Christian Anti-Semitism and the Rise of the Modern State


Over 10 million Google results confirm “Christian Anti-Semitism” as a widespread concern, a historical and continuing moral flaw embedded in Western civilization. The Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal recently led their weekend book sections with reviews on the Holocaust and lingering Jewish stereotyping today.

It takes one cool academic to sort through the morass of relationships between Christians and Jews over time. Sara Lipton, historian at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, might just be up to the job. Her book Dark Mirror: The Medieval Origins of Anti-Jewish Iconography looks at all surviving pictorial representations of Jews across European history to evaluate at least elite views of this relationship.

Lipton starts, “For the first thousand years of the Christian era, there were no visible Jews in Western art” other than short references that “in no way singled [them] out.” Augustine and those who followed him were critical of Jews for not perceiving that Jesus was God, but only in an abstract, theological rather than physical sense. As Lipton notes, “Jews in the early Middle Ages were legally free and their lives were considerably more prosperous, secure and comfortable than those of most Christian peasants.”

Then, after the year 1000, “the Jew emerged from obscurity.” In the first pictorial appearances of Jews, they wore unique, peaked hats. Investigating the artwork and period literature, Lipton concludes that the representation was not of Jews per se but of people of the East generally. It was not until the 12th century high Middle Ages that “images of Jews began to spread across Christian art.” The hat remained the symbol, but now it became identified with Jews in particular, primarily as “Jewish witness.” Bernard of Clairvaux reinforced Augustine’s earlier view that Jews “are indeed for us living letters of scripture, constantly representing the Lord’s passion,” having “been dispersed all over the world” as a “just punishment” so that they may peaceably live among us as “witnesses of our redemption.”

Being a time of relative economic prosperity and ecclesiastical reform, the 12th century began moving away from the ascetic spirituality inculcated by the early Cistercians “to make room within spirituality for opulent artworks” during this “early” renaissance. Around 1160, “the primary impetus for such images seems not to have been antagonism toward, or even the desire to say something about, contemporary Jews.” The images were not  intended “to rehabilitate Jews as spiritual witnesses but to rehabilitate the realm long rhetorically associated with Jews (the external, glorious, temporal world so inimical to early Cistercians) as a valid part of Christianity.” A secular material world would be included within a religious context.

The great turning points were from early to late Medievalism with the Muslim military threats to Europe through the Balkans, a more materialistic Renaissance, the Black Death, and the Divine Right of Kings, all greatly undermining the old order by the 14th century. It was not until 1340 that art caricatured a Jewish face. Ironically it was Renaissance empiricists such as Roger Bacon, encouraging the scientific study of the human form, who inadvertently led to the satirized pictures of Jews with jet black hair since many actually came from southern districts. The most clearly Jewish artistic representations were patronized by newly centralized Divine Right governments eager to tax and control the Jews.

Depictions of Jews became more identifiably negative in crucifixion artworks. But, writes Lipton, “Jewish villains” are often “balanced by positive protagonists also identifiable as Jews,” such as scroll-wielding prophets, the Pharisee who accepts Jesus, and the identifiable Jews who lovingly bury Jesus. One reason for the increased number of Jewish portrayals was the larger number of people in pictures generally due to the rise of the middle class, and the greater complexity of design in art itself, picturing a community of Christians and Jews of many different types.

Jews were obliged to wear distinctive clothing as early as the 13th century. But the Middle Ages were a period of badges and identifiable symbols for “mainstream professions,” too, and most laws requiring them were “aimed at Christians.” By the late 14th century, art showed numerous people in crowds who were easily identified with professions and class status. At the same time, centralizing governments became obsessed with order, fearing competing noble families also claiming Divine Right, a sacrilegious pretension in the earlier medieval period. “At the dusk of the Middle Ages and the dawn of modernity” group consciousness was heightened for many types of people, including Jews. Any of these could become a threat to uneasy heads wearing crowns. The first secret police was organized in 1378.

Lipton sums up the images of the period by saying it would be easy to read them as “a steady progression from positive to negative” views of Jews but concludes that this is “far too simple.” Even at the end of the Middle Ages, anyone in search of “a portrait of Hebrew wisdom and dignity would have no trouble finding one.” Moreover, “at no point” did Christian clerics or artists “consciously set out to create an anti-Jewish visual repertoire, much less inspire anti-Jewish violence or retribution.” Still, human beings are responsible for the indirect effects of their actions. When we create stereotypes of others, “we are also creating images of ourselves,” mirroring our own strengths and weaknesses.

Karen Armstrong’s Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence places anti-Semitism in the broader context of religious conflict generally. She certainly recognizes Christian antagonism to Jews in Europe during the Middle Ages but sees this simply as part of the general human intolerance of differences, both religious and secular, which she extensively documents worldwide. Until the late 16th century, all societies incorporated religion into government as a means of giving it legitimacy and even to “endow everything they did with significance.” But the state was always the predominant partner in the relationship and usually fully dominant except for periods in medieval Europe. Until the French and American revolutions, there were no secular states but the end of religious inspiration did not mean the end of group animosity.

Armstrong writes that “The Wars of religion and the Thirty Years War may have been pervaded by the sectarian quarrels of the Reformation but they were also the birth pangs of the modern nation state.” The “casting off the mantle of religion did not bring an end to prejudice” but simply was replaced by “scientific racism” and especially nationalism. Rather than substituting rationality, nationalism inflamed popular passion, rallying all classes to the state even to the continent-wide Napoleonic Wars, World War I, and World War II. The nation-state inspired by nationalism inevitably discriminated against ethnic, cultural, and religious minorities, stirring anti-Semitism in Westernizing Russia, unified Germany and patriotic France, and even inspiring Zionism. August 1914 confirmed nationalism as “the new faith of the secular age” where “all differences of class, rank and language were flooded over at that moment by the rushing feeling of fraternity,” writes Armstrong, heralding “a century of unprecedented slaughter and genocide” inspired not by religion but by the “equally commanding notion of the sacred,” i.e. the nation state.

Armstrong does identify Christianity as more focused on anti-Semitism than other religions, although recognizing that much of this activity was for reasons of state due to the economic importance of Jews in spite of church tolerance teachings. The Bible’s account of the role Jews played in Jesus’ death did lead to scapegoating by various factions but she blames the Crusades for the great turn in fortunes for Jews. War fever against “infidels” led to massacres in several cities by armed forces in route to the Holy Land. Armstrong claims that the sacking of Jerusalem and murder of its survivors, including Jews, shocked even Muslims, who in various later episodes reconquered the region and, under the Turks, began to move aggressively north into Europe.

Still, Christianity, much less religion in general, did not cause such enmity, which “lies not in the multifaceted activity that we call ‘religion’ but in the violence embedded in our human nature and the nature of the state.” Indeed, religion can sometime put a break on violence as it did in the medieval Peace of God and Truces of God. Armstrong ends by arguing that “traditional norms” (not all of them formally “religious” before religion was invented, as she sees it ) should be replaced today with either religious or secular versions (in the modern sense) of the old golden rule.

There certainly is plentiful evidence of Christian anti-Semitism, although very little of it during its first millennium, in the early part of which traditional Jews and new Christians alike considered themselves Jewish. It was not until 132 CE, when Mishnah synthesizer Rabbi Akiba and many but not all rabbis declared Simon bar Kochba the Jewish Messiah, that a choice had to be made. Apparently most Jews rallied to Kochba, even many to his revolt against the Roman Empire in 135. Obviously, Jews who held Jesus as messiah could not, and they began to separate themselves theologically as well as politically to avoid offending Rome. Judaism had been recognized by Rome as a legal religion up to this time but Christianity was not; so there was no practical reason for Christians to publicly separate themselves until Roman authorities later found them legally not Jews and began persecuting them as a hostile force.

It was not until Constantine became emperor in the 4th century and granted official toleration of, and later all but establishment of, Christianity as the official religion that things began to change. First, the Roman legal privileges for Jews were repealed. Rabbinical legal jurisdiction over Jews—especially Christian Jews—was curtailed. Jewish missionary work was prohibited as a threat to Roman law and morality. Various Christian bishops—two important ones, Origen and Cyprian—and even some regional councils and the Council of Nicaea, forbad intermarriage and even dining together, which was also against Jewish law. By the 5th century, Byzantium church leaders St. John Chrysostom and St. Cyril were derogating and expelling Jews. Yet, in 591 Pope St. Gregory the Great banned forced baptisms of Jews and in 600 ruled that Jews should not “suffer a violation of their rights,” although not have special privileges, either.

Christian norms increasingly were incorporated into Roman civic law, from which emperors in both East and West allowed little dissension. Any differences were viewed as undermining community and public order. Strict Jewish dietary laws not allowing meals in non-Jewish homes (even if not necessarily observed) were seen as rejecting community. Jews should not work on Saturdays, which were Roman workdays. Jews should not marry Christians nor give any acknowledgement of other gods. The 6th century Byzantine Code of Justinian thus negated many Jewish civil rights although many prospered and their population increased.

Things did not change dramatically until the 11th century rise of Caliph al-Hakim, his destruction of the Christian holy places in Jerusalem, and defeats of Byzantine forces, whose appeals for assistance resulted in the first Crusade. Although often sheltered by local bishops, thousands of Jews were killed as infidels in France and Germany by soldiers and mobs en route to confronting Islamic expansion. After the end of the “medieval warming” prosperity and then the Black Death in the 14th century, many scapegoated Jews, in spite of a bull from Pope Clement VI denying any connection with that plague, which did not prevent mobs from killing Jews.

Pope Gregory IX organized an inquisition in the 13th century to conduct inquests in France and Italy by Dominicans, one of whose purposes was to convert Jews, which pressured them to convert under threat of penance, fines and imprisonment and occasionally torture or infrequently burning. But discrimination did not become official policy until near the end of the medieval period in the 15th century Spanish Inquisition, after Christians retook the peninsula from Islam and began purging its culture. Pope Sixtus IV attempted to moderate the methods and scope of the Spanish Reconquista but was thwarted by Ferdinand, who was praised by Machiavelli for using the “pretext of religion” to advance governmental interests. Even Protestantism did not change things radically. Martin Luther, increasingly frustrated by Jewish refusal to accept his new doctrines, supported the eviction of Jews from Europe.

Still, by the late Middle Ages, there were many more Jews in Europe than in their Middle East homeland, most prospering better than the mass of the Christian population. That being the case, one can argue that religion is overemphasized as a cause of anti-Semitism. It was not intrinsic to Christianity, since right at its beginning Peter was quite clear about the Jewish role in Jesus’ death: Addressing Jews assembled at the Portico of Solomon, Peter said that while those in Jerusalem did demand Jesus’ crucifixion and must repent like everyone else for this act against God, “neither you nor your leaders had any idea of what you were really doing” (Acts: 3, 17-18). While Christianity surely can be faulted for not sufficiently opposing secular anti-Semitism, as both Lipton and Armstrong demonstrate, it was neither planned nor very virulent insofar as the early, more religious medieval, culture prevailed.

As much as secular “enlightenment” has tried to characterize the preceding history as “dark,” cool modern empirical analysis finds that coercive European anti-Semitism primarily was a product not of religion but of late medieval state centralization and secularization—first by the Divine Right monarchies, and later expanded dramatically by the aggressive secularisms of the French, German, and Russian revolutions, the real foundations of the Nazi Holocaust.

Donald Devine

Donald Devine, senior scholar at the Fund for American Studies, and the author of America’s Way Back: Reconciling Freedom, Tradition and Constitution, was director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management during Ronald Reagan's first term.

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