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Arguing Their Way to Salvation: Eschatology in Jewish-Christian Polemics of the Middle Ages

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Vassar College

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  1. Introduction
  2. The use of eschatology in Jewish-Christian medieval discourse
    1. The Vikuah of Nahmanides
    2. The mythology of redemption and the medieval Jew
    3. The psychology of eschatology
  3. The 'Thirteen Principles of the Jewish Faith'
  4. The Rabbi's account of his 'Barcelona Disputation'
  5. The argument from Genesis 49
  6. The Vikuah as a straightforward rhetorical victory
  7. Conclusion
  8. Works cited

This essay will investigate how issues of Jewish messianism and eschatology were used as polemical devices in medieval disputations between Jews and their Christian interlocutors. Eschatology, the system of religious beliefs about the end of time, is a crucial theme in medieval Judeo-Christian debate. To focus on the Judeo-Christian polemical discourse surrounding eschatology is to hone in on an issue which naturally created the most dissonance between these groups in medieval times. Eschatology presents a religion's case in terms of soteriology: beliefs about eschatology are beliefs about the nature of salvation and how one can live to attain such redemption. By rejecting the notion of Jesus as the Messiah, and thus the end-times of the Christian resurrection, Judaism asserted its own philosophy of redemption.

[...] messianism was hypernomian rather than antinomian.?[3] One classic polemical example of the use of eschatology in Jewish-Christian medieval discourse is the Vikuah of Nahmanides. Moses Nahmanides is notable for being both one of the founding medieval fathers of Kabbala mysticism and one of the most effective Jewish debaters against the entrenched Christian orthodoxy in whose regime the Jewish population was tolerated. The mystical turn to Kabbala is a clear instance of Jewish spiritualism apart from the legalist tendencies of Halakhic Judaism. [...]

[...] Redemption is the culmination of a prophesied future in which ?there shall be perfection above and below, and all worlds shall be united in one bond.?[6] The psychology of eschatology is simple and useful: belief in a definitive end of time in which every religious ideal is realized on earth allows a believer living during tough times to throw all of his spiritual weight into some far-off but inevitable future. According to the eschatology of Moses Nahmanides[7], the sequence of periods concerning the end of time is as follows: 1. [...]

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