Wednesday, July 6, 2011


Paula Fredriksen, Augustine and the Jews: A Christian Defense of Jews and Judaism. New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 2010. Pp. xxiii, 488. ISBN 9780300166286. $20.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Robert McEachnie, University of Florida (

Version at BMCR home site


Paula Fredriksen's work on Augustine and the Jews attempts to recast the seminal theologian as a defender of Jews and Judaism against an earlier Christian tradition of anti-Judaism. Departing from the adversos Iudaeos approach that was dominant in early Christianity, Augustine affirms the existence and continued practice of Judaism. Fredriksen locates Augustine's dealing with Jews within intra-Christian disputes about the nature of matter and spirit. She constructs a complex argument based on the Greek notion of paideia, the Roman world, construction of the New Testament, and patristic attitudes towards Jews and Judaism. Despite her title, Fredriksen does not even reach Augustine's era for the first hundred pages. The book, then, is more than a study of Augustine and the Jews but a well-reasoned argument about the development of biblical interpretation from antiquity into the medieval world. She manages to combine disciplines which too often are separate and distinct. New Testament criticism, early Christian history, Catholic theology, and classical studies all come together in this work. In this second edition Fredriksen corrects technical errors and adds a postscript in which she expands on three major themes and responds to criticisms raised by reviewers of the first edition, published in 2008.

The work is divided into three parts, each with four chapters. The first part attempts to set the stage by introducing classical attitudes towards the divine and spirituality. Starting with Alexander and Greek attitudes towards matter and the divine, Fredriksen builds an argument that the real reason Augustine was interested in Judaism was to develop ideas about matter and spirit which Christianity inherited from the Greek tradition. Chapter three, "Paideia: Pagan, Jewish, Christian," addresses how Greek allegorical reading and assumptions about matter and myth entered Christianity and became the subject of numerous sectarian battles during the first three centuries. Jews were caught in the middle of this due to their presence in the Old Testament. The result was an adversus Iudaeos tradition in early Christianity which identified Jews with the flesh and Christians with the spirit. Augustine entered into this reading tradition upon his conversion in 387.

Chapter four, "Pagans, Jews, and Christians in the Mediterranean City," adds nuance to the previous chapter by demonstrating how tolerant of Jews the ancient world was, even in the fourth century under Christian rulers. This issue of Jewish-Christian relations will trouble Fredriksen throughout the book. Jews lived with Christians, shared feasts, served on town councils and generally acted in the same manner as their Christian counterparts. Based on all the evidence, it seems that the adversus Iudaeos tradition was purely rhetorical. If this is true, then the troubling question arises as to whether there was any link between actual Jews and the rhetorical 'Jew'? Fredriksen struggles to define the actual relationship between Christians and Jews at the time of Augustine and the proliferation of rhetorical texts adversus Iudaeos. The reader is left wondering whether these texts had any basis in reality or whether they had any effect on the popular imagination. Fredriksen argues that Augustine is the first to try to link the two categories (late antique Jews and the "Jew" of rhetoric) because of his historical mode of biblical interpretation, but it never seems as if she gets there. Fredriksen returns to this issue in the postscript, reaffirming her inability to speak to the actual relationship between Jews and Augustine. By acknowledging that it was not her goal to write about actual Christian-Jewish relations but rather rhetorical developments, her work succeeds as intellectual history.

Part two covers the early life of Augustine up to the composition of the Confessions in 397. Dwelling at length on his time as a Manichee, Fredriksen traces a shift in Augustine away from an allegorical interpretation of Scripture. So long as Augustine felt that the Old Testament must be explained away he remained derogatory towards Judaism. As he gradually came to accept a more historical, literal approach (notably through his reading of Tyconius, the Donatist theologian) Augustine began to legitimize Judaism. While Fredriksen is primarily interested in the development of Augustine's thought on Judaism and thus indirectly his rhetoric about matter and spirit, these chapters do an excellent job of tracing the complicated path of Augustine's life, following him from his time in Carthage as a hearer of the Manicheans through his forced appointment as bishop in Hippo. Fredriksen argues that his relationship with Manicheanism was crucial to Augustine's thought about Jews. A dualistic faith, Manicheanism held that the god of the Old Testament and that of the New Testament were diametrically opposed: the Old Testament was the creator or imprisoner in matter while the New Testament god, who sent Jesus as his representative, was spiritual and desired to free humanity from imprisonment in matter. Thus the Manichees attacked Augustine's church as being too like the Jews and fleshly. By being forced to defend the Old Testament against attacks, Augustine rethought his own approach to the text and thus, to Judaism.

Part three, the lengthiest part of the book, is arguably the most important because it is here that Fredriksen fleshes out the core of her argument. Chapter nine, the first in this part, considers the rhetorical attacks of the Manicheans in the form of Faustus's Capitula written in exile in 386. A Manichean bishop of Carthage, Faustus wrote his tract as an attack on Catholic Christianity. Fredriksen reconstructs Faustus's arguments and puts them into a late antique context, comparing them to earlier arguments about Judaism from various Christian writers of the first three centuries, which Faustus is mainly recounting.

In chapter ten, "The Redemption of the Flesh," Augustine's innovation comes to fruition. By accepting the literal-historical sense of the text (against the Greek tradition of paideia), Augustine asserts "that the text 'means' what it says." (242) This break revolutionizes biblical interpretation and allows Augustine to rethink the inherent value (or lack thereof) of matter against the Manichean view. This shift enables him to say that "the Jewish understanding of the Law as enacted by Israel and as described in the Bible was…good." (243). Even more, he affirms that Jewish practice, including sacrifice and circumcision, were also good. Reading the Bible as a narrative, Augustine says that these acts were both historical events and types which pointed to Christ. Fredriksen carefully reconstructs Augustine's line of thought in Against Faustus creating a persuasive argument which remains grounded in the text.

Chapter eleven, "The Mark of Cain," tracks Augustine's further steps in defending the Jews in Against Faustus. He reads the story of Cain and Abel typologically associating the Jews with Cain. Augustine argues that like Cain, the Jews are marked by God. While in modern colloquial usage, the mark of Cain designates shame or guilt, for Augustine it signified the protection of God. Marked by God, the designee is protected from harm and acts as a witness to God's judgment and goodness. For Augustine, "God sent the Jews out…so that they would continue their unique historical mission as witnesses to the message of the incarnate Son." (276) Ironically, by continuing to practice their religion, Jews serve Christianity. The Diaspora following 70 AD serves to spread the history and books of Israel, which Augustine believes to belong to Christians. For this reason, the Jews should be preserved and allowed to continue in their manner of worship. While not tolerant of other religions in a modern sense (indeed, Fredriksen notes that Augustine elsewhere rejoices over the destruction of pagan temples and forces Donatists 'heretics' to enter his own church), his approach promises peace towards Jews and Judaism.

Entitled "Slay Them Not…," Chapter 12 follows Augustine's thought after 400 AD. The major development Fredriksen tracks is the discovery and application of Psalm 59:12 ("Slay them not, lest my people forget. Scatter them in your might") to Augustine's argument. In City of God, Augustine identifies Cain as the founder of the earthly city and is thus forced to abandon the narrower genealogy adopted in Against Faustus for a broader one; it is no longer just the Jews who are his heirs, but all citizens of the earthly city. To replace this metaphor, Augustine puts the verse from the Psalms to use in two sermons about the Jews as well as in a letter to Paulinus of Nola sometime after 410. Due to Augustine's usage, this verse would become the standard in appeals to protect Jews throughout the medieval world. Despite his belief in their divine protection, unlike other apocalyptic teachers, Augustine did not believe the Jews would convert to Christianity; rather, like many gentiles, they would largely be passed over for salvation. Yet even here, Augustine treats the Jews as any other ethnic group, not specially blessed or uniquely damned. Fredriksen may well overstate Augustine's tolerance for Judaism in this section. While he did permit the continuation of the religion, he subordinated it. Instead of arguing for the faulty nature of Jews as under the adversos Iudaeos tradition, Augustine suggested that Jews will live out their days as a slave of Christianity. This outcome can hardly be called a defense of Jews.

In the postscript, new to the second edition, Fredriksen discusses three important issues: social relations between Christians and Jews, intra-Christian diversity, and Augustine's theology of Jews. Each issue has at its core a response to critiques about how she portrays Augustine's concern for real Jews or rhetorical Jews. She observes that for all its vitriol, rhetorical attacks on Jews by Christians were products of and for cultural elites. In fact, in many cases they were directed more at other Christian sects than at Jews themselves. The reality, that Jews and Christians lived side by side, seems to have been unaffected by the adversus Iudaeos tradition. She admits that by the fifth century, the dissemination of the rhetoric in sermons did cause some violence against Jews (which is notably precisely because it was exceptional), but violence between Christian sects was far more common. Regarding Augustine's theology, she attempts to address the problem of the relationship between historical Jews and rhetorical Jews acknowledging that for Augustine, Jews as historical actors were "utterly overshadowed by the degree to which he thinks with 'Jews' as a theological category." (370) And yet, she argues that due to his historical reading of the Bible and his application of Psalm 59:12, Augustine collapses the two categories. She ends by noting that while Augustine subordinates Judaism to Christianity, his work ultimately saved Jewish lives. His new approach pushed Christianity out of the tradition of paideia style biblical interpretation which valued the allegorical over the literal readings and broadened Christian thinking about flesh and spirit.

Fredriksen's work is a marvelous product of interdisciplinary scholarship. While she assumes little about the reader's knowledge within the text, she uses the notes to lay out the entire range of scholarship. Indeed, the tremendous display of erudition in the notes makes them a joy to read. Truly discursive, they lay out the diverse scholarly opinions on any given topic whether classical, New Testament, patristic, or Jewish. Acting as a mediator between these often divergent disciplines, she challenges scholars to move beyond their disciplinary comfort zones and to think of the period as a unified whole.

Even in the massive field of Augustinian studies, this work stands out. Placing Augustine in a context stretching back to Alexander and Greek-style paideia, Freidriksen carefully builds her argument that Augustine's interest in Judaism was a means of engaging in the dialectic of matter and spirit that Christianity had inherited from the Greek tradition. She demonstrates that Augustine was innovative in his thought, no small feat. While one might quibble with her failure to adequately separate the rhetorical Jew from historical Jews for Augustine, her work stands as a triumph of scholarship on issues which are still debated today.

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