Slandering the Jew: Sexuality and Difference in Early Christian Texts

Slandering the Jew: Sexuality and Difference in Early Christian Texts

Slandering the Jew: Sexuality and Difference in Early Christian Texts

Slandering the Jew: Sexuality and Difference in Early Christian Texts

Synopsis

As Christian leaders in the first through fifth centuries embraced ascetic interpretations of the Bible and practices of sexual renunciation, sexual slander--such as the accusations Paul leveled against wayward Gentiles in the New Testament--played a pivotal role in the formation of early Christian identity. In particular, the imagined construct of the lascivious, literal-minded Jew served as a convenient foil to the chaste Christian ideal. Susanna Drake examines representations of Jewish sexuality in early Christian writings that use accusations of carnality, fleshliness, bestiality, and licentiousness as strategies to differentiate the "spiritual" Christian from the "carnal" Jew. Church fathers such as Justin Martyr, Hippolytus of Rome, Origen of Alexandria, and John Chrysostom portrayed Jewish men variously as dangerously hypersexual, at times literally seducing virtuous Christians into heresy, or as weak and effeminate, unable to control bodily impulses or govern their wives.

As Drake shows, these carnal caricatures served not only to emphasize religious difference between Christians and Jews but also to justify increased legal constraints and violent acts against Jews as the interests of Christian leaders began to dovetail with the interests of the empire. Placing Christian representations of Jews at the root of the destruction of synagogues and mobbing of Jewish communities in the late fourth and early fifth centuries, Slandering the Jew casts new light on the intersections of sexuality, violence, representation, and religious identity.

Excerpt

In his first sermon against the Jews, delivered in Antioch in the autumn of 386 ce, John Chrysostom told a story of an abduction in which a “defiling and unfeeling man” forced a Christian woman, “elegant and free, well-behaved and faithful,” to enter a synagogue. The woman resisted her attacker. She pleaded with Chrysostom to help her. Heroically, the newly ordained priest came to her rescue: “I was fired with jealousy,” Chrysostom said, “and burning with anger, I rose up, I refused to let her be dragged into that transgression, I snatched her from the hands of her abductor! I asked him if he was a Christian, and he said he was. … I told him he was no better than an ass if he, who said that he worshiped Christ, would drag someone off to the dens of the Jews who had crucified him.” This licentious abductor claimed to be a Christian, but, in Chrysostom’s eyes, he was tainted with the stain of Jewishness. The abductor believed that an oath sworn in the synagogue was more powerful than one sworn in the church. It was precisely this sort of dangerous religious hybrid—this impure “half Christian” — that Chrysostom railed against in his sermons Adversus Iudaeos. The sexualized depiction of the heretical ChristianJew as a male predator who preyed upon pure Christian women was not lost on Chrysostom’s audience.

In Adversus Iudaeos, John Chrysostom frequently depicted Jews and socalled Judaizers as lascivious wolves in pursuit of innocent Christian sheep, and he asserted that he himself was the good shepherd who protected the sheep from their Jewish predators. His self-presentation as a stalwart guardian of Christian women went hand in hand with the gendered and sexualized portrayal of his religious opponents. Delivered at a time when the church in Antioch was more imperial than imperiled, his first sermon against the Jews made use of this narrative of violent abduction and aggression to map differences between “true” Christians and their heretical Others, Jews and Judaizers especially. Chrysostom’s portrait of a heretical Judaizer luring a pure(ly) . . .

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