Tag Archives: Church Fathers

Impressions of “Eight Homilies Against the Jews,” by Saint John Chrysostom

John Chrysostom was a Doctor of the Church, Ecumenical Father, and Archbishop of Constantinople during the Roman Empire. His sermons were before the Catholic-Orthodox split, and our revered in most mainline Christian traditions. He addresses multiple simultaneously and clearly is concerned for his flock. His writing affirms core Christian beliefs on salvation, and can help Protestants and Catholics understand each other. But he also has falls. His attempt at a disputation against “Judaizers” is only partially coherent on Judaism, and unlike Augustine he appears not to have spoken to Jews about the meaning of the Old Testament.

But First, there’s no getting around this: John Chrysostom’s Against the Jews — a Doctor of the Church and Patriarch of Constantinople — directly and repeatedly blames the Jews for the murder of Christ

Against the Jews

Jesus died for our sins. We are at fault. And Christians more at fault than others, for we know the cost of sin and do it anyway.

In this context, Chrysostom’s words are both ironic and terrifying:

Is it not foolish, then, to show such readiness to flee from those who have sinned against a man, but to enter into fellowship with those who have committed outrages against God himself? Is it not strange that those who worship the Crucified keep common festivals with those who crucified him? Is it not a sign of folly and the worst madness?

Even if this was a truly held theological point, it is no longer a permissible one. The Council of Trent clarified that all sinners share the guilt for the death of Jesus. He died for John Chrysostom’s sins as much as for those of the Jews.

Should anyone inquire why the Son of God underwent His most bitter Passion, he will find that besides the guilt inherited from our first parents the principal causes were the vices and crimes which have been perpetrated from the beginning of the world to the present day and those which will be committed to the end of time. In His Passion and death the Son of God, our Savior, intended to atone for and blot out the sins of all ages, to offer for them to his Father a full and abundant satisfaction.
Catechism of the Council of Trent Article IV, Part 2, ‘Reasons why Christ Suffered’

In the same sub-part, it is clear that Christian sinners suffer more guilt for the death of Christ than the Jews:

This guilt seems more enormous in us than in the Jews, since according to the testimony of the same Apostle: If they had known it, they would never have crucified the Lord of glory; while we, on the contrary, professing to know Him, yet denying Him by our actions, seem in some sort to lay violent hands on him.

But even if Chrysostom was gravely wrong about the guilt of the Jews, his target was not actually people who we would call Jews!

Against the Judaizers

There seems to have been a Messianic movement in Christianity that called itself Jews, but kept up animal sacrifices and many of the Jewish festivals in the Bible. When Chrysostom attacks the so-called “Jews” for these sacrifices he’s entirely right! Using only the Old Testament, he successfully disputes the claim of these “Jews” that they are following Jewish law

And that is the reason why God commanded sacrifice [in Jerusalem] only: you have heard the Law that has now been read among us — it runs as follows: “For they shall bring their sacrifice to the doors of the Tent of Witness” — and it goes on to add the reason: “So that they will not sacrifice their idols and to the vain things which which they themselves engage in prostitution.”

Chrysostom is completely correct here. No branch of Judaism practices animal sacrifices outside of Jerusalem. Indeed, the Christian sacrifice is qualitatively different than the Jewish one. And while much of Christianity is is continuous with Second-Temple Judaism, the requirement for recurrent animal sacrifices is not one of them.

That said, much of Chrysostom’s attacks on Jewish-style ritual seems hyperbolic. This passage is emblematic: in two sentences Chrysostom incorrectly states that all Jewish festivals are forbidden outside Jerusalem, and that Jews would never control Jerusalem again:

I did enough to complete my task when I proved from all the prophets that any such observance of ritual outside Jerusalem is a transgression of the Law and sacrilege. But they never stop whispering in everybody’s ear and bragging that they will get their city back again.

Against Salvation by the Law

Chrysostom is on much stronger ground on another area: a firm rejection of both “works of the law” and “faith as a mental state only.” Certain passages read like they could be directly lifted from Reformation-era writers.

That he has justified our race not by right actions, nor by toils, nor by barter and exchange, but by grace alone. Paul, too, made this clear when he aid: “But now the justice of God has been made manifest independently of the Law.” But the justice of God comes through faith in Jesus Christ and not through any labor and suffering.”

as well as:

All, then, who run to Christ are saved by his grace and profit from his gift. But those who wish to find justification from the Law will also fall from grace. They will not be able to enjoy the King’s loving-kindness because they are striving to gain salvation by their won efforts; they will draw down on themselves the curse of the Law because from the works of the Law no flesh will find justification,

While others appear to be as “Catholic” as one would expect from this Catholic bishop, 600 years before the schism between east and west:

For their is one defense left to sinners after they have sinned: to confess their sins.

and:

Your good deeds will not only bring praise to you but also rapid release from your sickness. The nobility of your choice will win God to even greater good will; all the saints will rejoice at what you have done; they will pray for you from the bottom of their hearts.

The solution of course is that faith and faithfulness were not distinguished in Greek. Indeed, Chrysostom specifically preaches on the parable of the three servants to make that point. In this parable, a rich man gave us servants money to spend or invest. A foolish servant, who did not try to make any profit, was condemned by the rich man.

Like Paul in The Letter to the Romans, Chrysostom believes that laboring for Christ is categorically distinct from “works of the Law,” a legalistic interpretation of the Torah aimed at maintaining a distinctive Jewish ethnic identity as a matter of religion. The Greek word translated as “faith” or “believe” in English, ” pistis, also means “faithfulness” or “allegiance.” For instance, a venture capitalist who provides start-up capital to a new company would call that company’s director “faithful” if he can turn a profit on the money.

Then each of us will be able to hear those happy words: ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; because you have been faithful over a few things I will set you over many; enjoy into the joy of your Master’

Both the Apostle Paul and Archbishop Chrysostom assumed what Reformation-era debaters on both side did not realize: the emotionally charged argument over “faith” from the beginning of the modern era was not a question of belief or works, but of whether a divine Rule of Law would save one from a Divine Judge. As in Samuel or Solomon, the answer was obviously not. John Chrysostom, who also wrote in Greek, displayed the same unity of understanding about faith.

And I say to you what Paul said to the Galatians: “Become like me, because I also have become like you.” What does this mean? He was urging them to renounce circumcision, to scorn the Sabbath, the feast days, and all the other observances of the Law.

It is this focus on splittism, dividing up one faith along sectarian lines, that drove both Paul’s and Chrysostom’s attacks on reforming Judaizers of their day. I suspect Chrysostom shares my view of both the Catholic-Orthodox split, and the Protestant Reformation:

Moreover, the first thing I have to say to the Judaizers is that nothing is worse than contentiousness and fighting, than tearing the Church asunder and rending into many parts the robe which the robbers did not dare to rip.

and

Fasting at tiffs or that time is not a matter for blame. But to rend asunder the Church, to be ready for rivalry, to create dissension, to rob oneself continuously of the benefits of religious meetings — these are unpardonable, these do demand an account, these do deserve serious punishment.

and finally

So let me finish my discourse at this point, and let us all pray together that our brothers come back to us. Let us pray that they cling fondly to peace and stand apart from untimely rivalry.

Like the money in that parable, good works can produce interest beyond their initial investment.

If somebody else does what you did, you will carry off the reward because it was you who gave him his start, it is you whom he emulated.

The goal of allegiance of Christ is not the ritual celebration of festivals or yearly fasting. These may be tools, but they are not the goal. The goal is to imitate Christ

Why are you a Christian? Is it not that you may imitate Christ and obey his Laws? What did Christ do? He did not sit in Jerusalem and call the sick to come ot him. he went around to cities and towns and cured sickness of both body and soul.

No fasting, no sleeping on the ground, no watching and praying all night, nor anything else can do as much for you as saving your brother can accomplish.

Writing before the debates over the Reformation, and being able to span them through his fluent Greek, he also cuts through another debate: does justification occur organically (by a change in our soul — implying the need for a state or place or cleansing if our soul is not sufficiently clean upon death) or mechanistically (where sins are simply not counted, due to Christ’s saving blood.)

The answer is both, and much more:

To show that David made this whole prophetic prediction in behalf of Christ when he said ‘Sacrifice and oblation you id not desire,’ David went on to say: ‘But a body you have fitted for me.’ By this he meant the Lord’s body which became our common sacrifice for the whole world, the sacrifice which cleansed our soul, canceled our sin, put down death, opened heaven, gave us great many hopes, and made ready all other things which Paul knew well and spoke of when he explained: ‘Oh, the depth of the riches and of the wisdom and of the knowledge of God! How incomprehensible are his judgments and how unsearchable are his ways!’

Against Sin, but for the Sinner

Augustine and Chrysostom go by different ways to build empathy. Augustine’s methods are self-centered — you learn about his childhood, his parents, his job, his friends. Reading Confessions feels like meeting a new friend. The Catholic Church’s strong history of protecting Jews as an intellectual community doubtless owes a lot to Augustine’s personal struggle. It’s one thing ot say that serious interpretation of the Old Testament is necessary to understand Christianity — its another to see a Doctor of the Church reject Christianity as incoherent until Jewish hermenutics are introduced to him!

Chrysostom is completely different. After reading Eight Homilies I don’t know how old he is, how he became Christian, what his friends like to do, or how he came to his opinions. From Chrysostom you can hear the same Christian humanist voice that Pope Francis uses so well in our own day

A human being is worth more than the whole world. Heaven and earth and sea and sun and stars were made for his sake.

John also provides the best homily over the story of Cain and Abel that I ever encountered. Though he uses the Septuagint Bible, which translates some context different, it is so moving:

“Even so, Cain did not listen, he did not stop, he did commit that murder, he did bathe his hands in blood from his brother’s throat. But then what happened? God did not say: ‘Let him go now. What further use in there of in helping him. He did commit the murder, he did slay his brother….’

God neither said nor did anything like that. Instead, he came again to him, corrected him, and said: ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ When Cain said he did not know, God still did not desert him but he brought him, in spite of himself, to admit what he had done…

‘I have committed a sin too great for pardon, defense, or forgiveness; if it is your will to punish my crime, I shall lie exposed to every harm because your helping hand has abandoned me.’ And what did God do then? He said ‘Not so! Whoever kills Cain shall be punished sevenfold!… For the number seven in the Scriptures means an indefinitely large number..

And Cain himself became a better man again. His trembling, his fear, the mental torment which never left him, his physical paralysis kept him, as it were, shackled. They kept him from leaping again to any other dead of boldness; they constantly reminded him of his former crime; through them he achieved greater self-control in his soul.”

This focus on pastoral service to individual sinners would largely be lost in the west until it was revived by the Friars. I wonder if this remained in the East and, if so, if its loss in the west was a result of Augustine’s autobiographical (and thus, self-centric) style).

Cain Punished

Chrysostom also is aware he is speaking to multiple audiences simultaneously. For instance, as Patriarch of Constantinople he has priests reporting to him. But as the foremost pastor of Constantinople he is also responsible for the souls of the common people. And as a literary figure his words would be read for centuries.

So he is careful to provide a hermeneutic key, or statement that is literally true, true in context, and true in how the document as a whole should be interpreted. Thus, threats of damnation or Hell must be read as a way to help people act better, and not a sign that God forgets about them

Mothers who love their children also do this: when their children cry, they often threaten to throw them to the jaws of wolves. Of course, they would not throw them to the wolves but they say they will to stop the children from bothering them. Everything Christ did was done to keep us bound together and living at peace with one another.

And just as God came down and was closest to Cain, the emotional meaning of the text is closest to the common believer. While Chrysostom was a pivotal father of not just Christianity in general, but of Orthodox branch in particular, he is careful to praise the common believer, and even flatter him, for good works

If you pour out many words and do everything in your power and still see that he refuses to heed you, then bring him to the priest. By the help of God’s grace the priests will surely overcome their quary. But it will all be your doing, because it was you who took his hand and led him to us.

For Understanding of the Gospel

Like his contemporary Augustine, John Chrysostom appears heavily influenced by Platonic and neo-Platonic philosophy. Thus he looks forward to heaven, correctly, but his goal appears to the pure spiritual life of heaven rather than a reincarnated life on the New Earth

He knew their obstinancy and shamelessnessm, their willfulness and disobedience; he knew that they would not easily choose to give up their former way of life, conducted with sacrifices and burnt offerings, and go toward the higher, more spiritual life of the Gospels

Indeed, Chrysostom appears to believe the “New Earth” is simply a metaphor for a heaven where our old friends the planets no longer exist

We are citizens of a city above in heaven, where there are no months, no sun, no moon, no circle of seasons.

Chrysostom is extrapolating on a passage in The Revelation to John.

The city had no need of the sun or of the moon to shine in it, for the glory of God illuminated it. The Lamb is its light.
Revelation 21:23

Now, a lot is going on in this question. St. Thomas Aquinas spends considerable time on it in Summa Theologica. But that the sun is simply a lamp, and in bright places there is no need for it, is hard to agree with. Bright artificial lights can even now evenly illuminate indoor rooms more usefully than the sun. It does not mean the sun is not our Brother, or that we are not happy to be with him.

That said, some of Chrysostom’s inferences are thought provoking. When I first began writing these impressions, I thought that Chrysostom’s conlusion

We read: “Seventy weeks are cut short for your people, no longer does God say: “for my people.”

referring to this passage…

“Seventy weeks are determined
For your people and for **your holy city,
To finish the transgression,
To make an end of sins,
To make reconciliation for iniquity,
To bring in everlasting righteousness,
To seal up vision and prophecy,
And to anoint the Most Holy.
Daniel 9:24*

…seemed arbitrary, until I read the whole chapter, and saw “your people” and “your city” parralleled Daniel’s prayer to God.

“O Lord, according to all Your righteousness, I pray, let Your anger and Your fury be turned away from Your city Jerusalem, Your holy mountain; because for our sins, and for the iniquities of our fathers, Jerusalem and Your people are a reproach to all those around us.
*Daniel 9:16

In this context, Gabriel is literally repeating the phrase, but turning its meaning around. I feel like I did the first time I realized cities could be not just holy, but sacred. I don’t agree with Chrysostom’s inteprtation, but he translates correctly and is striking in his explanation.

Wholly absent from Chrysostom’s interpretation are attempts to explain away Bible verses through allegory. This both helps him and hurts him. Famously, Augustine suspected both the “whales” (from the Book of Jonah) and the “fishes” (from the Gospels) were symbols of what actually appeared:

Therefore will I speak before Thee, O Lord, what is true, when ignorant men and infidels (for the initiating and gaining of whom the sacraments of initiation and great works of miracles are necessary, which we believe to be signified under the name of “fishes” and “whales”) undertake that Thy servants should be bodily refreshed, or should be otherwise succoured for this present life, although they may be ignorant wherefore this is to be done, and to what end; neither do the former feed the latter, nor the latter the former; for neither do the one perform these things through a holy and right intent, nor do the other rejoice in the gifts of those who behold not as yet the fruit

As the Scriptures are composed of many genre, this means that sometimes that each hermeneutical approach is acceptable at times. The Book of Jonah reads like a comedy, if not a satire, and an allegorical explanation is only natural. Augustine’s attempts to explain away the miracles of the Gospels, though, perhaps are less admirable.

Unsurprisingly, there are several methods of interpretation which are missing entirely. There are no references to literary genres of the Bible. Temple literature, Canaanite mythology, Second Temple literature are absent from Chrysostom’s methods.

In Biblical times, a “covenant” was an instrument of surrender” dictated by the triumphant power to the weaker power, demanding allegiance in exchange for grace and justification. Contemporary Jews believe there are two operative Covenants in the Hebrew Bible — the Mosaic Covenant and the older Noahide Covenant through which God justifies the gentiles. Many Christians argue the complement, that the Mosaic Covenant is itself complemented by the new and everlasting covenant. Numerous other covenants, both secular and religious, can be identified.

But Chrysostom and Dumbrell make almost opposite errors. Dumbrell insists there is only one covenant. Chrysostom states that while there were old, they have been abrogated and only the new is operational.

Previously saying, “Sacrifice and offering, burnt offerings, and offerings for sin You did not desire, nor had pleasure in them” (which are offered according to the law), then He said, “Behold, I have come to do Your will, O God.” He takes away the first that He may establish the second. By that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
Hebrews 10:8-10

What is “the first.” The clear meaning is “Sacrifice and offering burn offerings, and offerings for sin.” The second is doing God’s will — having lived faith. Chrysostom (incorrectly identifying the author of Letter to the Hebrews as Paul) writes:

In expalnation of this text Paul said: ‘He annuls the first covenant in order to establish the second.’

Dumbrell goes to the other extreme, arguing there is only one covenant in the entire Bible.

“What this means in real terms is that there is only one biblical covenant, with the end to be reached from the beginning always in view.”
William Dumbrell, Covenant and Creation, pg. 8

For Celebration of the Mysteries

In keepng with the Orthodox tradition he would help found, Chrysostom calls Catholic sacraments “mysteries”:

If you approach the altar on the very day of the Sabbath and your conscience be bad, you fail to share in the mysteries and you leave without celebrating the Pasch. But if you wash away your sins and share in the mysteries today, you do celebrate the Pasch in precisely the proper way.

Yet Chrysostom implicitly seems to focus on the need for excitement by the congregation. Though he never explicitly says it, Chrysostom appears to be grant the Judaizers a great compliment: their mass is more accessible to an illiterate or marginal population. He specifically calls out the popularity of Jewish-type rituals for women:

For indeed, I know that most of the crowd that is drawn to go there is composed of women. Now then, the blessed Paul says, “husbands, love your wives”; and again, “The wife should fear her husband.” But I am seeing neither wives’ fear nor husbands’ love.

As well as other marginal populations and social outcasts:

But now that the devil summons your wives to the feast of the Trumpets and the turn a ready ear to this call, you do not restrain the, You let them entangle themselves in accusations of ungodliness, you let them be dragged off into licentious ways. For as a rule, it is the harlots, the effeminates, and the whole chorus from the the theater who rush to that festival.

At least part of the reason is the Jewish-typical festivals are more musical, and more ngaging

But you dsire to hear a trumpet! Then listen to the trumpet of Paul, the spiritual trumpet blaring out from the heavens and saying, “Take up the full armor of God.”

Having once attended a Messianic Synagogue with a friend, these strengths of Judaeo-Christian festivals can still be seen. In the Eastern Churches, John Chrysostom is still credited with having created the contemporary Orthodox Liturgy. The Orthodox Style, with its beauty and ritual, may owe much to Chrysostom’s need to compete with what we would now call a form of Messianic Judaism.

Final Thoughts

John Chrysostom’s Eight Homilies Against the Jews is a complex book. The repeated claim, that the Jews are to blame for the death of Christ, has been explicitly rejected since the Counter-Reformation by the Catholic Church. Perhaps the greatest Greek-speaking Christian intellectual since Paul, Chrysostom’s focus on face, grace, and imitation of Christ help us under salvation by allegiance to Christ, and not the Law. He humanize the Gospel, focusing on God’s love for the sinner and our need to care for each other. He provides a straight-forward, but not literal, interpretation of the scriptures that is a good complement to Augustine’s methods. And of course, he is the father of the Orthodoxy Liturgy.

I read Eight Homilies Against the Jews in the Kindle edition.