The Marrano Revival

By Raymond L. Gannon, Ph.D
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Posted in Zealous Magazine on February 2, 2015

A new phenomenon has struck like lightning across the entire Spanish-speaking world as thousands are thundering out bold proclamations of their Jewish heritage. Who are these Roman Catholics, Protestants, and Pentecostals who claim “Jewish DNA” in the 21st-Century?

These assert they are descendants of Spanish Jews who formally converted to Roman Catholicism centuries ago. In darker Spanish times, these Jewish conversos were called “New Christians” and “Marranos” (pigs). Desiring to perpetuate their Jewish heritage even as Roman Catholics, they were held in political suspicion and were vulnerable to a series of Church-sponsored attacks especially during seasons of political upheaval, e.g., 1391 and 1492.

The ultimate expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492 found the converso Jews migrating to points across Christianized southern Europe and throughout the House of Islam—from Turkey, south to Egypt, and west across North Africa. Yet other Marranos who left Spain for northern cities like London, Antwerp, and Amsterdam were fathers to many who migrated to the Spanish-speaking regions of the new world.

The apostle Paul registered his intention to get to Spain (Romans 15:24, 28). Paul would have preached in the localized synagogues in Barcelona “to the Jew first.” The Jewish community was well established in Spain by year 300 and enjoyed the rights of Roman citizenship. When the Visigoths (German tribes) began to settle in 378 and finally conquered Spain by 412, the Visigoths’ Arian Christianity did not militate against Jewish status. Jewish circumstance continued to fare well and became highly favored during the sixth century. But when the Visigoths converted from Arianism to Roman Catholicism in 589, Roman clerical anti-Jewish legislation was implemented to persuade Rome of new-found Visigothic Catholic loyalties. By 616 open display of Jewish religious practice was outlawed. Jewish children were sometimes seized and raised as Catholics.

The net result of this religious nationalizing of Spain was the majority of Spanish Jews adopted Roman Catholicism while quietly perpetuating Jewish culture at home. By the climax of the 7th-century, Spanish religious imperialism had generated broad cultural discontent among many Jewish people and some left the country. But the Arab conquest of Spain in 711 cast off most of the Christian-based social barriers against Jewish religious expression. Many Jewish people who had vacated Spain now relocated there to enjoy the greater Jewish liberties under Moorish Islamic rule.

What has been called the Jewish “Golden Age” in Spain was largely from 900 to 1200 C.E. The more culturally and academically compatible Jews and Muslims of Spain shared common interests in science, poetry, and philosophy. Jews climbed the economic and political ladders, and became esteemed social agents of culture, literature, science, and grammars in multiple languages. Many liturgical pieces crafted by Hebrew literary experts and religious poets during this period are still included in today’s Siddur (daily and Shabbat prayer book) and Machzor (prayers used for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur).

Political vulnerabilities developed over time within Islamic Spain. Consequent military attack ensued from competitive Muslim groups and Christians still dominate in northern sections of Spain. Newer victors sometimes demand religious conformity to effect consolidation and cohesion in the interests of political and social agendas. Christian kingdoms fighting to drive Muslim forces out of Spain engendered anti-Semitic episodes suffered first by “New (Jewish) Christians” but ultimately by the larger Jewish society.

There can never be justification for threats of execution for clinging to one’s religious heritage or forced conversions of the Gospel-resistant. The papal-assigned Dominican and Franciscan orders engaged in an Inquisition against “New Christians” in cooperation with Ferdinand and Isabella to foster a Christianized national Spain in 1492 was shameful, a travesty, and without excuse. But it should also be fairly pointed out that tens of thousands of Jewish people converted to Roman Catholicism over many centuries out of genuine conviction.

There were actually many reasons for ongoing Jewish readiness to embrace Roman Catholicism. Jewish life had its imperfections. Jewish religious piety in Spain was not universal as many Jews doubted the ongoing relevance of rabbinical Judaism in a Christianized society. Contemporary counterparts of the Hebrew prophets were vehemently protesting a shockingly wide range of socially accepted Jewish sin.

The focus of Jewish historical metanarrative regarding Jewish Spanish conversion centers around the negatives of coercion, martyrdom and exile. Jewish Catholics are explained by suggesting that these Jews were either opportunists seeking social advantage, or simply chose baptism over exile or death. The metanarrative contends all conversion was either selfish or mandated by authorities or both. Curiously, the narrative continues that even willingly baptized Christians secretly practiced Judaism at home.

Probably the vast majority of “New Christians” converted to Roman Catholicism out of pure conviction and intellectual integrity, and wanted to witness to their faith. Yet later many diaspora “Marranos” went “underground” and refused to allow their Jewishness to be known even to their children until on their deathbed since many feared Christian persecution of “New Christians.” In these days, as more hidden Marranos are discovered, MJBI welcomes the privilege of assisting those in South America and elsewhere as they sort out their Jewish identity as believers in Yeshua.