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Jews and Christians in the East: Strategies of Interaction between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean

Periodic Reporting for period 4 - JEWSEAST (Jews and Christians in the East: Strategies of Interaction between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean)

Reporting period: 2020-03-01 to 2021-12-31

The project examined the dynamics of perceptions and interactions between Jews and Christians in the Middle East, Ethiopia, India and the Caucasus from 600-1800 CE in the context of the historical connections between these regions. One aim was to move the study of plurality of Christian and Jewish communities and their encounters with one another in pre-modern Africa and Asia into the mainstream of research on Jewish and Christian cultures, on a par with the study of Jewish-Christian relations in Western Europe and its diasporas. We hypothesized that the connections which have been demonstrated to be important for understanding Jewish and Christian history in Europe and Byzantium, would be equally significant for Jewish-Christian interactions in pre-modern Asia and Africa, but that the nature of these interactions would be substantially affected by: a) the greater plurality of types of Judaism and Christianity that existed in these regions; b) the diversity of power balances between Christians and Jews, where, in the regions under focus, Jews and Christians were either both equal as religious minorities, or, Jews had a measure of political and martial power, or, finally, Christians possessed political and religious dominance over Jews. We hoped not only to expand the geographical scope of our knowledge of Jewish-Christian interactions, but to lay the foundation for more nuanced theoretical and methodological reflections on the study of medieval Jewish-Christian encounters, and inter-religious relations and practices of othering outside the confessional umbrellas of “Judaism” and “Christianity” and the chronological confines of “medieval” or “pre-modern”.
The rhetorical uses of Jewish identity have been an important analytical category for the study of Latin European thought, especially during the Middle Ages. Knowing that similar phenomena existed in some of the regions, we investigated instances in which Jewish identity was applied to non-Jews in either positive ways, such as claiming Jewish ancestry for a royal (Christian) dynasty, or negative ones, such as calling those deemed heretics “Jews.” Related to this subject was how depictions of Jews were affected by the complete absence, or presence of a very small Jewish population. Again, we hoped not merely to expand our knowledge of where and how “hermeneutical Judaism” was applied, but also to expand the geographical-cultural starting point of future theoretical formulations.
Initially, we had not intended to investigate Western Europe or Byzantium, and indeed, both of these regions remained at the periphery of our work. Nevertheless, we discovered that especially in early modern India, and also late medieval Islamicate lands, Ethiopia, and Armenia, the importation of Byzantine and/or Western-style, Christian anti-Jewish polemics needed to be considered in our analysis, even as scholars have demonstrated that the importation of polemic from Byzantium or the Islamicate world had an impact on Jewish and Christian polemical writing in Europe.
During our first 2½ years we established that many more polemical texts were written in Arabic by Christians against Judaism than was known and that these texts do not repeat late antique patterns. We investigated the circulation and impact of Christian anti-Jewish hagiographical material as well as polemic throughout the regions covered by JewsEast, and its interplay with Jewish anti-hagiographical traditions. We found that these were especially intense between Arabic-speaking lands, Ethiopia, Byzantium and Europe. In the Islamicate world, Christians shared polemical texts and tropes across denominations. Muslims were aware of such debates between Christians and Jews, thus this material also had impact on Muslim polemic against Judaism and/or Christianity. We hypothesize that the presence of Christian material in the Cairo Geniza, evidence of Christian-Jewish conversion in Egypt, and indications of Jews and Christians consulting one another on the exegesis and translation of scripture, all point to Jewish-Christian polemic as being, at least in part, an exchange between Jews and Christians, sometimes with the specific aim of encouraging conversion, rather than polemic functioning solely for internal consumption. We have shown that Jewish-Christian conversion functioned bilaterally under Islamic rule, and that such conversions are also discussed in Ethiopian literature. All of these findings for the Middle East are presented in publications by Roggema and Cuffel, and for Ethiopia by Dege-Müller and Kribus
While extant, Jewish-Christian polemic was less extensive in the Caucasus, Persianate lands, or India. Pogossian has found that even in locations in Armenia where archaeological evidence has confirmed the presence of a Jewish community, no ‘original’ polemical texts against Jews seem to have been composed. In those few instances where actual Jews were targeted in Armenian and/or Georgian, such Jews were not members of local communities. Apocalyptic themes which reflected inter-communal tensions, however, gained greater purchase and significance in the Caucasus, however, designations of Jewish identity whether in apocalyptic or polemical literature, were often used rhetorically to refer to Muslims or Christian “heretics” or as part of local dynastic legitimization. Our researchers have found that in Southern India, Latin Catholics introduced their traditions of both philosemitism and anti-Jewish polemic to local Christians, who in turn adapted these to reflect local inter-religious interactions.
The impact of trade, daily interactions, magic practices, religious spaces, and festivals, on Jewish-Christian relations in all of these regions have also been a major focus. Darabian’s research shows that there was considerable exchange between Jewish and Christian ritual specialists relating to magic bowls and healing. Gamliel has demonstrated the extent of Jewish integration into South Indian society, which affected marriage and linguistic as well as trading practices, and inter-communal tensions and interactions in the region. Shared saints and festivals among Jews and Christians have been identified and analyzed for the greater Mediterranean, showing that competing claims were a common feature of interreligious encounters at shared sites. Environmental crises created non-competitive shared religious rituals in the Middle East however. Kribus has demonstrated that strong similarities existed between the religious practices and physical structures of Betä Ǝsraʾel and Christian monasteries in Ethiopia, whereas Dege-Müller has shown that Betä Ǝsraʾel bought and used Christian manuscripts of religious texts, and removed Christian symbols and ideas from them, also creating their own liturgical books.
These results are published in the articles and books which have already been published or are forthcoming. In addition, we have four special topic volumes of journals either published already or in progress, plus an edited volume of articles on the ways in which Jewish-Christian relations are reflected in the material culture of these regions. We have also completed and posted public lectures and a short documentary.
In short, we have found that our initial hypotheses were correct. There are also more sources than we anticipated for the study of Jewish-Christian relations in these regions, which indicates that it is a rich and needed field for future research.
Map of the regions relevant to this research