The Saint, The Bonfire, And The Bastard Son Of A Whore

Featured Image: Apotheosis of St. Louis, St. Louis, Missouri: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

As the erasure of Confederate monuments continues, some have set their sights on a beatified 13th century king. The Apotheosis of St. Louis statue has stood outside the St. Louis Museum of Art since 1906. Now the citizens of St. Louis are rethinking their statue and their city’s name. A June 29 protest beneath the statue was marked by attacks on Catholic counter-protestors. While the Archdiocese of St. Louis has issued a statement in support of the saint and his sculpture, protestor Umar Lee bragged:

[This statue is] gonna come down. This guy right here represents hate and we’re trying to create a city of love. We’re trying to create a city where Black lives matter. We’re trying to create a city where there is no antisemitism or Islamophobia … this is not a symbol of our city in 2020.

Saint King Louis IX (1214-1270) is the only canonized French monarch and is considered by many Catholics to be the one of the greatest Christian kings. The Sainte Chappelle was constructed in his reign: under his patronage Robert of Sorbonne founded the “Collège de la Sorbonne,” which remains one of Europe’s leading universities. As the Catholic Encyclopedia describes him:

St. Louis led an exemplary life, bearing constantly in mind his mother’s words: “I would rather see you dead at my feet than guilty of a mortal sin.” His biographers have told us of the long hours he spent in prayerfasting, and penance, without the knowledge of his subjects..

He was renowned for his charity. The peace and blessings of the realm come to us through the poor he would say. Beggars were fed from his table, he ate their leavings, washed their feet, ministered to the wants of the lepers, and daily fed over one hundred poor. He founded many hospitals and houses: the House of the Felles-Dieu for reformed prostitutes; the Quinze-Vingt for 300 blind men (1254), hospitals at Pontoise, Vernon, Compiégne.

While St. Louis is loved by Roman Catholics and venerated in the Anglican Communion, his reputation in the Jewish community is more sinister. They associate Louis IX with numerous anti-Semitic measures taken during his realm, notably the burning of over twenty wagon-loads of Jewish literature confiscated from synagogues throughout France. For them St. Louis is not a flawed man who strove toward a Christian life, he is a hated symbol of oppression and intolerance.

The Jewish and Christian experiences are at least as divergent, troubled and intertwined as the Black and White American experience. In this time of anger it has become fashionable to remove uncomfortable images and suppress inconvenient facts. But breast-beating and symbolic gestures rarely accomplish as much as honest understanding. We know that King Louis IX ordered the burning of every Talmud in France. Let us examine his reasons for setting them alight.

Graffiti on Apotheosis of St. Louis, St. Louis, Missouri

An early Latin collection of excerpts from the Talmud tells us.

Around the year 1236 of the Incarnation of our Lord, the Father of mercies [i.e. God] called to the faith a certain Jew, named Nicholas Donin of La Rochelle, who was so knowledgeable in Hebrew, even according to the Jews, that one could hardly find anybody who knew so much of the nature and grammar of the Hebrew language as he did. 

Surviving Jewish sources say Donin was excommunicated in 1225, stating “He denied our sages and believed only in what is written in the Torah of Moses, without interpretation.” Some scholars believe Donin was influenced by the Karaites, a small Jewish sect still existing today. Others postulate Donin’s Christian conversion was sparked by the sola scriptura Waldensian movement then burgeoning in France. Whatever his motivations, Donin appeared before Pope Gregory IX shortly thereafter with a list of 35 blasphemous, impious or otherwise offensive passages from the Talmud.

Donin’s primary concern was that the Rabbis had placed their own authority over the Prophets and claimed that the Talmud was divinely inspired like the Torah. He also noted passages in the Talmud which claimed Adam had sex with the beasts of the field before Eve and that Jews could lie to Gentiles with impunity. Perhaps most shocking were Donin’s claims that the Talmud called Jesus the illegitimate son of a Roman soldier named Panthera and that Jesus was boiling in excrement in hell.

Alarmed by these allegations, Pope Gregory ordered the Kings of England, Spain and France to have the Talmuds in their kingdom examined thoroughly. Should Donin’s allegations be found true, these books were to be destroyed as blasphemous. Fernando III needed Jewish support for his ongoing battles against Muslims. John III was too busy shaking down England’s Jewish moneylenders to trouble himself overmuch with a lengthy examination of their literature. Louis IX, who had earlier ordered that blasphemers have their lips branded, took a more personal interest in the issue. And so, on the 25th of June in the 1240th year of Our Lord, the Talmud went on trial in Paris.

Onkelos then went and raised Jesus the Nazarene from the grave through necromancy. Onkelos said to him: Who is most important in that world where you are now? Jesus said to him: The Jewish people. Onkelos asked him: Should I then attach myself to them in this world? Jesus said to him: Their welfare you shall seek, their misfortune you shall not seek, for anyone who touches them is regarded as if he were touching the apple of his eye.

Onkelos said to him: What is the punishment of that man, a euphemism for Jesus himself, in the next world? Jesus said to him: He is punished with boiling excrement. As the Master said: Anyone who mocks the words of the Sages will be sentenced to boiling excrement. And this was his sin, as he mocked the words of the Sages. The Gemara comments: Come and see the difference between the sinners of Israel and the prophets of the nations of the world. As Balaam, who was a prophet, wished Israel harm, whereas Jesus the Nazarene, who was a Jewish sinner, sought their well-being.

Gittin 57a of the Bavri (Babylonian Talmud), William Davidson edition

Rabbi Yechiel came to the Disputation of Paris at a distinct disadvantage. Any argument which questioned Christ’s divinity or Christian tenets too strenuously could get him burned at the stake. The best he could hope for was to sow the seeds of doubt or to refute specific allegations. And so, when Donin translated the Tzoah Rotachat passage for an angry audience, Yechiel could only reply “Not every Louis born in France is a king.” The audience did not find this argument, or Yechiel’s subsequent oaths that this was an entirely different Yeshu ha-Notzri, compelling.

It was taught in a baraita that Rabbi Eliezer said to the Rabbis: Didn’t the infamous ben Stada take magic spells out of Egypt in a scratch on his flesh? They said to him: He was a fool, and you cannot cite proof from a fool. That is not the way that most people write. Incidentally, the Gemara asks: Why did they call him ben Stada, when he was the son of Pandeira? Rav Ḥisda said: His mother’s husband, who acted as his father, was named Stada, but the one who had relations with his mother and fathered him was named Pandeira. The Gemara asks: Wasn’t his mother’s husband Pappos ben Yehuda? Rather, his mother was named Stada and he was named ben Stada after her. The Gemara asks: But wasn’t his mother Miriam, who braided women’s hair? The Gemara explains: That is not a contradiction. Rather, Stada was merely a nickname, as they say in Pumbedita: This one strayed [setat da] from her husband.

Shabbat 104b, William Davidson Edition

The clergy listening to Donin’s translation were intimately familiar both with Scripture and with the Church Fathers. They certainly would have remembered Origen’s comment in Contra Celsum about a Jew “speaking of the mother of Jesus, and saying that when she was pregnant she was turned out of doors by the carpenter to whom she had been betrothed, as having been guilty of adultery, and that she bore a child to a certain soldier named Panthera.” They were not pleased to discover that this story was still being passed around by the Jews nearly 1,000 years later. And so, in July 1242, over twenty wagon loads of handwritten manuscripts passed down over generations were consigned to the fire.

After the Reformation led to decades of bloody civil wars, Europe decided that tolerating dissent was generally preferable to burning it. The French and Scientific Revolutions left us rethinking the very ideas of blasphemy and heresy and encouraged us to turn our sacred cows into hamburger. We laugh at blasphemy and at those who find blasphemy offensive. We are inclined to think ill of a king who would trample upon minority religious rights. But those clearings were not yet open to Louis IX and his subjects. For them religion was not a personal matter to be left to the individual’s conscience and the freedom to blaspheme was as unthinkable as the freedom to abort a baby or to engage in sodomy.

The Vilna Shas Talmud most commonly used in Yeshivas and synagogues contains 2,711 double folio pages in its 37 volumes. Within those pages we can find at most a handful of passages relating to Jesus or Christianity. (The Rabbis spent considerably less time critiquing Christianity than the Church Fathers devoted to Judaism). We can look at those passages, and at contemporaneous Jewish literature like Toledot Yeshu, as acts of resistance against an often hostile religious majority. We can place them in a historical context and understand that most Jews today are no more conversant in the Talmud than most Gentiles. In 13th century Christendom those passages could only be a grievous insult that struck at the very heart of their Faith.

The Disputation of Paris did nothing to improve Jewish-Christian relations. Louis IX became increasingly unfriendly toward the Jewish community after the Disputation. In December 1254 he forbade Jews from moneylending and demanded they work “at manual labor or lawful trade”; in 1268 he issued an order for expulsion which was never carried out after his 1270 death by dysentery during the Eighth Crusade. Before 1240 few Christians were aware that Jews had any holy books outside the Old Testament. Today much of the world still believes Jews are ruled by a sinister second scripture that preaches hatred of Christ and all things Christian.

Louis IX ordered the Talmud to be burned. He left Torah scrolls, and synagogues, untouched. Like St. Augustine before him, Louis IX hoped that Jewish reverence for Abraham, Moses and David might guide them into the acceptance of Christ. (It is telling that today’s Zionist Christians support the Gathering of Israel in the hopes Jews find Jesus en masse and thereby jump-start the Second Coming). Stamping out heresy wasn’t just his right, it was his duty as a Christian King. If he felt less charitable toward his Jewish subjects after Donin, consider how people today are judged by their offensive words. If he was overzealous in rooting out obscenity, consider our rush to root out racism. And if he was wrong in destroying Talmuds, are we right in destroying monuments?

Notes From The End of Time 2: King Louis IX and the Talmuds

Kenaz Filan

E-mail: kenazfilan@gmail.com | Podcast: https://soundcloud.com/kenaz-filan Gab: https://gab.com/KenazFilan | Telegram: http://t.me/KenazFilan

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