Augustine and Antisemitism

October 7th forced the West to face up to some grim realities. One is that we remain in history, and our intractable political conflicts have not been resolved by liberal nation-building. Another is that antisemitism remains with us and afflicts a variety of tribes, both political and ethnic, both at home and abroad. This animosity is evident not only in Hamas and Hamas-friendly Palestinians, but also progressives in Western nations who have come to classify contemporary Jews and the state of Israel as privileged oppressors. At the other end of the horseshoe, there is also an emergent strain on the new Christian right that winks at Jew-hatred while it seeks to curb what it sees as Western over-commitment to the modern state of Israel. Much of this is explained as a correction of sloppy post-War geopolitical thinking, which linked up with the dispensational theology that led many Western Christians to uncritically support Israel, and Zionist Jewish leaders in Western nations. This has led to a supersessionist backlash that seems to sanction hardened attitudes toward Jewish suffering in Israel and hostility toward Jews in the West.

Some form of what has come to be called “supersessionism” is the majority report in church history. Supersessionism broadly posits that Israel has been replaced by the Christian church, and that Jews who do not believe in Christ are no longer to be identified with God’s chosen people. According to this traditional belief, Jews lost the rights to the covenant promises in their rejection of Jesus. Dispensationalism–a more novel theology, and one not uninfluenced by the astonishing founding of the state of Israel in 1948–is adamantly opposed to this reading, presenting Israel and the church as two distinct peoples of God, with two distinct plans of salvation. Dispensational theologians strongly emphasize the irrevocability of the promises to national Israel; this leads many to view the modern state of Israel through a prophetic lens. Dispensationalists and those unknowingly influenced by this theology tend to be those most sensitive to the plight of Jews in our day, while supersessionist theology has been weaponized in service of hostility toward Jews, and those who adopt the supersessionist framing tend to struggle to articulate anything positive about the perdurance of Judaism and contemporary Jews. This is exacerbated by the very common pattern of people who have grown up in dispensationalist circles finding more classical Protestant theology, stumbling upon Luther’s floridly antisemitic comments, and as a result reacting against their enthusiastically Zionist upbringing (and parents) by embracing a maximally antisemitic read of the Reformers.

This essay will investigate how Augustine’s theology relates to all of this. What I will argue is that Augustine’s “witness doctrine,” while it certainly cannot be categorized as a species of dispensationalism, does not fit neatly in most expressions of supersessionism either. Augustine, while presenting the Christian church as continuous with Israel and as the fulfillment of Old Testament promises, and while being fervent about the need for Jews to repent and believe in Christ, also provides a positive account of Judaism. Working from within the contra Iudaeos stream of patristic rhetoric and theology, Augustine added a somewhat revolutionary contribution.

Background: Contra Iudaeos

Early in the church’s history, a form of supersessionism developed that viewed the Jews as rejected by God for having rejected Christ. Much of this tradition employed an allegorical reading of Esau and Jacob as prefiguring Israel and the church, inspired by similar interpretive moves in Paul’s writings. Already by the second century, theologians and Christian apologists began to present opposition to the gospel as a permanent feature of Jewish identity and Jewish-Christian relations.[1] Such Christians devised arguments to explain why Jews were seemingly incapable of perceiving that Christians had the true understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures. As Paula Fredriksen explains in her important work on Augustine and the Jews, the rhetorical force of these arguments was exacerbated by the failed Jewish revolt led by Bar Kokhba in AD 132-135. “Gentile Christians,” explains Fredriksen, “viewed the earlier, first-century destruction of the Temple through the prism of this bloody second-century defeat.”[2] Christians linked these two failed Jewish revolts (i.e., AD 66-70 and AD 132-135) with the New Testament predictions of the destruction of the Temple and the latter’s relation to Jesus’ death. This all served to confirm the idea that the Jews killed Jesus, and thereby surrendered their special covenantal status. Christian thinkers increasingly developed the “trail of blood” motif that associated the Jews with Cain, arguing that just as the Jews killed the prophets, so they killed Christ, and thus they remain ever hostile to Christians.[3] Interestingly, the term “Jewish” was employed in various theological treatises, sermons, and debates to apply to any heresy or enemy of Christian truth. Christian theology was tempted at various points to disparage the Old Testament and “fleshly” religion. By the time of the late fourth century, rhetoric contra Iudaeos had come into its own.[4]

Augustine’s thought is somewhat unique in this context. His conception of the Jews and Judaism is marked by two poles: one more comfortably in line with the contra Iudaeos tradition, seen in his presentation of non-Christian Jews as judged and humiliated,[5] and the other a revolution within that rhetorical tradition exhibited in his doctrine of positive Jewish witness.[6] For the purposes of this essay, we will simply look at the key aspects of his witness doctrine and his reasons for espousing it. There is a strange ambivalence in this doctrine for Augustine, for it simultaneously conceives of the Jews as judged and protected, as humiliated and preserved.[7] But this ambivalent Augustinian doctrine might offer something to our contemporary debates.

Early Developments in Augustine’s Doctrine

To introduce Augustine’s “witness doctrine,” I will provide an overview of the main images employed by Augustine at each stage in his development of this theme, and then conclude with a summary of the key tenets of his mature thought on the topic.

Augustine begins to approach the witness doctrine in his early battles against the Manichees, particularly Faustus,[8] and his debates with Jerome. Here a key image is flesh. Faustus appropriated the anti-Jewish rhetoric of the day, but directed it at the catholic church. The Manichees espoused an extreme Law-Gospel contrast and pitted the Old Testament and “fleshly” faith against true “spirituality,” the latter being most purely expressed by the Manichees. Much of the early contra Iudaeos tradition was based on a derogatory dichotomy of flesh vs. spirit; true Christianity was “spiritual” and heresy was “carnal,” rhetorically rendered as “Jewish.”[9] Faustus went even further by arguing that sacrifice and “bloody” religion were inherently wrong.

Augustine made the case for the positive theological status of flesh against Faustus and the Manichees, but, in so doing, also supplied a defense of Judaism. He was helped by the writings of the Donatist theologian Tyconius, something evident in On Christian Doctrine, which Augustine began writing in 396-397. With the aid of Tyconius, Augustine began to rethink how to read the Bible and the Church’s relationship to Judaism.[10] Tyconius helped Augustine conceive of a positive understanding of the Law and of continuity between the Old and New Covenants.[11] The Law is good, and so was the Jewish understanding of the Law and Israel’s traditional practices. Christ did not abolish the Law, but revealed its depths and telos in himself. In Answer to Faustus, a Manichean, written in 398-400, Augustine argued that bloody, fleshly sacrifice was needed to point to Christ, to prepare the way for the incarnation and crucifixion–which were fleshly and bloody.

This leaves open the question about ongoing Jewish cultic practice after the coming of Christ, something which leads us to Augustine’s debates with Jerome, which are found in Augustine’s letters 40 and 82, from AD 396 and 405, respectively. These debates centered on Jerome’s interpretation of Galatians 2, but were ultimately about the truthfulness of God’s Word and the role of post-apostolic Jewish practice. Surprisingly, Jerome had argued that the debate between Peter and Paul in Galatians 2 was not genuine, since it made no sense that a Christian leader would be confused about or tempted by Jewish practices after Christ. Augustine thinks this strikes at the truthfulness of God’s Word; but furthermore, it misses something about Jewish practice. Augustine argues that the Jews worshiped the true God, and that the Law was a pedagogue for them, preparing those Jews who converted to Christ to reach disproportionate spiritual heights.[12] In support of this claim, he presents the Jerusalem Church as the most spiritually mature and theologically astute in the first century. Further, he argues that it was proper for first-century converts from Judaism to Christianity to retain certain Jewish practices, though he clarifies that this was never proper for Gentiles and is not a permanent expectation for Jewish converts.[13] Augustine gives examples in Paul’s life: Paul circumcised Timothy, fulfilled his Nazarite vow, participated in temple observances, etc.[14] Paul, argues Augustine, did these not to persuade others that these were necessary for salvation in Christ, but to make clear that he did not condemn rites instituted by God proper to earlier times.[15] However, Augustine clarifies, these practices were not to develop further, nor to continue in the church once the gospel had become firmly established through the widespread teaching and preaching of the grace of Christ.[16] He makes the case that it is plausible that the apostles performed these practices during that early period so as to not scandalize the Jews by appearing to condemn the old sacraments. To illustrate his point, Augustine compares these old rites, which were filled with prophetic meaning, to the dead bodies of one’s parents.[17] When the faith came that was foretold by these observances, they lost their life. But they should, Augustine argues, be not immediately abandoned or tossed to one’s enemies, but carried as if to their burial. This is what justifies, according to Augustine, the apostolic continuance of Jewish rites and makes sense of the debate between Peter and Paul. And this is also a positive defense of Jewish practices, setting the stage for more revolutionary developments on the way to his “witness doctrine.”

Augustine began, fairly early on, to investigate the theme of Jewish persistence. He wondered why God seemed to protect Jewish practice and Jewish existence. He turns to a few Old Testament figures to explain how the Jews’ persistence amidst judgment positively serves the Christian church. He begins many of his reflections here by appropriating the Esau-Jacob figuralism common to the contra Iudaeos tradition. The elder (i.e., Jews) now serve the younger (i.e., Christian church).[18] But the figure more important for his positive witness doctrine is Cain. Cain prefigured the Jews—the older people—who killed Christ—the head of the younger people.[19] However, like Cain, the Jews, though judged and cursed to wander the earth, are protected by God. For Augustine, Cain served as a sign to explain Jews’ persistent identity and ubiquity.[20] This imagery is used in an early exposition of Psalm 40, and figures prominently in Against Faustus. Yes, like Cain killing his brother, the Jews were judged for rejecting Christ and being complicit in his killing. However, the Jewish people are granted divine protection and persist in traditional Jewish practices, and will do so until the end of time. Unique among the peoples of the world, they do not assimilate into other nations and cultures and lose their distinctive identity.

Augustine then, already in these early texts, develops a positive reason for the Jews’ continued existence connected to the Esau-Jacob and Cain figuralism: Jews being Jews everywhere even now serves the church. How? By their carrying of the Scriptures that confirm Christian claims.[21]

Before I explain what he means by this, I should introduce the other Old Testament figure invoked by Augustine: Ham.[22] Ham’s uncovering of his father’s nakedness, and reporting it to his brothers before being judged by God and cursed to serve them symbolizes for Augustine those who consented to Jesus’ death and now serve the Christian church. As with the Cain imagery, the Ham figure is used to describe the Jews who now carry and guard the books that support the church. So, with these two images, Cain and Ham, Augustine depicts non-Christian Jews as “carrying our satchels” and “carry[ing] books for us, the students;”[23] as “book-bearers for us;”[24] as a wandering “library for Christians.”[25] By bringing the Hebrew Scriptures everywhere, the Jews confirm Christian claims, proving to skeptical pagans that Christians did not invent Jesus’ Messiahship. Thus, Jews as Jews serve as a testimony to the antiquity of the promises undergirding Christian beliefs. Even ongoing Jewish opposition and exile serves to support Christianity: the fact that testimonies about Christ are carried by Christ’s enemies makes the church’s case even more convincing.[26] Even their obstinate blindness is predicted in their texts, further confirming the church’s claims. Thus, Jews “carr[y] the book which is the foundation of faith for … Christian[s],” and “[w]e take books from our enemies to confute other enemies!”[27]

As Paula Fredriksen explains, this combination of Jewish persistence and their testimony to Christ through the OT is the core of Augustine’s doctrine of Jewish “witness.”[28] While Augustine echoes much of patristic rhetoric about the Jews post-AD 70, he also adds a providential framing.[29] Augustine’s witness doctrine holds together punitive wandering, but also divine preservation–and all in service of the church.[30] These themes are present already in these earlier writings, and already Augustine goes well beyond the traditional contra Iudaeos rhetoric. As Fredriksen explains, “Augustine’s interpretation of the ‘mark of Cain’ to mean current Jewish practice and to indicate the divine means and sign of their continuation, is emphatically original.”[31] What we will see is that in later writings, his overall doctrine remains consistent, but he adds new terms and a slight shift in emphasis.

Augustine’s Mature Exposition

The shift into Augustine’s mature exposition of the witness doctrine occurs when he studies Psalm 59 (58 in the LXX) between the years AD 410-415.[32] The key lines in the Septuagint version of this Psalm that Augustine utilizes are these: “Slay them not, lest my people forget. Scatter them in your might” (μὴ ἀποκτείνῃς αὐτούς, μήποτε ἐπιλάθωνται τοῦ λαοῦ μου· διασκόρπισον αὐτοὺς ἐν τῇ δυνάμει σου) (59:11). Fredriksen explains that this quotation, “understood as directed to contemporary Jews, will eventually become the signature statement of Augustine’s so-called witness doctrine.”[33] Augustine first engages Psalm 59 to further develop his witness doctrine in “Exposition 1 of Psalm 58” and “Exposition 2 of Psalm 58,” which were most likely delivered in the winter of AD 412-413,[34] and letter 149 to Paulinus, bishop of Nola, written around the year 416.[35] In these texts which date from the beginning of the mature phase of Augustine’s witness writings, Augustine explicitly links these phrases from Psalm 59 to the Cain figuralism he had developed earlier. Eventually, Psalm 59 largely replaces the Cain imagery in later works, such as City of God Book XVIII, written between AD 414-425; Faith in Things Unseen, written between 420-425; and Answer to the Jews, mostly likely written between the years 427-430.

What Augustine adds to his witness doctrine in these lines from Psalm 59 focuses on the two phrases “slay them not” and “scatter them.” The scattering language, though new, does not add anything substantial to his earlier exposition of the witness doctrine that relied on the Cain/Ham figures.[36] It is simply new terminology to depict God’s providential—and not merely punitive—dispersion of the Jews. However, the language of “slay them not” does provide Augustine an opportunity to slightly develop his witness doctrine. In earlier writings, Augustine mostly referred to the providential protection of Jewish identity in descriptive, factual terms; at this stage he adds an imperative emphasis. Christians and civil rulers are called to protect Jews being Jews wherever they are found. Augustine does not just explain the mark of Cain as a prefiguration of God’s protection of Jewish life, but exhorts his audience: “Let the Jewish race survive.”[37] In another important study of Augustine’s teachings on the Jews,[38] Jeremy Cohen argues that in City of God, building off of Augustine’s earlier exposition of Psalm 59, Augustine does not simply explain the phenomenon of Jewish survival as a fulfillment of prophecy, but he “interprets the divine prophecy of Jewish survival as a mandate for the faithful: Slay them not, that is, ensure their survival and that of their Old Testament observance.” Cohen explains this as a shift from Augustine’s earlier writings in which he merely describes, albeit with approval, Jewish survival within the framework of the Cain/Ham figuralism. At that earlier stage, Jewish survival was not preached “as a matter of policy.”[39] Cohen argues this imperative instruction only emerges during the second decade of the fifth century, when Augustine’s doctrine of Jewish witness reaches its mature formulations as a result of his engagement with Psalm 59.

Legacy and Contemporary Relevance

How does this all relate to our contemporary debates? Augustine’s doctrine was largely developed in a context when Jewish lives were not commonly at risk of physical violence. Rather, his concern was focused on the continuance of Jewish traditional practice and its theological significance. What might Augustine say in light of centuries of widespread antisemitism that seems to erupt in punctuated expressions of violence, manifest most acutely in the Holocaust?

Well, we do in fact know how Augustine’s teaching was appropriated in a later time when communities of Jews were facing physical devastation. In 1146, Christians in the Rhine accepted the call to liberate the Holy Land from Muslims who were laying waste to Jews. Bernard of Clairvaux addressed fellow Christians, encouraging them in their battle, and appealed to Augustine’s interpretation of Psalm 59 as inspiration to protect the Jews.[40] Also, it is likely that Augustine’s witness doctrine inspired Thomas Aquinas to urge the duchess of Brabant to protect Jewish life and property.[41] So, Augustine’s interpretation of Psalm 59 would later be invoked to safeguard Jewish lives.

It is true that Augustine never promoted a Jewish state, but rather expounded the theological significance of Jewish scattering. However, one wonders if he might support such a state as a way to protect Jewish lives and practice in light of the antisemitic hostility that we have seen simmer over the centuries, erupt in Western nations in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and remain an ever-present threat in relation to Islamic extremists who now have the sympathy also of Westerners. This is speculative, but one can imagine it as a post-Holocaust extension of Augustine’s basic teachings on the Jews. And to extend his logic in this way does not require one to embrace dispensational Zionism.

Augustine himself provides precedent for “reading” post-New Testament historical developments providentially, and thus as an opportunity to further explore the figural depths of Scripture. We have discussed some of this already with reference to Augustine’s utilization of the figures of Esau-Jacob, Cain, and Ham, and his exposition of Psalm 59. We also have examples in Augustine’s letters of how he interpreted the church’s rise to cultural and political prominence and the conversion of the emperors through the lenses of Old Testament prophecies.[42] And we know that Augustine performed a similar interpretative task with regard to the “fall of Rome.”[43] It is therefore not illegitimate to imagine how Augustine might extend his “witness doctrine” in a post-Holocaust context, and wonder if he might utilize a new figure or simply add new emphases to account for the modern state of Israel as a means to protect Jewish lives when they are under more acute threat of physical destruction. Certainly the perdurance of Jewish identity and practice entails continuance of Jewish lives.

But more obviously, to be faithful to Augustine’s Jewish witness doctrine, one cannot perceive contemporary Jews purely through the lens of judgment. In Augustine’s terms, contemporary Jews still serve a positive purpose for the church and its mission, even if that mission includes laboring for their conversion to Christ. However, even in his most supersessionist-sounding writings Augustine still holds out hope that many Jews will convert and exhorts Christians to treat them with love and to resist pride toward them.[44] Would that contemporary Christians follow Augustine’s lead and resist the antisemitic demons that tempt us today.

James R. Wood is Assistant Professor of Ministry at Redeemer University in Ancaster, ON. He is also a Commonwealth Fellow at Ad Fontes, a teaching elder in the PCA and former associate editor at First Things.

  1. See Paula Fredriksen, Augustine and the Jews: A Christian Defense of Jews and Judaism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 77.

  2. Fredriksen, Augustine and the Jews, 84.

  3. See Fredriksen, Augustine and the Jews, 91-92.

  4. See Fredriksen, Augustine and the Jews, 370.

  5. Augustine’s writings that most neatly reflect the standard contra Iudaeos rhetoric are letter 196 (written in 418) and Answer to the Jews (most likely written ca. 429). For this essay, all references to Augustine’s writings use the titles, numbering, and translations provided by the New City Press editions.

  6. See Ephraim Radner, A Brutal Unity: The Spiritual Politics of the Christian Church (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2012), 82.

  7. See Michael Singer, “Jews and Judaism,” in Augustine Through the Ages: An Encyclopedia, edited by Allan D. Fitzgerald (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 473.

  8. See Fredriksen, Augustine and the Jews, 315. Fredriksen argues that “the single most important factor contributing to [Augustine’s] move views on Jews and Judaism—the factor that gave his teaching its coherence, its scope, its power, and its sheer originality—was that Augustine had Faustus’ Capitula to work against.”

  9. See Fredriksen, Augustine and the Jews, 73.

  10. See Fredriksen, Augustine and the Jews, 371.

  11. See Fredriksen, Augustine and the Jews, 162ff.

  12. Augustine also argues this in On Christian Doctrine, 3.6.10.

  13. See Augustine, Letter 82.2.15-18.

  14. See Augustine, Letter 82.2.8.

  15. See Augustine, Letter 82. 2.12.

  16. See Augustine, Letter 82.2.15-16.

  17. See Augustine, Letter 82.2.16.

  18. Such figuralism is littered throughout Augustine’s writings on the Jews. An early example is “Exposition of Psalm 40,” 14.

  19. See Augustine, Against Faustus, 12.9-13.

  20. See Fredriksen, Augustine and the Jews, 265.

  21. These arguments are strongly stated in early works such as “Exposition of Psalm 40”; Against Faustus, 12; and “Exposition of Psalm 56,” 9 (written sometime between AD 395-408).

  22. See Augustine, Against Faustus, 12.23.

  23. Augustine, “Exposition of Psalm 40,” 14.

  24. Augustine, “Exposition of Psalm 56,” 9.

  25. Augustine, Against Faustus, 12.23. See also Augustine, Sermon 5.5. In this later sermon, which was delivered sometime between AD 410-419, Augustine describes the scattered Jews as “the keepers of our books; like slaves who carry their masters’ books behind them when they go to the lecture room and situ outside themselves, that’s what the elder son has become for the younger son. … So the reason they have been scattered among us is to keep these books for us. In this way the elder serves the younger.”

  26. See Augustine, “Exposition of Psalm 40,” 14; Against Faustus, 16.21.

  27. Augustine, “Exposition of Psalm 56,” 9.

  28. See Fredriksen, Augustine and the Jews, 321.

  29. See Fredriksen, Augustine and the Jews, 306.

  30. See Fredriksen, Augustine and the Jews, 304.

  31. Fredriksen, Augustine and the Jews, 322.

  32. See Fredriksen, Augustine and the Jews, 324.

  33. Fredriksen, Augustine and the Jews, 304.

  34. See Augustine, “Exposition 1 of Psalm 58,” 21-22; “Exposition 2 of Psalm 58,” 2.

  35. See Augustine, Letter 149.9.

  36. See Fredriksen, Augustine and the Jews, 363. Fredriksen argues that what Augustine says about the Jews remains consistent from the years 399-425 and beyond.

  37. Augustine, “Exposition 1 of Psalm 58,” 21.

  38. Jeremy Cohen, “Augustinian Foundations,” in Living Letters of the Law: Ides of the Jew in Medieval Christianity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 33. Cohen also adds, “and scatter them, guaranteeing that the conditions of their survival demonstrate the gravity of their error and the reality of their punishment.”

  39. Cohen, “Augustinian Foundations,” 37-38.

  40. This is recounted in the opening lines of the prologue to Fredriksen, Augustine and the Jews.

  41. See Singer, “Jews and Judaism,” 473.

  42. See especially Augustine, Letters 105, 173, and 185.

  43. See Augustine’s “Sermon on the Sack of Rome” as well as City of God.

  44. See Augustine, Answer to the Jews, 9.12-10.15.


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