St Matthew’s Gospel is not anti-Semitic

Depiction of St Matthew (CNS)

Today is the feast of Saint John Chrysostom, the fourth century bishop of Constantinople, who was known as ‘the Golden-Mouthed’ because of his great preaching.

Last Sunday, the BBC showed the second episode of Simon Schama’s History of the Jews (available on catch-up here) in which Schama singles out Chrysostom as one of the original demonisers of the Jews and a founder of Christian anti-Semitism. I was not aware of the Saint’s series of sermons ‘Against the Jews’, and indeed know very little about him, but this is what Wikipedia has to say about his anti-Jewish preaching:

During his first two years as a presbyter in Antioch (386-387), John denounced Jews and Judaizing Christians in a series of eight homilies delivered to Christians in his congregation who were taking part in Jewish festivals and other Jewish observances. It is disputed whether the main target were specifically Judaizers or Jews in general. His homilies were expressed in the conventional manner, utilizing the uncompromising rhetorical form known as the psogos (Greek: blame).

One of the purposes of these homilies was to prevent Christians from participating in Jewish customs, and thus prevent the perceived erosion of Chrysostom’s flock. In his homilies, John criticized those “Judaizing Christians”, who were participating in Jewish festivals and taking part in other Jewish observances, such as the shabbat, submitted to circumcision and made pilgrimage to Jewish holy places. John claimed that on the shabbats and Jewish festivals synagogues were full of Christians, especially women, who loved the solemnity of the Jewish liturgy, enjoyed listening to the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, and applauded famous preachers in accordance with the contemporary custom. A more recent theory is that he instead tried to persuade Jewish Christians, who for centuries had kept connections with Jews and Judaism, to choose between Judaism and Christianity.

In Greek the homilies are called Kata Ioudaiōn (Κατὰ Ιουδαίων), which is translated as Adversus Judaeos in Latin and Against the Jews in English. The original Benedictine editor of the homilies, Bernard de Montfaucon, gives the following footnote to the title: “A discourse against the Jews; but it was delivered against those who were Judaizing and keeping the fasts with them [the Jews].

According to Patristics scholars, opposition to any particular view during the late 4th century was conventionally expressed in a manner, utilizing the rhetorical form known as the psogos, whose literary conventions were to vilify opponents in an uncompromising manner; thus, it has been argued that to call Chrysostom an “anti-Semite” is to employ anachronistic terminology in a way incongruous with historical context and record. That does not, however, prevent one from claiming that Chrysostom’s theology was a form of Anti-Jewish supersessionism, or that his rhetoric was not Anti-Judaism.

None of the above is contradicted by Schama, it seems to me, though Wikipedia does give as favourable as possible interpretation of the Saint’s attitude to the Jews. But whatever the Saint’s intentions, his sermons have certainly provided ammunition for those who hate Jews in later centuries. Of course, he could not have known that, but even so, we should all be watchful of what we say, and so should he have been. Chrysostom’s anti-Jewish sermons are not something that you will hear many respectable people talking about today, I imagine.

Schama also quoted the famous lines from Saint Matthew when he was talking about Christian anti-Semitism, namely: ‘And all the people answered, “His blood be on us and on our children”’ (27:25). It is this verse that is popularly taken to give scriptural backing to the idea that all the Jews in all generations bear the guilt for the death of Christ.

That particular interpretation, though, is not one a serious Biblical scholar, or even someone who knows a bit about the Old Testament, could possibly hold. In the Book of Exodus (24: 5-8), Moses sprinkles the people with the blood of sacrificed animals:

Then, having sent certain young men of the Israelites to offer holocausts and sacrifice young bulls as peace offerings to the LORD, Moses took half of the blood and put it in large bowls; the other half he splashed on the altar. Taking the book of the covenant, he read it aloud to the people, who answered, “All that the LORD has said, we will heed and do.” Then he took the blood and sprinkled it on the people, saying, “This is the blood of the covenant which the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words of his.”

In other words, by alluding to this passage, Matthew is reminding us that the sacrifice of Jesus ratifies the new Covenant, and the people crying out for his blood to be on them, ask (without knowing it) to be included amongst the beneficiaries of this sacrifice.

And just in case we think having blood sprinkled is sinister, what about this?

They shall take some of its blood and apply it to the two doorposts and the lintel of every house in which they partake of the lamb. But the blood will mark the houses where you are. Seeing the blood, I will pass over you; thus, when I strike the land of Egypt, no destructive blow will come upon you. (Exodus 12: 7.13)

Here, very clearly the sprinkling or smearing of sacrificial blood is a beneficial process. This means that the Jews of Matthew’s gospel are not calling down a curse on themselves, but a blessing.

Daniel Jonah Goldhagen also has difficulty with the Matthaean verse, and has suggested it be excised from the Christian Bible. Professor Schama too clearly, and understandably, feels a sense of grief at the sufferings of his people.

But, though the words of the Gospel have been twisted over the centuries, there is nothing in this gospel verse per se that is anti-Semitic or anti-Jewish, it seems to me.