“Those Curs,” Host Libel, and Paul (Day 24)

A reading of Philippians 3:1b–4:3

In a nutshell: Paul delivers advice edged with a sense of immediacy of death. He criticizes advocates of circumcision and urges serious listeners to drop everything and follow Jesus.

Watch out for those curs, watch out for those perpetrators of fraud, watch out for those who would carve up your flesh.
—Philippians 3:2

Blood and Host Libels in Anti-Semitism

I owe a great deal of my understanding of anti-Semitism to Kenneth Stow, the author of Jewish Dogs: An Image and Its Interpreters. Stow is Professor Emeritus of Jewish History at the University of Haifa. He gave the lecture embedded below at the Beth Tzedec Synagogue in Toronto in January, 2008.

In this lecture as well as in his book (which is quite dense, so I’m afraid I can only recommend it to brave readers), Stow traces the long, painful history of blood and host libels. Most memorably, Stow recounts a story told by Chilean-Jewish author and activist Marjorie Agosin (minute 5:00 in the video above):

My classmates, as though innocently, … called me to join in a game. They made a circle and told me to get in the middle. I saw all of them with their white aprons, and suddenly their faces went dark, became threatening with me in the middle of them, and I felt the press of the group on my shoulders. There was nowhere I could run or hide as I heard their yell, “¿Quién se robó el pan del horno? Who stole the bread from the oven?” And the chorus responded, “Los perros judíos. The Jewish dogs.” They said it slowly and I was deeply hurt. The practice then was also to strike the child in the middle.

This story is an example of a host libel. The “bread” is Christ’s body, which the Jewish “dogs” steal. A blood libel is similar except that it is in that case the blood of Jesus that the Jewish “dogs” attempt to steal. It was believed in medieval times that the Jews,

believing paradoxically (which they obviously could not if they remained Jews) that the consecrated wafer was in fact the very body of Jesus, desired to renew upon it and him the agonies of the Passion, by stabbing, tormenting, or burning it. Such was the intensity of their paradoxical hatred that they would not abandon their Jewish perfidy even if the sacred wafer manifested its indignation and its miraculous essence by shedding blood, emitting voices, or even taking to flight. There is no need to regard as a wholly spiteful invention the statement that the consecrated wafer shed drops of blood, the most common manner in which the outrage became known, for a scarlet fungoid organism (called for this reason the Micrococcus prodigiosus) may sometimes form on stale food kept in a dry place, having an appearance not unlike blood. The charge of desecrating the Host was leveled against Jews all over the Roman Catholic world, frequently bringing in its train persecution and massacre. (Jewish Virtual Library)

This was an official teaching of the church from 1215 onward. Horrific paintings and drawings throughout the medieval era show Jews stealing children in order to sacrifice them and consume their flesh and blood. In the lecture Stow also discusses the painting below, which belongs to the Sandomierz Cathedral. The painting shows multiple scenes in the same frame, beginning with the purchase of a child in the bottom right corner, following the bloody ritual across the right side, and concluding in the bottom left corner with the dog (a metaphor for Jews) eating the remains.

In 2014 the painting was put on display for the international Day of Jewish-Catholic Dialogue in order to open up conversations about the Jewish roots of Catholicism.

Sandomierz_katedra_-_mord_rytualny
“Mord Rytualny” (“Ritual Murder”). Karol (Charles) de Prevot. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

This is a disturbing history, all of which of course comes after Paul’s letters to the Galatians and Philippians. But it’s a history that was certainly aided by the fact that we continue to read these two letters and use them for our own ends. Today I simply want to observe the course this language took in our history, lest we forget.

Questions for the Road:

  • Have you ever encountered blood and host libels before? Does your family have any history with the Jewish tradition and anti-Semitism? Where do you see this kind of thinking trickle into everyday language about Jewish people?
  • Dogs were the carrion eaters, the scavengers of the ancient world. A teacher once told me that in the early days of the movement Jesus followers were also called “dogs” because, of course, they were said to “eat” the body and blood of Christ in their ritual meals. If this is true, what would it mean to take seriously that Jewish and Christian identities are so deeply intertwined?

Letters of Paul small squareThanks for reading this entry from the #30DaysofPaul reading challenge. We’re reading the seven undisputed letters of Paul in 30 days: 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Philemon, Philippians, Romans. Why not join us? Download the reading plan, which is based on the work of the Westar Paul Seminar as published in The Authentic Letters of Paul.

Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing & Outreach Director. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history.

2 thoughts on ““Those Curs,” Host Libel, and Paul (Day 24)

  1. Phil 3:1b-4:3, a paraphrase: Paul knows that he is repeating what he’s said before (oral, writing?), but he views it as insurance for the Philippians.

    Continue to look out for the advocates of circumcision – dogs, evil-workers, mutilators. I could brag about the flesh, too, if I wished: circumcised on the 8th day, a Benjaminite of Israel, born of Hebrews, a pharisaic zeal for Torah, blameless under Torah, a persecutor of Christ’s associations. But this righteousness from the law is all rubbish compared to the righteousness from God based on trust. My goal is the resurrection from the dead by sharing Christ’s sufferings unto death. I press on, as Christ has made me his own. Let us be of the same mature mind. Imitate me. Destruction is the end of those who are enemies of the cross. But we expect the coming of the Lord who will conform our body of humiliation to his body of glory, as all things become subject to him. So stand firm in the Lord, you whom I dearly love.

    It distresses me that Euodia and Syntyche have not been of the same mind. I am asking you, my loyal friend, to help these women who have in full devotion struggled beside me, along with Clement, and all who have labored with me in the work of the gospel.

    Comment: Who knows the depths of deprivation that derived from Paul’s passionate division of the Jesus following community into circumcised workers for evil and uncircumcised workers for good? Once again I’m going to lay some of the blame at the feet of imminent second coming belief which tended to force the development of criteria for being in or out. Even in his inclusionary remarks, Paul envisioned all Israel eventually seeing it his way (Rom 9-11).

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