The Lack of Christian Education among Conversos

There was a failure to instruct Conversos in the basic tenets of Christianity. This left them ignorant of anything more than elementary Christian observances.  The jurados of Valencia indicate that more than twenty years after the riots, Conversos had still not received instruction in the Christian faith.[1] They laid blame on the fact that Conversos and Jews continued to live together.[2]

In truth, this paucity of instruction was partially reflective of a general tendency among the clergy. Many priests were just incapable or insufficiently trained to convey the Christian faith to even genuine Christians. The efforts of inept priests were buttressed by brief compendiums on Christian doctrine, but the deficits were clear.[3]  Prior to the reforms of the 15th century, the art of preaching was in decline as reflected by the fact that even bishops proved absent when the time for delivering sermons arrived. They foisted their responsibility onto friars who were apparently more capable.

For Conversos, the lack of instruction strengthened their ties to the faith of their ancestors.[4] The lack of meaningful education left them orphaned in the Christian religion, and only more likely to continue in or return to Jewish prayers and rites. The situation was not much better for those who were Conversos of the second and third generation. Their familial, ethnic, and cultural ties remained Jewish. The religious instruction they did receive was framed by the religious tradition of the Franciscans and Dominicans who had dedicated themselves to studying Hebrew and in certain cases Jewish theology. It was characterized by missionizing, polemicizing, and Inquisitorial tendencies.[5]

Near the end of the 15th century, the focus on educating Conversos in the Christian faith, as well as continuing the proselytization of Jews was augmented by a new strategy. Pope Sixtus IV authorized the Inquisition. María del Pilar Rábade Obrado maintains that the initiative towards doctrinal instruction was aimed at diminishing the scope of the Inquisitional tribunals. The enterprise was driven by Fray Hernando de Talavera, a one-time confessor to both monarchs and a descendant of Conversos.

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The Church, particularly in Andalusia and in the kingdom of Aragon, launched multiple efforts to strengthen the faith of Conversos and end their Jewish practices. Talavera preached the superiority of Christianity over Judaism. Talavera was aided by Pedro Fernandez de Solis, the Bishop of Cadiz. Another component of Talavera’s strategy was a catechism specifically intended to rectify the Conversos’ lack of knowledge. The third part of Talavera’s program was determining the extent of Crypto-Jewish practices. Cardinal Pedro Gonzalez de Mendoza, who had initially supported the creation of a new Inquisition, attempted to convince Conversos of the errors of their ways via his Catecismo de la Doctrina Cristiana. De Mendoza believed that instruction rather than prosecution was the way to bring Conversos in line with the Church.[6]

Talavera’s efforts ended in failure. Heretics did not return to the faith as he had envisioned, and they continued to practice Jewish rites.[7] Hernando de Pulgar, a royal historiographer and a descendant of Conversos, noted that the lack of Christian knowledge further separated Conversos from a faith they already saw as foreign. The evangelistic endeavors of Talavera and others ended as the Inquisition began its operations in earnest. Pulgar criticized the Inquisition arguing that religious instruction and not persecution would have been much more successful in creating faithful Conversos.

The Edict of Expulsion in 1492 initiated another wave of evangelization intended to keep Jews in Castile and Aragon. The primary goal was conversion though it also included some minimal instruction in the Christian faith. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella sponsored various initiatives designed to achieve this. Prelates were ordered to assign knowledgeable individuals to instruct these recent converts.[8] The mission to educate Conversos also included their relocation to neighborhoods inhabited by Old Christians. The purpose was to forestall the self-segregation which characterized Conversos of earlier decades. This rule was strictly applied to those Conversos who had been rabbis before their conversion. They were segregated from other converts with the purpose of diminishing the influence they could have on them. These Conversos were expected to derive a deeper understanding of Christianity with daily contact with Old Christians. If young Conversos became apprentices, they did so with Old Christian families that fostered their identity as Christians. The separation of reconciled Conversos from other Conversos was also implemented. Contact between Conversos and those reconciled only occurred in public in the presence of Old Christians.

[1] “As experience, which is a good instructor, has shown that the new Christians who were converted nearly 23 years ago in the city of Valencia and were baptized without much information about or instruction in the holy Catholic faith, speak, live and reside together, they have received very little improvement in the Christian faith and are not well informed in what is necessary in order to believe, nor less in the devotions or acts of the holy law…” Jose Hinojosa Montalvo, The Jews of the Kingdom of Valencia- Hispania Judaica Volume 9 (Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, 1993), 18.

[2] Ibid., 18.

[3] María del Pilar Rábade Obradó, “La instrucción cristiana de los conversos en la Castilla del siglo XV,” En la España Medieval, 22 (1999): 378-379.

[4] Joaquim Carvalho ed., Religion and Power in Europe: Conflict and Convergence (Pisa: Edizioni Plus – Pisa University Press, 2007), 85.

[5] The religious instruction of the Dominicans was exemplified by individuals like Raimundo Marti of Aragon who had authored the work titled, Pugio Fidei Adversus Mauros et Iudaeos, in the 13th century. His work reflected an extensive knowledge of Jewish theology. De Marti’s efforts were succeeded by his disciple Arnaldo de Vilanova whose work focused on the explanation of the Trinity. This genre of Christian literature was continued by other notables such as Fray Bernardo de Oliver from Aragon. Those hoping to catechize the Conversos looked to these works as resources. These texts were inherently polemical in nature and focused on convincing Jews that conversion to Christianity was the only hope for salvation. With its focus on the theological destruction of Judaism, they were ineffective in communicating the dogmas and doctrines of Christianity. Those who entered the Church struggled to acquire instruction in their new faith. María del Pilar Rábade Obradó, “La instrucción cristiana de los conversos en la Castilla del siglo XV,” En la España Medieval, 22 (1999): 383, 389.

[6] Salo Wittmayer Baron, A Social and the Religious History of the Jews: Volume XIII (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1969), 27.

[7] María del Pilar Rábade Obradó, “La instrucción cristiana de los conversos en la Castilla del siglo XV,” En la España Medieval, 22 (1999): 385.

[8] Ibid., 388-389.

Posted by Rabbi Dr. Juan Marcos Bejarano Gutierrez the director of the B’nei Anusim Center for Education. For a more complete review of Iberian Jewish history and the Crypto- Jewish Experience see Conversos and the Sabbatean Movement,  The Rise of the Inquisition and Secret Jews: The Complex Identity of Crypto-Jews and Crypto-Judaism

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