This Day in Jewish History

590: A Well-born Roman Is Named Pope Gregory I, Will Tolerate the Jews

Pagans, heretics and Jews had been anathema to early Christians, but among his many reforms, Pope Gregory I thought they would be better persuaded by the carrot than the sword.

Wikimedia Commons

On this day, September 3 in the year 590, a well-born Roman named Gregorius would be named pope. Apparently about 50 years of age when he began his papacy, Pope Gregory I would exercise enormous influence on Catholic doctrine, shaping the form of Christianity for centuries to come – and would preach a very unusual, and very isolated, tolerance of Jews.

Records from the sixth century are spotty and the exact date of Gregorius' birth is not known, though historians believe it was in the year 540. His family was very prominent and wealthy, too: his great-grandfather had been Pope Felix III, who headed the church from 483 to 492. Gregorius' father Gordianus had been a prefect of Rome and a senator, and also held a high position in the church. His mother Silvia is also believed to have hailed from a patrician family and though not much is known of her, she is venerated as a saint, honored on November 3.  

Gregory's lofty status in the Roman world did not prevent him from being humble: he was the first pope to extensive refer to himself as "servus servorum Dei" – servant of the servants of God. He would also demonstrate a rare humanism in a host of ways, not least ushering in a new toleration of the "other".

Be nice to pagans

Like most patrician boys, the young Gregorius was to receive a thorough education, including in law and rhetoric, skills that may have served him as he set about reshaping the faith and certain practices – the Gregorian chants, plainsong usually sung monophonically, originated with him. Among his many reforms was changing the formats of the sacramentaries – the books used by priests celebrating the mass and other formal occasions.

Among the changes Pope Gregory I sought to institute was gentler persuasion of the pagans who still abounded throughout the Christian realm at the time, and heretics and schismatics as well.

That was a sharp departure from the policy instated by Constantine the Great, a convert to Christianity who ruled Rome from 306-336 AD and who reversed previous early Christian tolerance of pagans, though he settled for tearing down their temples. As for the Jews, Constantine the Great enacted laws forbidding them to own Christian slaves, or to circumcise their slaves.

It was his son, Constantius II, who set about serious persecution of pagans, including through enactment of laws.

Pope Gregory I however thought the church should first try to persuade pagans to convert, try threats and only when all else failed, could violence be a resort.

Force can be counterproductive

And when it came to the Jews, as the Catholic encyclopedia itself says – he acted as protector and even champion. Among the common practices on which Pope Gregory I frowned were forced baptism, which he put in writing in Epistle 1:14, written in June of the year 591, rebuking two powerful bishops – Virgil of Arles an Theodore of Marseilles, for doing that very thing: "They are to desist," the pope wrote.

The reason for eschewing forced baptism was not recognition of Judaism as some honored older sister of Christianity: it was pragmatism. As the pope wrote: "[The Jews] oughtto come together to hear from you the Word of God in a kindly frame of mind, rather than stricken with dread, result of a harshness that goes beyond due limits."

Classical Numismatic Group, Wikimedia Commons

Pope Gregory I also thought the Jews should have freedom of occupation within the framework of local laws (and indeed the Jews of Europe would indeed obtain emancipation, some 1500-1600 years later). He did however support the ancient prohibition on Jews owning Christian slaves.

Moreover, Pope Gregory I was unusual in believing that Jews should be allowed to celebrate their events freely. Following a complaint by the Jews of Naples that they were not being permitted to pursue their faith, Gregory chided the bishop of Naples, Paschasius, again invoking the concept of gentle suasion rather than brute force as an agent for change. "One must act, therefore, in such a way that...they might desire to follow us rather than to fly from us," Gregory wrote.

In his youth, among other things, Gregory was a monk, living in austerity, which some historians think may have compromised his health. He died in the year in the year 604, in Rome, leaving behind hundreds of letters describing his work.