Sunday, April 19, 2009

Book Review: Paula Fredriksen, Augustine and the Jews. A Christian Defense of Jews and Judaism

I first ran into this book through some favourable reviews in patristic blogsphere late last year. Given the bad press that Augustine gets in many circles, it was nice to see a favourable reading of a writer who has been very influential for me. I was intrigued and intended to see if I could get a hold of the book at the university library at which I have borrowing privileges. Given that this book only came out last year, I expected I`d have to wait a little while, since there is lag time between publication and the library bureaucracy of a modern university getting the book onto the shelves. So, when I saw this book in our local Chapters and I had a fifty dollar gift card burning a hole in my pocket, I couldn't resist. And I'm glad I didn't. This is a superb book.

Dr. Fredriksen's main thesis is that Augustine's theological insights into the problem of the Jews for Christians may have saved Jewish lives in antiquity and in the Middle Ages. While she concedes that Augustine could be use as vituperative rhetoric about the Jews as any of his predecessors, contemporaries or successors, his involvement in anti-Manichean apologetics forced him to develop a comparatively favourable view of the Jews, at least as a theological category. The Manichees, like most Gnostics, exploited the anti-Jewish rhetoric characteristic of many early Christian authors and went even further than Marcian in their rejection of the whole Jewish religious edifice including the Old Testament. Augustine, as an ex-Manichee and, thus, interested in the issue, argues not only that the Old Testament was necessary to the Christian exegete because it made the crucial prophecies for the coming of Jesus, but he insisted that the Jews themselves were necessary because they provided an independent, even hostile witness to these prophecies and, indirectly, to the truth of the Christian gospel. While Augustine accuses the Jews of reading their scriptures as too literal and 'fleshly', their witness was simply too valuable to eliminate that community.

Frederiksen argues that this view proved to be influential into the Middle Ages and, at the very beginning of her book, notes an example of how this Jews as witness doctrine saved lives. She cites the account of Rabbi Ephrem of Bonn, who, in 1146, amid the preaching of the Second Crusade in the Rhineland, praised the efforts of St. Bernard of Clairveux, who preached to the potential recruits for the Crusade that, while it was right to go to war against the Muslims, the Jews along the way should be left untouched because their witness for the truth of the Gospel was too valuable to lose.

Frederiksen unpacks this argument in an extremely careful manner, working her way through the major Augustinian texts with great care and detail. She charts the details of St. Augustine's evolving thoughts from the early days of his conversion to his magnum opus, the City of God. This careful theological analysis is among the best I've seen in patristics and shed so much light not only on Augustine's views on the Jews, but also his theological evolution. For Augustine specialists, this would justify reading this book carefully.

As a fringe benefit, Frederiksen also gives an admirable analysis of of the religious situation in the Roman Empire during the Roman period. Her discussion of the position of Jews and Christians in the Roman Empire is detailed and insightful. I've blogged on this subject recently, so I won't add much to it (See the Christian Problem), but I've found these early introductory passages very useful. I wonder if she might overstate the accommodation of Jews to Roman religious/civic values, but that seems to be the academic fashion these days just as the fashion in previous generations was to view Jews as completely separated from Roman values. I suspect that the truth lies somewhere between.

Quibbles aside, I believe this is an important book in many respects and expect/hope that it will become more so over time. As an analysis of the resources which St. Augustine provides for dealing with the perplexities of Christian-Jewish relations, it is timely and well-argued. As an analysis of St. Augustine's theological development, it is detailed and scholarly. As an evocation of how Jews and Christian interacted with their surroundings, it is well-researched and insightful. The theologian, the patricist, the Jewish scholar and classicist would all find great benefits in consulting this excellent work.



joseph said...

Thanks for the review, Phil. I've seen this book out there and was contemplating purchasing it. I may have to part with a few $ and making this an addition to my library.

Jim said...

I added it to my Amazon wish list. My birthday is coming, so I can hope.