The Scholastics and the Jews

Coexistence, Conversion, and the Medieval Origins of Tolerance

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Edmund J. Mazza
  • Kettering, OH: 
    Angelico Press
    , April
     288 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Edmund Mazza, Professor of History at Azusa Pacific University in Los Angeles, has written a passionate book in which he tries to redress a by now common approach in academic approaches to the Middle Ages, namely, that it was a period in which the Christian Church tried to impose its domination upon others, specifically the Jews.

The focus of Mazza’s corrective work is Saint Raymond of Peñafort, master general of the mendicant order of Preaching Friars, better known as the Dominicans. His main thesis is that behind the urge to convert the Jews was a pastoral motivation, namely the well-being of their souls.

The first chapter sets the stage by discussing patristic approaches to the Jews, culminating in Augustine’s well-known conviction that God wants the Jews to be preserved as a sign of the unfortunate situation of those who fail to accept Christ. The second chapter discusses the early Scholastics of the twelfth century, notably Anselm and Abelard, and tries to make the case that they envisaged Jews and Muslims among the unbelievers that they addressed. Even though it is highly doubtful whether the two authors ever considered real Jews or Muslims among their audience, they did include them in their literary constructions as sinful human beings who needed to be saved. This concern becomes stronger in the second half of the twelfth century, for instance with the author of the Ysagoge in theologiam or in Alain de Lille, whose Ars praedicandi focuses on the notion of holiness. This leads us to the fourth chapter and the central place of preaching to the unbelievers in the Dominican order. To love them is to try to convert them is the central conviction of St. Dominic, and of his followers in the Order, including Raymond of Peñafort (134). Mazza does not try to hide the fact that some Dominicans did indeed persecute Jews, but he tries to show that this is a misapplication of their tolerant principles. In fact, he tries to make the case that Raymond can be seen as one of the medieval protagonists of the modern idea of tolerance. In the fifth and sixth chapters Mazza discusses Thomas Aquinas, Raymond of Peñafort, and Ramon Llull as instances of this idea of tolerance toward Jews, based on the idea that they are sacramental witnesses of God’s salvific will despite their disbelief.

In this basic idea that the medieval scholastics were motivated by concern for the souls of the Jews and not by hunger for power, Mazza is convincing, and I look forward to his specific discussion of what he sees as the moderating role of Raymond in the famous disputation between Pablo Christiani and Nachmanides in Barcelona in 1263. Yet I have two problems with the book. The first is that the title suggests some level of interaction between Scholastics and Jews while Mazza only discusses the theories and practices of the Scholastics concerning the Jews, and nowhere considers the matter from the side of the Jews. It seems not to bother him that “love” or “fraternal correction” does not make any sense if the object does not want to be loved or addressed as brother. More serious is the fact that Mazza lets himself be derailed by the fierce defense of his minority position. Broad swipes at “today’s academics” (205) and comparisons between Tertullian and the US Supreme Court (52) do not help to make his case, which is otherwise academically sound. The same is the case for the preface, which shows a lot of frustration with the Catholic Church (“what depths have we reached, when even a sitting pope speaks this way!”, 4) and academic politics. Yet it also shows that the author has Jewish mentors and friends, even in his personal life. In that sense, my remark that he does not consider the matter from the side of the Jews is not entirely correct. Maybe the book merits a second reading.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Pim Valkenberg is Ordinary Professor of Religion and Culture and Director of the Institute for Interreligious Study and Dialogue at The Catholic University of America.

Date of Review: 
January 15, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Edmund J. Mazza is professor of history at Azusa Pacific University in Los Angeles, where he teaches Ancient, Medieval, and Renaissance and Reformation History.


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