In a lecture that discussed the conquest of the Mexican Empire, Professor Martin Rios asked a simple question. Did Mexico and Spain exist in the 16th century as we understand them today? The answer was an unequivocal no. Spain, as we think of it, was, in reality, two separate kingdoms, i.e., the Kingdom of Castile and the Kingdom of Aragon. And despite the matrimony of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, each remained the sovereign of their respective kingdoms.

In Mexico, the Aztec empire formed the most important political entity. However, many other groups existed independently or separated from Aztec identity. No single language characterized what we now consider Mexico. No single union or alliance constituted a single nation. In this sense, there was no Mexico or Spain as they were later understood.

In this sense, Professor Martin Rios argues that our past conceptions are often formulated by political, emotional, and nationalistic interpretations. And that, especially in the 1800s, and then once again, in the 1900s, much of what we characterize as Mexican and Spanish identity developed concerning one another. Spain was one thing, and Mexico was necessarily the opposite in this see-saw of emerging identity. If Spain was the conqueror, Mexico was the victim. If Spain was European, Mexico was indigenous, etc. Perhaps most importantly, Professor Martin Rios argues that both entities indelibly affected and shaped each other.

The reader is probably asking how this relates to Jewish and Christian relations in the first centuries of the Common Era. Judaism and Christianity as we know them today, and this is the critical point, i.e., today did not exist in the first centuries of the Common Era. This is not to say that people did not recognize Jewish observances or Christian observances, whether there was not a Jewish theology or a Christian theology. But the systems and the boundaries of these entities did not exist in the same way they did in later periods of history.


The Mishnah, the crown jewel of nascent rabbinic Judaism, existed by the end of the second century CE. It was redacted on earlier traditions no doubt passed through previous generations of rabbis and their antecedents. But the notion of rabbinic thought and identity, as we understand them, was still evolving. And so when we talk about Rabbinic Judaism, it is essential to realize that the entity that we often envision was something that came into being in the late the early medieval period, depending on how we establish the boundaries of Christianity, in turn, became, in many ways a different entity, with its ascension to power with the Christianization of the Roman Emperor Constantine.

The purpose of comparing Judaism and Christianity to the encounter between the Spanish and the Aztec empire is to understand that our visions of the past are often very different. Cortez was often characterized as conquering an empire of hundreds of thousands of people, with only 600 or so men. We know, of course, that this was far from the truth. For every Spanish soldier who participated in the Aztec capital's final conquest, there were probably 100 or 120, or even 150 indigenous soldiers that accompanied them. Hence the native forces that accompanied Hernan Cortes easily numbered a hundred thousand soldiers or more. And so our understanding of the conquest becomes very different when we realize that from the perspective of the indigenous tribes that supported Cortes and the Spanish, this was not a war of conquest, but perhaps oddly enough, a war of liberation, and undoubtedly, vengeance against those that they perceive to be their oppressors.

In the same way, our understanding of the relationship between Judaism and Christianity has to consider a much more complicated scenario. If the rabbis and the the Church Fathers did not have the authority to delineate between Christians and Jews definitively, what were the boundaries that separated them? The edges of Judaism and Christianity must have been somewhat different in the early centuries of the Common Era.

This reality raises important issues to reconsider our understanding of Jewish and Christian history...

To be Continued


Posted by Rabbi Dr. Juan Marcos Bejarano Gutierrez the director of Yeshivat Meor Enaim. He is the author of The Creation of Jewish Identity: From the Biblical Era to the Second Temple Period and 19 additional books on various Jewish topics. If you purchase through our link, Yeshivat Meor Enaim gets a commission to help continue our mission.