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Cursing the Christians? History of the Birkat HaMinim





I suggest that we need to address this evidence with immense caution, admitting that while it is abundantly clear that the birkat haminim eventually was, in its medieval forms, a curse of Christians, we simply cannot document this in the period of its putative origins in the late first or early second century CE. It therefore cannot be identified with any certainty as a player in the “partings of the ways,” although it certainly served later to reinforce the boundary between the two communities.



See Also: Cursing the Christians? A History of the Birkat HaMinim (Oxford University Press, 2011)



By Ruth Langer
Associate Professor of Jewish Studies
Theology Department
Boston College
January 2012


The birkat haminim has been an enigma for centuries and an issue for Christians from at least the time of the Church fathers Epiphanius and Jerome. In the late fourth century, they both describe Jews cursing Christians (or Jewish Christians) three times a day in the synagogue, using words that are obvious cognates of the Hebrew terms minim and notzerim. Particularly after the publication in 1898 of the oldest-known texts of this prayer from Cairo (now dated early second millennium CE) that actually named notzerim (Christians or Jewish-Christians), there has been a positive fascination with this prayer. Where did it come from, and did it play a role in the parting(s) of the ways between Judaism and Christianity?1

According to the Babylonian Talmud (Berakhot 28b), the rabbinic patriarch Rabban Gamliel II, i.e., c. 100 C.E. (+/- 20 years), called for the institution of this prayer as part of the central element of the liturgy then being instituted to compensate for the lack of Temple sacrifices; error in this particular prayer by the precentor was particular cause for concern because it suggested heretical leanings. According to later traditions, the motivation for this addition was challenges generated by minim to the wellbeing of the Jewish community. Because a precentor had to recite this curse precisely, one who was a heretic or sectarian would not only curse himself, but the “amen” of the gathered community would affirm the curse. The effect was to exclude these minim from serving as precentor and hence from participating in the prayer community. Drawing on the work of J. Louis Martyn,2 a generation of New Testament scholars accepted that this was the scenario behind the descriptions of Christians being evicted from the synagogue in the Gospel According to John 9:22 (and 12:42, 16:2).3

But is this story correct? All of the rabbinic texts report that it hails from centuries after the purported date of this event. It presupposes a sufficiently significant Christian presence in the time of Rabban Gamliel to generate such a rabbinic response, and it presupposes a sufficiently influential rabbinic presence at that time to immediately influence actual live synagogue practice, not just in the centers of rabbinic life, but elsewhere as well. In my recent book, Cursing the Christians?: A History of the Birkat HaMinim,4 I suggest that we need to address this evidence with immense caution, admitting that while it is abundantly clear that the birkat haminim eventually was, in its medieval forms, a curse of Christians,5 we simply cannot document this in the period of its putative origins in the late first or early second century CE. It therefore cannot be identified with any certainty as a player in the “partings of the ways,” although it certainly served later to reinforce the boundary between the two communities.

What can we say about its early history?

This suggests that the prayer was gradually evolving and did not reach the forms with which we are familiar until well after Christianity became an established political force in the Land of Israel and beyond. Indeed, the silence of Christian sources may even suggest that the more vehement forms of the prayer, none of which had a later presence in Europe, may have emerged under Islamic rule.

This hypothesis suggests that we cannot employ the evidence suggested by many for the earlier life of the prayer; they over read the sparse sources to construct a history that cannot be justified. The following points must be taken into account:

Thus, the questions surrounding the origins and early history of the birkat haminim remain intriguing. Indeed, it may be true that this prayer functioned as an early rabbinic device to remove those who accepted Jesus as Messiah from the midst of the Jewish community. However, the evidence simply does not exist to justify making this claim with any certainty. What we can say is that by the time of the Christianization of the Roman Empire, the prayer had begun to serve this function: first as a curse of heretics/sectarians and (Jewish) Christians and then at some later date broadening to address Jews who accepted baptism, all Christians, and the governing powers who persecuted Jews. It is this prayer (minus the specific address to Christians as notzerim) that entered the liturgy of Jews living in Christian lands in the High Middle Ages and that eventually again came to the attention of Christian authorities. Beginning in the fourteenth century and regularly from the mid-sixteenth century, these authorities forced changes in the wording of the prayer, resulting in its eventual transformation into today’s versions that lack any concrete element of curse.



Notes

1 The text of the prayer itself was not static. By the medieval world, its body consistently had four elements: a curse of apostates that they would “loose (eschatological) hope”; a curse of minim (sectarians or heretics) that they would perish; a curse of Israel’s enemies that God would excise them; and a curse of the arrogant/insolent empire that God would uproot and otherwise destroy it. It concluded with a praise of God for breaking enemies and humbling the arrogant/insolent.

2 History and Theology in the Fourth Gospel, 3rd edition (Louisville, London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 47-66.

3 The noted exceptions to this were the German scholars Günther Stemberger and Peter Schäfer. For details and a selection of the extensive bibliography of Christians drawing on Martyn’s work, see my Cursing the Christians?: A History of the Birkat HaMinim (Oxford University Press, 2012), notes to pp. 27-29 on pp. 266-267.

4 Chapter 1, “Origins and Early History.”

5 Until it was censored by the Catholic and then Protestant churches in the early modern period into new forms that gradually found acceptance among Jews through a complex set of circumstances; its texts today focus on abstract categories of evil, not specific human beings. See Chapters 4-5 of Cursing the Christians?

6 Texts collected in A. F. J. Klijn and G. J. Reinink, Patristic Evidence for Jewish-Christian Sects (Leiden: Brill, 1973), 200-1, 218-19, 220-21, 224-25.

7 There is the exception: one form of the prayer that we can fairly reliably date to the early tenth century and that is found in the prayer book of Rav Saadia Gaon of Babylonia, who includes only the two other lines discussed here in the body of his text. Why he omits what is likely an extremely early part of the prayer is an enigma.

8 See Cursing the Christians?, p. 48.

9 On these texts, see Cursing the Christians?, Chapter Two, or my article with Uri Ehrlich, “The Earliest Texts of the Birkat Haminim,” Hebrew Union College Annual 76 (2007): 63-112.

10 Dialogue with Trypho. Only four texts locate the cursing in the synagogue, and only one of these, 96:2, specifies that the Jews are cursing Christians. 137:2 places the cursing, apparently of Jesus (the king of Israel) after the prayers.

11 “Geniza Specimens,” Jewish Quarterly Review OS 10 (1898): 657. He describes a second text on p. 659.

12 For a discussion of this issue in one of its more recent iterations, see my review essay, “Revisiting Early Rabbinic Liturgy: The Recent Contributions of Ezra Fleischer,” Prooftexts 19:2 (1999): 179-204; and Fleischer’s subsequent response and my answer in Prooftexts 20:3 (2000) 380-387.