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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Reprinted with permission from the author.

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.

His successor, Innocent IV, generally less favorable to the Jews, at first followed his predecessor's course of action. However, when he became convinced by the Jews that there were no such "blasphemies" and that they needed the Talmud in order to interpret and follow their own laws, he not only relented, but spoke, for the first time, of the necessity of "tolerating" the Jews. If this in not very impressive by modern standards, it was nearly unique in medieval terminology.

Ecclesiastical Councils

Church councils could either be "national" or local, presided over by a local bishop, or if convened to deal with serious issues facing the entire "body of believers," ecumenical. It was only in the twelfth century that an ecumenical council was called by the Pope, I Lateran in 1123 (the Lateran palace in Rome was the residence of the popes prior to the building of the Vatican); however, it said nothing at all about Jews. Only III Lateran (1179), dealing in part with heresy in Provence, began to consider Jews. [Southern France was a hotbed of Christian heresy in the latter part of the twelfth and the thirteenth century. The heretics involved were Christians who disagreed with the church doctrine.]

Canon 26 renewed the old prohibition against Jews and Muslims having Christian slaves or servants. The pope, Alexander III, further prohibited the use of Christian women to nurse Jewish babies in the homes of Jews. Also, Jewish converts were not to be in worse economic condition after their conversion (converts were sometimes disinherited, or their goods and property confiscated by rulers).

According to a 16th century Jewish chronicle, not always reliable, the Jews were distressed when they heard of plans to call the council and allegedly fasted for three days, but the pope "spoke only good" about the Jews. The famous Jewish traveler Benjamin of Tudela reported that he met in Rome Yehiel, grandson of Rabbi Natan, "a handsome, understanding, and wise young man," who as in the service of Pope Alexander III and was in charge of his household finances. It is possible that he exerted some influence on the pope.

The Fourth Lateran Council - Bring on the Badges

It is far from settled whether the story in the same chronicle about the preparations of Jewish communities in northern Spain and southern France prior to the next ecumenical council, IV Lateran (1215), is accurate. It is certainly not impossible that rumors reached these communities about the planned agenda, which for the first time was to deal at length with the Jews.

The canons (67-70) on Jews have frequently been published, translated and discussed. The first dealt, again, with the issue of Jewish "usury" but nothing could be done accept to urge rulers to control the interest charged by Jews and be sure that Jews pay tithes to the Church on property formerly owned by Christians. More serious was Canon 68, which dealt with separation of Christians and Jews lest "accidentally" they have sexual relations.

The means to that end was to be the requirement that Jews wear "distinguishing clothing" Nothing was said about a "badge" and yet that was how the law was universally interpreted. Canon 69 again prohibited Jews from holding any office over Christians, and Canon 70 dealt with converts to Christianity, who must be "restrained" from observing the "old rites" of their former (Jewish) religion.

The Council of Vienne - Hebrew Chairs

The Council of Vienne (1311-1312) again had little to say about Jews, other than to raise again the issue of Jews and Christians in trials, urging that no special privileges be granted Jew that would make it difficult for Christians to testify against them. It was also this council that ordered the establishment of chairs in Hebrew in the universities of Paris, Oxford, Bologna, and Salamanca, largely as an aid to the missionary campaign of Dominicans and Franciscans…

The Council of Basel - Was it Valid?

In 1434 the Council of Basel met, and the validity of the actions of this council, never validated by the pope (Eugenius IV), has been the subject of debate. The most serious provisions affecting the Jews were the requirement, yet again, that bishops send "learned preachers" to the Jews, who must be compelled to listen to their sermons. Secondly, yet again, Christians should not be permitted to serve Jews in any capacity, or attend their weddings and other celebrations, or bathe together with them.

Still other "old issues" were the renewal of requirement that Jews wear distinguishing clothing and that they be compelled to live apart from Christians. They did not yet establish, except for a very few places, the "ghetto" of the sixteenth century but probably did encourage the increase of separate Jewish quarters in many towns of Spain.

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