Anna Sapir Abulafia

Polemics (Christian-Jewish)

De Gruyter | 2019
Eintragssprache Entry Language

Polemics have always played a part in Christian-Jewish relations. This is even true for the very early period when it makes more sense to speak of followers of Jesus than of Christians. The term “Christian” implies a greater cohesion among the initial recipients of Jesus’ teachings than existed in reality. It also suggests a sharp distinction between them and Jewish groups who were finding their way in the turbulent years leading up to the Jewish revolt and the period after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. Recent scholarship has made it plain that the religious map of the Near East was much less binary than we used to imagine. Binary or not, the gospels, Acts and the letters of Paul reveal that from the start teachings concerning Jesus generated controversy about the role of circumcision, the continued need for dietary laws, the true observance of the Sabbath, the identity of Abraham’s descendants, the coming of the messiah and the salvation of Israel. And from the very start these debates were as much about convincing others of a position as consolidating one’s own points of view.

As different forms of Christianity crystallised in late antiquity, Christian theologians developed their thinking about the relationship between Christianity and Judaism. These thoughts were recorded in a variety of literary genres. Disputations or literary dialogues constituted only one of these. It seems that sometimes the dialogues were loosely based on conversations that had occurred between Christian authors and Jews, but more often than not this was not the case. Anyway, whatever its genesis, a written disputation was the product of the author; it displayed his understanding of Judaism and its purpose was to contrast the “truth” of Christianity with the “falsity” of Jewish beliefs and practices. An early example of such a disputation is the mid 2nd-cent. Dialogue with the Jew Trypho by Justin Martyr. In this work Justin quoted one scriptural passage after another to substantiate his claim that the law of Christ had superseded the law of Moses. Christians, not Jews, were now true Israel. The prophecies concerning Jesus Christ, including the incarnation and virgin birth, were contained in the scriptures.

These topics lay at the center of Christian-Jewish polemics as it evolved from late antiquity. But it is important not to seek Christian-Jewish polemics in disputational literature alone. This is very clear when we consider the case of Augustine. Augustine did write a Treatise against the Jews just before he died in 430, but by then he had already formulated his seminal position on Jews in numerous sermons on the psalms and in his magnum opus “The City of God.” Jeremy Cohen and Paula Fredriksen have argued that these works show the ways in which the development of Augustine’s thinking on Judaism and Jews meshed with his confrontational dealings with Manichaeans and other heretics. Christian-Jewish polemics did not exist in a vacuum; they evolved as they responded to and interacted with current religious, cultural and intellectual debates against the backdrop of the political and socio-economic realities of their time. Augustine’s crucial contribution to Christian-Jewish polemics is the way he outlined the need Christianity had of a Jewish presence. Christians needed Jews to protect their faith against pagan accusations that they had forged the “Old Testament” texts to defend their beliefs concerning Christ. This is the maxim of Testimonium Veritatis (witness to the truth). Jews, who did not believe in Jesus, preserved the “Old Testament” which contained the prophecies about Jesus Christ. But Augustine’s concept of Jewish service went further than Testimonium Veritatis. Jews served Christians through their dispersion because this meant that they could bear witness to the truth of Christianity beyond Judea; at the same time the loss of their own land demonstrated what happened to a people who denied Christ. At the end of time the expectation of Jewish conversion would be fulfilled. The principle of Jewish service is a useful concept with which to start an exploration of Christian-Jewish polemics in its many different manifestations.

Biblical prooftexts remained a staple of anti-Jewish polemics throughout the Middle Ages which included treatises by Tertullian (d. ca. 230), Isidore of Seville (d. ca. 636), Agobard of Lyon (d. 840) and Amulo of Lyon (d. 852). Isa 7:14, for example, was read as declaring that “a virgin would bear a son” and was used to prove the virgin birth. But by the end of the 11th cent. anti-Jewish polemics were displaying the period’s growing awareness of ratio (“reason”). This was the period when scholars in north-western Christendom were getting ever more acquainted with classical materials which included works by Cicero and translations of Aristotle. Renewed teaching of the trivium subjects of grammar, rhetoric and dialectic opened people’s minds to the possibilities for human beings to discover truth through using their innate human capacity of reason. Scholars thought long and hard about how matters of faith could be substantiated by reason. One of the most taxing conundrums they faced was Cur Deus Homo? (“Why God man?”). How could they demonstrate rationally what they believed in, namely that God had become flesh in the person of Jesus Christ? Other challenges were to provide rational proofs for the virgin birth as well as to prove that God was three and one. One of the fora in which they tackled these challenges was Christian-Jewish disputations in which they introduced a Jewish protagonist to ask the hard questions to which they, as creators of the text, would provide convincing answers.

An early example of this is the widely disseminated “Disputation between a Christian and a Jew” by Gilbert Crispin, Abbot of Westminster, of ca. 1092/3. Gilbert was one of Anselm of Canterbury’s pupils, and his composition shows awareness of Anselm’s interest in deploying reason in finding an answer to Cur Deus Homo. But it cannot be denied that for the most part Gilbert’s Disputation depended on scriptural passages to defend Christian insistence that the law of Moses should be adhered to in a spiritual rather than a literal sense, that Jesus took on flesh through his virgin mother and was the messiah and son of God, and that Christians were now the chosen people. The “Jew” in Gilbert’s Disputation was probably based on one of his business associates, but, essentially, he was a literary persona serving Gilbert by furnishing biblical texts which were used to prove the truth of Christianity.

The role of Jewish service is especially clear in the second part of Odo of Cambrai’s (d. 1113) “Disputation against the Jew, Leo, about the advent of Christ.” Odo has his Jewish persona crudely inquire how Christians could possibly believe that God was enclosed in the foul [sic!] confines of a woman’s womb. Putting these mocking words into his Jewish antagonist’s mouth gave Odo the opportunity to contrast alleged Jewish carnality with its predilection for sensual things with the spirituality of Christian reason which allowed Christians to look beyond a woman’s privy parts to adore the purity of the Virgin Mary. Odo ended by asking whether Jews possessed reason or were more akin to irrational animals. We know from Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo that similar questions were being aired among Christians. Anselm used Boso, another one of his pupils, to represent infideles (“unbelievers”) to ask a similar question. And within Jewish circles these questions were, indeed, being asked, as is clear from the Jewish-Christian polemic, “Book of the Covenant,” written by Joseph Kimhi around 1170.

Peter Abelard (d. ca. 1142) staged a Jew in his Collationes, a bifurcated dialogue between a Jew and a philosopher and a philosopher and a Christian umpired by Abelard himself. The function of this Jewish antagonist seems to have been to bolster Abelard’s innovative ideas about the way in which philosophy constituted a route alongside the prophecies of revelation for human beings seeking to discover God’s truth. Abelard’s three antagonists personified the law they represented: the law of Moses, natural law, i.e., the law of reason, and the law of grace. The Jewish and Christian protagonists explored which of the three laws was most conducive in helping human beings love God. Natural law offered human beings a great deal in this respect by way of moral guidelines founded in reason. The upshot of the first part of the double dialogue was that however earnestly Jews strived to serve God, they were distracted by the material observance of the rules and regulations of Mosaic Law. This paved the way for the Christian to claim that Christ’s law went beyond the dictates of natural law in leading Christians to an even greater love of God through the inspiring example of Jesus Christ.

Particularly interesting is the way in which Peter Alfonsi crafted his Jewish persona in the Dialogue he composed after his conversion from Judaism to Christianity in Huesca (northern Spain) in 1106. Alfonsi crafted his text as a dialogue between Moses, the Jew he had been before his conversion, and Petrus, the Christian he now was. Moses served Alfonsi in the time-honoured way of supplying him with texts from the Hebrew Bible. But his primary function was to enable Alfonsi to introduce narrative passages from the Talmud which Petrus, his Christian antagonist, could then prove to be irrational. This is the first Christian-Jewish disputation to explore Talmudic material in such depth. With its very wide circulation it disseminated starkly negative views about post-biblical Jewish materials among its Christian readers. Interestingly enough, Moses was also put to use by Alfonsi to elicit Petrus’s views on Islam (in book 5 of the Dialogue Moses is made to represent Islam to give Petrus the opportunity to invalidate Islam in the same way that he has invalidated Judaism). This enabled Alfonsi to advocate his conversion as the choice of the most rational of the three religions of his day in Spain.

Peter the Venerable, abbot of Cluny (d. 1156), picked up on Alfonsi’s attack on the Talmud in his treatise “Against the inveterate obstinacy of the Jews” to drive home his view that Jews were like animals because the Talmud befuddled their capacity for reason. But it was in the 13th cent. that the Christian polemics against the Talmud went beyond literary compositions and entered the public arena in the form of trials or staged disputations in which Jewish scholars were compelled to take part. Increased knowledge of the Talmud as well as other Jewish post-biblical sources meant that Christian scholars needed to come to terms with the fact that Judaism had not stopped after the destruction of the Temple as Augustine seems to have assumed. At the trial of the Talmud in Paris in 1240 the Talmud was accused of containing passages disparaging Jesus and the Virgin Mary. Copies of the Talmud were publicly burnt in 1241/2. By 1263 at the Disputation of Barcelona, passages of the Talmud were produced in evidence that the messiah had come and that he was Jesus Christ. The Hebrew report of the trial in Paris postdates the event by some years; it was written by Rabbi Joseph ben Nathan and inserted at the end of his anti-Christian polemic, “The Book of Joseph the Zealot.” For Barcelona we have the contemporary Vikuach (“Polemic”) of Nachmanides (d. 1270), one of the most important Rabbinical scholars of the period. The purposes of Joseph ben Nathan and Nachmanides were to counter the way their Christian antagonists were manipulating the Talmud against Jews as well as to reassure their co-religionists that God had not abandoned them and that they remained his chosen people.

In 1982 Jeremy Cohen argued that Christian knowledge of the Talmud caused a fundamental change in the Christian-Jewish debate because Jews were seen as having deserted the Hebrew Bible in favor of the Talmud. This meant that they no longer performed the function which had earned them a place in Christian society, namely that they bore witness to Christian truth by carrying the books of the Hebrew Bible. The attack on the Talmud did mark an important shift in Christian-Jewish Disputations, but it did not erode the concept of Jewish service. Quite the contrary: the Talmud itself was put to Christian use in a very similar way in which the Hebrew Bible had been and continued to be used to substantiate the belief claims of Christianity. Christian objections to the Talmud overlapped and interacted with ideas evolving in the 13th cent. that Jews posed a threat to Christian society.

Looking at Christian-Jewish polemics through the lens of the concept of Jewish service also opens our eyes to the presence of polemics in pictorial settings. Take for example, the magnificent South Rose window of the Cathedral of Chartres. The 13th-cent. stained glass displays Christ enthroned in the midst of the elders of the apocalypse above a lancet depicting the virgin and child, flanked by two lancets to each of its sides. From left to right the lancets have the evangelists, Luke and Matthew on one side and John and Mark on the other, sitting respectively on the broad shoulders of the prophets Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ezekiel and Daniel. The evangelists are light, handsome figures; the prophets are much larger and, with the possible exception of Daniel, older men (see here). They clearly personified biblical prophecies about Christ which were revealed by the evangelists to pertain to the Christ child in their midst and the heavenly Christ enthroned above their heads. Christianity needed Judaism even as it superseded it.

An example from a Bible moralisée brings art, polemics, and biblical exegesis together. Moralised Bibles were picture Bibles in which biblical stories were depicted in pairs of images. One image depicted the narrative, its pair the moral. Short texts in the margins helped the reader understand what they were meant to see. The texts in the two oldest Bibles moralisées (MS Vienna 1179 [Latin] and MS Vienna 2554 [French]), which date from the 1220s, drew from sources which included the Glossa ordinaria, “the Ordinary Gloss” of the Bible, and represented the moral teachings of the Parisian masters. The Bibles were destined for the royal French court, MS Vienna 1179 probably for King Louis VIII himself. As Sara Lipton has shown, these Bibles were riddled with anti-Jewish polemic. The sequence of images narrating the Jacob and Esau narrative provides us with a particularly rich example (see here). Echoing the Glossa Ordinaria, the moral underpinning of the birth of Jacob and Esau is depicted as being that Mother Church birthed two kinds of people, good Christians and “miscreants,” of whom one holds a money pouch. That Esau went out hunting while Jacob stayed at home was interpreted as good Christians staying close to Mother Church; usurers, “miscreants,” and bad people were depicted as menacing Mother Church with arms; one of them is holding a money bowl. Jacob’s procurement of the blessing of the first born from his father, Isaac, was represented as Christ blessing his disciples when preaching to them on the Mount of Olives. Esau’s desperate disappointment at discovering that Jacob had tricked him out of his blessing was shown as Christ turning away Jews and “miscreants” requesting his blessing on the day of judgement. Christ tells them that the blessing has already been given to Christians (MS Vienna 2554, fol. 6r). The imagery makes it plain that “miscreants,” usurers, bad people and Jews were meant to be regarded as interchangeable. The “miscreants” and usurers in the earlier images bear the same traits as the Jews and “miscreants” in the final scene: money bowls, a money pouch as well as beards together with soft topped/pointed hats. The identification of usury with Jewishness was a hallmark of the School of Peter the Chanter (d. 1197). It was one of the ways in which Jews were increasingly regarded as posing a threat to Christian society. Joseph Kimhi devoted considerable attention to this issue in his “Book of the Covenant,” where he argued against Christian claims that Jews were undermining society. He claimed that Jewish moral standards, in fact, far outshone those of Christians.

The depiction of the Jacob and Esau narrative in the French moralised Bible presents us with what we might term “experiential supersession.” The narrative was clearly experienced as being about the church; Judaism was relegated to the seamy side of the tale. Jacob, the chosen one, embodied the Christian people; the Jewish people were no longer the b’nei Yaacov (children of Jacob/Israel); they were Esau. Jews were called into service to do more than validate Christian beliefs; they were used to substantiate Christian moral teachings.

This short survey has only been able to touch on a few examples of 12th and 13th-century Christian-Jewish polemics. Two key issues were foregrounded. The first is the importance of situating polemics in their cultural and intellectual context. The second is the awareness of the variety of forms in which polemics occurred. Liturgy and ritual are important media to explore as well as the literary and pictorial forms succinctly considered here. As Israel Yuval has emphasized, this is just as true for Jewish-Christian polemics as it is for Christian-Jewish polemics. The third issue is the importance of taking account of Jewish-Christian polemics. Three literary examples of Jewish-Christian polemics have been touched on in this all too brief survey. A fourth, the Nizzahon Vetus (“Old Polemic”), is a good note to end on. The Nizzahon Vetus was written in Germany at the end of the thirteenth or the start of the 14th cent. It was a handbook providing Jews with an exhaustive array of arguments with which to counter Christian arguments against Judaism. And it contained a section polemicizing with the gospels and Christianity. The Nizzahon Vetus demonstrates just how much medieval Jews knew of Christian polemics and how wide ranging their responses were.


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