In the Shadow of the Barcelona Disputation

This is a guest post by Yeze of the Rosh Pina Project, and is the first part of a two-part post about contemporary reactions to Messianic Jews.

The Jerusalem Institute for Justice website now hosts an English version of Yuval Azoulay’s Haaretz article about Yad L’Achim’s persecution of Messianic Jews. It’s worth reading in full in order to appreciate what Israel’s Messianic Jewish citizens have to put up with.

But where did hostility towards Jews who believe in Yeshua come from? In answering this question, we should have a look back to the Barcelona Disputation of 1263.

The religious sectarianism of the Middle Ages automatically excluded the emergence of a confident Messianic Jewish movement. For centuries, Jewish Christians have often had to reconcile their identity issues in private, whilst in public only associating with members of either one community or the other.

The Mediaeval Church attempted to convert Jews to its brand of Christianity, and sometimes used organised and controlled public disputations as a tactic to achieve this. The Barcelona Disputation is the most famous example of this practise. The disputation was commissioned by James I of Aragon, who allowed Jews to live in his kingdom and practise their own religion, whilst seeking to convert them to Christianity. [1]

James I was religiously zealous, establishing the Inquisition having been persuaded to by Raymond de Peñafort, who most likely educated the Church’s representative at Barcelona, Pablo Christiani (also known as Friar Paul). Christiani was a Jewish convert to Christianity. His thirteenth-century preaching campaigns represented the first serious effort by the mediaeval Church to convert the Jews in its midst. [2] Christiani was openly hostile to Judaism and complained about Jewish usury. [3]

Under King James’ edict, Christiani also preached forced sermons to Jews in their own synagogues. Whilst Christiani attempted to prove Jesus’ Messiahship through the Talmud, Christiani also acted as a censor the Talmud, removing portions deemed to be anti-Christian. Christiani even appealed to King Louis IX of France to force Jews to wear badges marking them out from the rest of society, and would continue to preach forced sermons in French synagogues. [4] Thomas Aquinas was in town when Christiani was preaching in Paris in 1269. [5]

Christiani’s “opponent” at Barcelona was Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, aka Nahmanides or the Ramban: the most distinguished rabbi and thinker in the kingdom of Aragon. Nahmanides, along with Maimonides, is considered one of the greatest figures of Iberian Judaism.  Nahmanides defended the works of Maimonides following a herem pronounced against the Rambam by rabbinical authorities in France who wanted his works all burned and banned. Nahmanides supported the Rambam’s writings, as he considered that Maimonides’ arguments for Judaism had appealed to Jews who had adopted Greek philosophy. [6]

Nahmanides saw the need to include different Jewish communities around the world within Judaism. For example:

‘Nahmanides pointed to the tradition among Jews of Yemen of uttering Maimonides’ name with each recitation of the Kaddish as a legitimate custom attesting to the unique quality of local practises as well as an intense respect for Maimonides and his writings. [7]

Interestingly, whilst Nahmonides considered Yemenite Jews to be authentic Jews even though they inserted Maimonides’ name into the Kiddush prayer, he considered Jewish Christians to be apostates according to Avodah Zarah .

Jews who ‘apostasised’ were mourned as if they had died, whilst in practice still remaining subject to Jewish law in marriage, property rights and inheritance. [8] Nina Caputo describes how:

‘[when they were treated in this way] apostates resembled ghosts, both legally and emotionally for the community they departed, and especially for their families. [9]

Nahmanides’ approach both theologically and socially (he maintained good relations with Aragonese officials, and was ambivalent towards Christianity in general) has had a massive effect on Jewish-Christian interfaith relations, on contemporary rabbinical attitudes towards Jews who believe in Yeshua, and the way modern Messianic Jews are perceived.

I don’t think that theology is the only thing to influence this though. The perception of Jewish Christians has been terribly worsened by the history of Christian persecution of Jews. To take one example from the myriads of possible examples: Luther became an anti-Semite towards the end of his life, and Hitler once remarked that he was merely putting into practise the words of Martin Luther. Kristallnacht took place on the anniversary of Luther’s birthday.  Yet Jewish Christians have also been guilty of bigotry towards Jews in the past: if Hitler took ideas from Luther, did he also take ideas from Pablo Christiani, using badges to mark out Jews from the rest of society?

Then again, there is no such thing as collective responsibility. Today’s Messianic Jews are not all little Pablo Christianis, running around doing Mother Church’s dirty work. Pablo Christiani wanted to take advantage of his past Jewish identity to gain favour with the powers of his day. Messianic Jews want to live their lives presently as Jews. Our Jewish identity is not expedient or expired, but relevant and vital. Unlike Christiani, Messianic Jews do not value Judaism and the Talmud for the sum value of their potential missionary content. Messianic Jews appreciate these things for their inherent worth and beauty.

We should also rethink Nahmanides’ approach towards Jews who believe in Yeshua. Why did Nahmanides take such a relaxed stance towards Yemenite Jews who insert Maimonides’ name into the Kiddush prayer, whilst opposing Jews who believe in Yeshua as divine Messiah on theological grounds?

If it were simply due to the vile actions of the Jewish Christians representing the Mediaeval Church, then how would Nahmanides respond to a confident and contemporary Yeshua movement which, after 1800 years, can once again define itself?

Yuval Azoulay wrote about Israel’s Messianic Jews:

‘They love the country, swear to their loyalty and devotion, become emotional with the raising of the flag and the singing of the anthem, and still feel like a persecuted minority.’

Messianic Jews should no longer be excluded from Jewish society. I am not talking about theology here, but social exclusion. Jews who live in Orthodox communities and choose to believe in Yeshua often find themselves ostracised and even disowned by their families, or simply have to keep their beliefs private. They function as ‘ghosts’ in their communities, much as the ‘apostate’ did in mediaeval times.

This is a real shame, as people should feel free to say what they believe without fearing any social consequences.

Will we in time emerge from the shadow of the Barcelona disputation, or will unnecessary tensions continue for the next 750 years?


[1] ‘Barcelona and Beyond’ Robert Chazan (University of California Press, 1992), p.32

[2] ‘Aquinas and the Jews’ John Y. B. Hood (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995), p.36

[3] ‘Chazan, Op. Cit., p.32

[4] Ibid. p.27

[5] Hood, Op. Cit., p.36

[6] ‘Nahmanides in Medieval Catalonia’. p.43

[7] Ibid. p.37

[8] Ibid. p.115

[9] Ibid.

David T adds:

Readers may enjoy the following event:


5.30 pm Monday 26 October 2009 Room G50

The Parting of the Ways:
How Christianity came to separate from Judaism in the First Century CE

Robert Crotty, Emeritus Professor, University of South Australia
Director, The Ethics Centre of South Australia