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Emotions and the Jewish-Christian Controversy: The Case of Toledot Yeshu. A seminar by Daniel Barbu.

Date: Wednesday 6 December 2017
Time: 10am–12noon
Venue: The Philippa Maddern Seminar Room 1.33, First Floor Arts Building, The University of Western Australia
Registration and enquiries: Pam Bond (emotions@uwa.edu.au).  This is a free event, but registration is requested by 4 December 2017.


Professor Charles Zika (The University of Melbourne)
Dr Anne Schwenkenbecher (Murdoch University)
Associate Professor Suzanne Wijsman (The University of Western Australia)

The Jewish life of Jesus, or Toledot Yeshu, provides a polemical account of the origins of Christianity, mocking Jesus as an illegitimate child, a false prophet and a charlatan, and describing his disciples as a bunch of violent rogues. This is one of the most important Jewish anti-Christian literary traditions, which was read, transmitted and circulated among Jews as early as the ninth century CE (if not earlier) and at least until the mid-twentieth century. The sheer number of manuscripts that have come down to us suggest that it was almost a “best-seller” among late medieval and early modern Jews. This “blasphemous” narrative was also discussed by a number of Christian authors (most conspicuously, Martin Luther), with a view to expose an alleged Jewish “hatred” of Christians and Christianity and as an illustration of the obstacles preventing the Jews from converting to the “true religion.” The different versions of the story have most often been approached through a philological perspective, with a view to reconstruct Toledot Yeshu’s complex textual history. While philological questions are of course important, they also leave a number of issues unresolved. Here we will be less interested in the origins and development of the tradition than in its audience and in its readers, both Jewish and non-Jewish. We will in particular consider the discursive construction of emotions in the texts, and how they relate to the extra-textual world of medieval and early modern Jews. We will also consider the Christian reception of these texts, exploring the place of emotions in the late medieval and early modern Christian imaginary of Jews and Judaism. The broader aim of this seminar is to question the role of emotions in religious polemics, both as a way to construct out-groups as “others” and as a way to enforce one group’s sense of its own identity. 

Dr Daniel Barbu received his PhD in the History of Religion from the University of Geneva in 2012. Following his studies, Dr Barbu worked as an academic program manager for the University of Geneva’s interfaculty center for historical research, and coordinated, in collaboration with Prof. Philippe Borgeaud, a large-scale research project on the construction of religious knowledge and the historiography of religious studies. Since 2013, he has been pursuing research and teaching at the University of Bern’s Institute for Jewish Studies. He has taught at the Universities of Geneva (2008–2014), Bern (2013–2016) and Zurich (2016). In 2018 he will join the CNRS in Paris as Senior Researcher. His research focuses on cultural interactions between Jews and other cultures of the ancient Mediterranean, on Jewish-Christian relations in late antiquity and the Middle Ages, and on the early modern historiography of religious studies. His present research examines the history and reception of Jewish traditions pertaining to the life of Jesus, or Toledoth Yeshu. His first book, Naissance de l’idolâtrie: Image, identité, religion was published in 2016 with Presses universitaires de Liège.

Dr Barbu is also one of the editors of the Geneva based journal of anthropology and history of religions, Asdiwal, a member of the editorial board of CROMOHS – Cyber Review of Modern Historiography, and the co-director of the 'Histoire des religions' series with Labor et Fides publishers.

Image: Marc Chagall, White Crucifixion, c.1938. © 2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.