Medieval Christians who embraced Judaism

They risked their lives to become Jews.

A painting by Moshe Maimon of a Passover Seder held by Marranos, or secret Jews, in Spain during the time of the Inquisition (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
A painting by Moshe Maimon of a Passover Seder held by Marranos, or secret Jews, in Spain during the time of the Inquisition
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Paul Christian – better known in the history books as Pablo Christiani – was born a Jew in Southern France. Although he studied in Jewish academies, Paul abandoned Judaism, converted to Catholicism and served the Church as a friar in the Dominican Order.
The Dominicans were ardent missionaries. They convinced the King of Aragon in 1263 to stage a disputation in Barcelona that pitted Friar Paul against Rabbi Moses ben Nahman, the greatest mystic, legal mind and Bible commentator of his time. The Dominican Order obviously chose to represent the Church an apostate Jew who had in-depth knowledge of biblical and Talmudic texts. Friar Paul argued that the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud predicted the Second Coming. The four-day debate ended in a draw with both the Church and Rabbi Moses declaring victory.
While it is true that some medieval Jews converted to Christianity, most did not, to the frustration of the Church.
The largest mass conversion took place in Spain in 1492 – 50,000 Jews chose to convert to Catholicism rather than be exiled. This conversion was the result of a relentless campaign to convert Jews that began a century earlier. Most Jews in Spain, however, chose exile. Otherwise, in the medieval period Christian missionaries failed in their mission to convince Jews to leave Judaism.
Yet, there is a story rarely told of Christian clerics who abandoned Catholicism and converted to Judaism. They did so knowing the danger it entailed in Christendom.
They risked their lives to become Jews.
Bodo served as a chaplain at the court of Emperor Louis the Pious, the son of Charlemagne, in the Frankish Empire.
Deacon Bodo converted to Judaism in 838 C.E. According to Church accounts, Bodo convinced the emperor to grant the deacon permission to make a pilgrimage to Rome, but Bodo later escaped from his entourage and headed for Andalusia. His abandonment of the Church scandalized Christendom.
He escaped to Muslim Spain to save himself from being executed for a capital crime.
Bodo – now known as Eleazar – argued vigorously for the conversion of Catholics to either Judaism or Islam. In 840, the former Christian chaplain entered into debate with Pablo Alvaro, a Cordovan Jew who converted to Catholicism.
Both men were unsuccessful at convincing the other to abandon his adopted religion.
What led Bodo to leave his powerful position in the Frankish court and become Eleazar? Historian Jacob R. Marcus argued that Bodo was disillusioned “because of theological scruples and the moral laxity of the Frankish court.”
While I find this argument convincing, there must have been other factors in Bodo’s abandonment of the Church.
Perhaps contact with Jews, welcomed into the Frankish Empire for their business acumen, played a role in the daring decision of the deacon.
The Italian priest Johannes of Oppido converted to Judaism in 1102. His older brother Roger was a knight. Like Bodo, after his conversion to Judaism, Johannes fled the Christian realm for the Muslim world, and he took the name Obadiah. He is often confused with another convert by the same name addressed by Maimonides in the responsa literature.
Known as “Obadiah the Norman Proselyte,” the priest who converted to Judaism wandered the Middle East. The Cairo geniza yielded the remains of a prayer book that Obadiah assembled, a memoir, and the first primitive notation of synagogue music. As with Bodo, the reasons for Obadiah’s conversion are not clear. Perhaps he was following other important Christian clerics who converted to Judaism or he was repulsed by Crusader violence in attacks on Jewish communities. Another factor in the conversion of these Christian clerics was their encounter with what they were taught was an “Old Testament” but that they believed was a divine truth that could not be replaced.
There are likely more examples of medieval Christians – especially clerics serving the Church – who abandoned Christianity for Judaism.
Their stories are inspiring and smash the myth that Judaism was the faith of the downtrodden, a religion of history’s losers that had no appeal. It is time to take a second look at the role Judaism played among Christians in the medieval world.
The author is rabbi of Congregation Anshei Sholom in West Palm Beach, Florida.