeed in creating a mass movement it would result in devastating political problems for them in their always-difficult relations with the Roman occupiers. Rather than breaking with Judaism, Jesus’ first followers, all Jews, came to believe — especially after many of them reported experiencing his resurrected presence — that his role was to fulfill, not change, their historical faith.
Some of the modern scholars who are part of the “New Perspective on Paul” movement make a solid case that the Apostle Paul, once a Pharisaic leader who persecuted followers of Jesus, never imagined that he was anything but a Jew. The major contribution of the “New Perspective on Paul” scholars was to recognize and affirm that Judaism is not a works righteousness faith but a religion of grace. But the work some of them have done on Paul recognizes that his belief in Jesus as the Christ — a belief he adopted after his Damascus Road experience, which caused him to quit persecuting followers of Jesus and to become one of their number — was a fully Jewish response to what his religion taught him about messianic matters.
But the writings of Paul — many of them letters to fledgling faith communities he had helped to start (they were located in a wide arc, hundreds and hundreds of miles from Jerusalem) — came to be used as warrants for the anti-Judaism (and, later, the racial sin of antisemitism) that often stained Christianity. Princeton religion professor John G. Gager puts it this way: “…the dismal picture of Judaism in Christian history is drawn largely from a misreading of Paul’s own letters… This anti-Jewish Paul has played an enormous role in the history of Christian dogma and practice.”
Gager and such other scholars as E.P. Sanders, the late Lloyd Gaston, and Mark Nanos are following the Pauline studies path established by Krister Stendahl, former bishop of Stockholm, whose work in this area began in the 1960s. In some ways, these scholars are trying to answer a question that Mark Ellingsen says the Second Century heretic Marcion raised: “Ultimately what he did was to pose in its most radical form the question with which we observed the Church struggle since its inception: What is the proper relationship between the gospel and its Jewish roots?”
This question existed from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. And it is an even more cogent question for our post-Holocaust era. It is raised in various ways in the gospels, which tell us that Jesus was born in Bethlehem to Jewish parents but spent most of his boyhood in Nazareth in northern Galilee. The gospel writers — whose work was compiled several decades after Jesus’ death — were not, however, writing history in the way we might understand that today. They were, rather, writing to persuade readers of their theological, political and social points of view.
As Ben Witherington III, professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary, has written, “The Gospels were not written to give a chronology of Jesus’ ministry as much as to reveal who he was. Even markers that seem to be precise were only devices to move the narrative along. Mark, for example, frequently uses the term immediately in transitions, but he usually only means ‘after that.’ The authors did not have access to the extensive sources available today; besides, they were more interested in presenting what was typical and revealing of a person than in giving a blow-by-blow chronicle of each year of a person’s life.”
What we know from these gospel sources, however, leaves readers unsurprised that Jesus inevitably ran into conflict with not only the Jewish religious-political establishment but also the Roman rulers. He saw himself, after all, as one speaking truth to power. So the gospel accounts contain many stories of ways in which Jesus clashed with the Jewish political-religious leaders of his day.
In some ways, these clashes were a precursor of the conflict Jesus’ followers would experience with political and religious authorities after his death; with Roman authorities, who eventually would begin persecuting them; with Jews after the decisive split from Judaism in later centuries, and even with themselves, as Christianity divided internally in many ways. (And, remember, the gospels were written after many of these conflicts among Jewish groups already had occurred or were at least under way, so often they reflect attitudes shaped by the conflicts themselves.)
But after Pentecost, when the followers of Jesus understood they had received the Holy Spirit, his followers began to attract many other adherents, at first among other Jews, and then later, especially under Paul’s guidance, among non-Jews, or gentiles. It was a propitious time for the spread of a new Jewish reform movement. The unity of the Roman Empire allowed evangelists to travel more freely than would have been possible otherwise; the widespread use of Greek allowed eventual distribution of the gospels and of Paul’s letters in a way that many separate languages would have made difficult; the Jewish Diaspora provided a natural audience for the message about the arrival of the Jewish Messiah, and the vast reach of Greco-Roman culture provided the atmosphere in which Jesus’ followers could shape their message, using, for instance, Greek philosophic categories.
So the relative ease of travel and communication in an area of political stability allowed for the spread of the gospel by people who were convinced (indeed, many were so convinced they were willing to die for their belief) that Jesus was God’s son, that he had come to inaugurate the Kingdom of God, that his sacrificial death was a gift to all humanity, and that his resurrection was proof that God had conquered death.
So in the decades immediately after Jesus’ death, a Jewish messianic movement developed that declared him to be the Messiah. Its adherents remained part of the extended life of the Jerusalem temple and of their local synagogues and integrated Jesus’ new teachings into their Jewish heritage.
The challenge for followers of Jesus in the early centuries was to figure out whether and how they could convince other Jews that their messianic views were right. The zealous missionary activity of the first apostles, including Paul, and those they trained began to attract large numbers of non-Jews to the Jesus movement. Eventually that changed the character of what became the church and made it much less likely that Judaism would keep the Jesus movement under its umbrella.
As Christians have sought to understand and either appreciate or devalue their Jewish roots, their actions and attitudes sometimes, though rarely, have led to calm and friendly relations with other faiths, including Judaism. But often, instead, they have resulted in conflict, in large part because of misplaced Christian triumphalism.
Studying the ways in which Jesus’ followers handled such relations with Jewish religious leaders and Roman political/religious leaders may offer inspiring models of how to stand up for one’s beliefs even to the point of martyrdom. But such study also can reveal approaches to avoid, such as an aggressive apologetics that imagines there must be something wrong with Judaism for there to be something right with Christianity.
As Gager has written, “Gentile Christianity,” meaning, essentially, the whole church since its final split with Judaism, became “arrogant, proud and boastful against Israel and, in the process, completely abandoned Paul’s gospel.” One result of this attitude is that many Jews by now have adopted the traditional Christian view, which says that Paul rejected Judaism and maintained that the only way Jews can be saved is by confessing Jesus as savior. In other words, they, too, have misread Paul and he has become anathema to them.
Once Christianity separated decisively from Judaism, there was a strong likelihood that the two religions would be in conflict, however closely they were related. This was true despite — or maybe partly because of — the incalculable debt Christianity owed to Judaism for many of its core concepts — including the fact that Christians adopted the whole of Judaism’s scriptures — as well as for the person Christians call lord and savior. What may not have been inevitable — and was perhaps impossible to predict — was the bitterness of the divisions and the breathtakingly evil ways in which many leaders of Christianity began to characterize Jews, who maintained and nurtured the roots from which the faith of those same Christians sprang.
In the first several centuries of the Common Era, Christianity was engaged in raucous efforts to find its theological sea legs. It also was seeking to overcome persecution and be faithful to the mandate of Jesus to go into all the world and make disciples. All of those activities inevitably required that Christianity intentionally differentiate itself from what Professor Warren Carter, formerly of the St. Paul School of Theology, now of Brite Divinity School, has called “the diversity and complexity of first century Judaism.”
But that differentiation was no easy task. And, of course, any effort by any group to create a separate identity leads almost without fail to criticism of — or animosity toward — that from which it is separating, however reluctant the parting. One reason the Christianity-from-Judaism separation task was so painful was that the early Jewish members of the Jesus movement always saw themselves as Jews, as did the Jews with whom they were in conflict. But beyond that, nearly the whole of the theology promoted by those followers of Jesus was thoroughly Jewish in character.
The theological common ground for those Jews who followed Jesus and those who did not certainly can be seen in their shared concept of God as rescuer, redeemer and liberator of what that same God created. As Lutheran theologian Robert W. Jenson notes, “Asked who God is, Israel’s answer is, ‘Whoever rescued us from Egypt.’ … To the question ‘Who is God?’ the New Testament has one descriptively identifying answer: ‘Whoever raised Jesus from the dead.’ ” In both answers suggested by Jenson the vision of God is identical.
The difference — a significant one that later would be articulated with increasing clarity by such ecumenical church councils as Nicea in 325, Constantinople in 381 and Chalcedon in 451 — emerged as the Jesus movement became Christianity and began to describe this God as triune, which is to say one God made up of three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This insistence that not only was the creator God, but so were both Jesus Christ and a third person, the Spirit, made any formal theological reconciliation and reunification between Christians and Jews impossible.
Trinitarian doctrine created a decisive fork in the road. Judaism’s remarkable capacity to draw back to itself many splinter groups — and to maintain a large umbrella under which a wide range of approaches to Judaism was permissible — was pushed beyond the breaking point by the claim that Jesus was divine. Jews, who maintained the insistently monotheistic claims of the Sh’ma, could not find room in their theology for Trinitarian monotheism, despite Christian insistence that the triune God is, in fact, one — and the Holy One of Israel at that.
But as for Christianity’s debt to Judaism, it goes far beyond its shared concept of God as redeemer and liberator of the divine creation and its shared scriptures. Many other Christian concepts would be drained of meaning if they were detached from their Jewish roots. Among them: the kingdom of God; an expectation of a future restoration; the Lamb of God; the Eucharist, with its idea of blood sacrifice (though not blood consumption), and even worship itself, including much liturgy. Synagogue worship provided the foundational form and much of the content of later Christian worship. And the use of the synagogue as a community center, a place of hospitality for travelers, and a nexus of regional connections served as a model for the Christian church as it moved from worship in homes to permanent structures throughout the Roman Empire.
But the writings of what eventually became the New Testament created a serious wedge between Jews who followed of Jesus and Jews who did not. As we’ve already noted, many “New Perspective on Paul” scholars now believe the New Testament writings of Paul have been misread and misused for centuries as a primary source of anti-Judaism.
Gager, for instance, writes, “…Paul has long been regarded as the source for Christian hatred of Jews and Judaism … (while) among Jews he has been the most hated of all Christians.” And Nanos has described this misreading of Paul as “the most vicious root of theological anti-Judaism.”
The several centuries after Jerusalem’s destruction are pocked with evidence that anti-Judaism, whatever its source, became a prominent aspect of Christian thought and life. Prejudice against Jews eventually was given various levels of church and state approval once the small band of Jesus’ early followers had grown to become the official and only approved religion of the Roman Empire, which occurred toward the end of the fourth century, some decades after the Edict of Milan early in the century had forbidden persecution of Christians.
Again, Robert Michael: “The churches and their theologians had formulated compelling religious, social, and moral ideas that provided a conceptual framework for the perception of the Jew as less than human, or as inhuman, devilish, and satanic, and these churches and theologians had proclaimed Jews traitors, murderers, plague, pollution, filth, and insects long before the National-Socialists called Jews traitors, murderers, plague, pollution, filth, devils, and insects.”
At the center of the early anti-Judaism found in the church is a charge given prominent voice as early as the second century by Bishop Melito of Sardis — the charge of deicide. Jews, he said — echoing some passages of the New Testament gospels, especially John — killed Christ, the son of God, the very one the Council of Nicea would declare to be of the same substance as God the Father.
As author James Carroll has noted, the charge stood until it was “officially quashed by the bishops of the Second Vatican Council in 1965, yet it remains the ground of all Jew hatred.” Carroll then quotes Jewish theologian Richard Rubenstein this way: “(O)nly the terrible accusation, known and taught to every Christian in earliest childhood, that the Jews are the killers of the Christ, can account for the depth and persistence of this supreme hatred.” (The assertion that every Christian child is taught to regard Jews as Christ killers no longer is true in much of the world, though the idea has not lost all traction even decades after the Holocaust. Today it is more likely that Muslim, not Christian, children are fed antisemitic ideas, though that varies from place to place.)
The deicide charge is deeply complicit in the anti-Judaism that began to infect the church — and, through the church, the state — in the early centuries of Christianity. Robert Michael explains it this way: “In the earliest centuries of the Christian era, preexisting pagan antagonism toward Jews…was replaced by the conviction that Jews, all Jews, were forever responsible for murdering God. … This anti-Jewish attitude became a permanent element in the fundamental identity of Western Christian civilization.”
Later Michael declares that “…Christ-killers was the essential Christian accusation against contemporary Jews throughout the patristic period” and that “the antisemitic interpretation of the New Testament by the Church Fathers is the main root of antisemitism.”
Some examples of anti-Jewish attitudes of this period: The emperor Constantine adopted a policy of Jewish segregation so that faithful Christians “would not be polluted by Jewish false teachings.” The church father Origen declared that “…the blood of Jesus falls not only on the Jews of that time, but on all generations of Jews up to the end of the world.” John Chrysostom, a bitterly anti-Jewish church father, called the synagogue “a whorehouse,” an attack motivated at least in part by the reality that at least some church members were still connected to synagogues as late as the late Fourth Century. Bishop Gregory of Nyssa described Jews as “Murderers of the Lord, killers of the prophets, enemies and slanderers of God…” Jerome, the teacher of Augustine, said that if you call the synagogue “a brothel, a den of vice, the Devil’s refuge, Satan’s fortress, a place to deprave the soul, an abyss of every conceivable disaster or whatever else you will, you are still saying less than it deserves.” And Augustine said the “Jews have been scattered throughout all nations as witnesses to their own sin and to our truth.” All this presaged later condemnations, including that of Martin Luther, which eventually gave theological warrant to Nazi ideology and its goal of eliminating European Jewry.
The tensions that developed between Judaism and early Christianity, of course, at times ran both ways and sometimes created intra-faith tensions — even while grass roots relations between Christians and Jews until the early Middle Ages were often not marked by overwhelming hostility.
Robert E. Van Voorst notes that some Jewish leaders occasionally persecuted Jews who became members of the Jesus movement. Indeed, Sam Waagenaar reports that the Jews of Rome are known to have brought one Jew who became a follower of Jesus, “a certain Joseph, forcibly back to the synagogue, where a committee of elders then condemned him to be whipped.”
But by the middle of the second century, the Jesus movement in most locations had grown beyond being another sect of Judaism. As this transition occurred, Roman authorities, who had tolerated Jesus’ followers when they were assumed to be part of Judaism, began to see them as outside an officially permitted religion. So, off and on, Rome began persecuting people (mostly by then non-Jews, or gentiles) who had started calling themselves Christians and who began to think of themselves as outside the boundaries of Judaism.
The persecution of Jesus’ followers had begun earlier, under the Roman emperor Nero, in about 64 CE, and the book of Revelation was written to bolster the spirits of such persecuted followers. These persecutions established the pattern for persecutions to follow in such places as Lyon, where Irenaeus was sent to be bishop — and they set the stage for battles over Donatism, with its insistence that bishops and others who had not stood up to the persecutions should be considered unworthy to be called Christians.
Irenaeus had studied under Polycarp, one of the more famous martyrs, or victims, of Roman persecution. Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, was martyred about 155, some 50 years after his friend Ignatius, the bishop of Antioch, was martyred under Trajan. Ignatius believed Christianity had replaced Judaism (supersessionism is quite an old idea) and, thus, Christians could trace their heritage back to Abraham more directly than could Jews. Similarly, Justin Martyr, in a theological sleight-of-hand remarkable for its audacity, believed Christianity was a more ancient religion than Judaism. Thus, he also asserted, Christians, not Jews, were the holders of truth.
Coming out of the First Century, the Jesus movement gained rather astonishing momentum. From a small base in a small corner of the Roman Empire, the religion exploded over the next several hundred years to capture the whole empire. To be sure, Christianity did not tread a smooth path to get to that exalted position of favor. It wrestled with internal dissension and theological disputes, especially over how to describe and define Christ, and all of that took enormous effort and time. Even the settlement of some of those matters — such as whether Christ had one or two natures and whether he was God the Father’s first creation or, rather, was co-eternal with the Father — produced schisms and dissension that threatened to atomize the church.
But the religion’s growth, nonetheless, was stunning as it moved from Palestine into northern Africa, western Asia, India, and eventually into much of Europe, though its domination of Europe would not be completed for centuries. However, as Christianity became a religion with bases in many lands, it never destroyed Judaism or made it irrelevant. Even all the official and unofficial anti-Judaism that Christianity sponsored never convinced most Jews to abandon their religion and accept the idea that their Messiah had come as Jesus of Nazareth.
And perhaps that is not so surprising. After all, even Paul — often wrongly (or at least simplistically) identified as the founder of Christianity — was unconvinced by listening to the testimony of members of the Jesus movement or by reading any documents that the movement created. It took the sensational Damascus Road experience to change Saul the persecutor of Jesus’ followers into Paul, a follower himself.
Christianity in these early centuries — its attention divided by internal battles over what it termed heretical theologies — was simply incapable of devoting prolonged and consistent attention to proselytizing Jews, especially once it began to attract non-Jews in large numbers.
Before Constantine’s move to make Christianity not just legal but the official religion of the Roman Empire, it was forced to struggle against the empire’s state-based religion, with its divine emperors, and it was required to confront the many pagan faiths practiced by residents of lands into which Christianity was making headway. The result was that by the start of the early Middle Ages, Christianity’s early anti-Judaism had not righted itself and, thus, was firmly in place.
In those Middle Ages — both early and late — Christianity struggled to standardize its theology and to consolidate the remarkable growth it had experienced in the first several centuries after its split from Judaism. Geographically, by the early fifth century, Christianity had gained a strong foothold as far west from Jerusalem as Ireland, from which, in turn, it sent out many missionaries.
In this time, Christianity sought to define more explicitly — and then marginalize — those whom it considered heretics. And it tried to create the ecclesial structures that would allow a system of centralized church authority to define true doctrine. As the church moved through this tumultuous period, it eventually split apart, East from West, in the “Great Schism” of 1054 as a result of problems that had been brewing for centuries. (The term East here refers to the churches that were tethered to the bishopric of Constantinople, not to what became known as the Church of the East, which later occupied more independent status in such lands as today’s Iran and Turkey.)
Then, just before the dawn of the Twelfth Century, the Western church, with its See in Rome, launched the Crusades, which forever set Christianity over against Islam and worsened already terrible relations with Judaism. Indeed, for decades before the Crusades began, anti-Jewish sentiment had been building after rumors spread that the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem had been sacked. Jews became scapegoats on whom Christians pinned that development as well as other perceived evils.
In all of this upheaval, Christian leaders never lost their appetite for promoting anti-Judaism. Some analysts — among them Carroll and Michael — even argue that the roots of Christian anti-Judaism can be traced all the way back to the gospels, particularly to John (but also Matthew), with its language that some believe can be interpreted as indicting Jews for killing Jesus. It was this very concern, in part, that led scholars in the 1980s and 1990s to produce the Contemporary English Version of the Christian Bible. While being faithful to the original text, this Bible clarifies when the text refers just to “Jewish leaders” and when it refers to the rest of the people, in which case the term “crowd” often is used, rather than the term “the Jews,” which, through repetition, acquires a pejorative meaning.
Whatever the source of the anti-Jewish cancer, it did not go into remission in the Middle Ages. Nor was the Vatican the only source of the disease. As historian Robert Wistrich notes, “The most implacable religious adversaries of the Jews in the late Middle Ages were not the popes but the mendicant Franciscan and Dominican orders.”
The era’s frenzy for theological purity that rejected Judaism as a sickness helped to create an oppressive atmosphere in which Jews not only were routinely slandered as Christ killers but also as “usurers, poisoners, and child killers.” This attitude toward Jews was considerably harsher than they had experienced under the pre-Constantinian Roman Empire, which at least tolerated Jews and allowed them some freedoms as practitioners of a legitimate religion.
Remarkably enough, the idea that Jews were guilty of deicide was not even mitigated by the theology of such influential Christian leaders as Anselm of Canterbury, who, in the Eleventh Century, argued that Jesus’ death was necessary as a payment to God. The toxic reality of anti-Jewish sentiment in the medieval church so permeated the church and society that it was no surprise when it also led to the creation, in the Thirteenth Century, of the first Inquisition and its attendant horrors.
That narrow inquisitional — and, thus, Middle Ages — view of what was truth has spawned children from then until our own time, children who cannot conceive of any truth outside their own. One of those children, at least in terms of anti-Judaism, was Martin Luther, the Sixteenth Century reformer who turned bitterly against the Jews when they continued to reject conversion to the Christian church even after he had reformed it — or at least had helped to create a reformed alternative to the Catholic Church. As David Berger notes, “The vulgar fulminations in the late works of Luther did not arise ex nihilo.”
I’ll say more about Luther later, but it’s useful to note now that in 1543 Luther published "On the Jews and Their Lies" in which he proposed forbidding rabbis to teach, destroying Jewish homes, schools, and synagogues, and confiscating Jewish prayer books. Luther said that if Jews, whom he called “these miserable and accursed people,” refused after all that to convert to Christianity, they should be driven from Germany — as, in fact, they had been driven from Spain 50 years earlier, the very year Christopher Columbus sailed off to what turned out to be the New World.
Wistrich says that Jews viewed Luther not as a forerunner of the Enlightenment but “a medieval man who gave a new legitimacy and power to antisemitism.” It should not be shocking that so honored a theologian as Luther was saturated with anti-Jewish poison. He was, after all, in sync with many of the church fathers, including the giant Augustine, who saw Jews as pitiful slaves to the Law.
In City of God, Augustine, developing his enormously influential theology, wrote that “the divine revelations made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and all other signs and prophecies contained in the early Scriptures, are sometimes related to the carnal progeny of Abraham and, at other times, to that spiritual progeny which means all nations that are blessed and called to eternal life in the kingdom of heaven as co-heirs of Christ in the New Testament.” As Angela Feres writes, “Augustine tied Judaism to carnality while reserving the realm of the spirit for Christians. Carnality can be equated with materiality and the senses. As such, it is the lowest level of appreciating and worshiping the divine. The spiritual plane existed at a higher level of existence than the material and could be viewed as being above, ruling over, the lower material plane.”
In some ways, then, the early anti-Judaism of Augustine and many others gave permission to later Christian thinkers to wallow in that same mud. But Christians often had political help to move their anti-Judaism from theory to political antisemitic action. For instance, in 632 CE, shortly after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, Muslims captured Jerusalem. At that point, the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius, as David Chidester has written, “marked the loss of (the city) by ordering every Jew within his shrinking empire to be baptized” as a Christian. (Thus was created the first part of what became an eerie parallel when, 1,300 years later, a few Jews in the Holocaust escaped death by allowing themselves to be baptized as Christians or by faking a belief in Christianity.
Some of the anti-Jewish attitudes of the Middle Ages were rooted in economic realities. For instance, when the feudal system of economics began to break apart in Twelfth Century Europe, the growth of trade eventually led to a demand for money lending and other banking services, which had been forbidden to Christians as a way of avoiding the sin of usury. Much of that financial work had been forced on Jews in feudal Europe. They thus gained a reputation as greedy money lenders (tasks Christians eventually reconciled themselves to out of economic necessity and opportunity), a reputation that continues to fuel anti-Jewish attitudes even today. As Carroll notes, “the unnuanced figure of the oppressive debt-holder Jew took hold of the popular imagination…”
In the Medieval period, of course, the often-harsh living conditions meant that Jews and Christians sometimes lived and worked side by side harmoniously just to survive, without the luxury of time or energy to devote to the bitter relations typically fostered by church leaders.
In the Middle Ages there was a period of remarkable upheaval in the part of the world dominated by the Catholic Church (and later the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches). Germanic tribes had invaded, resulting in the Fifth Century collapse of the Roman Empire as well as associated Roman institutions in the West. Rome fell first to the Visigoths in 410 and then to the Vandals in 455.
One result was that the papacy began to move itself toward the strong, centralized model that still exists today, partly to fill the political vacuum left by the collapse of the empire. Not only did popes gain more central religious authority, but they made political alliances with such rulers as the Frankish kings to the north and west. One of those kings, Charlemagne, in the late Eighth and early Ninth Century, managed to restore something of the Western empire as a Christian land known as the Holy Roman Empire. As a result, Chidester notes, “the choice posed to Europeans was not a choice between Christianity and paganism, but between Christianity and death.”
It is, of course, hard to find any place for Jews in such a system, although Charlemagne and his grandson both gained reputations as rulers who treated Jews relatively well. As Wistrich writes, “Jews obtained a prominent role in trading, particularly from the eighth century onwards… They appeared to be reasonably well integrated, especially under Charlemagne and his successors, in the ‘barbarian’ societies in which they lived.”
It’s important, however, to keep in mind that all such judgments are relative, for as Carroll writes, Charlemagne’s reign “brought with it the final closing down of what remained of Jewish citizenship rights dating to Roman antiquity. In both eastern and western Europe, laws were passed to make sure that Jews did not exercise authority over Christians, and restrictions of numerous other aspects of Jewish life were enacted. Jews were, in the formulation of one early medieval council, ‘subject to perpetual serfdom.’ ”
What became known as the Eastern Orthodox churches, which had a history of more cooperative relations with political authorities than those traditionally found in Western Christianity, were able to start paying more attention in this period to whether the decisions of the Chalcedon Council would stand, especially its confirmation of the Nicene theology that Christ had two natures, one human and one divine. So although anti-Judaism remained a constant in the churches of both the East and West, much of the Middle Ages in both traditions was taken up struggling with such heresies as Nestorianism and Monophysitism.
As the papacy was finding its sea legs, ecumenical councils became the nexus for deciding theological positions and determining what was orthodox. In the midst of all this talk of heresy, the church was trying to settle such questions as the nature of its sacraments, particularly the Eucharist. Over time, the doctrine of transubstantiation became the official Catholic position, as formally defined (confirmed, really, because the development of the doctrine had taken centuries) by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215.
But it took Thomas Aquinas, born 15 years after that council, to create the complete Scholastic understanding of transubstantiation that the Catholic Church has adopted as definitive. The long attempt to describe how the so-called “Real Presence” of Christ occurred in the sacrament also led to a deeper understanding of the church and of its nature as the body of Christ. As Chidester notes, “from the Christian social unity defined by the body of Christ, however, the Jews in Europe were clearly excluded.”
Indeed, he writes that Peter the Venerable, Twelfth Century abbot of Cluny, excluded Jews not only from the body of Christ (from which, of course, they would have excluded themselves) but also from humanity: “I really do not know,” Peter wrote, “whether a Jew is a man, given that he does not yield to human reason, nor does he assent to the divine authorities which are his own.”
Although they were shut out of Christian society, Jews were regularly referred to in Christian worship — not, of course, in a friendly way but as the cause of Jesus’ death. The idea that the Jewish people had long premeditated the murder of Jesus was, by the Twelfth Century, widely accepted. That created a willing audience for wild rumors that surfaced about Jews stealing the consecrated host so they could torture Jesus again (as if Jews themselves somehow believed in the doctrine of transubstantiation).
This kind of slander had inevitable and odious consequences. In the 1330s, for instance, armies of Christian “Jew killers” murdered hundreds of Jews in Bavaria. Some 600 years later, deaths in the Holocaust would be soaking that soil with Jewish blood.
One looks almost in vain for Christian voices of reason and light, of harmony and peace, in the church’s historical relations with Jews. Until the modern era, they are quite rare. One of the most uplifting examples is St. Francis of Assisi, who tried to stop the Crusades and who traveled unarmed to meet the Sultan of Egypt in pursuit of better relations among Christians, Jews, and Muslims. Beyond Francis, about the best that can be found from the preserved record are some Christian leaders who were relatively silent on Jewish-Christian relations or who, having expressed some admiration for Jews, were simply hooted down. The well was poisoned early and the Middle Ages’ record of Christian anti-Judaism proved to be consistent with what came before and what would come after.
The anti-Judaism that characterized Christianity from its beginning did not moderate significantly as the Middle Ages gave way to the era of the pre-reformers and eventually to the Protestant Reformation itself. As the church was caught in the muck and mire of political entanglements — to the point that princes in effect owned a divided papacy for a time — it maintained a consistent voice of condemnation of the Jews.
It is important to keep in mind that the view of religion in the Middle Ages differed from the common view of it today, when it’s often seen as little more than a personal choice. Religion permeated and colored all of life in the medieval period. As Catholic historian Thomas F. Madden notes, it was “a central, if not predominant, aspect of one’s personal and collective identity. To seek to corrupt or defame a culture’s religion would therefore be the equivalent of treason in the modern era.” Religious tolerance in the Middle Ages, he writes, was “no virtue.”
And yet even though one should not view the Middle Ages with the sensitivities of the present time, even a very abbreviated list of anti-Jewish sentiment and action stemming from Christians — starting early in the Thirteenth Century and ending the year before Martin Luther posted his famous ninety-five theses on the door of the church at Wittenberg in 1517 — is, quite simply, an astonishing litany of pain and shame in any historical period.
Such a list would include — but certainly not be limited to — these dates and events:
• In 1205 Pope Innocent III wrote to the archbishops of Paris and Sens that “the Jews, by their own guilt, are consigned to perpetual servitude because they crucified the Lord… As slaves rejected by God, in whose death they wickedly conspire, they shall by the effect of this very action, recognize themselves as the slaves of those whom Christ’s death set free…”
• In 1215 the Fourth Lateran Council adopted canon laws specifying that Jews and Muslims shall wear special identifying clothing. Jews also had to wear a badge in the form of a ring. This was to enable them to be easily distinguished in public from Christians. (Nazi Germany's adoption of this kind of program in the Twentieth Century clearly did not emerge ex nihilo.) This 1215 council, as we have mentioned, standardized the church’s understanding of transubstantiation, thus elevating the elements of Communion so high that it later was easier to charge Jews with desecrating — again — the very body and blood of Christ. These so-called “blood libels” grew even more bizarre, with reports of Jews killing Christian children in order to satisfy their alleged need for Christian blood to make Passover bread or in other religious rituals (libels that later were repeated in various forms by the Nazi leaders). It’s true that church authorities sometimes spoke against these stories, but the myths took on a life of their own and often were encouraged by local clergy, who operated profitable pilgrimages to the sites of the supposed murders. These blood libels provoked Christians to take bloody revenge.
• In 1227 the Synod of Narbonne required Jews to wear an oval badge. This was especially hurtful to them because Narbonne was the site in the Eleventh and Twelfth centuries of a famous Jewish exegetical school. Norbonne, in the southwest of France, had been home to Jews since the Fifth Century, and its Jewish population by the Twelfth Century had risen to some 2,000.
• In 1228 the king of Spain decreed that a Jewish oath cannot serve as evidence in a court of law.
• In 1236 Pope Gregory IX ordered church leaders in England, France, Portugal, and Spain to confiscate Jewish books. Beyond that, as Carroll notes, Gregory “ordered the archbishops and kings of Europe, as well as the Franciscans and Dominicans, to expose the secrets of the Talmud, ‘the chief cause that holds the Jews obstinate in their perfidy.’ ”
• In 1259 a synod of the archdiocese in Mainz ordered Jews to wear yellow badges.
• In 1261 Duke Henry III of Brabant, Belgium, wrote in his will that “Jews … must be expelled from Brabant and totally annihilated so that not a single one remains, except those who are willing to trade, like all other tradesmen, without money-lending and usury.” This was at a time of economic growth in Brabant, when many residents could have been expected to benefit. The Duchy had added land in 1204 and 1244 and would add more in 1288 — but many Jews were not to be part of the expansion. And some who were — in Brabant and elsewhere — were tagged with being greedy usurers for fulfilling a money-lending role others refused to do.
• In 1267 the Synod of Vienna ordered Jews to wear horned hats, and the greatest of the Scholastics, Thomas Aquinas, said Jews should live in perpetual servitude.
• In 1290 England expelled an estimated 16,000 Jews, many of whom moved to Spain, where for a time Muslims, Christians, and Jews lived in relative harmony. This expulsion from England came exactly 100 years after the massacre of up to 500 Jews at York, action prompted by Crusaders.
• In 1298 in persecutions of Jews in Austria, Bavaria, and Franconia, 140 Jewish communities were destroyed and more than 100,000 Jews were killed in half a year.
• In 1306 France followed England’s example and expelled 100,000 Jews, many of whom — like Jews from England before them — also moved to Spain.
• In 1320 in yet another mini-Crusade — the Shepherd Crusade, undertaken in a period that historian Steven Runciman has said marked a “lull” in the crusading spirit — 40,000 French shepherds went to Palestine, destroying more than 100 Jewish communities on their way.
• In 1321 in France, 5,000 Jews, accused of inciting criminals to poison wells, were burned alive.
• Starting in 1347-48 and continuing for several years, Jews in Europe were blamed for the Black Death plague, and thousands were executed. The disease would wipe out millions of people — up to one third of the population of Europe.
• In 1391 Jewish persecutions began in Seville and in 70 other Jewish communities in Spain.
• In 1394 France again expelled Jews, many of whom again would find refuge — at least temporarily — in Spain.
• Starting in 1431, the Council of Basel denied Jews the right to go to universities, prohibited them from acting as agents in contracts between Christians and made them attend church to listen to sermons.
• In 1453 a Franciscan monk, Capistrano, persuaded the king of Poland to eliminate all Jewish civil rights.
• In 1492 the very year Columbus (thought by some to be Jewish) landed in the New World, Jews in Spain were told by the monarchy to be baptized as Christians or be banished. The order called Judaism a “damnable religion…undermining and debasing our holy Catholic faith.” About 300,000 Jews left Spain. Some went to Turkey, where Muslims generally tolerated them. Others converted to Christianity but often continued to practice Judaism in secret.
• In 1497 about 20,000 Jews left Portugal rather than undergo forced baptism as Christians.
• In 1516 the governor of Venice decided that Jews would be permitted to live only in one area of the city. It was called the “Ghetto Novo” and sometimes is thought to be the first Jewish ghetto in Europe.
The next year, as we’ve noted, Martin Luther, seeking a debate about what he perceived as errors in the church, posted his points of contention and, in effect, launched the Protestant Reformation, though that was not his intention.
No doubt there is some validity to the argument that a certain portion of Christian anti-Judaism grew as a response to early Jewish anti-Christianism. Madden points out, for instance, that Jews saw Christianity as “a blasphemy against God and a perversion of their faith. In third-century rabbinic texts, Jesus was described as a magician in league with Satan, Mary as a prostitute, and the apostles as criminals who deserved death.”
That said, the breadth and depth of anti-Judaism — to say nothing of its unremitting presence — is clearly far out of proportion to the threat to Christianity that such views posed, especially once Christianity had become the official religion of the Roman Empire and had begun to explode across Europe. But defense of the faith against people considered infidels almost inevitably goes to extremes. Witness the Crusades and 9/11.
In some ways, the motives behind the launching of the first Crusade at the end of the Eleventh Century are understandable. Christian pilgrims trying to visit sites in the Holy Land were being robbed and stopped on their way through lands held mostly by Muslims. So there was a desire to make the world safe for Christian pilgrimage and to reclaim the Holy Land from Islam. And, in fact, the Crusades — there were at least seven of them, though the number varies depending on what one counts — had what their backers and participants would have called some success.
Christians, after all, recaptured Jerusalem in 1099 and held it until Saladin recaptured it in 1187. But mostly they were a disaster. Not only did they not do much to help the Byzantine Empire and, thus, the Orthodox Church, which had requested help from the pope and the Western church, but they proved calamitous for relations with Islam. They also turned out to be just another tool in Christianity’s leaders’ long campaign against Judaism.
As Michael writes, “The First Crusades reflected a new kind of violence toward Jews. Christian attacks on Jews in earlier centuries had been more limited. But in the late eleventh century, the fundamental anti-Jewishness of the Christian theology of glory combined with enthusiastic Christian militarism. … For the first time, attempts were made to eradicate Jews and Judaism from the face of the earth.”
Soon after the Crusades began, Jews became targets, perhaps starting with a small but symbolic attack on Jews at Spier in May 1096. Soon after there was a massacre of Jews at Worms and then at Mainz. The pattern was set. No Jew was safe from the Crusaders, despite occasional efforts by some churchmen to protect them.
But the Crusades managed to embed in the Western mind all the destructive stereotypes about Jews, and as Wistrich notes, “As Christianity spread among all the peoples of Europe, this devastating image crystallized until it was an integral part of European and Western culture, a fact which more than any other accounts for the pervasiveness of antisemitism to this day.”
As the Crusades waned and Scholasticism began to come into its own, Jews fared not much better. Aquinas, the greatest of the Scholastic thinkers, argued that the Jews had rejected Jesus as Messiah not out of ignorance but from deliberate defiance. This was a change from the argument by St. Augustine that Jews were being punished because they were blind to the truth. “A distinction must be drawn,” Aquinas wrote in his Summa Theologiae, “between Jews who were educated and those who were not. The educated, who were called their rulers, knew, as did the demons, that Jesus was the Messiah promised in the Law. For they saw all the signs in him which had been foretold.”
(Jews at the time and Jews from then until today have argued quite the opposite — that Jesus fulfilled almost none of the characteristics expected of the Messiah. For an interesting discussion of this, see David Klinghoffer’s 2005 book, Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western History.)
Because Aquinas achieved such high stature as a doctor of the church, his conclusions about the Jews made them even greater villains than before in the minds of many Christians. Aquinas and his Scholastic cohorts helped to solidify Catholic thinking in many areas as the church wrestled with such schools of thought as Realism, Nominalism, and Conceptualism. And even today — despite a rejection of some of Scholasticism — it is the Aquinas view of things on which the Catholic Church often relies.
Another interesting connection to Christian views of Jews from this period is found in the mystics. Many of them made helpful contributions to the church, and in some ways their view that individuals could experience God firsthand helped to create the atmosphere in which pre-reformers such as Erasmus and John Wycliffe could gain a hearing, paving the way for the Reformation.
However, their deep devotion to the passion of Jesus also enflamed the passions of Christian adherents who focused on his suffering. Inevitably that focus led to questions about who was to blame for that suffering. And the answer almost always was the Jews, as the ancient libel of deicide gained new footing. It was one reason many Jews in 2004 feared Mel Gibson’s movie, “The Passion of the Christ,” which drew on some mystic sources. Mystics such as Hildegard of Bingen, Francis of Assisi, Meister Eckhart, and Thomas a Kempis in some ways were offering individual visions that were in tension with the move toward theological rigidity that found its most powerful expression in the Inquisition.
It was launched in 1233 by Pope Gregory IX, a leader who, as we’ve already seen, had little love for Jews. The Inquisition sought to root out heretics (including Jews). And mystics at times proposed approaches to the faith that seemed to the church to run up against — and even cross — heretical boundaries.
Since the start of the Protestant Reformation in the early Sixteenth Century, Christianity has been a house deeply divided. The several centuries after the start of the Reformation were, in fact, so full of fast-breaking developments that the subject of Jewish-Christian relations seemed to take a backseat in the storyline. So it is easy in this period to lose track of the reality that anti-Judaism among Christians continued to flourish, too.
As Heiko A. Oberman has noted, the idea of human rights and tolerance took “a marked step forward” in Europe in the Sixteenth Century, but “the idea of tolerance grew very much at the expense of the Jews in northern Europe, particularly in Germany.” Oberman contends that Johannes Reuchlin, Desiderius Erasmus, and Luther shared a “confidence that a fresh investigation of the biblical sources would yield that wisdom which, once recovered, was to restore pristine truth and thus renew church and society. Concomitant with this audacious vision is a shared anti-Judaism which could feed upon popular conceptions but … was with significant variations an organic part of their reform program with wide-reaching consequences for what was to develop into modern anti-Semitism.”
Oberman later notes that such reformers as Ulrich Zwingli and Martin Bucer “may not have assented to Luther’s intemperate outbursts against the Jews; they did, however, agree with his basic attitude.”
But the story of Jewish-Christian relations in this period is complicated and many-layered, with some periods of relative calm and cooperation between some Christians and some Jews as well as periods of distressing and even abhorrent policies and behaviors that led to abominable conditions for Jews. In nearly all of this, religious leaders — popes (some more than others) as well as Protestant movers and shakers — were far more part of the problem than part of the solution.
Perhaps nowhere did Jews fare better in this time than in the country we have focused on in this book, Poland, which then included much of what today is Lithuania. As Moshe Rosman reports, “…from around 1500 until the late eighteenth century partitions of Poland by its neighbors Russia, Prussia and Austria, the (Polish-Lithuanian) Commonwealth was home to what became the largest Jewish settlement in the world, dominating Jewish culture of the period and serving as a linchpin in the European Jewish economy. Essential factors in the attainment of this status were the relative freedom granted the Jews in Poland to practice their religion and the opportunity given them to engage in most occupations. The freedom and opportunity, greater than anywhere else in Europe, was one facet of the unique character of early modern Poland.”
This allowed something of a flourishing of Jewish culture, although always under the watchful eyes of Christian authorities who were ready — at times eager — to clamp down. Rosman even reports that in the late Sixteenth Century, “synagogues began to be remodeled and new ones constructed with women’s sections that were an integral part of the building. … It was an important early milestone in a subsequent four-centuries-long trend for women to become more and more part of synagogue and public ritual life.”
But that progressive influence — and what it could have meant not only for Jews but for others as well — eventually was cut off by suppression of Jewish life and, under the Nazis, by efforts to eliminate it altogether. That early period of Jewish growth in Poland is especially painful to consider now, after the Holocaust, because more than 90 percent of the country’s 3.3 million to 3.5 million Jews (the largest Jewish population of any European country) died at Hitler’s direction and because, as author Alan Davis has asserted, “without the Church, Hitler would not have been possible.”
Poland, where Hitler located six death camps so as to avoid problems from Germans who might object, emerged from that horrific experience known not only as the home of such death camps as Auschwitz and Treblinka but also with an unmatched reputation for antisemitism. In fact, the Jewish population of Poland is only now beginning to re-establish itself, though that population today is numbered only in the thousands.
Although Rosman correctly notes that Jews “flocked there (to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth) in large numbers over the centuries” (the Jewish population growing from more than 250,000 in 1648 to about 750,000 by 1764), the reality is that many Jews never assimilated there. (By the way, the Jewish population in the Roman Empire at the beginning of the Christian era is estimated to have been about ten million, which was ten or twelve percent of the total population. )
Some Jews never considered themselves Polish. They were, rather, Jews living in Poland, part of the ongoing Jewish Diaspora. So when the Germans began their efforts to eliminate European Jewry, Jews in Poland and in many other countries — especially the Orthodox — were easy to identify because they lived essentially separate and quickly identifiable lives.
At times, this separateness was a church-enforced policy in parts of Europe. For instance, in 1553, Pope Julius III added to the separation of Jews and Christians by ordering Jews living in the papal states (central Italy, basically) to move into ghettos. They were not allowed to own property and they were required to wear yellow hats. This was in rather stark contrast to what Pope Alexander VI did when Jews were expelled from Spain several decades earlier. As Carroll notes, Alexander “welcomed the Iberian refugees into Rome and pressed local Jews to do so as well.”
And, Carroll writes, Alexander was not alone among medieval popes in protecting Jews. But that kind of hospitality did not last. Not only did Pope Julius create ghettos for Jews, but the election of Gian Pietro Caraffa as Pope Paul IV in 1555 brought anti-Judaism to the forefront of Vatican policy.
Carroll reports that Paul “ratified the blood purity Statute of Toledo (which I will describe below). He forbade Jews to possess any religious book except the Bible. From now on the Talmud would be on the Index of Forbidden Books. To enforce that proscription, he abolished Hebrew printing in Rome, which during the Renaissance had become its world capital.”
In a bull Paul IV issued, he declared that “God has condemned (the Jews) to eternal slavery because of their guilt.” In that bull, he declared that Jews could own no real estate, attend no Christian university, and hire no Christian servants.
Ghettos certainly had existed before — the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 had approved ghettos — but as of July 1555, the Jews living in Rome were in effect imprisoned in a ghetto only about a mile from the Vatican. Carroll records that this ghetto “was not finally abolished until the popes lost control of Rome to the ‘secular’ forces of Italian nationalism in 1870.”
The ghettoized nature of the lives of Jews was not surprising, given the attitudes of anti-Judaism in Christianity that continued in virulent ways after the Reformation. When Jews failed to convert to the faith the reformers had helped to shape, a sense of betrayal about that led reformers to suggest that Jews were the scum of the earth and should be treated as such. In “On the Jews and Their Lies,” which Carroll describes as “a homiletic massacre,” Luther advocated the burning of synagogues. Jews, he said, should be “forbidden on pain of death to praise God, to give thanks, to pray and to teach publicly among us and in our country.”
(It’s interesting here to note Oberman’s contention that “not just the middle or the late Luther, but the earliest Luther recorded holds that there is no future for the Jews as Jews.” Whether early, late or both, Luther’s anti-Judaism helped to make sure that anti-Jewish prejudice would accompany Protestantism when it separated decisively from the Catholic Church, which had housed and nurtured it previously. Other early reformers, such as John Calvin, held many of Luther’s antisemitic views. Calvin, for instance, continuing an old tradition, called Jews “profane dogs.” But the German Reformation was much harder on Jews than English, Dutch or Swiss Protestantism.)
With such views held so widely among Christians, what possibly could follow but disaster for Jews in a period that was one of remarkable change and historically significant developments on an almost daily basis?
“Know, my dear Christians,” Luther said, “and do not doubt that next to the devil you have no enemy more cruel, more venomous and virulent, than a true Jew.” Hitler could not have said it more clearly. Indeed, Michael notes that “Luther’s ideas and feelings about Jews and Judaism served as a basis for the essentially anti-Jewish worldview of many German Lutherans well into the twentieth century. … Hitler’s government followed Luther’s program for dealing with the Jews very closely.”
Which is not to say that Hitler directly appropriated Christian thinking about Jews. As Wistrich observes: “For Hitler and the Nazis, in contrast to the traditional teachings of Christianity, no spiritual redemption of the Jews was possible…” And yet, he writes, “Even though they (Nazis) had secularized and radicalized what was an essentially religious stereotype, by continuing to use a long-familiar language about the diabolical Jew, they could guarantee themselves the collaboration of the Christian Churches and of millions of ordinary laymen throughout Europe.”
Given all of that, Jules Isaac asks this question: “Is it so astonishing, then, that there should emerge out of German Catholicism the cruelest, most relentless advocates of Nazi racism — a Himmler, an Eichmann, a Hess? They have only taken and carried to its logical conclusion a tradition which since the Middle Ages has been well established throughout the Christian world — a tradition of hatred and contempt, of degradation and servitude, of disgrace and violence, on the officials as well as the popular level.”
With the rapid spread of Luther’s ideas — especially once he was driven out of the Catholic Church — an essential gear seemed to shift in the religious universe, with the result that the religious landscape was covered with brush fires that sought to purify what was there but that often destroyed what they touched.
Eventually a Luther-led reformation would create the conditions that resulted in the so-called Radical Reformation, which itself would split among various approaches to Anabaptist life, though most of them shared at least the experience of being persecuted. But if persecution was an occasional thing for various Christian groups in this period, it continued to be an almost-constant reality for Jews.
I’ve mentioned, for instance, that just prior to the Reformation, Jews in Spain were told, by monarchial edict, to convert to Christianity or be exiled. Most chose to leave, including ancestors of Rabbi Cukierkorn, co-author of our book on rescuers in Poland. And even those who stayed — the Conversos — were treated as second-class Christians.
Indeed, in 1547, Archbishop Siliceo of Toledo promulgated a limpieza de sangre, or purity of blood statute. As reported by Chaim Potok, the statute said that “in the future only those whose blood was untainted by the blood of Conversos and by official accusation of heresy could be appointed to any ecclesiastical position.” In 1556, King Philip II approved the statute, saying that “all the heresies in Germany, France and Spain have been sown by descendants of Jews,” which Potok describes as fantasy, noting that Philip II “was himself a descendant of Jews.”
These blood purity statutes spread not only throughout Spain but elsewhere, and Potok reports that “communities contended with one another to intensify the harshness of their blood laws.” The result, he writes, was that “in the end you established your limpieza de sangre by inventing a genealogy, falsifying papers and bribing witnesses.” No doubt even today some family histories are untraceable because of the deception required to negotiate life under such blood laws.
All of this blood purity concern, of course, ultimately worked against Christian efforts to convert Jews. And Jews who did convert soon realized they had no serious future in the church because their blood lines made them unwanted. So any desire to convert was compromised. Carroll even reports that “the arrival of blood purity regulations spelled the end of the Church’s anti-Jewish missionary effort that had begun in the thirteenth century.”
The tug-of-war between the propensity toward converting Jews and the opposite desire to expel them from the sight of Christians has led to profound intellectual confusion among Christians. Oberman, in fact, says this: “The dangerous fanaticism of Christian anti-Judaism is rooted in the inability to decide between these two aims of mass conversion and mass expulsion.”
Through this post-Reformation period, Jews lived in exile wherever they found themselves. It was, many of them thought, an interim and abnormal situation that one day would be remedied by a return to the Promised Land. But in the meantime they were strangers in strange lands, although quite a few Jews in many lands, including Poland, eventually became quite thoroughly assimilated into the local culture.
“The exile stretched on interminably through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries,” Potok writes. “There were endless arrangements of alliances among the nations of the world and constant wars. Distant continents were being carved up by colonizers.” (These colonizers often were driven not just by economic goals but by a sense of Christian triumphalism.) “In 1663 the Turks declared war on the Holy Roman Empire. In July 1683 they began the siege of Vienna. In 1704 the English took Gibraltar. … Early in the seventeenth century the Frankfort ghetto was plundered by a mob. There were repeated blood libels and accusations of Host desecration. Mystery plays depicted the Jews as Christ-killers, demonic allies of Satan and bloodsucking moneylenders — the permanent heritage of the enchanted land.”
In the foreground of all this, the Protestant and Catholic reformations moved forward. This churning cauldron of religious vitality and dispute, however, did not resolve or end Christian anti-Judaism. In fact, some of the destructive forces put in play early in this period lasted for a long time.
As Johnson notes, the blood purity statutes remained valid until 1865 in Spain, and the last execution for heresy in Spain took place in 1826. Oberman has it right: “What is inculcated by centuries of religious fury in the minds of the elite and the uneducated populace alike can only be eradicated or, indeed, exorcised by an equally powerful and fervent antidote.”
So far, the post-Reformation world has not been wise or clever enough to create such an antidote.
From the vantage point of the Twenty-first Century, it is possible to conclude that the long arc of theological anti-Judaism that began early in Christianity’s history bears a significant amount of responsibility for creating the poisonous anti-Semitic atmosphere in which the Holocaust occurred. But, as we’ve said, it is impossible to draw a straight line from the first charge of “Christ killer” to the first Jew to die at the hands of the Nazis. History, after all, is never that simple, never that easy, never that direct.
But Adolf Hitler’s Jew-killing machinery simply could not have functioned with such unimpeded ease if Christian anti-Judaism had not greased the skids.
As Holocaust survivor Felix Zandman said when Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn and I interviewed him for our book, “I tried to find out why do …Catholics hate Jews. … I personally think that it stems from the church.” Other survivors said much the same thing.
Given a different history of relations with — and views of — Jews, the church in Germany might have stood against Hitler’s desire for ethnic purity and the elimination of Jewry and thus saved millions of lives. That it failed will forever be a stain on it and on its history.
In the several hundred years before the Holocaust there was, of course, much going on in Christianity beyond its persistent anti-Judaism. In fact, the history of the religion in the modern period is full of important developments across the globe, for by the time the European explorers had crisscrossed the planet, Christianity truly was a global faith.
The church, to be sure, was wrestling with countless issues and developments beyond its relationship to the Jews. But whether the issues were slavery or the power of the papacy, missionary work or the evolving status of women in the church, one thread was consistently found in the church — the idea that Jews were reprehensible and should be despised and rejected, the way Isaiah’s suffering servant was described in a passage that Christians later would apply to Jesus.
If, however, we focus more directly on the failures of the church in confronting the rise of Hitler, his murderous pogroms and his evil vision of a super race, we find that those failures are legion. They include the stupefying efforts by the Institute for the Study and Eradication of Jewish Influence on German Religious Life to turn Jesus into an “Aryan,” and they constitute the primary story line of the church vis-à-vis Nazism.
Yet it is important to note that they are not the only story line. An important sidebar was this: The church also produced its heroes in this period, however reluctant they may have been to accept their role and its consequences. The religion that countenanced — and at times encouraged — a move from theological anti-Judaism to deadly modern racial antisemitism also produced, for instance, a Karl Barth, who helped draft the 1934 Theological Declaration of Barmen, which stood against Hitler (even if it did not stand completely with the Jews).
Better, the religion also produced Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran martyr who joined the conspiracy to assassinate Hitler but who paid for his bravery with his life. Bonhoeffer explained such a role this way: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die,” though as Robert Michael notes, even Bonhoeffer and other members of what became known as Germany’s Confessing Church who opposed Hitler also were infected by aspects of antisemitism.
And the book I've been writing with Rabbi Cukierkorn contains some evidence that here and there Christianity produced a few followers who saved Jews from certain death, even at the risk of being put to death themselves if they were found out. Again, great care is required in describing the ways in which Christianity influenced the rise of Nazism. That’s because Christianity by itself was not the factory that built Hitler and his disastrous politics, though, to be sure, the religion’s failure to eliminate anti-Judaism from its pulpits and its failure to stand with the oppressed instead of being co-opted by the oppressor contributed to the millions of deaths of the Holocaust.
Carroll strikes the right balance on this matter: “The peculiar evil of Adolf Hitler was not predictable, nor was Christianity his only antecedent. He was as much a creature of the racist, secular, colonizing empire builders who preceded him on the world stage as he was of the religion (Catholic Christianity) in which he was born, and which he parodied. But in truth, the racist colonizers, before advancing behind the standards of nations and companies, had marched behind the cross.”
And historians Marvin Perry and Frederick M. Schweitzer essentially concur: “…centuries of Christian denigration and persecution of Jews had led many Europeans to accept at face value the Nazi myth that Jews were inherently evil. In particular, the two-thousand-year-old myth of deicide had poisoned the minds of Christians with hatred against Jews, a necessary precondition for genocide.”
Genocide, in fact, was not something new. Even in the Twentieth Century before Hitler we had the example of Stalin trying to wipe out the people of Ukraine, and we know of Turkey’s attempt to destroy the Armenians in World War I. Similarly, instances of genocide have appeared since Hitler. Rwanda is an example. Even more recently we have seen genocide in the Darfur section of Sudan, despite promises after the Holocaust that humanity would remember what Hitler did and never again allow something similar to happen.
Indeed, it is telling that the strongest voices raised against the genocide in Darfur came from Jews. But those and other genocides were of a more political nature than was the Holocaust, which was rooted in the racial and religious ideas that Jews somehow were subhuman. So the long, long fuse of anti-Judaism runs inevitably, if tortuously, to the explosion we call the Holocaust.
Robert Wistrich puts the case well: “…the ‘Final Solution,’ the purification of a world that was deemed corrupt and evil because of the very existence of the Jews, went beyond even the most radical Christian solution to the ‘Jewish Question.’ Hitler and Nazism grew out of a Christian European culture, but that does not mean Auschwitz was pre-programmed in the logic of Christianity.”
However, there’s no denying a conclusion Perry and Schweitzer draw: “The Nazis harvested a well-fertilized field.”
Historian Saul Friedlander sums up the connection between Christian anti-Judaism and modern German antisemitism well: “…(A)fter the rise and fall of the German anti-Semitic parties between the mid-1870s and the late 1890s, anti-Jewish hostility continued to spread in German society at large through a variety of other channels. … German anti-Semitism was particularly visible in two different ways, with regard to racial anti-Semitism. In its mainly biological form, racial anti-Semitism used eugenics and racial anthropology to launch a ‘scientific’ inquiry into the racial characteristics of the Jew. The other strand of racial anti-Semitism, in its particularly German, mystical form, emphasized the mythic dimensions of the race and the sacredness of Aryan blood. This second strand fused with a decidedly religious vision, that of a German (or Aryan) Christianity, and led to what can be called redemptive anti-Semitism. … Redemptive anti-Semitism was born from the fear of racial degeneration and the religious belief in redemption. … Germanhood and the Aryan world were on the path to perdition if the struggle against the Jews was not joined; this was to be a struggle to the death. Redemption would come as liberation from the Jews — as their expulsion, possibly their annihilation.”
It is impossible to tell the story of the Holocaust and of Christian complicity in it briefly. Entire libraries have tried to tell the story, and even they are not exhaustive. But it may be possible to give a general sense of the atmosphere in which the Holocaust happened and some of the factors that contributed to that. And it may be possible to point to one or two specific developments or events that will have to stand as representative of this complex and detailed history.
One small architectural development may help us see the fear in which European Jews lived for centuries before the Holocaust. Beginning in the 17th Century in Poland — by which time Martin Luther’s fury at Jews for not converting to a reformed church was widely known — Jews began constructing what were called “Fortress Synagogues.” As Nathan Ausubel reports, “The hazards of the times called for well-armored places of refuge as well as houses of worship during those trying days when Jewish physical survival was imperiled by … horrible massacres…”
And no wonder such fortresses were needed. Ausubel reports that in the first half of the Eighteenth Century, rebellious peasants called Haidamaks, headed by Cossack leaders, “murdered Jews and Pans alike following a weird formula. They would hang a Pan, a Jew and a dog on the same tree. To the tree they would then affix the inscription: ‘Pole, Jew and hound, All to the same faith bound.’ ”
So it is not surprising that when Hitler’s National Socialist Party outlined its program in twenty-five points, seven of them dealt exclusively with Jews. As Ausubel reports of the party, “It nakedly proclaimed its racist objective: ‘…no Jew can be considered a fellow countryman.’ ” Why not? Partly because everything Hitler had learned about the Jews (even from such fraudulent sources as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion) told him they were the problem.
Carroll says it this way: “Hitler was … the product of religious and racial assumptions that had their origins, perhaps, in the Jew-hating sermons of Saint John Chrysostom or Saint Ambrose, and certainly in the blood purity obsession of Torquemada. The line between these two phenomena carves the narrative arc that achieves its apogee with the ‘Germanizing’ of Darwin, especially in Nietzsche, at least as he was caricatured by the Nazis. Hitler’s all-encompassing ideology of race was ‘a vulgarized version,’ in one scholar’s phrase, of the social Darwinism that held sway in the imperial age among both intellectuals and the crowd.”
So from the very beginning of the Nazi movement — well before Hitler formally came to power in 1933 — Jews were cast in the role of enemy. They were seen as vermin, as a sickness that must be healed — by radical surgery to remove them, if necessary. And generally the church was either silent or in league with the rising political power that was taking dead aim at the Jews.
As Friedlander writes, “The role of the Christian churches was of course decisive in the permanence and pervasiveness of anti-Jewish beliefs and attitudes in Germany and throughout the Western world. … Although the party elite was generally hostile to Christian beliefs and inimical to organized (political) church activities, religious anti-Judaism remained a useful background for Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda and measures.”
Later, writing about Europe generally, Friedlander reports this: “The anti-Jewish measures were accepted, even approved, by the population and the spiritual and intellectual elites, most blatantly by the Christian churches. What was tacitly approved by the French church was explicitly welcome by the Polish clergy, enthusiastically supported by part of German Protestantism, and more prudently so by the remainder of the Christian churches in the Reich. Such religious support for or acceptance of various degrees of anti-Jewish persecution helped of course to still any doubts, particularly at a time when among most Europeans the influence of the churches remained considerable and their guidance was eagerly sought.”
When the crucial March 1933 elections faced German voters, people such as the bishop of Trier, Franz Bornewasser, urged voters to support Catholic National Socialist candidates instead of the slate of the more moderate Center Party. When the Nazis won and Hitler soon was given dictatorial power, the church was forced to decide whether to oppose his megalomania or become its quiet partner. In this, the church divided, though generally the main body of Christianity — both Lutheran and Catholic — stood, if uneasily, with Hitler, while some brave individuals, who later would create associations of the likeminded, stood against him and with the Jews.
It was not surprising that many church members backed Hitler in his struggle against Jewry. After all, their church told them that was the right thing to do. In April 1939, the Ministry of Religious Affairs and the Evangelical Church Leaders’ Conference signed an agreement, the so-called Godesberg Declaration, which spelled it out. Among other things, church leaders said this in the agreement: “Christianity is in irreconcilable opposition to Judaism.”
And earlier, in July 1933, a representative of the Vatican, Eugenio Pacelli, who later would become Pope Pius XII, signed the Reichskonkordat with Franz von Papen, the German vice chancellor. It was, in effect, a formalizing of an alliance between the church and Hitler’s government, and as Carroll reports, a Nazi party organ said, “This represents an enormous strengthening of the National Socialist government,” which was seeking just such approval to demonstrate to the world that it was a legitimate government in the community of nations.
But a later secret annex to that treaty in effect gave what Carroll calls “the Vatican’s tacit acquiescence” to German rearmament, which had been forbidden by the Treaty of Versailles. The Vatican’s own newspaper said the treaty should not be read as an endorsement of Nazi teachings. But Hitler recognized that the treaty now gave him international approval from “the famously neutral Vatican at a time when other powers were still eyeing him with suspicion,” as Carroll writes.
In fact, as Friedlander reports, minutes of a Nazi cabinet meeting after the agreement was signed say that Hitler “expressed the opinion that one should only consider it as a great achievement. The Concordat gave Germany an opportunity and created an area of trust which was particularly significant in the developing struggle against international Jewry.”
In recent years a debate has raged over what role Pacelli, as pope, played in opposing or enabling Hitler. Some have defamed him as “Hitler’s pope,” an absurd claim, while others have defended him and credited him with saving many Jews by his actions, which he did. Indeed, we now know that the Soviet Union undertook a posthumous campaign against Pius XII to make him appear hard-hearted toward the Jews.
But what is clear — whichever view one takes — is that Pius XII often (and wrongly) thought silence would do less harm than open protest, that the Catholic Church failed to help control someone officially one of its own, Hitler, and that many Christians participated in the evil that Hitler and his Nazis wrought on Europe, on the Jews, and, indeed, on the entire world.
As I noted earlier, something of an exception was the Confessing Church in Germany, formally identified in the Barmen Declaration as the Confessional Synod of the German Evangelical Church. In this 1934 document, its signers confronted Hitler with this language: “We reject the false doctrine, as though there were areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ, but to other lords…”
Hitler, who believed that it’s “certain that Jesus was not a Jew,” knew that by “other lords” they meant him. People associated with this anti-Hitler movement, such as Bonhoeffer, knew they were standing with the targeted Jews (though often their concern was limited to Jews who had already converted to Christianity). And Bonhoeffer understood that Jesus always stood with the victims, so he must, too.
But the Bonhoeffers and Barths — and the rescuers Rabbi Cukierkorn and I are writing about in our book — were exceptions to the pattern of Christian association with and complicity in Nazism, so much so that when the war ended, a repentant German Lutheran pastor, Martin Niemoller, leader of the Confessing Church, said this: “Christianity bears a greater responsibility before God than the National Socialists, the SS, and the Gestapo. We ought to have recognized the Lord Jesus in the Brother who suffered and was persecuted despite him being…a Jew. …Are not we Christians much more to blame, am I not much more guilty than many who bathed their hands in blood?”
It was only well after World War II that the Vatican would acknowledge its own sins of anti-Judaism. In 1965, at the end of the Second Vatican Council, church leaders promulgated a document called “Nostra Aetate,” or “In Our Time.” For the first time, the church recanted the label it had put on the Jews in various ways and at various times: Christ killers. “…what happened in His passion,” the document said, “cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today. Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures.”
But even in “Nostra Aetate,” as you can see in that last sentence, there were statements that Jews saw as problematic. Beyond that, the document, as Robert Michael notes, “did not ask forgiveness from the Jews for the Church’s past antisemitism nor did it assert the contemporary validity of Judaism.” But at least the Catholic Church finally was on record as being against what the church universal had so long been for, the libel that Jews somehow bear a collective guilt for the crucifixion of Jesus and thus should continue to be punished.
The decades since that document’s release have, of course, not been without additional injury to Jews from Christians. Especially in Europe in recent years, antisemitism has renewed itself, and Jews again have felt targeted and vulnerable, as they also have felt antisemitism rising from some Muslim populations, especially in the Arab world.
In addition, debates about the status of Israel and the attempt to reach a just, two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict sometimes have deteriorated into anti-Jewish rhetoric on the one hand and charges on the other that any criticism of Israel is antisemitic, both of which are untenable positions.
And, perhaps most disturbing, in recent decades the world has seen an increase in the unbelievable phenomenon of Holocaust denial. Perry and Schweitzer write that this astonishing example of know-nothingism, “which flies in the face of all documentary evidence, including the testimony of eyewitness survivors, perpetrators, and bystanders, demonstrates anew the fragility of human reason and the seemingly limitless capacity of the mind to embrace the most grotesque beliefs. It is still another illustration of the power of antisemitism to drag the mind into the murky waters of the irrational.”
But despite all this, we have come to a point in the United States when a rabbi, Mark Pelavin of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, could address journalists at a 2006 seminar at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and declare this: “For most American Jews, antisemitism is not part of their daily experience.”
The danger, of course, is that in such a calm atmosphere, both Jews and Christians will forget — and thus create the possibility of repeating — this atrocious history. Jews do not consider this an unreasonable fear. Nor should Christians.