Brief Reviews, VOLUME 2

Brief Review: AUGUSTINE AND THE JEWS by Paula Fredriksen [Vol. 2, #46]

A Brief Review of

Augustine and the Jews:
A Christian Defense of Jews and Judaism
Paula Fredriksen

Hardback: Doubleday, 2008.
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Reviewed by James Spinti.

This review originally appeared on James’s blog:
It is reprinted here with the reviewer’s permission.

The book is divided into three sections: The legacy of Alexander, which describes the cultural background of Augustine’s world, The prodigal son, which is a biography of Augustine, and God and Israel, which deals with Augustine’s evolving theology of what to do with the Jews.

The first section could almost be a book on its own. The cultural background, with the importance of paideia (the way society educated its young, especially wealthy, males) for worldview, the importance of rhetoric in daily life, the role of the gods in society, are all laid out in a very coherent and understandable way. The heavy influence of the Platonic/Neo-platonic disdain for the physical is highlighted, as it will have an important role in the development of Christian theology.  I could recommend the book for this section alone. I only have one complaint, and that is that she has bought the current academic fad that there were multiple christianities that were all equally valid prior to “the triumph of orthodoxy.” But, that is another argument for another day.

Since I have lived with this material for so long, I tend to forget that most people don’t know about the multiplicity of gods and their role in the ancient world. I was reminded of it just the other day while on vacation. I made some statement, which I thought would be self-evident, and had to spend the next ½ hour explaining polytheism and the concept of placating the deities. This section of the book would make a good read on that subject.

The second section, Augustine’s biography, is a look at his journey through school, Manicheeism, and his eventual return to Christianity. The role of the Latin classics and translated Greek classics (Augustine never did learn Greek well enough to read it easily) in his spiritual journey is recounted. Along the way, Fredriksen highlights the importance of these ideas in Augustine’s intellectual development and the way they informed his later ideas, especially in Confessions.

The third section finally gets to the title of the book! But, the first two sections are essential to the development of her arguments. You can’t jump right in to the last section and understand how Augustine arrived at his, for the time, radical ideas about the Jews. The role of Faustus the Manichee is highlighted—indeed, many of Augustine’s more important ideas are the result of his invectives against the Manichees. She examines Augustine’s way of reading scripture, which included the, normal for the time, allegorical reading. But, he also read scripture ad litteram, which Fredriksen translates “historically.” This was unusual for the time, but it allowed Augustine to read the Old Testament as a document that wasn’t just an allegorical statement pointing to the coming of Christ. He took the unique view that these things actually happened, and that by doing these things, the Jews were actually doing what God wanted. The common Christian viewpoint, under the heavy influence of Neo-platonism, was that the Jews misunderstood what God wanted and the physical fulfilling of the sacrifices was a punishment and didn’t really please God at all.

As an example of how far the allegorical interpretation had taken hold, the confrontation between Peter and Paul in Galatians was seen as a ploy. The common view, held by Jerome and others, was that Peter knew that the law was no longer of value, and as a teaching tool he and Paul staged the confrontation. Augustine’s reading of the text ad litteram allowed him to say that it was a genuine confrontation. He was more concerned that deceit not be in the scriptures than that Peter looked like a fool. Needless to say, Jerome launched an attack such as only a person of Jerome’s personality could! He cited Patristic sources (all in Greek, since he knew Augustine couldn’t read it!) showing how the church had always seen it as a ploy, but Augustine held firm. He saw that the New Testament church was—gasp—Jewish! The Jewish Christians continued to live as Jews, while the Gentile Christians continued to live as Gentiles. This was the only way that Augustine could make sense of the New Testament.

Augustine’s realization that the Jews were fulfilling God’s commands by doing the sacrifices allowed him to value the Jews in a way that the rest of the church didn’t. It was this understanding that caused him to write of the value of the Jewish people. Fredriksen chases the development of what this entailed through Augustine’s later writings. Realizing that rhetorical statements and real life don’t always line up, she looks for any real encounters that Augustine might have had with Jews. Finding two, she examines them and finds that here, at least, Augustine was consistent with his rhetoric.

I would recommend the book to anyone who is interested in the history of the late Roman Empire, or the theology and history of the church in the fourth-fifth century. As I mentioned above, aside from her acceptance of the current academic fad of “all early versions of Christianity were of equal validity,” her presentation of the culture of the late Hellenistic-Roman Empire is excellent and could be read with profit by itself.

C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at:

Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith

"This book will inspire, motivate and challenge anyone who cares a whit about the written word, the world of ideas, the shape of our communities and the life of the church."
-Karen Swallow Prior

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