The Church and the Jews

A survey of Church issues relevant to Jews, including papal attitudes and actions and the enactments of ecclesiastical councils

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Popes and Jews

Increasingly in the Middle Ages the popes viewed themselves, or were described as the "vicars" of Christ," or representatives of Christ on Earth. As such, the pope had theoretical jurisdiction over both spiritual and temporal realms and was spiritually responsible for all--Christians, Muslims, Jews and "pagans."

 Though the theological position that there is no salvation outside of the Church was (and is) maintained, the Church also recognized that the "Old Testament" came from God and that its laws were binding upon Jews. Thus, the pope had as part of his responsibility, paradoxically, to ensure that Jews obeyed their laws. Although rarely invoked, it was possible for Jews to be accused of heresy for failure to practice their own traditions. 

Theologically, too, the witness doctrine demanded that Jews be preserved alive until the end of time. Any attempt to kill Jews, except for proven crimes, was therefore not to be tolerated. All of this, in any event, provided a basis for the popes to intervene to protect the Jews when necessary. (The witness doctrine, as outlined by Augustine in the fourth century, states that Jews are wicked, evil, perverse and damned forever but God wants them to survive because their dispersion serves as testimony to the divine right of Christianity.) 

Sicut Judeis - Just as to the Jews

Gregory I, the same pope who acted against the desecration or destruction of synagogues, used in that decree the words that were to become famous as they were renewed by every subsequent pope in the Middle Ages as the "Sicut Judeis" bull: "Just as, therefore, license ought not be granted to the Jews to presume to do in their synagogues more than law permits them, just so ought they not to suffer curtailment in those (privileges) which have been conceded them." From this introductory formula each pope would then add specifics in each bull as it was needed.

In the period between 1198 and 1254 alone, the Sicut Judeis bull was issued no fewer than five times, and eleven other specific protective bulls were issued. From 1254 to 1305 the bull was again issued five times, but in the fourteenth century the popes at Avignon issued it only twice.

After that, we do not hear of it.  One pope, Innocent III, in 1199 decided to add his own "preamble" to the traditional wording, in which he condemns "Jewish perfidy," but notes that nevertheless Jews are not to be killed, because they preserve the "truth" of Christianity. (Jewish perfidy is the phrase for the idea that Jews were stubborn and blind; that they knew the "Christian truth" but refused to acknowledge it.)

The Popes and the Talmud

It was not the fault of the popes, but rather of Jewish converts to Christianity that slanderous charges were brought against the Talmud and other Jewish books that they contained "blasphemies" against Christianity. Gregory IX was outraged when he learned of such charges and ordered an immediate investigation and seizure of copies of the Talmud everywhere.

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Norman Roth is a professor of Jewish History at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.