‘What have you done, O Israel?’ – Melito of Sardis and the Jews

Gothic Altarpiece, Musee de Cluny, Paris

If you followed my advice yesterday and read Melito’s excellent sermon on Easter, you will have found yourself facing things that make today’s Christian uneasy. They make us uneasy living in a world after the Holocaust, after various attempts in different mediaeval nations to expel the Jewish people. They make us uneasy in a world where violent men grab, twist, misuse, and misread words to bring about violence, hatred, and destruction.

Melito says, ‘He is the one who was slain. And where was he slain? In the midst of Jerusaelm. By whom? By Israel.’ From here, he launches into a discussion of the culpability of Israel in the crucifixion of Christ. He launches into his high rhetoric, with various series of parallel clauses (with which the entire sermon is rife):

It was necessary that he suffer, but not at your hands.
It was necessary that he be treated with dishonour, but not at your hands.
It was necessary that he be judged, but not at your hands.
It was necessary that he be hanged, but not by you and your right hand.

Melito sees here the sorrowful reality that the people of Israel, whose Messiah Jesus is, are the very people who rejected him and dragged him before a Roman tribunal, crying for his blood. ‘And,’ Melito says to Israel, ‘you bound his beautiful hands which had fashioned you from the earth.’ He betrays here a high Christology (of note to me), but also brings home the willingness of the Jewish nation in the death of the Messiah.

He goes on to say what they should have been doing — that is, saving Jesus, since he is their King and Messiah. All of this will probably make a lot of people uneasy. So far, I’m not especially uneasy. It is true that the leaders of the Jewish people and a large mob thereof took Jesus before Pilate, and that Pilate at their insistence crucified him. The Romans are to blame as much as the Jewish people. But the people of Israel who participated in and condoned the crucifixion were as much in the wrong as the soldiers who hammered in the spikes.

Where it gets more uncomfortable, in fact, is here:

You have abandoned the Lord — You were not found by him.
You did not receive the Lord — You did not find mercy from him.
You dashed the Lord to the ground — You were dashed to the ground.

Melito in fact says more in the middle of his address to Israel, displaying the fact that they had killed their Lord, that ‘The King of Israel has been killed by Israel’s right hand.’

We must allow ourselves to find this passage contra Israel unsettling. But we cannot toss Melito aside. I tire of conversations where I mention John Chrysostom, and the other person inevitably mentions his sermons against the Jews and thereby condemns dear Goldenmouth. We need to look at these things and come to grips with them in their own context; we also need to see the beauty in Melito and Chrysostom that has nothing to do with the Jewish nation.

So, context.

First, let us recall the dates: c. 165/190. The Christian movement is still weak and relatively small. They are living through some of the earliest systematic persecutions of the Roman Empire. The Nazarenes (as the Jewish Eigtheen Benedictions refer to them) have been divided from the Jewish religion for maybe 100 years.

The Jewish nation has been scattered, first in AD 70, then in the 130s. They are everywhere the Christians are; but they are the older brother. They also have rights within the Roman world; although odd in Roman eyes, Judaism is at least an ancient, national religion. Unlike Christianity.

Christianity has no protections and in this period is often considered by the Romans as a dangerous group that meets illegally to commit incest and eat babies. In other words, at this second-century moment, Christians are the weaker group.

When Melito is preaching, he is using various rhetorical devices, including addressing persons not there. Israel is not in his local church. This address is sometimes used by patristic preachers to address characters in the biblical text. I do not know if, when he addresses Israel Melito means Israel 100-some years ago or Israel of his day, but the former is not an impossibility.

Furthermore, he is not preaching to incite hatred or violence. Nowhere in the text of On the Pasch does Melito encourage hatred of the people of Israel. It is, rather, a stratagem to stir up the wonder of the audience at what went on in the Passion. Yes, the immortal dies at the hands of mortals. But not only that — the King of Israel is slain by Israel! This is a shocking moment. Should we not be shocked by what goes on at Golgotha?

Perhaps today Melito’s sermon would be inappropriate. But he did not live now. Allow his words to shock you. Allow them to enable you to see the horror of what the entire human race did on Good Friday. And then move on beyond his address of the Jewish people, to the beauty of this:

So come, all you clans of humankind, mingled with sin, and receive forgiveness for your sinful deeds.
For I am your forgiveness.
I am the pasch of salvation.
I am the lamb who was slain for you.
I am your ransom.
I am your life.
I am your light.
I am your salvation.
I am your king.
I will raise you up with my right hand.
I am bringing you up to the heights of heaven.
There I will show you the eternal Father.


2 thoughts on “‘What have you done, O Israel?’ – Melito of Sardis and the Jews

  1. The problem with these texts is not that they acknowledge the culpability of Israel’s leadership in the slaughter of Israel’s Messiah: the New Testament does make such points (e.g., Acts 2:23). But we have to acknowledge that in the NT, this is an intra-Jewish conversation: there is a long and venerable tradition in Judaism of calling out the sins of the nation and summoning them to repentance, and the apostles are participating in that tradition, not departing from it, through their kerygmatic summons to the people. Moreover, the NT tradition of the culpability of Israel’s leadership also has a certain gentleness to it: Jesus prays for the forgiveness of the leadership and of the people while on the Cross on the basis of their ignorance (Luke 23:24); St. Peter also acknowledges the people’s ignorance in the crucifixion (Acts 3:17).

    The problem with texts like Περι Πασχα and St. Chrysostom’s anti-Jewish sermons is, rather, that they fail to understand the NT’s reaffirmation of Israel’s election and centrality to God’s eschatological purposes, even in the face of their disobedience and rejection of the Gospel (and, of course, the Messiah). Romans 9-11 is the archetypical text for this, and as the theological climax to St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans as a whole, our understanding of this pericope is key to understanding the Apostle’s theology. St. Paul opens with the affirmation that “They are Israelites, and to them belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is God over all, blessed forever, Amen” (Romans 9:4-5). All of those things–sonship, glory, covenants, Torah, sacrificial worship in the Temple, covenantal promises, patriarchs, and the Messiah–belong to Israel, present tense, in St. Paul’s mind. For St. Paul–someone who was willing to reaffirm his fidelity to Torah long after his conversion (Acts 21:17-26)–the divine gifts given to the people of Israel remain theirs even despite their rejection of God’s work in and through the Gospel: the Jews are still adopted sons of God, they still possess glory, etc. “God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew” (Romans 11:2), both on account of the Jews who have gladly received the Gospel (Romans 11:5) and on account of God’s promise to redeem the Jews in the future who presently reject it (11:24-26). The election of Israel persists, and is irrevocable (11:28-29).

    The earliest expression of the Christian faith, the expression canonized in the Holy Scriptures–true paleo-orthodoxy, one might say–is of Torah-observant Jews who embrace the Gospel, joined in eucharistic communion with Gentiles who are expected to follow some aspects of Torah and are expected to learn Torah (Acts 15:19-21), but who are not expected to become Jews or obligated to engage in the same halakhic lifestyle that Jews are. I don’t think that we are throwing out or disrespecting the Greek Fathers of the later tradition by acknowledging that they, for the most part, seem to have forgotten this heritage and why it is essential to the Church’s identity.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful response. I would probably argue that for Melito it’s a different situation than for Chrysostom because of the century and a half between them. Christians in Melito’s day are probably still smarting from being banned from Sardis’s synagogues (it’s been a few years since I read the literature on Melito [or Melito himself!], so I may be remembering falsely). There is also this ongoing awkward balance in ancient cities with large Jewish populations where Christians would convert to Judaism; this, some interpreters say, is Chrysostom’s main issue — Christians who are still active synagogue attendees, some of whom convert. I do know that Christians in Alexandria sometimes converted.

      But it is a difficult balance after the initial Jewish-Christians passed away; their biological and spiritual descendants have banded together to form a third race (in Justin Martyr’s words — in the 490s Gelasius calls Christians a new race), and at times have lost sight of the Jewish ancestry of the Church. I would definitely disagree with Justin in the Dialogue with Trypho when he speaks ill of Christians who still follow the Jewish law. I realise as I write this disjointed response that this is an important question in the Early Church that I’ve never fully investigated.

      My final thought is that, while there’s nothing wrong with criticising Chrysostom or Melito or Justin, it ought to be done in the right place and right time. That is, when someone has written a piece about Chrysostom’s lamentations about people preferring chariot racing to church or about his powers of exegesis, the appropriate response is not, ‘Chrysostoms Sermons Against the Jews were wrong in x, y, z ways and later contributed to Judenhass’.

      Anyway, you’ve given me much to think about. Thanks again! (I hope this reply makes sense.)

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