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The Jews in early Christian Texts


Copyright © 1997, Timothy J. Horner. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.




Since the holocaust there has been an increased interest to delve into the history of the Christianity in search of the roots of modern antisemitism. The extreme views of Chrysostom or Cyril or Ephrem are often portrayed as the embodiment of the Adversus Judæos tradition. Moreover, these writers are often portrayed as merely fitting the cast of Christian anti-Judaism founded in the New Testament. The second century of the common era (CE) is thus made to fit into this senario of early Christian/Jewish relations. Recent scholarship has, however, begun examining and questioning the idea of a direct line of anti-Judaism from the first through the fourth centuries CE. One of the reasons for this is that the sources are relatively scarce and little is known of either their authors or their context - as compared to Chrysostom. But by at least attempting to examine each of the sources available to us in its own context and on its own merits a different picture emerges. Instead of a straight line of progression and perpetuation, we see what is more akin to a mosaic of Christian views and opinions on the Jews and Judaism.

When dealing with the second century it is helpful to put aside the idea of canon or a closed collection of sacred texts outside the Hebrew scriptures (more specifically the LXX). The early Christian world was a flood of competing texts and teachings. Certainly, Christians had a sense of authority and the universal importance of some texts and authors, but Christianity was mostly defined in local terms. There was not an ecclesial structure capable of tight control over all the variations of the Christian faith. It is worthwhile then to give weight to works based on their popularity, e.g. Proto-evangelium of James and its particular message about Judaism.

It is also important that classical categories of Judaism in the Diaspora be carefully scrutinized. It is now widely accepted that the gap between Jews living in Palestine and the Diaspora is growing smaller. The classic profile of the Diaspora Jew who is isolated by her Jewishness and shunned because of it, but at the same time is trying to fit into Hellenistic culture by syncretizing her belief to make herself less abhorrent to the surrounding culture is unacceptable. Firstly, there is no such thing as a typical Diaspora Jew. Each Jewish community must be treated locally. This is a fruitful endeavor in a place like Egypt where Jewish literary sources are rich (Philo) and information is more detailed (Josephus). It is more difficult in regions like Asia Minor or North Africa but new scholarship is seeking to interpret the archeological evidence in spite of its patchiness. The effect this is having on the study of the Adversus Judæos tradition is the re-evaluation of those Christian texts which describe Jews and Judaism.

One of the great enigmas of the Adversus Judæos tradition is that we have no solid evidence that any of this literature was answered or provoked by Jews who might have come into contact with Christianity. Evidence for a Jewish polemic against Christianity is vaporous. In the last few decades, scholarship has sought to paint Judaism as a real and vital contender with Christianity and that they did not, according to Adolf von Harnack, fade into insignificance against the raising star of Christianity. The view of Judaism meeting Christianity blow for blow until well into the fourth century CE when the Christian sources become ossified and Jews are legislated out of discourse by the Theodosian codes of the late fourth century, is also now coming under fire. Part of the problem lies in trying to define Greco-Roman Judaism with Christian criteria, for example mission and proselytization. Even if there are signs of a Jewish mission in the late third and fourth centuries CE, there is no firm evidence in the Jewish sources to indicate an active Jewish mission to non-Jews before this time (see Goodman 1994 (no early mission) and Feldman 1996 (active mission long before Christianity) for both ends of the spectrum). The natural question follows: Why were some Christians so preoccupied with Judaism and all things Jewish? Answers to this question are understandably varied. To begin to address this difficult question it is important to be familiar with the texts of this century and their possible contexts. Then, and only then, can hypotheses be proposed and discussed.

What emerges from these texts is a varied picture of Christianity. Each writer or document had their own ideas about what constituted proper Christian belief and expression, but for the most part there is evidence that some Christians saw no difficulty in, for example, holding a dual-covenant theory of salvation for the Jews and the Gentiles. In the second century at least, we can see only adumbrations of what would become in later centuries a focused, immovable stance against Jews and Judaism.









This is a document that illustrates well the kind of ambiguous relationship early Christians had with Judaism. It is a practical document dealing with the form and content of early Christian worship. It seems comprised by many hands and its date hovers at the dawn of the second century CE, although it could be earlier. The Didache is interwoven with Jewish teachings and Jewish influence. And while we are restrained from saying that all early Christians were Jewish, it is an important concept to maintain. It is impossible to underestimate the influence Judaism had on these early followers. In essence, there was no other choice for them. In the early second century CE, there was a limited corpus of Christian material and a shallow pool of Christian tradition to draw from. It is not surprising then to find Jewish prayers and moral teachings in the Didache. What is more striking is the way in which this material is altered and modified to meet the needs of new movement while at the same time differentiating themselves from those who did not accept their sectarian form of Judaism.

There are two areas where it is possible to see a process of differentiation taking place: fasting and prayers (public and private). Didache 8:1 lays the situation out plainly. "Don't let your fasts be with the hypocrites, for they fast of Mondays (the second day after Sabbath) and Thursdays. Do your fast on Wednesday and Friday." Classically, Judaism placed the fasts as far apart as possible while still leaving a day on either side of the Sabbath. If Christians who observed Sunday as the Sabbath were to follow this practice this would have made their fast on Tuesdays and Friday. There is a certain amount of speculation as to why these days (Wednesday and Friday) were recommended. Perhaps it was simply a way for Christians to further distance themselves from another form of Judaistic practice. But then why not stop fasting altogether? Another more provocative theory suggested by T.J Talley (1986) states that the choice of Wednesday and Friday reflect a connection to the calendar at Qumran. This sectarian Jewish calendar presumably circulated in like-minded circles and was adopted by early Christians. This recommendation reflects not a distancing from Judaism per se but an allegiance to Jewish sectarian practice. Non-sectarian Jews might have seen this practice as distancing and misguided. In the end, however, it is difficult to know how Jews fasted during this time and it is just as possible that the reference to hypocrites as referring to another Christian Jewish group.

The next injunction might also reflect this distancing. "Don't pray as the hypocrites, but as the Lord commanded in his gospel, pray this way: Our father..." (Did. 8.2-3) Hypocrites are, in both passages, probably linked to Jews, but not necessarily. This is a unique example of the term hypocrite, for in other early Christian literature hypocrites probably refer to Christians who continue to follow Jewish practice over Christian practice. After all, it is Christian Jews who would have appeared hypocritical in the lexical sense of the word. Nevertheless, in the case of prayer and fasting the Didache is probably dependant Matthew 6:2 which is clearly referring to Jews. Regardless of who is being referred to, the overriding goal is to differentiate and prescribe the 'correct' practice.

In these two brief examples, we can begin to see how the early Christians were beginning to adapt their tradition to fit their situations and developing practice. At first glance it may appear as if these Christians were attempting to maintain contact with Judaism by keeping the overall structure of the prayers and practice of fasting. But it must be remembered that this was the only form of worship known to them. There was not a great deal of choice in the matter. For example, the Didache begins with the thoroughly Jewish teaching on the Two Ways (Did. 1), but then proceeds to replace, and in some cases Christianize, some of the central Jewish prayers and practices which would have been cherished by Jews, even former ones. Thus the Didache illustrates well the tension which appears to have co-existed in late first/early second century Christian teaching. As we will see, it is a tension that appears to have been noticed only by a few later writers.



The epistle of Barnabas is often looked to as a source for some of the church's most virulent anti-Judaism. And, in fact, this early text does contain language which excludes Judaism from God's Covenant. The idea of Covenant is one of its main themes. The document as a whole, however, is characterized more by disparity than consistency. Themes which are explored in a cluster of chapters are immediately dropped and a new topic is picked up without any apparent concern to whether it is cogent to the previous section. For example, Barnabas contains a block of material on the Two Ways (18-21) which is almost certainly lifted from the Didache or a common source (The two documents are roughly contemporary so there is some question of primacy and dependence), yet it has little or no bearing on the previous section. In this way, it can be seen as complicating his view of Judaism because the Two Ways teaching is certainly of Jewish origin.

The occasion of the document appears to be that of a past teacher writing to a group of followers on several issues that he is compelled to expound for their edification (1.5). The raison d'etre of the document appears to be the author's fear that some members of this group are being swayed by teachings which emphasize the lasting quality of the Jewish Covenant with God. Much of the document, therefore, is taken up with dismantling this idea.

Barnabas does this by relating the story of the giving of the Law to Moses at Sinai (Exod. 24 ff). The point of this is to discover "whether he has given it [to the Jews]"(14.1). Barnabas then gives his own interpretation of the Sinai event. The Jews never received the Covenant because when Moses descended from Sinai he found them worshiping a golden calf. He threw down the tablets and, for Barnabas, the Covenant was forever broken (14.4). It is implied that the covenant then becomes hidden in Jesus and later given to the Gentiles through Jesus Christ. This is the reason he came to earth in the first place (14.5). There is no Christian precedent for making the claim that the Jewish people never received the Covenant at Sinai. (It is in direct contradiction to the Biblical account in Exodus 34.10.) Barnabas' radical stance on the Covenant may indicate that there were Christians who thought quite the opposite. It is likely that Barnabas was attempting to redress any claims that Jews still held a covenant with God, or even that there might be two Covenants - one for Jews and one for Gentiles. Barnabas draws a single line that does not allow for dual covenants. The teaching of the Two ways (18-21) reinforces this dichotomy but only in a general way.

Barnabas also devotes several chapters to Jewish themes he is suspicious of. In chapter 10 he allegories all the food laws by pairing each prohibited animal with a particular vice. This was not an unusual idea in Jewish circles (see esp. Philo), but Barnabas takes the additional step which radically separated him from any Jewish interpretation. He advocates abandonment of food laws. (This may have been one of the ways early Christians separated themselves from other Jews. It is certainly a preoccupation with Paul). It is somewhat ironic that while he sees Judaism as never getting out of the gates he uses Jewish religious paradigms: Temple sacrifices, allegorized food laws, circumcision of the ears instead of the genitals (so that Christians can hear and understand the Scripture), the younger serving the elder, the stories of Rebecca's children, and Ephraim and Mannasse (13). The most poignant example of this is Barnabas' appropriation of the symbol of the Temple. Barnabas used typology to infuse Temple sacrifices with Christology e.g. Jesus is like the goat that takes the sins of the people and is sacrificed to remove them. He does not, however, believe the Temple was ever meant to be physical. (It is worth noting that Barnabas does not take the view, which became popular in later writings, that the temple was destroyed (70CE) as a punishment for the crucifixion of Jesus). Barnabas views its destruction as a necessary step (16.6). He explains that the true Temple of the Lord will be built one heart at a time. "Before we believed in God the habitation of our heart was corrupt and weak, like a temple really built with hands because it was full of idolatry, and was the house of daemons through doing things which were contrary to God...Now give heed, in order that the temple of the Lord may be built gloriously...This is a spiritual temple being built for the Lord" (Barn. 16.7-8,10) Barnabas then goes on explain the two ways of living: that of light and of darkness. There is a strong theme of regeneration and newness undergirding this theme. "Since then he made us new by the remission of sins he made us another type, that we should have the soul of children, as though he were creating us afresh" (Barn. 6.11 see also v.19 for eating milk and honey like children and coming into perfection).

In this epistle, there is a dichotomizing of us and them: us being the Christians and them being Jews, us being in, them being out. Barnabas is unambiguous about the fate the Covenant at Sinai and sees no room for two competing covenants. There is one covenant and it belongs to the Christians. Moreover, the Temple and all the commandments are not to be interpreted literally. But this is a far as the anti-Judaism seems to go (although this may be far enough). On every other point of exegesis the worst that could be inferred about the Jewish understanding of the Covenant or of Jewish ritual and practices is that they are misguided or misinterpreted. There are no accusations of deicide, the Law is not condemned as inherently evil or imposed on the Jewish people to curb idolatry. Although it is idolatry that causes the covenant to be destroyed Barnabas makes no effort to extend the accusation beyond Sinai. Barnabas is far more concerned with combating the idea of dual covenants (an idea unlikely to have been generated from within Jewish circles).

In Barnabas we see the seeds of themes which later writers would take up and expand (typological explanations for baptism, the cross, dietary laws, etc). But there are also themes that are not picked up. Barn. 15.7-8 implies that the Sabbath should not be observed until the coming of Jesus, because then "we will be able to keep it holy". There is also an incredibly strained, if not amusing, explanation (Barn 9.6) of why Abraham circumcised his household of 318. Barnabas is an early example of the process of an early Christian writer trying to distance Christians from Judaism. Its existence is a window into the kinds of teachings which might have been circulating amongst Christians of the second century. Perhaps the dual covenant represents a part of Christianity that lived beneath orthodoxy as this passage from Pseudo- Clementine Homilies (c. III Century CE) may indicate.


For on this account Jesus is concealed from the Jews, who have taken Moses as their teacher, and Moses is hidden from those who have believed in Jesus. For, there being one teaching by both, God accepts him who has believed either of these...Neither, therefore, are the Hebrews condemned on account of their ignorance of Jesus, by reason of Him who has concealed him, if, doing the things commanded by Moses, they do not hate him whom they do not know. Neither are those Gentiles condemned, who know not Moses on account of Him who has concealed him, provided that these also, doing these things spoken by Jesus, do not hate him whom they do not know."(Ps.-Clem.Hom. 8:6-7 in Wilson 1995, 151-152)




The letters of Ignatius of Antioch, (seven are considered authentic) provide the reader with a subjective and brief view of his opinion of Jews and Judaism. Writing c. 114 CE in Asia Minor he is often utilized to provide much needed information on this region. Despite the flow of ink (and now bytes) which Ignatius' few references to Judaism have encouraged, in the end there is very little we really know about what was happening in these churches in the first decades of the second century (see Lieu, 1996 for a helpful and detailed discussion). Before examining the main concerns it is worthwhile to mention what Ignatius does not say about Judaism. Firstly, there is only one mention of Jews in his corpus (Smyrnaeans 1.2) and it occurs in a formulaic expression of praise. We have no idea what his concept of the Jewish people were or how they fit into the Christian scheme (a major topic in later writers). He has no agenda to explain the Jewish Law and how it fit into Christian understanding. Absent is any accusation and blame for the death of Jesus (whom he is trying to hard to imitate). His main concern is his impending martyrdom and unity within the church. More than anything else he encourages Christians to unite under their bishop even if the bishop is considered too young (Mag. 3.1). Any teaching that causes faction or schism is to be put down and eliminated. He sees the problem in exclusive terms. One way leads to unity and the other to variant Sabbath and Eucharist practice which, in his mind, was a baby step from schism. It is important then to keep this concern for internal unity in mind when analyzing his view of Judaism.

The Letter to the Philadelphians

There are two passages which concern us here. 1)"If someone interprets Judaism to you, do not listen to him. For it is better to hear Christianity from a man with circumcision than Judaism from an uncircumcised man. But if neither speak about Jesus Christ, they are stones and graves of the dead on which are written only human names"(6.1). And 2) "For I heard some people saying ‘If I do not find it the archives, I do not believe [it is part of ] the gospel.’" (8.2) (explanation of this translation in Lieu, 1996 p.37). These two passages, more so the former, have caused a great deal of speculation as to who these uncircumcised interpreters of Judaism were. Are they gentile converts who have been attracted to Judaism? Are they God-worshippers (previously sympathetic to Judaism) who are now imposing their Judaistic practices on other Christians? Or are they docetic teachers who have adopted Jewish themes which they are trying to introduce in the church? All of these options have been entertained without any decisive consensus of opinion. In the end, there is probably more rhetoric than reality in this construction but it should not be wholly discounted because of this.

The overall theme is that regardless of ethnic identity, Christianity should be preferred; the lessor ethnic group (Jews) being paired with the superior teaching (Christianity) to show the strength of Christian teaching (see S. Cohen). However, these combinations must not have been wholly unfamiliar to his audience and there is other evidence in Ignatius which points to this kind of group within the church. The next quote (8.2) shines a bit more light on a group of people who apparently felt that only teaching which was in the Hebrew scriptures (the archives) is authoritative. There is nothing to indicate that these are non-Christian Jews. The context puts them inside the church and makes their identity most likely Christian. This group may be the same as those who are interpreting Judaism in 6.1.

Thus again, the link and overall message of Ignatius is to preach Jesus Christ. His answer to these questioners is the assertion that "To me the archives are Jesus Christ" (8.2). In this way, Ignatius is making a link between Jesus and the Hebrew scriptures. It is a link that Justin and others will pick up and use, interestingly, to oppose the antithetical argument of Marcion that the Hebrew scriptures hold no authority at all (see MARCION).

The Letter to the Magnesians

There are three passages which are pertinent to this discussion: 1) "Do not be led astray by strange teachings or by old fables which profit nothing. For if we, even now, live according to Judaism, we confess that we have not received grace" (8.1). 2) "If then they [Jewish converts] who walked in ancient customs came to a new hope [Christianity] then shall we be able to live without him of whom the prophets were disciples in the Spirit and to whom they looked forward as their teacher?" (9.1-2). And 3) "It is absurd to speak of Jesus Christ and of Judaism. For Christianity did not believe [itself] into Judaism, but Judaism into Christianity" (10.3).

In these three references to Judaism, it is possible to see the message Ignatius is attempting to deliver to the Magnesians. It is a slightly different message than that to the Philadelphians and thus may reflect his more intimate knowledge of the church at Magnesia. In all of these statements, Ignatius is indicating the unidirectional quality of faith. This direction is made clear in 9.1,2 and 10.3. It is not so much that Judaism is dangerous or subversive, although 8.1 does imply that believing in the old fables of Jewish tradition is tantamount to denying Christian grace, but once one becomes a Christian there is no turning back, it is simply not the way it is done. For Ignatius, it is absurd, ridiculous, even impossible to go back to what was before, which in this case is Judaism. These references only refer to existing Christians or teachers who might have been open to Jewish practice or belief. It says nothing explicit about non-Christians who continue to practice Judaism outside the church. This is a group which Ignatius does not address in his letters. His over-riding concerns for unity and respect for bishops, achieving his own martyrdom, and putting down false teachings within the church prohibit us from drawing any firm conclusions about his opinions of Jews. What is evident is that Ignatius saw no room whatsoever within Christianity for Jewish practices (what he means by Jewish practice is also difficult to discern). Thus, in Ignatius, we see only traces of what was to become a clear, prevalent, and slightly ironic message in later Christian writers: 'Christians are not Jewish.'




This body of literature has suffered from years of neglect due mostly to the notion that only 'orthodox' writings, and to a certain extent heretical writings, define what Christians were thinking. One either had it right or wrong. Scholarship is beginning to wake up to the benefits of examining the vast grey area between these two poles (see Wilson 1996). In many ways, this material can give us a glimpse into what Christians were reading in the second century or at least the kind of oral traditions which were being circulated. We are much closer to grass-roots Christianity when looking at this body of literature. But this is not without its difficulties. Many of these texts are very difficult to date. Only five such texts can reasonably be dated to the second century CE. While there is not a wealth of information about Jews and Judaism - it does not appear to be the preoccupation with this literature - there are several instances where the reader can get a glimpse into the way these documents perceived Jews. This literature is, like others of this time, marked by its ambivalent and idiosyncratic view of Jews and Judaism (See Elliot for the translations of these texts).

The Preaching of Peter

This is a short account of the crucifixion and the resurrection which most likely emanates from the latter half of the second century CE. In this account, The Jewish priests and teachers are completely culpable for the death of Jesus, as in the gospels. But here we are told that they realized their mistake, unlike the gospels. "Perceiving what great evil they had done to themselves, they began to lament and to say 'Woe on our sins, judgement has arrived and with it the end of Jerusalem'" (25). The Romans, on the other hand, are exonerated from blame. Moreover, they are the ones who witness the resurrection itself (34-42). The gaps in the resurrection accounts in the gospels are filled in by the picture of Jesus being raised by two angelic beings in the form of a cross (the text's most striking image). Jews are portrayed as a unified group defined only by the Jewish leaders and the picture is a consistently negative one, pinning the blame for his death squarely on the lapel on the Jewish people.

The Acts of Pilate

This account sums up nicely the trial and passion of Jesus and continues on through the ascension and a short time after. This a narrative told from within the Jewish leadership. The reader is taken behind the scenes to see how the Jewish leaders react to Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection. Nicodemus, a Jewish follower of Jesus, is the vehicle for this insider's look (This narrative is also known as the Gospel of Nicodemus). In this narrative, Pilate is pushed from being ambivalent, as in the gospels, to being a loyal advocate of Jesus. Pilate's turning point comes when his wife claims that Jesus has been troubling her dreams (2.1). The complaint of the Jewish leaders against Jesus is summed nicely in 2.3. "Firstly, that you were born of fornication; secondly that your birth meant the death of the children of Bethlehem; thirdly, that your father Joseph and your mother Mary fled to Egypt because they had no esteem among the people" (2.3). Any skeptical reader of the gospels could have reached the same conclusion. These were probably common accusations put to Christians and the point of this text seems to address these criticisms as well as to provide a dramatic narrative in defense of the resurrection.

Yet there is not a unified picture of the Jews. In fact, one of the functions of the story is to forward the idea that all Jews were not united behind their disbelief in Jesus. At this point Pilate "looked and saw many of the Jews weeping, he said, 'Not all the multitude wishes to see him die.' But the elders of the Jews said, 'The whole multitude has come for the purpose that he should die'" (4.5). This internal split is widened when all the Jews whom Jesus healed during his career stand up and give testimony to his power (5.2-8.1) Nevertheless, the leaders persuade Pilate to crucify him after reminding him that this Jesus is the same person whom Herod sought 30 years ago. Fearing political backlash, Pilate gives in to their wishes, but not without first giving a small speech on the history of the Jews and their disobedience toward God (9.2). Pilate then disappears from the narrative and the reader accompanies the Jewish leaders as they hear of Jesus' resurrection from the Roman guards stationed at the grave (13). Then the teachers are deeply disturbed when three rabbis - Adas, Phinees, and Angaeus - witness his ascension from mount Mamlich (14). But it is not until Joseph of Arithmethea, who miraculously escapes from their imprisonment by crawling from the building that the risen Jesus had lifted up for him, gives his testimony that the Jewish leaders "became like dead men and fell to the ground and fasted until the ninth hour." In the end, after much investigation, the teachers conclude that "if his memorial lasts to the year called jubilee (50 years), he will reign for ever and create for himself a new people" (16.7). Moreover, in the last section the Jews are now transformed into the people of the Lord and they sing praises to God that are thoroughly Jewish with no mention of Jesus at all. "May the Lord our God be with us as he was with our fathers...[and keep] his commandments and laws which he gave to our fathers...Save us O Lord and we shall be saved. For we are your portion and inheritance. The Lord will not forsake his people for his name's sake...Having sung great hymns they all departed, every man to his house, glorifying God. For his is the Glory for ever and ever. Amen." Either the crowds are affirming their Judaism or, more likely, it is understood that the crowd have been converted and now sing this praise as Christians. The lack of any specifically Christian interpolation of what appears to be a Jewish hymn makes this ending dramatic and enigmatic.

The Proto-evangelium of James

The Proto-evangelium of James is focused on the account of Mary's incredible birth and her dedication to the temple as a life-long virgin. Most likely, it is an attempt to address the accusations that Jesus was born from fornication and that Mary was not a virgin. The popularity of this work in the second century CE, which was substantial, is often credited with origins of the Mary cult. Its most extreme and incredible declaration comes in 19-20 where two skeptical Hebrew midwives examine Mary after Jesus is born and find her hymen intact!

The picture of Jews in this account is perhaps more useful because it is not addressing Judaism and the portrayal is more incidental and less polemical as is the case in the two previous works. Here Jews show a natural mistrust of Mary's claim that she is pregnant yet still pure. After Joseph, who is portrayed as a much older man with other previous children (addressing the problem of Jesus' brothers), is convinced of Mary's purity by the heavenly angel (14) he tries to hide her from the temple priests for he was given Mary to keep as a virgin. The priests discover her pregnancy and accuse Joseph of consummating the marriage. "And the priest said, 'Give back the virgin whom you have received from the temple of the Lord.' And Joseph began to weep. And the priest said, 'I will give you both to drink of the water of conviction of the Lord, and it will make your sins manifest in your eyes'" (16)' Of course they pass this test, the priests are convinced and they are released. As previously mentioned, the Hebrew midwives who confirm Mary's virginity after the birth, are deeply moved by the event. The second midwife, Salome, even undergoes a kind of conversion. "And behold an angel of the Lord appeared and said to her, 'Salome, Salome, the Lord God has heard your prayer. Bring your hand to the child and touch him and salvation and joy will be yours.' And Salome came near and touched him, saying, 'I will worship him, for a great king has been born to Israel' (20)

This account of the Jesus's birth does not portray Jews as overly skeptical, or in any way culpable. Quite the opposite. All of the Jews show a healthy skepticism but are convinced either by an angel (Joseph and Salome), or by an act of God (the priests and the first Hebrew midwife). As in the Acts of Pilate, and to a certain extent The Preaching of Peter the Proto-evangelium of James involves Jews who are sympathetic to Jesus and his supernatural powers. Whether, as Wilson (1996) hints, they represent those Jews who are sympathetic to Christianity yet "remain Jews - a kind of two-covenant notion - is unclear, but it is not out of line with other early Christian evidence"(94). What is certain is that Jews are not subject to one overriding interpretation.


In the middle of the second century, a religious movement swept through the young developing church. It was movement that would have dramatic effects on the way Christians read the Old Testament and the way they perceived Jews and Judaism. Adversus Judæos literature from the time of Marcion (mid-second century) shows the unmistakable marks of this debate, mostly through the refutation its central tenets. An understanding of Marcion and his teaching is important in explaining this shift regarding Judaism. As we have seen in the few documents surveyed thus far, there is an ambivalence in the way Christians seemed to affirm the antiquity of Judaism and its authority, while at the same time rejecting many of the cultic injunctions. To modern sensibilities this practice seems unexamined, problematic, and contradictory. To them it may have seemed perfectly natural, even necessary, to keep the Jewish prayers, the Jewish scriptures, and Jewish practices and teachings. But the question that Marcion raised put an end to this process of slow differentiation. His teaching pushed Christians to decide how they were going to read the Hebrew scripture, what they thought of God, who Jesus was, and if Christians could continue to read the Hebrew scriptures at all. None of Marcion's writings have been preserved. We can faintly reconstruct his teaching from the condemnations and refutations that were offered by some of the most important Christians of the second century (Tertullian, Dionysius of Corinth, Irenaeus, and Justin (lost)). The question of whether Marcion was a gnostic who appropriated Christian material for his particular cosmic collage, or whether he was a Christian who adapted gnostic myths to explain the apparent contradictions mentioned above is open to interpretation. Scholarship tends to view him more as a Christian than a gnostic because of his distance from some gnostic ideas and his knowledge of the Christian scriptures and the fact that he raised such an alarm among Christian thinkers. His teaching hit close to the bone. The question that Marcion asked was: How can one reconcile the difference between the vindictive, capricious, punitive God of the Hebrew Bible with the God of love, forgiveness and grace that one meets in the New Testament, mainly in Paul's letters? His answer was simple: You can't. Marcion then explained this difference by loosely appropriating the gnostic concept of dueling gods. The God of the Hebrews (Yahweh) is the demiurge (second to the Supreme Being) who created this tainted world and trapped humanity in matter, to wit, our bodies. Jesus is the vision of the God of love, the one sent to free humanity from the snares of this created world. Anything created by Yahweh must go, or for Marcion it must stay. Marcion accepted only the writings of Paul, whom he saw as the sole voice of truth. For his gospel he weeded the Jewish elements out of Luke's account. His answer to a problem that Christians had wondered about was severe and created divisions in the church. Christian writings from Marcion onwards are especially concerned to show the necessity of the Hebrew scriptures and explain the reason for God's apperantly punitive aspects.




When approaching a text such as the Peri Pascha, the reader must abandon the many literary genres such as apologetics, epistolary writings, polemics, or even teaching. This poetic homily, for lack of a better word, is a highly stylized piece of Christian worship which utilizes antithesis, irony, oxymoron, duality and drama. This document, which is said to have been produced in Sardis, Melito's residence, has enjoyed a great deal of attention since the discovery of an impressive third century synagogue at Sardis in Asia Minor (see the seminal work of A.T. Kraabel (1968) and later Kraabel and Seager (1983). The debate has centered around whether or not the Peri Pascha is indicative of the social relationships between Jews and Christians in this city during the second century. How much of a window the Peri Pascha or even the archeological evidence provides is not conclusive. What is much more clear is how Melito utilized Jewish imagery for his poetic and theological purposes.

Melito holds the infamous honor of being the first Christian writer to directly accuse the Jews of deicide. It is his most radical and damning assertion in the Peri Pascha.

The one who suspended the earth is suspended,

The one who fixed the heavens is fixed firm,

The one who fastened the universe is fastened to the tree,

The master is insulted,

God is murdered,

The King of Israel is killed by an Israelite right hand.


This is the pinnacle of a longer argument that sets out to understand the Jewish Passover and the crucifixion in terms of typology and model. Typology is a principle which characterizes both his stylistic technique and theological understanding.

For this reason a preliminary sketch is made of the future thing

out of wax or clay or of wood,

in order that what will soon arise taller in height, and stronger in power

and beautiful in form, and rich in its construction,

may be seen through a small perishable sketch.

But when that which is the model arises,

that which once bore the image of the future thing

is itself destroyed as growing useless

having yielded to what is truly the real image of it;

and what was once precious becomes worthless

when what is truly precious has been revealed.

(ll 224-44)

There was once a time for Judaism, but for Melito that time is over. It is not, however, because of any divine necessity that Israel has now been rejected by God - although his logic demands that Israel reject Jesus as the Christ. It is because of their culpability in the death of Jesus which only indicated that:

You did not turn out to be 'Israel';

you did not 'see God,'

you did not recognize the Lord,

You did not know, Israel,

that he is the first born of God.


The mystery in this homily is centered on the event of the Jewish passover in Egypt (Peri Pascha). Christ is the real passover lamb who was sketched out in the celebration. By dating Jesus' crucifixion to coincide with the passover feast in Jerusalem, as in John's gospel, he creates an effective contrast for those Christians who celebrated the pascha at the same time as the Jewish passover (the Quartodecimans).

You were celebrating,

He was starving;

You were drinking wine and eating bread,

He vinegar and gall;

You were bright of face,

He downcast;

You were rejoicing,

He was oppressed;

You were singing, he was being judged;


In trying to come to grips with his violent and absolute language, there are four factors which must be taken into account. First, Melito was a confirmed Quartodeciman (he followed the Jewish reckoning of Passover for the date of Easter). This would have put him and his congregation in an uncomfortable situation. Celebrating Easter on the same day as the Passover might well provoke the accusation of judaising. In reality, the reasons for this practice expressed the opposite desire to ignore or usurp this Jewish festival for Christian purposes. This is hardly judaising. The Peri Pascha may have functioned as a refutation for the Quartodeciman practice, although it must be said that there is very little direct evidence of Quartodeciman practice in the Peri Pasha except what can be infered from the dichotomous relationship Melito creates in the above quote. Secondly, we must take into account Melito's concern about Marcionism (see MARCION). The Peri Pascha addressed Marcionite teaching, even if by extreme rhetoric. Jesus was not just prefigured in the Hebrew scriptures, he was in the Hebrew scriptures, suffering with the prophets, David, Moses, Joseph, et al (415-504). Melito' graphic descriptions of Jesus's death would be in direct opposition to the docetic denial of Jesus' material body. Moreover, Melito's modalism allowed him to affirm that God was in all of these events and that he even suffered as the person of Jesus. Marcionites must have found this link to the Hebrew scriptures course and distasteful. One must also take the Jewish community into account, but with caution. It is tempting to overstate the strength of the Jewish community in Sardis, although certainly it was healthy, and underplay the smaller Christian community. For this is to portray Melito as an underdog who was simply fighting for his vulnerable church in Sardis. In Melito's mind, which gravitated to poetic extremes, the Jews of Sardis may have appeared untroubled and offish. Nevertheless, it is the form of the homily that drives Melito to make extreme and inappropriate suggestions. The very basis of the homily is a juxta positioning of Israel against everything Christian. For every Christian practice and virtue, there must be a corresponding Jewish practice which is superseded and a Jewish vice opposite to every Christian virtue. Do these factors excuse or even fully explain Melito's harshness? Absolutely not. As it is the Peri Pascha is a painful foreshadowing of the kind of thinking that was to characterize the later views of Jews and Judaism.


In the Dialogue we have the fullest expression of a Christian making a case for Christianity over and against Judaism in the second century CE. This long treatise (142 chapters!) is a supposed dialogue between Justin and a Diaspora Jew named Trypho. Trypho is initially attracted to Justin's philosopher's robe (1.2), but after Justin gives a somewhat satirical account of his journey through the philosophical schools of the second century, he then goes on to claim that Christianity is the true philosophy. From this point, the conversation takes a different course. Justin now proceeds to pull out every proof text available from the Hebrew scriptures to prove the Christian version of the Messiah (See O. Scarsaune). He also attempts to explain the Mosaic Law and circumcision.

The Mosaic Law, for Justin was a mixed bag (see Stylianopoulos, 1975). There were those commandments and precepts which were established to curb idolatry (Dial. 45.3; 67.4,10). There were also those parts of the Law which had a mystical/typological meaning behind them (41.1; 91.1). These were included by Moses to identify Jesus as the messiah. There is also a positive aspect of the Law which Justin saw as being connected to Christ. "Those who regulated their lives by the Law of Moses would also be saved. For what is in the Law for Moses is naturally good, and pious, and righteous, and has been prescribed to be done by those who obey it; and what was appointed to be performed by reason of hardness of the people's hearts; these were also recorded and done by those who were under the Law. Since those who did that which is universally, naturally, and eternally good are pleasing to God, they shall be saved through this Christ in the resurrection equally with those righteous men who were before them, mainly Noah, Enoch, Jacob and whoever else there might be, along with those who have known this Christ" (Dial. 45.4-5). Jews living after Jesus did not, however, have this luxury in Justin's opinion. This was Justin's way of retaining or reframing those Jewish figures whom he felt were actual Christians. There is nothing inherently wrong with the Law or those who followed it before Jesus, but since Jesus the Law has become unimportant it can still be followed after conversion. "And again Trypho inquired, 'But if someone, knowing that this is so, and after he recognizes that this man is Christ, and has faith in him, wished, however, to observe these institutions [Jewish practices], will he be saved?' In my opinion, such a one will be saved, if he does not strive in every way to persuade other men [to practice them too]" (Dial. 47.1). The Law, for Justin, had become simply a cultural accouterment with no eternal significance. This accepting attitude toward Jewish practice was not carried forward by subsequent writers.

It is the Jewish teachers and their growing authority who present Justin with his greatest challenge. Their rejection of the LXX as an acceptable translation (71.1), their supposed alteration of key Christian passages, ( 84.3, see also 71.3), their particular understanding of the Scriptures (110.1; 112.4), and the influence Justin feels they exert over the Jewish people (103.3), and even Trypho (9.1), are all factors which threaten Justin. That the teachers are Justin's true foes can be seen in a later chapter of the Dialogue. In chapter 103, he makes the accusation that the Jews were corporately responsible for the death of Jesus, but with a twist. Justin makes a differentiation within Judaism, implying that some were more guilty than others. "As therefore, bulls are the begetters of calves, so your teachers were the cause of why their children went out to the mount of olives to take him and to bring Him to them" (Dial. 103.3). The image portrays the Jewish people as children. It is the teachers who exert power over the young and vulnerable. This image is consistent throughout the Dialogue. It is the teachers who are behind the Jewish reading of the Scripture. It is the teachers who exert power over the people. Justin felt the presence of the teachers even if Trypho did not make more than a passing reference to them (38.1). "For it would be well if, persuaded by the Scriptures, you are circumcised from hardness of heart [baptism]: not that circumcision which you have from the tenets that are put into you. (137.1)" The picture of the Jewish teachers that Justin paints is one of corruption, deceit, and power. It is almost as if the Jewish people are being held against their will and the chief obstacle between them and conversion to Christianity is these teachers. It is difficult to know who these teachers were. It is too early to see any rabbinic influence outside of Palestine. The references in Justin do not, in themselves, constitute proof of a rabbinic presence in Asia Minor. The truth of the Gospel is so evident and plain to Justin that there must be some other reason for Jewish rejection of the Christian faith. For Justin, the teachers provide part of that reason. This is somewhat reminiscent of the Acts of Pilate which sought to show the split between the teachers and the people. And while it is plain that he trying to get a wedge in between the teachers and the people, he is not entirely consistent in this distinction and sometimes falls into generalization and corporate polemic.

While Justin never accused the Jews of deicide (his Christology would not allow such a statement), he does see both the destruction of the temple (70CE) and the Bar Kochba revolt (135CE) as results of their fallen status and proof of the bankruptcy of their faith. In attempting to explain the reason for Jewish circumcision he draws the unusual conclusion that "God, who foreknew, was aware that your nation would deserve expulsion from Jerusalem and that none would be allowed to enter it" (92.4 see also 16.2). This may be a reference to Hadrian's ban after the revolt of 135CE, but it is difficult to know if such inspections were performed by the Romans. The Jewish defeats (115-117CE and 133-135CE) and destruction of the temple (70CE) appear to be the pre-ordained in Justin's mind. (Against this see Melito for the idea that Jewish history pivoted on Jewish participation in the crucifixion).

Justin is critical of what he sees as an over-dependence on the Jew's lineage to Abraham. Yet he never attempts to divorce Jews from Abraham (Dial. 44.2; 140.2), even though he claims that Christians are the true spiritual descendants of Abraham (Dial. 11.2-3). Justin is not entirely clear as to his vision for the future of the Jewish people. In one instance he sees that some Jews will "be found in the lot with Christ, while others who are indeed children of Abraham would be like the sand on the sea shore, barren and fruitless, much in quantity but without number indeed" (Dial. 120.5). Anther time he intimates that only those Jews who persecute Christ (the meaning of this is vague) will be cut off (Dial. 26.1), and later in the treatise Justin even hints at the restoration of Christians and Jews who "are all sons and equal in dignity" (Dial. 134.4). These statements must also be viewed in the context of Justin's more absolute language. For example: "Accordingly, He promises to him [Abraham] a nation of similar faith, God-fearing, righteous, and delighting the Father; but it is not you, 'in whom there is no faith'" (Dial.119.6).

Marcionism also plays an important role in the Dialogue and Justin's treatment of Judaism. Justin's tripartite division of the Law was a way to embrace the Law without the cultic injunctions. His use of typology transformed the injunctions into mysterious foreshadowing of Christian worship. But it is his use of the Logos doctrine that is the most aggressive counter to Marcionite doctrine. More than a type, the Logos was the embodiment of Christ himself who visited the patriarchs. Justin uses Abraham's angelic visitation at Mamre (Gen 18) to make the bold assertion that one of the angels was, in fact, also called God. Since God is totally transcendent, according to Justin, this can only mean that this was Christ who is God yet numerically distinct from God (56.10). The effect of this argument is to reinterpret scripture through a 'real presence' Logos doctrine and thus incorporate Christian belief and practice through the Hebrew scriptures. He even goes so far as to claim the patriarchs as Christian. The issue then becomes one of understanding and interpretation. For Justin, Jews do not know how to read their own scriptures, and they are responsible for the punishment they have incurred from God, both from their idolatrous behavior at Sinai and their treatment of Jesus.

Overall, Justin addresses different issues and questions surrounding the Christian problem of its Jewish heritage. He has strong language for Judaism but he also shows himself to be quite irenic in many ways. He does not conflate Jews of the past with those of the future. He makes no accusation of deicide. Moreover, his portrayal of Trypho is not as brutal as past scholars have thought. After all, one of the great riddles of the Dialogue is that after 142 chapters of Christian proof texts and exhortations and scolding - Trypho and Justin part with a handshake. Trypho thanks him for his time, urges him to think of them as friends and departs, unmoved, unconverted.



* Cohen, Shaye J.D. (1996): "Judaism without Circumcision and Rhetoric without Reality in Ignatius," Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature, New Orleans, Louisiana, 26 November 1996.

* Edwards, Mark (1995): "Ignatius, Judaism, and Judaizing" Eranos 93, 69-77.

* Efroymson, D (1979): The Patristic Connection. In: Antisemitism and the Foundations of Christianity. (Ed: Davies,A) Paulist Press, New York, 98-117. [MARCION]

* Elliott, J.K. (1993): The Apocryphal New Testament. Clarendon Press, Oxford. [APOCRYPHA]

* Feldman, L.H. (1993): Jew and Gentile in the Ancient World. Princeton University Press, Princeton. [JEWISH MISSION]

* Goodman, M.D. (1994): Mission and Conversion. Proselytizing in the Religious History of the Roman Empire. Clarendon Press, Oxford. [JEWISH MISSION]

* Hall, S (1979): Melito of Sardis. On Pascha and Fragments. OECT, Oxford. [MELITO]

* Hoffmann, R.J. (1984): Marcion: The Restitution of Christianity. AAR Academic Series ed. Vol. 46. Scholars Press, Chico, Calif. [MARCION]

* Horner, T.J. (1996): The Problem with Abraham: Justin Martyr's Use of Abraham in the "Dialogue with Trypho a Jew". Churchman 110, 230-253. [JUSTIN]

* Kraabel, A.T. (1968): Judaism in Western Asia Minor under the Roman Empire with a Preliminary Study of the Jewish Community at Sardis. Ph.D. Dissertation, Harvard D. Th. Cambridge, Mass. [SARDIS]

* Lake, Kirsopp trans (1985 reprint): Apostolic Fathers. Loeb Classical Library ed. Vol. 24 & 25. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA. [DIDACHE, BARNABAS, IGANTIUS]

* Lieu, J (1996): Image & Reality: The Jews in the World of the Christians in the Second Century. T & T Clark, Edinburgh. [J/C RELATIONS]

* Seager, A.R.; Kraabel, A.T. (1983): The Synagogue and the Jewish Community. In: Sardis from Prehistoric to Roman Verdana,Arial. Results of the Archeological Exploration of Sardis 1958- 1975. (Ed: Hanfmann,MA) Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass, 168-190. [SARDIS]

* Stylianopoulos, T (1975): Justin Martyr and the Mosaic Law. SBL Dissertation Series ed. Vol. Scholars Press, Missoula, Mont. [JUSTIN]

* Talley, T.J. (1986): The Origins of the Christian Year. Pueblo, New York. [QUMRAN]

* Williams, A.L. trans. (1930): Justin. Dialogue with Trypho A Jew. SPCK, London. [JUSTIN]

* Wilson, S.G. (1995): Related Strangers: Jews and Christians 70-170 C.E. Fortress Press, Minneapolis. [J/C RELATIONS]

Copyright © 1997, Timothy J. Horner. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.




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