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Abraham Ibn Daud

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by Katja Vehlow


  1. Historical context of the source
  2. Source
  3. Discussion of the source
  4. Questions for discussion
  5. Selected bibliography
  6. Further reading

1. Historical context

The Jewish experience in Andalusia has been hailed as exceptional, as a ‘golden age’, a time of unprecedented political, cultural, religious achievements. Indeed, Jews established successful businesses in every branch of the economy, and maintained thriving communities. Some held important positions at the courts, and served as prominent political leaders. Their ideas, hopes, and dreams, captured in Hebrew and Arabic, delight readers to this day. Yet, whether this period really was the interfaith utopia as which it is often depicted remains controversial, and is a question that has more to do with a modern reader’s stance vis-à-vis contemporary concerns than with a careful analysis of the past. Nineteenth-century Wissenschaft des Judentums scholars, the first academically-driven students of modern Jewish Studies, for example, regarded Andalusia as a model for inter-cultural interaction that contrasted favorably with their own struggles for civic recognition. By contrast, Christian Spain was seen as a period of decline, although in fact, many communities were thriving under Christian rule, just as they had in Andalusia.

Indeed, the Jews of medieval Iberia enjoyed an amazing, though not unique, efflorescence that was grounded in medieval legal and religious traditions, but it was not the type of tolerance we are familiar with today. As was the rule throughout the pre-modern Muslim world, the rights of minority communities were safeguarded through agreements between rulers and representatives of the respective communities. These regulations were known as dhimma contracts and, rooted in Islamic legal traditions, ensured a high degree of stability and autonomy for all minorities living under Islam. They conveyed far-reaching communal, political, commercial, and religious rights in return for the recognition of the superiority of Islam in the public sphere and in return for the payment of a specific tax. This was an immensely successful model that gave minorities a firmly circumscribed, if subordinate status within Islamic societies. Some contemporary thinkers, by the way, still like to point to the dhimma contracts as a successful model for the status of Jews and Christians in contemporary Islamic states.

In the eleventh and twelfth century, two movements gained momentum that would change the dynamics between Muslim, Christian, and Jewish communities living in Iberia. On the one hand, the armies of the military expansion known as the Reconquista made great inroads, conquering the great city of Toledo in 1085, when they made it the capital of the new Kingdom of Castile. In reaction to their successes, two Berber dynasties from northern Africa, the Almoravids and the Almohads were called in. They soon extended their reach over large parts of Andalusia, putting new pressure on Andalusia’s minority populations, initially without significantly altering their legal status.

In Christian Toledo, life in many ways continued as before. Arabic was still widely spoken in the streets of Toledo, and during the first decades of Castilian rule at least, the Christian administrations continued to grant their religious minorities far–reaching autonomy, similar to the dhimma contracts. Autonomous courts were provided for the legal affairs of Jews and Muslims, although suits involving Christians and Jews or Muslims soon tended to favour the former. Soon, legal codes began to curtail the legal autonomy of the minorities, and it is possible that one of these laws, possibly issued in the 1140s, propelled Abraham Ibn Daud to compose his world chronicle.

Toledo profited greatly from its position as a capital and a center of the Church on the border to Andalusia. The economy boomed, and learning flourished. For a brief period, scholars from all over Europe flocked to the city to study Islamic sciences. Toledo became the home to one of the great intellectual endeavours of twelfth-century Europe, the so-called ‘school of Toledo’, a large-scale translation enterprise that made religious, philosophical, medical and astronomical texts originally written in Arabic available to a Latin or Romance audience. Here, Christian theologians also initiated translations of religious texts, and at least two of the four surviving pre-sixteenth-century Latin translations of the Qur’an were carried out in Toledo. The translators worked in pairs, and easily collaborated across religious boundaries: Christians laboured alongside Jews, and Muslims.

In short, as a result of the Christian conquest, the power dynamics between the individual communities were shifting. Whereas Jews and Christians had been fellow dhimma in Andalusia, Jews were now demoted to a minority status, although it should be remembered that indigenous Christians such as the Mozarabs were marginalized as well. At the same time, the Jewish community was quite well situated and expanded rapidly. In Ibn Daud’s times, the Jewish community in Toledo was on the way to becoming one of the wealthiest in Europe, and a center of Jewish learning, confirming Ibn Daud’s hopes.

2. The Author

Very little is known about the philosopher and historian Abraham ibn Daud ha-Levi (c. 1110–1180). He lived in Toledo, the capital of the Kingdom of Castile, but he was probably born in Cordoba, in Andalusia. He seems to have been one of the many Jews and also Christians who left Andalusia in the wake of the rise of the Almohads, a revivalist Berber dynasty called in to combat the advances of the Reconquista, the Christian armies. Ibn Daud descended from a prominent family of Andalusian Jewish scholars, the Ibn Albalias, and his extant writings demonstrate great familiarity with rabbinic and more recent Hebrew literature, history, and astronomy, as well as with contemporary Arabic philosophy and Christian historical narratives. Like many Iberians, Ibn Daud spoke several languages. It is likely that he was one of the many translators who participated in the so-called ‘school of Toledo’. Known as ‘Avendeut philosophus israelita,’ he translated a number of important philosophical works, together with the Archdeacon Dominicus Gundissalinus (d. 1190). We do not know how he made a living, although it has been suggested that he was a physician, or perhaps an astronomer.

The text cited here can be found in Ibn Daud’s multi-partite world history, now called Dorot Olam (Generations of the Ages). Written in Hebrew, this is one of the most influential historical texts of the Jewish Middle Ages, and the section best known to modern readers is probably the Book of Tradition (Sefer ha-Qabbalah), available in a wonderful 1967 edition carried out by Gerson D. Cohen. Ibn Daud is also known for his neo-Aristotelian philosophical treatise, ’Emunah Ramah (Exalted Faith) or, in its original Arabic, al-‘Aqīdah al-Rafī‘ah. In fact, these works, his only two surviving works, belong together: both defined rabbinic Judaism as the exclusive path to the divine through a series of philosophical and historical arguments.

Our passage is located in Zikhron Divrey Romi (Chronicle of Rome), a section of Dorot Olam that surveys the Roman past and illuminates the many connections between Rome, Edom, Christianity, and Iberia. These ideas also crop up in the remaining parts of the work: in Divrey Malkhey Yisra’el (History of the Kings of Israel), a text that looks at the Second Temple period and especially the Hasmonean dynasty, in the Midrash on Zechariah, a brief elaboration on Ibn Daud’s political ideas, and lastly, in Sefer ha-Qabbalah (Book of Tradition), the work’s most famous section that gives a comprehensive overview of Jewish and general history up to the author’s day.

2. Source in original and translation

[צמיחת הנצרות]

וימלוך תחתיו קסטנטין קיסר. הוא חקק תורת הנצרים ושב לעבודתם ולתורתם לאחר שלש מאות שנה לישו על חשבונם. אבל לחשבוננו ליתר מארבע מאות ועשרים שנה. ולהודיע חִברנו דבר זה בזכרון דברי רומי. והוא יצא מרומי ונתנה לכומרי אדום עד היום הזה. ובנה מדינת קסטנטיניה נובלה ופירושו קסטנטיניה נכבדת. ובימיו היה אריוש וחִבר מגילה שיש בה תשובות על תורתם וראיות ולא שמע קוסטנטין. וימת קסטנטין בשנת כ”א למלכו.

וימלוך בנו תחתיו קסנטש קיסר. והוא שמע מאריוש וקלקל בתורת אדום וימלוך לד’ שנה וימת.

וימלוך תחתיו יליאן קיסר שנתים ושב לעבודת הצלמים כמשפט הראשון ולא שמע לתורת אדום וימת .

[The Emergence of Christianity]

Constantine Caesar succeeded him as king. He legislated the Christian doctrine, and turned to their teachings and their worship three hundred years after Jesus according to their calculations. According to our calculation, however, more than 420 years had passed. In order to make [this fact] known, we recorded it in the History of Rome. He left Rome and gave the city over to the Christian priests [who hold authority over the city] until this very day. He built a city, Kustantiniyyah novela, which means Constantinople the Noble. In his days lived Arius who wrote a book containing responses to the [Christian] doctrines and proofs, but Constantine did not heed to him. Constantine died in the 21st year of his rule.

His son Constantine Caesar succeeded him as king. He followed Arius and defiled the doctrines of Christianity. He ruled for four years, and then he died.

Julian Caesar succeeded him as king and ruled for two years. He re-established idolatry as was custom formerly and did not heed to Christian doctrines, and then he died.[1]

3. Discussion of the source

Abraham Ibn Daud’s writings demonstrate great familiarity with Christian history and, to an extent, philosophy, as well as Islamic philosophy and Jewish texts. He is one of the first Jews who grappled with the powerful Christian presence that was now establishing itself in Iberia, after centuries of Islamic rule. At the same time, his writings differ markedly from the programmatic works that would emerge in the thirteenth and fourteenth century in reaction to the new missionary campaigns aimed at the Jews. His Christian critique is part of a larger philosophical and historical argument and they are characterized by a rather impassioned tone.

This text appears in Zikhron Divrey Romi (Chronicle of Rome), a section of Ibn Daud’s world history Dorot Olam that surveys the Roman past and illuminates the many connections between Rome, Edom, Christianity, and Iberia. Large parts of Zikhron Divrey Romi are a chronology that follows the pattern of our passage: King X succeeded him as king. He did Y, and then he died (and sometimes he only died). His remarks on Constantine are among the most elaborate he has to offer in this work.

Our paragraph recalls a number of central events in the history of the early church: the role of Constantine the Great, the empire’s move eastwards, the Donatio Constantini—the idea that Constantine had transferred authority over Rome and the western part of the empire to the Pope—and the foundation of the city of Constantinople in 330, as well as Arius and Emperor Julian.

It is unusual for medieval historian to devote space to the foundational history of other religions where this does not serve immediate polemical purposes or where this past does not touch upon their own traditions. Indeed, Ibn Daud’s interest appears surprising, and is based on his reading of Isidore of Seville or Orosius of Braga whose writings were widely circulating throughout Europe, and also in Iberia. He was deeply familiar with their historiography and their ideas in general, and the Chronicle of Rome follows Orosius closely. In many other ways, too, Ibn Daud relates to contemporary intellectual trends. Like other Iberian historians, whether secular or religious, he writes history with an eye on the central role of Iberia and in particular Toledo. Every period in history, from the foundation of Rome to the rise of Jewish learning, culminates in Iberia, first in Andalusia, but he is hopeful for Castile, too.

Constantine appears here as the consolidator of Christian doctrine. In a similar way, both classical Christian and contemporary Jewish sources stressed the emperor’s efforts to clarify matters of theology and doctrine and it is likely that Ibn Daud encountered some of these ideas in his readings. The Catalan scholar Bonastruc ça Porta (1194–1270), better known as Naḥmanides even used the same verb—aqqaq which means as much as to legislate, engrave—when he talked about Emperor Constantine.

His views of Christianity come to the forefront in his unusual dating of Emperor Constantine. Ibn Daud knew that Constantine was generally thought to have lived about 300 years after Jesus. This was, he hastened to say, incorrect. Instead, Jesus had lived much earlier, as far more trustworthy Jewish testimony attested, more precisely ‘an authentic tradition from the Mishna and the Talmud, which did not distort anything’,[2] Elsewhere he recalled that Jesus had been a student of Rabbi Joshua B. Peraḥyah, who had apostatized under King Alexander Yannai.[3] The gap implied in this passage suggests that Ibn Daud was not so much interested in dating Constantine, but rather in disconnecting Christianity from its founding figure.

The argument disassociated Jesus from the rise of Christianity: If Jesus had lived at this particular moment in time, the New Testament, a text that alluded to a later period under King Herod, could not be regarded as a trustworthy account of Jesus’ deeds because it recalled events that had occurred centuries after Jesus’ death. This, in turn, was part of a larger philosophical argument concerning the important role of the Torah. In ’Emunah Ramah, his philosophical work, Ibn Daud showed that only Judaism offered a valid path to the divine. Echoing similar discussions underway among Islamic philosophers proving the veracity of Muhammad and the Qur’an, Ibn Daud argued that Jews had a perfect leader in Moses whose teachings were still faithfully interpreted to this day, and a perfect holy writ, the Torah. Muslims and Christians failed on both accounts. The Torah had recorded the deeds of Moses while he was still alive, and it had been handed down in an unbroken chain through the generations (large parts of Dorot Olam are consumed by a meticulous recounting of a chain of rabbinic scholars that spans centuries). By contrast, Ibn Daud explained, Jesus had had nothing to do with the rise of Christianity! This argument also appears in Moses Maimonides (1135/38–1204) who, in his Epistle to the Yemen that, suggested that ‘quite some time later’—that is, after Jesus—’a religion, which is traced to him by the descendants of Esau, gained popularity.’[4]

Disconnecting Jesus from the beginnings of Christianity had the added advantage that it broke the commonly assumed link between the death of Christ and the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the ensuing loss of sovereignty. Ibn Daud was very aware of this argument, put forth by patristic and medieval Christian thinkers who ‘argue this point so vehemently in order to prove that the Temple and kingdom of Israel endured but for a short while after his crucifixion.’[5]

Gerson Cohen, the editor of Ibn Daud’s Book of Tradition (1967), suggested that this passage questioned the authority of the New Testament in a different way and referred rather to the idea that Emperor Constantine had in fact composed the New Testament. While this is a possible interpretation, it seems to me that Ibn Daud’s use of the verb aqqaq shows that he regarded Constantine as instrumental in establishing Christianity. He uses this work only in connection to the New Testament, other texts claimed as holy by other traditions are dismissed as products of human hands (ibber) or invented (bada‘a).

Ibn Daud continued to engage Christianity in surprising ways when he addresses Arius and issues of Christian doctrinal variety. He remarked that Arius lived during the rule of Emperor Constantine and ‘wrote a book containing responses to the [Christian] doctrines and proofs, but Constantine did not heed to him.’[6] It has been suggested that this referred to an Arian reply to Constantine’s New Testament, but it seems more likely that Ibn Daud referred to Arius’ opposition to the consolidation of Christianity as it was constituted at the Council of Nicaea, convened by Constantine in the year 325. Arius, Ibn Daud explains, rejected the Christian doctrines (torat ha- Norim), but it is unclear whether he meant Christianity as a whole or Constantine’s support of Christianity. Either way, Arius is presented as a theologian whose opinions were not acceptable to the emperor, who rejected both Arius and his writings. In other contexts, too, Ibn Daud was careful to note Arian influences, for instance when he dismissed the Arian Visigothic King Theodoric as an idol-worshipper (also in Zikhron Divrey Romi).

This portrayal of the Arian-Catholic conflict is remarkable for several reasons. Firstly, many Jewish writers had regarded Arian Christianity as closer to monotheism than other branches of Christianity. Secondly, medieval Jewish and Muslim writers routinely pointed to Christian divisions in their ideological battles, stressing that the true religion was characterized by the unanimous consensus of its followers. The theme was central in the widely-read anti-missionary work known as The Polemic of Nestor the Priest, in Saadiah Gaon’s Book of Beliefs and Opinions, and in the (mostly lost) encyclopedic refutation of Christian traditions by the tenth-century Abū ʿĪsā al-Warrāq. Yet perhaps inspired by his Christian sources, and far from exploiting Arianism as an anti-Christian argument, Ibn Daud lauds Constantine for his efforts to unify the church in what might have been a backhanded way to point out its divisions.

[1] Katja Vehlow, Abraham Ibn Daud’s Dorot ‘Olam (Generations of the Ages). A Critical Edition and Translation of Zikhron Divrey Romi, Divrey Malkhey Yisraʾel, and the Midrash on Zechariah (Leiden: Brill), 120-123.

[2] Cohen, ShQ, 2.107–108.

[3] Cohen, ShQ, 2.95–114, 4.127–129; 114–115 n. 100.

[4] Abraham S. Halkin and David Hartmann, Epistles of Maimonides: Crisis and Leadership (Philadelphia: JPS, 1993), 99.

[5] Cohen, ShQ, 2.104–106.

[6] Vehlow, Dorot Olam, 123 l. 11-13.

4. Questions for discussion

  1. Can this text tell us anything about Jewish-Christian relations?
  2. Do you think this is an anti-Christian text?
  3. Do you think Ibn Daud makes a convincing argument here?
  4. Why does he mention Arius?

5. Selected bibliography: some key titles

  • Cohen, Gerson. (2010) A Critical Edition with a Translation and Notes of the Book of Tradition (Sefer ha-Qabbalah). Judaica: Texts and Translations.. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1967. New York, 1969; Oxford, 2005, New York, 2010.
  • Vehlow, Katja. (2013) Abraham Ibn Daud’sDorot ‘Olam (Generations of the Ages). A Critical Edition and Translation of Zikhron Divrey Romi, Divrey Malkhey Yisraʾel, and the Midrash on Zechariah. Leiden: Brill.

6. Suggestions for further reading

  • Ashtor, Eliyahu. (1973) The Jews of Moslem Spain. 3 vols. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society.
  • Baer, Isaac. (1961) A History of the Jews in Christian Spain. 2 vols. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1992. Philadelphia, 1961.
  • Bonfil, Robert. (1992) ‘The Legacy of Sephardi Jewry in Historical Writing.’ In Moreshet Sepharad; the Sephardi Legacy. Edited by Haim Beinart. Jerusalem: Magnes, 461-78.
  • Cohen, Jeremy. (1992) ‘Towards a Functional Classification of Jewish Anti-Christian Polemic in the High Middle Ages,’ in Religionsgespräche im Mittelalter, ed. Bernard Lewis and Friedrich Niewöhner. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 93–114.
  • Elbogen, Ismar. (1915) ‘Abraham ibn Daud als Geschichtsschreiber.’ In Festschrift zum siebzigsten Geburtstage Jakob Guttmanns. Edited by the Direktorium der Gesellschaft zur Förderung der Wissenschaft des Judentums. 186-205. Leipzig: Gustav Fock. Reprint, New York, 1980.
  • Fidora, Alexander. (2004) ‘Abraham Ibn Dawud und Dominicus Gundissalinus: Philosophie und religiöse Toleranz im Toledo des 12. Jahrhunderts.’ In Juden, Christen und Muslime: Religionsdialoge im Mittelalter. Edited by Matthias Lutz-Bachmann. 10-26. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft.
  • Krakowski, Eve. (2007) ‘On the Literary Character of Abraham Ibn Daud’s ‘Sefer ha-Qabbalah‘.’ European Journal of Jewish Studies 1, no. 2, 219-47.
  • McCluskey, Raymond. (1992) ‘Malleable Accounts: Views of the Past in Twelfth Century Iberia.’ In The Perception of the Past in Twelfth-Century Europe. Edited by Paul Magdalino. 211-25. London: Hambledon.
  • Schorsch, Ismar. ‘The Myth of Sephardic Supremacy,’ LBIYB 34 (1989), 47–66.
  • Schreiner, Stefan. (2005) ‘“Ein Zerstörer des Judentums. . .?” Mose ben Maimon über den historischen Jesus,’ in The Trias of Maimonides; Jewish, Arabic, and Ancient Culture of Knowledge = Die Trias des Maimonides; jüdische, arabische und antike Wissenskultur, ed. Georges Tamer. Berlin: de Gruyter.
  • Weinberg, Joanna. (2000) ‘Invention and Convention: Jewish and Christian Critique of the Jewish Fixed Calendar,’ Jewish History 14, no. 3, 324–235.

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