Sunday, April 10, 2016

A Rabbi asks a priest a question... part 14

Continued from last week…

December 31, 406, or maybe 405 the Rhine River froze solid or maybe it didn’t. What did happen is this: three German tribes, the Vandals, Alans and Suebi, managed to cross the Rhine. The Rhine and the Danube were the natural northern borders of the Roman Empire, which had been Christian for almost a century. One can picture a German barbarian walking out on the ice stamping his feet and shouting, “Come on, Hildegund, Schnell! Vee is moofing to France! 

In the search for plumbing, wine and the other amenities of Roman life, the German barbarians crossed the border en masse and there just weren’t enough soldiers to stop them. The bulk of the army was back in the east fighting Visigoths, the Germanic cousins of the Vandals and their friends. The Roman Empire in the west pretty much crumbled. The Visigoths reached Italy from the east while the Vandals went down through France and Spain and reached Italy from the North African coast. Rome was sacked by the Visigoths in 410 and again really sacked by the Vandals in 455.

The Vandals and the Visigoths were Christian sort of. They were Arians. Remember the Arians? They were the people who thought the idea of a Triune God was crazy and Ariansim appealed to militarist monarchies like the Germans with its neat chain of command. The German barbarians took their religion seriously and thus were not very nice to any Trinitarian Nicene Catholics who got in their way. One of those Nicene Catholics was St Augustine, the bishop of the town of Hippo Regius in what is now Algeria. (Did you know that North Africa, just like Egypt, Turkey, Syria and the Holy Land were once the heartlands of the Catholic faith?) The Vandals besieged Hippo as St. Augustine lay dying and eventually captured the city, burning everything except Augustine’s cathedral and library. The survival of so many of his writings insured that he would be one of the greatest theological influences in Europe. He commented on just about everything in his 75 years and he was the dominant voice in the western attitude toward the Jews for almost a thousand years.

Augustine was never shy about his opinions. He was always denouncing heretical opinions. He thoroughly denounced any movements in the Church that rejected the Hebrew Scriptures and the fierce tribal God of the Jews. Augustine held the Catholic view that the God of the New and Old Testaments were one and the same, that the Old Testament was divinely inspired and that the Jews were a people specially chosen by God. They were chosen in the Old Testament to bring forth the messiah. They were chosen in the New Testament for a somewhat less desirable task. Augustine believed Jewish people would be converted at the end of time, but the destruction of the temple and the scattering of Jews by Rome fulfilled Old Testament prophecy. God had spared them in their unconverted state as a warning to Christians of what could happen to those who reject Christ. They should be allowed to live unmolested in Christian lands and lead free and unhindered lives.

Augustine believed that the Old Testament referred to the Jews in the verse, “Slay them not, lest they should at last forget Your law” (Psalm 59:11). Augustine. (God) has said, ‘but whosoever shall kill Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.’… not by bodily death shall the ungodly race of carnal Jews perish. For whoever destroys them in this way shall suffer sevenfold vengeance, that is, shall bring upon himself the sevenfold penalty under which the Jews lie for the crucifixion of Christ. ’So to the end of the seven days of time, the continued preservation of the Jews will be a proof to believing Christians of the subjection merited by those who, in the pride of their kingdom, put the Lord to death.” (St. Augustine, “Contra Judaeos”) It sounds pretty awful at first read, but Augustine’s likening the Jews to Cain threatened anyone who would harm them with a curse. (Looking at modern German, French and Russian demographics, Augustine may have had a point!)

So from the year 400 AD until almost 1100 AD, the teaching of Augustine prevailed in the west and the Jews became a protected and increasingly valued (though not necessarily beloved) part of European society. Christian Europe had a problem. The Scriptures seemed to forbid usury, the taking interest on a loan from a fellow Christian. How does one do business without a system of credit? Enter the Jews. There was no law in scripture that forbad having the infidel Jews loaning money at interest to their Christian neighbors.

Jews were a readymade banking society. They were a small group of very mobile people who had trusted contacts throughout the Middle East and Europe among their fellow Jews scattered throughout the world. They were able to travel and do business where a Muslim or Christian might be unwelcome, and they were literate! The great emperor Charlemagne (800 AD) was never quite able to write his own name, though he really tried. Jews could read write and count! Jews became the grease that allowed the wheels of commerce to turn in an increasingly isolated and illiterate world. It was always good to have a few of them around, not too many, but a few. So it went until 1096.

Next week: Count Emicho and a goose filled with the Holy Spirit (I’m not making this up either!)

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