Abelard (Abaelard), Peter°

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ABELARD (Abaelard), PETER°

ABELARD (Abaelard), PETER ° (1079–1142), French philosopher and theologian. Abelard composed the Dialogus inter Philosophum. Judaeum et Christianum (1141; published in pl, 178 (1855), 1611–82). In it a Jew and a Christian, who accept revelation as adequate justification of their creed, are challenged by a philosopher, an Arab by nationality, who accepts only reason and natural law as a basis for the discussion. The dialogue does not offer a final conclusion, but this might possibly reflect the author's emphasis on the method of discussion rather than on its results. In the dialogue the Jew accepts belief in God's revelation as the only norm for faith and conduct; he asks the philosopher, who leads the debate, to prove that such an attitude contradicts reason. In doing so he expresses his people's confidence that God will finally fulfill the biblical promises of a blissful future and compensate them for their depressed position in contemporary society, which he describes in realistic detail. Being forced to pay for survival is an everyday experience for the Jews. In contemporary circumstances they were unable to earn a livelihood from agricultural property; they had to rely on profits from money lending, an occupation which made them more odious to their environment. In his reply the philosopher emphasizes the contrast between this situation and the promise of prosperity in this world, which the Bible holds out for loyal obedience. He concludes that either the Jews have not lived and acted in accordance with divine command or their Law is not the truth. The Christian, according to Abelard's description, although a believer in the authority of revelation, explains his belief in spiritual values as the summun bonum in philosophical terms. Abelard used the apologetic writers of the patristic age as his source, wishing to prove that his own attitude as a philosophical interpreter of Christianity corresponded to the classical tradition of the church. The contemporary Jew in his Dialogus takes the place of the defender of particular traditions – Jewish or pagan – as depicted in the ancient ecclesiastical treatises adopting philosophical argument; this presentation precludes the possibility that Abelard intended to report a contemporary exchange of arguments. His work is an apology for his own life, and its fictional character is pointed out by the description of the narrative as a dream. On the other hand, the whole design indicates that such conversations with Jews were not unusual in his time. Abelard indeed had some personal contact with Jews and was present when one interpreted the Book of Kings. Abelard's knowledge of Hebrew was restricted to the word lists contained in the biblical studies of St. Jerome. But the educational program of this church father inspired Abelard's recommendation to his former wife Heloise that she and the nuns under her charge learn Hebrew for a genuine understanding of Scripture.


J.G. Sikes, Peter Abailard (Eng., 1932); G. Misch, Geschichte der Autobiographie, 3 pt. 2/1 (1959), 523–719; H. Liebeschutz, in: jjs, 12 (1961), 1–18; B. Smalley, Study of the Bible in the Middle Ages (19522), index; E. Gilson, History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages (1955), 153–63.

[Hans Liebeschutz]