St. Augustine and the Jews

I concluded my semester on St. Augustine with this essay on a challenging subject: Augustine’s doctrine of Jewish witness. What follows delves deeply into difficult waters, exploring early Christian-Jewish relations and anti-Jewish polemic. The way a 4th century Christian spoke of the Jews is not the way the Church speaks of them today. Augustine’s characterization of the Jews, their beliefs, and their practices is insulting, but it springs not from any real encounter with practicing Jews, but from his interpretation of their religious practices as understood through Scripture. Nonetheless, he also has a grudging admiration for them, and respects the way his Jewish contemporaries remain true to the Law.

As I say in my apologia, it’s hard to read much of the  material that follows from our perspective in the 21st century, but it’s important to recall how radically progressive were Augustine’s views on Judaism. They even earned him a sharp rebuke from St. Jerome, which Augustine batted away with his usual skill. His position is that the Jews are under a divine order of physical protection, and that not only must they be protected, but they must be allowed to worship as Jews. As we will see, his reason for this view is demeaning for Jews, but it also informed centuries of theology and countless orders of protection for Jews living in Christian lands. When Jews were persecuted at the hands of Christians, it was in direct defiance of this doctrine, and when they were protected, it was because of its influence.

Unwilling Witnesses: St. Augustine and the Witness Doctrine

Thomas L. McDonald

St. Augustine’s writing on Judaism was remarkably nuanced, deepening over the course of 30 years as his thoughts on scripture developed. His most lasting contribution to the topic was his “doctrine of Jewish witness,” often simply called “the witness doctrine,” which viewed the Jews not solely as “Christ-killers” to be condemned, but as a vital ingredient in the spread of Christianity. The doctrine came to be accepted by the Church, and informed subsequent order of protection by the Church for the lives of Jewish people.

In his sermon on Psalm 58, Chapter 18 of De Civitate Dei, Chapter 12 (and others) in Contra Faustum Manicheum, and other works, he develops his theory that the Jews had a continuing role to play in salvation history, and that this role was to form a living testimony to the truth of Christian claims. Scattered throughout the Diaspora, they brought their own sacred texts with them. These texts (the Old Testament) carried the prophecies of Christ, and since they were borne by a people who were notoriously hostile to Christians, they had even greater veracity. A Christian could point to a Jewish text and say, “See, even our enemies attest to the prophecies.”

Contra Iudaeos: An Apologia

From our position in the 21st century, it is important to distinguish between the modern, genocidal experience of anti-Semitism and the contra Iudaeos tradition of the early Church. Anti-Semitism is hatred of Jews as Jews, and is rooted in racism. The contra Iudaeos tradition is a dispute with Judaism as a religion in same way the Church Fathers disputed pagans, Manicheans, Donatists, and other heretics. That the early Christian anti-Jewish polemic did the intellectual spadework for later persecution of the Jews is undeniable, but at its heart the first centuries of Jewish-Christian relations were based on intellectual and theological dispute among people who sprang from the same religious soil. It was not a product of blind racial hatred. Indeed, it could not have been, since the Jewishness of Jesus and his apostles was understood by all the Church fathers.

Nonetheless, much of the language, and many of the ideas, in this essay are almost impossible to read in their original context. The shadow of centuries of anti-Semitism, culminating in the Shoah and the annihilationist rhetoric coming from the Middle East, falls heavily upon these early religious disputes among people who shared a common wellspring of faith.

Yet it is also a remarkably rewarding topic, for Augustine redirected the idea of Jewish-Christian relations away from violent persecutions by finding in the scripture the command from God to “slay them not” (Psalm 58), allowing Jews to observe the law undisturbed by persecution. With that said, it’s difficult for a modern reader to see the doctrine as anything less than dehumanizing, reducing the Jews to little more than God’s pawns for furthering Christianity. “Witnesses” they may well be, but if so, then they are unwilling witnesses.

The Initial Elements of the Witness Tradition

Augustine’s doctrine of Jewish witness developed in stages, beginning with Contra Faustum in 397, which lays out four elements that form the foundation of the doctrine.[1] We will look at each of these in turn, and then explore how the evolution of Augustine’s understanding of Biblical exegesis deepened the doctrine with two further points.

Jews and the Mark of Cain

By the time of Augustine, the pairing of Abel with Jesus and Cain with the Jews was already common in patristic tradition.[2] In Genesis 4:1-16, Cain slays his brother, and is exiled as a punishment. This is more than Cain can bear, and he cries out to God, not for forgiveness, but to save his life from the foes he will encounter in the world. Thus, his exile comes with protection: the mark of Cain, which prevents people from slaying him.

Augustine reads the mark of Cain, in Contra Faustum, as a direct analogy to the status of the Jews in the world, for “no one can fail to see that in every land where the Jews are scattered they mourn for the loss of their kingdom, and are in terrified subjection to the immensely superior number of Christians.”[3] In this typology, both “Cain and the Jews are fratricides.”[4] Their exile is punishment for their crime, as is the fear of harm, which for the Jews is a fear losing their distinctive religious practices.

The subjugation of the Jews bothers them more than their loss of divine favor, says Augustine, because they are carnally minded, and not spiritually minded. This will be an important distinction not only for the witness doctrine, but also in the development of Augustine’s understanding of the literal and allegorical interpretations of scripture.

The mind of Cain (and, by extension, the Jews) is

carnal; for he thinks little of being hid from the face of God, that is, of being under the anger of God, were it not that he may be found and slain. … To be carnally minded is death; but he, in ignorance of this, mourns for the loss of his earthly possession, and is in terror of bodily death. But what does God reply? “Not so,” He says; “but whosoever shall kill Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.” That is, It is not as you say, 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 proof to believing Christians of the subjection merited by those who, in the pride of their kingdom, put the Lord to death.[5]

Although this appears to be a clear example of the blood libel that held the Jews collectively guilty for the murder of God, we shall see that Augustine’s position is not nearly that simple. Indeed, in the very next passage in Contra Faustum, he expresses his admiration for the tenacity of the Jews and their fidelity (wrong-headed, as he sees it) to the law:

It is a most notable fact, that all the nations subjugated by Rome adopted the heathenish ceremonies of the Roman worship; while the Jewish nation, whether under Pagan or Christian monarchs, has never lost the sign of their law, by which they are distinguished from all other nations and peoples. No emperor or monarch who finds under his government the people with this mark kills them, that is, makes them cease to be Jews, and as Jews to be separate in their observances, and unlike the rest of the world. [6]

This survival of the Jews, and their continued ability to practice their faith in the Diaspora, is proof that they are under a divine order of protection, and thus bear the mark of Cain. It is a “divine safeguard … whereby God signals to the rest of humanity his continuing connection to and protection of the Jewish religion and thus his continuing desire that the Jews always exist as a people.”[7]

Augustine places Jews in a different category from pagans and heretics. Whereas pagans receive their religion from demons and heretics from their own hubris, Jews and Catholics derive their religion from the One God.[8] Augustine makes this plainly clear in Contra Faustum: “But if we divide all who have a religion into those who worship one God and those who worship many gods, the Manichaeans must be classed along with the Pagans, and we along with the Jews.”[9]

The Jews as Ham, Son of Noah

In Genesis 9:18-27, Ham sees the nakedness of his father, Noah, and is cursed to be a “servant of servants” to his brothers, Shem and Japheth. In Augustine’s interpretation, Shem and Japheth represent the gentile world, while Ham represents the Jews who reject Christ.

Noah is interpreted as a symbol of Christ, “drunk with the wine of the vineyard he planted” and with the “mortality of [his flesh] uncovered.”[10] Shem and Japheth, who cover their naked father without looking at him, are “those who are called, both Jews and Greeks” (1 Cor 1:23).

Moreover, the two sons, the eldest and the youngest, carrying the garment backwards, are a figure of the two peoples, and the sacrament of the past and completed passions of the Lord. They do not see the nakedness of their father, because they do not consent to Christ’s death; and yet they honor it with a covering, as knowing whence they were born.[11]

The Jewish people are Ham, the middle son between Shem and Japheth, because “they neither held the first place with the apostles, nor believed subsequently with the Gentiles.”[12] Ham is condemned to be a servant to his brothers. The Jews saw their father’s nakedness, “that is, he is those Jews who consent to Jesus’ death.”[13] Their “curse” is that they still live under the Law. Their “servitude” is that they must carry the scripture for their brothers, the gentiles.


At this point in Contra Faustum, Augustine introduces the idea of the Jews as the scriniaria (writing desk) of the Christians.  They bear “the law and the prophets as testimony to the tenets of the church, so that we honor through the sacrament what it announces through the letter.”[14] As scriniaria, they preserve the texts of scripture, carry them around the world as they spread throughout the Diaspora, and proclaim the very prophecies at the heart of Christianity.

The Jews are thus identified with their books secundem carnem. Early Christians had to build a familiarity with the Old Testament, and even with the Hebrew language, in order to refute the Manichaeans. This was particularly important in the dispute with Manichaeans, who found the carnality of Jewish worship as the surest indication of its falsity. Thus, Augustine and other Christians were placed in the challenging position of defending the truth of the scripture by way of defending the Jews.

This calls us back to an earlier passage in Contra Faustum, in which the author remarks that

“it is a great confirmation of our faith that such important testimony is borne by enemies. The believing Gentiles cannot suppose these testimonies to Christ to be recent forgeries; for they find them in books held sacred for so many ages by those who crucified Christ, and still regarded with the highest veneration by those who every day blaspheme Christ.”[15]

The Scripture itself tells of how Christ is to be born, preach, work miracles, suffer for the sins of humanity, die at the hands of his enemies, rise again, and initiate a new age. If the Old Testament prophecies had been the creation of Christians, Augustine argues, critics of Christianity would be right in doubting their authenticity. Instead, the

“preacher expounds the text of the blasphemer. In this way the Most High God orders the blindness of the ungodly for the profit of the saint … The unbelief of the Jews has been made of signal benefit to us; so that those who do not receive in their heart for their own good these truths, carry, in their hands for our benefit the writings in which these truths are contained.”[16]

This formula is compressed even further in De Civitate Dei, where Augustine writes about how the Jews were “utterly rooted out from their kingdom, where aliens had already ruled over them, and were dispersed through the lands (so that indeed there is no place where they are not), and are thus by their own Scriptures a testimony to us that we have not forged the prophecies about Christ.” [17]

Doubt of the Jews Foretold

This brings us to the fourth element of the witness doctrine, which is that the scripture itself testifies that the Jews would reject Jesus, “for this blindness is itself foretold. They testify to the truth by their not understanding it. By not understanding the books which predict that they would not understand, they prove these books to be true.”[18]

Augustine uses various analogies throughout his writing to illustrate these points. The Jews are like the people who help build Noah’s ark, but perished because they did not believe. [19] They are like librarians[20] who care for the books of their masters without learning the truth that is within them. They are like “milestones along the route,”[21] which guide the way but remain insensible.[22]

This issue of blindness is a difficult one for Augustine, for it appears to imply that God is unjust. How can God require belief for salvation and then deliberately harden the hearts of his people? Augustine finds his answers in Romans 11:25: “I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers and sisters. For blindness has come upon a part of Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has entered, and so all Israel will be saved.” Blindness is only reserved for a select few, who would not have been saved anyway. Paul continues: “As regards the gospel, they are enemies for your sake” (Rom 11:28). In other words, Christ needed enemies to put him to death, and Christians needed their “witnesses” to help spread the Gospel.

But at the same time, Paul says this: “But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers” (Rom 11:28). In other words, the Jews remain beloved by God, but he has another purpose for them as witnesses to his divine love and mercy, as well as his justice. Augustine makes this point in De Civitate Dei when he notes that “humanity is divided between those in whom the power of merciful grace is demonstrated, and those in whom is shown the might of just retribution… If all had remained condemned . . . then God’s merciful grace would not have been seen . . . and if all had been transferred from darkness to light, then the truth of God’s vengeance would not have been made evident.”[23]

Later Developments in the Witness Doctrine

The preceding ideas remained the core of the witness doctrine at first, but over the next 15 years, Augustine’s series of sermons on the Psalms gave him an opportunity to explore the relationship of Judaism to Christianity even further. It is here that we find the last points in the witness doctrine first mentioned in the Sermon on Psalm 58, and developed further in Chapter 18 of De Civitate Dei.

“Slay Them Not”

The key text in this later development of the witness doctrine is Psalm 59: “Slay them not, lest at any time they forget your law; scatter them in your might” (Ps 59:11). Although we must assume that this Psalm was known to Augustine when he was writing Contra Faustum, he had not yet realized that God was speaking to Church with a direct order for how to treat the Jews that lived among them.

There are two parts to this statement. The first and most striking, of course, is “Slay them not.” If, with Augustine, we read “them” as applying to the Jews, then this is nothing less than an order of physical protection for the Jews no matter where they shall be found in Christendom. This is in spite of the fact that the “Jews are enemies.”[24] Why allow them to survive under an order of protection? The mark of Cain makes this protection mandatory and, in fact, inevitable. The Jews as a people simply cannot be eradicated due to the mark.

Psalm 59 adds the idea of preserving the Jewish nation, so that it “might remain, and by it remaining the number of Christians might increase. Throughout all nations they remain certainly, and Jews they are, nor have they ceased to be what they were: that is, this nation has not so yielded to Roman institutions, as to have lost the form of Jews; but has been subjected to the Romans so as that it still retains its own laws; which are the laws of God.” [25]

This is vital to understanding the importance of both the witness doctrine and Augustine the exegete. The laws are not empty of meaning or the work of a demiurge: they are the laws of God. “They hold the law, hold the Prophets;” he writes, “read all things, sing all things.”[26] What they proclaim is good, because it is from God. The law and prophets are eternally relevant, even through “the light of the Prophets therein they [the Jews] see not, which is Christ Jesus.”[27]

Compliance with the Law

This brings us to the final and most striking element of the witness doctrine. The Jews are to be kept alive and protected for all the reasons we have seen: they are under the mark of Cain, they are a scriniaria which carries the holy texts of the Christians, their continued blindness fulfills Biblical prophesy, and their existence helps spread Christianity.

The second part of “slay them not,” however, refers to the law itself: “lest at any time they forget your law.” Forgetting the law of God is death. It is the death we suffer from sin in the absence of God’s guidance. Augustine links the command to “slay them not” with a new interpretation of the mark of Cain: that of the law. The practice of Judaism itself, the way in which the Jews observe the law, is a mark which sets them apart wherever they go.

As Augustine writes, “This is the mark which the Jews have: they hold fast by the remnant of their law, they are circumcised, they keep Sabbaths, they sacrifice the Passover; they eat unleavened bread.”[28] They are, he continues, “necessary to believing nations … that He may show to us among our enemies His mercy.”[29]

But there was much more to the continuing observation of the law than merely showing the mercy of God. Augustine found their fortitude in the face of persecution admirable. Their willingness to continue following the letter of the law, even while they remained ignorant of its spirit, was something to be commended. In his letter to Paulinus (414) he writes of how, even after being conquered, they

would not participate in the pagan rites of the victorious people but persisted in the old law, so that within [the Jews] there would be witness of the Scriptures throughout the world, wherever the church would be established.[30]

This goes to the heart of the command to “slay them not,” speaking not only to physical protection, but to the protection of Jews as Jews. Otherwise, they would “forget your law,” for if they had assimilated into the culture — pagan or Christian — they would cease to have been Jews, and the role God had marked out for them would have ended. “Having been forced to observe the rites and ceremonies of the gentiles, they would not retain their own religious identity at all.”[31]

In De Civitate Dei, he links this role of the Jews as witnesses to Romans 11:11: “So I ask, have they [the Jews] stumbled so as to fall? By no means! But through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous.”[32] He interprets this as further proof that the Jews are not merely preserved from the mercy of God, but as ongoing witnesses to the truth of Christian claims. An important part of this process was already prophesied in Psalm 59, with the words “scatter 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.”[33]


According to Augustine, this is part of God’s inscrutable justice: to make the Jews deaf and blind, for a time, so that the Gospel could spread.[34] “God’s hardening of Israel was strategic, not punitive. And it was only temporary. As history rushes to its conclusion, and as the ‘full number’ of Gentiles comes to Christ, God will cease hardening ‘part of Israel. . . . And so all Israel will be saved’ (Romans 11:26). In the end, God has mercy on all (Romans 11:32).”[35]

There is dense layering of typology in all of this, out of which Augustine builds his unique image of the Jews. They are Cain the wanderer and fratricide, marked by their distinctly Jewish appearance and praxis and known for the “murder” of their brother, Jesus. Their “slavery” to the church comes from Noah’s curse of Ham, thus condemning them to “witness” to Christian truth by carrying the books that underlie the Gospel. The books themselves are the scripture, which are fulfilled in Christ and which they read without understanding.

Augustine saw the Law as good because it pointed forward to, and was fulfilled in, Christ. Although the law cannot make you good, it was ordained by God and thus is not “bad.” It was, he wrote in a testy exchange with St. Jerome, “divinely appointed as suitable both to the time and to the people.”[36] This time included the time of Christ and the apostles. Jesus was not just born a man. He was born and lived as a Jew under the Law, subject to circumcision and observant of the practices of Judaism.

Augustine’s innovation here is to see “history as vital to revelation” and “flesh as vital to spirit.”[37] Judaism secundum carnem is important because without the carnal aspect, the incarnation of Christ loses meaning. It was in the context of an explicitly carnal culture that God came, first to fulfill that carnality, and then to transcend it. Although this carnality, as represented in the practice of the Law, is no longer binding, says Augustine, and the Jews are misguided in holding to it, they are nonetheless performing a vital service to Christianity in providing ongoing witness to its truth, as well as to the love and justice of God.


Brown, Peter. Augustine of Hippo: A Biography. Berkley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2000.

Cohen, Jeremy. Living Letters of the Law: Ideas of the Jew in Medieval Christianity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.

Fredriksen, Paula. Augustine and the Jews: A Christian Defense of Jews and Judaism. New Haven: Yale, 2010.

Fredriksen, Paula. “Excaecati Occulta Justitia Dei: Augustine on Jews and Judaism.” Journal of Early Christian Studies 3:3, 299-324.

Signer, Michael. “Jews and Judaism.” Augustine Through the Ages. Edited by Allan D. Fitzgerald. Grand Rapids/Cambridge: Eerdman’s, 1999.

St. Augustine. City of God. Translated by Henry Bettenson. New York: Penguin, 1972.

St. Augustine, Contra Faustum. At New Advent,

St. Augustine. Essential Sermons. Translated by Edmund Hill. New York: New City Press, 2007.

St. Augustine. Exposition on the Book of Psalms. New Advent. (

[1] Jeremy Cohen, Living Letters of the Law: Ideas of the Jew in Medieval Christianity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 41.

[2] For example, Irenaeus in Against Heresies: “Wherefore did the Lord also declare: ‘Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, for ye are like whited sepulchres. For the sepulchre appears beautiful outside, but within it is full of dead men’s bones, and all uncleanness; even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of wickedness and hypocrisy.’ For while they were thought to offer correctly so far as outward appearance went, they had in themselves jealousy like to Cain; therefore they slew the Just One, slighting the counsel of the Word, as did also Cain. For [God] said to him, ‘Be at rest;’ but he did not assent. Now what else is it to ‘be at rest’ than to forego purposed violence?” By contrast, Irenaeus sees the offering of Abel as a prefiguration of the Eucharist.

[3] St. Augustine, Contra Faustum, 12.12,

[4] Paula Fredriksen, Augustine and the Jews: A Christian Defense of Jews and Judaism (New Haven: Yale, 2010), 318.

[5] Contra Faustum, ibid.

[6] Ibid, 12.13.

[7] Fredriksen, 274.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Contra Faustum, 20.10.

[10] Ibid, 12.23.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Fredriksen, 319.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Contra Faustum, 16.21.

[16] Ibid.

[17] St. Augustine, City of God 18.46, trans. Henry Bettenson (New York: Penguin, 1972), 848.

[18] Ibid.

[19] St. Augustine, Sermon 373 4.4, cited in Cohen, Living Letters of the Law, 35.

[20] St. Augustine, Sermon 5 5, cited in Cohen, Living Letters of the Law, 35.

[21] St. Augustine, Sermon 199 1.2, cited in Cohen, Living Letters of the Law, 35.

[22] Cohen, 36.

[23] City of God 21.12, 989.

[24] St. Augustine, Sermon on Psalm 59. (

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

[30] St. Augustine, Epistula 149.9.

[31] Ibid.

[32] City of God, 18.46, 848.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Paula Fredriksen, “Excaecati Occulta Justitia Dei: Augustine on Jews and Judaism,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 3:3: (1995), 299.

[35] Fredriksen, Augustine and the Jews, 281.

[36] St. Augustine, Letter 82.12. (

[37] Fredriksen, 316.