Jewish polemics and apologetics in the Middle Ages

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Jewish polemics and apologetics in the Middle Ages were texts written to protect and dissuade Jewish communities from conversion to Christianity, or more rarely to Islam. The terms polemics (from "battles") and apologetics (from "defence") may be distinguished[1] but may also be considered somewhat subjective.[2] A smaller number of proselytizing text also exists intended to convert Christians, or more rarely Muslims, to Judaism.

Under the pre-Christian and Christianizing Roman Empire[edit]

Defences of Judaism to Greek, Egyptian and Roman religionists are found in Philo's Apology on behalf of the Jews,[3] and Josephus' Against Apion as well as other Hellenistic Jewish authors.[4] In the early centuries following the emergence of Christianity from Judaism, but before Christianity's establishment as state religion by Constantine, mutual Jewish-Christian debate, polemics and apologetics occurred as for example in the words of Rabbi Tarfon[5] and, on the other side, Justin Martyr's Dialogue with Trypho, and the lost Dialogue of Jason and Papiscus (2nd century), and the later Dialogue of Athanasius and Zacchaeus (4th century), Dialogue of Simon and Theophilus (5th century), and Dialogue of Timothy and Aquila (6th century).

Middle Ages[edit]

The Middle Ages is generally counted as covering Europe from the 5th to 15th centuries.

Under Islam[edit]

During the Middle Ages many polemical texts originated outside Catholic Europe in lands where Jews and Christians were on an even footing as subjects of Islam. Among the oldest anti-Christian texts with polemic intent is the Toledot Yeshu "Life of Jesus" (7th century), although this does not follow the reasoned format of argument found in a true polemic or apologetic work. The earliest true polemic is the Sefer Nestor Ha-Komer "The Book of Nestor the Priest" (c. 600 CE).[6] The book represents itself as the arguments for Judaism of a former Christian (possibly Nestorian) priest.[7] The need for apologetics emerged as national boundaries were in flux.[8]

Saadia's Kitab al-Amanat wal-I'tikadat "Book of Belief and Opinions" (933) includes refutations of the Christian Trinity, and more restrainedly against Hiwi al-Balkhi's arguments against the Jewish scriptures.[9] The Cairo Genizah fragments include polemics against Samaritans, Christianity, and Islam, as well as Jewish sects, from the early 10th century.[10] Both Jews and Christians under Islam were careful in criticism of, or proselytizing to, their host's religion, in response to Muslim proselytzing of Jews and Christians.[11][12] Judah Halevi's Arabic Kitab al Khazari "Book of the Khazars" (c 1120), subtitled "The book of refutation and proof on behalf of the despised religion," included apologetics to Islam alongside Christianity and Greek philosophy.[13][14]

In Catholic Europe[edit]

Jews in Europe began to write polemical works in the 12th century.[15] The Milhamoth ha-Shem "Wars of the Name" of Jacob ben Reuben (12th century) is an apologetic text against conversion by Christians, notable in that it contains questions and answers based on selected Hebrew translations of the Latin Gospel of Matthew[16] and appears to have served as a precedent for the full Hebrew translation and interspersed commentary on Matthew found in Ibn Shaprut's Touchstone (c. 1385).[17]

Joseph Kimhi's Sefer ha-Berit "Book of the covenant" (c. 1150) follows Jacob ben Reuben's format of an apologetic response to Christian argument,[18] but does not only refute Christian challenges, Kimhi also identifies weaknesses of Christian belief.[19]

Around the same period are the Sefer Nizzahon Yashan "The (old) Book of Victory" (in Latin Nizzahon vetus, to distinguish from Prague rabbi Yom-Tov Lipmann-Muhlhausen's 1405 polemical work) a "typical Ashkenazic polemic,"[20][21] and the Sefer Joseph Hamekane "Book of Joseph the Official" of rabbi Joseph ben Nathan (13th century) which presents among other arguments a conversation between a Christian, the 'Chancellor,' and two rabbis.[22] Other apologetic works include Joseph Albo's Sefer Ha-Ikkarim "Book of Principles" (1420), Chasdai Crescas' Or Adonai "Light of the Lord" (1410), Isaac of Troki's Hizzuk emunah "Faith strengthened" (1590).[23]

Defences of the Talmud[edit]

A subcategory of apologetics in the late medieval period is found in necessary Jewish responses to highly dangerous Christian charges concerning material related to Jesus in the Talmud,[24] found in the responses of Yechiel of Paris, Moses of Coucy, and Judah of Melun at the Disputation of Paris (1240),[25] Nachmanides at the Disputation of Barcelona (1263), and Profiat Duran "Shame of the Gentiles" (1375), Joseph Albo (mentioned above) and Astruc HaLevi at the Disputation of Tortosa (1413).

Renaissance and Counter-Reformation[edit]

Following the Renaissance the religious landscape of Europe changed with the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. Notable among apologeticists of the 17th century was Elijah Montalto, personal physician to Maria de Medici in Paris until his death in 1611, among others such as Menasseh ben Israel, author of Vindiciae Judaeorum whose works were printed by the Jewish community of Amsterdam. Montalto's student Saul Levi Morteira continued in Montalto's tradition of conducting a rational polemical criticism of Christianity.[26] Many polemical works, like Leon of Modena's Magen va-Herev "Shield and Sword", were designed to win back conversos.[27]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Robert Chazan Fashioning Jewish identity in medieval western Christendom Page 7 2004 "I have used the term “polemics” broadly, not distinguishing between defensive thrusts, sometimes identified as apologetic, and attacks on the opposing faith. With regard to the distinction between those works intended for insiders and those for outsiders, I also use the inclusive term polemics, although I sometimes tend to call the latter missionizing or proselytizing works."
  2. ^ The Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion Page 60 ed. Adele Berlin, Maxine Grossman - 2011 "Jewish apologetics is less “apologetic” than the term indicates. Occasionally, too, Jews have gone on the attack."
  3. ^ The Encyclopedia of Judaism ed. Geoffrey Wigoder - 1989 p68 "APOLOGETICS AND POLEMICS ... when Jewish writers sought to defend Judaism against the criticisms of Hellenism and paganism. Two noted works were Philo's Apology on behalf of the Jews and Against Apion by the historian Josephus, who vindicated the Jewish "
  4. ^ Josephus' Contra Apionem: studies in its character and context Page 143 Louis H. Feldman, John R. Levison - 1996 Aryeh Kasher POLEMIC AND APOLOGETIC METHODS OF WRITING IN CONTRA APIONEM Tel-Aviv University. "Introductory words on the nature of polemics and apologetics - Josephus, admittedly, was not the first of the Jewish apologeticists"
  5. ^ Essential papers on Judaism and Christianity in conflict: from Late Antiquity to the Reformation ed. Jeremy Cohen Page 448 1991 "Further, R. Tarfon regards these Jewish Christians as worse than idolaters; for while a pagan might embrace the new faith, it was a great source of frustration that Jews, raised in the traditions of Judaism, would have done so as .."
  6. ^ Joel E. Rembaum, The Influence of "Sefer Nestor Hakomer" on Medieval Jewish Polemics, in: Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research, Vol. 45, (1978)
  7. ^ Daniel J. Lasker, "Jewish-Christian Polemics at the Turning Point: Jewish Evidence from the Twelfth Century", in: The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 89, No. 2 (Apr., 1996)
  8. ^ Cursing the Christians?: A History of the Birkat Haminim Page 66 Ruth Langer - 2011 "These commonalities extend as well to the rabbinic discussions about the prayer and to many elements of the Christian polemics and Jewish apologetics that emerge in the late medieval world, particularly as national boundaries become ..."
  9. ^ Daniel Frank The Jews of medieval Islam: community, society, and identity 1995 Institute of Jewish Studies (London, England) page 176 "... obvious reluctance to polemicize against other Islamic tenets while exercising no such restraint vis-a-vis Christianity, it would seem that the discussion of naskh should be seen in the context of Saadya's anti-Christian polemic."
  10. ^ Encyclopaedia Judaica Volume 3 Cecil Roth 1972 "Fragments from the Cairo Genizah attest to the polemics directed in this period against the Samaritans, Christianity, and Islam, as well as Jewish schismatic sects, apparently from the beginning of the tenth century" cites J. Mann, Genizah Fragments of the Palestinian Order of Service (HUCA, 1925).
  11. ^ Religious apologetics - philosophical argumentation Yossef Schwartz, Volkhard Krech 2004 Page 240 "At the same time, however, the Qur'an defined for the Muslim polemist the areas of polemical activity, which differed for Judaism and for Christianity. In general, the disagreement with Judaism was limited to the charge of altering the.. "
  12. ^ Sarah Stroumsa Freethinkers of medieval Islam: Ibn al-Rawandi, Abu Bakr al-Razi and their Impact on Islamic Thought. Leiden, the Netherlands: Brill, 1999. Page 204 "Joseph van Ess has suggested Hiwi al-Balhi's Questions concerning the Bible as a source of inspiration for a Jewish polemicist.51 These Questions prove indeed that criticism of the scriptures was not foreign to the Medieval Jewish.."
  13. ^ The Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion Page 60 Adele Berlin, Maxine Grossman - 2011 "Later Jewish apologetics reasserted Judaism against Greek philosophy, Christianity, Islam (*Yehuda ha-Levi's Kuzari dealt with all three), "
  14. ^ Holy people of the world: a cross-cultural encyclopedia Volume 1 - Page 342 Phyllis G. Jestice - 2004 "The book's subtitle, Kitab al-Hujja wa-al-Dalil fi Nasr al-Din al-Dhalil (The book of refutation and proof on behalf of the despised religion), identifies it as a work of religious apologetics."
  15. ^ Berger David Jewish-Christian Debate in the High Middle Ages Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1979 in Jewish history and Jewish memory: essays in honor of Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi 1998 Page 26 "By the twelfth century, when European Jews began to write polemical works, they had far more information, which made their task easier in some respects and more complex in others.
  16. ^ William Horbury Hebrew study from Ezra to Ben-Yehuda 1999 128
  17. ^ J. Rosenthal (ed.), Jacob b. Reuben, Milhamoth ha-Shem (Jerusalem, 1963), pp. 141-52
  18. ^ Susan Janet Ridyard The medieval crusade 2004 Page 37 "Both Jacob ben Reuben's Milhamot ha-Shem and Joseph Kimhi's Sefer ha-Berit begin with the Christian spokesman adducing a series of arguments to show that reason dictates the truth of Christianity. Once again, the Jewish participants in these dialogues assume a largely defensive position, although the Jewish defense is portrayed as spirited and convincing.1."
  19. ^ Chazan 2004 "While the obligation of the Jewish polemicist begins with rebutting Christian challenges, it does not end with such defensive maneuvers. The responsibility of medieval Jewish polemicists, as perceived by Joseph Kimhi, extends to identifying weaknesses in the opposing camp and bringing them forcefully to the attention of Jewish readers. This aggressive thrust of medieval Jewish polemics is well documented in Sefer ha-Berit, and we shall cite this first of "
  20. ^ Ora Limor, Guy G. Stroumsa Contra Iudaeos: ancient and medieval polemics between Christians and Jews TSMJ 10; Tubingen: Mohr 1996 p196 "When one thinks of a typical Ashkenazic polemic, one generally looks to a book such as Sefer Nizzahon Yashan, ... 8 A critical edition of Sefer Nizzahon Yashan, with English translation and notes, can be found in David Berger, The Jewish-Christian Debate in the High Middle Ages 2008 "
  21. ^ Hanne Trautner-Kromann Shield and sword: Jewish polemics against Christianity and the Christians in France and Spain from 1000-1500 Texts and Studies in Medieval and Early Modern Judaism 8. Tubingen: Mohr (Siebeck) (ISBN 3 16 145995 4) 1993 p103 "The Sefer Nizzahon Vetus begins with a quite brief introduction where God's help is invoked. After this, the text follows the order of the ... Presumably the Nizzahon Vetus was much used because of its manageable and systematic form."
  22. ^ Anna Sapir Abulafia Religious violence between Christians and Jews: medieval roots p94 2002 "This is illustrated clearly in an episode in Sefer Joseph Hamekane (Book of Joseph the Zealot, France, thirteenth century), recounting a conversation in Paris between the 'Chancellor' and two rabbis.29 The Christian claimed that from .."
  23. ^ The Jewish encyclopedia Isidore Singer, Cyrus Adler "As to the two Hebrew standard works of New Testament criticism in the Middle Ages, written for apologetic purposes, the " Sefer Nizzahon " and the "Hizzuk Emunah,"
  24. ^ Turim: Studies in Jewish History and Literature ed. Michael A. Shmidman - 2007 "Furthermore, his theory of "two Yeshus" (which was advanced numerous times previously, both in the context of disputations23 and apparently sincerely by the Tosafot ha-Rosh) shows that he did not believe the derogatory passages in the about "Yeshu" referred to Jesus of Nazareth.
  25. ^ Saadia R. Eisenberg, “Reading Medieval Religious Disputation: The 1240 'Debate' Between Rabbi Yehiel of Paris and Friar Nicholas Donin” (Ph.D. diss., University of Michigan, 2008)
  26. ^ Ralph Melnick From polemics to apologetics: Jewish-Christian rapprochement in 17th Century Amsterdam 1981 - 95 ISBN 9789023217923 "Like Montalto, Saul Levi Morteira, the disciple who accompanied his master to Paris and who took his body to Amsterdam for burial, continued in this same polemical tradition of conducting a rational critique of Christianity."
  27. ^ Talya Fishman, "Changing Early Modern Jewish Discourse About Christianity: The Efforts of Rabbi Leon Modena", in David Joshua Malkiel Lion shall roar: Leon Modena and his world 2003 "Magen va-Herev 's methodology and use of sources offer other clues regarding its target audience. Like other works designed to win hesitant converses over to Judaism, all the arguments in Magen va-Herev appeal to either Scripture or