Even through Christian evangelicals around the world today tend to support Israel and support its right to exist, know that Jesus was born Jewish and believe in the Hebrew Bible, the Jewish-Christian relationship over the millennia has been fraught with conflict – and the Jews were always victims on the receiving side.
The Jewish people suffered forcible conversion and displacement (as in the 1290 expulsion of Jews from England, the 1492 Inquisition and expulsion of the unconverted Jews from Spain and 1497 expulsion from Portugal). Jews were put into ghettos and victimized in pogroms in Christian Europe; prevented from owning land and restricted in what professions they could enter. They were tortured and humiliated on many occasions by Christians and made subject to dress codes. And all this occurred before the Holocaust, in which six million Jews were murdered by Nazis born in Christian Germany.
The Torah taught the Jews that they had a special relationship and covenant with the one God who has no human form; that the Written and Oral Torah is a lifetime guide to a moral life that must be observed as part of a never-ending dialogue with God through tradition, rituals, prayers and ethical actions; and that a fully-human descendant of King David born of two human parents will one day appear to restore the Kingdom of Israel and usher in an era of peace, prosperity, and spiritual understanding for Israel and all the nations of the world.
Christianity, based on Second Temple Judaism and post-Temple destruction, is very different. Christians believe in a “New Covenant” mediated through Jesus, individual salvation from sin via receiving Jesus as their God and savior; and the return of the Son of God as the Messiah.
As a countermeasure to Christian violence and oppression of the Jews, Jewish theologians attacked basic Christian concepts. But in a chapter in a new book Polemical Encounters: Christians, Jews and Muslims in Iberia and Beyond (Penn State University Press, 2019), Prof. Daniel J. Lasker of Ben-Gurion University’s Goldstein-Goren department of Jewish thought challenges the assumption that they attacked Christianity only when Jews were threatened or pressured to convert.
For centuries, Jewish leaders have fought ideological and rhetorical battles against Christianity meant to support their specific views using aggressive claims and undermining of the opposing position. But it has been widely assumed that ideological attacks by Jewish leaders on Christian theology have been triggered only by threats to Jews’ spiritual well-being.
Historically, that has often been the case, to be sure, writes Lasker – the Norbert Blechner Professor of Jewish Values (emeritus) at the university in Beersheba. He insists that that anti-Jewish violence and/or pressure to convert have not always been the only catalysts for Jewish leaders to engage in anti-Christian thought.
For example, the anonymous ninth century work The Book of Nestor the Priest, as well as Sa’adia Gaon’s Book of Beliefs and Opinions, written in the 10th century, both contain many anti-Christian passages, despite having been written in what is now modern-day Iraq. And there are many other examples that he provides in his chapter.
“The ‘accepted’ narrative – that Jewish thinkers and leaders spoke out against Christianity only in response to the threat of conversion – isn’t accurate. Yes, anti-Jewish rioting, and especially the forced and non-forced conversions in the Iberian Peninsula in 1391, and especially the expulsion from Spain a century later, sparked both Christian and Jewish writers to develop new polemical tactics,” argues Lasker.
“Twelfth-century Christians defended their religion and tried to persuade Jews that Christianity had superseded Judaism using rational arguments – i.e the origins of Replacement Theology. In the 13th-century, Christians discovered the Talmud and forced Jews to participate in public debates. At the same time, Jewish leaders looked for new tactics to argue against the Christian position, using learned analyses of Christian beliefs, references to Christian theological literature, use of the vernacular, and even bitter sarcasm to undermine Christian arguments,” Lasker continued.
Despite the changes in debate tactics and the arguments used, however, Lasker argued that “the core of the argument between Jews and Christians – whether Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah predicted by the Hebrew Bible – has remained unchanged.
“Many writers have argued that many aspects of Jews’ rejection of Christianity have also changed over time,” writes Lasker, who was also a leading researcher and senior scholar at Ben-Gurion University’s Center for the Study of Conversion and Inter-Religious Encounters from 2012 to 2018.
“But I show that the opposite is actually true: That while tactics and arguments have indeed changed through the centuries, the belief in Jesus-as-Messiah and the traditional Jewish rejection of that creed has formed the heart – or at least important sections – of many of the definitive Jewish polemical works against Christianity. That basic difference has continued to define the sides, all the way to the modern period,” he insists.
“If we consider more closely the use of language in Jewish polemics, it would seem that, just as authors chose the type of argumentation and the tone according to the needs of the intended readership, so too was the choice of language a function of making their ideas accessible to potential readers. In Arabic-speaking countries, Jews wrote their polemics in Arabic; in the early modern period, when many Jews were more comfortable with the various vernaculars than with Hebrew, the polemicists wrote in the vernacular (Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Yiddish, and others). In English-speaking countries today, Jewish polemicists write in English and, as might be expected, are careful not to offend the sensitivities of their Jewish readers who would not be amenable to vulgar attacks on Christianity,” wrote the professor.
“So even while their tactics and arguments evolved dramatically through the centuries, the basic premises of the Jewish-Christian debate have not changed,” Lasker concluded.