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Book Review


David Biale, Blood and Belief: The Circulation of a Symbol Between Jews and Christians. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2007. Pp. 360. $24.95 (paperback).


     David Biale's Blood and Belief: The Circulation of a Symbol Between Jews and Christians offers an infusion of fresh insights into the old accusations about Jewish blood libel, by making connections between its early incarnations and subsequent resurrection in the 19th century. Biale's introduction opens with the dramatic recounting of allegations of vampirism levied against colonial invaders and "outsiders" by native peoples in East Africa. The parallel in Europe was that Jews were particularly easy targets as the practitioners of an "undead" religion superseded by Christianity, which "remained stubbornly alive" (2). Instead of unrelated enemies, however, Biale reminds us that Judaism and Christianity are really dysfunctional siblings who often self-identify by disparaging the other's traditions. By focusing on blood, "an ambivalent symbol of life and of death … of purity and of impurity," the author compares the myriad of often contradictory ways polemicists and scholars from both religions constructed arguments and counter-arguments over the middle ages in the first half of the book, and then how these early ideas informed popular beliefs and fueled 19th and 20th century anti-Semitism and Zionism in the last two chapters (4).

     Biale opens by detailing different late antiquity and medieval understandings of blood and the construction of various aspects involving pollution or sacrifice. Unsurprising is that the ideologies regarding blood were also very gendered because menstrual blood, childbirth, and even exogamy were points of contention between Jews and the dominate cultures they lived amongst. A particular strength of Biale's writing is that he conscientiously examines the contestations in their historical context by locating earlier influences, as well as what he considers the most convincing contemporary one. Even the simple killing of animals for food became prohibited as Jewish priests established their sole authority over sacrifice by "outlawing all secular slaughter" and Biale traces parallels to concurrent Greek practices, suggesting "cross-cultural comparisons" of priestly monopolization of bloodletting (20, 14). Biale is convinced that the "lack of blood rituals in other ancient Near Eastern religions," coupled with the absence of explanatory theology in Judaism verifies the political consolidation of power by the priestly class utilizing Greek philosophical practices regarding blood. (One might ask why he does not consider Zoroastrian influences as well, given blood was on their list of impurities.)

     The prohibition on animal slaughter was certainly not the only bloody issue, and Biale offers analyses of murder, eating blood in relation to idolatry, and sexual taboos, in particular, concerning menstruating women. Yet again, there is evidence that even menstrual blood was considered both pure and impure since it represented fertility and sacrificial shedding of blood, yet was part of the unclean corporeal world (37). The last section of chapter one turns from pollution, to the positive power of blood, including the blood of the covenant in circumcision and bloody Passover doorways. The most interesting point is the mention of the prophet Isaiah's suggestion that sacrifice is not necessary for atonement, countering the priests' intercessory role. This transitions the book into the issue of blood and the Covenant in chapter two, where Biale also moves from antiquity into the developing theology of both Judaism and Christianity spawned from their debate over how to redefine their beliefs without ritual sacrifice, given both sects began with "ritualized spilling of blood" (46).

     Biale examines non-canonic extant texts like Jubilee, as well as the Covenant of Damascus and I Enoch to define the Jewish people's ethnic or blood bond. This bond is replicated amongst Christians by having Jesus offer his blood and body at the Last Supper, something simultaneously abhorrent to Jews and yet reflecting the blood Covenant with God "on a nonethnic basis" (53). Yet, true to its Jewish ancestry, this covenant became a matter of debate as well – whether symbolic or literal, it took the Christian church until the thirteenth century to decide and not everyone agreed as evidenced in Protestant beliefs several centuries later. Regardless of the debate, the blood of Christ was different than that of sacrificial animals and represented yet another blood binary; the tangible humanity of Jesus and the manifestation of God's own blood. It was the physical aspect of the sacrifice that was echoed in the death of martyrs.

     Martyrology, an aspect of both Christianity and Judaism, became an increasingly complex narrative over time, explaining persecution and times of trouble. For the younger Christian religion, it was an echo of both animal and Jesus' sacrifice. Biale finds this in the language of Chrisostom, who describes the death of Polycarp as if he was "like a choice ram taken from a flock for sacrifice, " and who looked heavenward, grateful for being "worthy" enough to be included "in the cup of Thy Christ" (75). Baptism in blood is also an aspect of martyrdom, albeit an uncomfortable one for the Church (76). Here, Biale recalls a pagan connection with the Roman taurobolium, or a kind of animistic baptism where the blood of a slaughtered bull is used to drench its donator as a form of initiation, possibly influencing Judeo-Christian concepts of baptism. Martyrdom grew particularly important to Jews during the Hasmonean Revolt and came to represent a renewed covenant with God, as well as a call for divine vengeance. Biale returns to these rationales for martyrdom in the later chapter on modern persecution.

     Chapter three gets to the medieval debate about the blood libel, a seemingly illogical accusation by Christians, who "eat the body and drink the blood" of Jesus, that Jews who have strict laws against eating blood would need Christian blood for nefarious reasons. The vigorous debate over this issue, for Biale, is proof of an ongoing concern over competing ideologies out of proportion with the actual small numbers of Jews in Christendom (84). The medieval imagination continued to ponder the dichotomy between flesh and spirit, made more interesting by martyrs and mysticism. Biale deftly includes gender in his analysis as the very "nature" of the sexes claimed that women were mired in the physical, and this offered a parallel language when discussing Christ's physicality versus his spirituality. The male, Christ, or even patriarchs like Moses, were spoken of as "nursing" their people and Christ's blood in particular was the milk (85). Biale outlines how mystics like Catherine of Siena focused on the physical blood of Christ and Jewish Kabbalists on the body's place in spirituality. He exposes the conundrum of limpieza de sangre or Spanish obsession with purity of blood that insisted that Jewish blood contaminated converts, while ignoring the Jewish convert Paul of Tarsus when denying the efficacy of baptism in eradicating Jewishness (97). Jews countered with menstrual blood, arguing Jesus was born of a menstruating woman (polluted) and could not be holy, which was countered by the Christian accusation that the "shedding of Christ's blood caused Jewish men to menstruate" (105)! Finally, Biale finds "remarkable similarity between the rhetoric of the Hebrew Crusader chronicles of the Christian chronicles same era," and reinforces his contention that Jews and Christians created a common discourse in the middle ages, that resurfaced in a secular format in modern times (119).

     The last two chapters uncover the secular language of the blood libel of anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany and the Jewish response of blood community and Zionism. Nazi anti-Jewish propaganda projected onto the Jews, its own use of the "Big Lie," as written in Julius Streicher's published accusation that Jews consumed Christian blood. Biale traces the potency of the accusation to its medieval roots, which had seeded itself in popular beliefs or disbeliefs (123). Seconding Claudia Koonz's argument, Biale suggests that Nazi propaganda played an important role in giving German citizens a rationalization for their racism. Not unlike the Spanish Inquisition, Nazis targeted Jewish culinary rituals as proof of "Judaizing." The difference was that instead of proving religious unorthodoxy, Jews were accused of national unorthodoxy, engaging in ritual murder, inhumanity, and unhealthy living (127). In Weimar Germany, secular "experts" alleged Jewish blood rituals, ranging from making blood matzo to covering a dying Jew's face with the blood of an "innocent, dead Christian" to achieve last minute absolution (135). Nazi rationale considered even one drop of Jewish blood miscegenation and a pollution of the Aryan race, an issue raised in Artur Dinter's 1918 novel titled The Sin against the Blood. Even German music was not spared an infusion of racism with Wagner's hyper-nationalistic compositions and his essays on "Jews as a force for degeneration in German culture" (148). Biale's wide-angle lens focuses back on early modern German culture from Martin Luther's negative comments about Jews to a sixteenth century manuscript called the Book of a Hundred Chapters and suggests these were retained in the popular psyche and re-iterated in Weimar and Nazi Germany's propaganda and culture. Earlier concepts of martyrdom were also used by the Nazis to make the secular loss of life in World War I into a religious one (155). Biale uncovers other blood libel accusations by "experts" in the former Soviet Union claiming Christian children were used in the preparation of matzo, as well as an Arab scholar in Cairo who adds killing Muslim children to the Christian ones so Jews could make Purim pastries (160).

     The last chapter explores the various ways modern Jewish writers defend Judaism against centuries of bloody accusations by offering counter-narratives. The subsequent discussion is probably the least engaging portion of Biale's argument as it remains in an almost entirely academic realm discussing modern Jewish essays engaged in erudite counter arguments against blood libel accusations and debates about whether Jews constitute a "race" of people. The most interesting writer introduced in the chapter is Zionist Martin Buber, probably because his appeal was meant for "Zionist youth clubs" or a more generally populous crowd (189). Nevertheless, even his "populous" audience does not include goyim, or gentiles. Biale never addresses whether these writings were read, or even meant to be read, by the larger non-Jewish audience. Even with Abraham Isaac Kook's message with its universalist worldview, Biale does not say whether this message went beyond other Jews.

     Biale's writing is as interesting, and sometimes as controversial, as his topics because he does not entirely avoid some of the judgmental language that these topics elicit. The author's strength is his underlying emphasis on the interaction between cultures, which resulted in responses or reactions often in the form of a dialectic or long term dialogue. The issue of menses is a good example as it was defined as both polluting and the equivalent of male circumcision in Judaism and remained a point of contention over centuries (103). Biale includes copious sources that, at times, could leave the non-expert reader lost in a confusing mix of original and secondary sources referenced in the text instead of in endnotes. What was clear, however, was that the control of the ideas about blood defined the level of power held by perpetrator of those ideas. Whether you are completely convinced about the longevity of blood libel ideas or not, the periodized evidence can certainly be used for history and religious studies course lectures. The topic also covers important gendered issues that are commonly overlooked when discussing anti-Semitism, nationalism or the subaltern, and for that alone Blood and Belief is worth adding to your library.

Ingrid Wilkerson is currently researching the place of Protestant immigrants in Tudor London while teaching humanities, world history, and religious studies courses at Irvine Valley College. She can be reached at



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