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16 - Accusations of Jewish persecution in early Christian sources, with particular reference to Justin Martyr and the Martyrdom of Polycarp

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 March 2010

Graham N. Stanton
Affiliation:
King's College London
Guy G. Stroumsa
Affiliation:
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
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Summary

For in truth your hand was lifted high to do evil, for even when you had killed the Christ you did not repent, but you also hate and murder us…

(Justin Martyr, Dialogue 133.6)

The charge that the Jews actively sought the death of Christians lies at the heart of the oft-rehearsed scholarly debate over Jewish involvement in the persecution of Christians, a debate which need only be cursorily signalled here. Harnack's vivid account, summarized in his words ‘as a rule [sic], whenever bloody persecutions are afoot in later days, the Jews are either in the background or in the foreground’, offers a useful starting-point. True, it is an account which easily can be shown to rely more on rhetoric than on wealth of evidence, which even when taken as historical record is remarkable for its paucity: in fact, it was not historical evidence so much as Harnack's own understanding of Christianity's discovery of its true identity which shaped his narrative. Yet it is an account which has left a long legacy. W. H. C. Frend's rhetoric is equally well known: ‘In the persecutions which were to wrack Asia in the reign of Marcus Aurelius the Jew was often in the background [note the echo of Harnack]. For nearly another century he [sic] continued to stir up trouble wherever he could.’ This is only a high point of a continuing theme in the early part of Frend's account, and has evoked an angry response from the critics, one which betrays that more than historical fidelity to the sources is at stake.

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 1998

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