Attitudes of the Church Fathers Toward Jews From Ignatius to Augustine

Early Church FathersConsidering the period covered from Ignatius to Augustine is only the first four hundred years of Church History, I believe it is still sufficient in helping us to understand current attitudes that the Jews hold toward Christians and vice versa.

Sadly, as much as I would like to say that the church was light in the darkness and a beacon of hope to the Jewish people during this period—they were anything but that. Apart from the occasional glimmers of light as a result of correct Biblical understanding concerning treatment of the Jews by some Church Fathers, the vast majority of church history is stained by hostile anti-Judaic attitudes and shameful anti-Semitic behaviour.

To be fair, the vast majority of atrocities carried out in the name of the church were not carried out by genuine believers, but by “Christians” in name only. Yet, this does not let genuine believers off the hook. Probably, the most sobering revelation that this essay brings to light is that the hostile actions toward the Jews in early and medieval church history were directly related to the theological positions held by the church, which came to be known as ‘replacement theology’. As we shall see, some of the most prominent theologians and Church Fathers throughout church history have been behind some of the most damning examples of anti-Semitic rhetoric, which inevitably led to the anti-Semitic behaviour of those under their influence.

Ignatius of Antioch (ca. 35 to 50 – 98 to 117 AD)

We begin with Ignatius of Antioch with his writings from around 115 AD in which he instructs his readers to oppose all things Jewish. He claimed that the Hebrew prophets had lived according to Jesus Christ and not according to Jewish law.[1]

Justin Martyr (100 – 165 AD)

Justin Martyr is significant, because he was the very first Church leader to use the term ‘true Israel’ in referring to the church.[2] In his famous dialogue with the illusive Jewish figure Trypho, he comments on Isaiah 42:1-4 and writes, “Christ is the Israel and the Jacob, even so we, who have been quarried out from the bowels of Christ, are the true Israelite race”[3] Even though Justin’s dialogue with Trypho emphasised the great pains that Justin went to convert him and thus his zeal to convert the Jews, his views that the church was the ‘true spiritual Israel’ laid the groundwork for the growing belief that the church had superseded or replaced Israel.[4]

Irenaeus (130 – 202 AD)

Irenaeus, bishop of Lyon was an important figure in the second century who, as a young man witnessed Polycarp speak about his conversations with the Apostle John. In book 5 of his seminal work Against Heresies, Irenaeus cites key Old Testament prophetic passages referring to Israel to the gathering into the Church of “those that shall be saved from the nations.”[5] Passages such as, Isa 26:19; Eze 36:24-25; 37:12-14 are classic examples where he has done this and in particularly Jer 23:6-7 where it says, “people will no longer say, ‘As surely as the Lord lives, who brought the Israelites up out of Egypt,’ but they will say, ‘As surely as the Lord lives, who brought the descendants of Israel up out of the land of the north and out of all the countries where he had banished them.’” Irenaeus sees fulfilment of this passage (and the other mentioned passages) in the salvation of people from Gentile nations. Diprose expands on this:

By doing so [allegorising these passages] he disinherits Israel of promises which are clearly addressed to her and at the same time manifestly makes the Church the new or true Israel. In other words he bases his exegesis on the assumption that the Old Testament should be read in light of what we have called replacement theology, which he apparently considered to be part of orthodox Christian thought.[6]

Tertullian (160 – 225 AD)

In his work An Answer To The Jews, Tertullian seems more concerned about defending the Christian faith than listening to the error of the Jews. Yet he clearly articulates the two advents of Christ—one of humility and suffering and the other of glory and honour.[7] Yet some previous writings by Tertullian found in An Answer To The Jews, tend to minimise the importance of the Mosaic law and to consider physical circumcision a sign given to mark Israel out as a “contumacious people”.[8]

In one incident where a Jew wore a caricature of a donkey around his neck with the word in Latin “Onecoetes”, literally meaning “begotten of a donkey” in mockery of Jesus Christ. Tertullian in response, commented that the Jews are “the seed-plot of all the calumny against us.”[9]

Perhaps his most detrimental comment toward the Jews came from his use of Gen 25:21-23 in the opening paragraphs of Answer To The Jews, in which he makes the comment “the older will serve the younger” implying that the ‘older’ (Israel) will serve the ‘younger’ (the Church). He writes:

Accordingly, since the people or nation of the Jews is anterior in time, and ‘greater’ through the grace of primary favour in the Law, whereas ours is understood to be ‘less’ in the age of times, as having in the last era of the world attained the knowledge of divine mercy: beyond doubt, through the edict of divine utterance, the prior and ‘greater’ people—that is, the Jewish—must necessarily serve the ‘less’; and the ‘less’ people—that is, the Christian—overcome the ‘greater.’[10]

Consequently, this teaching only further solidified the Church’s belief of its superiority over the Jews and inevitably led toward an attitude of demanding servitude from the Jewish people.

Origin (182 – 254 AD)

Moving into the third century we come to one of the Church’s most celebrated theologians in Origin of Alexandria. Even though Origin knew Hebrew and studied the Bible with the Jews, his teaching served to distance Christian teaching even further away from its Hebraic roots. Origin popularised the hermeneutical principle of the allegorical interpretation of scripture, which he further developed from Jewish Platonist philosopher Philo and to a certain extent from Clement the former head of the Alexandrian School. Origin insisted on distinguishing between the literal and the spiritual meaning of the Biblical text, the spiritual meaning belonging to a higher order of ideas than the literal. He motivated this view by appealing to the principle of divine inspiration and by affirming that many statements made by the biblical writers were not literally true and that many events, presented as historical, were inherently impossible. Thus only ‘simple believers’ could limit themselves to the literal meaning of the text.[11]

Consequently, Origen’s allegorism allowed him to freely appropriate Old Testament passages where ethnic Israel is clearly intended while denigrating the Jewish people themselves. In his understanding, the only positive function of physical Israel is that of being a type of spiritual Israel. The promises were not made to physical Israel, because according to Origin, she was ‘unworthy’ of them and ‘incapable of understanding them.’ Thus Origen effectively disinherits physical Israel.

In Origin’s Commentary On Matthew and in his Old Testament Homilies, he comments on Matthew 19:6-8 and likens Israel to a divorced wife in whom an unseemly thing had been found. He writes, “And a sign that she has received the bill of divorce is this, that Jerusalem was destroyed along with what they called the sanctuary.”[12]

The great danger here with Origen’s method of interpretation is that ordinary churchmen basking in the glow of his awe-inspiring reputation, read his writings in the centuries afterward believing the idea that ‘true Israel had always been the church’ and this was something taught by the Bible itself.[13] Thus Origen laid the unfortunate theological foundation through which anti-Judaic attitudes could grow.

Emperor Constantine

In 325 AD, Constantine wrote a letter to those bishops who had not been present at the Council of Nicea concerning the date of Easter. The following consideration contained in this letter, “We ought not, therefore, to have anything in common with the Jews,” which sums up one of the key ideas behind much subsequent legislation against the Jews. All things Jewish were understood to be totally incompatible with Christianity. Consequently, this concept was reflected in the confessions, which in later centuries, Jewish converts to Christianity were required to make at the moment of their baptism.[14]

Ambrose (340 – 397 AD)

Ambrose, the archbishop of Milan, became one of the most influential ecclesiastical figures of the 4th century. Yet, Ambrose establishes himself as one of the most virulent opponents of the Jewish people. In the Easter of 387, while Augustine was baptized by Ambrose, Ambrose delivered his “Exameron” in a series of nine orations. In the ninth discourse, delivered on the sixth day, the bishop applied Jeremiah’s rhetorical question, “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard change its spots?” (Jer 13:23), to the soul of the Jewish people. In doing so, he considered the Jews to be irrevocably perverse and incapable of any good thought.[15] This tied easily into his notion that “Jews” were a type of the infidel.[16]

The height of Ambrose’s anti-Semitism came about as a result of a letter he wrote to the Roman emperor Theodosius I in December 388. Diprose writes:

The local bishop of Callinicum, Syria, had apparently ordered the burning of a local synagogue and the Emperor had ordered him to have it rebuilt at his own expense. Ambrose ordered the emperor to change his mind on the grounds that burning a Jewish synagogue was not a crime. It is reported that on the following Sunday, Ambrose not only pitted the Church against the Synagogue in a sermon but also publicly enjoined the Emperor to annul the sentence previously issued against the bishop of Callinicum. Ambrose refused to continue the order of service until Theodosius had given him his word![17]

John Chrysostom (347 – 407 AD)

Perhaps the most bellicose anti-Semitic remarks were made by John Chrysostom, whose name ironically, translated as “golden mouthed”. According to Chrysostom:

The synagogue is worse than a brothel . . . it is the den of scoundrels and the repair of wild beasts . . . the temple of demons devoted to idolatrous cults . . . the refuge of brigands and debauchees, and the cavern of devils. [It is] a criminal assembly of Jews . . . a place of meeting for the assassins of Christ . . . a house worse than a drinking shop . . . a den of thieves; a house of ill fame, a dwelling of iniquity, the refuge of devils, a gulf and abyss of perdition.[18]

As for the Jewish people themselves Chrysostom commented, “I would say the same things about their souls.” and “As for me, I hate the synagogue . . . I hate the Jews for the same reason.” Furthermore, he accused the Jews of murdering their offspring[19] and of worshipping devils and not God.[20] He insisted that Jews were hated by God, and since they had murdered Jesus, they were no longer given the opportunity to repent.[21] He preached that God’s purpose in concentrating all their worship in Jerusalem was only to facilitate its destruction.[22] Moreover, the suffering inflicted upon them was an expression of the wrath of God and his absolute rejection of the Jewish people.[23] Finally, since God hated them, Christians were duty bound to hate them as well.[24]

Augustine (354 – 430 AD)

Augustine stands tall as arguably the most prominent figure and most influential figure in church history. Yet, as we shall see, Augustine’s treatment of the Jews has been detrimental, yet also helpful, as his teaching helped to save them from total decimation and yet preserved them for intentional humiliation. This was a feature of Augustine’s famous, yet obviously mistaken interpretation of Psalm 59:11, “Do not kill them [the Jews]; otherwise, my people will forget. By your power, make them homeless wanderers.” So he concluded:

Therefore God has shown the Church in her enemies the Jews the grace of His compassion, since, as saith the apostle, “their offence is the salvation of the Gentiles.” And therefore He has not slain them, that is, He has not let the knowledge that they are Jews be lost in them, although they have been conquered by the Romans, lest they should forget the law of God, and their testimony should be of no avail in this matter of which we treat. But it was not enough that he should say, “Slay them not, lest they should at last forget Thy law,” unless he had also added, “Disperse them;” because if they had only been in their own land with that testimony of the Scriptures, and not everywhere, certainly the Church which is everywhere could not have had them as witnesses among all nations to the prophecies which were sent before concerning Christ.[25]

So by way of imposition upon the text, David’s enemies are interpreted as the Jews, being enemies of the church. Unlike the ferocity of some earlier church fathers, Augustine’s influential attitude appears more temperate so that, with enforced humiliation, the vagabond Jews might be a testimony of God’s judgement on them according to Scripture.[26] Augustine insisted that Jews were not a challenge to Christianity but a ‘witness’ to it.[27] Consequently, the Augustinian legacy kept the Jews dispersed, disgraced, and depressed—except for the hope of their conversion.[28] Interestingly, in hindsight, Augustine’s invocation of Psalm 59, interpreted literally, ultimately safeguarded Jewish lives in the years and centuries to come.[29]


It is truly regrettable that the examples of anti-Semitism among Church Fathers featured in this essay are just a drop in the bucket compared to the full history of the Church. Hopefully, this essay has demonstrated that no one should be surprised at the occurrence of the crusades, inquisitions and pogroms that ensued. They happened as a result of bad theology, and the theologians who taught this perverse ‘replacement theology’ are just as guilty as the pseudo-Christians who carried out the anti-Semitic atrocities.

Neither should we be surprised that by the time the church age arrived at the time of the reformation, that Martin Luther could come out with such vehement bile and hatred toward the Jews in his notorious written work The Jews and Their Lies. Sadly, Martin Luther’s anti-Semitic legacy was championed by the Nazi party and played a significant role in the outworking of the Holocaust. Olsen makes this sobering point. “It is impossible to assume that Luther did not have any influence on Hitler and his views. Hitler refers to Martin Luther as one of the great reformers of history, and as such, one of the ‘great warriors of this World.’”[30]

Concerning what we have examined, it is no wonder that many Jews today are indifferent, even hostile toward the Christian message. So much so, that Jewish believers in Jesus would rather go by the name ‘Messianic Jew’ then refer to themself as a ‘Christian’, as the ‘Christian’ label has been a hindrance in Jewish evangelism.[31]

It certainly leaves us wondering what might have been, if the church followed Paul’s reasoning in Romans 11 to provoke the Jews to jealousy—that our life in Christ would be a life that they would want for themselves, perhaps the Jews would have been won over by now? Unfortunately, among the Jewish people there are many misgivings and long memories to content with. Yet, I agree wholeheartedly with this statement from Messianic Jewish scholar Michael Brown:

I am convinced that international Christian repentance for the Church’s past (and present) sins against the Jews will lead to international Jewish repentance for Israel’s past (and present) sins against Jesus. It is the Church’s tears of repentance that will wash away the stain of blood.[32]


Primary Sources

Ambrose, Sermons

Augustine, City of God

Chrysostom, J. Eight Orations Against the Jews

Ignatius of Antioch, To The Magnesians

Irenaeus, Against Heresies

Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho

Origin, Commentary On Matthew

Tertullian, An Answer To The Jews


Secondary Sources

Becker, A.H., Reed, A.Y. (eds), 2007, The Ways That Never Parted: Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Blomberg, C.L., Chung, S.W. (eds), 2009, A Case for Historic Premillennialism, Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Boguslawski, S.C. 2008, Thomas Aquinas On The Jews, Paulist Press, Mahwah, New Jersey.

Brown, M.L. 1990, Our Hands Are Stained With Blood, Destiny Image, Shippensburg, Pennsylvania.

Brown, P., 1967, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography, Faber and Faber, London, GB.

Diprose, R.E. 2004, Israel And The Church: The Origins And Effects Of Replacement Theology, Authentic Media, Waynesboro, Georgia.

Eyre, J. 1771, Observations upon the Prophecies relating to the Restoration of the Jews, T. Cadell, Oxford, UK. 195p. Article Stable URL: <> (accessed November 24, 2012)

Fredriksen, P. 2008, Augustine and the Jews: a Christian Defence of Judaism, Doubleday, New York, New York.

Horner, B.E. 2007, Future Israel, B&H Publishing Group, Nashville, Tennessee.

Ice, T.D. 2009, ‘Lovers of Zion: A History of Christian Zionism’, in Article Archives, Paper 29, 27p.
<> (accessed May 9, 2013)

Larsen, D. 1995, Jews, Gentiles and the Church: A New Perspective On History and Prophecy, Discovery House Publishers, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Olsen, D.M. 2012, ‘Luther and Hitler: A Linear Connection between Martin Luther and Adolf Hitler’s Anti-Semitism with a Nationalistic Foundation’ in Masters of Liberal Studies Theses. Paper 20. <> (accessed May 10, 2013)

Pargament, K.I., Trevino, K., Mahoney, A., Silberman, I. 1956, ‘They Killed Our Lord: The Perception of Jews as Desecrators of Christianity as a Predictor of Anti-Semitism’, in Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Vol. 46, Issue 2, p143-158, 16p. <DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-5906.2007.00347.x> (accessed May 10, 2013)

Sandgren, L.D. 2010, Vines Intertwined: A History of Jews and Christians from the Babylonian Exile to the Advent of Islam, Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, Massachusetts.

Setzer, C. 1994, Jewish Responses To Early Christians, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

[1] Ignatius of Antioch, To The Magnesians, VIII, 10.

[2] Claudia Setzer, Jewish Responses To Early Christians, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994) 137.

[3] Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, CXXXV.

[4] Thomas D. Ice, ‘Lovers of Zion: A History of Christian Zionism’, in Article Archives, Paper 29 (2009), p. 1. Online: [cited: May 9, 2013]

[5] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book V, Chapter 34, Paragraph 7.

[6] Ronald E. Diprose, Israel And The Church: The Origins and Effects of Replacement Theology, (Waynesboro: Authentic Media, 2004), 78.

[7] Tertullian, An Answer To The Jews, Ch. XIV.

[8] Ibid., Ch. II and III.

[9] Setzer, Jewish Responses To Early Christians, 154.

[10] Tertullian, An Answer To The Jews, Ch. III.

[11] Diprose, Israel And The Church: The Origins and Effects of Replacement Theology, 83.

[12] Origin, Commentary On Matthew, Allan Menzies (ed.) pp. 507-508.

[13] Diprose, Israel And The Church: The Origins and Effects of Replacement Theology, 87.

[14] Ibid., 93.

[15] Ambrose, Six Days of Work, Sermon IX, 15 (PL 14:247).

[16] Ibid., Bk II, 3, 11; 3;16 (PL 14:149, 153) et passim.

[17] Diprose, Israel And The Church: The Origins and Effects of Replacement Theology, 88-89.

[18] John Chrysostom, Eight Orations Against the Jews, Sermon I.

[19] Ibid., Sermon I, 6.

[20] Ibid., Sermon I, 3.

[21] Ibid., Sermon VI, 1.

[22] Ibid., Sermon IV, 6.

[23] Ibid., Sermon VI, 3.

[24] Ibid., Sermon VI, 1.

[25] Augustine, City of God, 18.46.

[26] Barry E. Horner, Future Israel, (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2007), 4.

[27] Paula Fredriksen, Augustine and the Jews: a Christian Defence of Judaism, (New York: Doubleday, 2008), 351.

[28] Horner, Future Israel, 5.

[29] Fredriksen, Augustine and the Jews, 352.

[30] Daphne M. Olsen, ‘Luther and Hitler: A Linear Connection between Martin Luther and Adolf Hitler’s Anti-Semitism with a Nationalistic Foundation’ in Masters of Liberal Studies Theses. Paper 20 (2012), p. 41, Online: [Cited September 21, 2012]

[31] Michael L. Brown, Our Hands Are Stained With Blood, (Shippensburg: Destiny Image, 1990) 95.

[32] Ibid., xv.

One Response to “Attitudes of the Church Fathers Toward Jews From Ignatius to Augustine”