Towards Tolerance: Christian Appeals to Jews in the Middle Ages

BOOK PICK: The Scholastics and the Jews

The Scholastics and the Jews

Coexistence, Conversion and the Medieval Origins of Tolerance 

By Edmund J. Mazza

Angelico Press, 2017

298 pages, $20 (hardcover), $10 (paperback)

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The notion of a “persecuting society” has achieved an unwarranted acceptance among many medievalists, who now merely assume that raw hatred, hunger for power and the creation of a homogenous society was at the core of the Church’s treatment of nonbelievers — pagans, Muslims and, most problematically, Jews — rather than any sincere concern for the salvation of souls.

This pathologizing of intellectual and spiritual motivations — something we see now in modern coinages such as “homophobia” and “transphobia” — reduces pastoral concerns and interreligious debate to blind acts of irrational hatred, racism and bias. In truth, the modern sense of anti-Semitism — conditioned by the horrors of the Holocaust and Islamist annihilationist rhetoric — is a poor analog for the debates and mission of the early and medieval Church.

Christianity, of course, certainly has much for which to atone. It adopted casually cruel anti-Semitic policies and language over time, but hammering every element of the Adversus Judaeos peg into the square hole of rote Jew-hatred is reductionist.

When Norman Roth, to take one example, casually and repeatedly calls St. Raymond of Peñafort “a notorious Jew-hater” who stirred up “hatred against Jews,” he’s not engaging in any kind of rational assessment of Raymond’s mission or writing. If we’re going to really understand the destructive effect of European Christianity upon the Jews, this kind of caricature won’t do.

Edmund Mazza, a professor of history at Azusa Pacific University in Los Angeles, attempts to refocus current scholarly assumptions about the Jewish-Christian dynamic in The Scholastics and the Jews: Coexistence, Conversion and the Medieval Origins of Tolerance.

Mazza’s book is a fine work of scholarship examining key figures and texts on the road toward religious tolerance in the Middle Ages. It’s a valuable step toward reorienting this dialogue away from crude, ahistorical anti-Catholic polemic and toward something more fact-based, which is why it’s so jarring to find a political preface almost scuttling the project on the first page. (Fortunately, the cranky tone of the preface does not carry into the rest of the work.)

Mazza’s goal is not a whitewashing of Christian misdeeds against the Jews, but an unfolding of the more complex interactions — social, political, pastoral and theological — of the Christians and unbelievers in the Middle Ages.

As Mazza writes, “No medieval scholar can deny the contempt, vilification, ridicule, pogroms, murders, expulsions and other sufferings which millions of medieval Jews endured at the hands of the Christian counterparts, lay and clerical.” As he points out, however, the assumption that the “beliefs and practice” and “evangelization efforts,” particularly of the Dominicans, were the direct cause of these miseries is “certainly contestable.” The modern tendency to view every issue through the cloudy lens of power and control has warped nuanced understanding of complex issues, requiring a more thorough engagement with primary works.

Mazza ties the development of tolerance — not in itself considered a virtue in the ancient and medieval worlds — to the shifting attitudes of Christians to Jews, from early works such as St. Justin Martyr’s Dialogue With Trypho through the Church’s adoption of Augustine’s witness doctrine demanding that Jews be left to worship in peace, through the efforts of Abelard and other medieval theologians to engage unbelievers in rational debate. These movements lead to the heart of the book, which is a look at the Dominicans and their mission to the Jews, particularly through the texts of penitential manuals for confessors.

Far from regarding Jews and other nonbelievers to be little more than irrational animals, Tradition shows rational appeals to the intellect. The project to persuade Jews of the truths of the faith was, in the hands of someone like Odo, author of the Ysogogue, an extension of their ministry to call sinners of repentance.

It’s no coincidence that Abelard, Alan of Lille, Bartholomew of Exeter, Raymond and others wrote both works about penance and works about the Jews. The developing notion of sin and sinner fed directly into a more nuanced understanding of the place of nonbelievers in Christian society.

None of this mutes the offensive rhetoric found too often in Christian works about Jews, but it does re-contextualize it. Truth is found by examining the texts as the writers intended them, not as reinterpreted by modern ears and agendas. For too long historians have regarded the efforts of the Dominicans in particular as motivated by power-seeking, cruelty and the attainment of religious and social homogeneity, rather than in genuine concern for the preaching of truth and the salvation of individual souls.

At the same time, Mazza shows us the blossoming of concern for the holiness of the laity in the works of people like Alan of Lille, which would reach its fullest flowering in Vatican II’s universal call to holiness. All of this comes part and parcel with disparaging remarks about Jews that should make us cringe, and we have yet to fully reckon with what that demeaning language did to prepare the ground in which murderous anti-Semitism took root and continues to grow. The Church has attempted to make amends for her sins, with documents such as Vatican II’s Nostra Aetata (1965) and “We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah (1998), rejecting persecution and discrimination and calling for closer ties to those St. John Paul II called our “elder brothers in the faith.”

The Church has much for which to repent in our relations with the Jews, but attributing base motivations (rather than genuine concern for souls) to the mendicant orders won’t add to the total sum of justice in the universe.

As Mazza points out, “the medieval Dominicans failed to consistently embody their own ideals, (but) their modern detractors have largely failed to acknowledge the existence of those ideals at all.”

Thomas L. McDonald writes about Church history.