In his extensive writings, especially his polemics against various heretical groups, the church father Augustine of Hippo (354-430 CE) made frequent reference to Jews and Judaism. Paula Fredriksen explains the role Jews played in early Christian thought, the inconsistency of Augustine’s approach to the issue, and his attitude toward the real-life Jews of North Africa.
Christianity emerged in the 2nd century CE as a family of warring sects composed almost exclusively of ex-pagan Gentiles. As they faced off against one another, each claiming to be the true community of revelation, these Gentile sects derided their Christian rivals by accusing them of being “Jews,” of being “like the Jews,” or of being “worse than the Jews.” It was in this period that [what some scholars term] “thinking with Jews” became hardwired into Christian theology, [and] thus Christian identity. . . .
[This happened] in part because “Jews” were put forward as a polemical category by [Christian scripture itself]. Paul’s complaints about his apostolic competition (“Are they Hebrews? So am I! . . .”) and Jesus’ complaints about Pharisees, Sadducees, and chief priests shape the [New Testament]; while the Torah and the Prophets are filled with the complaints of Moses, of Jeremiah [and other prophets], and of God about the stony hearts, stiff necks, and spiritual inconstancy of the people of Israel. [Later] this older intra-Jewish polemic mutated into anti-Jewish polemic. . . .
Augustine is both a conspicuous exception to this patristic intra-Christian tradition of anti-Jewish rhetoric and a no less conspicuous, indeed ferocious, continuator of it. His discourse differed according to his enemy. Against those heretics par excellence, the Manicheans, Augustine surprisingly developed original, irenic, and positive ways of “thinking with Jews.” Against the Donatists, [a Christian schismatic group], however, no anti-Jewish calumny was too low, no imputation of malice too vicious. . . .
[And] what about [Augustine’s own day], and the practice of Augustine’s Jewish contemporaries? Did [contemporary] Israel—that perduring community of unbelievers—have any positive relevance for the community of Christ? Augustine considers the Jews’ continuing practice “a marvel to be greatly respected. . . . The Jewish nation under foreign monarchs whether pagan or Christian has never lost the sign of their law, by which they are distinguished from all other nations and peoples.” Some divine initiative must continue to preserve and to protect Jewish practice.