James Carroll disputes belief that Saint Augustine was bad for the Jews

Historians in the News

St. Augustine of Hippo (354- 430) was probably the most influential Christian thinker after the Gospel writers and St. Paul. It is to him that we owe such doctrines as original sin and predestination. Yet he has traditionally been unpopular with those concerned about Christian treatment of Jews over the centuries, a disapproval that was expressed eight years ago by the popular historian James Carroll in his much-read book Constantine's Sword. Carroll wrote that Augustine and his followers believed that Jews "'must be allowed to survive, but never to thrive,'" so that their public misery would broadcast their "'proper punishments for their refusal to recognize the truth of the Church's claims.'" And the rest, goes the claim, was bloody history. But in a new book, Augustine and the Jews, Paula Fredriksen, a Boston University religion professor and self-proclaimed "Augustinista," upends the received wisdom. Fredriksen is no coddler of anti-Judaism. A former Catholic who long ago converted to Judaism, she was one of Mel Gibson's most acerbic critics when he released his movie The Passion of the Christ. But her book's subtitle, "A Christian Defense of Jews and Judaism," describes what she contends was Augustine's actual stance on the topic, one she says was "was little short of revolutionary" - in a good way. Excerpts from David Van Biema's interview with Fredriksen.

TIME: So Augustine is not the bad guy regarding the Jews that historians so often conjure?

Fredriksen: Let's say that Augustine was much more benign socially - at least toward Jews - than people have usually thought.

What caused you to question the received wisdom?
Back in 1993 I was reading a work of Augustine's attacking a Christian heretic. Usually when ancient orthodox Christians said terrible things about heretics, they found even worse things to say about Jews. Until 395, Augustine had not been much different, but here he was, writing about one of the flashiest heresies of his time, and marshaling as arguments unbelievably positive things about Jews. As I read further, my scalp tingled. I had been working on Augustine for 20 years and I'd never seen anything like this before. Not only could I establish that he had changed his position, but I could locate this shift in his thinking very precisely, to the four-year period when he also wrote his monumental Confessions.

He just flip-flopped on the topic?

It was more complicated. Imagine if all our public discourse was conducted in the language of legal combat. His was. Learned argument did not aim to represent an opponent's position fairly, but to make it look as ridiculous as possible. Part of his rhetoric regarding Jews reflected this. Also, Christians using harsh language against Jews were often actually aiming at Christian opponents whom they painted as darkly as possible by comparing them to hostile caricatures of Jews.

Read entire article at David Van Biema in Time

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