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Living Letters of the Law: Ideas of the Jew in Medieval Christianity

Jeremy Cohen
Copyright Date: 1999
Edition: 1
Pages: 461
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    Living Letters of the Law
    Book Description:

    In Living Letters of the Law, Jeremy Cohen investigates the images of Jews and Judaism in the works of medieval Christian theologians from Augustine to Thomas Aquinas. He reveals how-and why-medieval Christianity fashioned a Jew on the basis of its reading of the Bible, and how this hermeneutically crafted Jew assumed distinctive character and power in Christian thought and culture. Augustine's doctrine of Jewish witness, which constructed the Jews so as to mandate their survival in a properly ordered Christian world, is the starting point for this illuminating study. Cohen demonstrates how adaptations of this doctrine reflected change in the self-consciousness of early medieval civilization. After exploring the effect of twelfth-century Europe's encounter with Islam on the value of Augustine's Jewish witnesses, he concludes with a new assessment of the reception of Augustine's ideas among thirteenth-century popes and friars. Consistently linking the medieval idea of the Jew with broader issues of textual criticism, anthropology, and the philosophy of history, this book demonstrates the complex significance of Christianity's "hermeneutical Jew" not only in the history of antisemitism but also in the broad scope of Western intellectual history.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-92291-4
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-18)

    Some years ago, I offered a course on the history of Judaism at a Protestant seminary in the midwestern United States. Both as a Jew and as a historian committed to studying the interdependence of Christian and Jewish civilizations, I found it gratifying that my course fulfilled a distribution requirement in church history at the seminary; the genuine interest of Christian divinity students in my Judaic subject encouraged me no less. Surprisingly, however, my interaction with the president, the dean, and some faculty colleagues at the school proved less gratifying. Although I understood my role in their community primarily as...


    • [PART ONE Introduction]
      (pp. 19-22)

      From the earliest days of the history of the church, Christian ideas of Jews and Judaism responded to the imperatives of Christian theology and to the essential characteristics of the Christian interpretation of Scripture. The course of modern civilization has shown how such ideologically and hermeneutically derived constructions have continued to bear on the interaction of Christian and Jew, at times with cataclysmic results. Inasmuch as this book concerns the medieval history of those Christian ideas in the Latin West, it begins with Augustine of Hippo. From theology and philosophy to music and literary criticism, from his sexual obsessions to...

    • CHAPTER 1 The Doctrine of Jewish Witness
      (pp. 23-66)

      Augustine of Hippo (354-430) lived during an age of transitions. During his lifetime, the division between Eastern and Western capitals of the Roman Empire became a permanent one, as the imperial government in the city of Rome itself entered the last generations of its history. More than any later fifth-century event, like the deposition of the last Western emperor in 476, the sacking of Rome by the Germanic Visigoths in 410 signaled the decline of classical civilization in contemporary eyes. Political change, with its accompanying social ferment, induced many to question the presuppositions upon which their societies and worldviews rested,...


    • [PART TWO Introduction]
      (pp. 67-72)

      Though Augustine’s ideas conditioned Christian conceptualizations of Jews and Judaism for centuries to come, they underwent a gradual process of adaptation and reformulation that commenced almost immediately. For three prominent churchmen of the period—the Italian Pope Gregory the Great (ca. 540-604), the Spanish Archbishop Isidore of Seville (ca. 570-636), and the Frankish Archbishop Agobard of Lyons (769-840)—the Augustinian legacy could permit considerable latitude in the formulation of an ideological posture toward the Jews, and the attitudes of these men varied widely. Some investigators have preferred to understand their divergent viewpoints as gravitating between two different patristic outlooks that...

    • CHAPTER 2 Gregory the Great: Between Sicut Iudaeis and Adversus Iudaeos
      (pp. 73-94)

      If Augustine stood on the precipice overlooking the end of late antiquity, Pope Gregory the Great, more than any other single individual, led the Latin West into the Middle Ages. In the history of Christianity, Gregory’s literary career and pontificate (590-604) mark the end of the patristic period and the entry of Roman Catholicism and its church into a patently different phase in their development. From the perspective of most medieval Christian readers of the Bible, for example, Gregory was the first of the great master-exegetes, “le premier des maitres.” In matters ecclesiological, Walter Ullmann has suggested that Gregory’s ideal...

    • CHAPTER 3 Isidore of Seville: Anti-Judaism and the Hermeneutics of Integration
      (pp. 95-122)

      Like Gregory the Great, Isidore of Seville is often considered one of the last of the Latin church fathers. He, too, “was a true bridge-builder between early and late medieval times, a bridge-builder also between the Germanic and Roman nations”;¹ and, much as Gregory did, Isidore contributed directly to the developing idea of the Jew in early medieval Christendom. Yet Isidore undertook this responsibility deliberately, with a determination that rendered anti-Jewish polemic more of a critical aspect of his scholarly opus than it had been for Gregory’s or for Augustine’s. Not since Tertullian had a Latin churchman compiled a treatise...

    • CHAPTER 4 Agobard of Lyons: Battling the Enemies of Christian Unity
      (pp. 123-146)

      The strident voice of Agobard, archbishop of Lyons during the reign of the Carolingian emperor Louis the Pious, rings loud in the annals of medieval Jewish-Christian relations. To be sure, Agobard was not a scholar of the order of Gregory the Great or Isidore of Seville. His well-known complaints regarding the Jews of his day hardly amounted to a systematic theological exposition. Still, Agobard’s concern with the Jews and the extant correspondence that airs it are too significant to overlook, even in this study of theological tradition. His vehement protests against the Jewish policy of Louis the Pious testify to...


    • [PART THREE Introduction]
      (pp. 147-166)

      The twelfth century ushered the civilization of medieval Latin Christendom into maturity. The continuing Christian reconquest of Spain, the Crusades, and the ongoing conversion of central and northern Europe all contributed to its geographical expansion. Far-reaching economic development revitalized its commerce, reawakened its urban markets, and promoted a qualitative shift in its conceptualization of wealth—to one emphasizing the accumulation of financial profit over the mere ownership of land. Growth and consolidation characterized its ecclesiastical and political institutions. In the wake of Gregorian reform, popes, prelates, theologians, and canon lawyers expounded the theoretical and practical ramifications of a Catholic vision...

    • CHAPTER 5 Reason in Defense of the Faith: From Anselm of Canterbury to Peter Alfonsi
      (pp. 167-218)

      I have suggested that the reorientation of Christian religious polemic to confront a larger array of nonbelievers contributed to its greater reliance on rational argumentation, which, in turn, altered the character of Jews and Judaism in medieval Catholic thought. This chapter investigates the process in the writings of several early-twelfth-century theologians, from the champion of “faith in search of understanding [fides quaerens intellectum],” Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109), to one of the most popular, widely read apologists of the age, Peter Alfonsi.

      With Lanfranc [of Bec]’s great pupil Anselm we meet the highest achievement of what may be called the medieval...

    • CHAPTER 6 Against the Backdrop of Holy War: Bernard of Clairvaux and Peter the Venerable
      (pp. 219-270)

      Writing just prior to, during, and in the wake of the First Crusade, the Christian authors considered in the preceding chapter could not avoid the influence of current events and the world around them. As I suggested, the anti-Jewish violence of 1096, though not a part of the official mandate of the crusaders, invariably roused many churchmen to come to grips with the problematic function of the Jew in Christian society. Concerns sharpened and perspectives matured. Concurrently, confrontation with the Muslim world induced many to associate Jews and Muslims, projecting the characteristics of one group onto the other and incorporating...

    • CHAPTER 7 Renaissance Men and Their Dreams
      (pp. 271-312)

      The two preceding chapters discussed the most noteworthy contributions of twelfth-century Europe to our story, from Anselm of Canterbury to Bernard of Clairvaux and Peter the Venerable of Cluny. Yet many more churchmen of that century addressed the question of the Jew, and, although this book makes no pretense of considering them all, it cannot move on to the thirteenth century without a slightly fuller picture of the twelfth. The present chapter will thus reflect upon selected Christian perceptions of Jews and Judaism from the last two thirds of the century, chosen both for their intrinsic interest and for their...


    • [PART FOUR Introduction]
      (pp. 313-316)

      Our story ends in the thirteenth century, where, in certain respects, it actually began. Some fifteen years ago I advanced the thesis that Dominican and Franciscan friars of the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries developed a new anti-Jewish ideology in Latin Christendom.¹ I argued that this outlook condemned medieval Jews for having deserted the biblical religion which, in Augustinian terms, justified a Jewish presence in Christian society; that, seeking to diminish such a presence, the mendicant orders thereby contributed to the decline and virtual disappearance of European Jewry during the later Middle Ages; and that the new, “mendicant” anti-Judaism derived...

    • CHAPTER 8 Judaism as Heresy: Thirteenth-Century Churchmen and the Talmud
      (pp. 317-363)

      No historian should deny that the condemnation and persecution of rabbinic literature by the late medieval church marked an important milestone in the history of Christian-Jewish relations. In a fashion entirely unprecedented, popes, inquisitors, and secular princes who cooperated with them attacked those books that constituted the mainstay of contemporary Jewish life, books that united most of Diaspora Jewry in allegiance to a constantly evolving corpus of postbiblical law, biblical interpretation, and rabbinic lore. Medieval Jews were now hardpressed not only to defend against the lures and challenges of Christianity and to endure increasingly harsh forms of legal discrimination but...

    • CHAPTER 9 Ambiguities of Thomistic Synthesis
      (pp. 364-390)

      Our story concludes with the most renowned medieval theologian of all, the Dominican Thomas Aquinas (1225-74). Because he, like most of the great scholastic masters of theology in his day, evidenced little interest in interreligious polemic, he did not number among the vociferously anti-Jewish mendicant friars of the thirteenth century.¹ Nevertheless, his constructions of the Jew and of Judaism remain interesting and noteworthy, so I return to them here. These Thomistic ideas exemplify yet another type of thirteenth-century churchman’s perspective on the Jews, betraying additional evidence of the new appraisal of post- biblical, rabbinic Judaism considered in the previous chapter....

  10. Afterword
    (pp. 391-400)

    Shylock’s thirst for revenge notwithstanding, his impassioned words in the third act of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice reverberate with a double truth. As much as the rhetoric of this speech demands affirmative answers for Shylock’s questions, both he and Shakespeare well understood that European Christendom construed the Jew irrespective of these basic human attributes. So, too, did a thirteenth-century Jewish writer observe: “Behold how many Gentiles there are who ask if Jews have a mouth or an eye or a nose!”¹ Christian culture had crafted a Jew in keeping with the needs of its doctrine, as a foil for its...

  11. References
    (pp. 401-436)
  12. Index
    (pp. 437-451)
  13. Back Matter
    (pp. 452-455)