Jews, Julian, Judaizers, John

[T]he expectation of a restoration of Jerusalem also generated a wave of eschatological fervor among judaizing Christians toward the end of the fourth century. The importance of the city and the temple for judaizing Christians during this period can be seen in the interpretation of prophetic texts that speak of the return of the Jews to Jerusalem. Commenting on Isaiah 35:10, “the ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing,” Jerome says that the “Jews and our Judaizers” interpret this text to refer not to the “advent of the Savior” but to the second coming, when the Jews will enter Zion with gladness. Similarly, commenting on Zachariah 14:10–12, “Jerusalem shall be inhabited for there shall be no more curse,” he observes that the Jews and judaizing Christians say that this refers to the building of the city and a time when “circumcision will be practiced, sacrifices offered, all the precepts of the Law observed, so that Jews will no longer become Christians but Christians will become Jews” (Comm. in Zach. 14:10). …

Both the resurgence of judaizing Christianity in the late fourth century and the plan of Julian to restore the city of Jerusalem to the Jews were intimately linked to the existence of vital and visible Jewish communities in the cites of the eastern Mediterranean. Julian’s plan to rebuild the temple is unintelligible unless there were Jewish communities who read the Jewish Scriptures and observed the laws of Moses. Julian’s arguments about the legitimacy of the Law of Moses, as set forth in the Contra Galilaeos, and his claim that Christians had apostasized from the Law of Moses, replacing it with a second law, would have had no force if there were no Jewish communities that did observe the Law of Moses. Unless there was a legitimate inheritor of the patrimony of ancient Israel, it made no sense to argue that Christianity was an illegitimate offshoot, an apostate sect.

In an environment, then, in which Judaism was still very much present, Julian issued his challenge to Christianity. By highlighting the relationship of Christianity to Judaism, Julian attacked Christians at an extremely vulnerable point. His arument was not new. Earlier critics had made a similar point, but what was new was that Julian made it central and supported his religious arguments with the announcement that he would return Jerusalem to the Jews and restore the ancient temple and its sacrifices. And though his efforts were unsuccessful, that such an idea could come so close to realization, that the money, men, and materials to carry out the task were available, and that the work had actually begun on the site of the temple ruins, alarmed Christians. How futile confident appeals to history would appear if the project were successful; what perils lay ahead if the prophecy of Jesus [Matthew 24.2: “Truly, I tell you, not one stone will be left here upon another, all will be thrown down.”] could be refuted by the efforts of a Roman emperor, a mere man?

In is attempt to execute this plan, Julian, in the word of John [Chrysostom] had “put the power of Christ on trial” (Pan. Bab. 2.22; [PG] 50.568). The bravado and boasting of Christian writers about Julian’s failure only betrayed how profoundly he had scandalized the Church. This is why John and other Christian writers emphasized the importance of actually seeing the ruins in Jerusalem (Jud. et gent. 16., [PG] 48.834; Jud. 5.11., 901). As late as the middle of the fifth century, Theodoret, bishop of Cyrus north of Antioch and a native of Antioch, traveled to Jerusalem and when he saw the desolation “with his own eyes,” rejoiced in the truth of the prophecies (Affect. 11.71).

Robert Wilken. John Chrysostom and the Jews: Rhetoric and Reality in the Late 4th Century (University of California Press, 1983), pp 146-148.

The Wilken book comes highly recommended. It’s goal is to make sense of a group of eight anti-Judaizing homilies given by St John Chrysostom while a young presbyter in Antioch, in the years 386 and 387. A complete English translation of the homilies with introduction is available in Paul Harkins, Saint John Chrysostom: Discourses Against Judaizing Christians, The Fathers of the Church, vol. 68 (Catholic University of America Press, 1979). Their original context and import of the homilies is, unsurprisingly, dissimilar to their later usage in medieval times and even into the modern period, when they were entirely improperly used in support of antisemitism. The fourth century was still a pluralistic world: one in which the Christians were by no means certain that the next emperor would be Christian, one in which the old pagan institutions and philosophies still lived, one in which Jewish communities were respected and integrated into the broader culture. In these homilies, Chrysostom utilizes invective, a standard rhetorical format, combined with some unsophisticated appeals to contemporary Christian understandings of prophecy, in order to convince his listeners to persuade their Christian “Judaizing” friends and family members to discontinue attending synagogues, celebrating the Jewish festivals, and so on—essentially leading a double religious life. (Or, as has been suggested by others, were these “Judaizing” Christians simply better neighbors, sharing festivals and events with respected friends, with community, civility, and reciprocal respect held more important than religious intolerance?)

These sermons do not read at all well today, certainly not as well as Chrysostom’s later, more theologically astute writings and homilies, for which he is quite renowned. Contemporary rhetoric doesn’t care for the over-the-top, no-holds-barred quality of invective that was acceptable and understood in the fourth century, the heyday of the Second Sophistic. Similarly, the appeal to prophecies as understood in the fourth century falls on different ears. These days, it’s much more common among Christians to hear prophecies bandied about to support the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem, rather than its perpetual desolation. In that sense, these homilies truly are relics of a lost world. Wilken’s book brings the most important aspects of that lost world back to life, situating the homilies clearly in the context of their original hearing.


  1. Actually that translation is not complete; because about half of sermon 2 was only discovered a few years ago in a manuscript on the island of Patmos. So far as I know it has never been translated into English.

    I must write a post on Chrysostom and the Jews myself!

  2. That does ring a bell, though distantly. Do you have a citation? I’ll look it up.

    Do post on the subject when you get a chance! I find these discourses to be misused more often than not. On one hand, they are referred to as evidence of “evil antisemitic Church Fathers” and on the other hand they’re used as evidence of “Christians and Jews still associating by and large in the late fourth century.” Neither of these uses accurately reflects the context of these discourses: that of a minority of Christians who are (against the wishes of their own hierarchs and other Christians) also participating in Jewish synagogue worship. This reflects something more along the lines of the Nazorean heresy rather than an accurate reflection of the general practices of the Christian populace. From what we can tell, the Jews didn’t want these people doing this either!

    Anyhow, it’s fascinating stuff.

  3. It looks like this contains a German translation (though not the original Greek–hopefully a full edition will not be long in coming):
    Pradels, W., R. Brändle, and M. Heimgartner. “Das bisher vermisste Textstück in Johannes Chrysostomus, Adversus Judaeos, Oratio 2”, Zeitschrift für Antikes Christentum 5 [2001], pp. 23-49.

    I’ll take a look in the library this week and see. Ii’s exciting that the rest of the discourse is in there, even if it’s in the language of the Hun!

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