The man who wanted to destroy the Talmud

750 years ago Nachmanides faced the king’s champion. Harry Freedman revisits a famous religious debate where the stakes were high for Jews

By Dr Harry Freedman, August 25, 2013

Many of us were amused, and perhaps a little flattered, to hear that the Archbishop of Canterbury had a Jewish father. But our ability to treat the archbishop’s ancestry in a light-hearted manner is a testament to the quality of contemporary interfaith relations. Even though the past year or so has had its difficulties, notably the row over the Church of Scotland’s report on Israel, Jewish-Christian relations have rarely been better.

It wasn’t always so. This summer marks the 750th anniversary of one of the most challenging events in the intellectual history of both religions. Pablo Christiani, a Jew who had converted to Christianity, and was now a Dominican friar, set out to destroy the Talmud.

Some years earlier, in Paris, another Jewish convert, Nicholas Donin, had brought about the burning of every copy of the Talmud in France. Now in Barcelona, Pablo Christiani had similar plans. He sought to disprove the veracity of Judaism and the truth of Christianity, using the Talmud itself as his evidence. He prevailed on the king to allow him to challenge the Jews.

King James I of Aragon was more than willing to agree. He commanded that a debate take place in the royal palace in Barcelona and summoned the leading rabbi in Spain, Moses ben Nachman, better known as Ramban, to argue for the Talmud.

Ramban was no ordinary rabbi. A physician by profession, he was one of those people who excel at whatever they do. He was the leading rabbi in Catalonia and, despite his religious and medical duties, he found time to author over 50 works, principally on Talmud, philosophy and mysticism.

Ramban was in his late 60’s when he received the king’s summons. According his account of the debate, he would only participate if he could speak freely and the king took no part. He didn’t want to get into an argument with the monarch.

The disputation began on 20th July 1263. It was attended by the king, his royal entourage and Spain’s leading clergy and noblemen. Pablo Christiani was the main advocate for the Dominicans. Ramban was the sole spokesperson for the Talmud.

Little remains of the original, 11th-century Palau Reial in Barcelona. But whatever its medieval grandeur, it didn’t faze Ramban. As a mystic his head may have been in the clouds but as a physician his feet were rooted on earth; Pablo Christiani was unfortunate not to have been given a less distinguished opponent.

It was obvious from the outset that neither disputant would persuade the other; this wasn’t a court of law where the evidence was independent and verifiable, it was a religious dispute where each side remained entrenched in their views. But it was an intellectual mismatch; Christiani may have been the establishment spokesman but Ramban had by far the sharper mind. At least, according to the account he wrote after the event.

Christiani began by trying to prove that the Talmud accepted that Jesus was the Messiah. It was a futile claim, and his argument was tortuous. One wonders how the audience managed to pay attention for four days as Christiani and Ramban swapped talmudic statements, engaged in apologetics, mocked and abused each other, and appealed to the king for support. The atmosphere became increasingly hostile. By the end of the third day, Ramban was begging the king to end the proceedings; the crowd was growing increasingly menacing and he and his Jewish supporters were getting worried.

The king allowed the debate to run for a further day and then called a halt. Everyone was shocked when he effectively proclaimed the contest a draw. It had been a foregone conclusion that the church would win. The friars were perturbed when the king presented the rabbi with 300 dineros and said he had never heard someone who was wrong argue his case so well. It was as close as he could come to saying he had won.

But. of course, the rabbi didn’t really win. After presenting Ramban with his prize, the king decreed that he would come to the synagogue the following Sabbath, with Pablo Christiani, to preach the gospels. Ramban may have held his own in the debate. But he had lost the argument.

Ramban’s account of the debate is not the only one to survive. There is also an account written in Latin by Christiani or one of his team. It’s very different. Where Ramban, in his account, scores points, in the Latin account he is refuted. Where he presents himself as confident and his opponent as struggling, the Latin report reverses the roles.

The disputation’s significance was that it was the first time that Christian disputants had used rabbinic literature to try to refute Judaism. Up to now they had tried to use the Bible as their evidence and had been puzzled when the Jews refused to listen. Now they knew why. It was the Talmud that gave the Jews their theology, and their tradition of interpretation, not the Bible. As a result the Talmud was banned, censored and burnt across Europe, for the next 500 years.

Last updated: 5:18pm, August 29 2013