In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Jewish-Christian Polemics Until the 15th Century

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Pre-Christian Origins
  • Anthologies of Primary Sources
  • Polemic in Biblical Exegesis

Jewish Studies Jewish-Christian Polemics Until the 15th Century
Nina Caputo
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 September 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 October 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0038


This article focuses on the history of Jewish-Christian polemics from Late Antiquity through the Middle Ages. One could find polemical intent in any literary, political, ritual, or artistic effort to draw attention to or to degrade religious, philosophical, or ethnic differences. However, this article limits its scope to texts conceptualized and presented in an adversarial mode, intended to convince the reader of the falsehood of another theological system. Premodern Jewish-Christian polemics allow a glimpse at how Christians and Jews understood and negotiated the fact of a shared but contested scriptural heritage. Christian anti-Jewish polemics built on an already robust anti-Jewish discourse dating back to the 4th century BCE. Whereas Ptolemaic Egyptian and Greek and Roman anti-Jewish polemics trained attention on the fundamental differentness of Jews and Judaism, Christian polemics had a very different aim. Teachers and interpreters of Jesus’ teachings sought to lay claim to the designation verus Israel (true Israel) and to an authoritative understanding of scriptural revelation, narratives of redemption, and history. Early Christian polemics were typically written in the form of adversus judaeos (catalogues of scriptural evidence to demonstrate the truth of Christianity), dialogues, and homiletical tractates denouncing Judaism. As such, they necessarily produced stereotyped representations of Judaism and Jews, who were viewed as instruments in the Christian redemption narrative. Lingering in the background of much of the scholarship are questions about the intended audience for polemical works: Were they intended to shake the faith of the opposing religious community or to provide support for members of the author’s community? Since polemical writings offer a necessarily skewed view of Jewish-Christian relations, scholars have asked to what degree polemics influenced regulations governing the religious, economic, and social freedoms of Jews living among Christians, and whether polemical exchanges reflect the tenor of interfaith relations on the ground at any given time. Most scholars agree that until the 12th century, religious polemics were intended primarily to edify members of the authors’ faith groups, not to proselytize. Also, a general consensus has emerged that the newer forms of polemic that emerged in the Middle Ages focused attention on postbiblical Jewish literature and practice and therefore had a direct impact on Jewish life and security in the Christian world.

General Overviews

The study of polemics as a factor in the Jewish historical experience emerged as an offshoot of the study of anti-Semitism. As a result, many synthetic overviews of polemics tend to posit a direct line of continuity from themes expressed in Hellenistic and Egyptian polemic before the Christian era to Christian polemics from the earliest period through modernity. Cohn-Sherbok 1993, Horbury 1998, and Krauss 1995 focus on the Jewish-Christian encounter, calling attention first to the fact that Christianity emerged from Jewish sectarianism, and then to the growing chasm between Christianity and Judaism from the earliest period of Christian institution building through the modern period. Working from a similar set of assumptions, Schreckenberg 1982 provides a chronological and thematic catalogue of central themes and images from Late Antiquity to the modern period, with a complete reference guide to primary and secondary sources, both published and in manuscript form, which emphasizes changes in the discourse. According to Resnick 1996, tolerance and distrust developed as a product of contested claims of authority over shared sacred scripture. And those social and cultural consequences of religious difference led Blumenkranz (Blumenkranz 1960) the author of Blumenkranz 1960 to conclude that anti-Jewish polemics were intended to persuade Jews to convert. Finally, Limor and Stroumsa 1996 includes a series of article-length studies on discrete topics dating from the rise of Christianity through the 16th century.

  • Blumenkranz, Bernhard. Juifs et chrétiens dans le monde occidental, 430–1096. Études juives 2. Paris: Mouton, 1960.

    A social, religious, and legal history of Jews in early medieval Christendom. Includes chapters on the Christian mission to the Jews, polemics, and legal status of the Jews. Concludes that Christian polemics directly served the interests of proselytizing and mission, even as they also served to shore up Christian identity. Republished in 2006 (Paris: Peeters).

  • Cohn-Sherbok, Dan. The Crucified Jew: Twenty Centuries of Christian Anti-Semitism. London: Fount, 1993.

    A study of the deep theological and rhetorical roots of anti-Semitism in Christian scriptures and supersessionist exegesis. Traces discursive trends from Late Antiquity to modernity.

  • Horbury, William. Jews and Christians in Contact and Controversy. Scholars’ Editions in Biblical Studies. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1998.

    Focuses on the slow process by which Jewish and Christian communities separated and distinguished themselves from one another. Starting with the birkat ha-minim (the blessing of the heretics/sectarians), Horbury examines how acknowledging a shared scripture shaped how Jews and Christians perceived each other from Late Antiquity to the Middle Ages. Issued as an e-book in 2006 (London: Continuum International).

  • Krauss, Samuel. The Jewish-Christian Controversy from the Earliest Times to 1789. Edited by William Horbury. Texte und Studien zum Antiken Judentum 56. Tübingen, Germany: J. C. B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck), 1995.

    A broad historical overview of the genre. Krauss wrote this in the first half of the 20th century; Horbury edited and updated the footnotes near the end of the 20th century. This work is particularly useful for its comprehensive presentation of significant voices in the development of controversial literature.

  • Limor, Ora, and Guy G. Stroumsa, eds. Contra Iudaeos: Ancient and Medieval Polemics between Christians and Jews. Texts and Studies in Medieval and Early Modern Judaism 10. Tübingen, Germany: J. C. B. Mohr , 1996.

    An interdisciplinary collection of essays tracing dominant themes in Jewish-Christian polemics from the earliest period through the late Middle Ages. Includes essays by an international body of scholars addressing a wide array of temporal, thematic, and geographic subjects.

  • Resnick, Irven M. “The Falsification of Scripture and Medieval Christian and Jewish Polemics.” Medieval Encounters 2.3 (1996): 344–380.

    DOI: 10.1163/157006796X00207

    Examines the Jewish-Christian struggle for authority over and the proper interpretation of the scriptures. Surveys the development of this theme from the rise of Christianity through the High Middle Ages. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Schreckenberg, Heinz. Die christlichen Adversus-Judaeos-Texte und ihr literarisches und historisches Umfeld (1.–11. Jh.). Europäische Hochschulschriften 172. Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1982.

    The first of three comprehensive, richly annotated encyclopedic volumes, organized chronologically, that present Christian theological arguments against Judaism and Jewish polemical treatments of Christianity from the birth of Christianity to the modern period.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.