Of late I’ve seen many references to Christianity as a “Jewish plot” and Christianity as a “Semitic religion.” Putting aside the question of whether or not this is anti-Semitic, it is ahistorical. Christianity certainly did a whammy on the cultures of pagan Europe. The Wendish Crusade forced a new God and a new identity on the Slavonic peoples of eastern Germany; the conversion of the Vikings was accomplished by blades not epistles; the Christianization of Lithuania was accomplished by foreign raiders and foreign missionaries. But were those invaders taking their cues from Jerusalem — or from Rome?
Shaye I.D. Cohen, Professor of Judaic and Religious Studies at Brown University, describes Constantine’s famous “vision of the cross” thusly:
One of the most surprising Christian heroes in the entire tradition, I think, is Constantine. He is, first of all, a successful general. He is also the son of a successful general and at the head of the army at the West. And he’s fighting another successful general, struggling for who is going to be at the top of the heap of the very higher echelons of Roman government. What happens is that Constantine has a vision. Luckily for the Church, there’s a bishop nearby to interpret what the vision means. Constantine ends not converting, technically, to Christianity, but becoming a patron of one particular branch of the church. It happens to be the branch of the church that has the Old Testament as well as the New Testament as part of its canon. Which means that since this branch of Christianity includes the story about historical Israel as part of its own redemptive history, it has an entire language for articulating the relationship of government and piety. It has the model of King David. It has the model of the kings of Israel. And it’s with this governmental model that the bishop explains the vision to Constantine.
Dr. Cohen correctly notes that his story, and the story of Israel and Judah, play a major role in shaping Christian political philosophy. But he misses one very important point: those stories were reinterpreted in light of Roman politics and philosophy. Augustine’s Civitatis Dei (City of God) presented a Heaven which resembled nothing so much as the Roman Empire at its apex. In Western Europe leaders from Charlemagne to Napoleon styled themselves heirs of Caesar. Even as the fields reclaimed the Roman roads Christianity offered a link to a classical Golden Age.
In Europe the Roman distinction between the urbane and sophisticated Christians and rustic uneducated paganii continued. Converting to Christianity offered access to trade routes and membership in a universal brotherhood. (Christianity may have picked up their idea of Christians as a “chosen people” from Judaism, or from one of the many mystery cults which offered membership among the elect for those who could afford the sacrifices and get the proper recommendations). Christianity had grand cathedrals with Roman arches and other Latin technologies. Those simple Pagans worshipped their Gods in filthy wooden shrines if they even bothered to erect a structure. Only by turning their backs on these primitive superstitions could they ever take their place amidst the faithful and join the modern world.
Long before the conversion of Europe was complete Christianity became an identity in contrast to a truly Semitic faith, Islam. It looked for answers not to Israel but again to the Classical world. Using Greek texts translated into Arabic and then Latin, European scholars helped revive Europe’s culture in a Renaissance that became the Colonial and later the modern era. Missionary activity became once again a way to civilize (and remember civitatis is a Latin word) the primitives, to bring them into the Light of Christ and
make them a profitable line item on the Empire’s books redeem their souls for Christendom. They might bow their knee to the King of the Jews, but at its core Christianity and Christian philosophy is about as Jewish as a ham and cheese sandwich. On white bread.
Christianity’s use of Jewish trappings and imagery is most analogous to the way an Orientalist might throw together a Japanese silk scroll painting, a Ming vase and a Ganesh statue in an evocation of “the mysterious East.” It does not suggest any deep influence by or understanding of Jewish philosophy — and indeed its appropriation of these symbols has brought the Jewish people far more injury than gain. Once they declared Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, Roman authorities were left with the uncomfortable question of the Messiah’s messy departure.
Had the Pharisees wished to kill Jesus, they would have had little trouble in doing so. The Romans happily let local authorities deal with local criminals and rabble-rousers. Blasphemy was punishable by death (though it is not clear how frequently rabbinical courts of the time actually enforced capital punishment). And the Gospel of John, which has the Pharisees complaining “but we have no right to execute anyone!”, also includes the story of the woman charged with adultery and sentenced to death by stoning. There is no record of Pilate freeing prisoners during Passover — and indeed Pilate incurred the wrath of the Jews by placing shields with pagan inscriptions in his Jerusalem palace. Given Pilate’s reputation for brutality, it is not hard to envision him condemning a popular Jewish holy man to death as a potential threat. Imagining the Pharisees violating social taboos against cooperating with the hated Romans to condemn that man — or pressing to have him crucified rather than stoned as per Rabbinical law for reasons which have never been explained — is more challenging.