The Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers, vol. 2


CHAPTER NINE: Persecution Accentuates Medieval Jewish Exposition

I. A Thousand Years of Jewish Oppression

Before tracing further the Middle Ages expositors in Jewry, let us pause to envision the oppression visited upon the Jews throughout the centuries we are traversing. The fate of the Jews during the Christian Era is perhaps the most moving and sorrowful drama in all history. 1 It forms the background through which they looked and longed for the promised Messiah, and gives the actual setting in which their great scholars interpreted the prophecies of Daniel. They became the most widely dispersed of all nations. But the Talmud, like a band of iron, held them together and separated Jew from Gentile. On the whole, they were protected rather than oppressed by the emperors of pagan Rome. However, when Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire, the synods began to forbid eating with Jews. The earlier tolerance passed, and with few exceptions Christian writings introduced a hostile tone. In 439 Theodosius II excluded the Jews from public office; and this statute was embodied in the Justinian Code that continued in force for centuries in the East as well as in the West. By the end of the sixth century attempts at compulsory conversion of the Jews were made by the Franks, with the support of the bishops. Coercive laws were passed punishing those who relapsed. Jews were forbidden to marry Christians or to sit in judgment upon them. It was unlawful to call a Jewish physician. And by the close of the eleventh century the religious wars, or Crusades, began to compel heathen and unbeliever to embrace the Christian faith and to plunder and root out those who resisted. This aggravated the misery of the Jews, as this coercive program was applied to them as well. When the Crusaders set out to war against the distant Mohammedans, they often first murdered the Jews at home and plundered their homes. Finally the Papacy, which at first ignored the Jews, assumed a hostile attitude under Pope Stephen VI (885-891), declaring that the Jews, as enemies of God, were being punished for the death of Christ. 2 PFF2 203.1

There was little protection from the popes. Innocent III declared that the Jewish nation was destined to perpetual slavery because of its sins, and this pronouncement was continually cited. The Jews were compelled to wear a distinctive badge, or garment, and there was frequent mob violence. Merciless legislation was sponsored by Eugene IV. And where popes failed, councils made up for any omissions in oppression. The Talmud was frequently ordered burned because of its alleged anti-Christian passages. And Thomas Aquinas pronounced the whole race condemned to perpetual slavery, with dispossession lawful. Monarchs, like Frederick II and Charles IV, followed up the principle of perpetual slavery, and the Jews were often regarded as chattels. Massacres were frequent, as in 1290. And the great Black Plague of 1348, which depopulated much of Europe, was often falsely attributed to the Jews. 3 PFF2 204.1

Because they lent money at excessive interest, the Jews were charged with usury. The entire principle of interest was condemned by popes and councils, such as Clement V at the Council of Vienna in 1311i. The Jews were ostracized from trades and handicrafts, and often debarred from the medical profession, except in territories controlled by the Mohammed ans. 4 In England they were from time to time subject to bloody oppression, and bishops demanded their banishment. This was finally accomplished in 1290 by Edward I. The maltreatment extended into France, and in 1394 Charles VI decreed their expulsion from his kingdom. 5 PFF2 204.2

In Spain their lot was more tolerable at first. In fact, some rose to power and influence in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. But priests fanned the flames of persecution. Two hundred thousand Jews saved themselves by receiving Christian baptism, though thousands relapsed into Judaism. And in 1492 a royal edict commanded all Jews to quit the country, leaving their goods. 6 Statistics vary, but between 170,000 and 400,000 withdrew into exile. Thousands perished from pestilence, starvation, and shipwreck. In Portugal their plight was even worse, especially in 1496 under King Manuel, who decreed their expulsion from the land. They could remain only by turning Christian. Jewish children under fourteen were seized and baptized under compulsion. Conditions were better in Italy. Some 30,000 Jews were “converted” under the fiery eloquence of the preaching friar, Vincent Ferrer. But it should be remembered that the supposed conversions took place in conjunction with a reign of terrorism. And when a Jew became a Christian he forfeited intercourse with the Jews without gaining the favor of the Christians. In Rome it was commonly said that a baptized Jew almost invariably relapsed into “apostasy” (Judaism). 7 PFF2 205.1

The worst of all came with the spiritual tribunals of the Inquisition, under which, upon the merest suspicion, the new convert was seized, tortured, and condemned to fine or imprisonment for secret Judaism. This induced many to enter the Christian church and live a life of hypocrisy. It is scarcely possible to imagine a more painful, frustrated existence than that of the Jew in the Middle Ages—nearly a thousand years of oppression and massacre, banishment and recall. 8 Such is the tragic background of their writings on prophecy, as they strove to obtain equal rights of citizenship and protection. PFF2 205.2