An Overview of Pre-Thirteenth-Century Missionizing among the Jews
Like its sister monotheisms, Christianity, committed to the notion of one true God and one true covenant between that God and a particular human community, felt a religious and moral imperative to spread its truth among all humanity. For Christians, failure to make such an attempt represented a major dereliction of duty. It would seem that the Jews were particularly well suited for Christian missionizing, since they shared so much common sacred literature and so many fundamental views.
While there is some truth in this simplistic formulation, it does not begin to address the complex phenomenon of Christian missionizing among the Jews. There were far more powerful stimuli for, and some significant constraints on, such proselytizing. The complexities can only be understood against the backdrop of the evolution of Christianity from sectarian status within Palestinian Jewry, to religious and social independence, to a position of dominance in western civilization. The only way to highlight these complexities is by pointing (as briefly as possible) to the salient stages in this evolution.
The difficulties of reconstructing the earliest period in the history of Christianity are well known. The sources for these all-important years stem from later decades and from radically altered circumstances, making recovery of this formative epoch almost impossible. Nonetheless, for our purposes, it is clear and beyond dispute that the social context of earliest Christianity was Palestinian Jewry. In a Jewish community beset with overwhelming political pressures, there was vital and intense religious creativity, which resulted in extensive fragmentation, as differing groups within the community found con-
flicting political and religious solutions to the problems of those trying times. Earliest Christian missionizing was carried out almost exclusively among Jews. To be sure, the term missionizing here means merely the effort to attract members of the Jewish community to a particular understanding of the Jewish covenant, in the same way that one could speak of Pharisaic, Sadducean, or Essenian missionizing within first-century Palestinian Jewry.
The Jewish context of this effort to win new adherents is shown dramatically by the story of the centurion Cornelius in Acts. All the details of the narrative bespeak an ingrained reluctance by Jesus' earliest followers to take their message outside the Jewish fold. It is only a set of divine signs to Peter that makes him receptive to the invitation of the gentile Cornelius. This ongoing Jewish context is demonstrated in an equally forceful manner by the lines of argumentation that are fundamental to the authors of the Gospels. Although these works derive from a later period, a time in which the message of Christianity was directed far beyond the Jewish community, the core argument for the truth of the Christian vision remained fulfillment by Jesus of prophetically uttered predictions concerning the advent of the Messiah. The persistence of such an argument reflects again the Jewish context of earliest Christianity and constitutes a powerful legacy for subsequent efforts to show Jews that the literature held sacred by both Jews and Christians adumbrates fully the truth of the latter group's religious vision.
The original message of Jesus and his immediate followers (whatever it might have been) exhibited appeal beyond this initial circle of Palestinian Jews, attracting Greek-speaking diaspora Jews and, eventually, gentiles as well. Paul is associated with this movement outward and with the inevitable shift in ideas that had to accompany such a shift in social context. Since the ideas of the earlier stage cannot be brought into focus clearly, it is impossible to delineate with precision the Pauline innovations. What concerns us here is Paul's relationship to the Jews, an exceedingly complex subject and the occasion of much recent scholarly investigation and dispute. Central to this study are the implications of the Pauline stance for proselytizing among the Jews. While there is evidence in the Pauline Epistles of a desire for bringing the truth of Christianity to his former fellow-Jews, Paul goes to great lengths to emphasize his special role as Apostle to the Gentiles. He seems to negate the intrinsic efficacy of the law with regard to achieving salvation, seeing faith in the risen Jesus as having superseded the old dispensation. Paul's mission was to bring this new and
universal message to the gentile world. What then of the Jews? The picture is not altogether clear. There is a sense of some residual belief in the efficacy of fulfillment of the law, but there is a stronger sense that someday Jews will join the gentiles in accepting the higher truth of faith in Christ.
I now ask, did their failure mean complete downfall? Far from it! Because they offended, salvation has come to the gentiles, to stir Israel to emulation. But if their offence means the enrichment of the world, and if their falling-off means the enrichment of the gentiles, how much more their coming to full strength!
Interspersed with highly negative statements about the Jews and their law—probably aimed at combating the proponents of Jewish law within the Christian camp—is an underlying belief in the eventual uniting of Jew and gentile in acceptance of the highest truth. The potential implications of this complex stance were many and diverse.
While a Jewish-Christian community survived for many centuries, the future of Christianity lay outside of Palestine and beyond the confines of the Jewish community. It was among the gentile population of the Roman Empire that the independent Christian faith was to spread widely. During the first four centuries of this expansion, the young Christian community was beleaguered and persecuted. It is impossible to be sure of its stance toward missionizing among the Jews. It seems likely that the main thrust of proselytizing efforts was aimed at the Greco-Roman population of the empire. Yet the issue of the Jews could hardly have been a matter of indifference, even during this trying period. First, the Jews formed a considerable percentage of the population of the Roman Empire; indeed, they were a segment of the general populace that should have been susceptible to Christian claims. Since so much of Gospel argumentation involved texts revered by Jews and Christians alike, what group would, on the face of it, be more likely to understand and accept the truth of Christianity? Second, the Jews inevitably became an issue for believing Christians, perhaps particularly for those recently attracted to the fold. Again, given the extent to which Jewish texts and values permeated the Christian Scriptures, it is not surprising that on occasion converts to Christianity should have raised questions about Judaism, about its truth and its shortcomings.
It has long been recognized that at least some of the literature ostensibly directed at Jews was in fact intended to obviate the dangers of judaizing among Christians, especially new ones. Similarly, there
was also occasionally a Jewish issue associated with preaching to the pagan world. Pagans aware of the close link between Judaism and Christianity often employed Jewish-related argumentation in their anti-Christian treatises, and as a result, Christian spokesmen often had to make convincing anti-Jewish statements as part of their appeal to pagan audiences. The source materials for this crucial period are not terribly rich, and the reality was ever-changing and diverse. Consequently, we can reach no comfortable conclusion about the extent, during these centuries, of the missionizing effort among the Jews. In any case, it hardly seems to have been a predominant concern of an embattled but rapidly expanding Christian community.
With the early-fourth-century reversal of the political fortunes of Christianity and its sudden accession to power in the Roman Empire, the stage would seem to have been set for many ,adical changes, including, perhaps, enhanced proselytizing among the Jews. In truth, however, the road to Christian supremacy was slow and exacting. The brief reign of Julian highlighted the tenuous hold of Christianity within the empire and the necessity for struggle on many fronts, with the Jewish community once again a significant but not overwhelming priority. Indisputably new was the Christian need to adumbrate, from a position of strength, a policy vis-à-vis the one other monotheistic community and the bearer of a heritage now claimed by the dominant daughter religion. What emerged slowly on the political level was the notion of Judaism as a legitimate religious faith, misguided in its theology but sufficiently conversant with the truth to warrant toleration in a Christian commonwealth.
This political theory came to be increasingly buttressed with theological underpinnings, suggesting that toleration of the Jews involved far more than a mere modus vivendi: the divine plan for the universe allocated a significant place for the once-proud, now-humbled Jewish people. The basic notion, articulated most successfully and most lastingly by Saint Augustine, argued that the Jews were vouchsafed a specific role in the divine plan for the development of human society. This role involved serving the purposes of Christian missioning among the pagans of the world. The Jews provided a useful set of arguments to the pagan population, and they did this in a number of ways. Two modes predominate. The first involves Jewish testimony to the divine origins of the Scriptures. As Christians sought to win over their pagan neighbors, disinterested testimony to the truth of biblical prophecy was of great value. Christians could point to Jewish acceptance of the
entire corpus of the Hebrew Bible; on this testimony, they could then construct their Christological exegesis. The Jews functioned in another and more deleterious fashion. Their allegedly abject fate subsequent to rejection of the special claims of Jesus and to imputed responsibility for his death was viewed by Christians as evidence for the truth of Christianity and the errors of Judaism. According to this view, the Jews were immediately visited with divine punishment for their repudiation of Jesus, punishment that took the form of loss of their Temple, their city of Jerusalem, and their homeland; this purported punishment was traditionally seen as clear proof of the indisputable truth of those claims which the Jews had misguidedly spurned. All of this made the Jews useful, and indeed the sense emerged that they were an indispensable part of preredemptive society. Moreover, the Jews were to serve an additional function at the onset of redemption. At that crucial juncture, they would convert en masse. Such conversion would be one of the undeniable signs of the onset of the new era.
Given this new political and theological framework, what were the implications for missionizing among the Jews? Once again, no clearcut answer emerges. On the one hand, there had to be ongoing interest in such missionizing. The general desire to spread the truth of Christianity and the pervasive sense that, of all people, the Jews should be most responsive to Christian truth made inevitable continued hopes for winning Jews to the fold. On the other hand, the recurrent experience of Jewish intransigence was now buttressed by a political and theological system that exempted the Jews from missionizing efforts. Use of force in bringing Jews to see the truth of Christianity was abjured; similarly, efforts at massive conversion were at least depressed by the notion that wholesale conversion was to be a sign of the onset of the age of redemption. At best, there remained an ongoing sense of the religious responsibility for bringing individual Jews to a recognition of Christian verities and hence to salvation.
As the power of Christianity slowly developed throughout the vast Roman Empire, disintegration of the western half of the empire introduced new realities into the ever-changing relationship between Christian majority and Jewish minority. The history of these areas, the fate of their Jewish population, broad missionizing efforts in these areas, and the missionizing directed specifically at the Jews—all these elements are difficult to trace. In general, the southern (i.e., Mediterranean) sectors of this western Christendom hosted older and larger Jewries, while the northern areas, more recently attached to the orbit
of Christendom, attracted only sparse new Jewish settlements. The disruption of the Germanic invasions was augmented by the loss of portions of the older and more settled Mediterranean lands to the Muslims, in particular, the rich and important Iberian Peninsula. Through all these upheavals, missionizing among the Jews could hardly have been a significant priority for the political or ecclesiastical leadership of a society in stress.
Only with the reawakening of these western sectors of Christendom, particularly in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, does some measure of concern with missionizing among the Jews reappear. It is during this period that Christendom was aroused to push back the Muslim intrusion into the lands of southern Europe, and it is at this time that a vigorous and creative new northern European Christian society began to assert itself. In these areas, there existed disparate Jewish communities—a larger and more firmly rooted Jewry in the south, particularly that of the Iberian Peninsula, which had enjoyed substantial growth and development on many levels under Muslim rule, and a newly emergent but surprisingly vigorous Jewry north of the Loire, a community whose vitality paralleled the general élan of this rapidly developing area.
The newly invigorated Christian society was profoundly committed to its religious identity. This meant the strengthening of Christianity from within and the winning over of non-Christians from without. This effort was ultimately to prove remarkably, if temporarily, successful. Rarely has such a large and creative area been so thoroughly unified under the banner of a common faith. While there were non-Christians in the area and dissident Christians as well, the level of unity was unusually high. What, then, of the Jewish element in this relatively homogeneous society? As has been indicated, the legacy to which eleventh- and twelfth-century western Christendom fell heir was rich and complex, and this complexity is reflected in the varying stances toward conversion of the Jews. On occasion, the intense commitment to a truly and fully Christian society led to abrogation of the safeguards established earlier for Jewish life. In the early eleventh century, for example, concern with the internal danger of incipient Christian heresy in northern Europe seems to have led to a program of forcible conversion that exceeded the limits permitted by Church theory. The details of these incidents are sketchy, and too much should not be made of them. The late eleventh century showed yet another instance of this underlying striving toward homogeneity.
While the assaults on key northern European Jewish communities in 1096 are well known, the phenomenon, it must be emphasized, was a manifestation of excessive zeal on the part of the peripheral crusading forces. Such assaults, preferring to the Jews alternatives of conversion or death, utterly contravened established ecclesiastical theory and practice, were not perpetrated by the better organized and more normative crusading armies, and were quickly and decisively repudiated by Church leadership. The inchoate longings revealed by these extreme behaviors were carefully and effectively restrained by the established authorities of this newly emerging western Christendom. For these authorities, the Jews played a more traditional role. They were protected by an important set of safeguards. As individuals, they were potential targets of missionizing but not targets of the highest priority; they were not terribly significant in the effort to reach out to non-Christians, but they were a prominent factor in combating some internal Christian dissent and, more important, in firming up the belief of Christians in fundamental tenets of Christian faith. Once more, it is widely agreed that the literature ostensibly aimed at convincing Jews of the truth of Christianity was probably committed to other goals, most likely the buttressing of internal Christian conviction. Particularly in the area of western Christendom where the Jews constituted a small (but the only) non-Christian community, such a literature repudiating Jewish belief served to answer two important questions: how could any group fail to acknowledge the truth of Christianity? and how, in particular, could a group that accepted and revered a segment of the Christian Scriptures not recognize Christian verities? This view of the adversus Judaeos literature of the eleventh and twelfth centuries does not gainsay the reality of occasional Jewish conversion to Christianity—and indeed conversion in the opposite direction as well. It merely suggests that conversion of the Jews was not a high priority of that creative epoch.
At the close of this rapid sketch of the evolution of earlier Christian missionizing among the Jews, it is useful to draw some general conclusions as to the legacy bequeathed to thirteenth-century Christendom. First, there were powerful incentives for missionizing among the Jews. Chief among these was the sense that the Jews, of all peoples, should be responsive to Christian truth. Second, the positive motivation for proselytizing among the Jews was mitigated by further considerations: recognition of the preredemptive legitimacy of Judaism; theological notions of the utility of Jewish presence; association of massive
conversion of the Jews with the onset of redemption; and a rather poor rate of success in efforts at conversion of the Jews. Finally, the historical record seems to show little evidence of serious conversionist efforts among the Jews.