Official, Nathan ben Joseph and Joseph

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OFFICIAL, NATHAN BEN JOSEPH AND JOSEPH , leading polemicists of Franco-German Jewry of the 13th century. Both were in the service of the archbishop of Sens as financial agents, and hence the name Official. Joseph, the son of Nathan, is also known as Joseph the Zealot (Joseph ha-Mekanne), because he was zealous in the defense of Judaism and compiled a book under this name. Nathan came from a long line of scholars and communal leaders, many of whom were known for their passionate and indefatigable activities in defense of Judaism. Nathan conducted frequent debates with dignitaries of the Church and also with fanatical converts to Christianity. He was an eloquent debater. Joseph calls his father "the chief spokesman in everything." Among his challengers were a cardinal, archbishops, bishops, priests, monks of various orders, and zealous and fanatical converts. The debates are fully described by his son in his Yosef ha-Mekanne. Joseph was a pupil of *Jehiel b. Joseph of Paris and was the author of the Hebrew report of the historic disputation of 1240. Joseph, like his father, was an "Official" and continued the tradition of the family as a defender of Judaism. His book Yosef ha-Mekanne is a polemical commentary on the Bible, and contains a large collection of Christological passages which were discussed and refuted by Jewish exegetes and polemicists, most of them members of the Official family. Its purpose was to refute the Christological interpretation of the Bible, verse by verse, as a ready handbook of Jewish answers to the challenge of the Church. At the end of the book Joseph added a short criticism of the life of Jesus according to the Gospels, which contains a Jewish challenge to Christianity. Over 40 Jewish disputants, including some proselytes, and ten Christian disputants, including some converts, are mentioned in the book. Noteworthy is the high degree of freedom in the debates and the courage of the Jewish disputants, who accepted all challenges. This fact is especially surprising since the activities of the Officials fall in the period after the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 with its severe anti-Jewish resolutions. The close familiarity of the Officials with Christian rites and liturgy is also remarkable. The book sheds light on Jewish-Christian relations in day-to-day life in 13th-century France and Germany, reflecting an atmosphere of relative tolerance, in which the Jew is able to accept the challenge and counter with his own challenge. The book is also important for the history of Hebrew translations of the New Testament. Yosef ha-Mekanne was also known under the name of Sefer ha-Niẓzaḥon ("Book of Disputation"). It influenced similar polemical works of collections of Christologies and their refutations according to biblical order, the best known being the Sefer ha-Niẓẓaḥon of Yom Tov Lipmann *Muelhausen.


Z. Kahn, in: rej, 1 (1880), 222–46, 3 (1881), 1–38; Mi-Mizraḥ u-mi-Ma'arav, 4 (1899), 17–25; idem, in: Festschrift… A. Berliner (1903), Heb. pt., 80–90; E.E. Urbach, in: rej, 100 (1935), 49–77; Joseph Official, Yosef ha-Mekanne, ed. by J. Rosenthal (1970), introd.

[Judah M. Rosenthal]