Centuries of Persecution (book review)



Doctrine impacts action: this is a key premise established by bro Jason Hensley in his book Centuries of Persecution.  The book’s theme is encapsulated in its subtitle, the Catholic Church and the Jews.  In charting the fraught relationship between Catholicism and the Jews he takes the reader on a journey starting in Genesis and finishing in Revelation, demonstrating the scriptural basis for this antipathy.

The book opens with a discussion of Israel’s role as a privileged people – a nation selected by God as his witness.  Israel was to be holy – separate from the Gentiles – yet at the same time a light testifying to Gentiles in darkness about the greatness of Israel’s God.  Israel failed to live up to this high calling and its failings are portrayed in graphic detail in the Old Testament.  The nation suffered many punishments for its faithlessness, yet God never turned his back on the covenant made with the nation.

Israel’s origin as a separate people may be traced to the call of Abraham in Genesis 12.  In the previous chapter another power is introduced which became the perpetual nemesis of God’s people – both natural and spiritual Israel.  The rebellion against God of the men who built the tower of Babel on the plain of Shinar (Genesis 11:2-4) established a pattern which became embodied in the name Babylon.

As demonstrated by bro Barker and bro Boulton in their book Apocalypse and History, the history of God’s people may be summarised as the conflict between Zion and Babylon.  In that respect it reflects the dual contests that are a common feature of the Biblical record – the conflict between darkness and light, truth and error, right and wrong, flesh and spirit.

The kingdom of men in the form of Babylon overthrew Judah and overturned the throne of David.  Babylon in its turn also was overthrown, but as the head of the image revealed to Nebuchadnezzar, Babylon’s pernicious influence has been evident in the kingdom of men ever since.  Although a remnant returned to the land after the fall of Babylon, the restoration of David’s throne awaits the coming of him “whose right it is”.  Those who returned to the land experienced anti-Semitic hostility and opposition from the Gentiles around them, a pattern of behaviour which became an entrenched and enduring characteristic of the Babylonian kingdom of men.

Centuries of Persecution quotes extensively from the New Testament to show how the Lord Jesus Christ and the Apostles viewed the erring Jews.  Whilst never excusing them for their failure to respond to the gospel, it is absolutely clear that their “heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is, that they might be saved” (Romans 10:1).

Bro Jason makes a compelling case that the Lord and the Apostles were under no illusion that God had abandoned Israel.  On the contrary, it was recognised by believers in the first century that the Jews retained a place in God’s affections and plan.  In the ensuing centuries, however, as the ecclesia became corrupted and evolved into the apostate church, attitudes towards the Jews of those who identified as Christians changed.  Rather than seeing Israel as central to God’s plan and purpose the corrupt church came to regard the Jews as having been cast aside by God and worthy of contempt.

Having abandoned its faith in the Hope of Israel, the church adopted a teaching known as replacement theology or supersessionism under which it saw itself as the successor to the Jews and the true Israel of God.  (Readers of certain editions of the AV will see this error reflected in some of the chapter summaries at the top of the page in several prophetical passages relating to Israel.)  Bro Hensley demonstrates that the church’s adoption of the trinity underpinned the promotion of this teaching because it allowed it to portray the Jews as being guilty of deicide – the murder of God.  Using quotes from the “church fathers” the books chronicles how, as support for the trinity increased, the language used to deride and vilify the Jews grew more virulent.

At the beginning of the fourth century, for strategic and political reasons, Constantine promoted the corrupt church and it became the dominant religious force in the Roman Empire.  With the support of the state behind it, the apostate Christian opposition to Jews became more intense.  The anti-Semitic rhetoric was now accompanied by overt physical persecution of Jews and by laws which limited their freedom.[i]  This was the beginning of a legal framework on which Constantine’s successors, both secular and religious, would build as they developed further anti-Semitic laws in ensuing centuries.

Centuries of Persecution covers the tribulations of the Jews through the Middle Ages, in particular in the context of the Crusades.  It outlines the development of the evil blood libel that was used to justify hate crimes against the Jews for many centuries, a falsehood which was still being peddled in the early years of the twentieth century.  What started as a religiously based hatred developed over the centuries into a racially based antipathy towards Jews.  In this context, it may come as a surprise to some readers to learn that a primary objective of the famous Spanish Inquisition was to harass Jews who had converted to Catholicism on the basis that their conversion may have been questionable.

The anti-Semitic zeal of the Catholic Church was retained by many of the early leaders of the Protestant movement: the book includes several strident quotes from Martin Luther and John Calvin in which they vehemently condemn the Jews.  Thus contempt for the Jews and a warped view of their place in God’s plan and purpose as promoted by Catholic theologians became inculcated in the mainstream Protestant churches.

As time moved on some of the more hysterical anti-Semitic rhetoric such as the blood libel became less popular, although it never disappeared completely.  Along with the traditional canards, elaborate conspiracy theories began to emerge about Jewish financiers and revolutionaries clandestinely plotting to take over or control the world.  This reached a pinnacle early in the twentieth century with the publication of the spurious book Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion.  Although quickly exposed as a fraud, it found advocates around the world, including Henry Ford in the United States and Adolph Hitler in Germany.  Amazingly, this grubby publication remains in print today more than a century after it was shown to be a forgery, testifying to the enduring power of anti-Semitism.

An entrenched anti-Semitic heritage in both Catholicism and Protestantism provided fertile soil for the extremist policies of the Nazi Party and its sympathisers.  The writer outlines the rise to power of Adolph Hitler and the Nazi Party and their increasingly stringent policies against the Jews.  These culminated in the excesses of the Holocaust.  Aiding and abetting the Nazis and their sympathisers across Europe was the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church.  While the book acknowledges that some individual Catholics tried to assist Jews who were being persecuted it shows that many others, including ordained Catholic clergymen, were in lock step with the Nazis.  As the books demonstrates, this especially was the case in Eastern Europe, notably Croatia and Slovakia.  Even after the defeat of Nazism, the Catholic Church’s support for its anti-Semitic policies was manifested in the assistance it provided to help war criminals avoid prosecution for their barbaric behaviour towards the Jews and others.

The book concludes with a chapter which discusses why God has allowed his chosen people to be so horribly afflicted throughout their existence.  Three reasons suggested are to:

1.       encourage repentance and a change of heart;

2.       reduce the risk that the Jews would be assimilated, thus failing to remain a separate people; and

3.       provide a catalyst for the establishment of Israel as an independent Jewish state (although, curiously, in this context bro Hensley does not discuss the relevance of Jeremiah 16:16).

Evidence is provided from both scripture and history to illustrate how these outcomes were more or less achieved.  Leaving aside the third political reason, there are implicit lessons for spiritual Israel in the first two reasons which help us to understand why trials and afflictions might come upon the saints in daily life.  There is also a lesson in this book about the importance of maintaining a clear appreciation of the Hope of Israel and the place of Israel in God’s plan and purpose.

Centuries of Persecution achieves its objective in providing a comprehensive overview of the conflict between Babylon and the people of God.  It is extensively illustrated and documented with quotes from both original sources and historians, although annoyingly (and perhaps somewhat ironically) the end notes use Roman numerals.  The book could have been slightly better edited; in places, it is slightly repetitive, and it would appear that the editors have omitted a section from the text without removing the relevant end notes (notes XXIX to XXXII), which remain with no link to the main text.  These flaws aside, this is a book that is recommended for readers of all ages.  Much of the material will be familiar to many who have taken an interest in these matters, but this is the first book in our community which pulls together the whole story from a Christadelphian perspective.


Geoff Henstock



This review was first published in The Testimony February 2016