The Unconverted Self: Jews, Indians, and the Identity of Christian Europe

The Unconverted Self: Jews, Indians, and the Identity of Christian Europe

by Jonathan Boyarin

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Europe’s formative encounter with its “others” is still widely assumed to have come with its discovery of the peoples of the New World. But, as Jonathan Boyarin argues, long before 1492 Christian Europe imagined itself in distinction to the Jewish difference within. The presence and image of Jews in Europe afforded the Christian majority a foil

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Europe’s formative encounter with its “others” is still widely assumed to have come with its discovery of the peoples of the New World. But, as Jonathan Boyarin argues, long before 1492 Christian Europe imagined itself in distinction to the Jewish difference within. The presence and image of Jews in Europe afforded the Christian majority a foil against which it could refine and maintain its own identity. In fundamental ways this experience, along with the ongoing contest between Christianity and Islam, shaped the rhetoric, attitudes, and policies of Christian colonizers in the New World.

The Unconverted Self proposes that questions of difference inside Christian Europe not only are inseparable from the painful legacy of colonialism but also reveal Christian domination to be a fragile construct. Boyarin compares the Christian efforts aimed toward European Jews and toward indigenous peoples of the New World, bringing into focus the intersection of colonial expansion with the Inquisition and adding significant nuance to the entire question of the colonial encounter.

Revealing the crucial tension between the Jews as “others within” and the Indians as “others without,” The Unconverted Self is a major reassessment of early modern European identity.

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The Unconverted Self

By Jonathan Boyarin

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2009 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-06919-7

Chapter One

Until the Conversion of the Self

Speaking from the side of Christianity, the other in this event (namely, Judaism) is not just the indifferent alien; it is one's own other, the difference of one's belonging, that which one's self-identity can neither exclude nor contain, the conflict of interpretation in which one lives and which one cannot transcend. Gerald Bruns, "What is Tradition?"

Celsus remarked that "If all men wanted to be Christians, the Christians would no longer want them," and, although Origen vehemently denies the charge, we may wonder at what provoked the insight. Judith M. Lieu, Christian Identity in the Jewish and Graeco-Roman World

The focus on the colonizer's rhetoric of the gift ... allows us to raise an issue that ... could well be identified as the reluctance of the giver, an instance that points to the limits or resistances of such rhetoric. I am not referring here to the claims on the impossibility of giving as a founding paradox in Christian theology but rather to what seems to be at stake in the self-figuration of the colonial enterprise as an act of giving—cultural and religious: the preservation of the original meaning of the gift during and after its transmission and, ultimately, the identity of the giver. Osvaldo F. Pardo, The Origins of Mexican Catholicism

A "conversion identity"—an identity paradoxically dependent upon a radical change in identity—is historically constitutive of both the Christian community and the Christian individual. Steven F. Kruger, The Spectral Jew

Any project that attempts simultaneously to focus on the reciprocal effects of a dominant identity such as Christian Europe on others and on the formation of that identity is doomed to a vexing instability—using, and thereby reinforcing the seeming givenness of, what are actually contingent collective names. Historians and theorists of colonialism have examined the capacity of the subaltern to speak, and have attempted to recuperate the vision of the vanquished. As a result, perhaps by now we are better equipped to understand how domination is formed and constrained both by expert discourse on the dominated and by shifting mixes of absorption and abjection of various constitutive outsides, whether geographic or symbolic. Christian Europe is a creative response to shared problems of human existence, yet the moral aesthetic, central to Christian Europe, of the autonomous and self-responsible believer entailed dramatic tensions, and often catastrophic swings, between impulses toward exclusion and inclusion as intrinsic elements of the formation of that response.


It may be that, along with the well-noted privilege in much Christian doctrine of the principle of autonomy, there is something equally intrinsic to the universalizing logic of Christianity that constantly undermines this ideal of autonomous selfhood—that is, of identity. Being born to Christian parents does not guarantee one's own Christianity (certainly not, for example, in quite the same way that being born to Jewish parents has for centuries been said to guarantee one's Jewishness or even seal it as inevitable), and one of the richest moral motifs of this doctrine is that becoming Christian is a constant process. Christian identity is thus always under interrogation, never safe, fascinated by the dangers of what it is not. It is hardly surprising, then, that some missionaries sought martyrdom as a sanctifying imitation of the death of Christ. Even in the absence of a named, external infidel, medieval Christians understood "the formation of the Christian's will" as a constant effort, a struggle against impulses within the self that are never conquered and banished once and for all, so that the Christian self is never fully formed, is never separated from that which is non-self, and is never quite safe.

But the problem was not a new one in the dynamics of Christian self-making, nor was it seen as a flaw in the system. As Peter Brown notes, already Pope Gregory the Great (d. 604) followed the model of the classical philosophers in viewing the remaking of the self not only as possible but as a goal worth sacrificing the cultural comforts of home for. Moreover, "Jerome's incisive sentence—'Christians are made, not born'—meant that all Christians were converts"—divided from themselves, never finished.

What is remarkable is that the problem did not disappear after the first Christian centuries—after, that is, the possibility of being a Christian and a Jew was eliminated by generations of vigilant policing from both sides of the boundary. It seems the separation was never complete, the divorce never finalized. Traces of that abjected, divided self, often explicitly identified as the figure of the Jew or of Jewishness, continued to haunt Christendom. Up to the modern period, for example, as Claudine Fabre-Vassas puts it in the course of documenting the central place of pigs and porciculture in defining European Catholic identity, "[e]very pig contains a Jewish trace, as does every Christian child." Making a Christian thus entailed separating the neophyte from animality and from Jewishness. The abjected little Jew remained rhetorically present and articulate in the polemical Dialogi Petri et Moysi Iudaei, by the convert to Christianity known as Petrus Alfonsí: "To defend the arguments of the Christians, I have used the name which I now have as a Christian; to present the arguments of the adversary, the name which I had before baptism." It is doubtless accurate that Christians in the later Middle Ages, sensitive to questions of the sincerity of conversion in an age that had already grown more introspective, were concerned about whether it was possible for someone born Jewish ever to fully shed that identity and become wholly Christian—but such concerns were hardly limited to those who had experienced the conversion from Judaism in their own lifetime.

Reaching out to convert, especially to the extent it was accompanied by coercion, must have added a further element of self-doubt. The theologian Ramon Llull (d. 1315) urged compulsory attendance at Christian sermons by Jews and Muslims, yet also wrote that "no man can constrain another man to desire or to love by force." Although conversion of those born Jews to Christianity throughout the Middle Ages was generally an incidental phenomenon, it took on mass proportions in Catholic Iberia in 1391 and after, inducing a culture of systemic doubt concerning both Christian and Jewish identities, and contributing accordingly to a growing obsession with genealogy. Moreover, the conversations risked in the context of at least some conversionary efforts compounded this risk and doubt. Colonial and church authorities were made uneasy by friars who took the trouble to learn native languages.

It might be argued that the formation of an image of the other is in no way particular to the dynamics of Christian self-making. Homi Bhabha cautions: "The 'other' is never outside or beyond us; it emerges forcefully, within cultural discourse, when we think we speak most intimately and indigenously 'between ourselves.'" Bhabha's formulation might seem to leave no place for the autonomous existence of cultural formations that are not dominant in any given encounter. However, the broader interdisciplinary move by scholars to examine the particular contexts of domination and differentiation in various times and places has directly illuminated the problematic nature of dominant identity from the point of view of the dominated and in terms of subaltern agency. The lived experience of Jews and Indians thus was not a separate, irrelevant, or extraneous matter from their image as the "other." Their voices and perspectives are relevant because their own particular characteristics and resistances constrained the imaginary field in which Christian European identity could be articulated.

Since the philosophical ideas of difference and otherness have been given sociohistorical context mostly in postcolonial cultural studies, it is easy to suppose that the cultural dynamics to which they refer arose first or predominantly with modern European imperialism. Yet the Europe that engaged in that project resulted from an already long history of rhetorical, ritual, legal, and other efforts to create and maintain structures of collective identity and difference. In Iberia, the later Middle Ages were a time of conflict and creative interaction, and also of active separation between Christian, Jew, and Muslim, rather than a time of mere slippage into intolerance. Modern scholarship, anachronistically taking as a transhistorical norm the monocultural ideal of the European-derived nation-state system, persists in speaking of the coterritoriality of Catholic, Muslim, and Jewish cultures in Iberia as though they were three separate species that happened to survive reasonably well together and benefit from something like symbiosis. More recent critical reconsiderations, often drawing explicitly on strategies for analyzing power and culture in the colonial and postcolonial nexus, have begun to reshape this received view of medieval Iberia and the rest of what we call the European continent. What was, in the standard historiography, that freakish medieval situation ended on the brink of the Renaissance, precisely the period during which national vernaculars began to be promoted and standardized in western Europe and in which monumental national histories and epics began to be conceived. At the same time, that process of active separation of various groups was fostered by and helped to shape the intrusive Castilian state—a development that stimulated the expansion and rationalization of a textual bureaucracy which, in turn, was to foster the administration of Castilian empire overseas.

We are used to thinking of Iberia—at least since the time of the mass conversion of Jews in 1391, through the eventual expulsion of the Moriscos in the early seventeenth century and beyond—as a chronotope in which an "extraordinary concern" prevailed about "boundaries, definitions, self-definitions, and classifications." Yet when Caroline Walker Bynum wrote those words, she was actually thinking about western Europe in the twelfth century. As she notes, polemics in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries had more to do with the evocation of an other, to be excluded in rhetoric as a means of self-definition, than with any attempt at dialogue or even conversion. Thus, when Saint Anselm (d. 1109) wrote his Cur deus homo, his purpose was to edify Christians, not to convince anyone else of the truth of Christianity. And if we are accustomed to seeing the conversionary effort in missionary and adventurist guise, it is worth remembering that such a figure as Bernard of Clairvaux exemplified and legitimated the transition from a warrior ethos to a monastic ethos.

Specific cultural technologies for the legitimation, maintenance, and regulated crossing of intercultural boundaries were part of these processes of active separation and self-definition. They were to continue to serve as important resources in subsequent colonial encounters. The relationship between Catholic European policies toward Jews in Europe and toward native peoples in Central and South America is not merely a matter of analogy. These two sets of relationships represent two moments in a broader attempt to achieve and maintain coherence within a collective that was both expanding and riven by doubts about the coherence and legitimacy of an identity it represented to itself as both Christian and European, freighting the terms with much baggage. Drawing out some of the patterns of this contingency can help to dispel the numbing effect of rhetoric that characterizes past centuries as enjoying "an instinctive belief in the natural superiority of Christians over mere 'barbarians.'" Such language takes as a given the long process by which such belief could come to be questioned so rarely that in retrospect a leading historian could plausibly call it instinctive, and it occludes many fissures in that belief.


Partly as a legacy of these peculiarly Christian problematics of selfhood and difference and partly as a heritage of ancient Greek analysis, Europe even today remains intensely concerned with the problem of its own identity. To a certain extent, this constant worry about articulating and analyzing identity is what constitutes the identity of Europe. As we develop the problematic of dominant identity and various subordinate differences in medieval and early modern Europe, this recognition of the European anxiety about identity helps to guard against at least three potential pitfalls: caricature, pathos, and normatization. It is worthwhile identifying these pitfalls because my interrogation of Christian Europe is meant to humanize, not to exoticize.


Early in Stephen Greenblatt's Marvelous Possessions, he summarizes the Christian dogma adhered to by "the Spanish" as seen from an alien perspective. The summary bears lengthy quotation.

The Europeans who ventured to the New World in the first decades after Columbus's discovery shared a complex, well-developed, and, above all, mobile technology of power: writing, navigational instruments, ships, war-horses, attack dogs, effective armor, and highly lethal weapons, including gunpowder. Their culture was characterized by immense confidence in its own centrality, by a political organization based on practices of command and submission, by a willingness to use coercive violence on both strangers and fellow countrymen, and by a religious ideology centered on the endlessly proliferated representation of a tortured and murdered god of love. The cult of this male god—a deity whose earthly form was born from the womb of a virgin and sacrificed by his heavenly father to atone for human disobedience—in turn centered on a ritual (highly contested, of course, by the second decade of the sixteenth century and variously interpreted) in which the god's flesh and blood were symbolically eaten. Such was the confidence of this culture that it expected perfect strangers—the Arawaks of the Caribbean, for example—to abandon their own beliefs, preferably immediately, and embrace those of Europe as luminously and self-evidently true. A failure to do so provoked impatience, contempt, and even murderous rage.

If the failure of "perfect strangers" to conform immediately to the doctrine produced "murderous rage," then just how confident was this "culture" really? The problem underlying this apparent inconsistency in Greenblatt's description is characteristic of New Historicist analysis at its most culturalist, least historical, and most susceptible to a descent from characterization into caricature: Greenblatt collapses all of the Spanish into representatives of one "culture." His statement in isolation (though not his entire book) elides vitally important distinctions among Spaniards who were present in the New World or otherwise engaged in the colonial encounter, such as distinctions between encomenderos (landed colonizers) interested in cheap native labor and missionaries passionately defending the humanity and hence susceptibility to conversion of those same natives. At the same time, Greenblatt's caricature also stands as a thumbnail characterization of the aspirations toward a common Christian European identity whose articulation—over the course of several centuries, and never fully realized—is studied in this book.


If one pitfall is the reduction of a diverse and divided culture anxious about its own identity to the culture of "Europe" to which Europeans at most merely aspired, its obverse presents a similar "plot device" to be avoided—that of unified resistance by the colonized to efforts at domination by the colonizers. The temptation here is to evoke a hitherto unrevealed similarity between Jews and Indians as partners in resistance or shared complaint as fellow victims (such as is suggested by a title like Stannard's American Holocaust). Although recalling the undercurrent of resistance does help to avoid the impression that Jews and Indians served as passive, inert foils for Christian identity, over the course of centuries explicit Jewish and Indian identities were elaborated in ways that substantially overlapped with the modalities of Christian identity. Meanwhile, the resistant rhetorics and practices of Jews and Indians constrained the field of Christian autonomy, and thus profoundly contributed to the particular forms that Christian Europe took in the postmedieval era.


Excerpted from The Unconverted Self by Jonathan Boyarin Copyright © 2009 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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