BMCR 1998.12.15

Severus of Minorca: Letter on the Conversion of the Jews. Oxford Early Christian Texts


This slim volume brings to light an important and absorbing text that will surprise and delight scholars of Jewish-Christian relations. Couched in the rhetoric of hagiography, Severus’s letter is really an anti-Jewish tract filled with details of the daily interactions of Jews and Christians at the western edge of the Roman Empire in 418 AD. Because of doubts about its authenticity and the unavailability of a reliable edition, Epistula Severi has received little scholarly attention. But the editor of this edition establishes the letter’s authenticity; and the edition itself provides a clean text. I am confident that this publication will stimulate much new scholarship.

As Bradbury convincingly argues, the letter of Severus was written in the early months of 418 AD by an eyewitness to the forced conversion of the Jews of Minorca to Christianity in February of the same year. Epistula Severi tells the story of the breakdown of peaceful coexistence of Jews and Christians in the town of Magona, Minorca in February, 418. This crisis was precipitated by the arrival in Magona of some relics of St. Stephen, an event that energized the faith of local Christians and their zeal to convert their Jewish neighbors. Prompted by a miraculous dream, the local bishop and author of this letter led his congregation across the island to join the Christians of Magona in their mission to convert the Jews. Tensions rose on the day the bishop and his flock arrived in Magona. Public arguments between Christians and Jews culminated in a riot and the sacking and burning of the local synagogue. For several days there were further debates between Christians and Jews, and many Jews fled to the countryside. After sustained pressure the leaders of the Jewish community converted and their fellow Jews followed. The new proselytes paid for the demolition of their burned synagogue and erected a church with their own funds and labor. The letter “closes with an explicit exhortation to bishops around the Mediterranean to carry out the conversion of the Jews in their own communities” (2). Woven into the narrative are many fascinating details of Jewish life in the Western Empire, including an account of communal worship in which Christians and Jews share the same liturgical music.

The Latin text is presented in a critical edition that appears to have been prepared with great care. It is clear, well punctuated, normalized, and easy to read. The text is accompanied (on the facing page) by a fluent English translation that is a model of the genre. The edition is accompanied by a helpful introduction and brief commentary, including a useful summary of Bernard Blumenkranz’s scattered comments on Epistola Severi. Blumenkranz’s contention that the text attributed to Severus was a seventh-century forgery had been the scholarly consensus until the publication of this text. Bradbury summarizes his reasoning and refutes it. In addition, Prof. Itzik Hen of Haifa University has kindly pointed out to me that two allusions to the text appear in works written prior to the date established by Blumenkranz — in Gregory of Tours, Historia Francorum and in a poem by Venantus Fortunatus. Bradbury is surely right in his dating.

I fully concur with Bradbury that Epistula Severi is “a central document in the history of religious coercion in late antiquity” (2), but I would have liked to see this claim for the text’s importance as an historical document balanced by some consideration of the obvious debts owed by Severus to his literary models. Severus draws on narratives of the destruction of Jerusalem — from Jeremiah through Josephus — in his descriptions of the routing of the Jews of Magona. The book of Lamentations, in particular, is a common source here (cf. 84 “in omnibus plateis …”; 88 “Vidua enim quaedam altera nobilissima, quam synagogae speciem habuisse non dubium est …”). This is especially striking given the recent sack of Rome as well as Epistula Severi‘s contemporaneity with Augustine’s De Civitate Dei. Frequent biblical references are unsurprising, given the nature of the text. But I was struck by Severus’s self-conscious use of figurative language to structure his thought and exposition above the level of local ornament or pungency. If, on the whole, he is a decent stylist, at times he clearly aspires to excellence. At one point in the narrative, Meletius (a Jew) debates the merits of conversion to Christianity with the Christian Innocentius. The speeches as recounted by Severus are highly polished and literary. When Melitius praises his opponent as “learned not only in Latin literature, but in Greek literature as well” he appears to be commenting on Innocentius’s skillful reworking of material from classical sources (104). Here, I would have appreciated some annotation by the editor. To what material in the preceding speech was Melitius referring? Would investigating its allusions deepen or sharpen our understanding of the text? Such invented dialogue is one of the distinguishing characteristics of a literary text; I would hope for basic guidance from the editor in taking the first steps toward a reading. This is one of several points where the sudden lushness of the prose suggests that Severus was self-consciously literary in his choice of stylistic models.

This important publication is marred, I regret to note, by shoddy production by the press. There are extensive typographic irregularities. Block quotes are generally difficult to distinguish from the surrounding text as they frequently appear in the same type face, point size and style as surrounding text, and without indentation (18, 37, 45, 46, 50, 59, 65, 66, 71). The arrangement of footnotes is puzzling and inconsistent (compare three different systems on pages 53-55). The kerning is incorrect, as well, in some letter combinations. For example, “fi” and “fl” are fused together not with a ligature but by overprinting. The resulting character is ugly and hard to read. The book is in hard covers but it is burst bound rather than sewn, and in my opinion not sturdy enough for the heavy use I believe this book will enjoy. Most surprising to me was the material used to cover the boards. Though identified by the publisher as “cloth”, it is actually paper with a weave pattern pressed into its surface. This material is reminiscent of a paper towel, or perhaps a handiwipe. In the months I carried the book with me in my bag it deteriorated badly, unlike any other book I was carrying. At $55.00 it is grossly overpriced, which is particularly regrettable since this important publication deserves a wider audience. (I assigned Bradbury’s edition to my survey of medieval Jewish-Christian relations last year. But at this price, the class shared the library’s copy.)


p. 84, section heading: for “EVERI” read “SEVERI”.

p. 86, section heading: for “EVERI” read “SEVERI”.

p. 88, section heading: for “EVERI” read “SEVERI”.

p. 128, note 15: for “des” read “sed”, for “christianam” read “christianum”. The text here attributed to Caesarius of Arles is actually quoted by Caesarius from a letter by Augustine (PL 38:963). This strengthens Bradbury’s point, since Severus and Augustine were contemporaries.