Beginning of Christian Persecutions of Jews

This post by James McDonald originally appeared at Bad News About Christianity.

Jesus (with his cross) and St Veronica looking European while their fellow citizens conform to the traditional Christian characature of Jewish appearance. (Image: Hieronymus Bosch / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

The Catholic Church considered the Jews pestilent for fifteen hundred years, put them in ghettos, etc, because it recognized the Jews for what they were …. I recognize the representatives of this race as pestilent for the state and for the Church …
Adolf Hitler, 26 April 1933

Without centuries of Christian anti-Semitism, Hitler’s passionate hatred would never have been so fervently echoed.
Robert Runcie (1921-2000), Archbishop of Canterbury (1980-1991)

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 388. In that year Christians burned a synagogue at Rome and the authorities required that restitution be paid. This was clearly fair and in keeping with custom. But in the same year Christians razed another synagogue, at Callinicum on the Euphrates, 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 438 that excluded Jews from all political and military functions. They were again forbidden to marry Christians, to own Christian slaves, to hold public office or to build synagogues. In the same year the Empress Eudocia tried to relax the regulations that barred the Jews from Jerusalem except for the festival of Sukkoth. When the Jews gathered on the Temple Mount, Christian monks on the Mount revealed swords and clubs hidden under their robes and attacked the Jews. Many were murdered. When eighteen of the monks were brought for trial, the leader of the massacre, a monk called Barsoma, assembled his followers again and spread rumours that noble Christians were to be burned alive. Now they threatened to burn the Empress herself and inspired such fear that the proceedings had to be dropped. “Five hundred groups” of paramilitary monks patrolled the streets. Barsoma announced that “The cross has triumphed”. He later became St Barsoma.

St John Chrysostom, another Doctor of the Church, was even more extreme. He claimed that Jews sacrificed their children to Satan , an accusation that was to be amplified and believed throughout Christendom for centuries. He also claimed that God hated the Jews and always had done. His eight sermons of 387 whipped congregations into a frenzy of excitement and fanaticism: Jews were drunkards, whoremongers and criminals. They were lascivious, obscene, demonic and accursed. They murdered prophets, Christ, even God himself. Before long the sort of massacre of Jews by Christians, which in time would come to be known as pogroms, were being instigated by Christian leaders. St Jerome regarded the Jews as vipers. St Cyril, Bishop of Alexandria, instigated a series of riots directed against them. Massacres and riots occurred elsewhere in the Empire but, as so often, surviving records are patchy, and have been so sanitised by Christian hands that they are unreliable. We shall almost certainly never know how many Jews were murdered by Christians during the Dark Ages.

Under Justin I (Eastern Roman Emperor 518-527), Jews were forbidden to make wills, to receive inheritances, to give testimony in court, or to perform any other legal act. From now on they would be second class citizens. The next emperor, Justinian, produced a new code in 529 confirming their legal disabilities. This code would be influential for many hundreds of years. Marriage between Christian and Jew was confirmed as a capital offence. Synagogues were sequestered and converted into churches. The burning down of synagogues was also explicitly made legal. Many bishops and monks — now saints — took advantage of the revised law to commit acts of arson. In 538 a Church Council at Orléans again condemned intermarriage. It prohibited Christians and Jews eating together, or mixing at all during Holy Week. Regulations affected all facets of life. Jews were not permitted to give medical aid to Christians or to receive it from them. By the end of the sixth century they were being subjected to forcible baptism. A Church Council in Toledo in 694 declared all Jews to be slaves. Their possessions were to be confiscated and their children seized — to be converted to Christianity. By 1010 local Jewish populations were being routinely massacred in Europe, notably in Rome, Orléans, Rouen, Limoges, and throughout the Rhineland. Existing legal disabilities were confirmed by the Third Lateran Council in 1179, which added a further restriction that Jews should not receive feudal homage. Christians living with Jews were to be excommunicated — a regulation leading directly to the creation of Jewish ghettos. Cannon law expressly prohibitted ordinary social relationships with Jews:

None may eat, live, or receive medical treatment with Jews.
Let neither clergy or laity eat their unleavened bread, live with them, call them in when they are sick, receive medicine from them, or wash with them at the baths. If anyone does this, let him be deposed if a cleric, and excommunicated if a lay person.
(Decretum gratiani, Case 28, q I, C13)

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.

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Reprinted with permission from the author.

James McDonald is Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society in Britain, and holds a number of professional qualifications. He also holds an MA in mathematics from Oxford University, and an MSc in Operational Research from Sussex University. He lives in the South of France. His newest book is Beyond Belief: Two Thousand Years of Bad Faith in the Christian Church (Garnet Publishing, 2009). His website is

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