So says the Rev. James Martin, SJ over at HuffPo: “Saint John Chrysostom, patriarch of Constantinople, writing in the fourth century, used Judas as an example of the wickedness of Jews in general.”
In an article gearing up for the Easter season, the Jesuit author reflects on how Judas has been portrayed through the years, noting that a pillar of the church no less than Chrysostom used Judas as an occasion to unfairly portray Jewish people.
Chrysostom (the name means “golden mouth,” a tribute to his skills as a preacher) was one of several saints whose writings were tinged with — and contributed to — the virulent anti-Semitism common at the time. Judas was evil not only because he had betrayed Jesus, but because he was Jewish.
Chrysostom sees the suicide of Judas as foreshadowing the suffering of the Jews, and comments on this approvingly. In his Homilies on the Acts of the Apostles, he writes: “This desolation [his fate] was a prelude to that of the Jews, as will appear on looking closely into the facts.” That one of the most influential figures in the patristic era could write so cruelly shows not only the rapid assimilation of anti-Semitism into Christianity, but the hardening of the Christian imagination against Judas.
Martin goes on to deal with other examples – in the Renaissance and later periods – of Judas being used as cannon fodder.
Is this really an accurate way to handle the data, or is there another angle for reading Chrysostom?
Fortunately, the original text that Martin cited is easily available thanks to CCEL. Chrysostom’s text Homilies on the Acts of the Apostles is there nearly in full, and you can access the relevant section here.
A few thoughts:
- Exactly where Martin quotes, there are two footnotes, with the editor pointing out how incomplete or difficult the text reads. That at least should give us pause, noting that it is slightly unclear exactly what point Golden Mouth was trying to make.
- In these footnotes, the editor himself takes a stab at trying to untangle Chrysostom’s point. He suggests, based off a sentence earlier than Martin’s quote and passage from the Gospel of Matthew, that Chrysostom is emphasizing the burial of strangers/heathen, etc. Following remarks by Josephus, the editor suggests that the “prelude” that the Jews were looking forward to was actually the AD 70 sacking of Jerusalem, where many “strangers” and soldiers died there. I’m not saying the editor is correct, but that it is a more thought out and reasoned response (and, I concede, more charitable) than Martin’s.
- If the editor’s suggestion is remotely accurate, and Chrysostom is hinting at the Destruction of Jerusalem, then the problem is theological all the way back to the words of Jesus, not anti-semitism on the part of a Church father. Jesus Himself prophesied the demolition of temple and town (see John 2).
- This whole section of Chrysostom’s begins with him praising Peter and the disciples for their godliness, decorum, churchmanship, etc. You know, praising the Jewish disciples. The line of demarcation here is not ethnicity (they were all Jewish) but repentance to Christ.
- I am in no way a Chrysostom expert, nor a patristics scholar. I lament that, too often, there was an anti-semitic bent in some parts of Christendom. (A reality that should be wholly perplexing and discouraging considering that our religion is the worship of a Jewish carpenter.) And there may have even been some of that latent here in the Golden Tongue. But I’m not certain that Martin’s reading of the Church father is completely fair.
Ok, that is certainly enough from me. Can any patristic scholars weigh in here?
Do you think this constitutes a racial slur on Chrysostom’s part?