Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Conversion and Narrative

Conversion and Narrative: Reading and Religious Authority in Medieval Polemic

Ryan Szpiech
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 328
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Conversion and Narrative
    Book Description:

    In 1322, a Jewish doctor named Abner entered a synagogue in the Castilian city of Burgos and began to weep in prayer. Falling asleep, he dreamed of a "great man" who urged him to awaken from his slumber. Shortly thereafter, he converted to Christianity and wrote a number of works attacking his old faith. Abner tells the story in fantastic detail in the opening to his Hebrew-language but anti-Jewish polemical treatise, Teacher of Righteousness. In the religiously plural context of the medieval Western Mediterranean, religious conversion played an important role as a marker of social boundaries and individual identity. The writers of medieval religious polemics such as Teacher of Righteousness often began by giving a brief, first-person account of the rejection of their old faith and their embrace of the new. In such accounts, Ryan Szpiech argues, the narrative form plays an important role in dramatizing the transition from infidelity to faith. Szpiech draws on a wide body of sources from Christian, Jewish, and Muslim polemics to investigate the place of narrative in the representation of conversion. Making a firm distinction between stories told about conversion and the experience of religious change, his book is not a history of conversion itself but a comparative study of how and why it was presented in narrative form within the context of religious disputation. He argues that between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries, conversion narratives were needed to represent communal notions of history and authority in allegorical, dramatic terms. After considering the late antique paradigms on which medieval Christian conversion narratives were based, Szpiech juxtaposes Christian stories with contemporary accounts of conversion to Islam and Judaism. He emphasizes that polemical conflict between Abrahamic religions in the medieval Mediterranean centered on competing visions of history and salvation. By seeing conversion not as an individual experience but as a public narrative, Conversion and Narrative provides a new, interdisciplinary perspective on medieval writing about religious disputes.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-0761-3
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  4. Introduction: Conversion and History
    (pp. 1-29)

    There was once a Jew who, well into his adult life, began to think deeply about the trials of his people. One day, he entered a synagogue and, with lamentation and bitterness in his heart, began to pray, “Lord God, I beg you, have mercy on our trials. What is the cause of your anger and fury against your people, the sheep of your pasture? Why will the nations say, ‘Where is their God?’ Lord, hear now my prayer and my cries, and illuminate your desolate sanctuary. Have mercy on your people Israel.” And with great heaviness of heart, exhausted...

  5. CHAPTER 1 From Peripety to Prose: Tracing the Pauline and Augustinian Paradigms
    (pp. 30-58)

    In medieval Christian sources, conversion very often takes the form of a narrative, in particular a narrative derived from biblical, largely New Testament, models. Conversion itself, as a textual drama of transformation, might be considered a Judeo-Christian invention of the late Second Temple period, a fusion of Hebrew tropes and Greek vocabulary. Although abundant images of religious change can be found in many religious traditions, both ancient and modern, Eastern and Western, early Christian renditions marked a decisive shift in the meaning and representation of conversion. In Greece, what first emerged as a distinctive notion of cultic exclusiveness within mystery...

  6. CHAPTER 2 Alterity and Auctoritas: Reason and the Twelfth-Century Expansion of Authority
    (pp. 59-91)

    In the beginning of his Little Work on His Conversion, written sometime in the middle decades of the twelfth century, Judah/Herman, the “former Jew” (quondam iudaeus), as he is called, observes the following in a letter to a certain Henry that precedes his conversion story: “I was not converted with that ease with which we often see many unbelievers . . . converted to the Catholic faith by a swift and unanticipated change [repentina et inopinata mutatione]. . . . [B]y contrast, my conversion was gained in the face of powerful waves of temptations . . . and, finally, with...

  7. CHAPTER 3 In the Shadow of the Khazars: Narrating Conversion to Judaism
    (pp. 92-120)

    Before turning to what I have identified as the second effect (after the narration of conversion) of the twelfth-century shift in auctoritas—an intensified focus on language as a marker of authenticity—I wish to turn away briefly from the subject of conversion to Christianity. Looking instead at the wider conceptual framework in which conversion operated, this chapter steps back chronologically to consider Latin and Hebrew accounts of Christian conversion to Judaism (or, from a Christian perspective, apostasy from Christianity) written up through the twelfth century. Such sources are relatively scarce and mostly fragmentary, but despite these formidable limitations they...

  8. CHAPTER 4 A War of Words: Translating Authority in Thirteenth-Century Polemic
    (pp. 121-142)

    On Friday, July 20, 1263, a converted Jew named Fra Pau Cristià (Friar Paul Christian), and also possibly called Saule (Saul) before his conversion, stood in the Royal Palace of Barcelona before two great men, King Jaume of Aragon and the great rabbi of Girona, Nahmanides.¹ This convert had been born in a Jewish community probably in northern Spain or southern France and, one assumes, had received a Jewish education. Apparently using what he had learned before converting, Fra Pau proposed to prove that the Talmud and other rabbinical sources actually argued that the awaited Messiah of Jewish tradition had...

  9. CHAPTER 5 The Jargon of Authenticity: Abner of Burgos/Alfonso of Valladolid and the Paradox of Testimony
    (pp. 143-173)

    Between the extreme and voluminous examples of Ramon Martí and Ramon Llull, the upheavals occasioned by the incorporation of Aristotelian logic into traditional polemical thought had run their course and driven the pursuit of authority, both through text and logical argument, to an impasse. While Martí had doggedly pushed the expansion of Christian auctoritas to its conceptual and linguistic limits, Llull had, in parallel fashion, elaborated the foundations of ratio to a rarefied degree of sophistication and complexity, and both had done so over a wide swath of writing (although Llull’s output dwarfs that of Martí, along with every other...

  10. CHAPTER 6 The Supersessionist Imperative: Islam and the Historical Drama of Revelation
    (pp. 174-214)

    Deep within Abner/Alfonso’s staged debate between Christian and Jew in the Teacher of Righteousness, the Teacher makes the argument that one important indicator of Christian truth is its wide acceptance by all people, even those of other religions. He explains, “All the gentiles of the world, or most of them, accepted the faith of Jesus Christ. Even the Moors accepted it in most things, and they believe that Jesus the Nazarene was the Messiah and that he was to come for the salvation of the world.” As a result of this alleged belief, he tells the Jewish Rebel, the Moors...

  11. Conclusion: Polemic as Narrative
    (pp. 215-226)

    There was once a queen who ruled a strange and distant island. She was a good and just queen but had not heard of any world religion. Her people, while upright by nature, lived without laws. One night, as she lay awake in her bed thinking with confusion on the true path, as she often tried to do, she was resolved to call together her wisest men. The next morning, after relating her concerns to a group of the advisors of her court, one wise man proposed sending out emissaries to look for the true religion, and so three of...

    (pp. 227-228)
  13. NOTES
    (pp. 229-266)
    (pp. 267-298)
  15. INDEX
    (pp. 299-308)
    (pp. 309-314)