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Disputation of Barcelona

(July 20–24, 1263)

The Disputation of Barcelona was a formal debate between Dominican Friar Pablo Christiani, a convert from Judaism to Christianity, and Nachmanides, a leading medieval Jewish scholar, philosopher, physician, kabbalist, and biblical commentator. It was held at the royal pppalace of King James I of Aragon in the presence of the King, his court, and many prominent ecclesiastical dignitaries and knights.

The disputation was organized by Raymond de Peñaforte, the superior of Christiani and the confessor of James I. Christiani had been preaching to the Jews of Provence. Relying upon the reserve his adversary would be forced to maintain through fear of incurring the wrath of the Christian dignitaries, Christiani assured the King that he could prove the truth of Christianity from the Talmud and other rabbinical writings. Nachmanides agreed to participate and was given freedom to speak as he wished.

The Dominicans Raymond de Peñaforte , Raymond Martini, Arnold de Segarra, and the general of the Franciscan order in the kingdom, Peter de Janua, were among the Christian disputants. The single representative for the Jewish side was Nachmanides. The four sessions of the disputation took place on July 20, 27, 30, and 31, 1263 (according to another calculation, July 20, 23, 26, and 27).

Two accounts of the disputation, one in Hebrew written by Nachmanides and a shorter one in Latin, are the main sources for the history of this important episode in Judeo-Christian polemics. According to both sources the initiative for the disputation and its agenda were imposed by the Christian side, although the Hebrew account suggests greater involvement by Nachmanides in finalizing the items to be discussed. The initiative in the debate remained on the Christian side throughout.

Basing himself on the Talmud as a whole and, in particular on the aggadic and homiletical passages, the Christian contestant sought to prove three points: that the Messiah had already appeared; that he was “both human and divine,” and had died to atone for the sins of mankind; and that, in consequence, the precepts of Judaism had lost their validity. Christiani also 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.

Nachmanides countered that Christiani’s interpretations of Talmudic passages were distortions; the rabbis would not hint that Jesus was the Messiah while, at the same time, explicitly opposing him as such. He argued the sages of the Talmud would have converted to Christianity, as Friar Paul did, if they believed Jesus was the Messiah. Instead, however, they lived and died as Jews. On the question of Aggadah, he claimed that the homiletical passages in the Talmud are not obligatory for Jews.

Nachmanides even went on to attack the illogicality in Christian dogma concerning the nature of the Divinity. Some of his utterances hint at the future destruction of Christendom. He referred slightingly to the fate of Jesus, who was persecuted in his own lifetime and hid from his pursuers. Rome, which had been a mighty empire before Jesus lived, declined after adopting Christianity, “and now the servants of Muhammad have a greater realm than they.”

Nachmanides also made the point that “from the time of Jesus until the present the world has been filled with violence and injustice, and the Christians have shed more blood than all other peoples.”

He similarly attacked the whole concept of the combination of human and divine attributes in Jesus. Nachmanides 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.

Rabbis and eminent scholars, such as Yitzhak Baer, H.H. Ben-Sasson, and Martin Cohen maintained that Nachmanides’ claim was purely political, put forward in a disputation that had been imposed on him, so that he even had to use arguments in which he did not believe to overcome the Christian attack. Other scholars, such as Cecil Roth and Robert Chazan, expressed a more moderate opinion. Chavel, H. Maccoby, and B. Septimus suggested that Nachmanides’ view was fully compatible with a well-established Jewish tradition. Marvin Fox argues that this latter attitude is based on a complete misunderstanding of Nachmanides’ views and beliefs as they are found so clearly throughout his commentary on the Torah and that Nachmanides’ view follows a Jewish tradition that, though paying full respect to the midrashic commentaries, does not accept them as necessarily binding, and avows that the main issue between Judaism and Christianity does not depend on belief in the Messiah.

The Jewish residents of Barcelona, fearing the resentment of the Dominicans, entreated him to discontinue; but the King, whom Nachmanides had acquainted with the apprehensions of the Jews, desired him to proceed. The disputation was never formally concluded but interrupted.

According to the Latin record of the proceedings, the disputation ended because Nachmanides fled prematurely from the city. In fact, however, he stayed on in Barcelona for over a week after the disputation had been suspended to be present in the synagogue on the following Sabbath when a conversionist sermon was to be delivered. The king also attended the Sinagoga Major de Barcelona, one of the oldest synagogues in Europe, and addressed the Jewish congregants, “a thing unheard of during the Middle Ages.”

James I awarded Nachmanides a prize of 300 gold coins and declared that never had he heard “an unjust cause so nobly defended.” The following day, Nachmanides left Aragon never to return.

The disputation had far-reaching consequences. Between August 26 and 29, 1263, James I ordered the removal of passages deemed offensive from the Talmud. Failure to do so was punishable by a fine, and books which had not been censored as required would be burned. The Mishneh Torah of Maimonides was also condemned to be burned because of the references to Jesus in the chapter on the laws of kingship.

Subsequently, the bishop of Gerona obtained a copy of Nachmanides’ account of the disputation. Perhaps through his agency, proceedings were then instituted against Nachmanides in 1265 before the court of the Inquisition on the charge that he had blasphemed Jesus. James’ intention to sentence him to two years’ banishment and to condemn his work on the disputation to be burned, evidently did not satisfy the Dominicans. He thereupon ordered the case to be tried before him personally, intending to adjourn it until the fanaticism had abated.

The militant Christian religious mendicant orders acted as the instrument of the church in its war on Judaism. It was at the request of the friars that Pope Clement IV ordered the archbishop of Tarragona to collect all the Jewish books in the Kingdom of Aragon and surrender them to the Dominicans and Franciscans for examination; Paulus Christiani was recommended as a trustworthy and able assistant for this task.

The bull Turbato Corde, also issued by Clement, became the basis of the Inquisition policy for prosecuting suspected Judaizers (see papal bulls ), and may also be regarded as an outcome of the disputation. The inference drawn by Nachmanides is self-evident: he left Spain for Eretz Israel, arriving there in 1267.

Judeo-Christian polemics continued in Barcelona in the days of Adret, Nachmanides outstanding disciple. On the Christian side Martini and Ramon Lull participated in the debates that took place in a more private forum. The use of Jewish classical texts by Paulus in his confrontation with the foremost rabbinic authority in Spain was an innovation in Judeo-Christian polemics. The Barcelona Disputation was the first arena where Paulus Christiani was able to try out his new technique of missionizing and where Nachmanides provided Jewish counterarguments to the newly formulated Christian claims. While the Disputation may have been a great achievement for Paulus Christiani in his innovative use of rabbinic sources in Christian missionary efforts, for Nachmanides it represented an additional example of the wise and courageous leadership which he offered his people.

Meanwhile, the Dominican Raymond Martini was prompted by the disputation to devise a better method of providing Christological interpretations to the aggadah. In 1280, Martini concluded his book Pugio Fidei (Paris, 1651) and, henceforward, it was used indiscriminately by every Christian controversialist wishing to invalidate Judaism.


Baer, Spain, 1 (1961), 150–62; idem, in: Tarbiz, 2 (1930/31), 172–87; C. Roth, Gleanings (1967), 34–61; M.A. Cohen, in: HUCA, 35 (1964), 157–92; Ben-Sasson, in: Molad, 1 (1967), 363–5. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: J. Forment, in: Escritos del Vedat, 7 (1977), 155–75; H. Grossinger, in: Kairos n.F., 19 (1977), 257–85; 20 (1978), 1–15, 161–81; M. Orfali, in: Sefarad, 39 (1979), 111–20; R. Chazan, in Speculum, 52 (1977), 824–42; idem, in HUCA 51 (1980), 89–110; idem, in: HUCA, 61 (1990), 185–201; idem, Barcelona and Beyond, (1992); H. Maccoby, Judaism on Trial (1982), incl. text of the Disputation; H-G von Mutius, Die christlich-jüdische Zwangsdisputation zu Barcelona (1982); J. Riera I Sans and E. Feliu (eds.), Disputa de Barcelona de 1263 (1985); S. Schreiner, in: Judaica, 42 (1986), 141–57; M. Fox, in: JJS, 40 (1989), 95–109.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.
“Disputation of Barcelona,” Wikipedia.

Photo: 21st-century artistic depiction of Nachmanides - Chesdovi, CC BY-SA 3.0. via Wikimedia Commons.