Professor Paula Fredriksen of Boston University presents a relatively charitable reading of the early and influential church father known for his thesis of “the wandering Jew.” After some years, and expressing several different negative viewpoints on Jews and Judaism that reflected the prevailing fourth century traditions among Catholic and other Christian groups, Augustine made a decisive move away from some of these positions in his challenge to rival Christian groups, and in particular, to the Manichaean, Faustus.
Augustine’s concern was not necessarily with real Jews or Judaism per se, but with the theological defense of his own vision of the Christian church. Within his arguments, the degradation of Jews and Judaism lives on unmistakably, and his defense is at best patronizing. Nevertheless, based on his reflections on God’s sovereignty and free will, along with dissatisfaction with the way his Christian and pagan rivals degraded Catholics via their degradation of the Jews, Augustine presented a different portrait, one that undermined some cherished anti-Jewish views within his own Catholic groups, including negative viewpoints he had himself expressed.
Now Augustine argued that the Jews played a special role in the service of Christianity as those who also worshipped the One God, in contrast to pagans and heretics: by God’s sovereign design, and under God’s protection, their scriptures, traditions, and practices provided a witness to the prophecies of Christ, even if they did not themselves believe in them in the same way. Wherever the Jews were scattered, they bore witness to the testimony to the claims of the Christian churches. Jews outside the Church must not be separated from the practice of Judaism, which God employed as a gift in service of the mission of the Church to the nations.
In addition to the extensive treatment of the development of Augustine’s thought culminating in these arguments, in the first 102 pages, Fredriksen provides an insightful and sophisticated overview of Greco-Roman and Jewish civilization as well as the origins of Christianity that is by itself worth the price of the book. Bibliography and indexes.
Mark D. Nanos, Ph.D., University of Kansas, is the author of Mysteryof Romans, winner of the 1996 National Jewish Book Award, Charles H. RevsonAward in Jewish-Christian Relations.