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Overview: The Church and the Jews

Pope Alexander IIThe period between 1000 and 1500 was characterized, above all else, by the creation of a significant Jewish presence in medieval western Christendom, forcing both the Christian majority and the Jewish minority to new awareness of and interaction with one another. Rapidly developing western Christendom consisted of sprawling and diverse territories, housing a wide variety of ethnic, linguistic, and cultural communities. The major force that held the heterogeneous elements of Europe together was the Roman Catholic Church, and thus the Church played a dominant role in the fate of the emergent Jewish communities of medieval western Christendom.

To be sure, the history of Christian-Jewish relations did not begin in the year 1000. Christianity was, after all, born within the Jewish community of Palestine. Indeed, the complex evolution of Christianity out of a Jewish matrix fostered a highly charged and deeply ambivalent stance on the part of the subsequent Christian world towards Judaism and the Jews. On the one hand, Jews were respected by Christians as the first to acknowledge the one true God in the universe; at the same time, it was difficult for Christians to comprehend how the Jews could squander their original insight, how they could have failed to acknowledge the messianic figure promised in their own sacred writings. On the one hand, these Jewish sacred writings were respectfully made an integral part of Christian Scripture; on the other hand, Christians were convinced that Jews grossly misread these sacred writings. On the one hand, the Jews represented the biological descendants of the original Israel; on the other hand, they were viewed as superseded by the spiritual descendants of the original Israel, i.e. Christians and Christianity.

Jesus and his immediate circle have left us no writings of their own, making reconstruction of the earliest phase of Christian history difficult or perhaps impossible. While there is wide-ranging disagreement as to the activities and messages of Jesus, it is broadly agreed that he saw himself as a Jew, was seen by his contemporaries as a Jew, surrounded himself with Jewish followers, addressed primarily his fellow-Jews, and was feared and persecuted by the Romans as a danger to the stability of the Jewish community of Palestine.

Paul is the first figure in the Christian world to leave his own writings. He was not one of Jesus’ immediate disciples; in fact, he was not a Palestinian Jew at all. Rather, Paul brought to his belief in Jesus the differing perspective of a diaspora Jew. Despite the lack of knowledge of Jesus’ own message, there is broad agreement that Paul introduced new themes and emphases, reflective of his somewhat different background. Paul’s writings show a sense of mission to the gentiles and complex wrestling with the place of Judaism and the Jews in the cosmic order. On the one hand, Paul regularly castigates the Jews for their failure to recognize Jesus and his unique place in history; at the same time, he proclaims ongoing loyalty to the people from whom he came, with a firm conviction that God—despite his wrath with the Jews—would eventually accept them once more. Paul’s ambivalence set the tone for subsequent Christian thinking. The writers of the gospels post-dated Paul and introduced into their depictions of Jesus and his disciples themes that evolved subsequent to the completion of Jesus’ earthly mission. Despite Jesus’ crucifixion at the hands of the Romans, the gospel writers portray only one salient conflict during Jesus’ lifetime—the conflict between the messianic figure and the disbelieving leaders of the Jewish people. The Jews are pictured as guilty of two major offenses—first, failure to recognize Jesus as Messiah and then, more stunningly, responsibility for his crucifixion. The gospels’ portrait of the Jews in fact serves to erase some of the complex ambivalence of the Pauline view; there is little in the gospels that proclaims God’s ongoing love for the Jewish people. The depiction of Jewish responsibility for the crucifixion of Jesus served to stigmatize the Jews over the centuries, to create potent anti-Jewish imagery associated with a core event in Christian sacred history.

Early Christian attitudes to Judaism and the Jews were rich with resentment over what was perceived as Jewish failure to perceive and acknowledge the truth of Jesus as Messiah. As Christianity developed rapidly across the Roman Empire, a new stance emerged, that of defensiveness. The Jewish foundations of much Christian thinking and the absorption of the Hebrew Bible into Christian Scripture created a concern that newly converted Christians might be susceptible to Jewish influence. These concerns led in two directions. On the spiritual plane, they led to heightened denigration of Judaism in an effort to emphasize the distinctions between Christian truth and Jewish error; on the more practical plane, they led to calls for segregating Jews from Christians so that there might be no harmful contact.

In the early fourth century, a decisive change took place in the status of Christianity within the Roman world. With Constantine, Christianity ceased to be a persecuted sect and evolved into the new foundation for imperial rule. With Christian accession to power, there was suddenly a need to define formally the place of Judaism and the Jews in Christian society. Constantine himself seems merely to have ratified the older status of the Jews as a legitimate religious tradition, to be limited in ways that would preclude any untoward Jewish impact on Christianity and Christians.

In the late fourth and early fifth century, it fell to the great theoretician of Christianity, Augustine of Hippo, to adumbrate a doctrine of Judaism that synthesized the various pre-existent elements and set the parameters for subsequent Christian policy vis-à-vis the Jews. Augustine established a recognized place for Jews in Christian society. Jewish presence was justified in a number of ways. In part, it was clearly God’s will, as Augustine reprised the Pauline sense of eventual reconciliation between God and the Jewish people. More immediately, the Jews served a number of useful functions for their Christian hosts. They proclaimed the truth of the Hebrew Bible, thus establishing a firm foundation for the Christian claims that Jesus fulfilled divinely revealed predictions of messianic advent. Moreover, Jewish sinfulness and immediate divine punishment served as a useful object lesson for all of humanity, proving beyond any doubt that God rewards righteousness and punishes sin.

The Augustinian doctrine of basic Jewish rights also set the parameters for subsequent Church policies. Jews were to comport themselves in ways that entailed no harm whatsoever to Christianity and Christians, and Christians were to be mindful always of their responsibility to preach Christian truth to their Jewish neighbors. Finally, Augustine also buttressed prior imagery of the Jews. Despite acknowledging the truth of the Hebrew Bible, Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries failed thoroughly in understanding the truths that God had revealed to them through the prophets, and later Jews compounded that initial error with their own obtuseness. Projecting punishment of the sinful Jews as a powerful object lesson—advanced by Augustine as one of the bases for Jewish rights in Christian society—strongly reinforced the gospel portrayal of Jewish wickedness and cemented that imagery in subsequent Christian consciousness.

So long as the overwhelming majority of world Jewry lived outside the orbit of Christian power, as has been described for the pre-1000 period, the Jewish issue was muted for the Christian authorities. Church leaders produced an extensive anti-Jewish literature during the first Christian millennium. Most of that literature, however, was defensive and intended for Christian audiences, focused on buttressing convictions as to the rejection of Old Israel (the Jews) and the election of a New Israel (the Christians). Genuine engagement with real Jews was limited. From the Jewish side, the lack of engagement with Christianity was yet more marked. Up until the year 1000 and well beyond, we possess not one single anti-Christian work composed by Jews living within western Christendom. Down through the end of the first millennium, the Jews of the world, concentrated in the realm of Islam, were by and large unconcerned with Christianity and Christians.

With the growth of Jewish population in western Christendom, serious engagement from both sides had to begin. Jews and Judaism penetrated the Christian consciousness in a far more immediate way than heretofore. This meant the augmentation of the negative elements in Church doctrine and the adumbration of more extensive policies for the Jewish minority living within western Christendom. For the Jewish minority, the changes were equally momentous. Jewish life was now constrained by new policies and new dangers; Jews were now regularly exposed to the blandishments of the majority Christian religious faith; Jewish leaders had to learn more about that majority faith and to fashion anti-Christian argumentation that would enable their Jewish followers to resist missionizing pressures and remain loyal to Judaism.

Medieval western Christendom was unified by broad commitment to Christianity and general acceptance of the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. The legacy bequeathed by antiquity to the medieval Church and its believers included doctrine and policy, both of which were expanded and developed during our period and profoundly influenced the Jews of medieval western Christendom. The historic ambivalence already highlighted remained prominent. For medieval Jews, this ambivalence was positive in that it included benign elements; it was problematic in that it included harmful elements; additionally, the ambivalence itself often proved dangerous, as popular thinking had great difficulty in maintaining the complicated balance that the Church demanded. For many in medieval European society, if the Jews had rejected Jesus and had forced his crucifixion, then they were legitimate objects of hostility and anger; the mitigations developed by the Church were often too complex for many among the masses to absorb. Church doctrine posited the dignity of Judaism and the Jews alongside their shortcomings. Jews were seen as the first to acknowledge God as ruler of the universe, the first bearers of the covenant with the one true God, and the first human community acknowledged by God as his chosen partners. In the Church view, the Jews had however, from the very beginning, shown signs of inability to live up to the demands of the covenantal relationship. The stories of Israelite rebelliousness against Moses and the strictures of the prophets against Israelite and Judean shortcomings reflect those early failures vividly. Eventually, Jewish sinfulness became unbearable, as Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries rejected the divinely appointed Messiah sent to redeem them. God had—according to the Church—no choice but to replace the Jews with a new covenant people, a new and true Israel. There were thus reasons to honor the Jews and to disdain them, reasons to welcome them and to reject them. The Pauline sense of an eventual return of the Jews to their senses and an eventual reconciliation with God further complicated matters. To the extent that this Pauline view was espoused seriously, it lent additional support to balancing the doctrinal scale. Despite the powerfully negative portrait of the Jews in the gospels, Jews were to be viewed benignly in terms of both their past and their ultimate future.

The basic directions of Church policy flowed directly from the fundamental doctrine just now indicated. Because of their past and future and their present theological usefulness, the medieval Roman Catholic Church insisted upon a legitimate place for Jews in Christian society. The basic rights of the Jews were proclaimed repeatedly by the leadership of the Church. Beginning in the twelfth century, popes promulgated regularly a Constitutio pro Judeis, a statement of basic Jewish rights, which included personal safety, protection of Jewish property, freedom from coerced conversion, and security for Jewish sacred space. Jews could not be assaulted or robbed, with the culprits maintaining that their actions were legitimate, because the victims were Jews. Jews were not to be brought to the baptismal fount by violence, and Jewish sacred space was to be inviolable. Beyond the formal statements, the leadership of the Church in fact recurrently demanded in practice recognition of these rights. Thus, for example, when anti-Jewish violence unexpectedly broke out in 1096, as part of the early stages of the First Crusade, Church leadership made note of the fact and, armed with this foreknowledge, made strenuous efforts to insure Jewish safety during the subsequent crusading ventures. These efforts were by and large successful, as the ecclesiastical leadership of the second and subsequent crusades insisted regularly that Jews were not to be harmed as part of the crusading enterprise. As increasingly irrational charges about Jews evolved during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Church leadership made similar efforts. These efforts, however, were somewhat less consistent. On the one hand, the mid-thirteenth-century allegation that Jews use Christian blood in their Passover rituals was decisively rejected by the papacy. On the other hand, when the charge of host desecration by Jews surfaced in Paris in 1290, the leadership of the Church proclaimed the sanctity of the site of an alleged host desecration and consequent miracle, in effect endorsing the dangerous new claim.

The issue of forced baptism was especially complex. On the one hand, the Church proclaimed unceasingly that force should not be used to win converts, that conversion was a matter of the heart and had to be undertaken with fullest understanding and commitment. The Church saw forced baptism as insincere and thus inappropriate to the spiritual life of the convert; indeed, it projected forced baptism as a danger to the Christian community, since the likelihood of backsliding and heresy among forced converts would be high. However, despite continued warnings against coerced conversion, when force was in fact exercised in conversion, the status of the convert turned out to be problematic. In the wide-ranging riots on the Iberian peninsula in 1391, when large numbers of Jews converted under duress, many out of a sense that their conversion would be nullified when normalcy was re-established, the Church was unwilling to permit those forcibly converted to return to the Jewish fold, thereby creating a significant problem of insincere converts among the New Christians.

Jews had a right to secure existence in medieval Christian society, but that right was accompanied by clearly defined limitations. Jews were expected to comport themselves in ways that would entail no harm to the Christian faith and society that hosted them. This translated, first of all, into prohibition of any Jewish blasphemy of Christianity. Jews were utterly forbidden to utter any statement or engage in any behavior that might be disrespectful of the ruling faith. For this reason, free and equal religious discussion between Christians and Jews was unacceptable, since it might entail Jewish criticism of the Christian faith. As we shall see, Christian missionizing was carried out under very controlled circumstances, which afforded no opportunity for Jewish criticism of Christianity. It is worth noting the asymmetry in this regard. Christians were perfectly free to denigrate Judaism and did so regularly; Jews were, however, precluded from any criticism of Christianity. The governing structure of medieval western Christendom did not include equal treatment for all as a basic tenet; indeed, it rejected any such notions of equality.

A major crisis for Europe’s Jews was precipitated in the 1230’s and 1240’s, when an apostate from Judaism named Nicholas Donin appeared at the papal court and claimed that the Talmud, the cornerstone of Jewish religious life in medieval Europe, was replete with blasphemies, including attacks on Jesus and Mary. Pope Gregory IX and his court were deeply distressed over this allegation and empowered Donin to undertake fuller investigation and to initiate requisite actions if the allegations were proven true. The scene of Donin’s follow-up activities was Paris, the site of the court of the pious King Louis IX of France—eventually Saint Louis—and of the famed University of Paris. Donin and a team of apostates knowledgeable in Hebrew translated important sections of the Talmud and organized their translations into a set of accusations. Armed with these accusations, Donin engineered—with royal backing—a trial of the Talmud, in which Donin himself served as prosecutor and four leading French rabbis appeared as witnesses for the defense. The Talmud was found guilty of blasphemy, and large quantities of rabbinic texts were burned in Paris in 1242, in a public display that sullied the Parisian populace’s perceptions of Judaism and the Jews and that sent the Jews of northern France into deep mourning.

The condemnation and burning of the Talmud had extensive aftermath. The Jews themselves argued that destruction and prohibition of the Talmud in effect contradicted the basic right of Jews to live as Jews in Christian society, for without the guidance of the Talmud Jewish life was impossible. Pope Gregory IX’s successor, Pope Innocent IV, was moved by the Jewish argument and sought a compromise whereby blasphemy would be eliminated, without robbing the Jews of their Talmud and thus of their basic religious rights. He urged the authorities in Paris, ecclesiastical and lay, to have the Talmud re-examined and to return to the Jews those portions that were free of blasphemy. In effect, this meant a policy of censoring the Talmud, which became the dominant stance for the rest of the Middle Ages in most areas of western Christendom. In the French kingdom, however, the conclusion of the re-trial of the Talmud was that its blasphemies were so pervasive and horrific as to preclude return of the books to the Jews. The Talmud remained outlawed throughout the rest of the stay of the Jews in the French kingdom.

Jews were prohibited from inflicting harm on Christianity and harm on Christians as well. The most obvious harm that Jews could inflict of Christians was to wean them away from their faith. Jews might under no circumstances entice Christians out of the Christian fold. One of the pre-medieval legacies of the Church was insistence that Jews be prohibited from positions of power over Christians, since power often translates into influence. With the passage of time, the concern with Jewish influence moved from power to contact. Increasingly, the Church began to enact ecclesiastical legislation that called for segregation of the Jews, so that they not enjoy the proximity to Christians that might engender religious influence. The Church demanded that Jews be forbidden from living in small villages, where Christian-Jewish contact would be inescapable, and that Jews be restricted to certain sectors of towns, again in an effort to diminish Christian-Jewish contact.

The most radical of these efforts at segregation came in 1215, at the Fourth Lateran Council, where the assembled leadership of the Church enacted a stipulation that Jews be readily distinguishable from Christian neighbors by virtue of their garb. Distinguishing garb eventually took many forms, the most common of which involved badges sewn on the outer garments of Jews and special Jewish hats. All these efforts at enhanced segregation of the Jews were ultimately dependent on the lay authorities for enforcement. Many of the lay authorities of medieval western Christendom were slow in supplying the requisite enforcement, but the pressure of the Church was unremitting and over time Jews of Europe were in fact increasingly segregated.

Jewish religious influence on Christian neighbors took an unusual turn in fifteen-century Spain, under the special circumstances already briefly noted. The persecutions of 1391 had led to massive Jewish conversion, in many instances based on the mistaken assumption that, when normalcy returned, the forced converts would be permitted to return to their ancestral faith. When such permission was not forthcoming, the New Christians had to make the best of matters. The result was that, by the 1470’s, evidence began mounting of massive insincerity within New Christian circles. Some voices in the Church urged that the problem be addressed in sympathetic terms, with warmth and a renewed commitment to educating the former Jews into their new Christian identity. Other voices viewed the problem as one of criminality and insisted on punishment of the malefactors through the office of the inquisition. For the latter group, the Jews played a major role in the heresy of the New Christians,through active or even inactive encouragement of a return to Judaism. Thus, in this view, only removal of the Jews altogether would aid in the solution of the problem of heresy among the New Christians. While the notion of Jewish harm inflicted on Christians was primarily an issue of the religious sphere of life, with the passage of time this notion could easily be expanded and in fact was. With the Jewish move into heavy concentration in money-lending during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, churchmen—who regarded themselves and were regarded by others as protectors of the Christian masses—began to call for limitations that would safeguard vulnerable Christians. The most prominent of these safeguards was demanded at the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, already noted for its enactment of distinguishing Jewish garb. With respect to Jewish moneylending, the assembled leaders of the Roman Catholic Church legislated that Jews not lend money at exorbitant rates of interest, which were proving harmful to Christian borrowers. Jewish rights were carefully balanced against multiple restrictions upon Jewish behaviors. Transgressions on the part of individual Jews were a matter with which the lay authorities were expected to deal. Individual Jews who blasphemed against Christianity or enticed Christians out of the fold were guilty of criminal behaviors and were liable to punishment. What then of purported transgressions on the part of the entire Jewish community? Such group transgressions could legitimately eventuate in banishment of such Jews. This was the formal basis for the spate of expulsions that began to afflict medieval European Jewry from the late twelfth century onward. In some instances, the banishments reflected secular concerns and interests, although Christian piety was always highlighted in the formal edicts. On the Iberian peninsula toward the end of the fifteenth century, the Church in fact took the lead in calling for expulsion of the Jews, on the grounds that Jewish presence and influence were at the root of the backsliding—i.e., heresy—of the large number of New Christians (whose complicated existence has just now been noted) in society.

Church policy of protection and limitation was complicated by yet one more element, and that involved the commitment to preaching Christian truth to the Jews. During the early part of our period, the eleventh and early twelfth centuries, the commitment to proselytizing was limited, and Christian anti-Jewish argumentation was intended largely to bolster internal Christian convictions. By the middle of the twelfth century, as western Christendom became increasingly strong and aggressive, genuine missionizing ardor developed. During the middle decades of the thirteenth century, the new commitment eventuated in a concerted and well-orchestrated campaign. The objective was no longer to reassure Christians; it was to win over Jews. In this more aggressive setting, the key issues for the Church involved finding the proper venues for delivering the Christian message and discovering lines of argumentation that might be effective with Jewish audiences.

Jewish circumstances in medieval western Christendom set the stage for effective delivery of Christian claims to Jewish audiences. Because of Jewish dependency upon the lay authorities of western Christendom, the political establishment could force Jews to present themselves to hear Christian claims. What was required was simply the willingness of the political leadership to enact such decrees, and many were quite willing to do so. Jews protested strenuously, arguing that forced exposure to Christian preaching and teaching contravened the basic right of Jews to live as Jews in Christian society. To this Jewish claim, Church and lay leadership responded that the only force exerted involved confrontation of Jews with Christian arguments. Such forced confrontation in no way diminished Jewish freedom of choice. Jews were free to hear Christian claims and reject them.

The most common format for forced confrontation with Christian claims was the compulsory sermon. Jews were ordered by the lay authorities to hear the sermons of preachers, often of the Dominican Order, which had been organized to combat heresy through rigorous argumentation and—subsequently—to utilize knowledge of religious truth and mechanisms of intellectual combat to preach the faith to non-Christians as well. To the extent that Jews could influence the venue of these forced sermons, they much preferred to have them take place in synagogues, where at least the Jewish audience felt a measure of familiarity and comfort. In the wake of such forced sermons, rabbis often gave counter-addresses, intended to rebut the Christian claims and to reinforce the audience’s sense of Jewish truth.

The so-called forced disputations were an offshoot of the forced sermon. The one liability, from the Christian perspective, of the forced sermon was the lack of overt Jewish response. Christian preachers had no way of assessing audience reaction—were their Jewish listeners reacting positively, negatively, or with total indifference? The forced disputation was intended to bring Christian preachers into contact with Jewish leaders, to engage the Jewish leaders with Christian arguments, and to force these Jewish leaders to respond publicly. These public disputations have often been misunderstood by moderns as open-ended discussions of religious truth, which they certainly were not. Again, under no circumstances were Jews to be allowed to criticize the ruling faith. These public disputations were carefully orchestrated engagements, in which the Christian side was empowered to advance its claims and the Jewish side was limited to parrying these claims. In some instances, such as the famed Barcelona disputation of 1263, there is no evidence of Christian success; in other cases, such as the equally well-known Tortosa disputation of 1412-1415, the protracted public disputation resulted in considerable Jewish conversion.

Engaging the Jews was only the first step. Equally important was creation of arguments that would resonate effectively with the coerced Jewish audience. Of course, the Christian-Jewish argument was, by our period, ancient, and lines of argumentation from both sides had long been articulated. Not surprisingly, the minority group—i.e., the Jews—was considerably more knowledgeable as to the claims of the majority, since they had to fend off these claims. As ecclesiastical leadership became seriously committed to the missionizing enterprise, it became increasingly aware of the existence of long-established Jewish lines of resistance. Effective Christian argumentation necessitated recognition and circumvention of these well-established Jewish counter-claims.

Thus, the first element in the new missionizing campaign involved fuller knowledge of the Jews, their well-established lines of anti-Christian argumentation, and their vulnerabilities. The key to all of this lay in the Hebrew language, the language of Jewish cultural tradition and Jewish creativity in medieval western Christendom. The Church amassed new knowledge of Hebrew in two ways, first through converts from Judaism to Christianity, who brought their Hebrew knowledge with them, and then through establishment of schools for the study of Hebrew—and Arabic as well. Slowly, a cadre of preachers knowledgeable in Hebrew and Jewish texts was created, and through them traditional Jewish rebuttals of traditional Christian claims became better known. Since this was a period of rapid advance in Christian—and Jewish—intellectual life, Church leaders committed to the new proselytizing felt a measure of confidence in these advances. They now knew that many of the traditional Christian claims based on traditional biblical prooftexts were familiar to Jews and had long ago elicited Jewish rebuttals. There was not much point in going over the same ground. On the other hand, major gains had been made in biblical studies, so there was some sense that the new lines of exegesis, especially the emphasis on grappling with the original Hebrew text of what Christians viewed as their Old Testament, might proved useful in exploring new avenues of biblically-grounded missionizing argumentation.

Yet more confidence was invested in the new developments in philosophy and theology. These advances gave many Christian the sense that Christianity was the only truly rational faith and that it might be proven directly and exclusively through a reliance on reason, with no recourse to revelation whatsoever. The great thirteenth-century Dominican philosopher-theologian of the University of Paris, Thomas Aquinas, went so far as to undertake an entirely rational case for the truth of Christianity. His Summa contra gentiles set out to show that any rational human, armed only with the tools of reasonable inquiry, could and would come to the conclusion that Christianity represented truth. These advances created a powerful sense of confidence in Christian circles. For the missionizing enterprise, however, philosophic argumentation proved only minimally useful. Philosophic argumentation was extremely complex and sophisticated. A synagogue audience of Jews would be utterly incapable of following such arcane argumentation.

Perhaps the most strikingly innovative line in Christian missionizing argumentation involved the claim that rabbinic literature, when read properly, supported Christian truth claims. By the middle decades of the thirteenth century, the Church was becoming increasingly familiar with the Talmud and the rest of the rabbinic corpus. As noted, one direction in which this awareness led was a focus on anti-Christian material in the Talmud and condemnation of rabbinic literature on grounds of blasphemy. This attack was—as noted—initiated in the 1230’s by an apostate named Nicholas Donin. Yet another apostate, Friar Paul Christian of the Dominican Order, exploited his knowledge of the Talmud in quite another direction. Beginning in the 1240’s, he began preaching to Jewish audiences that the rabbis of old had in fact recognized and acknowledged Christian truth. This could be clearly seen—he argued—in their comments on major biblical verses and in their free-standing dicta.

As an example of the former, we might note exegesis of Isaiah 52-13-53-12, the famous “Suffering Servant” pericope. Medieval Christians argued regularly that this passage refers to Jesus as Messiah; medieval Jews claimed argued with equal vehemence that the passage speaks only of the Jewish people, God’s truly suffering servants. Friar Paul adduced rabbinic statements to show that rabbis of old had in fact acknowledged that the “Suffering Servant” passage refers to the Messiah, thereby indicating an implicit acknowledgement of Jesus’ messianic role and Christian truth. As an example of free-standing rabbinic statements, Friar Paul often made reference to the widely repeated rabbinic notion that, on the day the Temple was destroyed, the Messiah was born. For Friar Paul, this well-known teaching indicated that authoritative rabbis recognized that the Messiah had in fact come. That Messiah could only have been Jesus of Nazareth. Friar Paul’s new line of argumentation won considerable backing in ecclesiastical circles and—by extension—among lay authorities as well. From the 1240’s on, Friar Paul preached widely in synagogues, using his new line of argumentation from rabbinic texts. In 1263, with the support of the Dominican leadership and King James the Conqueror of Aragon, he was able to coerce the outstanding rabbinic figure of the times, Rabbi Moses ben Nahman of Gerona, into a forced disputation in the capital city of Barcelona. The confrontation seems to have been rather dramatic, with a large audience of Christians and Jews in attendance.

So far as we can tell, there was no significant conversion in the wake of this engagement. However, Rabbi Moses’s claims of total victory over his Dominican foe seem exaggerated. The new approach was by no means derailed by the rabbi’s careful and clever efforts. By the end of the 1260’s, Friar Paul had won the backing of the pious king of France—the same Louis IX we have already encountered as supporter of the Donin assault on the Talmud—for a missionizing engagement with the rabbis of Paris. In the wake of both these encounters, another Dominican, Friar Raymond Martin, was moved to convene a research team to collect rabbinic material and construct a wide-ranging missionizing manual entitled the Pugio Fidei (Dagger of Faith), which adduced thousands of rabbinic sources and worked them into a systematic presentation of the key truths of Christianity.

Proselytizing among the Jews remained a high priority of the Church all through the remaining centuries of the Middle Ages. The record is mixed—little to no success in certain areas and certain periods and considerable success in other areas and epochs. During and after the violence of 1391 on the Iberian peninsula, the Church seems to have been especially successful in its protracted efforts to bring dispirited Jews to the baptismal fount.

Medieval Church doctrine and policy vis-à-vis Judaism and Jews were complex and nuanced, and they evolved as the contact between the Church and ever-expanding Jewish population of Europe intensified. The Church had yet one last avenue of influence on Jewish fate in medieval western Christendom, through the imagery it purveyed. Once again, this imagery was rooted in a prior legacy. With regard to imagery, however, the Church exercised far less control than it did over doctrine and policy. Imagery of Judaism and Jews was far more flexible, far more responsive to the evolving realities and anxieties of the medieval scene.

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