Conversos, Marranos, and Crypto-Jews: Which Term is Correct?

By Rabbi Juan Bejarano-Gutierrez

The term Marrano has often been used to designate Conversos who converted to Christianity for survival sake and continued to observe Jewish practices in some form. The exact origins of the term are disputed, however. The pejorative meaning of the term is generally understood today and despite this it has continued to be used in Jewish circles without I believe clear rationale.I find this continued use troubling particularly by scholars and rabbis.

The famous Spanish dictionary of 1611 authored by Sebastián de Covarrubias defined the term Marrano as “Es el rezien convertido al christianismo, tenemos ruin concepto del por averse convertido fingidamente.- The recent convert to Christianity, of whom we have a despicable opinion for having feigned his conversion.”

Diego Velazquez, the author of the pamphlet Defensio Statuti Toletani stated “Sed eos hispani marranos vocare solemus, qui ex iudaeis descendentes et baptizati ficti christiani- We call those Spaniards, marranos, who descendants of Jews and were baptized fictitiously as Christians.” [See Sebastian de Covarrubias Horozco, Tesoro de la Lengua Castellana o Espanola [1611] (Madrid: Ed. Turner, 1979)]. In the present day, the Royal Spanish Academy’s Diccionario de la Lengua Espanola relates that the term Marrano is derived from Arabic مُحَرّمٌ muḥarram meaning forbidden or anathematized.

A commonly held alternative view was that the term was derived from the New Testament phrase “maran atha” (“our Lord hath come”). Various unlikely origins for the term have also been suggested. These include the Hebrew marit ayin “the appearance of the eye”, referring to the fact that the Marranos were superficially Christian but continued to practice Judaism. Other Hebrew phrases including the phrase mohoram attah “you are excommunicated”; mar anus- forced convert, and Hebrew term mumar for “apostate”with the Spanish ending ano. A secondary Arabic word, mura’in meaning “hypocrite” has also been suggested [see Jewish Virtual Library, “Marranos, Conversos, and New Christians.” Last modified 2012. Accessed November 24, 2012].

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In recent years scholars have largely opted to use the terms Conversos/Conversas and New Christians for general references and Crypto-Jews to connote those Conversos who remained loyal to Judaism. I have chosen to use the term Converso as a general rule as I believe it reflects the available material most accurately. See JOSPIC-J Staff “A List of 134 Books Containing Marrano, Converso, Crypto Jew, Secret Jew, Hidden Jew, New Christian, or Anusim in the Title or Subtitle: Changes in Usage Over 86 Years” Journal of Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian Crypto Jews. Volume 3 (2011): 149-155.

The 15th Century polemical work titled El Alborayque provides a definition of the term Converso: “Deos tales neophitos o conuersos judayzantes es el presente tratado, y por este vocabo conersos no se entiendad todos aquellos que descienden de la generacion delos judios:alos quales el vulgo impropriamente llama conuersos: mas entiend<n> se solame<n>te los judios q<ue> se co<n>uertiero<n> xp<ist>ianos los q<ua>les conuersos judayza<n>tes como fuessen conuertidos mas por fuerca q<ue> de buena voluntad. (fols 1v-2r).”

According to this statement, only those Jews who sincerely converted to Christianity should be deemed Conversos and not those who were converted by force. For more information see Dwayne E. Carpenter’s From Al-Burak to Alboraycos: The Art of Transformation on the Eve of the Expulsion. Jews and Conversos at the Time of the Expulsion. Edited by Yom Tov Assis, Yosef Kaplan. (Jerusalem: The Zalman Shazar Center for Jewish History, 1999), p. 32.

Regarding the definition of Old Christians, Kevin Ingram defined the Old Christians as follows. “While there were no studies available on the subject, Salucio observes, the obvious answer to the question is that an ‘Old Christian’ was the person who converted to Christianity before the ‘New Christian.’However, to appreciate fully the term ‘Old Christian’, it was necessary to understand that Spaniards of his own day stemmed from four different social groups: the conquerors, the conquered, those who were neither conquerors or conquered, and a mixture of some or all of the above. The conquerors were those people who initially fled north during the Moors’ invasion of Spain in 711, preferring to live in the Asturian and Vizcayan mountains than to exist under the yoke of Muslim rule.

The second group of Spaniards, ‘the conquered’, were those Moors and Jews who, reluctant to abandon their farms and businesses after the northern Christian forces had reconquered the southern territory (from the twelfth century onward), remained in Christian Spain. These base (vil) individuals later converted to Christianity, preferring apostasy to the constant attacks from their Christian neighbors. These were known as ‘New Christians,’ resisting the call of their coreligionists in the north, these Christians—Mozarabs as they became known—preferred to cohabit with the Moor, whom they found much more acceptable than the tyrannical Visigothic king whom the invaders had deposed. Like the New Christians these were base (vil) people, who were referred to by their Arab hosts as marranos, a term meaning apostate or deserter (a jibe by Salucio at 16th-century Old-Christian society, who used the derrogatory term marrano, which they associated with swine, to refer to New Christians); the northern resistance movement referred to these Mozarabs as mixtos, in reference to their religion which was mixed with that of the Moors.” For more information see Kevin Ingram’s excellent work titled, “Secret lives, public lies: the conversos and socio-religious non-conformism in the Spanish Golden Age.” (PhD diss., UC San Diego, 2006),

By Rabbi Juan Bejarano-Gutierrez the director of the B’nei Anusim Center for Education and author of What is Kosher?

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