St. John Chrysostom – Spiteful or Not?

If there is one thing that St. John Chrysostom is known for, other than his eloquent homilies, it’s that he was often hateful in those very homilies. Robert Wilken calls him a “notorious Jew-hater” (Judaism and the Early Christian Mind, p. 1). This, of course, is in reference to his homilies Against the Jews, where he goes on a vicious attack against Jews, calling them, among other insults, “Christ-killers.” On another occasion, too, he preached that we should slap anyone we hear blaspheming God (Homilies on the Statutes, 1.32).

So it may come as a surprise to read this quote:

If we chance to be among heathens, let us thus stop their mouths. Without wrath, without harshness. For if we do it with wrath, it no longer seems to be the boldness (of one who is confident of his cause,) but passion: but if with gentleness, this is boldness indeed. For in one and the same thing success and failure cannot possibly go together. The boldness is a success: the anger is a failure. Therefore, if we are to have boldness, we must be clean from wrath that none may impute our words to that. No matter how just your words may be, when you speak with anger, you ruin all: no matter how boldly you speak, how fairly reprove, or what not. See this man, how free from passion as he discourses to them! For he did not abuse them: he did but remind them of the words of the Prophets. For, to show you that it was not anger, at the very moment he was suffering evil at their hands, he prayed, saying, “Lay not to their charge this sin.” So far was he from speaking these words in anger; no, he spoke in grief and sorrow for their sakes. As indeed this is why it speaks of his appearance, that “they saw his face as it had been the face of an angel,” on purpose that they might believe. Let us then be clean from wrath. The Holy Spirit dwells not where wrath is: cursed is the wrathful. (Homily on Acts 7:35).

Where does the difference come from? I think one possible factor is change in attitude. The Homilies Against the Jews and Homilies on the Statutes are from when John was a priest in Antioch, whereas the homilies on Acts were delivered when he had become Archbishop of Constantinople. Although, St. John does also have anti-Jewish statements in other homilies.

Another, probably more important thing to remember is context. The slapping called for in the Homilies on the Statutes was done in response to a specific issue plaguing Antioch. The homilies insulting the Jews were likewise done in order to prevent Christians from taking part in Jewish festivals, and it was preached at a time where tensions between religious groups (Christian, pagan, and Jewish) were extraordinarily high. As we know from St. Ambrose’s letter to Theodosius, it was common in the 4th century for Jews to burn basilicas and for Christians to burn synagogues. And St. John is engaged in a form of rhetoric common at that time, where the intent was to vilify the enemy as much as possible (called psogos – see Wilken’s book John Chrysostom and the Jews for more). (Yet in another context, he actually describes Jews as allies for helping return him to Constantinople). Presumably in the Acts homily, he is dealing with a crowd whose main problem is anger, which is why he exaggerates the sin of wrath.

Hopefully Jewish-Christian dialogue can move from Against the Jews to more of Homily on Acts 7:35.

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