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The Disputation

of Barcelona

by Peter Wittner
Disputations in Spain
Disputations in Spain
Disputations in Spain
Disputations in Spain

Having grown up in a household without a television, I listened to the radio frequently and this included radio plays broadcast by the BBC. For years, I kept remembering the name of a character in one of them – Pablo Chrisitani – but could not remember why or when I had heard it. Eventually, I did an intent search and found that I had probably been listening to a radio dramatisation of “The Disputation”


The Disputation of Barcelona (July 20–24, 1263) was held at the royal palace of King James I of Aragon in the presence of the King, his court, and many prominent ecclesiastical dignitaries and knights, It took place between Dominican Friar Pablo Christiani, a convert from Judaism to Christianity, and Rabbi Nachmanides (whose full name, Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman Gerondi, is often abbreviated as Ramban), a leading medieval Jewish scholar, philosopher, physician, kabbalist, and biblical commentator.


The disputation was organised by Raymond de Penyafort, the superior of Christiani and the confessor of King James. Christiani had been preaching to Jews of Provence. Relying upon the reserve his adversary would be forced to maintain through fear of wounding the feelings of the Christian dignitaries, Christiani assured the King that he could prove the truth of Christianity from the Talmud and other rabbinical writings.


Nachmanides complied with the order of the King, but asked that he should have complete freedom of speech and the king agreed to this..



The debate turned on the following questions:[1]

● whether the Messiah had appeared or not

● whether, according to Scripture, the Messiah is a divine or a human being

● whether the Jews or the Christians held the true faith.


Had the Messiah appeared

Based upon several aggadic passages, Christiani 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 argued that Jews were not required to believe the aggadic materials found in the Talmud. He countered that Christiani's interpretations of Talmudic passages were per-se distortions; the rabbis would not hint that Jesus was Messiah while, at the same time, explicitly opposing him as such:


Nachmanides noted that prophetic promises of the Messianic Age, a reign of universal peace and justice had not yet been fulfilled. On the contrary, since the appearance of Jesus, the world had been filled with violence and injustice, and among all denominations the Christians were the most warlike. He asserted that questions of the Messiah are of less dogmatic importance to Jews than most Christians imagine, because it is more meritorious for the Jews to observe the precepts of the Torah under a Christian ruler, while in exile and suffering humiliation and abuse, than under the rule of the Messiah, when every one would perforce act in accordance with the Law.


Is the Messiah a divine or a human being

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.


"[... it seems most strange that... ] the Creator of Heaven and Earth resorted to the womb of a certain Jewish lady, grew there for nine months and was born as an infant, and afterwards grew up and was betrayed into the hands of his enemies who sentenced him to death and executed him, and that afterwards... he came to life and returned to his original place. The mind of a Jew, or any other person, simply cannot tolerate these assertions. If you have listened all your life to the priests who have filled your brain and the marrow of your bones with this doctrine, and it has settled into you because of that accustomed habit. [I would argue that if you were hearing these ideas for the first time, now, as a grown adult], you would never have accepted them."


According to a report by Nachmanides,

Friar Paul claimed: "Behold the passage in Isaiah, chapter 53, tells of the death of the messiah and how he was to fall into the hands of his enemies and how he was placed alongside the wicked, as happened to Jesus. Do you believe that this section speaks of the messiah?


I said to him: "In terms of the true meaning of the section, it speaks only of the people of Israel, which the prophets regularly call 'Israel My servant' or 'Jacob My servant.'"



As the disputation turned in favour of Nachmanides the Jews 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. At the end of the disputation, King James awarded Nachmanides a prize of 300 gold coins and declared that never before had he heard "an unjust cause so nobly defended."


Reports of the proceedings

Since the Dominicans claimed the victory, Nachmanides felt compelled to publish his own summary of the controversy. From this publication Christiani selected certain passages which he construed as blasphemies against Christianity and denounced to his general Raymond de Penyafort.


Ultimately the Church, not being a good loser tried to have Ramban tried for blasphemy, but the king tried to defend him


A capital charge was instituted, and a formal complaint against the work and its author was lodged with the King. James mistrusted the Dominican court and called an extraordinary commission, ordering the proceedings to be conducted in his presence.


Nachmanides admitted that he had stated many things against Christianity, but he had written nothing which he had not used in his disputation in the presence of the King, who had granted him freedom of speech.


Nevertheless, Ramban was forced into exile and went to settle in Israel where he died in 1270.


Some of this comes from wikipedia ( ) that also provides links to additional material such as the section below.


The Church's version of the story

One of the participants later wrote a summary Latin of the proceedings. As you can imagine this was not a completely objective view since it set out to prove that Pablo Christiani had won and is reproduced below. Judge for yourself.


Anonymous Latin Report

On July 20, 1263, in the presence of the lord king of Aragon and many other barons, prelates, clerics, and knights, in the palace of the lord king at Barcelona, Moses the Jew, called “rabbi,” was summoned from Gerona by the lord king, at the request of the Dominicans, and was present there, along with many other Jews who seemed and were reputed among other Jews more learned.


Deliberation was undertaken with the lord king and with certain Dominicans and Franciscans who were present, not that the faith of the Lord Jesus Christ—which because of its certitude cannot be placed in dispute—be put in the centre of attention with the Jews as uncertain, but that the truth of that faith be made manifest in order to destroy the Jews’ errors and to shake the confidence of many Jews. Since they could not defend their errors, these Jews indicated that the said rabbi could sufficiently reply to each and every question which would be placed before them.


Friar Paul proposed to the said rabbi, that, with the aid of God, he would prove from writings shared and accepted by the Jews the following contentions, in order: that the messiah, who is called Christ, whom the Jews anticipate, has surely come already; also that the messiah, as prophesied, should be divine and human; also that he suffered and was killed for the salvation of mankind; also that the laws and ceremonials ceased and should have ceased after the advent of the said messiah.


When the said Moses was asked whether he wished to respond to these contentions which have been indicated, he said and affirmed that he would and that, if necessary, he would remain at Barcelona for that purpose not only for a day or a week or a month, but even for a year. When it was proved to him that he should not be called “rabbi,” because no Jew should be designated by that title from the time of the Passion of Christ, he conceded at least that this was true for the previous eight hundred years.


Then it was indicated to him, that when Friar Paul had come to Gerona for the purpose of conferring with him on these matters, which pertain to salvation, and had expostulated carefully concerning the Holy Trinity, both about the unity of the divine essence and about the trinity of beings, the beliefs which Christians hold, he had conceded that, if Christians believed in the manner explained to him, he would believe indeed that so it should be held. When this was repeated before the king, he did not contradict. Rather he was silent, and thus by remaining silent he conceded.


Then in the palace of the lord king, the said Jew was asked whether the messiah, who is called Christ has come. He responded with the assertion that he has not come. He added that the messiah and Christ are the same and that, if it could be proved to him that the messiah had come, it could be believed to refer to none other than him, namely Jesus Christ, in whom the Christians believe, since no one else has come who has dared to usurp for himself this title nor has there been anyone else who had been believed to be Christ.


It was then proved to him clearly, both through authoritative texts of the law and the prophets as well as through the Talmud, that Christ has truly come, as Christians believe and preach. Since he was unable to respond, vanquished by proper proofs and authoritative texts, he conceded that Christ or the messiah had been born in Bethlehem a thousand years ago and had subsequently appeared in Rome to some. When he was asked where that messiah who he said was born and appeared at Rome might be, he replied that he did not know.


Subsequently he said that the messiah lives in a terrestrial paradise with Elijah. He also said that, although the messiah has been born, he has still not come, since the messiah may be said to have come when he achieves dominion over the Jews and liberates them and when the Jews follow him. Against this response was adduced the authority of the Talmud, which clearly says that the messiah would come to them daily, if they would hear his voice and not harden their heart, as is said in Psalms: “Today if you will listen to his voice.”


It was added that the messiah was born among men, that he came among men, and that he could not otherwise be or be understood. To this he was unable to respond. Also among the proofs presented concerning the advent of the messiah was that from Genesis: “The sceptre shall not pass from Judah, nor the staff from his descendants.” Since therefore he must acknowledge that there is neither sceptre nor staff, he acknowledges that the messiah who was to be sent has come. To this he responded that the sceptre has not been removed. It is merely temporarily absent, as happened during the time of the Babylonian captivity. It was proved to him that in Babylonia the Jews had exilarchs with jurisdiction, while after the death of Christ they had neither a staff nor a prince nor exilarchs according to the prophecy of Daniel nor a prophet nor any jurisdiction, as is manifestly obvious every day. It is thus certain that the messiah has come. He then said that he would prove that the Jews had the aforesaid exilarchs after Jesus, but he was able to show nothing in these matters. On the contrary he confessed that they have not had the aforesaid exilarchs for the past 850 years. Therefore it is clear that the messiah has come, since an authoritative text cannot lie.


The said Moses claimed that Jesus Christ should not be called the messiah, since the messiah, he said, should not die, as is said in Psalms: “He asked of thee life and thou didst give it him, length of days for ever and ever.” Rather he should live eternally, both he and those whom he would liberate.


It was therefore asked of him whether chapter 53 of Isaiah—“Who could have believed what we have heard”—which according to the Jews begins at the end of chapter 52, where it is said: “Behold my servant shall prosper,” speaks of the messiah. Although he consistently claimed that this passage in no way speaks of the messiah, it was proved to him through many authoritative texts in the Talmud which speak of the passion and death of Christ, which they prove through the said chapter, that the aforesaid chapter of Isaiah must be understood as related to Christ, in which the death, passion, burial and resurrection of Christ is obviously contained. Indeed forced by authoritative texts, he confessed that this section must be understood and explained as relating to Christ. From this it is clear that the messiah was to suffer.


Since he did not wish to confess the truth unless forced by authoritative texts, when he was unable to explain these authoritative texts, he said publicly that he did not believe these authoritative texts which were adduced against him—although found in ancient and authentic books of the Jews— because they were, he claimed, sermons in which their teachers often lied for the purpose of exhorting the people. As a result he reproved both the teachers and the scriptures of the Jews. Moreover, all these issues, or almost all, which he confessed or which were proved to him, he first negated; then confuted by authoritative texts and confused, he was forced to assent. Moreover, since he was unable to respond and was often publicly confused and since both Jews and Christians insulted him, he persistently claimed before all that he would in no way respond, since the Jews prohibited him and Christians, namely Friar P. de Janua and certain upstanding men of the city, had sent him messages advising that he in no way respond. Concerning this he was publicly refuted by the said Friar P. and by these upstanding men. Whence it is clear that he tried to escape the disputation by lies. Moreover, although he promised before the king and many others that before a few he would answer concerning his faith and his law, when the said lord was outside the city, he secretly fled and departed. Whence it is clear that he did not dare nor was he able to defend his erroneous belief.


We James, by the grace of God, King of Aragon, Majorca and Valencia, count of Barcelona and Urgell, and lord of Montpellier, confirm and acknowledge that each and every statement and action took place in our presence and in the presence of many others, as contained above in the present letter. In testimony of this we have caused our seal to be appended as a perpetual memorial.

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