Rosemary Radford Ruether, "Anti-Judaism Is the Left Hand of Christology," New Catholic World 217 (January-February 1974) 12-17

Abstract by Jerry Darring


An impasse developed between Christianity and Judaism over the coming of the messiah, for the Jews could not accept the Christian interpretation of Jesus' messianic role in inward and personal ways. In its defense, Christian theology set out to prove the spiritual blindness of the Jewish community and its resulting rejected status. Jewish religious leaders were guilty of killing Jesus, and they could not read Scripture rightly. Jewish religious law was discredited, and the Church is the true heir of the promise to Abraham. God's displeasure with the Jews was displayed in the destruction of the temple, and they will wander in exile until Jesus returns and they will be forced to acknowledge their error.

The basic themes of this anti-Judaic tradition was already set in the New Testament, but the arguments were elaborated in the writings of the Church Fathers. The Fathers focused on two themes: the rejection of the Jews and election of the Gentile Church, and the abrogation of the law. Jews had rejected the prophets; they were said to be idol worshipers, and cannibals who sacrificed their children to idols. "The Jews came to be painted as preternatural demonic figures with a superhuman appetite for every depravity of flesh and spirit" (14). They had been given the law not as a special grace but in order to restrain their special viciousness which they picked up during their stay in Egypt. The prophets had them in mind when making all their negative descriptions, judgments and threats, while on the other hand they had the future Church in mind when speaking positively of repentance, faith and future promise. "Anti-Judaism and ecclesial triumphalism thus arise as two sides of the same antithesis" (14).

The ultimate crime of the Jews was killing the Messiah, and since Jesus was God, the crime was deicide. They are to be condemned in the harshest of terms, and indeed John Chrysostom calls them devils and their synagogues brothels of the devil. They are exiled for this crime and their election was revoked. Their exile must last till the end of time, and they are given circumcision not as a sign of election but so that they might be recognized and kept out of Jerusalem.

When Christianity became the established religion of the empire in the fourth century, it abolished pagan religions, but it developed a two-pronged approach to the Jews. Jews were to be preserved and not exterminated, but at the same time they were to exhibit externally the marks of their reprobation. The Christian emperors turned this attitude into law: Jews could not circumcize, own slaves, convert Christians or interfere with Jewish conversions to Christianity, hold civil or military office, or fraternize with Christians. Popular violence against Jews began to break out, and the ghetto gradually shaped around the Jewish community. At the same time, Jews developed a peculiar economic role. Because they could be neither farmers nor industrialists, they became merchants, and when that role was expropriated by the Christians, they became moneylenders. They were the economic agents and economic scapegoats of the European ruling class. The image of the Jew gradually deteriorated, until "By the late Middle Ages the Jew had been transformed into a full-blown devil in Christian popular mythology, complete with horns, a tail and a peculiar stench" (17).