While Andreas’ account of Jesus’ miracles in parts V, VI, and VII is certainly not the most gripping passage of the poem, it is indeed one of the most fascinating in terms of scriptural interpretation. In these scenes, Andreas is confronted by “The Lord of the angels, Saviour of Men” (engla þeoden, / neregend fira)1 in the form of a “Sentinel of the sea” (weges weard: the “ward of the journey/‘way’”), which we can only assume is the figure of Jesus in disguise.2 In part V of the poem, Jesus, or “The Glory of kings, the Beginning and the end” (Him ða of ceole oncwæð / cyninga wuldor, frægn fromlice / fruma ond ende), begins to question Andreas on the nature of Christ’s miracles, prompting Andreas to recount the miracles he has witnessed, as well as to confirm the divine nature of Jesus as a sort of trial. There are many fascinating aspects of Andreas’ “gospel” (not to be confused with the Acts, or Gospel, of Andrew), one of them being the story of Jesus’ “sign” (both tacan: token and beacan: beacon are used in this passage for “sign”) in the form of bringing an image on a stone wall to life. Interestingly, this is a miracle that I had trouble finding attested outside this poem, perhaps indicating that it is apocryphal or a fabrication of Cynewulf, which has its own implications.
Of further interest is Cynewulf’s depiction of the “Jews” (old english here) throughout this truncated gospel. In his account, not only Andreas but also Jesus spend a great deal of time discussing the deep flaws of those who hadn’t accepted Christ as the Son of God. Jesus (still in the form of a seaman) refers to the “nation of Jews” (Iudea cynn)3 as “lacking piety” (arleasan: dishonorable, base, impious, wicked), “wretched men” (hæleð unsælige: unhappy, unfortunate, wicked, wretched men), “hostile and homicidal” (grome gealgmode: literally “angry, cruel, fierce, oppressive, hostile,” and “sad, gloomy, angry” smushed together), “sinners,” (synnige: sinful) and having “evil intentions” (inwidþancum: evil thought, hostile intention), “promoting blasphemy against the Son of God” (wið godes bearne / ahof hearmcwide).4 Andreas continues this derision. When he is describing the Jewish priests of the Second Temple, he describes them as acting with “evil intent” (inwitðanc:5 evil thought, hostile intent)—furthermore, the priest “knew in his conscience” (He on gewitte6 oncneow) of the disciples’ righteous intentions, yet impeded the spread of the good news anyway.
In contrast with the canonical gospels, Andreas’ story adds a level of deep evil to the character of the Iudea cynn and their priests. Most of the negative characteristics that Cynewulf attributes to both groups are those of inherent flaws and are given to the group as a whole. However, in the Gospel of Matthew, the “Jews” are hardly mentioned, being limited to certain phrases such as “King of the Jews” when Jesus is hunted by Herod and during his passion—despite Matthew being referred to as the “most Jewish” of the four canonical gospels by Graham Stanton.7 It is true that certain members of the Jewish community were directly targeted by the Matthean author, but even these attacks are mostly limited to scribes and Pharisees, who are denounced by Jesus not because they are evil, but because they are “hypocrites” and “blind guides”8 who “do not practice what they teach.”
In terms of the Iudea cynn, it is not directly discussed at all9—probably because Jesus and his disciples, as an emerging sect of Judaism, were considered to be part of it at the time that Matthew was composed.10 As such, Anthony J. Saldarini argues that Jesus was “a Jewish teacher in conflict with the other Jewish teachers in the broadly diverse Jewish community of the eastern Mediterranean at the end of the 1st century.”11 This depiction is an excellent representation of the stark difference between the Old English versus 1st century conceptions of the Jewish and Christian dichotomy.
At the time of Matthew’s composition, the followers of Christ were just one group of the larger Jewish community among many, and Jesus’ criticisms of individuals of these sects should be viewed and interpreted in that light. Like any emerging minority religious group, early Christ followers were engaged in a struggle for religious legitimacy in opposition to numerous well-established sects of Judaism—which were represented by the “scribes and Pharisees” that Matthew depicts. According to Saldarini, the attacks on these sects and individuals can be seen as a form of protection by the earliest Christians from the dominant Jewish groups of the time.12 Graham Stanton argues that in such attempts to secure legitimacy (for what was at the time a rival Jewish sect), the Matthean author deemed it necessary to make certain claims about the “ethical behavior” of opposing groups.13 This resulted in polemic against the religious leaders of such groups, who were the propagators of the religious convictions that Matthew felt the need to defend the early Christian community against.
Cynewulf’s direct attacks on the innate moral quality of not only the Jewish religious leaders but the Jewish people as a whole are indicative of the way in which New Testament scripture had been twisted and decontextualized by the time Andreas was written. After a thousand years and geographic separation, “certain members” of a wider Jewish community had become not only broadened to include the Iudea cynn or the “Jews” in general, but had become malevolent, “hostile and homicidal” actors who thwarted the followers of Christ due to their “evil intentions.” Over the centuries and across continents, this scriptural game of telephone distanced Christians from the political, religious, and social dynamics of the 1st century Jewish communities in Palestine, resulting in anti-Jewish sentiment that persists to this day and is certainly evident in Andreas.
- All Old English translations are from J.R. Clark Hall’s A Concise Old English Dictionary
- The merging of the figures of “God the Son” and “God the Father” is another interesting aspect of this poem worth exploring in a discussion of medieval trinitarian interpretations.
- “Cynn” has a wide variety of meanings, including: kind, sort, rank, family, generation, pedigree, kin, race, people, etc.
- Lines 557-567
- For those of you interested in James Joyce’s Ulysses, this base of this word—inwit, meaning evil or deceit—features in the Stephen Dedalus motif “agenbite of inwit”
- The etymological base of “gewitte” is “witt,” meaning “conscience,” but also “knowledge,” “sense,” or “intellect,” giving the translator the interesting position of potentially making a statement about the chief priest’s moral character.
- Stanton, Graham. The Gospels and Jesus. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2013, p. 58
- Matthew 23:13
- Jews are mentioned indirectly in the form of those who “reject Christ’s message” in the parable of the wicked tenants in the vineyard of Matthew 21:33-42, which is a direct allegory to the Israeli Jews’ unwillingness to accept Jesus’ message. Instead of accepting him, as the tenants of the vineyard “should have,” they throw him out of the vineyard and kill him.
- When members of the Jewish community who are not Christ followers are described, they are usually characterized as being flawed, but not inherently so—they are those who still “need to be convinced” of Christ’s divinity or a sort of prodigal son, rather than being fundamentally evil or hostile and homicidal.
- Anthony J. Saldarini, “Reading Matthew Without Anti- Semitism,” The Gospel of Matthew in Current Study. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2001, p. 167
- Anthony J. Saldarini, “Reading Matthew Without Anti- Semitism,” The Gospel of Matthew in Current Study. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2001, p. 180
- Stanton, Graham. The Gospels and Jesus. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2013, p. 68