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Frequently Asked Questions and Answers

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< Q16.5 TOC Sect. 17 >

Question 16.6:
Can you tell me about the Disputation at Barcelona?

Answer:

This question refers to the disputation between the Ramban (Nachmanides, not the Rambam) and Pablo Christiani, a Jew from Provence who became a Karaite and later a convert to Catholicism. Christiani had King James of Aragon's ear, and was able to convince the king to host the dispute. It was written up in a polemic by R' Chaim (Charles) Chavel, for which there is an English translation published by Shilo (1983), titled "Disputation at Barcelona". It is also the topic of Rabbi Dr. David Berger's PhD thesis and much of his book "Jewish-Christain Debate in the High Middle Ages", published by Aaronson in 1979. Some historical context is provided in from "Barcelona and Beyond: The Disputation of 1263 and Its Aftermath" by Robert Chazan, Berkeley: University of California Press (1992). Lastly, "The Disputation", a play re-enacting the debate, is available on video from a number of anti-missionary groups. (Try http://www.outreachjudaism.org/)

First, the use of "the" is probably incorrect, as there were many such disputations. They started around 1240 CE, when Nicholas Donin (another convert) challenged the local Rabbis to defend the Talmud against challenges of racism and anti-Christianity in the Talmud. They won the battle but lost the war, they won the dispute but the Talmuds were burned by the cartload anyway.

Another famous disputation ran for two years. The Tortosa "disputation" (1413-14), between St. Vincent Ferrer and the apostate Geronimo and the local Jewish leaders. In this disputation, they let the Jews defend the gemara, but not attack Christianity. When the French Jewish community fled in the 1300s, and the Spanish and Portugese were force out in the 1490s, the trend of disputations ended.

The dispute at Barcelona was near unique in that it let both sides have equal say. The key topics were Christianity, the Jewish definition of messiah, and proving the messiah hadn't yet come. Nachmanides relied heavily on logic, rather than purely citing sources. Again, Nachmanides won the battle, but lost the war—he had to flee Spain. The issues discussed in the debate included:

An interesting side impact of this disputation was the result of the Ramban's willingness to use the Christian chapter system for citing verses in the dispute. This played a large role in the acceptance of the system amongst Jews, and its use today.

Note that Pablo Chistianity trained under the Dominicans, the people behind the Inquisition. So the connection between the disputation and the later expulsion is probably significant. Also, when looking for books on Nachmanides in the Library of Congress, look under P for "Bonatruc ca Porta", his Castillian name.


The FAQ is a collection of documents that is an attempt to answer questions that are continually asked on the soc.culture.jewish family of newsgroups. It was written by cooperating laypeople from the various Judaic movements. You should not make any assumption as to accuracy and/or authoritativeness of the answers provided herein. In all cases, it is always best to consult a competent authority--your local rabbi is a good place to start.

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