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One Nation, Under Gods

Professor Paula Fredriksen argues that the pluralism of ancient times trumps the tolerance of today


Paula Fredriksen, Boston University’s William Goodwin Aurelio Professor of the Appreciation of Scripture. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

“Augustine and I met my junior year of college,” says Paula Fredriksen, “and we’ve been an item ever since.”

That would be St. Augustine of Hippo — a father of the Church, prolific philosopher and writer on spirituality and society, and central figure in the definition and development of Western Christian doctrine. Fredriksen, Boston University’s William Goodwin Aurelio Professor of the Appreciation of Scripture, has had an enduring fascination with the fourth-century bishop since she discovered him in a medieval history class at Wellesley College in 1971. Her works include two translations of his early commentaries on St. Paul, as well as several explorations of early Christianity and Judaism, among them the National Jewish Book Award–winning Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews: A Jewish Life and the Emergence of Christianity (2000). She is also a vocal critic of the controversial 2004 Mel Gibson film The Passion of the Christ and edited an anthology of essays analyzing and deconstructing the film.

In her latest book, Augustine and the Jews: A Christian Defense of Jews and Judaism, Fredriksen returns to her first love by exploring the historical, social, and cultural developments that gave rise to Christian anti-Judaism. The surprise, she says, isn’t just that Augustine espoused the Jews’ rights to their own religion — it’s that different faiths frequently borrowed from one another throughout the early Roman Empire. “In antiquity, all monotheists are polytheists,” she says. “It’s just that they each have heaven structured a certain way.”

Fredriksen spoke with BU Today about what Augustine’s writing reveals about cultural clashes and belief systems, then and now.

BU Today: One of your ideas about both early Christian culture and Augustine himself is that Jews were not as persecuted or reviled as generally believed. Can you explain the disconnect?
The Roman emperor Constantine converts to Christianity in 312, the Theodosian emperors really get to ruling in the 380s and 390s, and in that period, their form of Christianity, called catholicism with a small “c,” becomes the sole legitimate religion. But at that point, the most dangerous thing to be, in terms of your health or your actuarial tables, is a Christian of a minority group. The second worst thing to be is a pagan. The safest thing to be, if you’re not actually a member of the majority Church, is a Jew.

Most people, and most historians, thought that Jews were persecuted, because Jews are persecuted in the Middle Ages, and there is this vituperative, horrible, negative, insulting language that gentile Christians use for Jews. But that’s the other big discovery — rhetoric is just a way of speaking in antiquity, and it sounds horrible.

Are you saying that much of the conventional wisdom about Augustine’s attitude toward the Jews comes from rhetoric, rather than from actions against the Jews?
Well, the reading my book is given is, ‘Did Augustine really like Jews?’ What’s so radically innovative about Augustine is how much of his rhetoric about Jews is resoundingly positive, literally on the grounds that if it’s good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for Augustine. In a way, to make sense of God as the creator is to have a positive orientation toward Judaism. Augustine thought of Paul as keeping kosher and being a Torah-observant Jew his entire life; he was also making the argument that Jesus was an A-plus Orthodox Jew.

And anti-Jewish rhetoric of the time is just that — a type of speech?
Rhetoric is its own planet, and the fact that these people are usually fighting with somebody is a lot of the reason they come to their positions — this whole nation is now in recovery from two years of presidential campaign rhetoric, right? Rhetoric trains you how to present your own position as strongly as possible and to present the opinion of the person you’re arguing against as demeaning and make it look as stupid as possible. Jews are this imagined antitype to Christians in this period. But they are certainly in no physical danger.

On the contrary — you write that respecting other people’s gods is a key part of life in the ancient Mediterranean world.
When ancient monotheists are talking about heavenly architecture, what they meant is that there was a pyramid structure to divinity, and their god was on top. So there are always other divinities to deal with, and as you would imagine, showing courtesy to other people’s gods ensures courteous interactions between the gods’ humans. So despite the antipagan rhetoric of Hellenistic Judaism, they’ll be very careful when they talk about pagan gods. Nobody wants an angry god on their back — the number-one definition of a god is that a god is bigger and more powerful than you and will mess you up if you get in his or her way.

It sounds remarkably tolerant.
It’s not a question of tolerance; it’s an issue of pluralism. Other people have their own gods, and everybody has to get along, so it’s just a condition of existence in antiquity. Now, we’re on the far side of Christian culture, and the cosmic clutter of heaven has gotten seriously thinned out. Modern monotheists believe there’s only one single God, and people tend to get embarrassed if you talk about angels — that already is too folkloric for many.

So our model today is not pluralism, but tolerance, which is different; tolerance implies that even though I think it’s wrong, as long as nobody gets hurt I will tolerate it. But in a tolerant society we can be very intolerant, because we don’t think other people’s gods really exist.

What’s surprising about the invention of religious persecution, which occurs initially in the late pagan Roman period, in the third century, is that the Roman imperial government wanted to move Christians to the both-and model — the idea was, sure, do whatever Christian stuff you want to, but also pay respect to the gods of the empire, because the gods of the empire are getting angry, and they’re not taking care of the frontiers anymore.

Why does so much of the discussion surrounding your book focus on the idea that Augustine liked the Jews more than we’ve believed?
Among people who think about the history of anti-Semitism, Augustine’s reputation is based on the idea that Jews should be “allowed to survive, but not to thrive.” It’s always attributed to him, and it sounds like a sound bite. So — the word “allowed” implies superior power, “survival” is a reduced form of existence, and “not to thrive” means actively being kept in a situation of deprivation.

It’s always attributed to Augustine, and he never said it. But the sound bite has the power.

Do you think this particular interpretation of your book is related to your own conversion to Judaism?
I’ve noticed that because I work in historical Jesus, and the historical Jesus of Nazareth happens to have been Jewish, some of my colleagues have a certain anxiety about me, as if I’m some kind of covert operative for making Jesus Jewish, claiming him for the Jewish side.

But there’s no direct correlation between ancient Judaism and different forms of modern Judaism. There’s a vague family resemblance. Jesus would be completely baffled if he showed up at a synagogue today. He would be really confused that contemporary Jews don’t sacrifice animals to honor the God of Israel. Even Paul, who would not have been killing animals because Diaspora populations didn’t do that, would be baffled that Jerusalem is now under Jewish hegemony, but that the Temple isn’t up and running.

So there’s not a lot of common ground between the Judaism of Jesus, or the Christianity of Augustine, and what people of those religions practice today?
No. People tend to be interested in this period, I think, because of the mistaken notion that they’ll see themselves. You do see yourself, but only some elements; the other part you see is that what you think of as intrinsic to Christianity is actually something that comes out of this pagan and Jewish environment. It occurs because of historical context.

Modern Christians and Jews have their identity invested in first-century Christians and Jews, but no first-century person can be like a 21st-century person, and if you’re not able to respect that difference, you’ll end up doing bad history. You’re not able to see these people at all if you take your 21st-century sense of self and retroject it back.

Do you think there would be less contemporary anti-Semitism if people considered these issues of speech and context?
People in the 1930s, when there was this incredible growth of rabid anti-Semitic rhetoric, probably thought it was just one of those moments that would pass. The shock people had from 1945 on is that the social experience was even worse than the rhetoric.

Again, in antiquity it’s different. I think the thickness of the divine population had humans better behaved — speaking as a Massachusetts liberal, no one was being mean to each other. The fact that every group had its own gods backing it up meant that people thought a few times before actually persecuting other people.

Are you tired of Augustine?
Augustine was good company — he’s smart, he’s fun, he’s incredibly ingenious, and he’s a professional talker and thinker. But the question of his beliefs about the Jews came belatedly to me because of the way Augustine was focused on understanding Paul. Once I thought that thought, I had to reorient myself. And by having a different angle on things you’ve been looking at forever, it lines up in a particular way. And that is really exciting. Those are the moments you go into this sort of work for. You feel like God touches you on the brain.

Jessica Ullian can be reached at jullian@bu.edu.

This article appeared in the spring 2009 issue of Bostonia.


2 Comments on One Nation, Under Gods

  • Paqid Yirmeyahu on 07.21.2009 at 5:24 am

    Historical Pharisee Ribi

    Our paths have crossed before so Prof. Fredriksen’s name caught my eye.
    Good points yet again, although there’s an excellent case that Paul was excised from the Netzarim and his followers (primarily Hellenists in Turkey) subsequently took a sharp left into Hellenism, apart from the original Netzarim.
    There’s even fair evidence that Stephan was a precusor of Paul; excised and stoned for his Hellenism.
    Of course, this agrees entirely with the descriptions of Judaism in that era documented in Dead Sea Scroll 4Q MMT. All of this is further corroborated in that the original Netzarim (Pharisee Jews) continued to live amicably among the Pharisees–and apart and intractably antithetical to Christianity and the Church–into the 4th century; even being defended (Josephus documented) by the Pharisees (against the Hellenist Sadducee priests) to the Romans.

  • Rhoda Serafim on 07.22.2009 at 12:10 am

    Bravo Dr. Fredriksen! It is such a breath of fresh air to hear your work on this!!
    I couldn’t agree more with “So our model today is not pluralism, but tolerance, which is different; tolerance implies that even though I think it’s wrong, as long as nobody gets hurt I will tolerate it. But in a tolerant society we can be very intolerant, because we don’t think other people’s gods really exist.”

    I believe that today’s tolerance model is centrally apathetic to other religions. It is a model that emphasizes acknowledgement of other religions while emphasizing distance and frankly, pluralistic disengagement which does not value other religions to a level of exchange to create harmony in society. Of course, I have my own issues with pluralism because I think, the term itselt as in language or as a philosophy does represent the ‘present tolerance’ you speak about. Today, we cannot have a pluralism like the ancient pluralism because we don’t want a central tyrannical government (Roman Empire), but I agree we do need to learn from antiquity for the benefit of today’s world.
    Very exciting work,

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