During the 7th century CE, the Christian rulers of Iberia passed descriminatory anti-Jewish laws. The following is an attempt to understand the motivations behind these laws. I originally wrote it for a history course on medieval Spain.
Visigothic legislation against Jews was motivated primarily by a powerful Christian doctrine concerning the place of Jews in a Christian world. This doctrine stated that Jews, having rejected God in his incarnation as the Christ, were in turn rejected by God. Since Christians could not imagine a people rejected by God being successful, they expected Jews to live miserable and powerless lives. Visigothic rulers turned this religious concept into a self-fulfilling prophesy by passing laws that discriminated against Jews.
The religious roots of this discrimination are evident in the antisemitic laws the Visigoths passed. Canon III of the Sixth Council of Toledo, for instance, begins by stating that “the inflexible infidelity of the Jews has finally been forced to bend to the powerful piety of heaven.” This “infidelity” was the perceived betrayal of God by Jews, who had formerly been wedded to God as his people, and failed, from a Christian viewpoint, to follow him into a new era.
The laws also evidence their religious nature by stating that they were passed with a great deal of involvement from councils of bishops. Canon XIV of the Third Council of Toledo, entitled “Concerning the Jews,” states that the king passed it “at the suggestion of the council,” which was made up of “all the prelates of his kingdom.”
This law itself declared that “it is not permitted for Jews to have Christian women as wives or concubines, nor to purchase slaves for their personal use… They may not be assigned any public business by virtue of which they [might] have power to punish Christians.” The main goal here was to prevent Jews from having authority over Christians, as this authority would be evidence of God’s favor. In each of these laws, though, there is another related motivation. In addition to persecuting current Jews, Christians wanted to prevent both pagans and other Christians from converting to Judaism. When a non-Jew held as a slave by a Jew converted to Judaism, they were freed, creating an incentive for conversion. In order to prevent the spread of Judaism, which was supposed, according to Christian theology, to be in decline, it was necessary to ban Jews from owning slaves.
The Third Council of Toledo further opposed conversion to Judaism, stating that “if any Christians have been stained by them, [or] by Jewish ritual, or been circumcised, let them return to liberty and the Christian religion without paying the price” of their freedom. This is in part an emancipation declaration for Christian slaves held by Jews, but circumcision is specifically an element of conversion to Judaism, not of subservience to a Jew. It is also, therefore, a declaration that Christians who had converted to Judaism could freely return to Christianity.
Later, Christians began to see no place in their worldview for religions other than Christianity. As Canon III of the Sixth Council of Toledo notes, King Khintila “has chosen to obliterate the very foundations of the superstitious prevarication [of the Jews], and does not permit anyone who is not Catholic to reside in his kingdom.” The bishops who made up this council agreed strongly with this decision, and the canon in fact banned any later king from acting more favorably towards Jews.
The problem with this law from an interpretative standpoint is that it does not clearly state what it required of later kings. It does not explicitly say that they could not allow Jews into Spain, but instead that they “shall not favor their infidelity in any way whatever.” The canon legislated an attitude far more than a set of behaviors, so it is primarily this attitude that can be analyzed.
The phrasing of the law is therefore interesting. The bishops stated that future kings must swear “not to permit [the Jews] to violate the Catholic Faith.” As the purpose of the canon is that “neither [the King’s] ardor nor our labor may grow lukewarm and be undone in time to come,” this could be interpreted as a ban of Jews from Spain. It is more clearly, though, a reflection of the incompatibility the bishops saw between Christianity and Judaism. The mere presence of Jews in a Christian land seemed, by 638 CE, a violation of Catholicism. The punishment for those violating the decree was also religious in nature. The bishops threatened any king, “bishop, priest, or other Christian” with excommunication and hellfire if they acted contrary to the decree.
Finally, they confirmed “what has been written in previous general councils concerning the Jews,” writing that the canons of previous councils were “necessary for [the Jews’] salvation.” The conversionist aspect of the law is here hinted at. The Visigoths encouraged Jews to convert to Catholicism, and one way of doing so was to discriminate against the unconverted, making conversion beneficial in this world as well as in the next.
Forced conversion soon became another strong force in relations between Visigoths and Jews. The laws that required these conversions differed from earlier laws by aiming to destroy Judaism instead of to impoverish it, but were still influenced by the same Christian doctrine. In many ways, though, the Visigothic attempt to convert Jews failed. Those forced to convert often lived as Christians in public and Jews in private, despite laws to the contrary. Christians legislated against converts to their own religion on the assumption that they were still in some way Jewish.
An example is the tenth law of book twelve of the Lex Visigothorum, which states that “Jews, whether baptized or not baptized, are forbidden to give testimony in court.” The reason for this is also stated in the law: Jews were guilty of a major lie—claiming that Jesus was not the messiah and that other elements of Christianity were untrue—and thus were untrustworthy. “How much the more should not one found defective in regard to the divine Faith be utterly excluded from giving testimony?” the author asked.
An important phrase in this text, though, is “whether baptized or not baptized.” Even those Jews who had converted to Christianity—who had been baptized and at least outwardly accepted the divinity of Jesus—were declared untrustworthy. This law actually extended an earlier one that only applied to “Christian converts who had returned to Judaism.” The earlier law could have been intended to discourage reversion to Judaism, keeping converts within Christianity, but the Lex Visigothorum version was in a sense based upon a perversion of this purpose: It actually took a right away from converts who had accepted the truth of Christianity.
The Visigoths’ anti-Jewish laws aimed first to demean Jews. Later, they aimed to convert them, but failed, so they again passed discriminatory laws, against not only Jews, but ethnically Jewish Christians as well. Though Visigothic kings and bishops seem sometimes to have cared about the salvation of Jews, their focus was more often on the place of Judaism in the world. In both eras, the primary motivation of each anti-Jewish law the Visigothic kings passed was to denigrate the Jews in order to fulfill the Christian worldview, in which the lowly stature of Jews represented God’s hatred of Judaism.