Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Medieval -- Roman Defeat, Christian Response, and the Literary Construction of the Jew by David M. Olster

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Medieval -- Roman Defeat, Christian Response, and the Literary Construction of the Jew by David M. Olster

Article excerpt

Roman Defeat, Christian Response, and the Literary Construction of the Jew. By David M. Olster.

Middle Ages Series.

(Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 1994. Pp. xii, 203. $32.95.)

Men of Late Antiquity, whether pagan or Christian, took it for granted that there existed a close relation between political and military success, on the one hand, and the proper worship of the gods (or God) on the other. There is, I believe, a distinction to be drawn, which the author of this book does not mention: whereas for pagans (e.g., Zosimus) the crucial thing was the punctilious performance of certain public rites irrespective of what people did or did not believe in their hearts, for Christians it was rather the adherence to a given doctrine, coupled with a virtuous life. Setting aside this difference, there can be no doubt that the Christianized Empire adopted a 'triumphalist' philosophy: the cross guaranteed victory. If things went wrong, blame was usually laid on the emperor, who bore a collective responsibility for his people.

The crunch came earlier in the West than it did in the East. Having produced no Orosius in the fifth century, the Byzantine Empire survived until the early seventh before it was faced with catastrophic collapse in the form of the Persian and Arab invasions. At that point the problem had to be faced: for what reason had the Christians been so crushingly humiliated to the extent of even losing their Holy Places? Several answers were on offer (punishment for sins; final convulsions leading to the end of the world; dissociation between victory and the right faith). None proved sufficiently convincing in the long run; hence, we may suppose, the massive defections to Islam.

Such is the topic of Olster's book, whose centerpiece is provided by a set of anti-Jewish dialogues produced, mostly in the Near East, in the seventh-eighth centuries. These obscure texts are currently being subjected to a searching analysis by Vincent Deroche. …

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