Jewish-Christian Relations

The relationship between Jews and Christians is complex. While there is a long and shameful history of anti-Semitism in the Christian church, at the same time there has often been a wide variety of overlap between the two religions. So Maimonides’ thought was useful not just for Jews, but for Christians as well.

Perhaps one of the most interesting times for Jewish-Christian relations came in the mid seventeenth century in England. The English had a somewhat strange relationship with the Jewish people – Edward I had expelled all Jews from the country in 1290, meaning that ever since then there had been no official Jewish presence in the nation. By the mid-seventeenth century however, pious Protestants were beginning to wonder whether the lack of Jews in the nation was actually harming the country. Reading the Old Testament in a more literal fashion than many of their predecessors, they believed that the Gentiles may not have replaced the Jews in God’s favour. Instead, the Jewish nation was still God’s and could expect to be finally restored to Palestine where (after they had converted to Jesus) they would rule the world. After the chaos of the English Civil Wars, a growing clamour began to emerge for Jewish restoration to England. This hope in England chimed with that of a continental Jew, Amsterdam rabbi Menasseh ben Israel, who believed that the time was right for the Jews to return to England. In 1655 he was granted a passport and came to London to petition Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell for Jewish re-entry, and rights in the country. Cromwell, who believed that Jews played a crucial part in prophecies of the end times, called a conference to discuss the rabbi’s proposals, at which merchants, theologians and lawyers attended.

The discussion in the Whitehall Conference, held in December 1655, was fractious. Merchants were suspicious that foreign Jews would prove unwelcome competition, while theologians were split between those who felt that England was under judgement for expelling the Jews and those who felt that the Jews were under judgement for killing Christ. Most alarming of all, for the majority, was Menasseh himself. As there was no official Jewish presence in England, the majority of those at the conference had never met a Jew in the flesh. They had naively presumed that as soon as Menasseh saw the “pure” Christianity practiced in England he would be so impressed as to convert. Yet the rabbi (unsurprisingly) was quite happy being Jewish. Indeed, the conference began to discuss the possibility (and this disturbed them greatly) that Christians might convert to Judaism. In the end, these fears won out. The conference (much to Cromwell’s disgust) closed without reaching a decision. This provoked a pamphlet war between them that produced two well-known works – William Prynne’s toxic Short Demurrer, a work that reiterated the false charge of the blood libel and Menasseh’s majestic answer, the Vindicae Judaeorum (Vindication of the Jews). Menasseh stayed in London for a number of months, before departing heartbroken that no official readmission had emerged from the conference. His own congregation in Amsterdam had already lost patience with him and it is easy to view his mission as a total failure. Yet this might not be the case. The Whitehall Conference recognised that there was no legal barrier on Jews returning to the nation, while Menasseh’s presence forced the tiny secret Jewish community in London to reveal itself. When it did so, no action was taken against it. While official readmission would have to wait until the restoration of Charles II, Menasseh may just have unwittingly achieved his major objective. His story remains an unusual, but compelling, example of how Jews and Christians interacted.

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About andrewcrome

Lecturer in religions and theology at the University of Manchester.
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