Two Nations in Your Womb: Perceptions of Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages

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Two Nations in Your Womb: Perceptions of Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. By Israel Jacob Yuval. Translated by Barbara Horshav and Jonathan Chipman. (Berkeley: University of California Press. 2006. Pp. xxii, 313. $49.95.)

Yisrael Yuval's provocative study of the polemical interaction of Judaism and Christianity grows out of his determination to re-imagine the nature of medieval European Judaism. Yuval's book promises a lively exploration of Jewish-Christian interaction, but the book's structure and topics make it difficult to appreciate fully this polemical dynamic between two religious cultures. That Judaism was affected by other cultures does not really seem shocking, but Yuval is arguing against what had been, or what he imagined was, an entrenched traditional attempt to sanctify the uniqueness of Jewish history. Even if he has created something of a straw man with this dichotomy, his book would have been useful if it had elucidated ways in which this history of influence between the religions had functioned. Unfortunately, the book's structure makes it difficult to explore and appreciate fully this polemical dynamic between the two religious cultures.

First, Yuval confuses competition with influence. His discussion of how early Judaism used the image of Esau as a way of indicting Christianity certainly shows that Jews were aware of and perhaps even threatened by Christianity They were using the images of the biblical tradition to assert the primacy of Judaism as the true religion. It is not clear, however, how this polemical competition actually affected the internal evolution of Judaism. The threat of Christianity, particularly as it became an imperial religion, may have forced rabbinic culture to evolve as Seth Schwartz has recently argued. In this case, Jews were responding to the visible success of Christianity and its role in society rather than rhetorical images.

It is frustrating that Yuval turns away from the issue of polemical exchange to discuss the nature of vengeance and redemption in Jewish liturgical material. I do not understand how this section helps him establish evidence of Christian influence on Judaism. That Jews could imagine that redemption depended on or at least involved vengeance over their enemies seems independent of a particularly Christian environment. (Yuval seems to suggest a parallel development of this idea of redemptive vengeance in Crusading theology, but there is no exploration of how, if at all, this idea traveled between Jewish and Christian culture. …