Christianity and its Persecutions of Jews

28 September 2022

Burning of Jews in Portugal in 1497. (Image: Museum of Portugese Jewish History / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

According to James Haught’s book “Holy Horrors: An Illustrated History of Religious Murder and Madness”, century after century, the Catholic church preached that Jews were “Christ-killers”. St. Gregory called them “slayers of the Lord, murderers of the prophets, adversaries of God”. St. Jerome added “vipers” and “cursers of Christians”. St. Bernard of Clairvaux called them “a degraded and perfidious people”. When a bishop burned a synagogue at Callinicum, St. Ambrose wrote: “Who cares if a synagogue – home of insanity and unbelief – is destroyed?”. Even Liturgical chants cited “the perfidious Jews”.

A fascinating article in Bad News About Christianity explains:

Early Christians specialised in causing trouble at synagogues, and disrupting Jewish services. Such behaviour had been censured by the pagan emperors, but under Christian ones official censure changed to toleration, and even encouragement. The first nominally Christian emperor, Constantine, was also the first significantly to limit the rights of Jews as citizens of the Roman empire. He imposed heavy penalties on anyone who converted to Judaism, and also on any Jewish community that received converts. In the next generation any Christian converting to Judaism would have all of his property confiscated. Marriages between Christians and Jews became capital offences. In later centuries the emperors became more strongly Christian, and the laws concerning Jews became correspondingly more discriminatory, intolerant and oppressive.

An important turning point came in AD 388. In that year a synagogue at Rome was burnt by Christians and the authorities required that restitution be paid. This was clearly fair, and in keeping with custom. But in the same year another synagogue, at Callinicum on the Euphrates, was razed by Christians at the instigation of the local bishop. Again the Emperor required the bishop to make restitution. The leading Churchman of the day, Ambrose, now a saint and Doctor of the Church, interceded and made it clear to the emperor that it would be sinful to help the Jews in this way. The emperor acceded to the will of the Church, and withdrew his demand for justice.

The Christian Emperor Theodosius II promulgated a new code of law in AD 438 which excluded Jews from all political and military functions. They were again forbidden to mary Christians, or to own Christian slaves, to hold public office or to build synaguogues. In the same year the Empress Eudoxia tried to relax the regulations which barred the Jews from Jerusalem except for the festival of Sukkoth. When the Jews gathered on the Temple Mount they were attacked by Christian monks. Many Jews were murdered. When some of the monks were brought for trial, the leader of the massacre, a monk called Barsauma, assembled his followers again. Now they threatened to burn the empress herself and inspired such fear that the proceedings had to be dropped. Barsauma later became Saint Barsauma.

The justification for Jewish persecutions through the centuries has been a passage from the Matthew gospel. After Pilate has denied responsibility for sentencing Jesus to death, the Jewish people are quoted as saying “…His blood be on us, and on our children” (Matthew 27:25). A similar theme may be found at 1 Thessalonians 2:15. In Christian eyes this meant that the Jews as a race were collectively responsible for the death of Jesus. In time, the principle of collective guilt would open the way to the assignment of other imaginary forms of guilt. The fact that Jesus had been a Jew, as his parents and his followers had been, was overlooked. In Christian art the Jews were depicted as ugly and deformed, while Jesus was a handsome European.

A provision in Deuteronomy 23:20 permitted Jews to make a profit from lending money to gentiles. So it was that Jews were able to lend money in Christian Europe. This suited both Jews and Christians, and Jews were allowed into Christian countries in order to fulfil an essential economic function. As far as is known, Jews were introduced into Britain soon after the Norman Conquest to act as bankers to the King and his nobles. They were regarded as the King’s property , and in theory enjoyed his protection. Restricted to money lending, Jews were frequently accused of usury, though their rates of return were a fraction of those of modern high-street bankers. They were routinely cheated, abused and humiliated, and the most preposterous calumnies were perpetrated against them.

Another fanciful idea was that Jews plotted to poison the wells. In 1161 eighty six Jews had been burned for this in Bohemia. A hundred and sixty Jews had been burned at Chinon in 1321 as accomplaces of the lepers who had supposedly planned to poison the whole of France. Some years earlier Forty Jews had committed suicide at Vitry in order to avoid the same fate. When the Black Death ravaged Europe between 1348 and 1351 Jews provided convenient scapegoats. The theory was that they provoked the it by poisoning water wells. Now it was the Jews who were primarily held responsible, and the lepers who were the accomplices. At Strasburg 2,000 Jews were burned alive. At Mainz some 6,000 were slaughtered in a single day, the 24th August 1349. Elsewhere Jews were walled up in their homes and left to die of starvation. Around 10,000 Jews, representing around 80 communities, were murdered in Bavaria. The entire Jewish population of Basel was wiped out: 600 adults went to the stake; their children were given to Christians for forcible conversion. Invariably the Church was involved one way or another, sometimes through priests, sometimes monks, sometimes through a rampaging mob of penitents known as Flagellants. These Flagellants literally whipped themselves into a religious frenzy. They were responsible for a Jewish massacre at Frankfurt in July 1349. Sometimes their mere approach precipitated violence. Anticipating the arrival of Flagellants in the same year, Christians at Brussels killed 600 Jews. Within the space of the three years 1348-1350, there were 350 known Jewish massacres, but there may well have been many more.

Wherever Christianity flourished, so did anti-Semitism. A clerical revival in France in the 1890s was linked to the Dreyfus affair, during which a Jewish army officer was falsely accused of treason by the Christian establishment. It was left to a small number of freethinkers such as Émile Zola to help him, as it was to help other Jews when falsely accused. When it became clear that a miscarriage of justice had taken place, La Civilta Catholica commented that “if a judicial error has indeed been committed, then the Assembly of 1791 was responsible when it accorded French nationality to Jews”. Father Vincent Bailly, Editor of La Croix claimed that the Church in France was undergoing “a punishment reminiscent of Christ’s own passion … betrayed, sold, jeered at, beaten, covered with spittle and crucified by the Jews”.

Jews were persecuted in Eastern Europe as well as Western Europe. Hundreds of thousands of were murdered in Christian pogroms in Eastern Europe over the centuries. In 1723 the bishop of Gdansk in Poland demanded the expulsion of Jews from the city. When the city authorities declined he exhorted a mob to break into the city ghetto and beat the residents to death. Such pogroms continued until recent times. Often the murders were justified by the old blood libel. Familiar charges of the ritual murder of children were heard from the Protestant court chaplain, Adolf Stöcker, at Berlin in 1892, and again at the Hilsner trial in Slovakia in 1900, and at the Beilis trial in Kiev in 1913.

The general pattern is that the stronger the Christian faith, the stronger is the persecution of the Jews. It is notable that pogroms have been common in Poland during its periodic intervals of that country’s independence, when the Church has enjoyed its greatest power and influence. The restoration of independence to Poland in 1918, for example, was followed by an immediate return to traditional practices – an outbreak of pogroms. Polish Catholics may not have welcomed domination by Hitler’s Third Reich, but few quarrelled with the Nazi’s attitude towards the Jews. Many Roman Catholics in Poland saw their Jewish neighbours carted off to death camps and were often not at all averse to helping them on their way. After the War, when Jewish refugees returned to their homes and businesses, Christian Poles reacted in the traditional way. They circulated stories of the ritual murder of children – the ancient blood libel yet again – and instigated a massacre of the refugees. At Kielce 42 Jews, some of them recently freed from Nazi death-camps, were murdered by their Christian neighbours.

Regarding Pope Pius XII, Bad News About Christianity says the following:

The Catholic Church had earned as bad a reputation during the Nazi era, but no declaration of guilt was forthcoming from its head, Pius XII (pope 1939-1958). Pius appeared to many to have supported the great dictators. His Holiness never once unequivocally condemned the victimisation or murder of Jews in Italy or the Third Reich, despite being blessed with direct communication with the Divine through his supernatural visions. During the war he never even made a statement that would give guidance to the many Catholics in the Fascist and Nazi armies, as he could have done without endangering himself. Catholics engaged in genocide were never once informed by the Church or the Pope that what they were doing was wrong. In the whole of Christendom only a handful of Churchmen stood up to the Nazis. Altogether, over six million Jews died, including a million children. As historians have observed, it is difficult to see how the attempted murder of an entire people could take place without the highest moral authority on earth voicing any explicit criticism of it.

Though His Holiness failed consistently to condemn Nazi atrocities, he was content to continue referring to “perfidious Jews”. After the war he even condemned the concept of collective guilt as applied to the German people. To many this was the ultimate irony since the Church’s persecution of the Jews had for centuries been based on the principle of collective guilt. Pius’s successor, Pope John XXIII, admitted Church guilt in the sort of code favoured by theologians: “The mark of Cain is stamped upon our foreheads. Across the centuries, our brother Abel has lain in blood which we drew, and shed tears we caused by forgetting Thy love. Forgive us Lord, for the curse we falsely attributed to their name as Jews. Forgive us for crucifying Thee a second time in their flesh, for we knew not what we did”. This may mean “We admit responsibility for centuries of persecution and murder”, but it is difficult to be certain. In 1958 His Holiness removed the reference to “perfidious Jews” from the Good Friday liturgy of the Roman Church. In 1965 the second Vatican Council reconsidered the question of collective guilt and exonerated the Jews from collective responsibility for the death of Jesus, but only on condition that they dissociated themselves from the supposedly wicked generation of the time of the crucifixion. Very rarely a senior churchman will now admit to his Church’s complicity. Cardinal Franz König for example confirmed in 1988 that the Catholic Church in Austria bore part of the responsibility for Nazi crimes against the Jews, and admitted that anti-Semitism was linked to Catholic education practices.

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Antisemitism in the Medieval Period | Hunting for History | BBC Teach

Antisemitism Explained | Anne Frank House

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