Anti-Jewish Polemic among Syriac Christians during the First Centuries of Islam

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Studying East of Byzantium II

Aaron Michael Butts
The Catholic University of America


The early centuries of Islam witnessed a flowering of anti-Jewish polemic among Christians. Within the Syriac context, one can point to a number of texts that illustrate this trend. From the eighth century, for instance, we have in the Disputation of Sergius the Stylite Against a Jew the only literary dialogue between a Christian and a Jew written in Syriac, though there are earlier precedents in Greek and Latin. Or, to take another example, the History of ʿAḇdā damšiḥā, which dates from ca. 650–850, narrates the conversion of a young Jewish boy named Asher and his subsequent martyrdom by his father Levi. These texts, and many others, raise a number of pressing methodological questions about how we are to read Christian anti-Jewish polemic as well as religious polemic more broadly. Are we to take these texts at face value as polemics directed against Jews? If so, they could be motivated by a change in social reality following the conquests: the more rigid boundaries between Christians and Jews, which at least for the (Eastern) Roman Empire were maintained imperially, came at least partially undone in the Islamic period. This is not, however, the only way to read this anti-Jewish polemic. It is by now well established that anti-Jewish polemic can serve various functions and, what’s more, is not always motivated by Jews, whether real or imagined. In the case of Christian anti-Jewish polemic from the early centuries of Islam, it is possible—if not likely—that at least some of it is not actually directed against Jews but against Muslims. That is, Muslims could be mapped onto Jews—a rhetorical phenomenon that is attested elsewhere among Syriac Christians. In this workshop, we will explore these, and other, methodological questions pertaining to how we are to read Christian anti-Jewish polemic.

Aaron Michael Butts is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Semitic and Egyptian Languages and Literatures at The Catholic University of America. His research is focused on the languages, literatures, and history of Christianity in the Near East, especially Syriac as well as Arabic and Ethiopic. He has wide-ranging interests in ancient Christianity, spanning across a vast time period (from the New Testament to the early Islamic period), traversing an extensive geographic expanse (from Rome to Mesopotamia and beyond), and crossing diverse languages (including Greek, Syriac, Arabic, Ethiopic, and Coptic). His recent publications include Language Change in the Wake of Empire: Syriac in its Greco-Roman Context (Eisenbrauns, 2016) and Semitic Languages in Contact (Brill, 2015). At CUA, Professor Butts serves on the Executive Committee for the Center for the Study of Early Christianity. He serves on the editorial board of Hugoye: Journal of Syriac Studies, and he is associate editor, as well as a member of the editorial board, for Aramaic Studies.


Peshitta, 9th century. The National Library of Israel
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