After putting together the outline of a history of Jewish converts in the Orthodox Church that I had posted here earlier, there appeared to me to be a peculiar common element to the Church’s dealings with Jews throughout history – both Jews affiliated with Judaism and those who had converted to Christianity. I am not sure what to make of it, but will explore some ideas here.
The first chapter of this history, that of the Nazarene church from apostolic times and into the fifth century, is marked by a suspicion within the Gentile Church that the Nazarenes’ keeping of the Mosaic Law while professing Christ constituted a Judaizing heresy – though nothing in the Bible would necessarily support such a conclusion.
Later, in Byzantium, Church leaders denounced Judaism and wrote canon law meant to minimize contact between Jews and Christians – possibly out of fear that the well-established Jewish communities in cities of the Middle East will rival the Church for converts (this book, for instance, suggests this interpretation). In the Russian empire, from the fifteenth century onward, Jews were associated with the influential Judaizing heresy that honored the Old Testament and denigrated the Gospel. In post-Soviet Russia, various churchmen expressed suspicion of Father Alexander Men’, a charismatic priest and spiritual father to hundreds of people during the Soviet era; his Jewish identity and his support for the state of Israel were said to be a “Judaizing” danger for the Church.
What’s the theme? It seems that at least within Orthodoxy, the attitude toward Jews is marked by fear – a tangible nervousness that all things Jewish are a threat to the Church, specifically of a Judaizing nature: the threat that Jewish observance will be brought back as a requirement for salvation for all Christians, thus undermining the Gospel.
Some of this fear was perhaps grounded: the lines between Jewish sympathies, desire to observe Jewish law, and the treatment of Jewish law as necessary rather than optional for Christians, while easy to draw, are also easy to blur. (At the same time, it’s worth noting that various “Judaizing” heresies, such as the Seventh Day Adventist movement, seem to have arisen with no Jewish participation.)
But if Jews – apparently, even Christian Jews (as with the Nazarenes and Father Alexander Men’) – are a constant “Judaizing” threat, what about the pagans? Surely paganism – with its localization of deity and the attempt to co-opt or placate divine power to serve human needs and ambitions; its inherent resistance to the notion of a unique God – has nourished and informed the many heresies of Christendom (Marcionism, for an easy example); surely that connection is no more tenuous than that between Jews and the Judaizing heresy. But has canon law been written to forbid Christian intercourse with pagans? Has the Church been as harsh with those, for instance, whose devotion to the saints borders on worship of multiple gods, as it has been with the iconoclasts and others who wish to hearken back to Jewish conceptions of worship? Has the Church refused to tolerate paganisms within its own midst – has it not instead allowed pagan festivals to determine its holiday seasons, and pagan customs to penetrate the lives of its faithful?
My sense is that the answer to these questions is ‘no,’ but I am no scholar. Please comment if you have thoughts on this issue!
Above all, the main difference between the Church’s treatment of Jews and pagans seems to be that the latter were seen as a mission field, whereas Jews were considered a danger to the Church. Surely the synagogue could not be any scarier for Christian missionaries to go into than pagan societies practicing child sacrifice? Father Elias Friedman points out in Jewish Identity that it was almost as if the Gentile Church had so committed itself to the idea of Jewish unbelief, in order to justify its supercessionist theology of the Jews as a people hated by God, that it was disinclined to see Jews in the same way that it saw pagans: as individuals whose hearts can be converted to Christ.
Indeed, one might argue that, by and large (though certainly with notable exceptions) the manner in which Church had treated the Jews through much of the history of Christendom is disturbingly similar to the way in which God called His people to treat the pagans inhabiting the Promised Land: take no prisoners, broker no peace treaties, exile them from your land – or baptize by force. If this seems ironic, I am still trying to decide who the joke is on – the Jews or the Church.
I’ll continue writing on this topic – which is, as you can see, rather half-baked and subject to revision in my mind. If anyone has thoughts on the nature of Judaizing and pagan heresies, on the difference in the Church’s treatment of Jews and pagans, or on any related subject – particularly if your thoughts are informed by scholarly work, but even if they are not – do drop me a note as I attempt to explore this!