Monstrous Talmud & Christian Simulacra (Peter The Venerable)

Abbot of the Benedictine abbey of Cluny, Peter the Venerable (1092-1156) was a master hermeneut. He is generally recognized as one of the great Christian thinkers of the High Middle Ages. Also recognized is how he marks a new Church aggressiveness in relation to Jews, Muslims, and heretics that marks the twelfth century in Europe. Underneath the caustic venom, he had actually interesting things to say about Talmud and Christianity, monsters, animality, the power of the false and other simulacra as constitutive of religion writ large.

Talmud was grist for the Christian mill. Do the Jews even abide by the law? Not just against Jesus, do they set themselves up over against God? Almost like the record of a first encounter, the recognition of radical Jewish difference revealed in the Christian “study” of Talmud is part of that new intolerance. In the Christian view represented by Peter, Talmud pushes the Church and Christians away from any spiritual or human commonality with Jews and Judaism.

In his own Adversus Iudeorum inveteratam duritiem (Against the inveterate obduracy of the jews), Peter picks up the thread by Petrus Alfonsi. But the writing in this polemic is more effulgent. As a monk and abbot, Peter lived in a self-contained and intense textual universe that was at once glorious and “unreal.” The intensity of that unreality lies at the heart of his own doubts about the reality of Christian miracle that we see in this unbridled attack against Talmud.

The polemical masterpiece that is Adversus Iudeorum inveteratam duritiem is a thick tapestry of scriptural citation. It’s a little hard to read, At first glance, there’s almost nothing else to the polemic other than verses. Peter himself seems to understand this. At the very moment when a reader is maybe getting numb, Peter cuts in with a little meta-discourse. He refers to the “overwhelming press of so many powerful prooftexts that will confound you, O Jew” (pp.84-5). The press of verses is confounding indeed. But for Peter to stop and say this suggests a vivid sense of being self-aware. The intentional break in the flow of the discourse is a first suggestion that something is not right.

Christian faith is at a serious disadvantage, and Peter knows it. In fact, Peter knows that he needs the Jews more than they need him Suggesting actual alarm is the statement by Peter that if the Jews won’t assent to the Christian apostles, then “we” will not assent to “your prophets” (p.188). The tit-for-tat is almost childish,

Sensitive to scripture, and to fables, Peter’s anti-Jewish polemic is full of simulacral beings: the Talmud is a monster; the Jews are pigs, dogs, animals. About this, Peter is certain. But is that enough to put to rest Christian doubt in the face of the possibility that maybe all that a Christian has to rest upon are an overwhelming press of verses? On one hand, the sublimity of Christian doctrine about God stands in contrast to Talmudic stories, which are a “huge mound of dust” offending the glory and omnipotence of God Himself; the rabbis set themselves up over against God. On the other hand, there is the doubt that maybe Christian belief is itself the very virtual stuff of magic, fictions, fables, and simulacra.

The nub of this doubt about magic projected onto the Talmud is the undergirding doubt that maybe Christian belief is itself nothing but a web of figments and fictions. At the core of this anti-Jewish discourse with its rhetoric of Jewish animality rests a press of doubts about what is really “human,” and what is true in the fictional universe of religion.

For very long quotes, continue reading below. I have taken them from my reading notes and organized them according to a thematic of my own interest whose keywords you can search below: human, animal, pig, sublimity, glory, power, omnipotent, impotent, magic, miracle, fabricate, fiction, phantasm, trick, stage-players, false, not deceitfully but truly.

[You can continue reading below]

Peter the Venerable, Against the Inveterate Obduracy of the Jews, translated by Irven M. Resnick, Washington D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2013)


How long will you fail to soften [your] iron hearts? Behold that since antiquity almost the entire world has acknowledged Christ, while you alone do not acknowledge him; while all peoples submit to him, you alone do not listen to him; every tongue confesses him, while you alone deny him; others see him, hear him, understand him, but you alone remain blind, deaf, like stones. Clearly your eyes are blind, your ears are deaf, your hearts are stone (p.49). Will you always make of yourselves a public spectacle throughout all the lands of the world because of such great obduracy? Come to your senses, now at last come to your senses; “return to the heart, O transgressors,” as one prophet says to you. “Return to the heart” now, at least, when by the just judgment of the Most High you have fallen not only from heavenly glory but even from the earthly glory that alone you loved. Observe that those very things have been fulfilled among you that the Christ, whom you deny, spoke to your fathers and predicted for you if you did not come to your senses: “The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people yielding its fruit.” Having lost, then, the heavenly kingdom, and now having lost a very long time ago even an earthly kingdom, acknowledge that this has happened to you because of this impiety (50).


But I know, O Jew, that you can be overcome when pressed by so many powerful proof-texts, you can be overwhelmed but perhaps still you cannot believe. Why is this? Because you are confounded to believe in the God-man, you are ashamed to confess the God-man. In your mind, the human condition is vile; you think that it is unworthy of the name or honor of divine majesty. If you contemplate its humble character, you will perceive its sublimity. It seems to you that things so high cannot befit those so humble, that things so sublime cannot befit those so abject, that is, things divine cannot befit humans. Surely this is the entire reason why you remain incredulous, why you resist God, why you do not believe your own Scriptures, which proclaim everywhere, over and over, that Christ is God. And do you think, O fool, that the understanding of divine sublimity and of human humility will have escaped Christian wisdom? In truth, I say, the Christian is struck dumb by a work of God that is so sublime and ineffable, nor is it sufficient to marvel at so singular a miracle of the deity. But it is one thing to marvel and believe, and another to marvel and condemn. The Christian marvels and is illuminated; the Jew marvels and is made blind. The Christian marvels and praises God in a singular fashion for a solitary miracle, while the Jew marvels and blasphemes. Nor, when marveling at something so great, does the Jew follow the prudence of his prophets, who, knowing and foretelling things future, did not spurn them, but trembled even while marveling at them and foretelling them (pp.85-6).


What has already been set forth can suffice to provide every man with certainty in this matter. But because my discussion is with a Jew—I do not know whether he is a human—still other things must be added. Surely I do not know whether a Jew, who does not submit to human reason nor acquiesce to proof-texts that are both divine and his own, is a human. I do not know, I say, whether one is human from whose flesh a heart of stone has not yet been removed, to whom a heart of flesh has not yet been granted, within whom the divine spirit has not yet been placed, without which a Jew can never be converted to Christ. Return to the contest then, Jew, and observe that Christ cannot be a temporal king, that Christ’s kingdom cannot be an earthly or transitory kingdom, based on your own authorities and not those that belong to others (p.123).

If, then, you are a man who sees, then see, understand, and pay attention to what he says: “The scepter will not be taken away from Judah, nor a ruler from his thigh, until he come that is to be sent. And he will be the expectation of nations.” Alas, what more evasions do you seek? What subterfuges? There is nothing here to offer you any escape. In fact, if this is said about the Christ, then either show me the royal scepter of Judah or the ruler from the thigh of Judah, or concede that the Christ has already come. No Jew, in my estimation, will contradict that this is said about the Christ.3 At one time I had a conversation about this passage with some Jews who said that they thought that this had been proclaimed of none other than the Christ and that all Jews agreed in this view. But if anyone from among the number of the perfidious [Jews], overcome by the fruitless task of leading others astray, gives up hope that he can resist such powerful evidence in the prophetic passage, which he would prefer be interpreted in some other manner, he will fail. Of whom, other than Christ, can these words, which are so specific, so solemn, be understood to apply? Of which of the prophets other than Christ, of which of the kings other than Christ can this passage be understood: “until he come that is to be sent.” Other than Christ, of whom can it be understood that “he shall be the expectation of nations” (p.138)?

Do not complain any longer that the Mosaic Law was changed by Christ, because, just as God is the one who gave it, so God is the one who commanded that the Gospel be embraced. There is not one God and another God, one who gave the one and another who gave the other, but Christ is himself one and the same God who bestowed that [law] on the Jews earlier, before he appeared to men in the flesh; he is himself the one already made man, who commanded all the Jews as well as the Gentiles to observe this second, new, final [law]. If he is God, then certainly what he commanded ought to be embraced. But it has been demonstrated by scriptural authorities, by arguments, and by miracles that he is God. It follows, then, that what he said should be considered valid, that what he commanded should be guarded as God’s command. If, then, contrariwise you seek God, it is necessary for you to accept the commands of the Christ-God, it is necessary for you to bend your necks, which have been proud for so long, to his sweet yoke, as he says himself. If you recognize that Christ is God, you will no longer pose for us the stubborn question or the old complaint that the Christian rejects circumcision, that he condemns the Sabbath, that he does not guard the legal sacrifices, as if your law were spurned. You will see, and you will understand that it was permissible for God to arrange things appropriate to specific times, to arrange them first for some times and then for others, first for specific times and then for many and then for all, for the sake of persons, causes, and times known in their original state to him alone… (p.159-60).


Wherever you find the term “eternity” written in similar places in your law, understand it in this way, I say, understand it in this way. And when you understand “eternal” to stand there for a finite period of time, then you will find that Moses does not contradict Jeremiah, nor does Jeremiah contradict Moses, and you will recognize that that law is finite that Jeremiah foretold must be brought to an end (p.175). Thus, as far as concerns a moral precept, the law that concerns one there is not finite. Whereas, it is actually finite when it concerns a symbolic precept. For the carnal circumcision that foreshadows the spiritual one, the Sabbath rest that hints at another rest, the sacrifices of four-footed animals, flying creatures, fine wheaten flour, wine, oil, and the like, which foreshadow the unique and supreme sacrifice of Christians just as a shadow does a body, have ceased, just like something that symbolizes what is symbolized. Thus, as was said, all those things that weigh upon the neck of a stiff-necked people are permitted to a free people and, so that now it not be burdened with an unnecessary yoke, they were brought to an end entirely by the one who said, “My yoke is sweet and my burden light” (p.176).

You say, “Cursed be he that does not abide in the words of this law, and does not fulfill them in work, and all the people shall say: Amen.” This curse, O Jews, does not rest upon us but rather upon you and your children….Therefore, the curse that you threw against him does not affect him in the least way, Jew, but rather it turns back upon you, it rushes whole against you, you who neither remain within the words of your law in the spirit of freedom as Christians do, nor fulfill them to the greatest extent in work, like the first Jews, in a servile and carnal condition (p.179).


You can impart no greater certitude to the Jewish miracles than we can to the Christian ones. In fact, just as you have Jewish books in which they are recorded, so too we have Christian books in which they are reported, as well as Jewish books in which they were foretold. For this reason, then, either reject the Christian miracles and we will reject the Jewish ones, or admit the Christian miracles and we will acknowledge the Jewish ones. But because you put faith in signs (even though they have not been seen) solely based on the reading of books handed down from the fathers, you are urged to agree to put faith in the books handed down to us by our elders even as we do, and moreover because we offer assent to yours, you should offer assent to ours. We believe in your prophets; believe, then, in our apostles (p.188).


But, again, how else will you be able to prove that there were none or that they were fictions when you see that not just some parts of the world but almost the entire world is itself subject to Christian laws? Now the world’s pride falls in surrender to Christ, and all the contemptible arrogance of worldly glory serves the ignominy of the one crucified and condemned by men. It worships his cross. It recognizes that its power, with which it was accustomed to conquer all earthly things, is weak before the one acknowledged to be Christ, who is the power of God, and judging its own wisdom by him, who is the wisdom of God, it condemns it as foolishness. How, then, will it have freely subjected its wisdom to Christian foolishness, so to speak, its strength to weakness, its nobility to ignobility, its glory to ignominy, unless it was persuaded to do this by miraculous, wondrous, and previously unknown deeds? It follows, then, that your objection—that Christian miracles were not miracles or were fictions—is false (pp.188-9).


Therefore, it is clear that magic, which cannot or can barely be transmitted or learned without letters, was not received by them nor by Christ, nor was it transmitted to others by them. But lest perhaps you throw up against me the illiterate stage-players or mimes of our day, who are accustomed to deceive the eyes of the audience with certain illusions, I add that magic—whether transmitted with [the knowledge of] letters or without letters—requires not just a brief time but rather a long time to learn. It demands not only days or months, but very often even a period of many years, owing to its difficulty, during which period the unskilled disciple of Satan can slowly be initiated into its disciplines and finally, as one that has been instructed, avoid its worst effect. Where will you be able to find among Christ’s disciples, O Jew, this protracted time period necessary for this nefarious art?  [199

Christian Miracle Not Phantasm 

The ephemeral character of the invented phantasms reveals the emptiness of such tricks, which, as soon as they appear, immediately fade away like clouds or like smoke that swiftly dissipates, and, in this way, when suddenly removed from sight, they demonstrate that even when they were visible they were as nothing. The miracles of Christ, innocent of diabolical falsehood, show that they are divine, not from fashioning empty and false things, but by presenting ones solid and real. For Christ trod on foot not over an imaginary sea but over a real sea without a boat as an instrumental medium; he changed water not into imaginary wine, but into real and good wine; he restored or bestowed not imaginary but real eyes upon the blind; he conferred not a simulated but a natural power to hear upon the deaf, not a simulated but a real power of speech upon the mute; he cured lepers not deceitfully but truly; he expelled demons from human bodies not deceitfully but truly; not deceitfully but truly he cured all the diseases of men; he raised again the dead as it pleased him to do; and finally, not like some prophet and not like some magician, but as God and Lord of all creation [201].

Their human usefulness actually distinguishes and separates divine miracles from diabolical fictions, which usefulness the tricks of the devil always lack but which alone the miracles of Christ always serve. In fact, what benefit is there for the present circumstances of mortals—I do not say for eternal circumstances—in the airborne flights of magicians, the imaginary courses of rivers, the laughter of images, the fictions of the ages, the battles of shadows, in defensive ramparts constructed in but a moment of time, in the highest towers that are erected, in huge cities constructed as if in dream-like fancies, and in all the false and deceitful figments of Satan that are similar to these? I want the readers to understand just as I do why I said that magical fictions have been of no benefit for the present circumstances of men. Are you not aware that not one blind person, deaf person, mute, nor any person suffering from disease has ever been healed—not to mention raised from the dead—by even the most skilled magician? (p.203-4).


Merely open your eyes and see those who entered the sacred places blind and left seeing, deaf and left hearing, crippled and left walking, mute and returned with their speech restored, and last look at all the sick that rejoice at having put off the illness that afflicted them. Look upon the eternal virgin Mother of Christ, more splendid than the sun itself, who is superior to the heavens, whom you have always despised with a special hatred, look even if with an envious eye upon the salvific Cross of Christ, which hitherto you particularly detested. Acknowledge that the places dedicated in their honor or memory are the more familiar and very often they become more established or greater, so that the more particularly you are confounded by that the more you are scandalized, and so that those that you vilify as if with greater ignominy are distinguished with a glory greater than others [206].

TALMUD: Ridiculous and Very foolish fables of the Jews:  

It seems to me, O Jew, that with so many proof-texts and with so many arguments (rationes) I have satisfied every human being, I think, on those matters pertaining to the question proposed. But if I have satisfied every human being, then I have satisfied you too, if, nonetheless, you are human. In fact, I do not dare avow that you are human, lest perhaps I lie, because I recognize that that rational faculty that separates a human from the other animals or wild beasts and gives precedence over them is extinct or, rather, buried in you. Even your psalm provides evidence of these things to me, where it deplores that a man is turned into a wild beast. It says, “Man when he was in honor did not understand; he has been compared to senseless beasts, and made like unto them.” Although, according to a certain understanding, this can be understood to have been said of all humanity (that is, of the human race), nonetheless you cannot deny that it is said of you specifically, of you individually, in whom all reason has been eclipsed. Now why should you not be called a wild animal, why not a beast, why not a beast of burden? Consider the cow, or, if you prefer, an ass (since there is none that is more stupid among the herd animals), and listen together with it to whatever they can hear. What difference will there be between your hearing and that of the ass, what distinction? (p.211) I lead, then, the monstrous beast out from its lair, and push it laughing onto the stage of the whole world, in the view of all peoples. I display that book of yours to you in the presence of all, O Jew, O wild beast, that book, I say, that is your Talmud, that egregious teaching of yours that you prefer to the books of the prophets and to all authentic judgments (p.212).  According to you and to your like, it is so great and has such great dignity and loftiness that “God does nothing in heaven but read that text continually and confer over it with the wise Jews who composed it (p.213)


“Sometimes,” says the Talmud, a certain question arises for the Jews conferring with God over this same text, regarding the different kinds of leprosy that are found in the book of Moses, and concerning allopecia and certain other illnesses. Where, although God said that allopecia is leprosy, they, however, in opposition deny this and while energetically disputing it they contradict him and can in no way agree with him, and after long arguments and very serious quarrels they agreed on this: that whatever Rabbi Nehemiah said about this should be considered true. Furthermore, Rabbi Nehemiah, whom the Jews assert to be the great and most holy of all their teachers, was still living at that time. Therefore, God commanded an avenging angel to conduct his soul, bringing it quickly into heaven. When he came upon him, the angel found him reading the Talmud (namely, the aforementioned text that the Jews call holy because no one can die while reading it). Therefore, as soon as Rabbi Nehemiah saw the angel of death, he asked him why he had come. He told him that he had come for his soul. But he, since he was terrified and feared death, adjured him terribly in the name of God himself and in the name of the holy text of the Talmud that he was reading, not to put a hand on him, because in no way did he want to die yet. When the angel, however, said that it was better for him to be in heaven with God and with the holy Jews and to delight in celestial things and that he should allow him to lead his soul away, in no way did he acquiesce, but read the Talmud without interruption so that he could not be killed. Thus, the angel returned and reported this to God, saying that Rabbi Nehemiah was utterly unwilling to die and read the Talmud without interruption, so that he could do nothing at all to him. God said, “I will give you advice. Return to him quickly and create in the air over his head a mighty wind and a storm of hail and rock, as it were, so that when, terrified, he averts his eyes from the Talmud, then you can seize his soul and bring it here.” So the angel returned and did as God had commanded. As soon, however, as Rabbi Nehemiah’s soul had been led away to heaven and he saw God sitting on his throne debating the aforementioned question with the Jews, he began to cry out in a great voice: “It is clean, it is clean.” That is, you have been vanquished by the Jews concerning this question, O God, because allopecia is not leprosy, just as you had said, but is rather a clean illness. Then God, being somewhat embarrassed and not daring to say anything to contradict the testimony of so great a man, thus replied in a jesting manner to the Jews who were debating with him: “Nazahvni Benai,” that is, “My sons have vanquished me.” [219-20] Nezahvni Benai” that is: My sons have vanquished me. What else? Overcome by human judgment, overcome with embarrassment, overcome by his own admission, why does God tarry on the throne of omnipotent wisdom? God has been deposed by the Jews; not omnipotent, he has been cast down by the Jews, and he is proved not to be omniscient by the elders and by Jews wiser than he. [p.232] 


You also say that “his weeping,” which you ascribe to God, “is because of the Jews’ captivity.” Moreover, “on account of that grief he roars like a lion three times each day, and,” you claim, “for the same reason he beats the heaven with his feet like someone treading in a wine press. Moreover, he makes a sound like a cooing dove and also shakes his head and says in a voice of lament: ‘Woe is me, woe is me! I have reduced my dwelling-place to a desert, and burned my temple, and transferred my people to the Gentiles! Woe to the father who has transferred his children, and woe to the children who have been transferred from their father’s table.’” You add, too, that “therefore in a certain ruined place some of your sages heard this voice and that he rubs his feet together as if they were itching and claps his hands like someone who is grieving [243].

What are you waiting for, reader? What do you expect? Do you think that I will speak out against the Jews concerning these things? Far be it from me to speak out against them concerning such things, far be it from me to reply to impudent dogs and the foulest pigs as if to those with a capacity for reason and to indicate that they are worthy of any reply whatsoever concerning these things. Are they worthy of my response or of any response at all who, as if they were born only to blaspheme God, are given over as fodder for an eternal fire? Those who, even if I have called them dogs or pigs, I have not gone too far. For although carnal impurity is customarily signified in the sacred Scriptures by these animals, nonetheless does not such a great and oft-repeated blasphemy surpass carnal evils? Thus I am unwilling to be contemptuous of the words of my Lord by casting divine pearls before such beasts, to be trampled underfoot. There is also an infinite number of their fables and traditions that are actually foreign to God’s law, concerning which the Lord said to the Pharisees in the Gospel: “You have abandoned the commandment of God,” he said, “for the sake of your traditions.” [244]

I remain silent over the fact that Jewish wisdom has rendered the Omnipotent One impotent, which, even should it wish to do so, cannot end the long lasting captivity of the Jews, so that for that reason he may weep, for that reason he may roar, for that reason he may moan, for that reason he may rub together hands and feet. For who else has ever dared to think that God says, “Woe is me”; who has dared to assert this except the Jew? [246]

What authority or reason (ratio) is there for the Jew to fashion man as God, to the extent that, as has already been said, he regards the nature of God, to ascribe human members to him, to assign human or bestial acts or emotions to him, to say that he roars like a lion or moans like a dove? [248].

If you would interpret your fables in this way, O Jews, if you would understand them wisely in this way, if you would explicate them in this way in a useful manner, I would not be surprised, even if I would not lavish praise upon you. I would not praise you, because I do not approve of anything that you have received or receive as authentic outside your sacred canon. I would not be surprised, if I should see that you approve some things outside the law, outside the prophets, even though cloaked in the mantle of a fable, that is, other divine books handed down to you from antiquity for some useful instruction. But since your fables lack all these things, since actually nothing useful is concealed in them, but the whole [of the Talmud] appears to be foolish, the whole impious, the whole blasphemous, there is no reason my pen ought to spare you because not even God himself spares you. In fact, the Jewish fables surpass all the fables of the ages because the Talmud, the sacred text of Jewish fables, relates what has not been heard by the ages. O how astonishing is the aversion of the Jewish people for God, who think that they serve him under this divine worship, who think about the Creator and his nature what idol worshipers themselves were never able to believe or invent (p.252).


If I should wish to pursue similarly foolish tales of the Jews and to report all of them exactly, such fables would be beyond number and cannot be expounded even over a very long period of time. In fact, who could respond with individual arguments or confute so many volumes of nonsense with which men who perished almost 2000 years ago have filled up their book chests? And insofar as it pertains to reason (ratio), moreover, could anyone reply to them, someone especially devoid of intelligence would be needed, not just to find the task manageable so much as because there would hardly be sufficient time, and it would not be entirely reasonable to do so. In fact, what rational faculty (ratio) permits a discussion about such things to be drawn out beyond measure, which, when each disputant remains silent, every human soul understands to be false, perceives to be deserving of laughter, and knows is fit to be cursed? Therefore, let the pen hasten to an end, and let it not tarry any longer. Thus, from the immense collection of similar fables cast to the winds like a huge mound of dust, I will reproduce only the one fable of Jeremiah’s daughter and his son, and in this way, by the grace of Christ, I will conclude this Jewish work, or rather this Christian work against the Jews. But how shall I speak? What words shall I use? Modesty demands silence, and I am afraid that by discussing shameful things my words may appear less than decent. One is confounded to present disgraceful things to modest ears that are habituated to hear holy and heavenly things; one is afraid to pour out things so wicked. But what then? Let a Christian and more sober speech cast aside an ill-advised embarrassment and by reproving those who are shameful and impious, let it compel them at least to blush at these matters (pp.279-80).

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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1 Response to Monstrous Talmud & Christian Simulacra (Peter The Venerable)

  1. dmf says:

    really appreciate this series.
    interesting discussion of making public (or not) images of horrific crimes:

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