Naḥmanides—Did He Refute Christianity?
THE Middle Ages. What do they bring to mind? Crusades? Inquisitions? Torture? Though not a period usually associated with open religious discussion, during that time, in the year 1263, one of the most unique Jewish-Christian debates of European history took place. Who were involved? What issues were raised? How can it help us today to identify the true religion?
What Sparked the Debate?
Throughout the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic Church presented itself as the true religion. However, the Jewish people had never relinquished their claim to being the chosen people of God. The inability of the church to convince the Jews of the need to convert led to frustration and frequently to violence and persecution. During the Crusades tens of thousands of Jews were massacred or burned at the stake when given the choice between baptism or death. In many lands church-inspired anti-Semitism was the order of the day.
A different spirit, though, prevailed in Catholic Spain of the 12th and 13th centuries. Jews were allowed religious liberty—as long as they did not attack the Christian faith—and were even given important positions within the king’s court. But after about a century of such favor, Dominican priests took steps to lessen the Jewish influence in society and to convert the Jews to Catholicism. King James I of Aragon was pressured by the Dominicans to arrange for an official debate, the purpose of which was to prove the inferiority of the Jewish position and the need for all Jews to convert.
This was not the first Jewish-Christian debate. In the year 1240, an official dispute was held in Paris, France. Its main purpose was to put the Talmud, a book sacred to the Jews, on trial. However, the Jewish participants were allowed little freedom of speech. After the church declared its victory in this dispute, copies of the Talmud were burned en masse in the public squares.
But the more tolerant spirit of King James I of Aragon did not allow for such a mock trial. Realizing this, the Dominicans tried a different approach. As Hyam Maccoby put it in his book Judaism on Trial, they invited the Jews to a debate “in the guise of courtesy and persuasion, rather than denunciation as in Paris.” The Dominicans appointed as their chief representative Pablo Christiani, a Jew who had converted to Catholicism and had become a Dominican priest. By using Pablo Christiani’s knowledge of Talmudic and rabbinic writings, the Dominicans felt sure that they could prove their case.
Only one figure in Spain held the spiritual stature to represent the Jewish side of the debate—Moses ben Naḥman, or Naḥmanides.* Born in about 1194 in the city of Gerona, Naḥmanides had in his teens already distinguished himself as a Biblical and Talmudic scholar. By the age of 30, he had written commentaries on most of the Talmud, and soon after he was a major voice in mediating the controversy over Maimonides’ writings that threatened to divide the Jewish community.* Naḥmanides is considered the greatest Jewish Biblical and Talmudic scholar of his generation and second perhaps only to Maimonides in his influence on Judaism during that period.
Naḥmanides exercised extensive influence over the Jewish community in Catalonia, and even King James I consulted him on various matters of State. His keen thinking abilities were respected by Jew and Gentile alike. The Dominicans realized that in order to humiliate the Jews effectively, he, their foremost rabbi, would have to be the one to debate.
Naḥmanides was reluctant to agree to the debate, realizing that the Dominicans had no intention of having a fair exchange. He was to answer questions but could not pose any. However, he acceded to the king’s request, asking that he be given permission to speak freely in making his responses. King James I agreed to this. Such an allowance for relative free speech was unprecedented and unrepeated throughout the Middle Ages, a clear evidence of the king’s high regard for Naḥmanides. Still, Naḥmanides was apprehensive. If he was considered overly antagonistic in the debate, there would be disastrous repercussions for both him and the Jewish community. Violence could break out at any time.
Naḥmanides Versus Pablo Christiani
The main setting for the debate was the king’s palace in Barcelona. Four sessions were held—July 20, 23, 26, and 27, 1263. The king personally presided at each session, attended also by various dignitaries of Church and State, as well as by Jews of the local community.
For the church the outcome of the debate was never in question. In their official account, the Dominicans stated that the purpose of the debate was ‘not in order that the faith should be put into dispute as if it were a matter of doubt, but in order to destroy the errors of the Jews and remove the confident faith of many Jews.’
Though almost 70 years old, Naḥmanides showed his clear thinking ability by seeking to limit the discussion to fundamental issues only. He began by saying: “[Previous] disputations between gentiles and Jews concerned many facets of religious observances upon which the fundamental principle of faith is not dependent. However, in this royal court, I wish to debate only about matters upon which the entire controversy is contingent.” It was then agreed that the subjects would be limited to whether the Messiah had already come, whether he was God or man, and whether Jews or Christians possess the true law.
In his opening argument, Pablo Christiani declared that he would prove from the Talmud that the Messiah had already come. Naḥmanides retorted that if this were the case, why did the rabbis who accepted the Talmud not accept Jesus? Instead of centering his arguments on clear Scriptural reasoning, Christiani referred time and again to obscure rabbinic passages to establish his arguments. Point by point Naḥmanides refuted these by showing that they were being quoted out of context. Reason would dictate that Naḥmanides could distinguish himself as more competent in debating these writings to which he had devoted a lifetime of study. Even when Christiani referred to Scripture, his argumentation highlighted points that were easily refutable.
Although restricted to answering questions, Naḥmanides was able to present powerful argumentation that showed why the position of the Catholic Church was unacceptable to both Jews and other thinking people. Regarding the Trinity doctrine, he declared: “The mind of any Jew or any man will not permit him to believe that the Creator of heaven and earth . . . would pass through the womb of a Jewish woman . . . and [would] later [be] turned over into the hands of his enemies, who . . . killed him.” Naḥmanides stated succinctly: “What you believe—and it is the root of your faith—is not acceptable to the [rational] mind.”
Highlighting an inconsistency that till this day has prevented many Jews from even considering the possibility of Jesus’ being the Messiah, Naḥmanides emphasized the extreme bloodguilt of the church. He said: “The prophet states that in the time of the Messiah, . . . they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. From the days of the Nazarene until now, the entire world has been full of violence and robbery. [Indeed], the Christians spill more blood than the rest of the nations, and they also lead immoral lives. How difficult it would be for you, my lord king, and these your knights if they would neither . . . learn war any more!”—Isaiah 2:4.
After the fourth session, the king called an end to the debate. He said to Naḥmanides: “I have never seen a man who was in the wrong argue as well as you did.” True to his promise, guaranteeing free speech and protection to Naḥmanides, King James I of Aragon sent him home, along with a gift of 300 dinars. At the request of the bishop of Gerona, Naḥmanides made a written record of the debate.
While declaring a decisive victory, the Dominicans were clearly upset. They later brought charges against Naḥmanides for blasphemies against the church, using his writings about the debate as proof. Dissatisfied with the king’s treatment of Naḥmanides, the Dominicans appealed to Pope Clement IV. Though more than 70 years old, Naḥmanides was banished from Spain.*
Where Lies the Truth?
Did the argument of either side help to identify the true religion? While each highlighted the errors of the other side, neither presented a clear message of truth. What Naḥmanides refuted so ably was not true Christianity but, rather, man-made doctrine, such as the Trinity teaching, invented by Christendom in the centuries after Jesus. Christendom’s immoral behavior and wanton bloodshed, so daringly highlighted by Naḥmanides, are also indisputable matters of record.
It is not difficult to understand why, under these circumstances, Naḥmanides and other Jews failed to be impressed by the arguments in favor of Christianity. Additionally, Pablo Christiani’s arguments were based, not on clear reasoning from the Hebrew Scriptures, but on poorly applied rabbinic sources.
No, Naḥmanides did not refute true Christianity. By his time the true light of Jesus’ teachings and proofs of his Messiahship had become obscured by false representation. The appearance of such apostate teaching was actually prophesied by Jesus and the apostles.—Matthew 7:21-23; 13:24-30, 37-43; 1 Timothy 4:1-3; 2 Peter 2:1, 2.
However, the true religion is clearly identifiable today. Jesus said regarding his true followers: “By their fruits you will recognize them. . . . Likewise every good tree produces fine fruit, but every rotten tree produces worthless fruit.” (Matthew 7:16, 17) We invite you to make that identification. Let Jehovah’s Witnesses help you undertake an objective investigation of the Scriptural proofs. You will thus learn the true meaning of all of God’s promises related to the Messiah and his rule.
Many Jews refer to Naḥmanides as “Ramban,” a Hebrew acronym formed from the initial letters of the words “Rabbi Moses Ben Naḥman.”
See the article “Maimonides—The Man Who Redefined Judaism” in The Watchtower of March 1, 1995, pages 20-3.
In 1267, Naḥmanides arrived in the land now known as Israel. His last years were filled with accomplishment. He reestablished a Jewish presence and a center for study in Jerusalem. He also completed a commentary on the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, and became the spiritual head of the Jewish community in the northern coastal city of Acre, where he died in 1270.
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Naḥmanides argued his case in Barcelona
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Illustrations on pages 19-20: Reproduced from Illustrirte Pracht - Bibel/Heilige Schrift des Alten und Neuen Testaments, nach der deutschen Uebersetzung D. Martin Luther’s