Disputation of Barcelona, 1263

Jews in synagogue listening to St. Stephen's preaching. 14th Century Catalonia.

The Christian-Jewish disputation, as it developed in the thirteenth century, was an extension of the forced sermon, and had perhaps even greater potential for effectiveness (or at least demoralization of the Jewish community). The earliest record of Jews being compelled to listen to Christian sermonizing is in fact in an edict of King James I of Aragon, who would preside over the Barcelona disputation. His edict of 1242 states: "We desire and we hereby declare that, whenever the archbishop, bishops, or Dominican and Franciscan friars visit a town or a place where Saracens or Jews dwell, and whenever they want to preach the word of God to the said Jews or Saracens, these [the Jews] shall gather at their call and shall patiently listen to their preaching. And our officers, if they want to attain our favor, shall, heedless of excuse, compel them to do this."

In summer 1263, this same king, James I of Aragon, called the great Spanish-Jewish rabbinic scholar Moses ben Nachman [Nachmanides] to debate with Pablo Christiani before the royal court. Pablo Christiani was formerly a Jew named Saul who had grown up in Montpellier, southern France; he converted and joined the Dominican order.

We possess two records of the disputation, which was held on July 20-27, 1263: a Latin summary, drawn up by an anonymous cleric shortly after the event; and Nachmanides's account, far more detailed, recorded late in 1264 or early in 1265, a year and a half after the disputation. Not surprisingly, both sides claimed victory. The Latin account concludes saying of Nachmanides, "thus it is clear that he dares not, and cannot, defend his erroneous belief." In contrast, Nachmanides relates that at conclusion of final session, the king could not help but express admiration for him by exclaiming, "Never have I seen a man in the wrong plead his case as excellently as you have."

On one thing both accounts agree: that coercion was involved. Nachmanides did not participate of his own free will. The Latin protocol puts it this way: "Moses the Jew [Nachmanides], called 'rabbi', was summoned from Gerona by the lord king at the urging of the Dominicans and was present there [at the royal palace in Barcelona]..." Nachmanides’s Hebrew account puts it this way: "Our lord the king ordered me to dispute with Friar Paul [Christiani] in his palace in Barcelona, before himself and his advisers." Certainly Nachmanides was aware that no good could result for the Jews from such a religious disputation, in which the Christian side set the ground rules, and in which he was restrained by prudence from making remarks that could be construed as blasphemous.

Pablo Christiani stated that the aim of the disputation was to prove that rabbinic texts themselves – the Jews’ authorities themselves - indicated that the Messiah had already come. Using homiletical passages, he sought to prove his case, and Nachmanides used a number of counter-arguments which were rejected. (See an English translation of the Latin protocol and part of the Hebrew protocol on electronic reserves for this course.) When he wrote his account, Nachmanides included material which, whether he himself used it at the disputation or not, he regarded as important for Jews to consider in the tense atmosphere that had been created. The following is a particularly pointed refutation, from a Jewish point of view, of the messiahship of Jesus:

I believe and know…that he [the messiah] has not come…. It is impossible for me to accept that the Nazarene [i.e., Jesus] is the Messiah, for the prophet has said of the Messiah, “He will have dominion from sea to sea, and from the river unto the ends of the earth” [Ps. 72:8]. The Nazarene, though, had no dominion. During his life, he was persecuted by his enemies and was in hiding from them. In the end, he fell into their hands and was not [even] able to help himself. How [then] could he help Israel? Even after his death, he had no dominion, for the might of Rome was not due to him. On the contrary, before [the Romans] believed in him, the city of Rome ruled over the greatest part of the world, but after they adopted his religion, they lost many kingdoms. At present, the worshippers of Mohammed have more [dominion and] power than [the Christians]. Similarly, the prophet states that in the time of the Messiah, “They shall teach no more every man his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying: Know the Eternal, for they shall all know Me,” [Jeremiah 31:34] etc. It is further stated, “For the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Eternal, as the waters cover the sea,” [Isaiah 11:9] and it is also said, “And they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not life up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” [Isaiah 2:4] But from the days of the Nazarene until now, the entire world has been full of violence and robbery. [Indeed], the Christians spill more blood than the rest of the nations, and they also lead immoral lives. How difficult it would be for you, my lord king, and these your knights if they would not “learn war any more”...

[From Robert Chazan, Barcelona and Beyond, p. 674]

Question: The great scholastic theologian Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) also argued that the Pharisaic sages knew Jesus was the Messiah but crucified him anyway. What changing conception of Jewish “unbelief” is reflected in this idea?

The Disputation of Barcelona was a precedent for subsequent religious disputations that did a great deal of damage to Jews in Europe. Question: Why do you think this particular format was so harmful?