Ger 312 Jews History 1st – 14th Centuries

JEWS VERSUS CHRISTIANS (1st through fourteenth century)

Excerpts from: Jeremy Cohen, Living Letters of the Law (1999).

Adversus Iudeos polemics since the first century (St. Paul, Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Origen, etc.)

Augustine of Hippo (354-430): Slay them not, they are living testimony of the Christian promise. Jews represent the literal interpretation of Scripture.

Isidore of Seville (560-636): ” Him whom they accept as yet to come, they wish not to have come. . . Yet thus they feign not to understand these things, for they know that they have been fulfilled through their own sacrilege.” (96-97)

Crusades since 1096: Massive pogroms.

Twelfth century: a certain degree of convivencia, esp. in Spain and Germany. Twelfth-century Renaissance: Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109): “The pagans defend their law; the Jews defend their law. Therefore we Christians ought also to defend our faith.”

Anselm: the Jews “would not have crucified the Lord of of glory,” if they had known the true nature of their deed: “For a sin committed knowingly and what is done in ignorance differ so much from each other, that the evil act, which, because of its severity, they could never have committed had they understood it, is venial, because it was committed in ignorance.” (174)

Abbot Gilbert Crispin of Westminster (ca. 1045-1117): Disputatio Iudaei et Christiani: friendly discussion between the representatives of both religions.

Peter Alfonsi (1079-1142), converted Jew: Dialogi Petri et Moysi Iudaei: Jews read the Old Testament literally, Christians understand it allegorically. But God has permitted the Jews to live all over the world after their deicide “so that they might serve all other peoples, so that . . . they might offer living witness to the magnitude of their crime, and so that they might ultimately convert to Christianity.” (216)

Peter Abelard (1079-1142): Dialogus inter philosophum, Iudaeum et Christianum. Here the Jew is allowed to defend his religion and to lament his miserable destiny: “More than any tongue can do, our very situation is enough to speak more eloquently to all of the supreme misery of our lives.” (278)

Change to the worse since the thirteenth century.

1240 Nicholas Donin (France): A renegade Jew under the patronage of Louis IX. He convinced Pope Gregory IX to confiscate the Talmud on the grounds that it was anti-Christian. A debate ensued with Rabbi Yehiel of Paris and three other Rabbis speaking in defense of the Talmud. Rabbi Yehiel wasn’t allowed to counterattack or take the offensive in his argument.

 (from: Jewish History)


First accusation of desecration of the Host. The sanctity of the Host (the wafer and wine distributed as part of the ceremony of the Eucharist during Mass) is based on the doctrine of transubstantiation. In this doctrine (officially recognized in 1215), the wafer and wine is viewed by the Church as a substitute for Christ’s body and blood. Therefore, an attack on the Host was considered a direct attack on the body of Jesus. This was the first of many times that the Jews were accused of “killing” Christ or torturing him by sticking pins into or burning the Host. In this case, the response to this accusation wiped out the entire Jewish population of Berlin. Incidents of Host desecration accusations were as recent as 1836 (Romania).  (from: Jewish History)

13th-15th centuries, Christian authorities required a number of Jewish communities to participate in a series of debates. Not only were the theological stakes momentous, but the political and economic ramifications were of great significance, most especially for the Jewish community. There are three extant disputations: the Paris Disputation of 1240, the Barcelona Disputation of 1263 and the Tortosa Disputation of 1413-14. (from: B. Stevenson’s webpage)

Giovanni Boccaccio, Decameron (ca. 1350), I, 3 (excerpt from: Decameron online):

If I mistake not, I remember to have often heard tell of a great and rich man of old time, who among other most precious jewels had in his treasury a ring of extraordinary beauty and value, which by reason of its value and beauty he was minded to leave to his heirs for ever; for which cause he ordained, that, whichever of his sons was found in possession of the ring as by his bequest, should thereby be designate his heir, and be entitled to receive from the rest the honour and homage due to a superior. [012] The son, to whom he bequeathed the ring, left it in like manner to his descendants, making the like ordinance as his predecessor. In short the ring passed from hand to hand for many generations; and in the end came to the hands of one who had three sons, goodly and virtuous all, and very obedient to their father, so that he loved them all indifferently. [013] The rule touching the descent of the ring was known to the young men, and each aspiring to hold the place of honour among them did all he could to persuade his father, who was now old, to leave the ring to him at his death. [014] The worthy man, who loved them all equally, and knew not how to choose from among them a sole legatee, promised the ring to each in turn, and in order to satisfy all three, caused a cunning artificer secretly to make other two rings, so like the first, that the maker himself could hardly tell which was the true ring. So, before he died, he disposed of the rings, giving one privily to each of his sons; [015] whereby it came to pass, that after his decease each of the sons claimed the inheritance and the place of honour, and, his claim being disputed by his brothers, produced his ring in witness of right. And the rings being found so like one to another that it was impossible to distinguish the true one, the suit to determine the true heir remained pendent, and still so remains. [016] And so, my lord, to your question, touching the three laws given to the three peoples by God the Father, I answer: Each of these peoples deems itself to have the true inheritance, the true law, the true commandments of God; but which of them is justified in so believing, is a question which, like that of the rings, remains pendent.” [017] The excellent adroitness with which the Jew had contrived to evade the snare which he had laid for his feet was not lost upon Saladin. He therefore determined to let the Jew know his need, and did so, telling him at the same time what he had intended to do, in the event of his answering less circumspectly than he had done.