Thursday, May 28, 2009

"A Surprise from St. Augustine"

Peter Brown reviews Paula Fredericksen's Augustine and the Jews in the New York Review of Books in a beautifully written, vivacious style (if a book review can be beautiful and vivacious). In the same review he also discusses Hadith Sivan's Palestine in Late Antiquity. Here are some excerpts from the first half (the Fredricksen half):

It is a pleasure to write on a book that derives from a modern scholar's brain wave about the fateful insight of a thinker over a millennium and a half ago. Paula Fredriksen's sudden inspiration occurred in an altogether appropriate place—Jerusalem:
I remember staring out the window of the Mishkenot Sha'ananim at daybreak, watching the walls of the Old City glow gold.

She realized that, between 394–395 and 399–400, Augustine, bishop of Hippo in Roman North Africa (modern Bône/Annaba in Algeria), had his own brain wave—or rather, a series of brain waves. As a result,
Augustine had come to a view of Jews and of Judaism that differed dramatically not only from his own prior teachings but also from the prevailing traditions of his church.

This was nothing less than "a Christian affirmation of Jews and Judaism." It is the thrill of this book that we are encouraged, by Fredriksen, to "witness...the birth of an idea."


Thus, Fredriksen urges readers not to think that Saint Paul intended to replace Judaism outright with brand-new Christianity. Rather, she argues, "Paul was always an excellent Jew in both phases of his life." He converted pagans not to make them Christian, but because he saw them as Jews of the Last Days. They would be gathered by Christ into a rejuvenated Israel, as all nations turned to face the true God, who had waited, silent and barely known, for their return.

As for the denunciations of Jews and Jewish leaders in the Gospels, Fredriksen advises the reader to take them for what they were—"fraternal name calling" between factions within Judaism itself. Fierce rhetoric of this kind was "one of the most unmistakably Jewish things about the Jesus movement.... The gospels are no more intrinsically 'anti-Jewish' than is the Bible itself."

Her main point in this long introduction to Augustine is that the parting of the ways between Christianity and Judaism was by no means inevitable. It cannot be seen as the result of a supposed "monotheistic" closure of Judaism to the outside, gentile world. Nor can it be said to have grown, fatefully, from the preaching of Paul, and still less from the remembered sayings of Jesus of Nazareth. Above all, the real Roman world had no use for the rigid boundaries assumed in these notions. It was a world of impenitent diversity. We are eons away from the cramped ghettos of the Western Middle Ages. This was very definitely not
a society where the lives of Jews are under threat.... Jews are Ro-man citizens. They sit on city councils. They own land. And the legal precedent for assurances regarding their ancestral customs stretch back for centuries before the ascent of Christianity.... Late-fourth-century Jews are still part of "the system."

o what went wrong, and how did Augustine attempt to put it right? Very briefly, Fredriksen believes that the Christians of the second and third centuries were caught in the grip of a peculiarly late-antique high-mindedness. They strove for the spiritual. Worse than that, they believed strongly in progress. They looked to a bright future, freed from the weight of the past. For them, history was junk. And the worst junk they could imagine was Judaism. Here, they thought, was a religion irreparably locked into the material world. It imposed circumcision on the penis, the most intimate and distastefully material part of the entire body. It favored fecundity and warfare. It practiced blood sacrifice. Its worshipers remained locked into the past, through nostalgia for a temple whose destruction by the Romans had declared Judaism as a whole to be passé.

As Fredriksen points out, none of this image of Judaism bore any relation to the real thing. It was an image of "rhetorical Jews" generated by anxious debates among Christians about how much of their own bodies they could accept and how much of the weight of the past might be allowed to linger in their own present. High-mindedness, when combined with a heady faith in progress toward better things, is not always the best recipe for tolerance of the ways of others. When Constantine unexpectedly became a Christian in 312, it was this image of a squeaky-clean Christianity, committed to the spiritual and purged of the past, that drew the attention of a crowned revolutionary. The past could be junked. Judaism and paganism alike could be declared, by imperial fiat, to belong to the dust heap of history.

It was this conglomerate of confident notions that Augustine found himself confronting. They might not have challenged him if they had not been presented by advocates of Manichaeism, a sect to which he himself had adhered for twelve years as a young man. Today, Manichaeism tends to be treated as weird and wonderful, and even as slightly ridiculous—at best, a New Age fad. But it was not its exotic features that made Manichaeism so hated by the local clergy in Augustine's era. It was its troubling resemblance to mainline Christianity. Believers in Manichaeism claimed that it was the reformed, the true "spiritual" Christianity of their age. As a result, the attitudes of the Manichees toward Jews and Judaism, and, above all, toward the body and the past, were a caricature of the high-minded progressivism of mainline Christians.

Thus it was the challenge of Manichaeism, represented by Faustus of Milevis, whom he had known in his Manichaean days in Carthage, that provoked Augustine to a reappraisal of his own past attitudes toward the Old Testament in general and toward Judaism in particular. His intellectual reappraisal was summed up, in 403, in a long and hitherto understudied work, Against Faustus, whose significance for the evolution of Augustine's thought Fredriksen has realized and exploited to the full.


What needs to be stressed is the imaginative upshot of Augustine's prolonged intellectual struggle. Basically, it was about how much of the past could be condemned to the past, and how much could be allowed to linger, like a majestic shade, in the present. Unlike his more euphoric contemporaries, Augustine thought that Judaism could never be totally transcended, for the simple reason that the human condition itself admitted no startling fresh departures. Nor could the Judaism of ancient times be dismissed as a religion, irreparably tarnished (in the eyes of Christians) by disquieting overtones of physicality, for the simple reason that physicality itself was neutral. Material existence placed no bar between human beings and God. All that counted was God's will.

If that was so, Augustine went on to argue, then God was free to leave the signs of His will as deep in flesh and blood as He wished. He could leave his mark on penises. He could bless sexual fertility and look with favor on a multiplicity of wives. He could ask for the shedding of blood in sacrifice. He could create an entire kingdom and a mighty temple supported by the wealth of a nation. These were God's great words—each of them impenitently heavy with materiality—by which He spoke to the world through a chosen group of human beings, the Jews.

The history of Israel and of its institutions acquired a new majesty in this reading. They were like a mighty poem that unfolded across the centuries. The lived experience of Jews under the Law might seem mysterious and even alien to human judgment; but what was certain was that the life of the people of Israel had never been either trivial or disgusting, as so many "spiritual" Christians (quite as much as Manichees) were tempted to believe. Even in the present, Jews should be left alone to practice their ancient faith. Against so many of his contemporaries, "Augustine insisted that Jews were not a challenge to Christianity but a witness to it." Jews and Judaism could never be put into the past. In an age in which so much of previous history was being flattened by Christian intolerance, they were to continue to stand out, protected by the aura of their own, God-given past.


Under the shadow of the distant majesty allowed by Christian followers of Augustine to the Jews, other pasts sidled back into the Middle Ages. Ancient gods began to walk the land again, like deposed dynasties, pushed to one side by the new religion, but never entirely exiled from the present, whether in the woods of Scandinavia or among the ruins of postclassical Rome. Above all, ancient pagans joined the Patriarchs. Virgil, appearing before Dante on the edge of the underworld, like "one who seemed hoarse from long silence," was the imaginative heir of Augustine's long search, in the depths of biblical time, for an age whose heroes would never be "condemned to history." Little did Augustine know it, but the imaginative richness of Europe was at stake. In the words of the seventeenth-century clergyman and poet George Herbert: "If the Jews live, all the great wonders of old live in them."

I haven't read the book, because I am extremely busy and the book is nearly 500 pages, but I think I might with such a rave review from Peter Brown. I also recall hearing a talk by Philip Cary (he spoke to the Lit Hum instructors at Columbia) and he also praised this book. For the rest of the review on Hadith Sivan, hit the link at the beginning of this post.

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