The Struggle for Jewish Identity: Leonard Rutgers and “The Synagogue as Foe in Early Christian Literature.”


In reading two articles in succession I was struck with the different interpretation of data from the two scholars. The articles were “The Synagogue as Foe in Early Christian Literature,” (Rutgers, 2010) and “Midrash,” (Bloch, 1978). Essentially Rutgers painted a picture of “evil” interpretive techniques by Christians, and Bloch description of authentic Jewish interpretive techniques was identical to Rutgers’ “Christian” techniques. When Jews used them they were the Jewish tradition, but when Christians used them (according to Rutgers) they were against the Jewish tradition and an illegitimate import/development. It follows that Rutgers begins with the content of the interpretation, which he disagrees with, and proceeds to act as if the content was contingent on methodology. This is a problem, since the methodology was Jewish (see Bloch) and the content was variable for both Christians and Jews.

“The Synagogue as Foe in Early Christian Literature.”

Rutgers looks at the rise of synagogue construction in the 4th century and the rise in anti-synagogue rhetoric in the same period. He asserts that it was a Christian idea to equate allegorically the Jews as a people with the synagogue. This led to the demonization of both through the process of idealization. What follows is a series of excerpts from the article that I find highly problematic. The first beginning with a citation from Augustine in italics and then commentary by Rutgers:

“By the synagogue we understand the people of Israel, because synagogue is the word properly used of them, although they were also called the church.

Our congregation, on the contrary, the apostles never called synagogue but always ecclesia; whether for the sake of distinction, or because there is some difference between a congregation whence the synagogue has its name and a convocation whence the church is called ecclesia:

for the word congregation (or flocking together) is used of cattle and particularly of that kind called “flocks,” whereas convocation (or calling together) is more of reasonable creatures, such as men. I think then that it is clear in what synagogue of gods God stood. (Augustine, Enarrat. Ps. 82.1)

In this passage, at least three things happen that merit our attention. First of all, Augustine equates “synagogue” with “the people of Israel.” This is a clear and definite departure from earlier practice. Traditionally, whenever the term “synagogue” was used in its meaning of “community,” it was always understood as referring to a specific community. That this is so follows, for example, from a famous passage in the book of Acts or from the rich collection of third- and fourth-century funerary inscriptions from the Jewish catacombs of Rome that contain references to no less than a dozen specific Jewish communities.” (453)

My response is this: a synagogue can be specific communities, but often in the OT it referred to a gathering of all Israel, just as ἐκκλησία (“the called”) functions in the LXX. In other words, the Christian “shift” was one inherent in Jewish writings predating Chrisitanity by centuries. It was a Jewish tradition.

“In our passage, however, Augustine moves away from such an understanding by expanding the original meaning: rather than considering the term “synagogue” as merely referring to a specific community, he now defines it as referring to all the Jews or, as he phrases it, the entire “people of Israel.” By expanding its original meaning, Augustine thus substitutes a concrete notion for one that is unspecified, potentially stereotypical and, in any event, completely atemporal. In Augustine, then, “the synagogue” and “the Jews” are not just coterminous. They have become interchangeable and synonymous.” (Rutgers, 453-454)

Yet in no way does generalizing the synagogue change its meaning. The synagogue was the gathering of the Jews, according to the Jews. There were multiple synagogues, but they were all united in their purpose and practice. Rutgers wants to gloss over this essential unity and make it an idealistic construct rather than an almost tautological aspect of the synagogue.

“Being the only church father who links the synagoga to the term congregatio in its meaning ‘gathering of animals’, Augustine does not merely deny the Jews reasonability as human beings. He is effectively saying that the synagogue is an animal’s den and implying that the Jews congregating in it are beasts.” (455)

To call this borderline ridiculous would be generous. Calling people “sheep” may be an insult today, but this was exactly how Jews referred to Israel throughout their writings. Augustine compares the Christians to gods in a synagogue, making the difference one between animal and man/god. This was a Jewish teaching, and a common Jewish technique to speak of people as different types of animals. Some animals become “men” (see 1 Enoch’s “Animal Apocalypse”) and this indicates that they are men who become “gods.” Augustine appears to be following entirely Jewish methods of exegesis and source material.

“In Augustine, then, “the synagogue” is so much more than just the church’s significant other: it also is an evil twin that must be abused verbally whenever the occasion arises. To characterize the ensemble of Augustine’s thoughts on the synagogue as relativement moderé is to speak utter nonsense.” (Rutgers, 455)

Rutgers goes on to say that the synagogue “now became synonymous not just with the entire Jewish people but with everything that was bad and despicable” and “As early as the second century, this shift (one by which the term “synagogue” was abstracted into a construct that existed only in the minds of early Christian theologians but that lacked a counterpart in real life) was already well underway.”(456)

All this is so much rhetoric. The depiction of the synagogue did correspond to reality, as far as we know. It was frequented by Jews who rejected the teachings of Jesus, and this was what the Fathers addressed. The synagogue was associated with the Jewish people because this was exactly how the Jews defined themselves. And how could that be a bad thing? Rutgers continues to rail against Jewish teachings and methods of exegesis when they are used by Christian authors, and is silent on the fact that these “sins” are based on Judaism itself. He, in effect, is demonizing Judaism in his attempt to demonize early Christian approaches to the synagogue.

“With regard to Tertullian, there can be no doubt that his accusation is historically incorrect. Not only are there a variety of reasons why systematic persecutions of Christians are unlikely to have originated in the synagogues of the Roman Empire, we also lack independent external evidence to confirm or even suggest that this was ever the case.” (458)

An argument from silence that conveniently ignores the texts we do have from the period, which speak of such persecution. This is methodologically flawed. He asserts certainty, and substantiates it with anonymous reasons it is “unlikely” and that “independent external evidence” doesn’t exist. This assumes that “independent external evidence” is even a possibility! Where would it come from? Certainly it could not come from Christians or any Gentile, leaving only Jews. But how could such evidence be “independent” if it comes from Jews? The whole idea is ridiculous and idealistic, an example of the very appraoch that Rutgers is divining in the Fathers.

“It hardly needs to be stressed that the above-named phenomena—looking at “the synagogue” through the eyeglass of authoritative texts—had far-reaching ramifications for the ways in which the synagogue would henceforth be perceived in early Christian circles. This was particularly so because from an early period onward (long before the canon of the Christian Bible was finally agreed upon), Christian exegetes began reading these texts figuratively. Importantly, these efforts were not dictated by clearly defined and universally accepted hermeneutical rules. Thus, one of the less-desirable side effects of this rather uncontrolled approach to Scripture was that it permitted exegetes to read statements into the biblical texts that no longer bore any resemblance at all to whatever original meaning or meanings the texts may have had.” (459)

Rutgers here describes Jewish exegesis par excellence, and concludes that it is illegitimate Christian exegesis! Jews interpreted their Scriptures allegorically, as we all know. They had clearly defined rules, of course, as did Christians. The application of these rules is another matter, and Rutgers begs the question as to whether the Christian interpretations were “valid” by Jewish standards. We have already seen that they were.

As for the meaning of the original text, Jewish exegetes did not have any qualms about changing or ignoring the original meaning. This was part of their tradition, as was the canonical status of their writings. Rutgers again is criticizing Christians for acting like Jews, not on the basis of appropriation, but of misappropriation. But he never demonstrates any elements of Christian exegesis that are at odds with Jewish approaches.

“Thus, it could be argued that there was something deeply and inevitably biblical about the fact that God now favored the younger church over the much older synagogue.” (460)

It “could” be argued, and it was argued in the writings of Qumran. It was based on a theme that was unmissable in the OT: that the younger is the one who gets the blessing.

“It is worthwhile to note in this context that this kind of early Christian supersessionist reasoning—hunting out the biblical text for models of superior, or rather, of unbeatable quality—was not an invention on the part of the Fathers. Rather it was of Pauline origin. In Rom 9:12–13, Paul observed, while paraphrasing Gen 25:23, that “it was said unto her [Rebecca], the elder shall serve the younger, even as it is writ- ten, Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” And in Gal 4:22–31, Paul had remarked that the biblical story of the son born of the “bondswoman, Hagar” versus the son born subsequently of the “freewoman,” Sarah, should be understood allegorically as refer- ring to two covenants. According to this second, longer passage, one of Abraham’s wives was “bearing children unto bondage,” while the other had to be understood as being the mother of us “brothers,” who “are, as Isaac was, children of promise.” Paul was perfectly clear as to what needed to be done in this situation: “cast out the handmaid and her son, for the son of the handmaid shall not inherit with the son of the freewoman.”” (460)

Rutgers is correct in noticing that the Fathers did not invent this methodology, but his assertion that it stemmed from Paul (rather than Judaism) is ridiculous and unsubstantiated. Paul certainly used the same techniques, as we would expect from a Jew. Jews before him used those same techniques, and if we are to believe Rutgers we must explain how Paul travelled back in time and “corrupted” the Jews with his exegetical methods!

“None of these Fathers, however, could surpass Caesarius of Arles when it came to tracking down scriptural precedents showing that in biblical times the younger had almost always been favored over the older. His preaching on “the synagogue” in one of his sermons led him to draw up a long list of pairs fitting into such a bipartite scheme: Cain and Abel, Hagar and Sarah, Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob, Leah and Rachel, Ephraim and Manasseh, Moses and Joshua (on the count that Moses, although leader of the Jewish people, was not allowed to enter the Promised Land), and Saul and David. In the eyes of the Fathers of the church, then, the OT was nothing but an enormous treasure-trove in which God had ingeniously enshrined the idea that the one and only role of the synagogue in history was that of going to be surpassed by Christianity in general, and by the church in particular.” (460)

Rutgers extremism shows through here. The Fathers never thought of Scripture as focused on the synagogue. The pairs that “fit the scheme” are so prolific because the Jews and Christians were taught this way. It was not a matter of looking into every word of the Bible and trying to twist it: these pairs were essential and repeated in the OT to make an impression. Rutgers appears to deny that there is any significance to the idea, even though Jews taught that there was (and in the same time period!).

“It hardly needs stressing that also in the case of the NT this procedure—trying to understand Scripture figuratively without the restraint of clear hermeneutical rules—enabled the Fathers to engage freely in associative thinking and to pass this off as good exegetical and, ultimately, as good pastoral practice.” (461)

A perfect description of rabbinic exegesis, if one is uncharitable.

“But it was the story of the healing of the daughter of the synagogue’s archon Jairus in Luke 8:40–56 that inspired Ambrose to let go of his last bit of interpretational moderation.” (461)

“This totally fabricated explanation clinches the more general argument that, while none of the NT passages discussed in this paragraph has anything to do with actual synagogues, they had everything to do with the Fathers’ preconceived and hostile notions regarding “the synagogue of the Jews.” (461)

More unscholarly rhetoric and unsubstantiated claims. Again it is ironic that Rutgers is spewing venom in an attempt to discredit people who spewed venom in his eyes.

“It is not hard to imagine that this notion, the idea that “the synagogue” was responsible for the killing of the son of God, the savior of all of humankind, infuriated the Fathers to no small degree. However, it was only because of the pervasiveness of their associative reasoning that this idea took on a life of its own—with the result that patristic exegesis on “the synagogue” was now really spinning out of control. Where in earlier patristic thought, “the synagogue” had been considered the mur- derer of Jesus alone, Gregory of Elvira began expanding this idea by saying that “the synagogue” was responsible for killing everyone who had believed in Christianity’s Messiah. Wherever the Fathers encountered “murder” in their texts, they now began linking it to the synagogue.” (462)

This is anti-Christian rhetoric. The Fathers of course spoke of “murder” in a variety of context, and did not always link it to the synagogue, nor did they typically link it to the synagogue. Rutgers could have provided examples, but he does not.

“In turn, Chromatius of Aquileia made the synagogue into a murderer of prophets. The passage that induced him to make this allegation, Matt 23:37, did not speak of “the synagogue” but of Jerusalem instead, but this did not bother him much. After all, were not Jerusalem and “the inhabitants of Jerusalem” and “the synagogue of the Jews” all identical?” (463)

From a Jewish perspective, they were essentially the same. This was not a Christian idea. The Jerusalemites were a synagogue of the Jews, by definition. Furthermore, the passage in Matthew does not refer to “the synagogue,” but it does not follow that it referred to Jerusalem instead. It referred to the synagogue of Jerusalem. Rutgers implies that “synagogue” is absent from the passage, and he is right in that specific form. But the verb ἐπισυνάγω is used prominently, and Rutgers seems to ignore this. The result of ἐπισυνάγω is a synagogue.

“This rhetorical question brings us, finally, to one of the vilest and most artificial passages on the “murderous” synagogue in the work of Chromatius. Agreeing with the idea that the Jews were “serpents,” Chromatius noted that they were not to be considered just any kind of serpent but a specific subspecies, “the race of vipers.” Why? Because, unlike other snakes, vipers kill their mother instantly. The Jews had done exactly this. Through their “impiety,” they slew their mother, the synagogue. And by calling, “His blood be on us, and on our children,” they also killed their own offspring. This passage completes our picture. What had begun with the allegation of the killing of a single person had now been generalized into something far more comprehensive and detrimental: in fourth-century patristic literature, “the synagogue” did not just kill Jesus, or even his followers; it was perceived as wont to kill everyone it could lay its hands on.” (463)

Rutgers here makes an illegitimate rhetorical move: he asserts that killing one’s mother and/or offspring means that one kills everything. this is clearly false, but made for rhetorical effect. The Jews themselves identified unfaithful Jews with the most vile things they could think of. This was their tradition, and one which Rutgers seems to implicitly reject (at least when convenient).

“Perhaps as a result of the particular reception history of the book of Revelation in the early church, the term “synagogue of Satan” (Rev 2:9 and 3:9) does not seem to have enjoyed much of an afterlife in patristic literature.” (463)

The reception history of Revelation is rather complicated, but it was extremely popular before the 4th century. It is precisely when Rutgers sees anti-Judaism in the writings of the Fathers that Revelation falls out of favor in many parts of the Roman Empire. Rutgers cannot explain this fact. If he is correct, we should see that Revelation was the proof-text for Christians agains the synagogue, yet this is exactly the opposite of what we see. It appears that Rutgers isn’t actually familiar with the reception history of Revelation.

“We have seen that, without exception, the Fathers defined the synagogue in excessively negative terms. The fact that they did so—not just once, but again, and again, and again—could only have resulted in one thing: the readers of their writ- ings and the listeners to their sermons began automatically to link “the synagogue” with everything that was undesirable and bad. The equation of “the synagogue” with “the Jews” made matters incomparably worse. After all, a whole range of dread- ful things initially believed to apply to the Jews could now be applied without any restraint to the synagogue as well. By this point, the one term automatically triggered all the negative connotations associated with the other, and vice versa. By denouncing “the synagogue of the Jews” whenever the occasion arose, the Fathers were not just systematically indoctrinating their flocks. They were programming them neurolinguistically.” (465)

What level of negative terminology would Rutgers accept? It seems that he would accept none, so his claim of “excessively negative” depictions is pure rhetorical fluff, just as the claims of systematic indoctrination” and neurolinguistic programming. These are simply negative ways of speaking about teaching, and hardly appropriate for a scholar to advance. Could Rutgers claim that Jews did not do the same thing? The OT commands that they do the very thing Rutgers is condemning: indoctrination via interpretation of Scripture.

“Having been brainwashed to regard the synagogue as the very incarnation of evil, not just naturally but inevitably, Christians began to see the actual synagogue buildings of Late Antiquity as local manifestations of a much larger phenomenon.” (466)

Brainwashing is hardly appropriate terminology for sermons. Rutgers also ignores that the 4th century was dominated by Christian polemics amongst each other far more than against the Jews. THe heretics may have been seen as “the incarnation of evil”(!) but not the Jews. Rutgers assumes that his preoccupation with the synagogue was hated by the Christians of the 4th century. It was not. Instead, it was one of dozens of themes that were prominent, and certainly it was not even near the top of the list. Rutgers also ignores the anti-synagogue rhetoric of the Romans and Greeks, not addressing whether the violence of mobs could be due to vestigial pagan opposition to Jews. Instead he insists with all of his might that it was due to learned theologians giving sermons! This is hard to take seriously. He ignores recorded evidence for invented assertions. The sermons could have been the result of such violence, or a sublimation of it, rather than the incitement of violence.

“It is at the point where the abstracted, wholly negative notion of “the synagogue” collided with the ongoing reality of the actual buildings—buildings in which people congregated who had lost their individuality as a result of patristic exegesis—that Christian theologians and the masses they addressed began to think that they now needed to translate thinking into practice. What other conclusion could one possibly draw when major ecclesiastical figures such as Ambrose argued, in reference to the dispersion of the Jewish people, that the Jews did not possess “a prescribed place of exile, but an unlimited one,” and that the purpose of this was so that “the place of the synagogue may never remain in the world”? There can be little doubt indeed that the Fathers of the early church were directly responsible for what the Theodosian Code calls, in reference to the spoliation and destruction of synagogues, “illegal deeds” performed “under the name of Christian religion.”” (466)

Rutgers again shows his hand: he asserts that the Fathers were directly responsible for what the Theodosian Code condemns. But does this make any sense? It implies that the Theodosian Code was defending Jews, yet it was not. It simply was imposing law and order. And why would we think that the Byzantine government would be pro-Jewish while the Byzantine theologians were anti-Jewish? How could the Code call all of the Fathers wrong and blame them for illegal activity? Rutgers shows himself to be an opportunist with no inclination to question assumptions or follow through logically or evidentially on his assertions.

“So did a more general trend in early Christian thinking: coercion was a legitimate means to further the spread of what the proponents saw as the one and only true Christian religion. The sheer violence that ensued as a result of all these developments was, in any case, enormous. As evidenced by the Theodosian Code, aggression was not directed only at synagogues. By the early fifth century, Jewish houses needed protection by the state as well.” (467)

Again, protection by a state that was dominated by the theologians. The “sheer violence” is, of course, not substantiated, but sounds rather impressive. Augustine is cited and he is assumed to speak for the Byzantine Empire, even though he was isolated from its own capital and was not read widely at the time. His huge influence on the West was later, and can hardly be applied to both East and West in his own day. Coercion was not practiced by Christians prior to the 4th century, and probably not until the Theodosian Code (ironically) was it practiced at all.

“it took Christian theologians a mere 35 years to obliterate the age-old tradition of Roman legal tolerance toward Jews and to force upon the late Roman legislature their conviction that the construction of new synagogues should be outlawed once and for all.” (467)

The “age-old tradition of Roman legal tolerance toward Jews” never existed in history. It was a construct used by Jews, and the Romans only affirmed it at times. There was no legislation that always protected Jews, but instead legislative decisions were made on the issue over the centuries. Many times they protected the rights of Jews, and many times they rescinded those same rights. Rutgers wants to think that the Jews had those rights as inalienable, no doubt, but Roman practice treated them as depending on the whim of the Emperor or even lesser officials and rulers.

“While the late Roman state protected the integrity of Jewish property, at least in writing, it was the Christian redefinition of the term “synagogue” that provided early Christian preachers the powerful weapon for which they had been looking. By stripping the term “synagogue” of its particular characteristics and then appealing to a sense of retributive justice and a desire to be counted good Christians, early Christian preachers successfully turned their communities into overly excited crowds— or rather, into raging mobs ready to torch actual synagogues or to turn them into churches. Thus, the destruction of synagogues in Late Antiquity documents the fact that there is a rather sinister flip side to John Chrysostom’s infamous Adversus Judaeos. Typically used to document the continued importance of meaningful contacts between Jews and Christians and as evidence of Christianity’s inability to prevent these contacts, Chrysostom’s treatise should also be seen as part of larger and all-too- successful effort on the part of the Fathers to create an atmosphere in which hate crimes against the Jews and their synagogues were considered both desirable and mandatory. That the early Christian exegetical construct of “the synagogue” should spill over into reality in the way it did shows that in the later fourth century early Christian self-definition was characterized not just by a strong desire to maintain boundaries by force. The need to behave punitively toward people believed to be identical with a hermeneutically constructed “other” was no less an integral part of Christianity.”

Hate crimes were desirable and mandatory? This would inexcusable for a layman to write, much less a scholar. It is completely unsubstantiated and irresponsible rhetoric. Ironically, it is hate speech.

The bizarre claims of Rutgers were shown to be false and anti-Jewish by reading “Midrash,” by Renee Bloch (1978). In teaching about the term and practice of Jewish Midrash (interpretation), he claimed that the following were essential to Jewish interpretation of Scripture from the earliest period, seen even in the OT itself: citing out of original context, allegory, typology, and linking words. All of these were asserted to be “Christian” false interpretation of the OT. But Bloch, writing about Judaism rather than Christianity as opposed to Judaism, casually shows that all of the criticisms Rutgers levels against Christian interpretations should historically be leveled at Jews. Jews were writing this way centuries before Christianity.

It seems that in order to discredit Christianity, or at least early Christianity, Rutgers is more than happy to discredit historical Judaism, both past and present. This is remarkable, and he exhibits in his own writing that which he condemns: illegitimate exegesis and hyperbole that borders on slander.


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