When DNA evidence late last year showed that either Thomas Jefferson or his close relatives had both white and black descendants, several columnists took the opportunity to point out that classifying people by race is silly, since most "blacks" and millions of "whites" in this country are the offspring of racial mixing over the past three centuries.
It's about time that Christians and Jews recognized this also. Next Wednesday evening, Christians who participate in a Seder-the Passover meal which nearly two millennia ago also became the Last Supper-will understand more clearly that they are theological relatives of Jews. But here's the kicker: Most Christians are probably blood relatives as well. Just do the math. The Encyclopaedia Judaica estimates that at the time of Christ about 8 million Jews were alive, with perhaps 2.5 million living in Palestine; Jews made up about 10 percent of the Roman empire. By the 1930s, before the Holocaust wiped out one-third of the Jewish population, the number of Jews worldwide had little more than doubled.
That's not much of an increase in almost 2,000 years. Why weren't there more Jews? Certainly, the chosen people seemed chosen for trouble, as through the centuries mobs and governments killed many Jews. Several thousand died in the Rhine Valley slaughters of 1096, as bands enlisting in the First Crusade did ungodly work close to home. Some 5,000 died in the Rindfleisch riots of 1298, and more were murdered amid panicky lies about Jews poisoning wells during the Black Death epidemic in the mid-1300s. Spanish mobs rampaged in 1391, and so on.
And yet, Jews most of the time throughout the centuries lived with Christian and Islamic neighbors. Jews at times even had some longevity advantages: Many were forbidden to be soldiers, and so did not die in warfare. Nor did Judaism lose young men and women to monasteries and nunneries, or the priesthood generally; everyone was encouraged to be fruitful and multiply.
In short, there's no reason to think that at most times Jewish population growth was less than that of others. So where did many Jews go?
Answer: into Christendom. Many Jews, particularly in Spain and Portugal during late medieval times, publicly converted and were baptized under pressure of expulsion or persecution. Some, particularly in Germany during early modern times, sought baptism for economic or civic gain. But hundreds of thousands over the centuries experienced true, God-given conversion. As The Illustrated History of the Jewish People notes, "Many made honest attempts to meet the challenge of Christianity; in so doing, they became convinced of its truth."
We even know of conversions in some prominent families. The son of Rabbi Gershom Meor ha-Golah (960-1028), the leader of German Jewry in his day, converted. In Spain, the Jewish physician Abner of Burgos (c. 1270-1340) spent 25 years first searching Jewish, then Christian writings to find the truth concerning Messianic predictions; at age 50 he made a commitment to Christ and changed his name to Alfonso of Valladolid.
Solomon ha-Levi (1350-1435), the rabbi of Burgos, became convinced of the truth of Christianity and eventually, under the name Pablo de Santa Maria, became a Catholic bishop. Joshua Lorki, another physician, also converted and, under the name of Geronimo de Santa Fe, became a devoted missionary. Other notable converts from the 12th through 15th centuries included Petrus Alphonsi and Harmannus of Cologne.
Spain and Portugal were most notorious for forcing mass "conversions," but over 250,000 Jews officially became Christians. In eastern and central Europe during the 19th century, genuine conversion mixed in with change for economic or social advantage. Some true converts from Judaism became hostile to their former faith, while others tried to hold onto parts of it, at times merging Christian belief with Jewish ritual. Those who made the best transition often left behind old cultural patterns as they followed Christ, yet did not hide from their heritage: They worked to increase Christian tolerance of Jews and Jewish appreciation of Christianity.
That makes particular sense because Christianity is Jewish; that's what Edith Schaeffer titled her excellent book on the subject. For as Benjamin Disraeli, the 19th-century prime minister who is probably the most notable Englishman of Jewish parentage, noted in 1863, "The Church was founded by Jews, and has been faithful to its origin. It secures their history and their literature being known to all ... keeps alive the memory of its public characters, and has diffused its poetry throughout the world. The Jews owe everything to the Church."