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What we can know about actual “real-life” interactions between Jews and a variety of Eastern Christian communities in the pre-modern period? What is the significance of Jewish-Christian polemics, both written and visual, in lands or among communities where there were supposedly few to no Jews, or Jewish identity was “invented”? What were the meanings and functions of invented or rhetorical Jewish identities? And what role did polemics play in communities where Jews and Christians had the opportunity to be in regular contact with one another? Moreover, how were Christian stories, laws, biblical interpretations, or motifs in which Jews featured prominently, or Jewish tales and motifs about Christians transformed as they were transported from one cultural milieu to another? 

These are some of the questions that the ongoing European Research Council project JewsEast at  project at the Center for Religious Studies, Ruhr-Universität Bochum, Germany, aims to address. In examining these questions, several factors need to beconsidered: ​

Balance of Power 

Because scholars have examined Jewish relations with Christians, and even Muslims primarily in the context of uneven power relationships (namely Jewish-Christian relations in Western Europe or Byzantium, or Jewish-Muslim relations in the Islamic one), our understanding of the history of medieval and early modern Jewish-Christian relations is incomplete and skewed. Jewish-Christian relations in the Islamic world the Caucasus and Central Asia, Ethiopia, and the lands of the Indian Ocean, especially South India, present very different patterns of power balance between Jewish and Christian communities: In the case of the Middle East, India and Central Asia, Jews and Christians worked as equals; in Ethiopia and Central Asia, Jews (sometimes) had political and military independence and thus posed the possibility to be a threat to Christian polities; in the Caucasus and Ethiopia, Jews were a minority under Christian rule (like in Byzantium and Western Europe). 

Many different Jewish and Christian Communities

Far more so than in Western Europe, where most Jews were Rabbanites, with few Karaites and Christians, apart from the early Middle Ages were primarily Catholic, in the regions under consideration for this project there were multiple kinds of Christians and Jews.  Among the Jews were Rabbanites, Karaites, Isawiyya, and those identified as or self-identifying as Jewish in Ethiopia, Christian communities included, among others, Copts, Western and Eastern Syriac Christians, otherwise known as “Jacobites” and “Nestorians”; Melkites; Maronites; among others. As a result, relations between Jews and Christians is far more complex.  One of the goals of JewsEast is to consider whether relations between Jews and Christians differed depending on to which community they belonged.

Imaginary Jews?

Despite the distance between them, the Caucasus and Ethiopia show some striking parallels in the claims of Davidic or Solomonic origins for their royal dynasties: the Armenian Bagratuni and the Georgian Bagrationi Royal houses traced their lineage back to King David, while the Solomonic connection was emphasized in the Ethiopian Kingdom.  So, on the one hand, in these lands we have examples of a constructed royal, Jewish identity. On the other, the presence of “real” Jews in Armenia and Ethiopia is a contested one.  While recent evidence has come to light to indicate otherwise, scholars have long argued that Jewish presence in medieval Armenia was negligent to non-existent.  Despite the seemingly small population of Jews in Armenian lands, Jews appear in Armenian literature, and not only in translated apocryphal texts. In Ethiopia, evidence suggests that those who came to consider themselves Jewish may have come from initially Christian groups who adopted Jewish identity.  Certainly, in internal Christian polemic, those designated as “heretics” were frequently likened to Jews.  Thus, the meaning of “Jews” in Armenian and Ethiopian Christian texts, and even, potentially in Jewish ones, is elusive, often unclear whether references to “Jews” are symbolic constructs – either positive or negative – or references to living communities.  Deepening our understanding the interplay of symbolic and lived Jewish identities in these regions is one of the challenges JewsEast will undertake in the next years.


The aim of JewsEast is to begin the process of providing and to lay the ground work for future detailed, systematic analyses of Jews, either as living communities or literary/rhetorical constructions, in non-Byzantine, Eastern Christian cultures and relevant sources such as those written in Coptic, Arabic, Syriac, Ge’ez, Armenian, Georgian and Malayalam after the late antique period. 


One of the main tools we will be providing for future researchers is a 3 volume source book, Jewish-Christian Relations: A Source History (JCRASH), designed to help scholars and students identify relevant written, oral and material sources for the study of Jews and Christians in the East. 

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