The Talmud on Trial

Medieval Jewish-Christian Disputations

Print this page Print this page

Reprinted with permission from the author.

A Brief History of Disputations

The history of Jewish‑Christian contacts included confrontations and disputations almost from the very beginning of Christianity. This was inevitable for a religion, Christianity, that considered itself not only a "continuation" of Jewish tradition but indeed a replacement of it. Christianity thus is not so much a "branch” grafted onto the root as a new growth that entirely takes over the "rotten” branches of the original tree. Disputations took place already between Paul and Jews to whom he preached in his travels, and for that matter between Paul and the still Jewish disciples of Jesus in Jerusalem, before they acquiesced in his new religion. 

Early written Christian disputations, such as that of Justin Martyr (Dialogue with Trypho), were often a literary fiction, serving merely as a vehicle for the author to express his anti‑Jewish views and Christian doctrines. Church "Fathers" such as Origen and Jerome were personally acquainted with Jews, and both relied especially on rabbis for assistance in un­derstanding the Bible. Jerome, too, referred to the root and branch idea in his commentary on Psalm 77: "We are an offshoot of their root, we the branch, they the root. We ought not to curse the root, but we ought to pray for our root." However, he was cer­tainly no friend of the Jews, and it is entirely proba­ble that many of his discussions with Jews were de­bates, if not public disputations…

Many Jewish writers confuse disputations with polemical writings, both Christian and Jewish. Indeed, sometimes it is hard to distinguish them be­cause some works pretending to record a disputation are actually literary inventions on both sides, as we shall see. For our purposes, "disputation" refers to either an actual oral debate or a written work that is or purports to be the record of such a confrontation between Jews and Christians.

Barcelona, 1263

The most famous medieval disputation, repeatedly written about but as yet incorrectly understood, was that of Barcelona in 1263. The disputation itself was the result of the preaching campaign of a Jewish apostate, Paul Christiani, appar­ently from Montpellier, who converted sometime after 1236, became a Dominican, and preached missionary sermons to the Jews in Provence, France, and Catalo­nia. He died in 1274.

It was also at Barcelona in 1263, at the instigation of Paul and other Dominicans, no­tably the notoriously anti‑Jewish Ramon de Penafort, that Jaime I was persuaded to order an investigation into the Talmud and other Jewish books alleged to contain "blasphemies." When the commission met, however, Paul was not included, and thus may already have left Barcelona following the disputation…

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Norman Roth is a professor of Jewish History at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.