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Medieval Christian Theology and the Jews: Anselm, Abelard, and Thomas Aquinas

Following the unifying ritualization of Catholicism by the Fourth Lateran Council under Pope Innocent III, the detailed meanderings of Christian theology, and those who attempted to codify those meanderings, met the notoriously dehumanizing "question of the Jews" again and again. The continued presence of the Jews as an unconverted population in Europe stirred hostile conflict over what many saw as a living reminder of the original pagan challenge to the Messiah-status of Jesus. Saint Anselm laid out an idea of Christian salvation, and the necessity of Christ's death, in feudal terms for the age in his Cur Deus Homo, with disastrous conclusions as regarded the Jews and their traditionally villainous "role" in the Christian story of the crucifixion. Rather than the then-famous idea of the "Agenbuyer", wherein Christ's resurrection was an act to invade and then demolish the infernal prison of original sin (famously represented in engravings of the Father lowering the crucified Son on a fishing line into the hellish mouth of the Devil), Anselm proposed that the Son's sacrifice was better understood along the lines of recompense to an offended lord. Adam's act as a sinless being to disobey and dishonor his (feudal) relationship to God as his Lord could only be countered by a contrary act of obedience by another sinless human: the Son of God. This idea of honor, and the demand for recompense when it faced an affront, was well known to Anselm, who had been exiled by one English king and who faced a complex dance that would not be over until the next king satisfied Anselm's feudal claim to the archbishropic of England.

Anselm, close friends with Urban II - the first pope to declare a crusade - had now officially outlined the centrality of the cross and Christ's death in theology. With the focus on the cross came the focus on the "crucifiers": the Jews. Following Crusader massacres at Speyer (where the Jewish community was completely annihilated) and two horrific attacks on the communities at Worms, was the butchery of Mainz in May 1096, where the city’s archbishop attempted to hold off the attacks of twelve thousand Crusaders on the Jewish quarter with a force of three hundred men. The Crusades turned directly against the Jews, who were attacked and denounced as vehemently as the "pagan" Muslims. Rather than convert, large amounts of Jews committed self-sacrifice or entered into death pacts with others who were destined to share their fate: convert or die. Parents even slaughtered their own children rather than have them be forced into conversion and adoption by the Church.

A new fervor for mortality swept both fervent Christians and fervent Jews alike: the Christians believing that by destroying the infidel, including the "rival" of the Church from its earliest days in the form of "the Jew", they were ushering in the Eschaton, while the Jews believed that by their martyrdom they were entering the messianic age, when great tribulation would be followed by the salvation of their people and their triumphant return to Jerusalem. The tales of the martyrs began to echo the ancient stories of Masada in Jewish records, displaying the invading Europeans as "new Romans" to which no true Jew would surrender his religion and nationality. Almost in unconscious response, there appeared among Christian communities the first "blood libel" against Jewish communities: the idea that in constant offense to Christ, Jews periodically captured and crucified young Christian boys in blasphemous ceremonies. If they would kill their own children in defiance of the Church, Christians reasoned, then why not those of their enemies? Even as the blood libel and other accusations against Jews - poisoning wells in Christian cities, responsibility by spell or mere presence for spread of plagues - were actively rejected by papal edict, the local clergy still stirred hatred against Jews all over Europe without intereference from Rome.

On the opposite side of the divide was Peter Abelard, another theologian who, like Anselm, attempted to put Christ's sacrifice into a rational framework - but one of divine mercy, not of divine honor. In Abelard's view, God needed no sacrifice to satisfy a wrong against him: as his love is eternal, so is his mercy. Abelard began to expound upon a theory that was dangerous for the Church: that "those who strove to please God according to their best lights on the basis of natural law would not be damned for their efforts". Perhaps most controversial was Abelard's Dialogue of a Philosopher with a Jew and a Christian, where the Jewish character voices a defense of the Jews that would not find its equal for centuries:

To believe that the fortitude of the Jews in suffering would be unrewarded was to declare that God was cruel. No nation has ever suffered so much for God. . .The life of the Jews is in the hands of their worst enemies. . .Heaven is their only place of refuge. If they want to travel. . . they have to buy protection with high sums of money from the Christian rulers who actually wish for their death so they can confiscate their possessions. The Jews cannot own land. . .thus, all that is left them as a means of livelihood is the business of moneylending, and this in turn brings the hatred of Christians upon them.

But theology would instead see its apogee in this age in the form of Thomas Aquinas and his two works, Summa Theologiae and Summa Contra Gentiles. These volumes argued the case for a unified Christian theology with what Thomas called "natural reason, to which all are compelled to assent". These works heralded a long-nascent new strain of theology that took advantage of new philosophical and rational movements in thought to address the unbeliever as to the supposedly irrational beliefs that blocked their unification with the Church. Up to this point, the mystification of Christians with the failure of the Jews to accept Jesus (after all, hadn't it been conclusively demonstrated that the Old Testament and the New Testament were one seamless and unbroken history?) had seen its demonstration in a doctrine of "invincible ignorance", in which the Jews were simply unable to see the obvious truth of Christianity as presented by the Church. Augustine, following Paul, stated that for God's unknowable purposes, the Jews had simply been rendered deaf and blind to the truth. Jewish argument over differences in theological sources, such as the famous mistranslation of the Hebrew "young woman" into the Greek "virgin" in Isaiah 7:14, was dismissed by Christians as legalist quibbling that only demonstrated the Jews' unconquerable obstinacy. But under this new wave of logical theology, it was taken for granted that anyone, when presented with a perfectly rational proof, would see the truth and either choose to follow it or evilly reject it. Thomas Aquinas overturned "invincible ignorance", asserting that as rational beings, the Jews were well aware that Jesus was the Messiah, but that they killed him anyway. This reasoning, heavily accepted by the Church, would lead to a new and vicious attempt to remove Judaism from Europe - through conversion, and then later through outright ethnic cleansing.

The new orders of missionary monks, the Franciscans and the Dominicans, were designed to "correct" those with false doctrines - and Jews were both easier to identify than heretics and closer to home than Muslims. Edicts were issued all over Europe that required Jews, whenever a Dominican or Franciscan visited a city, to be herded into churches and receive sermons. "Disputations" were also designed, where Jewish theologians would debate Biblical issues with Christian priests - to be judged by a Christian audience and Church councils. Jewish converts to Christianity were some of the Church's main weapons, as conversos (as they were known in Spain and Portugal) could intellectually and emotionally attack Judaism in a way unavailable to Christian polemicists. The majority of Jews, however, remained unconvinced and unconverted - and this led Christians looking for the "secret" source of their perfidy. Mass hysteria led to widespread propagation of and belief in the blood libel, as well as the emerging claim that Jews had secret powers, rituals, and magic that had yet to be revealed to the Christian community. The source of these supposed esoteric secrets, according to Christian thinkers? The Talmud - to Jews, the extension of Biblical law into modern times and the repository of the thought of the earliest rabbinic age. To Church polemicists, it represented the "out" that would allow them to fully assault the Jews as evil heretics and not as the people of the Bible: the Jews had obviously (to the Church) perverted and abandoned the word of God by treating this "hidden" document, which took liberty with symbolism and metaphor in the Jewish scripture, as religiously important. The Talmud was not kind to Jesus, but when agents of the Church began investigating it, they were looking not for anti-Christian sentiment but for heresies that went against "Judaism" - that is, the Christian understanding of ancient Judaism in the Old Testament - that would hopefully lead to mass Jewish conversion to Christianity once exposed.

Elaborate "debates" on the Talmud were set up in leading intellectual centers, like the University of Paris, where Jewish sages were conscripted to defend the rabbinic commentaries from Church attackers. These arguments ended up being more trials on the book's continued existence than learned disputation on its content, and inevitably so. The faculty of Christian universities returned, time and time again, the verdict: that the Talmud was a dangerous work of heresy; that it held sway over the Jewish community and prevented their recognition of the truth of Jesus as Messiah; that it should be utterly destroyed. Copies of the Talmud were rounded up by Church and state agencies and burned publicly in Paris's streets. It was clear that a turning point had been reached in the Church's treatment of Jews. Augustine's mandate, "Do not slay them!", was recognized as applying only to the "Jews" of Christian imagination, the "invincibly ignorant" Old Testament culture that had long ago evolved into the advanced rabbinic society that was now being attacked. Who were "the Jews" now? A distinct people from "the Jews" of the Old Testament, one that willfully perverted scripture and rejected the obvious truth of Jesus Christ and the Gospels - and one that could be subsequently treated as violently and injudiciously as the Gentile pagans of the Roman Church's earliest days of true power.


Carroll, James. Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews: A History (Houghton-Mifflin, New York, 2001)

The Illustrated History of the Jewish People. Ed. Nicholas De Lange (Harcourt Brace and Co., New York, 1997)

Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica (Summa Theologiae). http://www.newadvent.org/summa/

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