The Essential Characteristics of Serious Missionizing
Having surveyed a series of major periods in Christian missionizing among the Jews, it is useful to probe more deeply into those elements required for serious conversionist efforts. The first is allocation of substantial ecclesiastical resources to such efforts. In a less developed epoch, this would mean substantial commitment of time by major figures for the purpose of conversion of the Jews; in a more advanced period, this allocation of resources should take the form of specialized personnel, trained specifically for such proselytizing. The second feature of serious proselytizing would be the creation of special techniques for consistently confronting the Jews with the truth of Christianity. Random teaching, discussion, or debate hardly bespeaks a deep-seated commitment; it is the search for regularized methods of reaching the Jews—or any other target, for that matter—that typifies intensity of purpose. The third and last feature of serious missionizing is the elaboration of convincing argumentation. This means, above all else, some awareness of Jewish patterns of thought, on the basis of which argumentation effective among the Jews could be developed. Wholehearted efforts at missionizing among the Jews require a penetrating examination of Jewish thinking so as to identify points of weakness that might be attacked and exploited. Without such awareness of the internal life of the Jews, missionizing argumentation generally misses the mark, usually because the goal, in fact, is not to convince Jews but to buttress Christian belief. A profound effort to convert Jews must include a careful assessment of the Jews and their views as a preliminary step toward adumbration of arguments that will unerringly reach the Jewish mind and heart.
Using these criteria as the basis for identifying serious missionizing, we can, I believe, reinforce the conclusion that pre-thirteenth-century Christendom shows little evidence of a sustained commitment to proselytizing among the Jews. All through the first twelve centuries of Christian history, there were sporadic efforts at missionizing among the Jews, sometimes within the boundaries permitted by ecclesiastical
theory and sometimes beyond the boundaries. At no point, however, do we have the sense of sustained and protracted allocation of significant resources, elaboration of effective techniques for reaching the Jews, and creation of persuasive lines of argumentation designed specifically for the Jewish mentality.
There is certainly no evidence, prior to the thirteenth century, of allocation of serious resources to missionizing among the Jews. Some of the major thinkers of Christendom did devote themselves to this goal, but their involvement hardly constitutes a significant element in their creativity. Thus, for example, Saint Augustine did devote two treatises and a lengthy epistle to the issue of the Jews, but within the total output of this prolific figure this material was of negligible significance. More important, there is no evidence whatsoever for special training or for specialized personnel devoted primarily to the goal of proselytizing among the Jews. There is also no evidence for the establishment of regular techniques for bringing the message of Christianity to a Jewish audience. There are occasional reports of friendly conversations and discussions, of sermons that Jews were forced to attend, or of random debates in which Jews were forced to participate. What is missing in all this is regularization. There is no sense of development of techniques that, once established, were consistently employed.
Evaluation of pre-thirteenth-century argumentation is somewhat more difficult. There surely was consideration given to arguments that would be persuasive to Jews. While this, as we have seen, was not the only function of the adversus Judaeos literature, such literature had to bear some relation to Jewish thinking. Let us look in a bit more detail at the main lines of Christian conversionist argumentation directed toward the Jews. Such an examination must address itself to the substance of the issues discussed and—more important—to the bases on which the arguments rest.
Effective religious argumentation of necessity involves both a positive and a negative thrust. The spokesman for a given religious faith normally sets out to prove the essential truth of his tradition and the fundamental shortcomings of the faith of his listener or reader. Seen in this fashion, the substance of Christian anti-Jewish argumentation is fairly straightforward and can be identified in terms of a series of contrasting statements. (1) Christianity represents the fulfillment of the biblical covenant, while Judaism is debased distortion of that covenant. More specifically, Christian spokesmen argued that Jesus was
the promised Messiah and Redeemer and the church established in the wake of his mission represented the continuation of the Israel that had first fathomed the existence of the one true God and, in return, had been promised great blessing by that God. By contrast, the Jewish people, biologically the heirs of biblical Israel, had forfeited all right to that blessing. (2) Christianity represents a system through which the believer can achieve salvation, while Judaism is misguided in its religious directives: it is at best useless, at worst harmful. (3) The Christian Church has both a distinguished present and—more important—a brilliant future. Judaism is demeaned in its present circumstances and has lost all hope for a meaningful future. The final act in its history can only be its disappearance.
More important than the basic assertions were the foundations on which these claims rested. The overwhelming proportion of this argumentation was rooted in Christological exegesis of the Hebrew Bible. As we noted at the outset, Judaism and Christianity shared a common religious literature and a common sense that it represented the essentials of divinely revealed truth. Given the sense that God had directly transmitted his truth to mankind and that this truth was embodied in the biblical corpus, proper understanding of the Scriptures afforded the simplest and most straightforward avenue to the truth. Thus, for example, the Christian sense that Jesus of Nazareth represented clear and unequivocal fulfillment of scriptural prophecy concerning the Messiah provided, from the Christian perspective, the most telling possible argument to be used with Jews. Likewise, claims that the Church represented the continuation of biblical Israel and that the directives of the Church could be clearly discerned in the literature of divine revelation constituted the most convincing claims that could be advanced to anyone, in some senses, particularly to the Jews. Collections of biblical testimonia and argumentation drawn from biblical exegesis abound. The point of all these citations and explications is that the Scriptures, that is, divinely revealed truth, clearly exhibit the irrefutable truth of fundamental Christian teachings.
Evaluating the thinking behind these truth claims is difficult, indeed, in most instances, impossible. Were the authors of such tracts themselves convinced of the efficacy of these arguments? Since the same claims were useful for internal Christian purposes and could even be utilized in attracting non-Christians other than Jews, it is generally impossible to assess the seriousness of the intent to missionize among the Jews. Nevertheless, it seems clear that, while many Chris-
tian authors may have been genuinely convinced of the potential impact of such argumentation among the Jews, there was little or no effort to weigh such impact realistically. Given the rich Christian exegetical tradition, it must have been fairly obvious that the Jews also had an exegetical tradition of their own, which might run counter to Christian claims. Before the thirteenth century, we note little Christian awareness of this Jewish exegetical tradition and even less utilization of it for missionizing purposes. Again, this leads us to question the intensity of the sporadic efforts to convert the Jews.
While biblically based argumentation certainly predominated in pre-thirteenth-century conversionist efforts among the Jews, a number of alternative approaches are in evidence. One utilized the contemporary criteria of rationality to argue for the truth of Christianity (and hence the error of Judaism). Early in its development, Christianity had absorbed much of the Greco-Roman commitment to philosophic inquiry. There developed a sense that the revealed truth of Christian faith and philosophic truth could only be one and the same. Given this profound conviction, it was inevitable that philosophic inquiry and conclusions eventually would be turned into weapons to be utilized in the battle for the souls of nonbelievers. While this philosophic impulse waned considerably in late antiquity and the early Middle Ages, the powerful revitalization of the eleventh and twelfth centuries brought with it a renewed passion for philosophic inquiry and a renewed conviction of the fundamental rationality of Christianity and the essential irrationality of all other faiths. Thus, during these centuries, a recurrent thrust in Christian argumentation aimed at the Jews was the philosophic truth of Christian doctrine. Once more, the view is that key Christian beliefs are indisputably true, with such truth claims now rooted in philosophic considerations. Such argumentation may have been directed at Jews, but it served an equally useful function in buttressing Christian belief. Moreover, its utility was limited to a rather thin stratum of society—those, both Jewish and Christian, who were intellectually capable of sophisticated reasoning and emotionally ready to be moved by its conclusions.
Yet another approach utilized in pre-thirteenth-century Christian argumentation aimed at the Jews was drawn from empirical observation. The claim was that direct observation of contemporary realities would indicate clearly and convincingly the superiority of Christianity. For example, traditional in all intergroup religious polemics is the claim that the standard of behavior associated with the in-group's re-
ligious faith is far higher than that associated with the belief system of the out-group. Christian anti-Jewish argumentation, from early on, had harshly criticized aspects of Jewish behavior, particularly those associated with rigorous fidelity to Jewish law, which Christianity, after all, saw as outmoded. As we approach the thirteenth century, an innovative theme emerges—criticism of the new economic specialization in moneylending by northern European Jews. The historical factors that gave rise to this new Jewish specialization lie beyond the province of this study. What is important here is that moneylending, traditionally an unpopular occupation, quickly made its appearance in religious argumentation, serving (overtly or covertly) to buttress the general Christian claim of moral superiority—hence, religious truth-and Jewish moral inferiority. A second important line of Christian argumentation drawn ostensibly from empirical observation involved historical realities, the perceived patterns of Christian and Jewish fate. As Christianity spread and, in particular, when it assumed a position of political dominance in the Roman Empire, it was almost inevitable that a sense of numerical and political supremacy would be translated into a sense of religious truth. To the Christian mind, it was from this that demographic and social success had eventuated. This old argument had gained much strength by the thirteenth century. In the vigorous and expanding Christendom of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, where the Jews were in some areas a small, old segment of the population and in other areas a relatively tiny, new group, the sense of meaningful correlation between religious truth and social, economic, political, and military might was intense. It hardly bears repeating that these empirically based claims, while they surely may have had an impact on Jewish audiences, were useful in buttressing Christian belief, and again there seems to have been little effort to look within the Jewish community and ascertain the defenses it had long ago erected against such Christian assertions.
In sum, there may have been some development of serious argumentation designed to convince Jews of the truth of Christianity, but the evidence is not impressive. Instead, the tendency seems toward utilization of fairly standardized and traditional arguments, rarely, if ever, assessed realistically for their actual impact on Jewish auditors or readers.
In fact, it is clear that the Jews within the orbit of Christendom early on developed a full set of responses to the various lines of argumentation just delineated. In assessing these responses, it must be re-
called that, for long periods of time, most of world Jewry was outside Christendom's sphere of influence and therefore was not vitally concerned with the thrusts of Christianity (either explicitly or implicitly). Specifically, this involves the major Jewry of Mesopotamia during late antiquity and the larger Jewries of the early medieval Muslim world. Only those Jewish communities situated in a predominantly Christian environment were absorbed with the task of reacting to Christian argumentation: (1) the shrinking Jewry of the Roman Empire during late antiquity, which has left us no significant Jewish literature; (2) the ongoing Jewry of the Byzantine Empire, which has left us few pre-thirteenth-century materials; and (3) the emergent Jewries of revitalized pre-thirteenth-century western Christendom, some of whose literary productivity has survived. This latter material gives us our fullest sense of Jewish lines of response to Christian argumentation.
In defending themselves from perceived Christian thrusts, both positive and negative, Jews responded in a double fashion. They argued that Judaism was the true faith (i.e., that the Christian negative assessments were wrong) and that Christianity showed serious, indeed fatal, flaws (i.e., that the positive Christian assertions were in error). While it was often impossible to ascertain whether Christian arguments were intended to win over Jews, whether their purpose was to reinforce the beliefs of the Christian community, or whether—on occasion—they might have been created to serve as an element in missionizing among other nonbelieving groups, the Jewish polemic statements—whether defensive or offensive—were clearly meant for internal purposes only, to buttress the faith of Jews. There were, to be sure, occasional instances of Christian conversion to Judaism, despite the overt prohibition of such acts and the dangers involved, but such limited conversionist potential could not give rise to a significant missionizing literature. To the extent that we encounter a Jewish polemical literature, it is clearly intended for buttressing Jewish faith only.
The centrality of scriptural exegesis in Christian polemical literature is reflected in the parallel emphasis on biblical verses and their meaning in the Jewish literature of response. Indeed, modern scholars have long been aware of anti-Christian argumentation in many of the standard biblical commentaries composed by Jews in eleventh- and twelfth-century western Christendom. In the twelfth century, we encounter a major work composed specifically of, and devoted primarily to, anti-Christian biblical exegesis, Milhamot[*]ha-Shem (The Wars
of the Lord) by Jacob ben Reuben. In this important work, the author proceeds book by book and verse by verse, adducing Christological interpretations of key biblical verses and then vigorously rebutting these interpretations. The Jews of western Christendom were surely deeply aware of the importance of this argumentation to the Christian camp and had developed, prior to the thirteenth century, an extensive literature of refutation.
The renewed claims for the rationality of Christian faith are similarly reflected, albeit less fulsomely, in Jewish literature of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Jewish authors responded to these renewed Christian claims by reiterating traditional Jewish arguments for the simplicity and rationality of Jewish beliefs and the irrationality of fundamental tenets of Christian dogma, with a heavy emphasis on the doctrines of Incarnation and Trinity. Thus, the first chapter of the twelfth-century Milhamot[*]ha-Shem presents a careful and critical look at key Christian doctrines, while the contemporary Sefer ha-Berit (Book of the Covenant) argues simultaneously for the rationality of Jewish doctrine and the essential irrationality of Christian belief.
Jews were also aware of the empirically based argumentation and countered with claims of their own. To pursue the examples cited above, Jews made their own assessment of relative moral and ethical standards. They were fully prepared to argue strenuously for the higher ethical standards of their community, to criticize vigorously the flaws of Christian society, and to assert that this moral differential was an inevitable concomitant of religious truth and error. Jews were similarly prepared to argue the empirically observable differences in social and political strength. While the reality of far greater Christian numbers and power could not be disputed, the meaning of such temporal superiority could. Jews argued that this imbalance in Christian and Jewish material strength was all part of the divine plan, that Christian superiority would eventually evaporate (as had the power of earlier empires), and that an exalted Jewish status would eventuate—if Jewish behavior and belief were such as to warrant the advent of messianic redemption. In some ways, this line of Jewish argumentation threw the issue back into the arena of biblical exegesis, with both sides claiming to fathom properly the cryptic scriptural message of divine redemption. In this sense, Jews argued that redemption could not be understood on the basis of empirical observation, since sensory perceptions could be misleading. Full understanding of
the redemptive process could only come about as the result of the proper reading of the biblical message.
The most important point for our purposes is the general lack of concern with and awareness of this elaborate Jewish argumentation in the Christian camp. Only when Christian spokesmen began to look carefully into the Jewish community they intended to address, to acquaint themselves with contemporary Jewish thinking, and to take that thinking into account in structuring their proofs for the superiority of Christianity and the inferiority of Judaism could truly serious missionizing efforts be launched.
In a general way, then, based on our criteria, or elements, of intensive missionizing—allocation of extensive resources, adumbration of techniques for regularly confronting Jews with Christians claims, and elaboration of argumentation based on full awareness of contemporary Jewish thinking—we are justified in concluding that pre-thirteenth-century Christendom shows almost no evidence of serious proselytizing among the Jews. This changes dramatically during the middle decades of the thirteenth century; the details of this new missionizing are the focus of this study. Before proceeding to these decades of change, we should pause briefly to note a few twelfth-century figures who show some signs of the new proselytizing ardor and, more important, some indications of the techniques that will comprise part of the new campaign.