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Healing the past: Catholic Anti-Semitism: roots and redemption

30 November, 1999

This book by Ena Gray gives a factual account of the origins and development of anti-Semitism. Its purpose is to facilitate the confession and repentance of sins against the Jewish people and in this it is highly successful.

pp. 157. Veritas Publications. To purchase this book online, go to www.veritas.ie


ForewordBishop Donal Murray

  1. The Fathers of the Church and Anti-Semitism 
  2. The Middle Ages – The Crusades, The Inquisition
  3. The Ghettos – Italy, Poland, Russia 
  4. From the Ghetto to the Birth of Zionism 
  5. The Holocaust – Participators and Collaborators 
  6. Ireland and the Jews
  7. Repentance, Redemption, Hope 

Extract from Obituary of Sr Rose Thering OP
Extract from Healing the Wounds of History by Monsignor Peter Hocken



The history of the relationship between Christians and Jews tells of tragic and inexcusable events and attitudes in which people betrayed the principles of their own Christian faith. It is clear that there is no limit to the love of neighbour preached by Jesus. Those who participated in the many atrocities and injustices against Jewish people and those who did not intervene when they could have done so, betrayed their own humanity. Many such events are documented in this book and they make sad reading.

The twentieth century saw the most unspeakable of these tragedies. As that century came to an end the Catholic Church said:

We cannot know how many Christians in countries occupied or ruled by the Nazi powers or their allies were horrified at the disappearance of their Jewish neighbours and yet were not strong enough to raise their voices in protest. For Christians, this heavy burden of conscience of their brothers and sisters during the Second World War must be a call to penitence …

This is an act of repentance (teshuva), since, as members of the Church, we are linked to the sins as well as the merits of all her children … It is not a matter of mere words, but indeed of binding commitment … We would risk causing the victims of the most atrocious deaths to die again if we do not have an ardent desire for justice, if we do not commit ourselves to ensure that evil does not prevail over good as it did for millions of the children of the Jewish people … Humanity cannot permit all that to happen again (1).

Ena Gray has provided material for reflection which will call the readers to implement that ‘binding commitment’. Each member of the Church needs to hear the call. Each of us is part of the ‘we’ who must ‘have an ardent desire for justice’, who must ‘commit ourselves to ensure that evil does not prevail over good as it did for millions of Jewish people’.

There is a further horror involved in anti-Semitism when it is perpetrated by Christians. It is a denial of who we are. Mary and the Apostles were Jews; the New Testament opens with the genealogy of Jesus, showing him as a descendent of Abraham and David (Mt 1:1-17); we reverence the Hebrew Scriptures, which we call the Old Testament, as the Word of God. When a young man asks what he must do to inherit eternal life Jesus begins by quoting the Commandments ‘which express the implications of belonging to God’ through the Covenant with Moses (2). The central act of our liturgy originated in the Paschal Meal celebrated by Jesus with his disciples before his death, when he said, ‘Do this in remembrance of me’ (Lk 22:19).

The late Cardinal Jean Marie Lustiger, himself a Jew, pointed to the challenge that exists in a world of diverse cultures:

At the risk of losing itself in losing its universality, Christianity cannot accept being separated from its roots in Israel, that is to say separated from the Covenant, the first choice of God. The meeting, the link, of Jews and Christians, in the tension of respecting each other, offers the whole of humanity the original face of God and strengthens its hope of peaceful unity (3).

Christians and Jews share the revelation of the God of Abraham. They await the coming of a Messiah, but in different ways, since Christians believe that he has come for the first time and wait for him to come again. No true Christianity can exist without its Jewish roots.

The relationship between us must respect the diversity of our different perspectives. Both the particularity of God’s irrevocable choice of his people and the universality of the mission to bring God’s revelation to the nations are vital to the richness of God’s self-communication to humanity. Cardinal Lustiger as a Christian saw himself as still engaged in the vocation of Israel in ‘bringing light to the goyim’. He composed the wording of a plaque to be erected in his cathedral, Notre Dame: ‘I was born Jewish. I received my paternal grandfather’s name, Aaron, I became Christian by faith and baptism, and I remained Jewish like the Apostles did.’

I hope that this book will help to raise awareness of the evil of prejudice and in particular the evil of anti-Semitism. When Pope John XXIII received a group of Jewish people in audience, he greeted them with the words: ‘I am Joseph your brother.’ When Pope Benedict XVI visited the Synagogue in Cologne he finished his address with a prayer, a Jewish prayer, which should be the prayer of all who read this book: ‘I conclude with the words of Psalm 29, which express both a wish and a prayer: “May the Lord give strength to his people, may he bless his people with peace (4).

+Donal Murray March 2009

  1. Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah IV, V, 1998.
  2. Mt 19:16-19, cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2062.
  3. J.M. Lustiger, Conference for the 25th anniversary of Nostra aetate, Rome, 27 October 2005.
  4. Benedict XVI, Synagogue of Cologne, 19 August 2005.




In 2003 Pope John Paul II called on all Catholics to make every effort possible to build friendships with Jews:

It is necessary to encourage dialogue with Judaism … that acknowledgement be given to any part which the children of the Church have had in the growth and spread of anti-Semitism in history; forgiveness must be sought for this from God, and every effort must be made to favour encounters of reconciliation and of friendship with the sons of Israel (1).

The idea of writing a short account of the history of Catholic anti-Semitism came to me from a personal experience. While spending a short time in Israel in 2000, I was surprised when a Jewish lady made a chance reference to the persecution of Jews in the Middle Ages. I asked myself, ‘What does she mean?’ I had taught history myself and had studied European history in some depth but I had no recollection of any significant persecution of the Jewish people. I asked myself if I had been so indifferent that I had paid no attention to the subject., or could it be that there was actually no reference to it in my studies?

I began to look around and found a book by the Jewish scholar Dan Cohn Sherbok entitled The Crucified Jew: Twenty Centuries of Christian Anti-Semitism. What I read there both shocked and saddened me: the wanton slaughter of Jews by crusaders supposedly en route to free the Holy Places in Palestine, the preposterous libels which led to torture and burnings, etc. Next I went in search of an authoritative Catholic source and found The Anguish of the Jews by Monsignor Edward Flannery. This book confirmed all that Dr Cohn had said, and more. Significantly also, Flannery, in the introduction to the second edition of his book (1980), makes the comment that ‘the vast majority of Christians, even well educated, are all but totally ignorant of what happened to the Jews in history’ and of what he calls the ‘culpable involvement of the Church’. I could identify with this statement and I then realised that I was not alone. It was not that my memory had failed me or that I had been too indifferent to notice – there actually had been no reference to the subject either in my school years or in my degree course. It seemed to me that this was not only a grave injustice to the Jewish people but that it also had serious implications for the continuing problem of anti-Semitism worldwide.
It appeared, therefore, in the context of our need for reconciliation, that it would be useful to make a short account of this story available to Catholics generally and to busy priests and catechists in particular. It is my hope that this account of how the Catholic Church was involved in causing pain, death and destruction to our ‘elder brothers and sisters’ over the centuries will help the reader to see the need for the ‘encounters of reconciliation and friendship with the sons of Israel’ of which Pope John Paul II spoke. Much of it makes difficult and unpleasant reading, but is necessary, I believe, if there is to be reconciliation and if we are to fully appreciate the extraordinary change that has taken place in our own Church in the last forty years, and the hope that this augurs for us all.

  1. The Apostolic Exhortation of Pope John Paul II, ‘Ecclesia in Europa’, 2003.




The Schism within the Judeo-Christian tradition has been generated by intense feelings of betrayal on both sides. It was inevitably more bitter than the conflicts of Christians with other religions. It is an unresolved and irresolvable quarrel within the family (1).

On the occasion of the celebration of the fortieth anniversary of the promulgation of the decree Nostra aetate in Rome, Rabbi David Rosen made this statement: ‘These forty years since the promulgation of Nostra aetate have seen a remarkable reckoning of the soul on the part of the Church and its rediscovery of its unique relationship with Judaism and the Jewish people …’He concluded his address with the following adaptation of a Jewish prayer: ‘Thanks to the One Lord, Creator and Sovereign of the Universe who has preserved us in life so that we may reach this day, to praise him for his Spirit manifest in this historic transformation that we celebrate tonight (2). Already that same year (2005), a group of prominent rabbis and politicians had visited the late Pope to thank him for all his work for the Jewish people. On that occasion Rabbi Jack Bemporad made this statement: ‘In the history of the world, the last forty years will be seen as the most revolutionary and significant in terms of progress in the Jewish-Catholic relationship’ (3).

However, awareness of this ‘transformation’ in our Church is confined to a small minority. This brief account of the story behind these hope-filled developments is intended to highlight and clarify the extraordinary events that are happening in our own day, and to encourage us to participate fully in them.

The Story of the Jewish-Christian Schism (c.35-135)
The first Christian Pentecost marks the birthday of the Christian Church. On the day of Pentecost the task of preaching the Good News began and as a result, scriptures tell us, ‘about three thousand people were added to the group’ (Acts 2:41). We assume that Peter and the other apostles expected that this was just the beginning, and that soon all their fellow Jews would acknowledge Jesus as the promised Messiah. But, of course, the reality was quite different. This initial success was soon followed by the murder of Stephen, and shortly afterwards Saul set out on his mission to persecute the followers of Jesus.

There were many different groups within the Jewish fold at the time of Jesus and the apostles. The only one of these groups to survive the Destruction of the Temple and the Fall of Jerusalem, in the long term, was the Pharisees. Therefore their difficulties about the claim that Jesus was the Messiah concern us in a particular way. The picture they had of the Promised Messiah was given to them by one of their own rabbis only a century before. This profile is contained in Psalm 17 of a collection of psalms called the Psalms of Solomon:

He will be … a Son of David, an anointed of the Lord. He will rid the nation of its enemies and restore Jerusalem, making it holy as of old … His weapon is the word of his mouth … as a righteous king taught by God and pure from sin, he is Judge and Shepherd. He destroys sinners and drives out the Gentiles. Thereby he gathers together a holy people and he shall not suffer unrighteousness to dwell in their midst for all shall be holy (4).

Many of the Pharisees of Jesus’ time could not see how this prophecy was fulfilled in him. The nation was not rid of its enemies, the Gentiles had not been driven out and there was manifestly plenty of unrighteousness about. As teachers of the Law, it was also their firm belief that the call of every Jew was to obey the will of God as revealed in the Torah. In their zeal to effect the conversion of Judaism, which they believed to have been unfaithful, they had taken on themselves the task of practising the standards of purity required by the Temple priesthood in their entirety, hoping that by so doing they would achieve the perfect observance of the Law. But the followers of Jesus claimed that faith in Jesus was the source of salvation, and not the Law (Rom 7:6). To the Pharisee, this was equivalent to rejecting the Law altogether – the ultimate apostasy. This was also the problem Paul faced before his conversion (5).

Apart from the Pharisees, there were also a number of apocalyptic sects within Judaism. These sects believed that official Judaism was unfaithful to the Covenant at Sinai to the point of apostasy. The fact that the Jews were constantly at the mercy of great and powerful empires was evidence to them of God’s displeasure. Therefore, sects such as the Zealots, the Essenes and others called their followers to be converted and to accept baptism as a sign of that conversion. These would then become ‘sons of light’ who would fight with God in the final apocalyptic battle between the ‘sons of light’ and ‘the sons of darkness’. It was one of these groups, the Zealots, that led the revolt against Rome in AD 69, a rebellion that brought the wrath of the Roman armies down on Jerusalem.

In this hour of need the Pharisees joined their fellow Jews in a supreme effort to defend the city and protect the Temple. The Christians (still Jews) took a different stance. Believing that this calamity was a fulfillment of the prophecy of Jesus that the temple would fall and that ‘not a stone would be left upon a stone’ (Mt 24:2), they withdrew to the other side of the Jordan and awaited the outcome. Unsurprisingly, their fellow Jews saw this as rank betrayal.

While they joined in the struggle, the Pharisees did not believe in the apocalyptic battle of the Zealots, and so they helped their leader, Rabbi Yocha Ben Zakkai, to escape. He secretly left the siege at Jerusalem and went to Javneh, where he founded a rabbinical school. This school developed the teaching that ‘acts of repentance, thanksgiving, and loving kindness were equal to – or better than – Temple sacrifice’, a teaching that was crucial in providing a way for Judaism to continue into the future (6).

By the year 80, when the Gospel of Matthew was being compiled, new developments are apparent. This gospel includes negative references to ‘the Jews’. Fr Raymond Brown, a scripture scholar, believes that these refer to those Jews who had now become the opponents of the Christians i.e. the Jews of 80, rather than the Jews of Jesus’ own time. He concludes therefore that these references indicate that a separation of the ways was already taking place and a new religion beginning to emerge. He notes that Christians were now referring to their Jewish brothers as ‘them’ and talking of what ‘they’ did to ‘our prophet’, rather than, as they might have done in the past, speaking of what had been done to ‘a’ prophet e.g. Jeremiah (7). Similarly Matthew 10:17 refers to ‘their synagogues’.

It was about this time too that the Sanhedrin in Javneh made the decree ordaining that all male Jews should recite a malediction against the ‘minim’, or heretics, three times daily. The wording of this malediction is as follows: ‘May the minim perish in an instant; may they be effaced from the book of life and not be accounted among the just.’ (There has been a lot of dispute about the meaning of ‘minim’ in this context but according to Flannery: ‘All agree that the prayer was introduced to weed out Judaeo-Christians from synagogue services.’ (8) This presumably refers to Christians teaching in synagogues, since it is clear that Christians often attended synagogue services long after this date, something that caused grave concern to their own leaders.)

Healing the Past
At the beginning of the second century, another Jewish leader emerged also claiming to be the Messiah. His name was Shimon Bar Kokva. Bar Kokva led another revolt against the Romans with the support of the influential Rabbi Akiba and a majority of the Jews. As on the previous occasion, the Romans soon overcame this uprising, killing many Jews and selling many more into slavery, and in a determined effort to put an end to Jewish insubordination’, they banished Jews from Jerusalem altogether in 135, devastated the entire land and renamed it Syria Palestine, with the intent of wiping out the memory of Judea forever.

The support given to this ‘Messiah’ made it clear to the Christian community that their hope of a mass conversion of their brothers to Jesus was now gone.

Dispersed throughout the Empire, the Pharisees engaged in missionary activity with greater vigour now than ever, determined to ensure the future of their Jewish faith. At the same time, Christian preachers strove to convert the pagan world to Christ. As both faiths shared common roots, it. became necessary for each to prove the other wrong. A sizeable proportion of the writing of the Fathers of the Church is concerned with their side of the story and is found in the writings referred to as ‘Adversus Judaeos’: against the Jews. These writings draw upon the teaching of the apostles but they also go way beyond that teaching, becoming ever more negative as the tension between the two groups increased.

Apostolic Teaching
Prior to the Resurrection and Pentecost, the apostles themselves were more than confused by the fact that Jesus had died, and died on a cross. They had not taken on board Jesus’ warnings about his impending death (cf. Lk 18:31-33), nor had they understood the many references to it in their scriptures (cf. Lk 24:25-27). Jesus’ death therefore was not only a great personal loss, but also a shattering blow to their faith. In the aftermath of the Pentecost experience, Peter explained what had happened and what it meant: ‘In accordance with his own plan, God had already decided that Jesus would be handed over to you, and you killed him by letting sinful men crucify him’ (Acts 2:23). Peter has no doubt about where the burden of responsibility lay but he does not condemn. He says: ‘And now my friends, I know that what you and your leaders did to Jesus was due to your ignorance … Repent then and turn to God so that he will forgive your sins’ (Acts 3:17ff).

Stephen also lays the responsibility for Jesus’ death on fellow Jews and expands the idea further (Acts 7:2-53). In a brief résumé of the history of the people of Israel, he reminds those present of how the people of Israel had refused to obey Moses on so many occasions. He concludes with these words: ‘How stubborn you are … how deaf you are to God’s message! You are just like your ancestors!’ Stephen then identifies his accusers (members of the Jewish Sanhedrin who rejected Jesus as messiah) with all those Israelites who had refused to listen to God in the past. (Paul makes a similar equation in 1 Thessalonians 2:15 when he speaks of ‘the Jews who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets’.)

But both Peter and Stephen hold out hope of forgiveness, while Paul confirms his belief that God will never abandon his people:

There is a secret truth, my friends, which I want you to know, for it will keep you from thinking how wise you are. It is that the stubbornness of the people of Israel is not permanent, but will last only until the complete number of Gentiles comes to God … Because they reject the Good News, the Jews are God’s enemies for the sake of you Gentiles. But because of God’s choice, they are his friends because of their ancestors. For God does not change his mind about whom he chooses and blesses. (Rom 11:25ff)

Therefore Paul sees his fellow Jews as being cut off now because of their unbelief, but asserts that this is for the sake of us, the Gentiles. He goes on to remind us that we must not, however, think of ourselves as superior. They are the natural branches of God’s olive tree, broken off for a time through unbelief in their Messiah, but able to be ‘grafted back into their own olive tree’ much more readily than Gentile Christians, who are grafted in as branches cut from a wild olive tree (cf. Rom 11:1’7-24). And he is confident that this will come about in God’s time.

As we know from the Acts of the Apostles, Paul had quite a struggle in the course of his mission, and while it is clear that he always retained his love for his own people, sometimes he sees them in another light. In the letter to the Galatians he gives us an example of this:

Let me ask those of you who want to be subject to the Law: do you not hear what the Law says? It says that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman, the other by a free woman. His son by a slave woman was born in the usual way, but his son by the free woman was born as the result of God’s promise. These things can be understood as a figure: the two women represent two covenants. The one whose children are born in slavery is Hagar, and she represents the Covenant made at Mount Sinai … (v.28) Now you, my friends are God’s children as a result of his promise, just as Isaac was … (v.31) … we are not the children of a slave woman but of a free woman. (Gal 4:21-31)

It seems that the Fathers of the Church drew from this text the belief that the Christian Church has become the true heir of God’s promise and from this developed the teaching known as ‘replacement theology’: the belief that the Old Covenant has been replaced by the New (represented by the Christian Church). This is in spite of the fact that Paul clearly teaches in Romans XI that God has not changed his mind about the Jews, nor has the plan he has for them.

Teaching of the Fathers of the Church (c. 100-430)
The period of the Fathers of the Church stretches from the time of the Apostles to the death of St Augustine (430). Our concern here is with those preachers and teachers who clarified and defended the Christian faith up to and after the Council of Nicaea in 325. This includes the first great Doctors of the Church, such as St John Chrysostom, St Jerome and St Augustine.

The task these men faced was far from easy. Heresies, sects and schisms abounded and were always a cause of great concern. These divisions were sometimes accompanied even by violence and sharp disagreements amongst the preachers and teachers themselves. (Some of the ‘Greats’ such as St Hippolytus, who became an anti-Pope for a time, and Tertullian, who ended his days in a sect called the Montanists, are numbered in this revered company!)

St Justin Martyr was one of the first great teachers. Born in Samaria (c.100) of pagan parents, he founded a school in Rome some years after his conversion and is the author of a tract called ‘Dialogue with Trypho’ (a Jewish rabbi). The tract consists of a fictitious debate between the two. The tone of the work is friendly and both characters agree to pray for each other at the end of their discussion. However, Justin makes it quite clear that he believes his opponent to be entirely wrong. So clear, in fact, that he tells Trypho that the fall of Jerusalem and the dispersion of the Jews are ‘tribulations [that] were justly imposed upon you, for you have murdered the Just One’ (9). This judgement marks a new and damning progression from earlier teaching. Not only does Justin place responsibility for the death of Jesus squarely on the shoulders of the Jews and their descendants, he adds his own personal conviction that God is now punishing them for this crime of their forebears. This position became the commonly accepted one after Justin and is repeated many times in the works of the Fathers who succeeded him.

Five years after Justin’s death (165), St Hippolytus was born in Italy. He became a member of the Roman clergy and is reputed to have distinguished himself as the most important writer of the Roman Church in the third century (10). His work, entitled Demonstratio Adversus Judaeos, makes similar assertions:

Why was the temple made desolate? Was it on account of the ancient fabrication of the calf? Or was it on account of the idolatry of the people? Was it for the blood of the prophets? Was it for the adultery and fornication of Israel? By no means, for all these transgressions they always found pardon open to them. But it was because they killed the Son of their Benefactor, for he is co-eternal with the Father (1).

Shortly after him (185), Origen was born in Egypt of Christian parents. He spent most of his life in Alexandria and was regarded as the greatest theologian and the most prolific biblical scholar in the Eastern Church, before the Council of Nicaea (325). His contribution is found in a work called Contra Celsus, a composition that also takes the form of a fictitious discussion. The opponent in this case is a pagan philosopher, Celsus, who argues the case for the Jews. Origen reiterates Justin’s teaching, adding yet another element – permanence. Contradicting Romans 11:26, he says: ‘[T]heir rejection of Jesus has resulted in the present calamity and exile … they will never be restored to their former condition because they committed a crime of the most unhallowed kind in conspiring against the Saviour of the human race.’

The claim is often made by Christians that the Jews of this time displayed great hatred towards them. Much has been written on this subject and there is still disagreement about it. Whatever the truth may be however, one cannot help noting how lacking the Christian preachers were in their appreciation of why the Jews might be so angry. To the Jews it appeared that not only were the Christians both traitors and apostates, but they found their preaching deeply insulting. The Jews themselves believed also that they were being punished by God, but because of their infidelity to the Law of Moses, not because they had rejected Jesus. Furthermore it was an insult to their God to suggest that he had abandoned them and was therefore unfaithful to his promises. On the contrary they saw this punishment as sent by a loving God for their healing. They believed faithfully that God would never abandon his people. If this preaching wasn’t bad enough and potentially damaging to their missionary effort (so urgent to them at that time), these preachers were using their own Hebrew scriptures to substantiate it.

Despite all these circumstances however, Jewish proselytising was actually having a lot of success at this point. This is explained, in part no doubt, by the fact that the ancient world had great respect for age and antiquity and was equally suspicious of all that was new or novel. The Jewish faith had a long history behind it. Competition was keen therefore, and so Christian leaders were particularly perturbed when they found that many of their converts, retaining a liking for Jewish customs and ceremonies, continued to attend Jewish synagogues, even when forbidden to do so. The Fathers referred to this practice as Judaising’ and saw it as a serious threat to the new-found faith of Christians.

St John Chrysostom, whose homilies Adversus Judaeos are among the most offensive of all the anti-Semitic writings of the Fathers, was particularly disturbed by the Judaising’ practises of his flock. Born in Antioch, Syria (c.344), John ministered there before becoming Archbishop of Constantinople. This city had a large and prosperous Jewish community and Christians were in the habit of visiting their synagogues. In an attempt to address this issue John wrote the eight homilies of Adversus Judaeos, all of which have been recorded and preserved for posterity. In one he sets out the reasons for ‘this combat’ with the Jews:

I too in the past frolicked about in explicating the Scriptures, as if I were sporting about in some meadow; I took no part in polemics because there was no one causing me concern. But today the Jews, who are more dangerous than any wolves, are bent on surrounding my sheep, so I will spur into them and fight with them so that no sheep of mine may fall victim to those wolves (13).

True to his word, he launched into what is generally acknowledged to be the most abusive and highly offensive of verbal attacks ever made on the Jews. The following extracts are typical of these homilies:

[The Jews are] inveterate murderers, destroyers, men possessed by the devil … debauchery and drunkenness have given them the manners of the pig and the lusty goat … Why are the Jews degenerate? Because of their odious assassination of Christ … for this deicide there is no expiation possible, no indulgence, no pardon … Christians may never cease to seek vengeance on the Jews and they must live in servitude forever … God always hated the Jews and whoever has dealings with the Jews will be rejected on judgement day (14).

While one cannot condone his language, in fairness to John, one finds that when these homilies are taken together, the overall impression is much more of his profound, even obsessional, concern for his own flock, rather than any preoccupation with the Jews. It is also true that in the polemics of the time many strong things were said on both sides. The Jewish rabbis had very negative and offensive things to say to Christians also. ‘For them Jesus was a false messiah, a usurper, a renegade’ and there were even suggestions that he was illegitimate and that his mother was a prostitute (15).

The greatest problem with John’s homilies is that because of the high esteem in which John was held, his works were treated with a great reverence and studied with great assiduity by clerics for centuries to come. Long after the context in which they were written had changed, their content could and would be applied on many occasions in an offensive and even dangerous way.

St Jerome (born c.342), a contemporary of John’s, was also highly esteemed, being regarded as the most learned biblical scholar in the West. One of his major works was the translation of the Old Testament into Latin. He is said to have as consulted with Jewish rabbis when working on this project and to have hired a Jewish scholar named Bar Ananias to teach him Hebrew. Jerome never wrote a specific work ‘adversus Judaeos’, but the references to Jews in his writings are negative e.g. ‘serpents, haters of men, and Judases’ (16).

St Augustine was probably the best known and the best loved of the Fathers of the Church in the West. He was born in North Africa near the present Tunisian border in 354. He was baptised by St Ambrose in Italy (387), and consecrated bishop of Hippo in 396, after his return to his native Africa. The story of Augustine’s episcopacy is remarkable for the number and nature of the difficulties he faced, and no less for the compassion with which he approached these problems. His teaching concerning the Jews is all the more mystifying on that account. 

Augustine equates all Jews with Judas. This may be a play on words, as the name Judas also means Jew, but, like his predecessors, he blames them for the killing of Christ. He writes that they must not be killed, because they are, he says, ‘slave librarians’ of the Church, as it were, and as such must remain as witnesses to evil and to Christian truth. Augustine also strongly emphasises another aspect of anti-Semitic teaching which, though not new then either, had all the greater influence on the tradition because of his extraordinary standing in the Christian community. He derived his teaching from the story of Jacob and Esau. He writes:

How is it true that the elder shall serve the younger when the younger seems to worship the elder? But these things were not accomplished in history that they may be understood as prophecies relating to the future. The younger son took the birthright, and the elder lost it. Jacob has filled the earth, and has conquered peoples and kingdoms. The Roman Emperor, himself a commanded that the Jews should not go up even to Jerusalem. Scattered over the earth, they have become, as it were, the keepers of our books. Like servants, who, when they go to their lord’s audience, carry their documents, and sit outside, so has it been with the eldest son in regard to the youngest (17).

This’servant role’ applied to the Jews by Augustine and others was adhered to quite rigidly by successive popes and bishops who repeatedly insisted that Christian rulers must not afford honours or privileges to Jews and that Jews must not be allowed to occupy roles which give them precedence over Christians.

Augustine also maintained that since Jacob represented the Church and Esau Judaism, the era of the Covenant of Sinai was now over and the Christian Church replaced it as ‘the chosen people of God’ – the ‘replacement theology’ rejected by Vatican II in the decree Nostra aetate.



  1. Norman Davies, Europe: A History, London: Pimlico, 1997, p. 197.
  2. ‘Nostra aetate: Present and Future Perspectives’, address by Rabbi David Rosen. Conference of the Holy See Commission for Religious Relations
    with Jewry, Rome, 27 October 2005.
  3. Quoted in Alive! (free newspaper), February 2005.
  4. ‘Paul, Christ, Society and the Church’, lecture by Fr Jerome Murphy O’Connor OP, Tallaght, September 2003, Éist Audio Recording Services, Dublin.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Rosemary Radford Ruether, Faith and Fratricide, USA: Seabury, 1974, p. 53.
  7. Fr Raymond Browne, An Introduction to the New Testament, New York: Doubleday, 1997, pp. 39, 166-7. (According to the Vatican document ‘The Jewish People and their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible’ (2001), references to ‘the Jews’ in John’s gospel are generally imprecise in their meaning, but as the gospel is written in the context of the difficult relations between them, the reference is to those who were hostile – clearly it did not include all Jews, since John himself and the other believers were Jews. Sadly this distinction was not made as time went one, and dramatic presentations of the Passion were often the starting point for attacks on Jews.)
  8. Monsignor Edward Flannery, The Anguish of the,Jews, USA: Paulist Press, 1985, p. 32. See also note 8, p. 308.
  9. Thomas Falls (trans.), The Writings of Justin Martyr, Fathers of the Catholic Church, Vol. 2, New York: Christian Heritage Inc., 1948.
  10. The New Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 6, Washington DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2003.
  11. Demonstratio Adversus Judaeos, St Hippolytus, Ante-Nicene Christian Literature, Lukyn Williams (trans.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1935.
  12. Contra Celsus, Origen, ibid., Vol. 4.
  13. St John Chrysostom, ‘Discourses against Judaising Christians’, Paul Harkins (trans.), Discourse 4, Catholic University Press of America, 1979.
  14. Ibid. Discourse 1 and 6.
  15. Flannery, The Anguish of the Jews, p. 37.
  16. Ibid., p. 50. See also notes 12-15, p. 306
  17. Mary H. Allies, “Jacob and Esau in the Church’ (Sermons IV and V), Leaves from St Augustine, London: Washbourne, 1899, pp. 324-6.

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