Disputation of Barcelona
The Disputation of Barcelona (July 20–24, 1263) was a formal ordered medieval debate between representatives of Christianity and Judaism regarding whether or not Jesus was the Messiah. It was held at the royal palace of King James I of Aragon in the presence of the King, his court, and many prominent ecclesiastical dignitaries and knights, between Dominican Friar Pablo Christiani, a convert from Judaism to Christianity, and Rabbi Nahmanides (Ramban), a leading medieval Jewish scholar, philosopher, physician, kabbalist, and biblical commentator.
During the Middle Ages, there were numerous ordered disputations between Christians and Jews. They were not free and authentic debates (like modern ones), but were mere attempts by Christians to force conversion on the Jews. They were connected with burnings of the talmud at the stake and violence against Jews. The Disputation of Barcelona was unique, in that it was the only occasion on which the Jewish representative was allowed to speak freely.
The ordered disputation was organized by Raymond de Penyafort, the superior of Christiani and the confessor of King James. Christiani had been preaching to Jews of Provence. Relying upon the reserve his adversary would be forced to maintain through fear of wounding the feelings of the Christian dignitaries, Christiani assured the King that he could prove the truth of Christianity from the Talmud and other rabbinical writings. Nahmanides complied with the order of the King, but stipulated that complete freedom of speech should be granted.
The Disputation of Barcelona took place in front of the royal court of King James of Aragon (1263), who guaranteed and asserted freedom of speech for the Jewish spokesperson Nahmanides. This led to a genuine confrontation between Christianity and Judaism in which the true fundamental differences between the two religions could be brought to light.
The debate turned on the following questions:
- whether the Messiah had appeared or not
- whether, according to Scripture, the Messiah is a divine or a human being
- whether the Jews or the Christians held the true faith.
Had the Messiah appeared
Based upon several aggadic passages, Christiani argued that Pharisaic sages believed that the Messiah had lived during the Talmudic period, and that they must therefore have believed that the Messiah was Jesus.
Nahmanides argued that Jews were not required to believe the aggadic materials found in the Talmud. He countered that Christiani's interpretations of Talmudic passages were per-se distortions; the rabbis would not hint that Jesus was the Messiah while, at the same time, explicitly opposing him as such:
"Does he mean to say that the sages of the Talmud believed in Jesus as the messiah and believed that he is both human and divine, as held by the Christians? However, it is well known that the incident of Jesus took place during the period of the Second Temple. He was born and killed prior to the destruction of the Temple, while the sages of the Talmud, like R. Akiba and his associates, followed this destruction. Those who compiled the Mishnah, Rabbi and R. Nathan, lived many years after the destruction. All the more so R. Ashi who compiled the Talmud, who lived about four hundred years after the destruction. If these sages believed that Jesus was the messiah and that his faith and religion were true and if they wrote these things from which Friar Paul intends to prove this, then how did they remain in the Jewish faith and in their former practice? For they were Jews, remained in the Jewish faith all their lives, and died Jews - they and their children and their students who heard their teachings. Why did they not convert and turn to the faith of Jesus, as Friar Paul did? ... If these sages believed in Jesus and in his faith, how is it that they did not do as Friar Paul, who understands their teachings better than they themselves do?"
Nahmanides noted that prophetic promises of the Messianic Age, a reign of universal peace and justice had not yet been fulfilled. Nahmanides also argued that since the appearance of Jesus of Nazareth, the world had still been filled with violence and injustice, and among all religions, he claimed that the Christians were the most warlike. He asserted that questions of the Messiah are of less dogmatic importance to Jews than most Christians imagine, because it is more meritorious for the Jews to observe the precepts of the Torah under a Christian ruler, while in exile and suffering humiliation and abuse, than under the rule of the Messiah, when every one would perforce act in accordance with the Law.
Is the Messiah a divine or a human being
Nahmanides demonstrated from numerous biblical and Talmudic sources that traditional (rabbinic) Jewish belief ran contrary to Christiani's postulates, and showed that the Biblical prophets regarded the future messiah as a human, a person of flesh and blood, without ascribing him divine attributes.
"[... it seems most strange that... ] the Creator of Heaven and Earth resorted to the womb of a certain Jewish lady, grew there for nine months and was born as an infant, and afterwards grew up and was betrayed into the hands of his enemies who sentenced him to death and executed him, and that afterwards... he came to life and returned to his original place. The mind of a Jew, or any other person, simply cannot tolerate these assertions. If you have listened all your life to the priests who have filled your brain and the marrow of your bones with this doctrine, and it has settled into you because of that accustomed habit. [I would argue that if you were hearing these ideas for the first time, now, as a grown adult], you would never have accepted them."
According to a report by Nahmanides,
Friar Paul claimed: "Behold the passage in Isaiah, chapter 53, tells of the death of the messiah and how he was to fall into the hands of his enemies and how he was placed alongside the wicked, as happened to Jesus. Do you believe that this section speaks of the messiah?
I said to him: "In terms of the true meaning of the section, it speaks only of the people of Israel, which the prophets regularly call 'Israel My servant' or 'Jacob My servant.'"
The Jewish residents of Barcelona, fearing the resentment of the Dominicans, entreated him to discontinue; but the King, whom Nahmanides had acquainted with the apprehensions of the Jews, desired him to proceed. At the end of the disputation, King James awarded Nahmanides a prize of 300 gold coins and declared that never before had he heard "an unjust cause so nobly defended." On the Shabbat after the debate, the king also attended the Sinagoga Major de Barcelona, arguably one of the oldest synagogues in Europe, and addressed the Jewish congregants there, "a thing unheard of during the Middle Ages".
Since the Dominicans claimed the victory, Nahmanides felt compelled to publish the controversy. From this publication Christiani selected certain passages which he construed as blasphemies against Christianity and denounced to his general Raymond de Penyafort. A capital charge was then instituted, and a formal complaint against the work and its author was lodged with the King. James mistrusted the Dominican court and called an extraordinary commission, ordering the proceedings to be conducted in his presence. Nahmanides admitted that he had stated many things against Christianity, but he had written nothing which he had not used in his disputation in the presence of the King, who had granted him freedom of speech.
The justice of his defense was recognized by the King and the commission, but to satisfy the Dominicans Nahmanides was sentenced to exile for two years and his pamphlet was condemned to be burned. The Dominicans, however, found this punishment too mild and, through Pope Clement IV, they seem to have succeeded in turning the two years' exile into perpetual banishment. Nahmanides left Aragon never to return again and in 1267 he settled in Palestine. There he founded a synagogue in the Old City of Jerusalem, the Ramban Synagogue: it is the oldest synagogue in Jerusalem.
In August of 1263, King James ordered the removal of passages deemed offensive from the Talmud. It consisted of Bishop of Barcelona Arnoldo de Guerbo, Raymond de Penyafort, and the Dominicans Arnoldo de Legarra, Pedro de Janua and Ramón Martí (author of Pugio Fidei).
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- Disputation of Paris (1240 CE)
- Disputation of Tortosa (1413–1414 CE)
- Disputation of Rome (1450 CE)
- Disputation of Bonn (c. 1500 CE)
- Disputation of Hanover (c. 1700 CE)
- Nahmanides, Charles Chavel (Translator): Disputation at Barcelona (Ramban). Shilo Publishing House (NY) (January 1983) ISBN 0-88328-025-6, ISBN 978-0-88328-025-6
- Hyam Maccoby, Judaism on Trial (1981, Littman Library of Jewish Civilisation)
- same, The Disputation, a play
- The Disputation of Barcelona (1263) by Cecil Roth. The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 43, No. 2 (Apr., 1950), pp. 117–144
- The Barcelona "Disputation" of 1263: Christian Missionizing and Jewish Response by Robert Chazan. Speculum, Vol. 52, No. 4 (Oct., 1977), pp. 824–842 doi:10.2307/2855376
- Comparison of the Hebrew Report of Moses Nahmanides and the Anonymous Latin Report
This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Jewish Encyclopedia. 1901–1906.