I gave this talk under the title “The New Israelites: Crusader and Templar Reliance Upon Old Testament Conquest Narratives” at a recent conference. It’s rough, but still an idea I’ve been fascinated by as I’ve looked into the First Crusade as an evolution of the Christian just war tradition. My argument is basically the second paragraph, if you need the short version.

 If the Christians of the first century CE could have experienced a collective vision of the clerical conference held in Claremont, France in 1095, they would most certainly have been shocked and dismayed. At Claremont, the religious movement that had begun with “Love your enemies” in the first century showed itself as a political and military juggernaut with both the authority and ideological will to launch the First Crusade.

This novel idea of ‘crusade’ had little theological precedent in the teachings of Jesus or in the rest of the New Testament (NT). Some early church fathers such as Augustine attempted to establish parallels in the famous account of Jesus’ scouring of the Jerusalem temple or John the Baptist’s affirmation of Roman soldiers, but I argue that the true source of theological continuity for crusading was the Old Testament (OT) conquest narrative from the Book of Joshua. Just as the crusading movement merged the Roman concept of ‘Just Cause’ with Augustine’s notion that war could be an act of righteous love, the ancient Hebrews had merged primitive ideas of just war and holy war into a single universal struggle. Both the Hebrews and the crusading warriors believed themselves to be divine agents on a holy mission, and both believed that God not only actively fought for them, but had also promised them ownership of the Holy Land. Although the crusaders of the First Crusade routinely expressed their theological justifications in NT language, they consistently identified with the OT conquest model for holy war.

For much of Christianity’s first three centuries, practitioners of the faith found it hard to reconcile OT stories of divinely inspired violence with the pacifist teachings of Jesus. Many Christians were martyred for refusing conscription into the Roman army, and some thinkers, such as Marcion, went so far as to declare the problematic OT passages entirely allegorical. Although there is evidence of Christians in the Roman army as early as the late second century, it was the conversion of Constantine and subsequent identification of Christianity with the Roman empire that pressured Christians to reconsider the theological validity of war. Traditionally, scholars have considered Augustine’s reframing of violence as a justifiable undertaking of legitimate authority to have begun the long march towards just war theology and consequently crusade. By asserting that a secular authority could engage in warfare to protect the church, and that such warfare was understandable in the eyes of God, Christian thinkers set themselves to creating a new theology of warfare for a movement that had now acquired an earthly, as well as heavenly, kingdom.

Christian theology underwent further evolution following the collapse of secular authority in the western Roman Empire – as pax regis was replaced with pax Dei (the Peace of God movement). As David Hay writes, “by distinguishing soldier from civilian and simultaneously sanctioning the use of violence against the violent, the Peace Movement also helped to define a more active role for the Christian soldier.” The Church continued to resurrect ancient ideas of holy war with the Synod of Ratisbone in 743, liturgical innovations allowing the consecration of warfare, banners, and weapons, as well as deepening papal involvement in military campaigns. By the time Pope Urban II officially launched the First Crusade at Clermont in 1095, the Church had more or less created a doctrine of war that attempted to suppress violence within the Christian world by channeling it towards the non-Christian world. Just like the ancient Israelites, the Church had begun to consider itself a ‘Chosen People,’ privileged by God to act as a divine agent in temporal conflict.

According to medievalist Tomaz Mastnak, “the crusade was the consummation of the peace movement — its accomplishment and the realization of its ideals.”  By channeling the inherent violence of the feudal system in an acceptable direction, the Church not only staked a claim to military policy in Europe, but also began simplifying Christian perspectives on the non-Christian world into two main axes: crusade and mission (kill or convert). These dichotomous perspectives would have been well known to an audience familiar with the OT story of Israel, since they mirror the acceptable forms of Canaanite interaction allowed to Israel by God. The Israelites were allowed neither to intermarry nor engage in diplomacy with the peoples of Canaan because of the danger of spiritual pollution to their special chosen status. Some inhabitants of the land were explicitly converted and saved (such as Rahab in Jericho), but the text claims that most were defeated and destroyed. The ancient church (and to a large extent the modern church) distanced Christianity from this conquest narrative through the idea that is today labelled “radical discontinuity,” but Pope Urban showed no such qualms at Clermont. Baldric of Bourgueil’s (Borjoy) account quotes the pope telling the assembled crowd, “It is our duty to pray, yours to fight against the Amalekites. With Moses, we shall extend unwearied hands in prayer to heaven, while you go forth and brandish the sword, like dauntless warriors, against Amalek.” The First Crusade represents a return to an OT theology of violence that condemned fighting within a ‘chosen’ group while channeling it instead against sinful outsiders.

As the First Crusade moved out of Christian territory (especially once it crossed the Bosporus), it began to resemble the pre-conquest Israelite nation in form as well as idea. One, the crusade was an army operating in enemy territory without a safe path for retreat, just like the Israelite host once it crossed the Jordan River in Canaan. Two, the crusade needed to create decisive victories from open battles while also reducing enemy strongpoints, a difficult position also experienced by the Israelites. Three, both invading forces included large numbers of non-combatants, including women and families, and both experienced significant miracles and religious signs that were interpreted as divine favor. Biblical accounts of the Israelites crossing the Jordan River on dry ground, or witnessing the sudden collapse of Jericho’s walls are well known and need not be mentioned here, but the phenomena allegedly witnessed by the crusaders was similarly influential. Jonathan Riley-Smith presents crusader accounts of astrological signs attributed to God during the march across Asia Minor and Palestine, supernatural reinforcement aiding the crusaders during the Battle of Antioch, and divine visions reported by a number of crusaders, including the discoverer of the Holy Lance, Peter Bartholomew. These signs were instrumental in convincing the crusaders, like the Israelites before them, that, as Riley-Smith says, “they really were [God’s] chosen people and that their dead were martyrs.” They were so convinced that they initially tried to march around Jerusalem, in the hopes that the walls would fall down like in the Biblical account of Jericho.

The crusader battle cry, “Deus Vult!” or “God wills it!” suggests another theological parallel between the crusaders and the Israelites, one that also follows from the assumption of divine agency. Both groups honestly believed that victory (or defeat) in battle were the direct result of divine favour, and that battles were decided by God on the basis of his chosen people’s relative purity. Because of this, the Crusaders would sometimes boot all the prostitutes out of their camp before a battle. The Israelites believed their defeat at Ai as recorded in the book of Joshua was not the result of Ai’s military strength, but instead Israel’s sin, and consequently punished the Israelite Achan for concealing plunder from Jericho. The writings of the crusaders reveal they also saw themselves as God’s elect, but could still sin and temporarily anger God into imposing suffering, privation and misfortunes. Neither the Israelites nor the crusaders officially interpreted victory or defeat as the result of risk, chance, and military prowess, but instead found ways to attribute them to God. Of course, just as God’s favour could guarantee victory, so victory was guaranteed evidence of God’s favour; a circular logic that the crusaders readily exploited in their communication back to Europe. God had sent them on a mission to conquer Jerusalem and return the holy sites to Christian control; as long as they could maintain his favour, victory was assured.

But – and this is a question that also plagued the Israelites – how exactly were the crusaders to attempt this in a way that pleased a notoriously finicky God?

According to Paul Copan, the divinely-ordained Israelite slaughter of conquered populations and animals in the OT conquest narrative is described as herem [n.] or haram [v.], and means ‘devotion to destruction’ or ‘devotion to the Lord.’ It is a word that is only used in reference to a specific conquest period and specific place (Canaan), and evolves from a Hebrew theological concern with religious purity (as demanded by God). The Israelites, as divine agents, were tasked not only with bringing justice to a sinful people, but also purifying the land those people had once inhabited with fire and sword. The theological idea of herem is well-articulated in both the Book of Joshua and 1 Samuel, and is the basis for holy war in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Of course, both the Israelites and the crusaders were not as brutal in practice as they expressed in theory. Although Raymond of Aguilers considered the cleansing of holy places as the primary justification of the crusade – comparing the crusaders duty to purify defilement to the Hebrew destruction of Jericho – many scholars, including David Hay, argue that most of the crusaders’ actual atrocities were driven by pragmatic, rather than spiritual, concerns. Peter Enns argues that a similar disconnect exists between the Israelite ‘exaggeration rhetoric’ in accounts of the Canaanite conquest and the actual military encounters, as evidenced by seeming contradictions in the text. Still, the idea of herem was powerful to the crusading movement and especially pertinent during the conquest of Jerusalem. The three European monks who wrote extended interpretations of the Gesta Francorum, Guibert of Nogent, Badric of Bourgueil, and Robert the Monk, directly compared divine interventions in the First Crusade to those in the OT wars of the Israelites, and even found the crusade, according to Riley-Smith, to be “the more significant manifestation of divine approval.”

Perhaps the best example of the fusion of Israelite-crusader ideology is the organization  Mastnak considers to be the materialization of the Crusading spirit in the crusader states: the Knights of the Temple of Jerusalem, or the Knights Templar. The Templars were not only the first example of a Christian military order, but also institutionalized the doctrine of holy war in Palestine. By merging the religious with the martial, the warrior with the monk, the Levite and the Judahite, the Templar escalated holy war to a new importance and efficiency. In the opinion of many medieval figures, the conquest begun by the crusade would not have survived, let alone expanded, without the Templars. Bernard of Clairveaux, a Cistercian monk and the ideological founder of the Templars, called them the “bravest of the Israelites” who “are seen to be meeker than lambs, yet fiercer than lions.” Note the fusion of OT and NT imagery — Israelites and  lambs/lions.

Just as the Israelites justified their conquest by the idea of divine right to a ‘promised land,’ the Templars justified crusader conquest through divine right to a ‘holy land.’ Muslims were “unjustified invaders” into “Christ’s patrimony,” which was being defended by Christ’s inheritors, the Templars. The Order symbolized this commitment by bearing the crusader’s cross permanently as a crimson device upon a white robe, and maintaining their headquarters at the misnamed Temple of Solomon (the Dome of the Rock) in Jerusalem.

The Order’s theological foundation in the Israelite conquest also extended to an evolved (but still recognizable) form of herem. The Templar were deeply concerned with maintaining a religious purity in their own lives, as is reflected by the monastic extremes of their Primitive Rule. Like the warriors of the First Crusade and the Israelites before them, the Templars believed that the purity of their own hearts was a deciding factor in their success or failure in battle and compensated by mandating a notoriously strict lifestyle. As Guigues of La Grand Chartruese wrote to the Templars just prior to the Council of Troyes, “it is shameful and unworthy to wish to subdue the forces of other people to our power, if we have not first subdued our own bodies…[L]et us purge our minds from vice first, and then we may purge lands of barbarians.” The Templars’ authority to act on behalf of Christ came (in theory) from their own position of sanctification, and was externally evidenced by their commitment to a monastic existence.

Of course, there were also differences between medieval Christianity and bronze age Judiasm, and these differences led to several adaptations of herem to a new theological framework. The first and most obvious is the Christian belief in an afterlife, heaven, which was presented upon papal authority as the reward for martyred crusaders and Templars. Consequently, the Order did not automatically assume that it was only the infidel that could be ‘devoted to the Lord’ in battle, since a dead crusader might achieve an eternal reward through his devotion. Bernard even urges Templars to seek death in battle since “neither death nor life can separate you from the love of God…Rejoice, brave champion, if you live and conquer in the Lord; but exalt and glory all the more if you die and are joined to the Lord.” The Order was already herem, devoted to the Lord, since it was doing the Lord’s will and fighting the Lord’s battles. In victory or in defeat, in life or in death, a Templar could be confident in his own salvation.

The fusion between the two religious traditions is further expressed in a curious line from Omne Datum Optimum, a papal letter endorsing the Templars and granting them various privileges. Pope Innocent II declares that the Templars “have fought bravely in witness to God and for the defence of the Father’s laws…and have acquired the reward of eternal life after the labours of war as they have consecrated their hands to the Lord in the blood of the infidel.” This passage mixes images of battle and the Eucharist to present Templar violence as a sort of sacrament. At Clermont Pope Urban declared that a holy war required the creation of holy warriors, but here Pope Innocent suggests that Templars (who epitomize the holy warrior) create holy war. Herem is their mandate, their casus belli, and their path to heaven, rolled into one, and, unlike the Israelite conquest, there does not seem to be a geographical limit placed upon its application.

That being said, the extremity of Templar ideology in theory wasn’t always matched by their actions in reality. The military situation in the crusaders states was almost always tenuous, which tended to keep military operations essentially pragmatic. The Syrian prince Usamah Ibn Munqidh, who travelled extensively through Palestine in the 12th century, famously remarked that “Of all men, the Franks are the most cautious in warfare.”  Usamah also describes an encounter at the mosque al-Aqsa…Usamah’s description of the Templars does not square with the image of blood-crazed religious zealots

To conclude, the homogenizing of Christian Europe under papal authority in the 11th century, the threat of Islamic expansion, and the rise of the pax Dei movement, helped create an institutionalized theology of Christian violence. This theology manifested in the First Crusade, and mirrored the Israelite conquest in its interpretation of the divine will, its interpretation of phenomena, visions, and military events, and in its philosophical commitment to herem. The most extreme fusion of OT and NT theology can be found in the theological foundations of the Knights Templar, who combined martial and monastic roles into one military order.

Ultimately, the OT conquest of Canaan was the true ideological precedent of the crusade, and gave the crusaders and their theologians a narrative through which to interpret their own experience as holy warriors fighting as agents of the divine will.

I’ve also written another couple pieces on the OT conquest narrative through a historical and theological. The first can be found here.


I'm a graduate student at Laurier University in Ontario. I used to be a journalist, and I moonlight as a writer / tennis player / LOTR nerd.

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