Two Rabbinic Views of Christianity in the Middle Ages

Picture of Medieval Jews

Picture of Medieval JewsTwo Rabbinic Views of Christianity in the Middle Ages

By Asher Finkel

Paper given at 45th International Conference on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University (2010)

Introduction: In the sessions of our section over the past decade, I introduced a significant distinction between two rabbinic attitudes in the Mediterranean countries during the Middle Ages of 12th and 13th centuries as to their view of Christianity. On one hand are the European rabbis of the Tosaphists, who live mainly in France and Germany and spoke their languages, and on the other hand are the rabbinic scholars, who lived in Islamic Spain, namely Maimonides.

The Tosaphists were familiar with the Victorines and the great philosopher-theologian, Thomas Aquinas. Indeed, they faced the wrath of the antisemitic ravages of the Crusades that decimated Jewry of Europe. However, in given towns the rabbis and their community were protected and saved by learned bishops. The halakhic view of the Tosaphists determined that Christianity is not idolatry but a Noahidic oriented Biblical religion. In contrast, Jewry of the Islamic Spain and North African countries, including Egypt, Yemen and Arabia, accepted the halakhic position of Maimonides that determined Christianity to be idolatry. For he was conversant with the great works of Islamic philosophers and theologians, from which he gathered his depiction of Christian faith. The Quran itself views Christianity as idolatry, as related in Sura 2 (the cow) and Sura 112 (Tawhid). The latter preserved the very formulation of faith in God’s unity that echoed the Biblical Shema declaration. As such, Maimonides viewed Islam to be theistic but Biblical Christianity as idolatrous.


Even though, Islamic countries tolerated and protected their Jews, yet they remained subjugated to the category of Dhimmis, i.e. not free citizens nor equals to Muslims. In contrast the Jews in Christian lands shared the Bible but they faced the wrath of Christianity by the way the uneducated masses viewed them as Christ killers. This antisemitic charge is without historical attestation. For Luke’s Gospel depicts the arrest and death of Jesus while the Jewish crowd and women cried and lamented as they witnessed his painful death by the Romans. He was brutally beaten as were other Jews who were placed on the crossed beams. Yet, a false view of popular Christianity led the Crusades to march first against Jews on the European continent before they reached the holy land. In the Third Crusade it was Saladin (c.1138-1193) who held them back and Maimonides was then the trusted physician of Saladin.

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