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Thursday, December 17, 2009

Frederickson’s Judaism and Liberating Augustine’s Interpretation of the Role of Jews in History



November 16th, 2009

Frederickson’s Judaism and Liberating Augustine’s Interpretation of the Role of Jews in History

Paula Frederickson, in her book Augustine and the Jews (A Christian Defense of Jews and Judaism), presents Saint Augustine’s theological achievement, the Jewish doctrine of witness. She displays Saint Augustine argument that Jews are the ones who witnessed the truth of Christianity by using new interpretations of the Scriptures and Paul’s letters.

Fredrickson is especially interested in tracing Saint Augustine’s theological formulation of that doctrine. Therefore, she traces his intellectual and spiritual development through his works between the years 386 and 398 (On Christian Teaching, the Confessions, and Against Faustus). Faustus was Augustine’s former Manichean teacher to whom Augustine responded concerning a theological dispute, which was his main motivation, Frederickson argues, to come up with his ‘revolutionary’ theology of Jews and Judaism.

Saint Augustine talks about Jews in the City of God: ‘’ by the evidence of their own Scriptures they bear witness for us that we have not fabricated the prophecies about Christ… It follows that when the Jews do not believe in our Scriptures, their own Scriptures are fulfilled in them, while they read them with blind eyes’’. City of God 18.46 (Fredrickson 2008, XII.Prologue)

Hence, Saint Augustine thinks the fact that Jews preserved their Scriptures unintentionally preserved the prophecies of the coming of Christ and proved his messiahship. Jews being part of those prophesies makes them part of Christianity since its roots stretched out in Jewish Scriptures. Thus, Saint Augustine believed that Jews have a role to play in human’s redemption.

In the first part of the book "The Legacy of Alexander’’, Fredrickson traces the historical background of Jews in the Roman antiquity period. She explores the social and the cultural aspect of the lives of Jews and the ways in which they interacted with pagans and Christians. She describes in full details how Jews coexisted with pagans and gentiles and how pagans practiced with Jews their religious rituals. In fact, Jews were allowed to worship their own God (God of Israel), because pagans considered them full citizens with pure ethnicity. Paula illustrates that even new Christians kept participating in the Jews’ feasts, religious worships and public processions. The continuation of this social and religious diversity aroused controversy in the society. As a result of the growth of Christian groups (Jewish and gentile) who didn’t find any conflict between Christ and the Law , a literary-rhetoric work called "Against the Jews" (adversus ludaeos) came to the sight ,in which prelates of the Church condemned Christians who are “Judaizing” and pagans who are sympathetic towards Judaism.

In the second part of the book "The Prodigal Son’’, Fredrickson focuses on the psychological aspect of Augustine’s life and connects it to his religious and theological development since he was a student in the Carthage till he was thirty three , when he wrote his Confessions. She tries to articulate the reasons that threw Augustine in the hands of Manicheans before he found his peace in the Christian church. According to Fredrickson, the "axial point” for Augustine was the issue of divine justice versus human freedom. (Fredrickson 2008, XIX Prologue ) Exploring this issue, Augustine came to conceptualize his theology about the relationship of God and the Jews.

In the third and the last part of the book ‘’ God and Israel’’, Frederickson displays Faustus’s attack on Catholic Christianity. Strongly influenced by adversus ludaeos or (Against Judaism) and following Marcion who is a 2nd century Gnostic Christian, Faustus claimed that the Jewish god is evil. Faustus refused to accept that the Law of Jews is ‘’ fleshly’’ or ‘’ carnal’’ (Fredrickson 2008, 364 Epilogue) .Furthermore, he denounced any relation between that Law and Christian revelation, and thus required Christians to stop reading the Hebrew Bible.

Fredrickson could excellently combine the cultural and the social analysis of Jews in the Roman Empire and their theological status with Augustine’s views of them and the development of his theology of their Law. Because Frederickson is interested in exploring ‘’ why and how did relations between Christians and Jews ever become so terrible’’ (Fredrickson 2008, Prologue XIII), she tries to understand the cultural and the theological context of each party (Christian and Jews) without prejudgments or presumptions.

Frederickson tries to build bridges between Christianity and Judaism historically, hoping to establish warm relations between them in modern times too. Tracing back the roots of Christianity, Frederickson finds out that ‘’ Christianity had been born and nurtured within Judaism’’ (Fredrickson 2008, Prologue XIII). She argues that the concepts of ‘’ bodily resurrection, divine judgment and messianic redemption’’ are essentially Jewish. (Fredrickson 2008, Prologue XIII) By unveiling the tolerant dimension of the history of Jews before the coming of Christ, Frederickson is calling for religious tolerance among contemporary Christians and Jews. Her attempt to find the origins of Christianity in Judaism has a multi-leveled significance. At a simple level, it encourages objective studies on Christianity and Judaism. At a more complex level and with focusing on Christianity being part or a type of Judaism, it approaches the idea of the unity of religions (Fredrickson 2008, Prologue XIII). It seems that Frederickson sees religions as different narrations of the same story. This idea opens new possibilities in rereading other celestial books in order to come up with new tolerant religious interpretations.

The urgency of applying Frederickson’s suggestion in viewing Christianity and Judaism as integrally interrelating is broadly significant in the current Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Palestinians and Israelis need to reread their history and their holy books considering their old cultural relations. They need to see their religions as parts of the bigger picture of the spiritual development of humanity that corresponds to the needs of time. They need to focus on the essence of their religions to be able to live together in peace without violating the religious freedom of any of them. Justice, morality, equality and freedom are the virtues that all religions seek for people. I hear Frederickson questioning between her lines: why should be there one right religion or one right interpretation for Scriptures. Fredrickson sees religions and their interpretations as parts of the massive body of divinity which every religion covers a small part of it because diversity is part of the laws of nature and any attempt to change this fact in communities will be useless.

This is what Frederickson affirms in her attempt to accomplish this broader and larger project regarding rereading religions ‘’ largely personal or private, modern religion seems first of all a question of beliefs. And beliefs themselves often relate to individual psychological states, the sincerity or commitment or conviction or inner disposition of the believer’’ (Fredrickson 2008, Gods and Their Humans,p.7).

Fredrickson had a conference she had to prepare for by searching for some of Augustine’s anti-Judaism writings. Surprisingly she found none, which led her to consider studying his works in more depth. This is how Frederickson discovered Augustine’s revolutionary theology of Judaism.

The evidence that Frederickson relies on in her thesis is Augustine’s two sermons on Psalm 59 (‘’Slay them not’’) and his letter from Paulinus regarding the salvation of the Jews. (Fredrickson 2008, 363 Epilogue) Moreover, in Augustine’s writings all references for acting or thinking ‘’ Jewishly’’ don’t concern actual Jews, but ‘’ heretics, pagans and fellow orthodox Christians’’ (S.Boustan 2009, 80), because Augustine thought that Jews served as ‘’ God’s vehicle for the transmission and authentication of his revelation inscribed in the Law’’ (S.Boustan 2009, 82).

One of the excellent approaches Frederickson uses is her caution in determining the usage of different terms in their historical context. She makes sure that she clarifies the distinction between how the terms Pagans, Gentiles and Jews were used and what people meant by them. Fredrickson succeeded in liberating her readers from the restrictions of their historical prejudgments and interpretations.


Works Cited

Fredrickson, Paula. Augustine and the Jews ( A Christian Defense of Jews and Judaism). New York : Doubleday, 2008.

S.Boustan, Ra'anan. "Augustine as Revolutionary ? Reflections ob Continuity and Rupture in Jewish-Chirstian Relations in Paula Fredrickson's Augustine and the Jews ." The Jewish Quarterly Review , 2009: 75-87.

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