Jews and Christians Debate, Dispute and Dialogue in the Middle Ages

A Lecture from the National Library of Israel. Sunday January 9 at 1 pm

Lecturer: Prof. Daniel J. Lasker, the Norbert Blechner Professor of Jewish Values (emeritus) in the Goldstein-Goren Department of Jewish Thought at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Beer Sheva, Israel.

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Jews and Christians Debate, Dispute and Dialogue in the Middle Ages

Jews and Christians devoted much intellectual effort in the Middle Ages (for our purposes, ninth to sixteenth centuries) to debating the merits of their respective religions, disputing the theological stances of their opponents, and learning from each other as neighbors who had much in common. Many people believe that Jews engaged in a critique of Christianity only because they were forced to, as in the main public disputations, or because they were repulsing a Christian missionary threat. Yet, we have examples of Jewish anti-Christian polemical writings in areas without a specific Christian conversionary campaign, such as in Islamic countries. Furthermore, not all Christian anti-Jewish writings were for the purposes of convincing Jews to become Christians. For members of both religions, the debate with the other side was a way of sharpening their own theological commitments and drawing borders between the two religions.

There were a number of different polemical tactics. First and foremost were arguments based on exegesis of texts, most notably the Hebrew Bible which the Christians understood to be the “Old Testament,” preparing the world for a “New Testament.” Many verses in the Hebrew Bible were seen as predicting the advent of Jesus and the establishment and spread of Christianity. Jews were anxious to demonstrate that the Christian understanding of their Scriptures was mistaken. In addition, both sides used historical arguments, such as the Christian contention that the spread of Christianity and the strength of Christian countries, compared to the weak situation of the Jewish people exiled from their land, was proof of the truth of Christianity. Jews replied that the absence of world peace, one of the signs of the Messiah, was proof that the Messiah had not yet come. Furthermore, thinkers on both sides tried to demonstrate that their own religion was rationally necessary, or at least possible, and the other religion was theologically deficient.

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