Nachmanides’ attempt to defend Judaism at Barcelona

“The Disputation at Barcelona, by Ramban,” translated by Rabbi Dr. Charles B. Chavel, is a classic text composed by Nachmanides (1195-1270), also known as Ramban, of the formal dispute that Nachmanides had with Pablo Christiani in 1263 before the king of Aragon, James I. It is an interesting piece of Jewish history. There are two accounts of the four-day debate. One, composed in Latin, was written by church officials claiming that they won the debate. The second, written to set the record straight, was composed by Nachmanides in Hebrew. The king agreed to Nachmanides request that he could speak freely as long as he did not defame Christianity. However, Nachmanides must answer Pablo’s questions and not ask questions. The king also agreed to Nachmanides’ request that the debate be limited to three issues: did the messiah already come, is the messiah God, and whether “the Jews hold the true Torah, or whether the Christians fulfill it.”  This book, the account by Nachmanides, shows that the debaters addressed the first two questions, but not the third.

Nachmanides version could not be a transcript of the entire four-day debate since the book is so short. Nachmanides’ account shows that Pablo was incorrect regarding every issue he raised: he frequently misunderstood what he was quoting and often tried to prove a point from a source taken out of context. Nachmanides reports that the king congratulated him for arguing a wrong idea extremely well and gave him a large sum of money for participating in the debate.

There are two large problems with Nachmanides account. Nachmanides had always insisted that tales told in Midrash are true accounts of past events. Other scholars understood Midrash to be stories composed by rabbis as parables to teach moral lessons. Nachmanides’ commentaries to Genesis 11:28 and 32 are excellent examples of his thinking. He retells the imaginative non-biblical legend of Abraham destroying his father’s idols (from the Babylonian Talmud, Bava Bathra 91a), and expands upon the story, giving his original details. He insists that the episode is true and warns us not to be misled by ibn Ezra who argues that the story is a simple legend, a parable invented to teach a moral lesson.

In the 1263 public religious debate with Pablo Christiani, Nachmanides took an opposite approach. Pablo contended that some of the midrashic stories that Nachmanides had insisted were true occurrences foreshadowed the birth and mission of Jesus. Nachmanides sidestepped Pablo’s trap by disclaiming his belief in the truthfulness and the authority of Midrashim (plural of Midrash), and said that they are only legends.

Nachmanides also appears to contradict himself in his version of the debate. In paragraph 39 of the Chavel translation, on the second day of the debate, he states that no one will die after the messiah appears. Then, in the next sentence he seems to say the Messiah will live for thousands of years or [even] forever.” More significantly, on the third day of the debate, Pablo said in paragraph 72 that Moses Maimonides disagreed with Nachmanides’ claim that the Messiah “will not die as other people do.” Maimonides said, “the Messiah will die and his son and grandson will rule after him.” Rather than answering that he said no one will die and that he disagreed with Maimonides, Nachmanides says in paragraph 73, “I believe in this (Maimonidean) view and the only difference between the present world and the era of the Messiah is political subjection” (as Maimonides says).

This book is significant because it describes one view of an historic event. Scholars differ in how they resolve Nachmanides’ apparent inconsistencies. Some say that he said what he said to win the debate. Others read his statements as being consistent with his views.

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