Commentary Magazine


Cedars of Lebanon:
Debate at Barcelona: Has the Messiah Come?

Public debates on religion between Jews and Christians were a frequent occurrence in Europe during the Middle Ages, when the representative of the Church, who was most often a converted Jew, sought to triumph over his reluctant Jewish antagonist by demonstrating out of Jewish texts themselves that Christianity was the “fulfillment” of Judaism.

Such a debate was held in July and August of 1263 in Barcelona at the court of King Jayme I of Aragon. The subject was the Messiah : whether he had come or not, whether he was divine or not. The disputants were Rabbi Moses ben Nachman (Ramban) of Gerona, the most famous rabbi in Spain, and Fra Paulo Christiani, a converted Jew employed by the Dominicans as missionary to the Jews.

Raymond of Pennaforte, the king’s confessor, who figures in the debate at several points, had been Master General of the Dominican Order, and the historian Graetz believes that the king commanded the disputation at his urging, in the belief that through it Nachman might be converted and with him the whole of Spanish Jewry.

Shortly after the debate had been concluded, with both Jews and Dominicans claiming the victory, Nachman published an account of the proceedings. For this he was banished for two years and his pamphlet burned. Later, at the insistence of Pope Clement IV, this sentence was altered to perpetual banishment. Nachman then went to Palestine, where he lived out his days.

These excerpts from the debate are from Nachman’s account, as translated from the text edited by Moses Steinschneider, and included in Jewish Religious Polemic, by O. S. Rankin (1956). They are reprinted by permission of the Edinburgh University Press.—ED.

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Our lord the king had commanded me to debate with Fra Paulo in his majesty’s palace, in the presence of himself and his council, in Barcelona. To this command I replied that I would accede if I were granted freedom of speech, whereby I craved both the permission of the king and of Fra Raymond of Pennaforte and his associates who were present. Fra Raymond of Pennaforte replied that this I could have so long as I did not speak disrespectfully. . . .

Then Fra Paulo began by saying that he would prove from our Talmud that the Messiah of whom the prophets had witnessed had already come. I replied to that, that before we argued on that, I would like him to show and tell me how this could possibly be true. . . . Did he wish to say that the scholars who appear in the Talmud believed concerning Jesus that he was the Messiah, and that they believed that he was completely man and truly God in accordance with the Christian conceptions of him? Was it not indeed a known fact that Jesus existed in the days of the Second Temple, being born and put to death before the destruction of that Temple? But the scholars of the Talmud were later than this destruction. . . . Now, if these scholars had believed in the Messiahship of Jesus and that he was genuine and his religious belief true; and if they wrote those things which Fra Paulo affirms he is going to prove that they wrote; then how was it that they continued to hold by the Jewish faith and their original religious usage? For they were Jews and continued to abide in the religion of the Jews all their days. They died as Jews, they and their children, and their disciples who heard all the words they uttered. Why did they not apostatize and turn to the religion of Jesus as has done Fra Paulo who understands from their sayings that the Christian faith is the true faith? . . .

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Here Fra Paulo . . . brought forward that Haggadic story, contained in the Midrash to the Book of Lamentations, about the man who was ploughing when his cow began lowing. An Arab was passing by and said to the man: “O Jew, O Jew, untie your cow, untie your plough, untie your coulter, for the Temple has been destroyed.” The man untied his cow, his plough, and his coulter. The cow lowed a second time. The Arab said to the man: “Tie your cow, tie your plough, tie your coulter, for your Messiah has been born.”

To this I answered: “I do not give any credence at all to this Haggadah but it provides proof of my argument.” At this the fellow shouted: “See how the writings of his fellow-Jews are denied by him!” I replied: “I certainly do not believe that the Messiah was born on the day of the destruction of the Temple and as for this Haggadah, either it is not true or it has another interpretation of the sort called the mystical explanations of the wise. But I shall accept the story’s plain literal statement, which you have put forward, since it furnishes me with support. Observe then that the story says that at the time of the destruction of the Temple, after it had been destroyed, on that very day, the Messiah was born. If this be so, then Jesus is not the Messiah as you affirm that he is. For he was born and was put to death before the destruction of the Temple took place, his birth being nearly two hundred years before that event according to the true chronology and seventy-three years previous to that event according to your reckonings.” At these words of mine my opponent was reduced to silence. . . .

Fra Paulo then said to me: “Then you do believe that the Messiah has come?” I replied: “No, but I believe and am convinced that he has not come and there never has been anyone who has said concerning himself that he was Messiah—nor will there ever be such who will say so [viz., concerning themselves]—except Jesus. And it is impossible for me to believe in the Messiahship of Jesus, because the prophet says of the Messiah that ‘he shall have dominion from sea to sea and from the River until the ends of the earth.’ Jesus, on the other hand, never had dominion, but in his lifetime he was pursued by his enemies and hid himself from them, falling finally into their power whence he was not able to liberate himself. How then could he save all Israel? Moreover, after his death dominion was not his. For in regard to the Empire of Rome, he had no part in the growth of that. Since, before men believed in him the city of Rome ruled over most of the world and after faith in him had spread, Rome lost many lands over which it once held sovereign power. And now the followers of Mohammed possess a larger empire than Rome has. In like manner the prophet Jeremiah says that in the Messianic age ‘they shall teach no more every man his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for they shall all know me,’ while in Isaiah it is written, that ‘the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.’ Moreover the latter prophet states that, in this time, ‘they shall beat their swords into ploughshares . . . nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.’ But since the days of Jesus up to the present the whole world has been full of violence and rapine, the Christians more than other peoples being shedders of blood and revealers likewise of indecencies. And how hard it would be for you, my lord the king, and for those knights of yours, if they should learn war no more!” . . . At this juncture my opponent called out: “Such is always his method—to make a long speech when I have a question to put to him.” . . .

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Our lord the king had arranged that on the next Thursday the debate should be held in his palace and had commanded that it be in private. So we had our session in the fore-hall of the palace, Fra Paulo beginning with an airy speech in which there was no substance at all. After this he declared: “I bring the testimony of a great Jewish scholar named Master Moses of Egypt [Maimonides] the like of whom has not been in Jewry for the last four hundred years. This scholar says that the Messiah will die and his son and son’s son rule in succession. Thus he does not say, as you have said, that the Messiah is not mortal like other men are.” Then Fra Paulo asked for the Book of Judges [by Maimonides]. . . .

The book which Fra Paulo had asked for was now brought, and he sought for what he wanted in it and could not find it. So I received the book from his hands, and, calling for attention to the statements of the work which he had introduced into the discussion, read aloud from the beginning of the chapter where it is said that the king Messiah is in the future to be designated for Israel and that he will build the Temple and gather together Israel’s dispersed. At these words of Maimonides, Fra Arnol of Segura exclaimed: “He is speaking lies.” To which I replied: “Up till now he has been a ‘great scholar’ that has ‘none like him’ and now he is a liar!” But the king rebuked Fra Arnol, observing that it was not seemly to offer insults to the learned. . . .

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When they came to the synagogue on the following Sabbath I addressed our lord the king in words that were worthy of the occasion and of his office. When he expounded earnestly to the effect that Jesus was the Messiah, I rose up and said: “The words of our lord the king in my eyes are noble words, exalted and to be held in honor since they proceed from the mouth of a nobleman highly esteemed and honored, the like of whom is not in our time, but I do not appraise them as the truth in as much as I have proofs and arguments clear as sunlight that the truth does not correspond with his words. . . .”

After I had spoken thus Fra Raymond of Pennaforte rose up and gave a discourse on the subject of the Trinity and asserted that the Trinity was wisdom and will and power. . . . To which I replied that I acknowledged that the deity was wise and not foolish, and will without passibility and powerful and not weak, but that the expression Trinity was entirely misleading. For wisdom in the Creator is not an unessential quality but He and His wisdom are one and He and His will are one and He and His power are one—and, if this be so, the wisdom and the will and the power are one whole. And even if these were unessential qualities of God, the thing which is the Godhead is not three but is one, bearing three unessential qualities.

Our lord the king here spoke, drawing an analogy which they who err had taught him. He said that in wine there are three things, color and taste and fragrance, and that these constitute one thing. . . . But this is entirely erroneous, since the redness and the taste and the fragrance in wine are three distinct things each of which might be present without the others. For there are red and white and other colors of wine. The same holds true in regard to taste and fragrance. Moreover the redness is not the wine, nor is the taste the wine, nor is the fragrance the wine. But the essence of the wine is the thing which fills the whole, and is a body which bears three distinct accidents; a body in which there is no unity. And if (in regard to the deity) we should proceed on this false analogy to calculate as has been done we would be compelled to affirm a quaternity. For the thing which constitutes deity together with his wisdom and his will and his power when counted up is four. Further, you could have a fivefold deity, since God is a living being and just as wisdom is in Him so is life; in which case his definition would be: a living being, wise, willing, powerful, and having the essence of Godhead. All of which comes to five. But this whole mode of thought is manifestly wrong.

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Then Fra Paulo stood up and said that he believed in the perfect unity of the Deity but that nevertheless there was in that unity a Trinity, and this was a doctrine very profound for neither the angels nor the princes of the upper regions could comprehend it. My answer to this was: “It is clear that no person believes what he does not know. Hence it is that the angels do not believe in a Trinity.” The associates of Fra Paulo made him remain silent. Our lord the king rose up and he and those with him descended from the place where the prayer-desk was, each going their several ways. On the morrow I had audience of our lord the king whose words to me were: “Return to your city in safety and in peace.” Then he gave me three hundred dinars and I took my leave of him with much affection. May God make him worthy of the life of the world to come. Amen.

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