The Bishop's Letter


The following is an extract from a polemic work which purports to be, and probably is, part of a correspondence between a churchman who converted to Judaism and a former friend, also an ecclesiastic. The correspondence apparently debated various points of difference between Judaism and Christianity. The popularity of this work is attested by the fact that apart from this Arabic version which exists in manuscript in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris (no. 755) there are two manuscripts of a Hebrew version in the library of the Vatican. The character of the Hebrew language of the latter clearly indicates that they were translated from the Arabic, although it would seem possible that the Arabic text itself was translated from Latin, assuming that it is genuine.

It is easy to imagine the function of a document like this. The Jews in medieval times, sorely harassed on account of their faith, must sometimes have questioned whether it was all worthwhile. Defection from Judaism could easily be understood and explained on the basis of the temporal rewards which awaited the convert. A conversion in the reverse direction, particularly on the part of a churchman, would be very significant to the Jewish community, since such a man could have no ulterior motive in this world, and his act could seemingly only be explained as a desire to embrace the truth no matter what the cost.

The most famous example of this kind is that of Bodo, a ninth-century churchman who converted to Judaism, and had an exchange of correspondence of a similar type. However only the responses to Bodo have survived, Bodo's own "blasphemous" letters having been destroyed out of piety. Allen Cabaniss has written an entertaining account of the Bodo episode, "Bodo Eleazar: A Famous Jewish Convert," Jewish Quarterly Review, NS 43 (1952-53) pp. 313-328 which should be read however in conjunction with Blumenkranz' strictures. "Du Nouveau sur Bodo-Eleazar?" Revue des Etudes Juives, 12 (112) (1953) pp. 35-42 It is quite clear from Blumenkranz' clever reconstruction of Bodo's position that the letter translated here is not part of the Bodo series, but an entirely separate one involving a person whose name is unknown. For further information, see Blumenkranz' "Un pamphlet juif médio-latin de polémique antichrétienne," Revue d'histoire et de philosophie religieuses (1954) pp. 401-413. He deals with this also in his book Juifs et Chrétiens dans le monde occidental (Paris, 1960) pp. 161, 166-167.

The manuscript was published and translated into French by Leon Schlosberg. Controvèrse d'un évèque. Lettre addressée a un de ses collègues vers l'an 514. (Vienna, 1880-88) The great bibliographer Moritz Steinschneider did not take seriously his dating. The year 1000 is nearer the mark. Schlosberg also found it necessary to correct the language of the text, and make it conform to classical norms, even though Judeo-Arabic has its own rules, so his transcription should be used with caution.

The selection offered here contains the first section, which deals with a question asked by his correspondent, and goes on to contest the basis of the worship of Christ, and deny the possibility of his divinity, asserting that truth demands logic, and Christian belief leads to logical absurdities. Included also is his peroration, in which he declares his delight at having found the true faith at last.

The Letter

This is the letter of the bishop (may the exalted God have mercy upon him) who became Jewish. He entered the Jewish religion only after disputing with Christian sages learned in the Gospels, explaining what he thinks of their error and misbelief. He wrote to one of the bishops with whom he was friendly, and who was learned in the Gospels, as follows:

Dear -----:

Between you and me we have a knowledge of the Christian religion which no one before us or after us has acquired or will acquire. I shall examine God's religion and its principles, and I shall clarify to you Christian belief, and what it holds concerning the Messiah. I shall write to you and inform you of my belief in God, may he be praised and exalted, and my witness to Him, and concerning the Messiah, and what is my belief in him. And I give sure and certain witness that God, may he be exalted, is omnipotent, the one God, the firm truth. There is no god save him, and none may be venerated like him, may he be praised and exalted.

You ask whether particular attributes of God are creators or created. [The writer appears to be referring to the neoplatonist notion that bridged the gap between a material universe and a spiritual God by positing intermediate creative entities.] God, may he be exalted, is the creator alone, and his attributes are from God. He purposes with them whatever he wants, and creates with them whatever he wants, whenever he wants, and they create nothing. Verily God is eternal, creative, lasting, knowing and aware of everything before it exists. His power encompasses all things.

I will speak too of the efficacy of his command, and the need to accept his rule and the eternity of his majesty and his strength and his glory and the fact that there is no contraverting his command which does as he desires.

I see now that you doubt what I have written to you that God's purity is such. [i.e. he is omnipotent, eternal and permanently devoid of bodily form.] Indeed, my belief is unlike your belief. You assert that God dwelt in the bowels of a human being, amid the filth of the menses and the narrowness and darkness of the womb. Moreover, the eyes of men saw him, and the notions of fear, dread, sleep and slumber were applicable to him. Not only that, but he underwent experiences which he did not desire, and was imprisoned with criminals and convicts. A troop of idolatrous and traitorous Romans, who tortured and degraded him, and did to him what he did not desire, had power over him. He ate and drank, was negligent and unmindful, was grieved, repented, resembled the human race, and could not enforce his commands. He had been in the kingdom of heaven upon his throne, but he came down to earth to guide men away from perdition, and save them from Satan the adversary who brings them to perdition, and to purify them from sin. But the Jews mocked him, and took him and crucified him and he died. Then he was buried in the tomb three days with the dead. This is what is agreed on in your pretensions about the Messiah. In other respects your religion is split up into many disunited sects and groups. One will not attest to the truth of what the other holds, and one will not join the other. Each group declares the error and transgression of the other.

Do you not assert that the Messiah was crucified, and that his companions the disciples were greatly despised and persecuted for seventy-four years? Now it this was in despite of them and him, one who was an omnipotent lord was rendered common and changed in character, in that he was hated and persecuted, together with his companions. If, on the other hand, this was in accord with their will and choice, then they achieved their goal, and this does not agree with the injunction of feel great dejection on account of these events. Since you are enjoined in all the commandments directed to you to fear the creator, to be just in your speech and honest in your words, you cannot deny a truth about which there is no doubt.

As for your assertion that Christ is God, joined with the Holy Spirit, and you worship him because he had no human father, then along with him you ought to worship Adam the father of the human race, who had neither father nor mother, whose flesh, blood, bones and skin were created from clay. Breath was put in him by the Holy Spirit, and he became an intelligent being. Then too, Eve was created from Adam's rib without a father or mother, and breath came into her and she became intelligent. So worship them too! You will have many gods! And if you hold Christ to be God on account of the fact that he went up to heaven as you assert, surely this happened before him. Enoch the son of Jared, and Elijah the Green Man, [al-Hidra, an appelation common in Arabic literature] and the angels of heaven were taken up, and once taken up did not return to earth. So accept them as gods along with Christ! And if you assert that you hold him to be God because you find that he is called "son of God" in the Gospels, and you assert therefore that God is called "my son," I will show you that in the Torah the children of Israel are called "my son, my first-born, Israel." So hold that the children of Israel are God along with your Christ! Worship too those who are referred to in the Gospel as his "brothers," namely, the disciples. And if you call him God just because he turned water to wine and fed a thousand people with with eight loaves and two fish, and revived the dead, and expelled the sickness from a sick person, and walked on water, then let me tell you about someone who did things more wonderful that those.

Elisha revived two dead people, one before his death, and the other after his death. He walked on the Jordan, as on dry land. He cured Naaman, the minister of the king of Aram, from the leprosy he had, saying: "Go, bathe in the Jordan, and your body will return to you as it was at first." So he bathed in the Jordan, and his body returned to him as if he were young. Then he believed in God. Elijah the Green Man revived a dead man, and Ezekiel revived many dead men in the valley. Elijah prayed to God, and he blessed a handful of flour and a little oil to last three years. He ordered the earth not to produce for three years, and after that came abundance. He gathered the false prophets to Mount Carmel, and prayed to the Lord, and fire came down from heaven and burned the sacrifices and licked up thirty-six jars of water. And eight hundred and fifty false prophets were killed together. Elisha fed close to a hundred prophets with a little bread and relish. It would be better and more proper for you to worship these prophets than to worship Christ whom they imprisoned and crucified after placing upon his head a crown of thorns and giving him vinegar and colocynth to drink, and making him carry the cross on which they crucified him, as you yourselves assert in your Gospels.

Nothing that Christ did is more remarkable than anything done by Moses son of Amram (peace be upon him) whom God sent to Pharoah and his people with ten plagues [the author lists the plagues.] How remarkable it is that he turned the stick into a snake, which swallowed all their sticks, and he split the sea into twelve paths and drowned Pharoah and his horsemen and his armies. He rescued the Children of Israel, his chosen ones, and bestowed on them the Torah at Mount Sinai. He made the manna and quails come down for them. He made springs of water flow from the rock. He led them through the deserts. Their clothes did not wear out, and their feet did not swell. Then the earth opened its mouth and swallowed Korah and his followers alive, so that they perished. This is more remarkable than what Christ did, so you ought to worship Moses, for he is nobler than Christ. Also, Christ did not do anything more remarkable than what Joshua son of Nun did, for he stopped the sun and the moon in the sky for about a whole day. Moreover, he dried up the River Jordan, and dammed up a river flowing with water, nor did it flow on his account at the coming of the ark of testimony. What about what King Hezekiah did? On account of him the shadow went back ten degrees.

Compared with the deeds which these men have done, the deeds of Christ are a fraud and a lie, and the worship of him is nonsense. Nor can you totally deny all of what was given to you on the two tablets of the Law. As for what you testify, that all three, father, son and holy spirit exist, and that none preceded the other, not so! All are in his power alone. He is one authority and one godhead. He is one, and he is one person.

[The author concludes:]

I do indeed give praises to God that he has helped me to find his favor, and to strengthen my hands to act in obedience to him, and snatched me from a deep pit, and raised me to enlightenment. As David (peace be upon him) said:

I thank you, O Lord, that you have brought me up from the pit, that you have drawn me out of the mossy clay, set my feet upon rocks, and made my legs firm.

You placed within my power a new praise to your name, since praises become you. O Lord, my days and my life were lost when they were deprived of the law of Moses, which is as bright as the light of the sun, and resplendent as the fire of the moon. The peoples bear witness in favor of it, and the nations submit themselves to it. It is the primordial Torah, previous to all created things, illuminating the eyes and enlightening the hearts, giving guidance to the heedless. It is free of inadvertance and oppression, of abrogation or untruth. Rather, it is God's true Torah, which gives guidance to the hearts, rest to the bodies, and joy to the souls.

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Alan D. Corré